Catharsis Number Six
''The Life' -noun. Convict-derived. Denotes inclusiveness and sealed borders. You're in or out. You commit crimes. You run inherent risks. That's your membership card. 'The Life' -noun. Applied to whores and their high-risk existence. Applied to all sealed societies. Risk remains the membership card'.
- James Ellroy, 'Destination: Morgue!'
'Imagine if law enforcement would visit me the next few days. They would probably get the wrong idea and think I was a terrorist'
- Anders Behring Breivik, on stockpiling materials for 21 July attacks.
I believe in God. One of the reasons is that my first memory, from roughly one or two years old, is of a dream, rather than reality. It depicted things a tiny child couldn't have conceived of. It had complex emotions a tiny child wouldn't have used. Moving stealthily through some grand Victorian hall - there was a sense, some vivid a-priori knowledge, that nearby the world leaders and their families were assembled. And before me was my payload, the terrorist bomb which would destroy them all. I glared as the red digital figures sped down towards zero. Always there was a feeling of inescapable dread, no way out.
Of course, make of this what you will. Tired, exhausted, and Superman, I'm speaking to you on a frequency only you can hear.
There were other incidents. Coincidences, mostly. Incident One.1993, when I was sixteen, walking along an anonymous countryside road above Wooton-Under-Edge - I saw a black leather jacket hanging on a gate. At once I identified it as the most perfect article of clothing in existence. Lambretta 1986. Authentic. Love at first sight. Soft leather that smelt (and still smells) like the most delirious corner of blue-collar heaven. Nothing that remotely resembled an elasticated waist, inset zip so that the sides are as sheer as rulers. And sheer is the word. The only real embossing is at the elbows, and even then nothing that isn't absolutely utilitarian. The Tron strips follow the waist, the openings of the torso, then slant out between the breast and the collar in bold half-triangles. Yes, this might sound ostentatious, but hopefully less so when I tell you that it was muted gloaming grey on deep, impenetrable black. This is the jacket I want to be buried in. With this jacket I have all the confidence of James Bond. Where did it come from? A Clash of the Titans style gift from the gods? Maybe. All that was in the pockets was a small golden badge of the figure '6'.
But listen to me. Enough with the leather jacket porn and leather jacket soothsaying (for now). I couldn't bring myself to hate it even if al-Megrahi himself had been wearing it the day he'd brought down Flight 103. Above all else, it's my jacket and I love it.
Incident Two. 2005. Felix King and Mary Viveash, very much in love (Open brackets, resist the urge to put question mark, because why deny it?). She'd passed her theory driving test at ten thirty AM, whereupon we walked around the corner to the 'Penny Farthing' pub to celebrate – only to find ourselves still there gone ten thirty at night. For me, it was an epic endurance test, and for two reasons. I was insanely in love with her –a). b)—I only had around half the drinking stamina that she had, good time girl queen of whores that she was. 'Don't say that', you tell me. But why not, if it's true? She was the most thoughtful and serendipitous girl you ever met, but that doesn't alter the fact that she was so stubbornly, defiantly shallow, and gnaw that tragedy. Gnaw it forever. She was a miraculous algorithm between the human race and love itself. And in the end she just got swallowed up by arch-shallowness. Oh, you could try citing the society that bred her as a mitigating factor, and if you're even a half-decent lawyer you could surely make it stick. Except. Except we in the Village know the truth. That she was tragedy incarnate.
How are your children, Mary? You said you never wanted any, but Two has shown me surveillance photos, and why am I not surprised? I don't care what happens to them or to you, because wherever you are, whatever you're doing, you're not the Mary I loved. You'll never be the Mary I loved again, not even when you get to heaven. The shallowness has consumed you like a white eternal void.
We placed small objects before us and tried to make them move around through gestalt telekinesis. We slowly and casually ate Nobby's Nuts where we should have been eating whole meals in order to soak up the liquor. Like exclusive, eccentric children, we had a stare-out contest across the unpleasantly large farmhouse-style table. Her pupils were dilated from where she loved me, yet a game is a game, and we did whatever we could to distract each other. Off-handedly, she told me how she'd slept with the supervisor at her job, a man I knew. Perhaps she thought this was more a jokey confession because, after all, he was a man I knew, a jokey kind of man, married, not in the same league as me. Yet obviously I was – can't think of a word. 'Sad'? I wanted to be angry with her, but those intent, loving eyes buzzed it all out of me. So I settled for bitter. "One day I'll be dead", - I can still hear my horrible soft voice—"and then where will I fit into your mosaic of drunken anecdotes?"
Mary blinked and I won; she also burst into tears and stole away to the khazi.
I coughed violently. I was drunk enough to feel sick, though my stomach wasn't quite there yet. This was a different kind of cough. My tummy made hollow wrenching sounds, suddenly giving a surge of power, a funny old engine turning over on attempt number six.
Into my hand I coughed up a small white sphere. It had a consistency unlike anything I'd ever felt before. Soft? Perhaps. Hollow, malleable? Perhaps. Unknown. Of its own accord, the sphere rolled out of my palm, under the table, quickly out of sight. Make of this what you will. I've had to.
Incident Three. The very last time I was in the 'free' world. I'd agreed to meet Mary at her local pub, the Chessman. It opened at Six O'Clock, and I tipped out of the bus at five-fifty. The hundred yard dash brought me to the awning of the little shop directly opposite the boozer, my ticking, pounding mind suddenly feeling so cosy and contented. Until I realised that the rain had done something to my leather jacket. The inlaid strips, usually dark grey on black, were now stark white on black. The bands that ran from the front middle torso to the collar bones were particularly glaring.
When the pub opened, part of me wanted the twenty-year-old barman Sean to notice at once and laugh. As it was, he noticed at once and brought genuine but underwhelming concern. Mary arrived, in an ambient mood. Stony-happy-happy-happy, happy-happy-stony-happy, happy-stony-stony-stony, all of it reinforced by the ghost-smiles of the old men and their conversations that unfolded like an origami brick. It was an acquired taste, and I'd almost but not quite acquired it.
While Mary moped and smiled, moped and smiled, I was sitting with a small boy. I can't remember what we were talking about, but this is surely a good thing; it must have been something innocuous.
It was National Armed Forces Day and when the bucket came around, I said quietly to the woman, 'Not going to happen'. The small boy put in some pennies, which a decadent had left on the bar. When he asked me why I hadn't put any money in, Mr Tactful, I said, 'Because I've already put my money in for this month' – implying my taxes. Mary looked at me in the corner of her eye and sneered. Mary who worships the army, Essex boy squaddies in particular, just as Joanna Lumley worships f sherpas. Just as David Koresh worshipped the comet above Waco.
The small boy, Terry (amazing how I remember his name), asked me if I knew anyone in the army. I pretended to be confused. "You mean the army of people who work in hospitals? The army of people who keep food on our shelves? The army of ants that always show up around a dropped ice lolly?" He told me, the army in Afghanistan. "Oh, that army". The Cosby Show was filmed before a live studio audience.
When we were alone, after the one or two blue collars and near-blue collars had finished their pre-tea pints, Mary scowled at me acidly. No lines of respective dialogue, though. Make it a continuous block. Can't focus on it? That's your problem. "I keep forgetting you don't like soldiers". "What is there to like?" "They are defending this country". "They're part of the problem". "Why can't you let other people believe what they like?" Quietly, "Like the Nazis believed what they liked? I don't care either way. To save any embarrassment, I didn't say anything to the boy, did I? Tell me one thing I said to him that even implied that soldiers are oxygen-thieves". "Kids aren't stupid. He knew you hated them". A faux-reassuring smile from your man. "Don't worry. There's knowing someone hates something, there's knowing the X, Y and Z arguments of why they hate it – but even then, you're under no moral or spiritual obligation to give counter-arguments". "As I said, they're defending this country with their lives, and you'll never be able to persuade me they aren't heroes". Mockingly, subtly, "I fancy a speciality beer. Do they do 'Old Empire' in here? I like it when it's in a really fragile bottle". Mary; "You wouldn't be so emotional if you weren't drunk". Felix, "Emotion is natural. It's interchangeable with our will to live rich and sane lives". Mary, "I'm going for a wee. When I get back, I'll drive us home".
I'd been digging myself deeper and deeper, yet, paradoxically, the lower I got, the more a little voice begged me to make peace with her. The moment she disappeared through the airy corridor that led to the ladies, I rushed from the pub and quivered beneath the little shop awning. I coughed a little. My eyes pulsed and threatened tears. Knowing that Mary hated the melodrama, I removed myself from the vicinity of the buildings.
The Chessman is on a crossroads; my feet carried me along the most enclosed and austere of the four roads. To start with there were a few street lights, impossibly dim and lo-fi when you looked directly into the filaments, still managing to create an inclusive glow in the thin night atmos. It was within the unlit cedar-bottoms that I broke down into a full-on coughing fit. A slightly antiquated van pulled up beside me. The henchman-style driver remained still. The passenger, a distinguished-looking man with white hair, leaned over and asked if he could give me a lift somewhere. Between violent coughs, I told him no.
"Very well", he smiled. "Be seeing you".
The van pulled away and I returned to my coughing. Even though it was quite obvious I'd need to expel something, I put it off and put it off, because we humans are so afraid of discomfort. Ambient night-hissing took strong and stern control of the field peripherals. Then my hearing jumped as I realised the van was heading back towards me. At speed. I saw the man's face so quickly that I couldn't even register his expression. But I sensed him. Not good and not evil. Just blunt. Take your burdens to the moon and leave them there, or the man in the moon will surely come for your firstborn.
The bonnet impacted my side with incredible power. And that was that.
There were clipped visions of my transportation; I remember hundred foot cranes above a shipyard, but I can't guarantee this wasn't a fever-dream.
Then - two or three run-ups brought me to full wakefulness in a bed that was not my own. Sheets: conspicuously clean and starched. Decor: well furnished with non-generic knick-knacks such as an Airfix submarine on the mantle. A 'Get Well Soon' card with the oil painting of a Jack Russell. For a while, my van-knocked side felt the same as ever, before a jokey little pain struck up from deep in my bones.
On the bedside, along with a grubby-looking glass of water, was a handgun. When I dressed, in the black jeans and grey T-shirt I found in the wardrobe, I checked the magazine and slid it in my belt. Probably this was just what my captors wanted, but I couldn't pass up the chance that there'd been a sloppy, Vincent Vega-style cock-up.
The downstairs walls were rounded in a highly avant-garde fashion that imitated Spain (forgiveable) or Scandinavia (unforgivaeable - Ikea-esque twee). In all, the place was utilitarian and I liked it quite a bit. Best of all, my jacket was hanging on one of the pegs by the door. Curse the eroded-white highlights, I thought; I resolved to colour them black again with a heavy-duty marker.
Out of the door and into the street. Silently wondering at the two or three people going about their business, silently wondering at the weirdly-vibrant buildings.
Forget all that. I silently wondered at the hundred foot statue which dominated a central courtyard of mosaic-like tiles. The ragged army boiler-suit phased me. In time, however, I recognised the compelling latin features. Odd that such a colossal statue could have such an excellent likeness. Che Guevarra - though not in the no-good-pussy-cat pose from the T-shirts. Che as a real person. Listening and preparing a plan of action, and all wars of God and Man suspended until he's finished.
A man walked past me looking straight ahead.
"What's the name of this place?"
He regarded me as though I was crazy, and it seemed to go either way as to whether he'd respond at all.
"What village? Are we in Cuba?"
He lifted his hand slightly to keep me at arm's length if necessary. " 'The' Village, 'The' Planet Earth". He walked briskly away.
On a breeze of tension, flowing up to a fortyish woman sewing-up a pair of trousers at a communal pic-nic table. "Can you help me? It sounds crazy, but I've been kidnapped".
She smiled, seemed just as phased as the man. " 'Kidnapped'? Having to take tea with someone you don't much care for? It happens!"
F King: "Where is this?" Woman; "The Central Courtyard. Are you a newcomer?" F King: "Yes. Is this Cuba?" Woman: "I don't know what 'Cuba' is. This is funny. Two usually introduces newcomers to the Village a lot more thoroughly…". F King: "Who is 'Two'?" (imagining that this was some officious second-in-command petty administrator, and how right I was).
The woman pointed to a lavish white mansion on the ridge above us. She twisted the cotton in her fingers and prepared to incise it with nail scissors. "Just let me tie this off and I'll walk you up there -"
Except I didn't want to wait. I moved to a very steep footpath that led upwards through foliage and sandy outcrops. As I ascended, as well, I fancied I understood completely what the place was, why I'd been brought here. I'd finally been 'silenced'. The secret police had obviously had enough of my numerous anti-England novels and short-stories and had sent me here to this quaint version of Guantanimo, and we'll play conkers, and we'll read children's novels, and on Sundays we'll listen to The f Archers and Desert Island Discs, and I hope it's some mealy little dullard who won an Olympic medal in 1995, and he's been allowed to dine out on it ever since, and no, honestly, I do care. And while we obviously weren't in any Communist oasis, it was clearly a former Communist stronghold which had been annexed by Her Majesty's Secret Service. This, I believed, was the only thing which could account for the vast E C G statue. As for the gun at my bedside – it was pure sadism; 'Two', whoever he was, would say something to rile me and I'd pull the piece on him, only to find they've removed the firing mechanism. So to gauge my level of self-discipline and teach me who's boss. I'll show you self-discipline, you mentals.
Emerging from the enclosed shrubbery onto a sharp curve, I saw a precarious path which led off around the cliff and a partially neglected lawn beset with autumn chestnuts and cedars. King the lilting shadow, I stalked off towards the hunched mansion frontage. Only to pause. At the far end of an avenue of trees there was a couple sitting on an antiquated welded bench. These were obviously the bosses, my scintillating captors. The man was silver-haired and indulgent-looking. The woman was fair and far-along pregnant.
Tonight's guest stars: no-one-you-ever-heard-of as Number Two, Rowdy Roddy Piper as Number Six.
"Let's be about it", I told him.
"Number Six", said the man. He smiled very sternly; his countenance was steady, still somehow excited.
I mocked him, "'Number Six'. Is that to be my only means of identification from now on? I feel so dehumanised".
Said Two, "You must have recovered from your fever, then. If the return of your acidic sense of humour is anything to go by".
"Why have you brought me here? Wouldn't it be easier just to kill me?"
Both of them laughed quite a bit at this. The woman laid a forearm across her hump as if to stifle the baby's laughter.
"It's the sense of heady drama", reflected the silver-haired man. "You're a master of it. With you, it's always either belly-laugh funny or profoundly serious".
"Whatever. Who are you?"
The man steepled his fingers and tucked them over his crossed knees. Englishman. "I am your friend and ally Number Two. This is my wife, Number One-Seven-One".
"What are you going to call the baby", I asked sarcastically, "Eighty-Five-Point-Five?"
Rich, spontaneous smiles, and for the first time I felt worried.
"What is this place?", already speaking in a warning, insistent trill.
The man spoke seriously, "This is The Village. Our home, our sanctuary. The place we prepare ourselves for war".
I sighed. "Twenty questions with Harry Patch's older brother. Nice. Prepare ourselves for what war?"
Two didn't reply at first. One-Seven-One squinted ponderously at the blazing silver sun, which just happened to be a perfect spotlight for my hunched shoulders.
"Number Six", sighed my 'friend', my 'ally'. "You have lots and lots of questions, and it's to your credit. It's one of the reasons you're so important to us. If you ask me something and I don't know, I'll tell you as much. Sometimes, I won't be allowed to answer a question, and ditto. However, I can promise you this. We will never lie to you. I personally will never lie or mislead you. However, as to the ultimate aim of The Village – I'm afraid I'm under orders not to tell you just yet".
I like rubbing my face. "What's -"
Two slapped his thighs and quickly got up. "Where are my manners? Letting you stand there while I pontificate?" He removed himself behind the seat and gestured for me to take his place, as if I would.
"Please sit down", One-Seven-One groaned sweetly and theatrically, "The sight of you standing all uptight is making my ankles swell".
I sat down, causing the pair to smile at each other. "I told you he was a good man", Two boasted to his wife.
Guest-starring Lesley Sharp as One-Seven-One. Perhaps. She asked me, "Would you like a eucalyptus tea? Two can easily run into the house and make you one".
No . "Can I ask a question now, or do I have to be holding the conch?"
"Ask anything in the world", Two leaned forward at my shoulder.
"What is this business with the numbers?", attack attack - gentle foray. "I can see dehumanising the prisoners, but why do you use them for each other?"
He of the expressive face considered this as the most poignant philosophical question. Staring off into the heavy tree-line, he seemed lost for a moment. Indeed, he addressed his answer as much to the transcendent oblivion as to us. "This isn't a prison, not exactly. We're all of us standing at the gates of absolute freedom, but please don't ask me to elaborate. And as for the numbers – how is a number any less graceful than a first name, per se? Names are sentimental and arbitrary; numbers have a sense of idiosyncrasy which is utilitarian, alive, immediate".
Flatly, "I want to speak to Number One".
Two was surprised, "Why? You're assuming our numbers are hierarchical. Besides, for all you know of our society, why not request an audience with 'Zero'? Or 'Minus-One'?"
I pointed out, "The people below gave me the impression you're some kind of administrator".
"It's a tradition that whoever holds the office of Number Two is responsible for the day-to-day administration of The Village", he splayed out his arms and gave a dancing smile at the horizon. "Other than that, we are all of us free of obligation. Fundamentally free, in a way that only the absence of insidious, manipulative 'democracy' can allow".
We all smoothly turned our heads as a woman emerged from the trees. Something in the tightness of her shoulders, maybe, her uncommunicative expression, told me she was mentally handicapped. In happy, contemplative silence, Two and One-Seven-One watched as she padded through the litter-reminiscent leaves and hovered before us.
"I'm teaching Rover about spacemen", she announced.
One-Seven-One smiled deeply but didn't respond straight away. "Genius! I'd never have thought of that! Is he a good spaceman?"
"He bounces around and tickles me", said the woman.
"Number Six", boomed Two. "This is our young ward Nine-One-One. She has sundry duties in the Village, and I have no idea what I'd do without her to keep me on my toes".
Pulse a small smile, and away; it was only slightly less emphatic than Number Two's. Make your hatred disappear while in gentle company, King. It's what you do. "Pleased to meet you. I like your necklace". A plastic promotional keyring of the Kelloggs rooster was hanging just below her collar bone.
For a while, the woman said nothing and eyed me sullenly. Back atchya. I shrugged my bottom lip slightly; Nine-One-One did likewise, almost but not quite unconsciously. I suddenly raised my hands into marauding claws and howled like a bear. Nine-One-One fell backwards in fear and delight. Her unsophisticated laughter faded quickly on the bed of leaves. Two and One-Seven-One laughed. But let's not all be friends just yet.
"How come 'Rover' is allowed to have a name, rather than a number? Or do the rules not apply to dogs?"
"Rover", said Two quizzically, "is not a dog".
Two and One-Seven-One looked at each other, successfully screened out the funny silver daylight. They arose and walked before me.
"Let us introduce you to Rover and all of his -", he jerked out his elbow like a music-hall malarkey, "—ilk".
"I'm not going anywhere with you", I said defiantly.
Two sighed. He stooped over and tried to drag the metal bench on which I sat. Number Nine-One-One belly-laughed as I was dragged barely an inch or two.
"This may take some time", wheezed Two.
Frowning, I got up and followed the dapper-faced man and his family to a broad cusp strewn with rolling weeds. A steep slope which reminded me of the Via Domus climax descended down to a typically segmented coastline. Distant, lime-coloured trees swished, quite in difference to the very high air pressure. Number Two briefly jerked his neck to look at the pretty horizon. Nine-One-One skipped off ahead.
"My spine and ribs are fine, by the way, from where you ran over me", I said.
Without looking around at me, "And your shattered soul? The suffocating sense of exasperation at everything life throws at you?"
Hardly missing a beat, "Yeah, that's all fine".
Blossom and conspicuously deep chestnut trees marked the end of their garden and the beginning of the wild coastline. Wet, tightly packed sand, 'I was carrying you', and just across a ridge of rocks a little larger than man-scale. Behind them, reader, was what I took to be a novelty garden toy. It was a ten foot white sphere. Nine-One-One was playfully drawing on the surface with a thick marker pen. Space men. Twin rocket ships taking a collision course into alien spires. Robots and evil aliens in a war conference, all in a desperate attempt to drive off the liberation-obsessed Earthlings. I thought of the white sphere I'd coughed up once upon a time – this thing seemed to have the same consistency.
"What is the significance of the white spheres?", I asked of Two.
"Perhaps they are no more than dutiful guard dogs. Perhaps they're archangels or divine blood cells. I don't know".
Smiles from me. The tide, heavy and slow as it was, only made me more laconic. Of the high silver sun, it made me feel dizzy.
I suggested, "This is all an elaborate attempt to drive me crazy".
"No, I don't think so", gruffed Two, "and if it was, would it be any more elaborate than your crazy romance with that (c-bomb) Mary Viveash?"
"Here's the thing -", I punched him in the stomach and ran off down the beach. I ran long and hard; we don't really have any reason to sprint since those sun-kissed school playing fields, do we? Crazy-stitch radio entered my ribs as though it had always been there lurking. What a thrill. Aching temples struggled to calculate a route over the steep black rocks which presumably spazzed off inland. Keep running. Until the world goes away. While an inhuman howl came from somewhere to my left, I acknowledged this would be an unpredictable way to die, which is to say, a highly satisfying way. From the sea, a further white sphere erupted from below the surface and sped of its own accord onto the beach. It bounced and wavered at high speed, directly on your man's tail. I ran on, despite being no more now than some hideously pained ribs set atop numb, intangible legs. It was on me, I was down - in a little swell of firm sand which felt to my dizzy perceptions like the whole world. And the heavens, too.
The creature mauled me, quite severely, alternately pounding and pushing me into the ground, then suffocating me on its surface through an on-off gravitational pull. Freak-out physics; crawl on your knees to Brian Cox. I withdrew my gun but could barely get twelve inches of clearance to aim.
The mauling of the creature spoke to me, of two things.
Think that's consciousness you're thinking with? Consciousness is zeal. You're at war. You always have been.
Time is running out. You're dissolving. You're evaporating. You have to act NOW.
I fell into a deep unconsciousness, which was all too brief.
I awoke in a nigh-translucent cubicle. Something in the hazy, angular shapes and the reverberations told me it was just one in a vast network of identical slots. Directly above there was open sky; blue but very blustery. The straight, four-by-four sides were about six-and-a-half-feet high, which is to say about the average height of a domestic living room. Still the instinct was to try and climb out, and I Chuckle-brothered my limbs to scramble upwards.
Quite quickly, Number Two swung overhead on a kind of pneumatic gantry.
"Don't bother trying to get out", he told me.
"Why not?" – my tone was pleasingly utilitarian.
"If you try to get out, I'll get you with a tranquilliser, and the whole thing will just go round and around".
He brandished the tranquilliser gun like Lee versus Moore, nonetheless I seriously considered climbing out and just letting him do it.
"Number Six", he said sternly. "If you want to leave this silly, emotionally-wrought game, you're quite welcome to. We only want one thing from you".
"What's that, Jigsaw?", I smirked.
"We want you to carry on being you".
"You should do motivational speaking in primary schools", I told him. "And afterwards you can play golf with Bill Cosby and Uri Geller".
To my surprise, he took me up on this sarcasm, "You've got the wrong idea about our ethos in the Village. We aren't the establishment. We're as far from being the establishment as you can get".
"Migger, please", I briefly stared at the futuristic floor of the cubicle. I winced up into the tortured sky. "I've seen you praying in front of the TV when 'Grand Designs' is on. I've seen you weeping with unrequited love for Ed Milliband".
"Not me", the man smiled sharply.
Aches and scrapes from the mauling, pain from being run down by the van; it all swelled up inside me and threatened a faint. I heard a commotion from the tempered glass complex beyond. A jabbering bourgeois woman. A fellow prisoner?
"You're one of our kind". Even from around ten feet above my head, I could see the most subtle smile in Two's eyes. "Your stories are very popular here. 'Torch-beams, the End of the World' - no one here had ever seen a better social commentary. It was reprinted in the Village Newspaper. We found it inspiring, emboldening. All we want is for you to continue writing. We're trying to change the world, and your neo-communist propaganda is the most valuable resource we have".
What I said; "My stories are just little tangles of hate, nothing more".
"If they are hateful, that's by-the-by", he said breezily. "Mainly, they are righteous. And we know you, Number Six; you have no secret agenda. You would rather die than recant your beliefs. You are the best of us".
I rubbed my face just then. "I need a drink".
Two spoke quietly, just louder than the buzz of ambient air. His narrow, dapper eyes stared off into the distance. "Agree to write stories for us - or we'll use you in a far more ugly form of propaganda. That cubicle you're sitting in is just one square in a vast twenty-by-twenty grid. Have you ever played the game 'battleships'? I'm sure you have. We're about to play a game of human battleships. Your opponent is in an exact duplicate grid a few yards away. Beneath each segment there's enough plastic explosive to destroy everything within that segment, while leaving the rest largely undamaged. All each player has to say is, 'A-20', 'D-15' - it is a game of chance, and yet, a game of grit".
Staring blankly at the blurred outer cubicles either side of me. Not quite sterile-looking. I could hear the bourgeois woman chattering away in a curiously relaxed voice.
"This is crazy", I promised Two, and in the most pragmatic tone I could muster.
The man moved his head very slightly. A smile twisted horribly on his soft auld lips. "The western world is crazy, Number Six. At this point, we can't help but fight crazy with crazy. And it's not as if we haven't carefully calculated the polarization. Your opponent is someone completely vile. Everyone here is rooting for you to survive".
"You can't be saying that, it's not -", my face felt as fused as my sand-pounded muscles. "You say you want me to write stories for you, but at the same time I'm so disposable that I can be killed in Russian roulette?"
Deep, serious breaths, at odds with his smile. Lap the a-priori trust. "It's the greatest misconception of our times that human life is sacred per se. It's time to live by the determination of our secret inner-lives. That's where the substance is and where the drive is, and it doesn't care in the slightest whether one has children, whether one has a high-powered job or money. Because it senses God in utilitarian purpose".
Squaring my shoulders, for a long time staring directly ahead at the ambient glass surface, then jerking my head upwards at Two. "Who is to be my opponent in 'battleships'? In death battleships?"
"Think of someone you passionately hate. Who you've referenced hating in your stories and novels", said the honcho.
"Got to be Jamie Oliver", I said excitedly.
He frowned. "Jamie Oliver was too hard to abduct. Think of someone else".
I wracked my brains, put my hands on my hips. "Is it a politician? Not B. Liar?"
Two was quite surprised by this. "My understanding through your writing was that you don't really hate politicians, because they're only puppets of the feckless masses?"
I tried for a rapport with the man. I also used it as a means to let off my passive-aggressive steam. "Oh yes. That's true enough. But their schizophrenia is getting hard to ignore these days. Milliband with his Communist parents and then sucking-off everything remotely capitalist. Vince Cable hyping the manufacturing industry in every interview pre-2009, as if he's one of us, then saying-", (I imitated his weird, nasal friendliness), "—'Maybe I shouldn't have raised the university tuition fees, because maybe students aren't a f-g waste of space, and maybe Britain will somehow survive as a giant yuppie slimepit'. And as for the Tories…
"Actually? I hate the Tories for their individual personalities, the way they're actually proud of still being upper-class clichés – yet you've got to admit, we need the cuts and they've got the balls to get stuck in. It's as if you had a gangrenous leg, and the only person available to amputate was Little Lord Fauntleroy or Richie Rich. So, taking all things into account… I'm currently a Tory supporter. I bet you didn't expect that, did you? Which party gets the Number Two vote anyway?"
But the man just reiterated. "Politicians are puppets of the feckless masses".
"Al-Quaeda?", I teased him, I provoked him.
He shrugged at this, turned my provocation straight back at me with, "Al-Quaeda. North Korea. Perhaps the Triffids or War of the Worlds. Anyone who can save us, no matter what the terrible cost. And we both know that things have gone too far and there must surely now be a terrible cost".
"Fifteen pounds? I'm not paying more than twenty".
"It's time for the game to begin", said honcho gravely.
"Who is my opponent?"
"The radio presenter Zoe Able".
Eh? For a second, this seemed like the strangest choice in the world. Then, not quite so strange, as I remembered having written many paragraphs in various stories which very eloquently described Zoe Able as just… a symbol of the ubiquity of jabbering housewives. Listen to her show. Listen to how many mistakes she makes, how badly she reads out emails, gives time-checks –or more importantly, how she's incapable of giving an interview or conversing with a caller without always bringing the subject round to her own f kids. Her ineptitude is conspicuous – some high-ranking producer must have made a conscious choice to keep her employed because, hey, we in Britain love scatty, mouthy, open-legged housewives, don't we?
All the same, I didn't want to be the one to kill her, any more than I want to be the one to introduce concentration camps for Zoe Able-esque mouth-women in general. We just have to outnumber them, and let them know what a f nightmare they are. Heh – 'just'.
Face like thunder, and you could almost hear the muscles in my brow colliding, I turned to explain my position to Two.
This was when the first explosion took place. At an estimated two-or-three cubicle-spaces away from me, a deafening blast sounded, shaking up my skull and pounding my skin with acrid vapour.
"This is crazy!", I said, goggling my eyes in Two's direction.
"Your move, Six", said the old man. "Good luck, and we're praying for you".
Unintentional comedy pause – Mo Stooge grapples his hat. "I am not going to kill Zoe Able!"
Pointed out the man, "She represents everything that's mindless, feckless and lazy. You must".
"I'm not going to kill Zoe Able any more than - Eugene Terreblanche would randomly kill an African, or Kim Jong Ill would randomly kill a lying western journo". I growled this out boldly. "If we truly believe what we believe, we have a responsibility to educate them all, at once, not just murder them one at a time".
"They will only ever pay attention if given dramatic examples. Do you forfeit your turn?"
I shakily said yes, and numbly awaited the next blast. And, weirdly, the period of waiting seemed to blur together with the explosion; a distinct fraction-of-a-second saw me both waiting calmly and being flung from my feet, lifted by some impossible, lava-powered god. My shoulders and skull impacted violently with the upper glass wall, though I barely felt it. I knew this was a bad sign. If I survived, in the desperate fish-in-a-dropped-aquarium seconds which followed, I'd need to react boldly. Offer up my thoughts to God verbatim. My dry, ravaged eyelids convulsed and I saw Two staring down at me, imploring.
"This is wrong", I tried to tell him, with no idea if I was succeeding because of my warped eardrums. "How would you feel if Number One-Seven-One was treated like you're treating Zoe Able?"
The man spoke quickly, and I heard his voice as if through a loud speaker, very far away. "One-Seven-One has worked every day of her adult life in tangible industry. When our son or daughter is born, he or she – ditto. Zoe Able is lazy, ill-disciplined and arrogant, and she's constantly rewarded for it. Number Six, I strong advise you to make a move".
Head lolling, surveying my unnaturally bent legs and shock-vibrating arms –jacket apparently intact, for a small mercy.
"If you kill her", I told him, "you'll be divorcing yourself from God's grace".
At once, Two must have taken this as a sign that I was forfeiting my move once again. Bracing myself proved unnecessary, as a life-raft-on-the-Atlantic swell took me a hundred feet down. And down. 'I'm glad I spent it with you'. In all, my mind felt like a very large place, but ambient in proportion; air felt as fresh as it could be, at the same time scalding hot. Daylight; beautiful and revitalising, somehow heightened by the gone fishin' synapses in my optic nerves. I wondered if I'd died. I idly wondered if I was invulnerable. Are you the cheerleader from Heroes? No, I'm the homeless from the Afrika Shocks video. A little pain warmed the cockles, then a lot. Soon I was braced by it.
The sky was beautiful, though. There was a bigger scope now that the cubicle wall had been pushed-and-pulled into a heavy slant. I say beautiful; it was overcast. In the middle distance, someone was flying a white octagonal kite. Scrawled on the kite in bold black paint: 'A-9'.
Ignore it. And yet, to die for Zoe Able, really?
Do your French homework, Do your French homework, Do your French homework. Learn the square route of numberwang. This term we'll be leaning about enzymes.
Sir? Deep down, I think you know you're wasting my time. It's on a level which is so dense with words, ingrained beliefs, hackneyed bourgeois ethos, that you think I can't be bothered to formulate the necessary counter-argument. You once saw a member of the BNP on Newsnight and felt so coolly reassured; eloquence goes down in proportion to strength of belief. And even if it didn't, people believe things just for fun, don't they? Or just to be awkward, or just because they're mental. That's what you think, Sir. But what if there was someone who could prove, empirically, that you're a (c-bomb) waste of space? If only you'd moderated your stupid society, to be the tiniest bit utilitarian, all this unpleasantness could have been avoided.
I prepared my lungs to shout. Brain: squirming. Do your exams, love. Do your exams, love. Work for a year in a design consultants and then leave to have a family plural.
When Two's gantry pneumated into view, I desperately breathed out the words.
I growled them out, focusing them into pronounced sounds, battlefield orders.
Two looked awed. I heard a collective gasp from the teeming crowd. A second or two later, a colossal explosion erupted from just across the way. A spit, the violent, sustained boom, and that was the end of it. The segments of the grid slipped down into the ground in the style of car park bollards, all except the areas which had been warped and wouldn't quite go flush. Peering across the debris as best I could, I was highly apprehensive for the vapour to clear. Sniper-guarded Leningrad. Miss Sarejvo filing her nails. Across the rough stone surface, between the crags, I saw a bundle of limbs and a blackened Aunt Sally torso. That stupid blonde crew-cut all torn up into soot-ridden lanks – filled me with remorse.
Felix, you're indeed the most eloquent boy who's ever been sent to my office, and I can vaguely understand your argument. There's eloquently-argued hatred, eloquent zeal used to shoe-horn dialectical logic, but you're missing an important point; one can conjure an infinite amount of eloquence, but morality is always finite. You shouldn't have killed Zoe Able. Now, I'm going to have to ring your parents and get them to come into the school, and they'll be ashamed of you.
Looking down at the pitted body. It's a hell of a thing to have never seen a dead person before, and then the first one you look at is blackened, ravaged, horribly dislocated.
You used to tune in to Radio Tune to listen to Kent Brut, who by no means is a perfect presenter himself, but then Able would come on and say she's sitting in for two weeks. You'd shout at the radio, and feel tiny, infinitesimal satisfaction that at least you can feel this profoundly delineated hatred. God or evolution saying, 'Don't kill her, though. DO NOT drive to London and strangle her -you need to keep samples of your enemies, in order to juxtapose and gauge the visceral serendipity of your soul'. Are you sure, God? Because my enemies are ten-a-penny. God; 'Yes, I'm sure. All humans have different and subtle degrees of laziness and arrogance. You can't proclaim yourself a judge of what you should or shouldn't be acted against, or you'll end up lost. Besides, only a psychopath thinks in extremes'.
I'm rambling. But I'm just trying to illustrate that it was horrible and feverish, this thing I did.
My body sagged and I had to go down on all fours. I fancied I was crying, too. Moving slinkily on terra-firma once more, Number Two arrived in front of me. He addressed the crowd, easily a hundred-strong. Faces with ingrained numbness, hard faces, faces that might well have belonged to semi-redeemable terrorists. Don't try and picture them, reader.
Softly, at the same time projecting to the crowd, "You see? The widely-held misconception that, because we fight this terrible fight, we must have somehow closed our minds to the horror. Look at Number Six. You've all read 'A Satisfying End…'. A man who has such a zealous hatred of decadent western society, yet still he was willing to be maimed rather than kill one of their worst figureheads. In the final analysis, however, even Number Six knows: it's us or them. I say this: we are not Hitler and we are not Stalin. But we are nobody's fool".
I felt unhappy as never before.
And then I felt a little bit more unhappy on top of that, as Number Two moved to the blackened bundle of limbs, kicked it over to reveal nothing more than a life-size dolly. Because of course they hadn't abducted Zoe Able as a political statement. That would be insane. As insane as having everyone reading this document meditate for an hour a day, willing Zoe Able to implode in a ball of godly light.
The next time she makes more than three mistakes in an hour.
Or rambles on about her dozen kids.
And their default decadent oblivion.
As if it's inconceivable that anyone out there might be noble or utilitarian.
Some goons, wearing cloth jackets that aped the design of my Lambretta (make of this what you will), helped ambulate me back to the little Smurf house which I'd first woken in. A doctor, who I took to be Turkish or Portuguese (so, probably NHS), looked me over and concluded that I had a concussion, minor burns, minor scratches, but would live. Then I don't remember much else, as unconsciousness came from nowhere as a deliberate act of kindness by God. It also had the same vibe as being drunk. 'Need to be sick multiple times' drunkenness, where you think, 'As soon I'm sick this last time, my body will be able to surrender and I'll be able to sleep, sleep, sleep, in bliss, for such a weird, unprecedented period of time'. Only to wake just five hours later, stone-cold sober, eerie and disbelieving by what went before.
Turning the old-fashioned thumb-switch on a Scrodinger bed-side lamp. Just like before, the room was friendly and relaxing. Except now, on a deeper level, I could only identify it as a suave little prison. The correct course of action? I won't be part of this. I bundled my duvet up and moved out into the Village. Ten-fifteen at night.
Lots of flat surfaces, then one or two broad steps, always to give the impression that the architecture was absolutely respectful of the quaint modulations in the British coastline. Maybe we were somewhere set in the ultra-obscure crags of Scotland, I thought. Even then I sensed it was a heavily-spliced peninsula, a real collector's item for geography anoraks.
When I found a metal bench which looked like it would make a good bed, I snuggled down and eyeballed the sea in dark fascination. Except I was on my left side and it's my natural inclination to sleep on the right (the left hemisphere of my brain contains all the memories of Mary, and you don't want no blood bringing those to life). Correcting myself, I was now forced to meditate on your man. Work this one out; in the dark, moonless miasma, the statue of Che seemed far smaller but somehow more awesome.
Sleep refused to come. A figure approached me from the courtyard, walking in an incredibly roundabout way, reference Ted Maul. I saw that it was Number Two and soon realised he was drunk.
"Good evening, Number Six", he said in a deep voice, semi ironic.
"Hello", I said atonally.
He hung a little distance away, wavering on his auld bent legs. "Just you and Che, eh?"
Rubbing my face. "Yes. I'm just getting quality time with a hundred foot statue".
In time, he sat on the ground and Gollumed his whisky. "Did you ever read his diaries?"
"I did, a very long time ago", said I.
"I bet you just watched the film. I bet you just watched the film on TV".
It amused me that he disbelieved me. All the same, I remained silent.
"It's sad. It's all of it unspeakably sad", he mumbled.
Obviously I couldn't remain silent at that. "He died for something he believed in, for a political ideology that was as necessary as breathing. I would have thought that pleased you".
"Yes", said the old man dryly. "It does. But rather, I'm talking about the in-fighting between the other guerrillas in his team. The sloppiness. Even in the very paradigm of Communist ideology, there was still that stupid shallowness which is Mankind's lot. And if it was that bad back then, when Communism was vibrant and alive, what chance do we have now?"
Sitting up on the bench. In fact, hunching forward. "What's the alternative? Stalinist purges for people who take too long to change the channel when 'Grand Designs' comes on? You said yourself, you're not Stalin".
Saying nothing for a while, staring up at Che and listening to the tentative waves.
"This is why I'm sad", he reiterated.
"Just let civilisation die"; it was the best solution I had.
He visibly thought about this, then visibly dismissed it, "It's out of my hands, anyway. Whatever is achieved here, it won't be down to me. I'm being demoted in the morning".
"To Number Three?", I said broadly. "Does that mean I become Number Five?"
Two spoke calmly, for a moment seeming very sober, "How many times do I have to tell you? Our numbers have no sequential value. Besides, what does it matter? Your writing suggests you're one of the most un-ambitious men in the world".
I wondered about this, as I've wondered about it ever since. Staring at the small, night-blue houses. The tiny neat walls you see in Wales and Scotland and nowhere else. We have to assume that God will reward personal humility, even if it's just a means of surfing the planet-load of capitalist greed. But if you could teach other people, just a third or so of society, to surf as well… wouldn't that be worthy?
"There's something else I have to tell you", said the former Number Two, quickly, as if we were surveilled spies. "The successive Number Twos will always be married and they will always have a pregnant wife. Or, rather, this is what my master wishes you to believe. On this occasion, Number One-Seven-One really is my wife, and I really do love her, but her pregnancy is a lie".
"A lie? So – that's a fake hump?" Head swimming and shimmering, as everything else in my vision remained nocturnal blue.
"We're meant to be villains. It's been carefully planned so that the Villagers gradually start to be conditioned into seeing all family-orientated people as oppressive. And it's something few people can argue with – politicians, executives, company chiefs; they decide to have children, and we allow them to carry on ruling us, despite the fact that they're now completely biased, their loyalty to society as a whole having been seriously blinkered, if not destroyed outright".
I remember puffing my cheeks. If only there'd been a canopy of stars, instead of that chilling blue firmament.
"Isn't it possible that one can have children and still be socially caring?"
Two was surprised I even considered this. As he spoke, he looked increasingly like Mr Shakey-Head from A Clockwork Orange. "No. Don't you remember that famous news report in the eighties? Someone had made a study of the statistics and found that, in order just to break even, in order just to survive accumulative population growth, we'd need to build four duplicate Birminghams straight away. Four new Birminghams, along with all of the industry, all the houses. And it didn't happen. Britain is a zombie. Our economy is based on – nothing. A nation-load of desk-bound yuppies when we only ever needed a handful. Yobs who are led to believe they can become yuppies, and when they inevitably fail, dine out on welfare, delusion and shouting. No one believes for a second we need more children. It is an expression of thoughtless hedonism. I know you agree with me".
As our conversation played out, I braced myself on the bench. The fused and aching muscles gave me strength of character. "We're sunk. There's no point trying to fight. At best, we'll become hated terrorists".
Number Two said, 'No', a little crazily. "They need us, Six. The original Communism failed because it went against human nature, plus it was too militaristic and imperial. We have two distinct advantages over our forebears. One - we're the only sane choice society has left. Two – we know we're going against human nature. What's so good about human nature, anyway?"
Staring at the grainy, ambient ground just in front of Che. Staring at the bottle which hung limply in the former Number Two's hand.
"Can I have some of your liquor?"
As we eased down the burning mouthfuls, the old man continued to hold forth. "What we're doing here is simple. The morality is black and white".
Except, point; "I don't deny that. But I only want to use that black and white to make them feel guilty, for my own amusement. You expect it to work as the initiator for revolution. That's not going to happen. All that'll happen is that the black and white will spin together into a mind-bending vortex, and you'll go insane".
The former Number Two frowned non-commitally. "We'll see". He stared at some nearby houses, the narrow spaces between, the pitch-black coast.
End of paragraph. New paragraph follows after the intermission. A cartoon short where Stimpy unthinkingly accumulates every academic qualification in the country, and it's Ren's job to laboriously write out the certificates, as if they mean a f thing. Ren becomes infuriated. He delivers Stimpy such a ferocious slap that his head turns three hundred and sixty, several times. Nonetheless, Stimpy becomes prime minister and arranges for increasingly more frivolous degree courses to be created. Ren goes to some woods and hangs himself. The Lumberjack, Fireman, Moose and Big Baby watch from a hiding spot, stare at each other, spin fingers at their foreheads to denote insanity. All except for The Lumberjack, who looks faintly haunted forevermore.
I settled down to become a model prisoner. By default, I would have become a malcontent, a rebel –dare I say it, a terrorist—except what would be the point? Everyone in the Village had been brought there specifically because they were boat-rocking political zealots. It made no sense to me. The purpose of our neo-communist prison seemed to be to strengthen our ethos until it was tantamount to an indefatigable religious drive. Except many of the villagers were at this stage already, so what were our captors waiting for?
In my most haunted moments, I felt sure they were just waiting for me to start writing their goddamn propaganda. Something that would explain our beliefs in a very indulgent, imaginative way, prior to sending us out as union-starters, red sleeper cells, red suicide bombers, whatever. Except it doesn't work like that. Re-reading my novels, plus all those heady stories, 'Howdy', 'Mr Smith Has Had Enough' all of that –they don't seem to understand that my zeal can only exist when it's embedded in a framework of childish sci-fi or Bergman-esque hysteria. Stimpy, you eediot. No one cares about nothing, get it?
I told the next Number Two (special guest star Paddy Considine), and the Number Two after him (special guest star James Gandolfini), and the Number Two after him (Bruno Ganz) – I am not a machine for writing breezeblock political discourse. One of the books I hate most in the world is Animal Farm by George Orwell, and I'd sooner the Axis powers had enslaved the human race for a thousand years than a single schoolchild has to read that lazy, retarded krap. Fine, said the new Two. If you don't want to write for us, we'll see, but yes, that's fine. We'll find you a different job. What if I refuse to work? At that, the man gave me the steely, soulful eye-contact which is uniform to all of them. 'Number Six, that we are the people who can never sit back while others sweat and struggle is the very reason we're here. You desire to have hard, manual labour. We all do. We equate it with raw existence and with God'.
To that end, he offered me the first job vacancy they had, which was wringing chicken's necks in the slaughterhouse. "Llbokcos, I'm not doing that". I expected it to degenerate into some ugly philosophical debate or disproportionate punishment. But the latest Two simply shrugged, telling me that this too was fine, though it would preclude me from eating the Village meat. I briefly considered changing my mind, if only because I thought it would be hard to keep my muscles up purely on fruit, cheese, taters and the like. But I've managed to stay fighting fit - for one, I remember a lot of the pointers from Charlie Bronson's training manual. Plus the iron supplements are a god-send.
The next job vacancy in line was working at the Village Recycling Plant. This was ironic; in the outside world, I hardly cared about recycling. Or rather, I understood on a practical level why recycling was necessary for a renewable, sustainable world, but - why did people worry so much about keeping the environment sustainable while deliberately allowing the economy to gorge on laziness and then suffocate on its own detritus? Of the top ninety-nine factors which will see Britain burn, ruining the environment is number ninety-eight, just below Chucklevision being cancelled. Yeah?
Even then, the Recycling Plant took up only three days of the four-days-on, three-days-off work pattern. My secondary job, on the remaining day, was collecting driftwood from the beach for our fireplaces. Definitely the most satisfying job this kid's ever had. Plus, some of the other bits of flotsam and jetsam I found over the years:
A plastic Christmas snowflake, a Blocko shark, the handle of a samurai sword, an aquarium castle, a Vauxhall grill-emblem which the sea had turned transparent, a plastic set of pliers from a child's novelty tool box, the canal section of a hi-fi speaker, a sink plug, a French-language Quality Street lid, the space bar from a keyboard, an extractor fan, a golf ball, the spindle from an industrial shrink-rap machine, the lid of a French litter bin, a twelve-block of 3 amp connector fuses, a section of sheared telegraph pole, a windscreen wiper, the lid from a 25 pack of blank CDs, a ruc-sac clip, the base section of a solar-powered garden light, a badly bent overflow pipe, a hopper-scuttle, a tube of solidified Hard-as-nails, one half of a tiny plastic floor-cleaning sign, a bristled boot-wiper, a mouse skull, a scrap of tarpaulin with the brand name 'Lactus', a cigar tube, a plastic fruit-box insert that looked like a robot's face, a haulage clip, a wall plug which still had bits of concrete attached, a toothbrush case, a single in-the-ear headphone, a bicycle reflector, a golden syrup tin, a dart flight with a badly faded picture of Betty Page (in the absence of any pornography, I took great delight in this).
What was my favourite thing? Obviously it was the Betty Page dart flight, although at the time I felt it was far too quaint a thing to find by chance and perhaps God was patronising me. Haunted winter light from afternoon to evening, and I waited for high-tide to come – considered flicking her back into the swell. Not sure what stopped me, though I'm glad I didn't. Her conspiratorial smile always seems fresh, and each time it reminds me of seeing it for the first time on those tiny, dark pebbles. I dream about her even now.
Staring out at the flat, grey-blue malarkey. 'What will today bring?' Only the bit you can't see has teeth and holds the mystery. Most days it was boring, although to think that way is to miss the point on a par with a conversation with a Buddhist about consciousness. With boredom, you're engaged in a dialogue with overdue-pregnant algorithms, air that lets you breath honestly, and let's all die of carbon monoxide poisoning as if God will only let us. I've given you a list of the interesting things, but obviously there was the same boring, ubiquitous jetsam you see on beaches everywhere. Washing-up bottles, cistern floats, foam inserts, two-by-fours, fishing nets. I saw it all constantly, became almost-but-not-quite desensitised to the sight.
My three days off were always taken up, of course, with the pith. Formulating plans of escape, trying to get my head around Village politics, fighting my way out of the stupid ethical games which the Twos constantly embroiled me in. I knew it would be difficult to break free. While I was still convalescing from my explosion-wounds, I stood just within the perimeter of the Village and watched as a dozen or so of the more 'right-on' Villagers tried to flee through the peninsula mouth. They believed they had strength in numbers (no pun intended). They believed that, though one or more of the 'Rover' spheres might pursue them, they wouldn't be able to strike down everybody and surely one or two would be able to get clear. A dozen bounding, ducking figures scampering through the knee-height foliage and the tufty grey no-man's-land. Pretty golf-course-style trees on the horizon, harmless and peaceful, if only you could get that far. The escapees must have thought they were being smiled upon, as just a single sphere bounced steadily in pursuit. It touched the ground, quivering almost comically, before it built some height - truly impressive arcs of twenty or thirty feet. Then down. Suddenly, viscerally, among them. The humans tried to run ever more wildly. The sphere remained still now.
Unexpectedly, all present dropped down, stone-cold dead, puppets with their strings cut. Something about it suggested the sci-fi equivalent of an EMP, but geared towards the human brain. Either way, it added up to one thing: the sphere had willed them to die. And really, it's hard not to marvel at such a simple, immaculate war. 'I am become Death', said Oppenheimer. 'The destroyer of worlds'. No. Our hatred is what becomes Death. You just turned it into a beautiful art form, because what is art except emotional bluntness? I freely admit that I admired the spheres. I wondered why the powers-that-be didn't simply use them to take over the world. Pinky.
The answer to that came one brisk, sunny Autumn morning. I'd fallen in as part of a three-man resistance cell. During the initial stages, all we wanted was information. Two of us walked around the perimeter of the Village so that it was necessary for a Rover to follow us. At a high, mossy ridge, we turned back towards the centre so that Mr Blobby could gradually discontinue his shadowing. I watched him carefully in a shard of mirror hidden in my ray-bans (Please note: I hate ray-bans and wouldn't normally wear them). At last he remained stationary behind a high leafy bank. We skilfully moved forward so that he could still –narrowly—see and hear us. Whereupon we played out the pre-arranged piece of theatre.
Six (pretending to look around and not see him): "There. I think he's gone".
Thirty-eight: "Uncle Bertie has been moved to Three-One-Seven's house".
Six: "Are you sure that's wise? I know it's closer to where Two will be making his speech tomorrow, but that's a more populated area. People may see him. Collaborators do exist".
Thirty-eight: "He's a man who does nothing but espouse fundamentalist terror. How can he object
when we start building-", and he pretended to have a slip of the tongue and forget to use the code-word, "—bombs?"
We walked away towards the Village, continuing to discuss our fake plot.
Beneath the alcove awnings and aged stone walls, there was nothing to do but wait. Che above us with a wholly different variety of annoyed, militant consciousness. Recently, it had been announced in the Village paper that work would have to be carried out on the statue to sure-up micro-fissures in the alloy. Already scaffold reached up level with the man's neck, and this seemed to make his expression all the more brave and resolute.
We hung around the central square by Three-One-Seven's house. From mid-day to early evening, no goons came to search the place. It was starting to look as though the Rovers had no means of relaying what they saw and heard to their human masters. Valuable intel: gained. As I sat on a bench reading a book (I can't remember – I think it was 'Star of Ill-Omen'), Number Nine-One-One breezed up to me and smiled. She was blowing soap bubbles with a plastic wand and a flask of liquid, that singular pursuit which everyone in the world loves, and would do constantly if only adults could get away with it.
"Bubble-monster!", I said.
"I like blowing them out and then blowing them so they stay in the air".
She demonstrated this at length. I played around and tried to get bubbles to land cleanly in my hands.
"What do you think is inside the bubbles?", she asked me between huffs-and-puffs.
This was an intriguing question, and I knew how to give an interesting answer like hell.
"It's been proven by scientists", I said, "that inside each bubble is just a crazy little wish".
We'd been playing around so intently that I completely missed it when Six O'clock came around, the hour we'd agreed Three-One-Seven should rush from his house carrying a 'suspicious package'. He'd joked that he should completely forget how to speak a word of it, and have 'DeMenezes' as his code-name. I laughed at this. Presently, I just narrowly saw him as he moved into one of the funny little avenues. And then, from the sky, that eerie warbling noise, the strangulated, lo-fi static that made your ear drums tingle. From the heavens, a Rover. It capriciously speeded up its descent and landed directly on top of poor Three-One-Seven. It repeatedly pounded him into the cobbled ground until he was a quivering mess, then until he was horribly still. Nine-One-One screamed and dropped the flask of soap. She desperately hugged me and burrowed her face into my shoulder to avoid the sight. In time, she dropped the wand also.
After a minute, the current Number Two arrived (Special Guest Star John Hurt).
"Why did it attack him?", he asked me.
I remained guiltily silent. Shock choked the words in my throat.
"Did he do anything to provoke it?", he gasped dryly.
"Why don't you ask him", I breathed, nodding to the Rover. "He's your colleague".
Some of Two's henchmen moved to the body and rolled it over, far too easily, as if it was a boneless mannequin. Memories of fake Zoe Able for this kid. From beneath his elbow, they eased free the cloth bundle -unwrapped, we saw that it was just some DVD box-sets. Innocuous, telling - LOST, Prison Break, The Fugitive, Sleeper Cell.
Rover bounced away towards the Village peripheral. Number Two gaped at him as he vanished between the small white buildings - gruff, heavy-browed villagers moving quickly out of the way.
Meanwhile, impressively quick, the morticians arrived in a van and took possession of Three-One-Seven. Slowly, the quivering Nine-One-One disengaged from my arms – but too soon; her eyes hit immediately on the corpse and she started screaming again. Screaming, her breaths seeming very abrupt, ill-measured, just the same as a sane person screams.
"Why?", she sobbed. "Why did he hurt him?"
Horrible guilty scenarios, a wormhole between your inner-life and the Devil. And that was just the start of it. Number Thirty-Eight abandoned the resistance cell after he developed an ulcer, coughing up human bean juice like it was going out of fashion. No matter; I resolved to carry on by myself.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Village's neo-communism was the way it favoured religion, wholly in difference to the days of Stalin and Khruschev. The various Number Twos always tried to engage me in gentle, intellectual debates on the subject. They knew from my writing that I had an exhaustive belief in God, but wanted more than anything to hear my rationale. Except to do so would only give them power, perhaps just as much as if I started writing propaganda stories for them. We know -you and I, reader—good and evil barely exists. There are only varying degrees of God's emotion. Those very modern comics, where a panel shows Superman either just before or just after he's used his heat-vision, and his eyes are glowing red. Conventional inference would suggest he's possessed by the Devil. Except DC trusts its post-modern readership to understand that Superman can never be evil. Certainly the heat-vision could have been used to shear Lex Luthor's head in half, though it's more likely to have been used to repair a broken suspension bridge, and either way, I repeat: Superman can never be evil.
The holding cell in the centre of the futuristic citadel was broad and well-lit, still fairly oppressive.
Number Two (Special Guest Star Ian McShane) had invited me there because he said they'd abducted someone who was salient to the cause. They hadn't yet decided if he should be given sanctuary with us (he was a wanted man back in civilisation), or be treated as a threat to neo-communist rule and be executed. Perhaps I could give my opinion on the matter? I could hardly say 'get stuffed' when a man's life hung in the balance. I chewed my lip, walked straight in there and hoped for a chance to lay Three-One-Seven's ghost to rest.
Bound to a chair, Casino Royale style, the mighty black figure jerked his head animatedly.
"Release me, please", boomed the forceful African voice, reference some delirious chant. "Release me and we can discuss the grievance you have".
'Grievances, yes', I remember thinking. Earthly grievances all compacted fiercely together like the primordial, pre-big-bang energy. And, I often thought, will the resulting explosion be good or evil?
Pastor Saul Owdeke. Long watched by the British authorities as he lulled superstitious parishioners into believing their children were possessed by hateful African demons. Both physical and mental abuse followed. That crazy duo, up to no-good I shouldn't wonder.
"Hello, Pastor Saul. I hear you're an expert on demonic possession".
A pause, still a tangible beat. "It is my mission from God. It is my sanction, you see?"
I liked the man at once. I liked the force and the apparent innocence with which he spoke. I wondered if, having read my novels, Number Two would know that I'd automatically side with him. It was –and still is—my belief that any kind of religion is better than atheism. I struggled like hell to remember if I'd ever written this in so many words, however. Furthermore, I wondered if all this was merely a set-piece where Two was scouring out the courage of my convictions.
"There's every chance these people will kill you, mister. What do you think about that?"
Saul scowled, was hard to read as he boomed out the words, "I am not afraid of death".
I shrugged. "Neither am I. And it is all about death, isn't it? Everything we do".
"Yes. The freedom which Jesus Christ gives us to face death".
I like rubbing my face. "I can't argue with that".
"You are a good man", he said loudly and blankly, "and you have Jesus Christ in your heart".
As he spoke at me, I fancied I phased out slightly. When I fully came to, I found an absent-minded hand held at my heart.
"Perhaps I do have Jesus in my heart", I said, silently calculating the low percentage He took up in my soul. Certainly I'd always hated the story of the Prodigal Son, the Parable of the Field-Workers, 'Consider the Lilly' –the way they at once affirmed Communism and negated the reality of hard work, animalistic survival. Commit suicide via casual starvation the day after you become aware of God? Fine. Except it will upset my mother.
"You say Jesus gives us the freedom to face death. I believe this as well. But I sometimes worry that it's not enough freedom. There's not nearly enough freedom to stay sane".
"You worry about this, my friend, and you are not free. Jesus knows nothing of madness, only that there is a great evil in the world, an evil which we must each fight against tirelessly".
I felt my thought-processes flow into his and vice-versa. Big Man Curcio jamming with Carlos Santana, and Richard Dawkins, we are not really talking about religion. You know, deep down, we're not really day-dreaming about going to heaven. We're day-dreaming about what we've got to do to deserve to go to heaven. The thing we'll never have. Because we're arrogance-incarnate humans.
"Yes. I understand that we must always think in extremes. It's something the atheists will never understand. But… 'a great evil we must fight against'. The evil is synonymous with our hatred of it. Our seething hatred, like a cold-turkey krokodyl addict scratching his skin into ribbons. All we have, in the end, is a painful death".
"Give yourself up to Jesus", was Pastor Saul's unthinking response.
I said, "A.K.A: 'Give yourself up to Death'"
"These are empty words, my brother. They will be washed away when you have Jesus in your heart. Pray with me".
"In a minute", I promised him. "First I have a question for you. If you answer it well, I'll see that you're released, and looked after".
He could see by the malevolent glow in my eyes that I meant business now.
"You say, Pastor, that you're trying to give yourself up to Jesus. Then why did you need the money? Why did you charge those poor, feckless parents two-hundred quid a go to pray for their kids?"
The man shook his head slightly and his eyes shone. His bulky shoulders slackened within their binding. "Believe that the power of Jesus is beyond all the money in the world. The money is used for my congregation so that we can be a mighty unity of the love and harmony of Jesus Christ, you see?"
This argument was so broad, it almost went in one ear and out of the other. Then he added something that made me freeze. "We use they money so we can be something bigger than ourselves and carrying the humility of human dignity. In this way, we are much like you Communists".
Falling into a reverie. When I came to, I found I was smiling like a lunatic.
I knelt down a few inches from the man's face. I braced myself on his knees.
"I bet you know how to hustle a man in a game of darts", I said.
He didn't know what to say to this.
"Do you think I'm possessed, Pastor?"
Looking into my eyes, neatly, right onto the surface, he replied almost immediately.
"We must live with constant vigilance. When was the last time someone blew on your forehead?"
I laughed at this weird, just-so scenario by which the demons were transmitted. And then I frowned in horror. The last time someone blew on my forehead – was Mary, when we were having the stare-out in the Penny-Farthing, she did it to distract me. But I didn't say a word about this.
"I don't want to live in vigilance. I want to be either saved or damned by virtue of my consciousness", I told him.
"You must have consciousness only of Jesus", was the return volley.
Taking my trusty auld Victorinox, I began the process of cutting away the binding. He started to breath falteringly, a sure subconscious sign of relief. I remember tipping my head up at the heavens while still sawing away. 'The things you put me through'. Not only the bizarre religious tension, also the fact that the man kept farting and the smell was rank.
He eased himself up and cricked his spine reference the old Radox advert. In the corner of the cell there was a futuristic sill. The Pastor rushed over to it, swept his eyes rapidly along the translucent and highly reflective surfaces. There were a few plastic bottles. The man had obviously been without water for some time – he snatched up a one of the bottles and washed it down his throat at speed.
And the chamber door was flung open. Ian McShane rushed in and grappled the man from behind. He bent him forward and forced his fingers down his throat. "Puke!", he shouted. "Puke it out!"
My mind boggled. Number Two said, "Hit him in the stomach, make him puke! That was flamin' Fentanyl-trichloride! We were going to use it to kill him!"
I dutifully made a fist, braced my forearm against the bicep and pounded him in the abdomen. Two continued to fish towards the back of his throat. I panicked horribly - ironically I felt like puking myself. I hit him again. I kicked him in the balls. Nothing.
Collapsing on the floor between us, he grasped at the newly coloured-black piping of my jacket. The pressure and the sweat in his hands wiped away the marker and made it white again.
He convulsed, sweated, assumed a horrible foetal position. Eyes staring wildly at the ground. Famous last words; "The Devil is too deep inside me. He is inside all of us. We must give ourselves up to Jesus".
Horrible guilty scenarios, a wormhole between your inner-life and the Devil. And that was just the start of it. It's time to tell you about the final Number Two and what he did to me. It would be fair to say that before that, in the case of all the others – we'd just been adversaries rather than enemies. But fun me, this new man - it's hard to like or be indifferent to someone who loathes you from the pit of his stomach.
I was alone in my Smurf house, enjoying a bottle of scotch and reading 'The Hot Kid'. The new Number Two let himself in. He stood over me, pulling himself up to his full height of a mediocre 5.3". Special Guest Star: The Personification of all your Earthly Impotence.
"Come in", I said. "I've just finished interfering with myself"
"You're an inspired wit. It's good to have a reason to live".
I did the Alexei Sayle what-the?-what-the-?-what-the? head-spin.
"Hilarious. What would the world do without you?", he frowned.
Taking the bottle of scotch, he took small delight in pouring it onto the carpet in front of me.
'O.K. No more jokes', I thought, fascinated. "I love Elmore Leonard, don't you? He's got such an acute sense of how we men hate each other". I closed the hardback, wielded, used it to break his nose. He sprang backwards onto the floor and gave a single howl.
"You owe me a bottle of scotch and a profuse apology", said I.
The man ignored his bloody nostrils and reached inside his jacket. He aimed his PPK squarely at my head – think the Blonde and Pink stand-off, if Keitel had been unarmed.
"I owe you a bullet in the head, you clown f-".
It's funny how high adrenaline can be channelled into the gentlest shrug in the world.
"Mister, we both know I'm protected from on high".
"Not any more", he breathed, and smiled. "You're going to be dead within the week".
I smiled now. Reader, my pulse levelled off to zen tranquillity. I knelt. Placed my forehead against the tip of the gun. "Fear of death? That's a bit old-fashioned, isn't it? Couldn't we just watch some old episodes of Friends on VHS?"
The man fired.
It would be fair to say, without hyping it, or all hype where hype's due, that I didn't flinch. My heart skipped a beat, maybe, but there was no eye movement, no intake of breath. By turns, I realised he'd angled the gun a few inches clear, and all in just a fraction of a second. My ears rang, then went numb and deaf – but of course I was used to this by now. Explosions. The right side of my temple was burned; it felt clammy, though I hoped this was just sweat rather than blood.
Your man put his hands on his hips and smiled, said something. I'd like to think it was, 'You've got balls, I'll give you that much'. This may be wishful thinking, though – he may simply have continued the riling. To be on the safe side, I said in a booming, carefully-pronounced David Lynch voice, "I CAN'T QUITE HEAR YOU, BUT IF YOU SAID WHAT I THINK YOU SAID - I'M SORRY, BUT I'M NOT GAY".
Enemy Two frowned in mild displeasure. He looked along the bookcase to where I kept my copy of the GTA-style 'tourist map'. Unfolding it, he circled something and made a note. Then, his back to me and not saying another word, he exited stage right.
Well. All I had in the house now was a bottle of that vile Village Christmas Beer -but then, it was 7.5 percent, so I glugged it down in one go. Dutch courage a go-go, I re-opened the map and scanned for what Enemy Two had written.
The circle lay around the disused mining pit near the East Perimeter of the Village. The words:
'Tomorrow. 7 AM. PS: I know you're not gay. Gay people have self-respect. Be seeing you'.
Your man slept for barely an hour or two. I did in fact dream, intensely, even became lucid for a moment, before being swallowed up in this stupid storyline once more. Up and at' em, and it seemed to take quicker than usual to shave and trim my hair. What took the time was the Bickle-esque stare-out. Thirty-five years old and with the face I deserved - I was looking good. Perhaps there was even the ghost, the embryo, the ghost-embryo of the knowledge of how I would finally escape the Village.
Walking down the windswept slope towards the mining compound. The sound of the morning waves on the tiny pebbles was very atmospheric. As I stared at Enemy Two, the new One-Seven-One (in the club as usual), all the henchmen –it annoyed me that they weren't listening to it, that it probably played no part in their thoughts at all.
Enemy Two had got his nose reset; the thing was entirely encased in plaster.
I spoke first. "Morning, Beaky. Sleep well?"
The man did not rise to me. Instead he let his arms hang gawkily at his side while he stared regretfully at the sketchy grass. He flicked me a guilty look from the corner of his oversized eyelashes.
"I'm sorry I attacked you last night. When I came to your house I was drunk and angry. Can you forgive me?"
All those present stared at me. The sound of the sea was meditative and I had no idea how to respond. Eventually, the words that popped into my head, "Its only natural to be at each other's throats".
Enemy Two levelled his head slightly. He sheepishly extended his hand. When I moved to shake it, he pounded me in the stomach. When I collapsed with a terrible ache in my belly, searing pain in my kidneys, he simultaneously yanked my hair and pulled me back.
"I could break your nose now, break your teeth, wire your jaw shut, cut off little Six and stuff it your mouth. What do you think of that?"
"I'll probably be one year out…1982?", a reference to Pop-master which no one understood.
"Talk, Talk, Talk", Enemy Two sneered and was furious. "It's all you can do. You're a joke".
The new One-Seven-One steadily knelt down in front of me. Pound of flesh. I took in the sight of her belly and was profoundly troubled. I'd always believed what the original Two had told me, that the pregnancies of the successive Number One-Seven-Ones were fake. Except what I saw before me now gave me pause for thought. She was hugely distended. Surely, if it only needed to be a token pregnancy, they would have made the prosthetic much smaller?
Besides that, she reminded me of the film director Kelly Reichardt. No, that's not true – I'm trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. She reminded me of Servalan from Blake's 7. Personality-wise, too.
"I bet you now wish you'd just written us a few propaganda stories", she said.
"I was just about to, but then I changed my mind". I looked malevolently at Enemy Two.
Said One-Seven-One, "Either way, it wouldn't have made a difference in the end. You're actually a terrible writer. It's all hysterical, contrived nonsense. The stories on , for instance, make me sick. The way you prefer writing in the first person, the endless gambits starting with, 'I thought this, I thought that', while simultaneously trying to crusade social humility. You're trapped inside a contradiction. And the way you always start your stuff with those quasi-meaningful quotations. Trying to lend some gravitas to something which is more or less just the squawking of a mental patient".
"But deep down, you kind of like it?"
She gave me a kindly smile, "No".
Well, then. Explain. "It's not as if I expect people to read them. For me, writing is like praying. You big yourself up in front of God; it stops you from being arrogant in the waking world. If you like quotations so much, here's one of my faves. 'Ay! Let the coward and slave who writes write on! Life is but love. They know, we know; let, then, the writing go! That, in the very deed, we do not know'. Aleister Crowley. I can't pray when I'm a prisoner".
"You talk ever-more nonsense", her eyes twinkled, almost beautifully. "Here's my favourite quotation. Khruschev; 'Force a fool to pray and he'll break his forehead on the ground'. You are the fool. We are the ones forcing you".
"-…-", I said.
"Exactly", said One-Seven-One imploringly.
"Can I feel your baby?", I asked. "I mean, on the outside".
"If you touch my wife, I'll cut your hands off", said Enemy Two.
I looked at him sneeringly. "I bet it's got your eyes".
Gradually the sparring, dizzy with hatred as it was, came to an end. Two motioned me to the mine elevator shaft and we swiftly descended, leaving One-Seven-One and the goons up above. Down, down, deeper and down. Flickery floodlights in the style of a slow-laughing fat man. Sometimes the moving surface beyond the cage doors was simply rock, other times composite metal and girders. Enemy Two flicked my arm with something. It was an A4 wallet.
"Don't open it yet", he warned me.
I opened it straight away. To see blown-up surveillance photos from a distant telephoto lens. I stood looking at the images long after the elevator doors juddermanned open to the Brave New World.
There was Mary with some fat-necked ponce. There was Mary, pregnant, in the arms of the said fat-necked ponce. There was Mary, the fat-necked ponce and a tiny baby, Winston Churchill on mescaline.
Wow, look – a baby (sneer). I… the majority of my brains thought about nothing. A tiny, melodramatic, wholly ancillary part felt terrible sorrow. A still smaller part considered that perhaps the pictures had been faked. A shrug. The part that felt sorrow -shrugged. The majority of my brains that felt nothing –shrugged. Love – normal, healthy love—is something blunt and eternally infallible. There's no point faking photos of someone you love as a bourgeois whore unless you secretly know that such a thing is possible. In which case it isn't love anyway.
"What's this meant to do?", I asked him. "Break my heart?"
"Yes", he said in a dapper voice.
"And, what's all this -?"
Also in the wallet were newspaper clippings –many of them page one headlines from the broadsheets. 'Entire British Army patrol snatched from Helmand', 'MISSING UK PATROL –SHIPPED TO PAKISTAN AND BEYOND?', 'MOD ADMITS: TRAIL COLD ON TWELVE MISSING SOLDIERS'.
"What's all this to me?", I asked, quietly and bitterly.
Enemy Two – smiled with his tiny mouth. "We'll see".
For the first time I turned my attention to the low, hypnotic chamber which the elevator had levelled us off with. Think Being John Malkovich. Multiple unseen light sources spilled and flipped out on the hasty concrete. Thick electrical cables ran across the floor; Two walked quickly in the same direction. He spoke to me, not looking back, assuming I would follow him into the purple gloom. "Funny. I can sense you sagging. My nose will heal up as good as new because I'm strong. Your heart will stay broken, because you're weak" Whatever. Soon distracted by the excitement of multiple unlit rooms, I felt my pupils drinking up the cold shadows. Spread out alongside the empty assembly area was a blocky avenue full of giant cable reels, all of it reasonably clean for a former mining operation. Heh. Reading back my diary notes from the time, I was sure it said, 'I reasonably scream'.
We made a few turns, but never so many that I'd need to think to find my way out again. I was confident, too, that they'd not merely brought me here to be killed. I remember looking with fearful intensity at the grilled lanterns, the way they clung to the very edge of the corridor junctions –anthropomorphised geeks apprehensive about what lay ahead. Psychological torture? Yeah. What isn't, though? A middle-aged oriental man in reasonably smart clothes came to greet us. We all stood before a roller shutter bay bolted with a heavy-duty bicycle lock.
"So you're Number Six?", he said with a kind of staid enthusiasm.
"I am Number Six", I confirmed. " 'Who are you?', he asked, merely out of courtesy".
An upside-down smile from the China man. "I am Dr Win Sai-Hwang. Welcome the to Graystone Facility. You should know that you're the first outsider that's been allowed-"
He took a sharp intake of breath, like the airy little scientist he was.
"How come you don't have a number?", I asked him darkly.
Enemy Two explained, "Dr Sai-Hwang is merely a technical consultant".
"What are you a doctor of?", I asked, again darkly.
Speaking quickly, "My speciality is the stimulation of neurological synapses by high-frequency hypnotic stimuli. The layman might call it, 'virtual reality'".
Enemy Two started to fool around with the padlock at the base of the metal curtain. All very casual – I considered whacking him upside the head. Dr Sci-fi dreaming about laying a finger on me. I felt I had an idea about what they had in store for me.
"I should tell you now that no kind of 'virtual reality' will work on me", I warned them. "I haven't had a conventional non-lucid dream in over ten years. I've trained myself to always look beyond".
Sai-Hwang beheld me with grave concern. "No one lucid dreams all the time. To do so would upset the cyclical regeneration of RNA strands in the hypothalamus. A person would go insane".
"Tell me about it" - wise-crack number gazillion.
Enemy Two laboriously wrenched up the roller shutter. His breathing was strained, though never so much that he couldn't bad-mouth me. "Number Six, the centre of the communist-existential universe, and always so willing to tell you as much. Practical applications: zero. You're not the one living in a virtual world. It's these fools".
In the centre of the nominally-lit chamber there was six reclining chairs. They were in a circle, with the head-ends alongside each other at the centre. Think the hibernation beds from Alien, or the petals from the title sequence of The Good Life, if you prefer. Six apparently comatose men were immersed in an all-consuming VR world, via electrodes to the temples, space-goggles, drips containing psychotropic drugs. Small, industrial readouts above each punter gave a graph read-out of heart-rate, brain-activity, blood-pressure. This too made me think of Aliens. In fact, forget about the Good Life motif completely. Moving alongside, I saw that the men were all much-of-a-much. Army-crew-cutted, but with the laissez-faire upper-sections, normally evocative of defiant individuality, still managing to look Essex-boy poodle-like to a man. They all had bull-necks. They all had neurotic-aggressive musculature around their mouths. Many of the men had acne, because they were really just your yob teenagers. I checked the newspaper clipping from my promotional wallet.
"These are the British soldiers abducted from Afghanistan?"
"They are", said Enemy Two.
"They were abducted by us? The Village?"
"And so, you're using virtual reality to brainwash them into becoming - what? Sleeper agents?"
Enemy Two sneered lightly, tellingly. "No".
I bent down to look at their strange, waxy faces. I didn't like to look too closely. "Where are they? What are they doing?"
All of a sudden, Enemy Two was quite delighted by my interest. "You hate this, don't you? You hate that it has to unfold through dialogue".
I asked him what the hell he meant. He explained at leisure. "You've often said, in articles, in the comments sections of pretentious literary Youtube videos (as if anyone cares about anyone else's opinion) – you hate writing dialogue. You say it's too lazy. Better to plumb the depths, from second to second, in heavy banks of solid, squared-up text. 'Live in the density'. Yet I say that you are the lazy one, Number Six. Like it or not, humans use dialogue to communicate, slow, frivolous and flawed thought it is. Your writing is like the rays of the sun, beaming down on people, trying to burn them to death and barely giving them a tan".
Counter-argument, "And yet, people do die of skin-cancer".
"Not the right ones though", said Enemy Two blankly. He stared at Our Brave Boys. "Imagine if, simply through casting your words like radiation, you could destroy all the people who are driving Britain over the precipice".
"That's krazy talk", I said, because I thought it was.
But Enemy Two sneered at me with no small conviction. "Don't tell me you haven't tried it. Don't dare tell me that your stories aren't rabble-rousing propaganda. 'Howdy', on ; a thinly veiled plea for righteous blue-collars to launch jihads on British manufacturing companies who've moved their operations abroad".
Your boy shrugged. "I don't deny it. And yet if I was to be more explicit, which is what I think you want, all that would happen is that I'd be arrested for incitement in a heartbeat. If I'd suggested the righteous execution of Sir James Dyson, rather than 'Sir Jim Yondes', my feet wouldn't have touched the ground. You can't fight what can't be fought".
"Grow some balls", said Enemy Two.
I assumed a funny stance in my trousers and pretended to strain and concentrate. "There. I've grown some balls and you're still talking krapola".
My antagonist continued to sneer. He said, "Of course, if you had a girlfriend, you wouldn't feel such a terrible pressure to write".
"I do have a girlfriend", I said lightly, and then remembered that apparently this was no longer the case.
"Is it true you're impotent?", he said.
"Yes, whatever, I'm impotent", I replied (I'm not impotent).
"But you must admit that your writing is no more than a surrogate form of masturbation?"
I pulled a DeNiro concessionary face. "Maybe. But if it is, it's the most vivid and sophisticated tug a man ever had. Michael Hutchens arriving in Heaven and being greeted by Can't-get-you-out-of-my-head Kylie".
"Do you love writing?", he asked, Chris Morris interviewing Ludovic Kennedy.
"No. As I've said, it's a compulsion. I'd far sooner be playing Red Dead Redemption".
For the first time since I'd met him, Enemy Two seemed to become genuinely compelling. He glared at me, still hateful, but with something else to boot. Something higher. "You say you don't really love it. That it's a compulsion. If so, why not put that compulsion to use, and have it sated?"
On a slight rise above the immersed soldiers was a computer station, nondescript, apart from a fancy-looking wireless router. Enemy Two casually hung over it, his hands poised as a composer conjuring some energetic concerto. Except, no. He lolled his head at the consultant. "Doctor, explain to Number Six what your Cold Lazurus program does".
Sai-Hwang alighted his inquisitive-unseeing gaze in my rough direction. "On the surface, it's just a word program, probably not very much different to the one you use to write your novels and stories. However, in simple terms, it contains algorithms, routed through an cognitive-extrapolation processor, which allows those six men to live in the world and story-lines you write about".
Enemy Two sat quietly. Lots of head-shaking from me. There was an queasy cessation, and then the doctor gabbled on some more. The upshot was plain and simple, however. It was Microsoft Word Magick Edition. Microsoft Word as a psychic prison. This sort of stuff has always gone on, except normally we're the soldiers, Ouija boards are the computers and fallen angels are the boss-men. The two men awaited my judgement.
"Why do you need me to do it? I'm sure you could conjure something suitably insidious yourself".
Enemy Two shrugged. "No. I hate them too much. I couldn't dignify them by bringing them into contact with my thoughts. All I have is flat, uncomprehending hatred. It's my greatest strength, but it's no good here. You, however, Number Six… you love the argument. You see their arrogance as something conspicuously unnatural, but also deeply ingrained –and you believe that all we have to do is drown them in shame. Besides, I've seen you staring at the keyboard. You want to do it".
Heart beat a little bit faster, admittedly. I imagined writing a story which started out with a regular gunfight between the Essex mob and the insurgents. But then in the successive exchanges, as the enemy fighters dashed across the dusty square –they'd be wearing a single article of clown-clothing, perhaps some colourful hoola-hoop trousers. Through days, weeks and months, until finally Daz, Baz and Gaz are fighting a guerrilla army made entirely of clowns. Sometimes they fire rocket-launchers, sometimes they just blow a little horn. Well done, heroes. Back in the barracks. 'Something's wrong here, Sarge'. 'This changes nothing, Daz. They're still terrorists'. 'But Sarge, they're clowns'. And the Morpheus-eyed Sergeant looks into Daz's soul, such as it is. 'Tell me what's in the head of a clown, and tell me what's in the head of a religious fundamentalist, as if you can conceive of either one'. Daz: (feathers ruffled); 'I can conceive that it's wrong to hurt innocent people'. Sarge; 'Such as the innocent people in Britain, going without cancer drugs because they're too expensive, the elderly going uncared for because it's too expensive, while you leech tax-payers money to play with a gun? Feel free to say something that makes this argument less easy for me. But in the meantime, go and kill some clowns, then get to Wooton Bassett and let an old man stroke your face'.
Lost in vengeful plans as I was, a terrible thought occurred to me. "I'd have to write in the past-impersonal or the present tense, wouldn't I? By default I use first-person…"
"I'm sure you'll adapt", said Enemy Two.
I looked around urgently to see that he and Dr Sci-fi were now outside the chamber, in the process of hauling down the roller shutter. Even as I turned my head, the thing was three-quarters closed. The sight of it clanking shut made me feel giddy. Alone with my six new friends, I slumped around and cursed. I assumed a comedy panic-ridden scouse voice and spoke through the intercom. "Alright lads, a joke's a joke. Let us out, and we'll call it quits, eh?" Later on, I tried promising that I would indeed write them into a propaganda story, but I couldn't do it in here because their coma-drenched bodies were freaking me right out. Silence was the reply.
I spent over an hour in there, just pacing around. Also raging at times. What ever happened to Mr Garibaldi? I stared at the computer monitors above each body and idly wondered if there were subtle movements in the brain-wave patterns with could identify, say, a (C-bomb) from a mere gobshyne from a mere workshy.
I didn't like to look at the soldiers themselves, though, with their youthful-sullen coma faces and atrophied muscles. Some of them had arms and torsos that looked like grass snakes that had swallowed Meccano, or driftwood. I briefly wondered why they each had nutrient drips but no catheter bags. Perhaps a more intelligent man would have worked it out. Inevitably, I couldn't avoid looking at their faces, once I'd gone into a reverie. I looked at Hollyoaks A, B, and C. When I looked at Hollyoaks D, I froze in horror, started to feel sick and clammy. Taking the surveillance photos out and comparing them, there was no denying it.
The man in front of me was my successor. Mary's beau and the father of her child. He had double-stubble and different hair now, but it was him.
I picked up a table, wielded it like Lou Ferrigno, screamed and brought it down on his head.
I didn't do that. But I need you to understand; you'd automatically assume that what stopped me was a fear of losing my humanity. No. If I did nothing –that was how I'd lose my humanity.
'Humans', 'Humanity' –'you can't touch me, I'm human', like Goldie Lookin' Chain riding around on a stolen mobility scooter. What is it that defines you? Anything? Participation in civilisation? Civilisation was a utilitarian concept created by cavemen. It doesn't include everybody either doing nothing, working behind a desk or fighting feckless wars. We just need to find a single decent element that defines us, gives us infallible dignity. You can either have God or Communism or both. But no matter what happens, we can't continue the way we are.
Hunched down purposefully at the computer, I clicked away through the program menus, hoping that, in addition to 'Cold Lazurus' there'd be a means of reviving the soldiers, that it would be simple enough for me to understand or else have a 'help' menu I could use. Probably, I just wanted to revive Hollyoaks Omega so that I could pick a fight with him. And be careful what you wish for, Mr Bond. In any case, it went south straight away. No sooner was I bringing up jargony little sub-menus and my eyes poring down them, than all empty fields started to fill with alienesque key-board characters. Egyptian crows. Wavy lines. Admiralty cuff banners. The Symbol of the One True God. The lights dimmed to emergency power. The readouts above the men started to flatline.
I leapt up and hung between them, with nothing to do but watch them die. After it had been going on for a while, flipping from frantic to haunted, I had the presence of mind to pick up some heart-paddles and try to charge them. As if I knew what I was doing. Man: 'Are you a doctor?' Hancock: 'No, I never really bothered'. At best, I despairingly hoped Hollyoaks Omega wouldn't die. Still nothing quite prepared me when, five or six minutes into the flatline alarm, he did in fact begin to stir. Atrophied arms and weakened spine rising zombie-like, or perhaps like an under-dramatic gypsy medium conducting a seance.
He groped away the V R goggles and lolled his head in my direction. His eyes focused on the walls and on me, though he didn't look. Note the terrible weakness, but also the lack of internal reflection, the weird complacency at seeing the real world again.
So I waited beside him as he swirled around to full consciousness. Kane and his terminally ill brother. For the two-dozenth time, his head flicked in my direction. Still not quite seeing, though this didn't stop him freaking out. He pulled the electrodes from his skull. He pulled the drip from his nose in a relatively easy motion.
And then he gasped, gritted his teeth, looked at me full in the face. He looked at his five dead comrades. Time was running out; hopefully all traces of hate had been driven from my face by an emergency flush. He looked at me, and I could tell that he mistook the subjugation of my natural hatred for guilt or shame.
Sprawling backwards, he almost fell out of bed.
"Take it easy. You're going to be fine", I said with a heavy heart.
"Where am I?" - atrophied vocal chords.
"The Village", I told him.
"I thought when you're captured, you're not allowed to speak except to give your name and rank? Or is that just in the films? In the films, rather than inglorious reality?"
"Who are you?" -vapid, swollen eyes.
The man looked away, at nothing, tried to understand what was happening.
"Doesn't ring a bell?"
I took out my wallet and removed the photo of Mary and I, naked in each other's arms and beaming.
He slowly worked himself up into a rage and tried to lunge at my throat. His weakened form merely collapsed in my arms. "Mary – she was… a terrorist all along? But our son…?"
"This photo is over ten years old", I said briskly. "And Mary wasn't a terrorist. It's the other way around. I was a decadent, godless fool".
I grasped his shoulders and hauled him up in front of me. He couldn't have weighed more than thirty kilos head to toe.
"Beyond that, you only need to know one thing. The men who kidnapped you hate you and want you to die. I hate you and I want you to die, but I'm going to help you escape, just because I don't like being manipulated. Do you understand?"
The man nodded very weakly; his head moved like En Vogue. Meanwhile, I proceeded to look around the chamber for something I could prize the rollers up with. Every now and again, glancing up at Hollyoaks, I could see he was not as worried as he should be. In fact, confident enough to give me a little gambit, "I can tell you're a good man".
Perhaps I should have ignored him, considering he was probably in shock. Instead, "What do you know of 'good'? Judge a man by his actions. I spent twenty years working in industry. You're a war-monger". Yup, it's the episode of Deep Space Nine where Sisko gets marooned with Gul Dukat. It's the episode of Galactica 1980 where Starbuck gets marooned with a Cylon and they end up getting married or whatever. It's Superman and Luthor having fought to a standstill, then having a soul-searching debate, neither one of them acknowledging that they are not important, it's the debate, the openness. Never mind that the circumstances are flip-contrived.
"I'm sorry", he said slyly. "I'm lost here, I'm just trying to understand".
"We're all lost. We can only be found when we believe in something bigger than our lives. That's something you'll never understand".
His words, "I'm sorry, mate. I do believe in something. I believe that Mary and I will live on through our son. His name is Jackson".
I smirked. " 'Jackson'? And what's your name?"
"I'm Phil", he said.
"What's your second name?"
"God almighty", I laughed. " 'Jackson Buckingham' Why not just call him 'Giles McPonce'?"
I prized free the metal edge from a work surface and tried to higgle-piggle it beneath the roller-shutter rim. Every now and again, I'd look up to see Hollyoaks looking crestfallen, and I was delighted. Actually, it did occur to me that I should be getting him ready to make a run for it, bigging him up, making him feel good about himself –but this was a chance to explain myself that might never come again. Enemy Two might be just behind the roller shutter, set on shooting him, or me, or both of us.
"It's true. You do believe that 'Jackson' is bigger than your life. But not much bigger, eh? Seventy-five years of life, little moments of serendipity, but never anything transcendent. You're just like the rest of them. You've gone wrong. It's not about whether you believe God might exist or not. It never has been. God appears naturally as an expression of our depth of feeling. You're happy to walk around on concrete ground, you strive to afford status-symbol concrete houses, why not allow yourself to have concrete emotions, too? Concrete, infallible emotions? It's because there's nothing there. You're a conceited little shadow, and when a bright light shines on you, you fade to nothing".
I looked around to find that Hollyoaks had hitched his leg up onto one of the beds, so that he was half-squatted and off-balance. Giddily, he removed a tiny gun from his ankle-holster, cocked the chamber, tried his best to aim at me.
"No one with half a brain believes in god", he said vengefully.
I imagined Enemy Two somewhere, watching us on CCTV and laughing like a cat.
"God is just a way of letting nutters like you do whatever they want", continued Hollyoaks.
"And Godless life is just a way of letting Essex boy slags like you do whatever they want", the effective come-back from your man. "I'll take my chances with God".
He made a funny little straining noise as he tried to steady his aim.
"When I get to Heaven, Mary will be at my side", I intoned. I said this just to taunt him. "She will be with me, because she loved me, because I believed in God. She only went with you because you've got a fat neck".
"You're killers", he said calmly. "That's where you fall down. If there was a god and he wanted us dead, he'd do it. It's got nothing to do with you. You're dishonouring just what you believe in. You're a stupid little monster, mate".
Done with talking, I advanced on him, just to scare him into either making a move or backing down.
His feeble arm aimed and fired. It went wide. I continued to advance until I was upon him. His attention fell away, then came back. Two headlights of pure hate. He rested the tip of the gun against my head.
The roller shutters moved upwards at speed, distracting us both. Enemy Two breezed in apace. He took aim and shot the man through the head.
And what happened after that, for a long time, I can't remember. Certainly I was sick. Certainly I went mad. More than anything else I just wanted to die, even as my blood roared and my pores sweated in a copious celebration of life. Weeping became my lot, for as long as you like, accompanied by visceral stabs of sorrow as I glimpsed that picture of Mary, Hollyoaks, Baby Jackson. After that, for months after that, the weird mental algorithms, visions of Jack, Jack, Jack -it would have occurred to them just to call him Jack. Looking at squirrels in the park on a weekday morning, laughing, always in spite of the sadness. Growing up without your dad.
I remember only a fragment of the following conversation with Enemy Two.
"Where were they, the soldiers?"
Two, "What do you mean?"
"Inside the virtual reality".
Laughter. "There was no virtual reality".
"Because this is not an episode of The Outer Limits from 1994".
Horrible guilty scenarios, a wormhole between your inner-life and the Devil. And that was just the start of it. I say, 'I went mad'. That's not true. I would have gone mad even after the battleships episode, even after the Pastor Saul episode –except I always had an ally.
A source of sanity. Her life had run parallel with mine, in terms of having a lofty, strangulated sense of morality. But –this woman- it's no hype at all to say she'd suffered more than I could imagine -or bear. Yet reader, she always kept her head, and that's what inspired me.
It's time for me to introduce her to you. Her name is Patricia Disch. Her number: One.
We met shortly after the Battleships episode. I was about a methodical exploration of the Village and its politics. Admittedly, this was probably a bad decision since I was still physically and emotionally wrecked from the nightmares which had been visited on me. Nevertheless, I had a simmering disbelief in what Two had said about our numbers having no hierarchical value.
I noticed on my GTA-Village map that –fascinating; Number One's cottage was marked for all to see. It was on a Paul Barren hill overlooking the sea, perhaps even the highest point of the peninsula. No further ado, I wielded my walking stick and hobbled my way up there.
The latter part of my journey, skirting the hill itself, I was in serious discomfort. I desperately hoped that Number One turned out to be a good person, who'd let me sit in peace while my aches died down. I remember my vision becoming acutely mescalined through pain as I stared down at the sketchy grass. The sketchiest and most windswept grass in the world, it seemed. Then at last I was at the tiny door and knocking. Expecting? The Man Behind the Curtain, perhaps. Perhaps David Icke to the power of ten.
The face that greeted me was deeply melodramatic, there was no avoiding that, to start with. One side of her head, from the curve of her skull to her jaw-line, was horribly scarred. Short, partially-groomed hair stopped three quarters of the way across her scalp, so that it looked a little bit like a brave's mohican. Beyond that, however, her mouth, eyes and nose were entirely un-mangled. It was a strong face; equate beauty with strength.
"I am Felix King. Number Six", I said boldly.
"Congratulations on surviving the first of your run-ins with Two". The sound of her voice was resonant in her jawline, almost as if it was hollow. A little bit like the Godfather's. It was a voice which would always soothe me.
"It looks as if you've been in the wars yourself", I said, gambling that she had a strong enough personality and aesthetic not to be ashamed of her warped flesh.
Bingo. She angled her head in a small smile, which was all the more satisfying for being bitter. "I had this long before I was brought to this frakking place".
Jump in. "Is it true what Two says? His number is the only one that has any authority? You're just the same as the rest of us?"
She looked at me for a long time, then seemed to look away in shame.
"Come in. I was just reading to Chuck, Number Three-Oh-Four".
Hobbling across the welcome mat, the ravaged-yet-homely floorboards, I entered a small kitchen. In a rocking chair, there was a blind man, Chuck, the proverbial Quiet American.
"Chuck, this is Felix, Number Six, the newcomer".
"You little numbers are ganging up on me", he joked. "How are you, Felix?"
"Singed", I said.
He frowned and rotated his auld jowls from side to side in his starched collar.
"Yes. I heard that Two already had you playing his silly games. But listen, I should be going -"
"Stay just where you are", commanded Patricia. "Guest or no guest, we're going to finish this chapter. Felix, would you like to sit in?"
"Would you like a recap?", she asked me.
"No. A recap would spoil it".
I took a seat along the broad-side of the table, Patricia and Chuck at either ends. The book: 'Rogue Male' by Geoffery Household. Nice. The thinking man's Thirty-Nine Steps. She flattened it on the old grey wood, took a few seconds to get into the ambience, then started reading in studied clairvoyance. Can't remember the last time I felt so becalmed. With the sound of the sea, a jealous God staking us out.
When Chuck departed, to cane his way back down the hill (she told me it was safe for him to do this; he'd taken the route daily for months), we got down to the serious business of discussing our places in the Village. I confessed that I couldn't get my head around Two's assertion that our numbers weren't a hierarchy. How did it feel to be Number One? To have to explain to each newcomer that she was no more clued-up and had no more authority than anyone else?
"It's a burden I've got used to". Patricia stared into my eyes, grave and put-upon unto the Ends of the Earth. "But at least you're kind enough to imagine how it might feel for me".
I gestured magnanimously. "Is it possible that you have some special quality or experience they've set you apart for?"
Again the look of shame, inner-turmoil to the point of an intoxicated soul. The matter of the complete unimportance of being Number One was clearly something which preoccupied her of old. A constant, nagging neurosis; deal with it whichever way you can.
" 'Some seek greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them'. I've always hated that saying, for as long as I can remember. It suggests to me an almighty car-crash-of-a-war between God, necessity, selfish humans, faux-noble humans, but never anything that's remotely useful".
I asked if she believed in God.
"I think everyone in the world believes in God, subconsciously. The only question is, do you recognise the inherent shame and impracticality of that belief? Those who do are the ones with faith and religion. Those who don't are the atheists".
'Well, perhaps', said my DeNiro nod. "These themes of placating God, the God beyond the janitoring human God – they seem very much at home with the neo-communism which Two is always going on about. Do you feel any sympathy with him?"
At that, she angled her head away from me, so that the sheerness of her scarred skull was in full effect. Laughter, I fancy, at the melodrama of our discussion. "I agree with everything those strange little dictators say. I might even have worked with them, except what's the point? Anyone with a Communist work-ethic is so isolated they may as well be Armstrong's flag fluttering on the moon".
The walls of Patricia's kitchen were plaster over miniature brick; it was hard to tell if they'd been painted or if the plaster itself was naturally a smokey yellow dream. Also, there were many objects covering the sides, suggesting a neat, methodical barricade against the hissing sea-vapour. Lolling my eyes against the stove, the gun-like tumble-dryer, the plate-shelves.
"Being Number One", the ideas seemed to flow from me of their own volition, "you'd be in a unique position to launch a coup against Two".
She said, forlorn, "A revolution within a revolution is just an empty spasm. But this idea of moral authority is something that's obviously played on your mind. 'Six' is a fairly high and interesting number - why don't you launch the coup yourself?"
"I don't know", I said at first.
Later on in the conversation, I made her smile by suggesting that I would indeed have led a coup and annexed the Village -except I was too broken and sour-faced, exactly as Hitler had been in 1929, and look at me with 'Die, Bart, Die!' tattooed on my chest.
"And just starting a world war is too little", suggested Patricia, her pose sage and sphinx-like at the grey kitchen table. "You feel you have to be some definitive, infallible archetype or nothing at all".
I wondered, "Is there an exact psychological term for the fear of becoming a right-wing despot?"
"Why would there be?", she whispered.
Treading carefully, understanding that Patricia was wrestling some strange demon, I was careful not to speak in extremes any more. In fact, in the end, it was she who brought up Stalin. The way that one man had almost-but-not-quite made Communism the most powerful force on Earth, while simultaneously making it a model of neurotic despotism.
"It's eerie, when you think about it", she said in a pained voice, a decisive voice. "Like a caveman almost-but-not-quite inventing fire, and then having a nervous breakdown and inventing mass murder by mistake".
See your man, lost for words.
We sat and talked. The pain from the Battleships explosions was in abeyance. Now I had emotional agro; couldn't tear my attention away from my damaged watch. It'd been knocked around so violently that the hands had been shaken loose, leaving an entirely blank face. While I didn't quite have a Pulp Fiction relationship with it, the fact remained that this old Timex had been a present from my Dad circa 2001, and I loved it. At first I loved it just because it was a present from him, but then over the years I started to love it on its own terms. The solid elegance of the polished steel case. The subtle, gaze-absorbing whiteness of the face, the mirror numbers and the red 'Swiss'-style second hand. Patricia understood how I felt at once. She stared thoughtfully at the Timex; her probing eyes so intense when set against the scars.
"If we were in a city, a jeweller might be able to fix it for you", she said. "But here? It's probably something you'll have to live with".
Swept back into work-a-day reverie, we spoke about her duties in the Village. She had three separate jobs. Job One; Fruit picking at the Orchard. Job Two: Reading to the elderly (the book before Rogue Male, The Man Who Was Thursday, the book before that, War of the Worlds). Job Three: Dowsing. "Dowsing?" She explained that that it was necessary to find as much pure water inland as possible. To that end, she made her own dowsing rods out of heavy-weight strands of driftwood.
"Fascinating", I nodded.
"Perhaps", she said, with a playful twinkle in her eyes. "What will you do here? I read those stories of yours they reprinted in the Village newspaper. And your novel – they had copies brought out here by helicopter. It was –a belter. Two said you may write some stories based entirely on your experiences here?"
"I had something else in mind", I said.
"Escaping. Raising hell. In no particular order".
"Well, come back and visit me", the bright and easy words from that damaged jaw. "The only thing is, I'm apolitical. I hope that's something you can live with. Come here on Thursday and we'll play Scrabble".
'Come here on Thursday' was something I liked very much, as it reminded me of a plot-character from GTA, something you can return to from the big, wide world. Certainly I looked forward to it something fierce; through the following days imagining all the words we might clash with, six or seven letters on a minefield, plus the 9/11 gamechanger of some growling intellectual 'z' word sitting neatly on the triple-word, triple-letter. The long periods of spazzing-out with 'in' and 'at' on boring squares paid off in spades. You never know when fate will become your ally. You never know what you'll find.
Thursday. Bright and breezy. "You're early", she said on opening the door, despite the fact that we'd not agreed on any particular time of day.
Walking through the small, dipping domicile, I made equally small gestures. "I'm impatient for the game, and very ready to patronise you by winning with a conspicuously small margin".
Patricia said, "I like bravado-talk. It's a fine art and I've got no talent for it. I may win. To be honest, I haven't even set up the table. Haven't even finished preparing your -present, Number Six".
Note that we only ever called each other by our numbers as a joke, or to wring a kind of satirical melodrama. I think this was the first occasion.
"Present? C'est, C'ce, C'ca?"
At that ancient kitchen table, where I assumed we'd eventually be playing Bond-villain Scrabble, there was currently a bottle of T-cut, pliers, a shammie, plus lots kitchen towels smeared with green-black dirt. My initial thoughts were that she was cleaning engine parts, tom-boy that she was. Not the case. She eased down into a chair and held up my present between forefinger and thumb.
"I gave it a new battery. It takes regular AG-4s by the way. Also I had to polish out the grime it was coated with, and sure-up the hasp. But now I'd say it's respectable".
Placed into my hand was a Rolex. Heavy, elegant, delectable; only the second one I'd ever seen outside the pages of Esquire. Jamie McBoing of Cannongays had been wearing one the day I'd visited him in Edinburgh to negotiate the publication of my second novel. His was a Nucleon, brand new and without much character. This was an Oyster Perpetual, which looked like it had been guarded for a thousand years by Satan's Squid. And I'm afraid I stared at it for far too long, a period of time which surely suggested geek watch autism, the king of. The case is almost-but-not-quite oblong, satisfying that weird, secret desire that all men have to wear carriage-watches and so resemble prim Scottish industrialists from 1910. The bezel is mirrored titanium, resembling the bearing from a tank or mountain-top observatory. The face? The face is matte white, trailing off to a ghostly blue hue at the extremities. Or does it? I'm never quite sure if this faint aura of kingfisher is just an optical illusion caused by the clever, slightly convex magnification glass. Plus, of course, the friendly reminder of my dad's Timex - the mirrored numbers.
On first putting it on, the strap was too long, so I took out a single link to have it fit like a dream. The link I put the in the inner pocket of my Lambretta jacket, which I normally didn't use for anything for fear of ruining the flow. It's been there ever since, with the reasoning that, upon my death, I might gift the watch to one of my generals, and he'll need to reinstate it. But for now it's mine. My eyes becoming ever more absorbed into the old, polished metal, the magnified glass like someone surprising a drunken God.
Stop thinking about my watch, you reader.
"I know it won't make up for your Dad's Timex getting wrecked, but I thought that if any watch could, it would be this", said my new best friend.
I faltered, pointed out, "You thought right. But I would have been appreciative if you'd just given me some old Casio. This is insane. I'm still gasping".
Patricia frowned a little. "If we were back in civilisation, I'd have got you something British-made. An RLT, maybe. They're cheaper, but they're just as beautiful".
"I'm not complaining one bit", I said, still awed.
"I saw it", she said lightly, "and thought of you".
"But where did you get it?".
"Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies. Suffice it to say, I didn't have to kill anybody to get it, nobody is missing it, and -it will suit you".
At that moment, I gave up and accepted the watch in good grace (though every now and again in the following years, I'd pester her with twenty questions. I remember once, I asked if it had belonged to someone she'd once loved. She laughed her head off at that).
The Scrabble: satisfying. Patricia took five or ten minutes at a time to make her move, never in the least apologetic, which I thought was brilliant. As for my bad self – I was not exactly distracted, but had a parallel line of thought; our numbers might not have any hierarchical value in the village, but what if we were ranked by our likelihood to become terrorists or dictators? Patricia insisted she was apolitical, but from the start there was something telling in her eyes. Darkness? Overwhelming.
The final score was 258 – 270 in her favour. There was a brief, smiling argument. She suspected that I'd let her win, because my last tile, 'R', could have been sandwiched between the last letter of an adjacent word 'P' and 'Axis' to make 'Praxis'. As it was, I just made 'Or'. We smiled and argued about it. But still she winced and moved stiffly, obviously in discomfort. I started to make excuses about leaving.
"Nonsense. I saw you greedily looking at my book case. Check them out".
I did so. Patricia walked slowly around the room, blinking and almost hissing in pain.
"Would you mind if I put on the soundtrack of 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence'?"
I smiled where I felt like laughing. What an odd thing for someone you've just met to ask you. "It's been years since I saw it, but yes. I remember the music was very stirring. And you can't go wrong with Bowie".
"The soundtrack was not by Bowie himself. That's an easy mistake to make". She took out the LP and held it up to me. "It's actually by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The thing is, I have tinnitus, and playing my saxophone is one of the few things that relieves it; something to do with the measured amounts of pressure when I blow, going into my ear canal. Only I hate playing to nothing. Over the years, I've found 'Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence' is the perfect backing. It's one of the three albums they allowed me to bring to this place".
My god, reader. When she played, it was beautiful. Haunting, and the Blair Witch curls up at her feet. I could have just sat in that armchair and glared at her, except I felt this would be unnerving. I took out an oversized coffee table book. 'Britain from the air'. Sometimes I just smiled like a loon as I traced the movements of my new Rolex.
Much time passed, and I was more excited than I'd been in a long time, if ever. Not a drop of liquor involved, either, how do you like that? We must have listened to the whole album at least twice, always with her alto sax twisting zealous dreams at the sky.
She looked up, smiled, obviously with the tinnitus relieved slightly. Myself greatly relieved for her; I remember hearing news reports of people who'd hung themselves over it.
"I hope the sax isn't too jarring for you".
"It's beautiful", I said quietly.
"I could barely even tell you what it sounds like, I'm so lost in it".
I held the LP cover and stared hard. Bowie in crucifixion pose in front on a Kill Bill sword. Eddie Izzard, Tom Conti and some utilitarian-faced Japs outset.
"This must be one hell of a film", I said.
"I haven't seen it years, either", she confirmed. "I remember it packed a punch, and I was almost completely synchronised with Conti and Bowie's suffering".
"You say it was one of three albums you brought with you? What were the other two?"
" 'Nite-Owl' by Gerry Rafferty".
"Hits of the Eighties".
"And you said the saxophone was one of the few things that relieves your tinnitus. What are the others?"
She drew close and rotated her head until it cricked. "Let me show you".
Patricia was born on August 29 1976, to Len and Wendy Disch, he an operative at a steelworks, she a nurse. What kind of nurse? A nurse nurse, you ponce. Her earliest memories are of going out on the razz with her Dad, into the mysterious basin-like old town of Gloucester where all the shops were bright, secretive, unforthcoming. In all likelihood, Len Disch had what, by today's standards, would be called 'a gambling problem'. Not that it upset their lives greatly. The family never went without clean clothes, food, medicine. The bills were always paid, more or less. Holidays came every other year with look-ins to Blackpool, Caernarvon, Cardigan Bay. Patricia liked the scenery, the searing white sunlight just beneath dark clouds, just above the coy coastline and religion-like sea. Mostly, however, it was just a variation on home. Her Dad would sit nimble-shouldered in the bookies, leaving her to peruse the local arcades. Tron. Space-invaders. That fully-sensed and zen-surfing girl sure plays a mean pinball. And do you remember the pre-Empire Star Wars game that was surely the first 3D flight-simulator the common man had ever seen? It was like God's fledgling dream, God hammering out an in-your-face wire-frame frontier twenty years before anyone even knew they wanted an X-box or New Cap City. You fire, damage a TIE fighter, see it spin out of control. How can a mere computer manage to conjure this from second to second? God was within.
In Gloucester, just around the corner from her Dad's favoured bookie, was a war memorabilia shop with an expansive window of guns, medals, forged passports and written orders. There were also uniforms –the one that seven-year-old Patricia stared at: a chief secretary's uniform from the Moscow Politburo. It was the most elegant thing she'd ever seen. The flecked-grey felt was sheer; a chic skirt with a tunic that hung over the waist like a gauntlet. The grey and dark grey colours could almost be called 'deceptively nondescript', if only they weren't complimented by the strips of deep red at the lapels. You know you have to be bold to wear red.
Everyone was happy in those days; Wendy Disch loitered in the back-alley bookshops and occasionally attended a play, art instillation or lecture. Len burned with satisfaction as he filled out the betting slips, the holy trinity between himself, God and his subconscious, as it strove to prove that the laws of probability are circumnavigable as long as you have the will. Mostly the bets would fail. Sometimes they would succeed. Regardless, the family would meet up at a working men's club and Patricia would be in awe of the tangibility of the blue-collar adult world, the fact that it was something harsh, but also gentle, and you could manipulate it magick-esque. This is your father's lightsaber. In any case, it was a lesson learned well – she started work at an elastic factory, aged sixteen, and felt like a millionaire. On day one, a wax-faced woman stared at Patricia as she was carrying a carton of industrial staples in the most hesitant way imaginable. 'You don't quite belong here, do you, Patricia?' None of the heavy-set men or Rillington Place victims said a word in her defence. She was a little bit crushed. But she worked on, beholden of the wax-faced woman, who turned out to be a mediocre-to-good worker, and, anyway, we're all aiming at the same production bonus.
Memories of school history lessons. The Roman empire. Native Americans. The Nazis and Anne Frank. Art Speigelman's least interesting book. The IRA. The Gulf War. They taught the broad outlines well enough, but never once mentioned the motivation of the antagonists. Oh, she remembered the word 'Prejudice' being bandied around, written on the blackboard and then blue-skied. But don't ask us. What does a child know about hatred when the most interesting example from their own lives is Dynasty, or Wile E Coyote going after Roadrunner, or seeing one of her friends wearing a party dress that was far too ornate and a watery shade of red? No, this hatred people feel for each other is something secret, conspiratorial, that's existed since the beginning of time. It can never be destroyed, only placated by the enforced humility of those you hate and the things you struggle against. An emotional equation so simple and yet so unacknowledged, it made you feel eerie. Hatred? Call it God. She immersed herself with the happy workers, she immersed herself with the sullen workers, always with a secret smile in the corner of her mouth.
When the elastic factory moved to Preston three years later, she found work at a small-scale buckle factory a scant twenty-mile bus trip away. The place was a pre-fabricated structure which gave the impression of an oval-shaped war-time hangar, even though it was actually rectangular and very modern. Five years. Inevitably, the owners sold up and the land was used for houses. She found a job at the Kakymna car plant on the outskirts of Gloucester, a industrial fortress she'd always imagined would be far too imposing to work in. Except by now, the truth was about her like titanium armour; the conception of your comfort zone, being inside or outside of it, is an illusion. The only thing that makes it real is if you lose your sense of self.
Plus, the feeling of being a millionaire was never lost to her. Perhaps it was the way that, as a child, she'd had access to the drawers where her dad had kept all his wage slips. Sliding open those heavy beech-wood slabs to reveal thousands of cheap-ply carbon prints, all lined up in a row. Perfectly preserved. Why did they never become disarrayed or fused into moulded wads? The earliest was from 1956 (!) leading right up the present day. It was hard not to feel awe, or draw some kind of philosophy from them. If they were pages in a book, her dad would have written Papillion, War and Peace, the Yellow Pages, every holy book in the world, a dozen times over. It wasn't – she decided early on, it wasn't about the money, not exactly. It was psychological; the routine of getting these little gifts from the God of Utilitarian Civilisation. Lose a weeks wages at the bookies? The Routine will always be there to protect you. It loves you.
In 1999, Patricia arrived at her parent's home for Sunday lunch as per. Pausing for a long time at the front door, she heard ardent prayer coming from the living room. It was calm, monastic even, but at the same time the most powerful words she'd ever heard. Her mother held her father at her knees; he'd had a heart-attack and was barely conscious. Before Patricia could react, the paramedics arrived and breezed past her to save the day, her mother giving a highly qualified recap on what had happened.
Len Disch made a full recovery; he got in shape by running, swimming and playing tennis with anyone he could Shanghai.
Wendy Disch died of cancer in 2001.
Patricia steadily rose through the ranks at the Kakymna Plant, more importantly becoming indispensable. Beneath the sky-imitating floodlights she felt –as tested and becalmed as a conscious being could ever wish for. And then the accident happened. She was filling in for someone on lower-chassis-assembly, as members of their section were very kindly being lent out to another line that was depleted and behind schedule. Enjoyable job. Above her was the thirty-foot M.A.X male-former, the weightiest and most computerised piece of equipment in the whole factory. It would slide down over the barely-formed metal fabricate like a diplodocus stepping forth on soil. While down, the M.A.X's internal servos would pound and crimp the metal to legal tolerances so painstaking only Stephen Hawking could do the maths. That was fine, of course. She didn't need to understand the red digital readouts, just observe them monastically.
She stared at the four read-out boxes, satisfied as they skittered to optimal. She then glanced upward to admire the machine.
There was a horrific and all-consuming screech, followed by a terrorist-level explosion. Patricia dimly felt herself being blown backwards, having every millimetre of her body assailed by savage heat. As they say, her life flashed before her. It had been a good life.
Waking up in an isolated hospital room. You know there's something very wrong with the world when it's the middle of the night and all you can hear is a perpetual explosion. The plaster and the bandages which lay an inch thick around her head and limbs, she adapted to almost immediately. Ditto the hideous, intricate pain in her bones. But the sound.
"How bad is it?", asked her Dad, a couple of visits in.
"It's always there, but it's something I can live with".
'How bad is it?', asked a hysterical voice from the base of her consciousness.
She stared longingly at a scalpel which a nurse had absent-mindedly left at her bedside.
Come the moonlit hours, she prayed long and hard for the strength to carry on. At one point, the consultants got wise that her mental condition was inhibiting her recovery, particularly the damage which had been done to her abdomen. A consultant breezed in and stood beside her looking worried, as if she'd ever wanted anyone anywhere to feel 'pensive'. He say: anti-depressant drugs, though they take weeks to take effect, may be required. She say: No. I'll pull myself together.
Speaking casually, as a real human, he almost made her ashamed, except for the fact that the underling doctors who flanked him were Turkish, Malaysian and Greek, and English people, just let your laziness wash through the land like a tsunami.
"It's no sign of weakness to have a psychological backlash. And you could well be underestimating the power of psychosomatic undercurrents to effect healing".
"I'll be fine. I'll pull myself together. Since when was life easy?"
A small frown-smile appeared very quickly on the man's face. "All the same, I'd be happier if you let me write you a prescription for Prozac, and a light sedative to help you sleep".
Patricia thought about this and frowned. Humans shouldn't need sedatives. Why not proscribe sedatives to your children, on the days when you're too lazy to take them for a walk, so they don't have so much energy to run around shouting like hellish gobshyne banshees? She remembered how her dad would finish work on a Saturday morning, report to the bookies to either win or lose, then take her for a long walk around the estuary in Gloucester. They'd arrive back in the city outskirts by gone-twilight. Have a smiling conversation with the prostitutes on Brunel Avenue, as if they were everyday people.
"Do you have any children, Mr Barrington-Smith?", she asked him.
He smiled and breathed the word yes. A son, Alex.
"And what does Alex do for a living?"
"He's training to be a website designer".
She nodded slowly. "No offence, but this is why you're underestimating my ability to get my sh(flip) together and get back to my factory".
And so she concentrated on becoming physically well again, if only as a matter of spite. She even had meetings with a plastic surgeon, and to start with had a very high tolerance for his nonsense. Mr Garfield. He probed the scarred sections of her head as if it was a platform for stop-motion animation. He said, 'Ah', 'Um', was uncertain for long periods of time, but finally said, 'OK'. Revolting. If Jackson Pollock hadn't needed to deliberate, why should he? Humans only need skills which are absolutely universal. We can't even conceive of anything else. Like those giraffe statues that had been handed out to all the most famous British artists, the only proviso being that they come back looking absolutely idiosyncratic –and to man, they each returned looking cheap and gaudy.
Plastic surgery declined. They were assuming she was aesthetically fragile or planned to live long enough for it to be worth it.
And the spite didn't stop there. It didn't nearly stop there. It surged on like a river, like rapids. Harold Knowle, the deputy manager of her factory, came by to visit her as she was finishing up her convalescence at home. Accompanying him was a lawyer whose black trousers and blue shirt looked like they were being worn over Play-Dough. She pulled in her chin and dully accepted their presence. For days she'd been experimenting with white noise sleep machines, much as pioneer junkies experiment with different ratios of heroin. How was it that finally getting a nights sleep could make her feel so grubby?
"Money arrangements", he said briskly, and smiled.
She could sense what was coming and tried to head it off, or at least make him feel shoddy.
"I'm assuming that when I return, I'll have the same position? The same wages and bonus structure?"
Knowle placed his coffee down and did indeed look sheepish. Not sheepish enough. A small smile crept in to his plump, old-fashioned cheeks.
"Miss Disch, it's the case that, with accidents like this, the injured party receives a substantial payment from her employers, plus annual accruements relating to loss of earnings and on-going treatments. It's no overstatement to say you'll be living in luxury from here on in".
It was almost unbearable. She felt the muscles in her neck strain and her head become immovable; sometimes it did that. As she entered the minefield of humility. "But, in the case of people who are too proud to accept handouts? Is there some form I have to sign to say that I officially decline?"
Knowle and the lawyer looked at each other nervously. Eventually the deputy manager spoke abruptly in a pleasingly upbeat tone. A fist-fight in the ocean. Yards away from the coast when your feet are no longer touching the bottom. The ocean of bourgeois greed.
"I can see how one would think of it as a handout. That's not the case. We are responsible for the safety of our employees. You could argue that no one could have foreseen the way the firing cylinder of the M.A.X would explode, but that doesn't alter the fact that the machine was our responsibility, legally. If we were even the tiniest bit negligent in the design and application of the male-former, we've still caused an unjustified impact on your life".
Head above the water. Patricia narrowed her eyes. " 'No one could have foreseen'. Anyone who ever walked past that machine was awed by it; the sheer weight and power. I daydreamed, many times, about what would happen if it splayed outwards, or if the female-former was misaligned and a piece of the metal flew into my face. Any risk that existed, I was fully prepared to take".
Said the lawyer, smiling, "Day-dreams, noble as they are, are not legally binding. If they were, I'd be driving a Porsche".
"Good, British-made car", said Patricia, knowing stare aimed directly into Knowle's soul.
He squirmed. "Maybe it's worth noting that Kakymna Industries won't even be paying the lion's share of your compensation, it will be our insurers. As well as that, we're obliged by the government, the Industrial Practice Commission, to compensate you".
"I wouldn't want you to lose your no-claims bonus on my account". Her tone was as deadpan as she'd ever heard it, and completely unintentional, caused by the pain of pseudo-sonic screams deep within her skull. "As for the Industrial Practice Commission – they're Satanists".
Both men smiled grimly.
"The accident must have been – amazingly traumatic, strange", Knowle pretended to fall into a reverie. "Perhaps you'll feel differently as you get further down the line?"
The greater part of her mind exploded with fury. She tried not to show it. "If you pay a single penny I haven't earned into my bank account, I'll pay it right back again".
Sitting tensely, both men stared at her in wonder. For a while she could believe they were hearing the tinnitus scream, no matter how faintly, and were trying to single it out. She felt physically sick. She felt broken and defeated.
"Listen to me carefully. I've given you my definition of a hand-out. I've given you my –long-considered—definition of personal responsibility. I want you to just sit and think about what I've said. I could give you a further impassioned speech about honour and duty. I could easily do that – but if I did, it would be an insult, do you understand? It would destroy our souls".
Fallout - continue like a rollercoaster into bourgeois hell. In hospital, she'd been quite unaware that the press had meticulously covered her story, the local and county rags with front-page spreads, the national broadsheets with portentous mid-section bullet-columns. It was a shock when a reporter from Today appeared at her doorstop. She disliked him at once. He had a mullet and took heavy gasps as if sucking up all the neurotic incredulity that was ambient in the air. 'John Clifford'. The same name as a boy she'd fallen in love with at school, and in retrospect found boring.
Seating him in the living area on her mother's leather sofa, she patiently explained that she didn't want to give interviews to the press, but that the Kakymna press office would probably be glad to give him info on the aftermath of the accident.
The man dipped his head strangely. "Actually, they're cagey, your employers. Refused to give any information at all in regard to the compensation deal".
Patricia noticed that she was clutching and massaging her wrists like an old woman, or the redneck gangster moll from a sh(flip) police procedural.
"My employer and I are at peace with each other. We always have been", she said, regaining some of her former steel. "I hope to return to work in the next few weeks".
John Clifford was a gentle, subtle man. She noted the way his eyes flicked covertly onto her scarred cranium - but obviously against the express orders of his conscious mind. Dislike him all the same.
"Can you tell me something about the compensation package, Miss Disch?"
She was of a mind to tell him to scour it out of Kakymna using Freedom of Information, except the old loyalty was still there. It would be there as long as she drew breath. Protect your employer against all assaults and God will protect you in turn.
Simply put, "Kakymna very kindly and fairly offered me a six-figure sum, far beyond any statutory requirements. I declined the offer. I felt it was too high -"
She started to wax lyrical about the excitement of going back to work, and smiled jokily about facing off against the M.A.X machine and teaching it who's boss. It was no good. Throughout it all, she was distracted by the man's gasping, the way he was so desperate to interrupt her.
"You 'declined' a six-figure pay-out –because it was too high?"
She strained to move her damaged neck, slant it down just slightly into a warning glare. "Mr Clifford, you're a journalist. You should take greater care in choosing your words. 'Pay-out'? You only pay someone in exchange for tangible, pro-active work. Being caught in the middle of an unforeseeable accident doesn't count".
Not entirely foolish, the man checked himself. He grasped his coffee with dextrous hands, not doubt subconsciously equating it with his brilliant scoop. "I'm sorry, I meant no offence, I really didn't. But –you must admit this is quite a position to take. I can't imagine another manual worker anywhere in the Western World taking such a high-minded stance".
She angled her scarred head in his favour. "Well I'm sure if you look through the cracks you can physically see just how high-minded I am".
Clifford recoiled, slightly. He blinked. "I won't take up much more of your time, I promise. But, can I get some quotes to use in my story? Is Kakymna giving you anything at all? Are you at least using private doctors?"
"The NHS is a finer service than any private medical facility in the world", she said, out of loyalty to her mother.
"And what does your family think of your rejection of this money?"
Patricia gave a painful shrug and wondered what to say. "My dad is proud of me. Pleasantly surprised".
Your man nodded, almost drunkenly. "O.K. But, this… why? Why should you sacrifice yourself like this, when anyone else would feel like they'd -deservedly- won the jackpot?"
The world went silent for a moment. In the Patricia Disch universe, the tinnitus roared to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps her voice was sinisterly quiet; she barely heard it. "I'll give you a quote on that, but the condition for you using it is that you use it verbatim. Agreed?"
A prim nod from the mullet-man.
"Are you going to get your note pad out?"
He did so.
"Do you know shorthand?"
"Seventy words per minute", he said breathlessly.
Patricia frowned, and began.
"What I'm doing is not remarkable. What's remarkable is that Britain has become a hive of welfare and yuppie parasites, with no more moral scruples, self-discipline, self-respect than flies feeding off a cow's eye-jelly. I did this for me, so that I can sleep at night, because I have a moral sense which is blunt, honest and infallible, like God. I would say that I did it out of respect for British industry, but let's be honest – it's dead. It's a rambling, zombified corpse. It was killed by the hideous laziness inherent in every man, woman and child. The vacuum? You worship the vacuum by sending your feckless children to indulge in endless academic and managerial training which Britain needs like a hole in the head. This ship is sinking into a whirlpool of laziness and arrogance, but it's not taking me with it. I'm just a number, I'm proud to be a number and hope I always will be".
She paused. Wondered how it was that she didn't need to take a breath in difference to her racing heart-rate. Clifford halted his pencil and stared up at her wild-eyed.
"Did you get all that?"
He nodded, blinking his crazy eyes.
"Put 'hole in the head' in italics".
John Clifford departed, lightly clutching the notebook to his chest. Patricia cleaned his coffee cup, then went for a walk along snaking, directionless roads until she was exhausted. Sleep came, after a fashion. She always managed to get snatches of sleep, somehow. It was a gift from God. After all, to stay sane, to have no demon persecution complexes baying at your soul -it's hardly a human right you can take for granted. Eugene Terrablanche in prison, guarded by a thousand Nelson Mandellas, and no one cares.
She fell into her duties at the factory and found that nothing had changed, everything had changed. Tortured silver gaze alighting on every machine and every carasel, the sound of tinnitus so inhuman, but not so inhuman it didn't hate her.
A new temp at the top of the line called her 'Skelitor'. The non-skilled teenage temp who, ironically, cost the company more to employ via the agency than if they took him as an on-the-books company pension-holder. They believed it saved them money, somehow, but skirting the (stupid frakking) EU employment laws. He called her 'Skelitor' and she punched him squarely in the mouth, causing his lips to become as a bloody buboe. When she was summoned to Knowle's office to be 'disciplined', he greeted her sheepishly.
"You know that if it occurs to him to take this to the police, there's nothing I can do?"
She said boldly, "It won't occur to him".
"Do you want me to sack him?"
At once, almost without thinking, "Tell him off, put the Fear of God into him. If it takes, then wait a week and put him on the payroll, with exactly the same wages and bonus threshold as me".
Perched on the edge of his desk, Knowle brushed his fingertips against the consignment sheets and the fourth-gen-photocopies of machine specifications. He looked ever-more embarrassed. "That boy said something terrible to you. There's no need for you to feel bad about hurting him"
"I don't", she said stolidly. "I could happily maim him, so he pulls off looking like Skelitor a lot worse than I do, just because of his arrogant teenage eyes. But I believe in industry. I believe it has an infallible ability to put society right, and all we have to do is believe in it".
Knowle looked at her as if she was a roulette wheel flashing tragic-misguided-tragic-misguided-tragic… ending on tragic. We'll see.
11 November 2004 started as an ordinary day. A struggle to survive the pain from second-to-second, which is to say, darkly satisfying. A conversation or two about last night's TV. Perhaps there was a line-stop. But in the afternoon, things went very wrong very abruptly. Knowle appeared at her workstation.
"Patricia, would you step into the office with me?"
He told her that her dad had collapsed and been hospitalised. She was fascinated as well as panic-stricken.
Surely people who specifically lose ten kilos to become sporting and svelte are incapable of having further heart attacks? She was right. This was something insidious.
Knowle tapped his pockets and swapped his factory walkie-talkie for his car keys. "Come on, I'll give you a lift over there".
"It's OK, I'll get a taxi", she said, leaning over the desk, picking up his phone, dialling '6' for an outside line.
"Don't be silly", he insisted. "This is the sort of thing Front Line Managers are for".
No. Patricia gave her orders to the housewifey taxi-god. During the ride to the primary-primary-care-trust-primary-North-West-region-primary-care-trust hospital, Patricia went from acute panic to a sort of doom-laden hypnogogic whispering. Ruminating too hard was like trying to wake from a nightmare, only to be pulled deeper. She found silently crying was somewhat helpful.
Taking her place in the waiting room, that tiny cranny beside the main ward - Thank G(g?)od there was no one else there. Just two disparate books lay inside the glass cabinet. A housewife pulp and a hundred-and-fifty page biography of Michael Caine that was twenty-five years out of date. She dreaded having to read it, but supposed she'd just have to, some time in the early hours, after she'd gone mad several times over and grief was wadded up inside her like the pigeon poison on the roof beyond. For now, over-adrenalized nerves conspired to give her something like an electric shock every other minute or so. An hour passed surprisingly quickly.
The doctor swept in. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting so long". A bizarre level of tact and humanity. Doctors are such awe-inspiring people, reclaiming selfless human devotion, from nowhere, from the abyss. "Your father, we think, must have been in pain for quite a few months now, but probably straining to keep it hidden from you. More than anything, he's exhausted, but we've given him a good helping of morpha and flupirtine, and he's resting. Miss Disch, the prognosis is really not good. We've identified what's wrong with him as an incredibly rare blood disorder called Werndig-Hoffman Ataxia. Basically, his central nervous system is under constant attack, and is unable to be properly served by white blood cells. The-" Doctors are such good people. But this war with entropy has zero qualms about setting good people against good people. Patricia sniffed him out, somehow, when he said there was no treatment they could offer - perhaps he'd said, 'there's no viable treatment' or 'there are no real options at this stage'. She inferred. She consulted the internet. A drug that had barely cleared trials, called Abraxion, combined with amnio-chromosome therapy, could prolong the life of someone even in the final stages of Werndig-Hoffman by anything up to eight months. However, not on the NHS, they told her, confident she wouldn't rail against the overpowering guilt that all normal people feel at never having become doctors or consultants. Quite rightly, too; that guilt is sacred. But the government-end of the NHS, the lazy-human end, the budget-juggling end; you can't have a code of ethics and human rights on who should live and die, when 'human' is suddenly synonymous with 'lazy bourgeois'. Welcome to Britain. Beside the ward where her father lay dying was the maternity ward. See Tony Blair and Robert Winston holding each other's hands as they urinate into the Soylent Green vat. Babies are good. Universities are good. We don't need anything else. Let's pretend nothing else exists, including anyone who's ever had the discipline to physically make something. The new-born babies, semi-conscious, looked more alive than students, fully conscious, shorts-wearing yuppies, fully conscious, MPs, fully conscious. Destroy it. British people hate consciousness. As Patricia waited to be allowed onto the ward, she thought about all this and felt physically sick –but never was.
Sitting with her Dad, the constant hysteria was abated slightly as she wrote out his betting slips and learned they whys and wherefores of taking them to the bookies. Latterly, as his mind became disarrayed, he increasingly scanned the Racing Post for annual meetings that were still months away. Months he didn't have. He'd give her the names of horses and jockeys from parochial racetracks that had closed down ten or fifteen years ago, obviously because they held such contented memories for him. "Come the Knapgill Cup in October, always put a pony on the No. 6 in the main steeple chase. Then you can just sit back with a glass of whisky and watch with amazement. There's nothing better than walking down the bookies to get your cash on an autumn morning, all fresh, the leaves all fluttering".
When he died –and she remembered it distinctly, it had not been a stress-induced hallucination—she'd allowed the tinnitus to carry her off along the corridor, whereupon Satan appeared to her in a flash. Or perhaps it was God. God or Satan appeared to her as a white sphere. She'd felt like being sick and had doubled up in readiness. There was one thought that set it off, too: the fact that her Dad could have been taken to a private clinic and given the amnio-chromosome treatment for just over £350,000. And the amount of money which Kakymna had offered her after the accident: £370,000. The vomit which burst forth was curiously solid. She stared at it on the ground. It was a tiny, amorphous white sphere. It rolled away of its own accord, around the corner into the maternity ward.
She went mad, growled, wept bitterly. Some of the babies were set off. A nurse came and clasped her shoulders.
"It's in there with the babies!", Patricia rasped, accidentally in the style of a mental patient.
The (Polish) nurse made a brief attempt to understand. "What is, a rat?"
"The – thing. It wants to kill them. It wants us to understand that they have to die, so that we can live!"
"Oh!", said the nurse, and tried to hug her. "That won't bring your father back, will it? I'm so sorry-"
Patricia wanted to say words to the effect of, 'Of course it will. We're nothing special, we serve the world; we're archetypes from the beginning of time, able to spring up from nowhere like desert roses. And yes, there's a scared, unspoken bond among humans to never hurt innocent children. But having just one sacred, unspoken bond is pointless if all the others, -you know, the ones to do with pragmatic, utilitarian survival- are being destroyed by lazy, bourgeois arrogance! Help me! Help us!'
As it was, her hysterical mouth could only say one thing to the nurse.
Followed by the insipid emotional fallout. Whole months worth. Followed by a door-stop visit from the 'BPSP'.
"Miss Disch", said the empathic-faced old man. "I'm from the British Progressive Socialist Party".
She hoped he was just there to secure a vote from her, but something in the tender phrasing of 'Miss Disch' suggested otherwise.
"Never heard of you", she said flatly.
As if replying to a joke, "We hope to make a gain with the Mercian and Redditch by-elections".
"A Captain Planet action figure could be voted in in the midlands", she pointed out acerbically.
The old man's eyes twinkled something fierce. "We hope to find success on a larger scale, too. The only thing that's thwarted us so far is a lack of strong moral figureheads, such as yourself, perhaps".
Double-take. Can I get a rewind? She invited him in and heard him out. Sophisticated pie-in-the-sky, but pie-in-the-sky nonetheless. All the same, she considered joining up. His parting gambit, "Have you ever considered that the tinnitus might be psychosomatic?"
Over the years. The broad nozzle from a handgel dispenser. A transparent lid from a box of cocktail sticks. The front two-by-four from a domestic flat-pack chest. An inhaler. The lid from a tub of industrial sealant, exactly the same size as a frizbee but too skinny to be used as one. The deflated football. The red audio-visual plug sans cable. A Hoover filter. The lens from an unscrewed torch. A fish skeleton tangled in a length of metal strapping. A golf ball. A double-helix-shaped section of plastic from a child's tiara. An earthing cable the length of my hand. A wooden dowel, made of pine but turned black-brown by the sea. The spiral binding torn from a calendar. A Cheeky Chicken gift egg. A Playtex clasp. The end-mount of a strip light, spring the rustiest piece of metal in the world. A gravy / drinking chocolate lid. A faded and broken clock-in card. The stem of a Remembrance Day poppy - for which I made a replacement flower reading, 'RIP 1939-1945, but nothing else' and put it in the prettiest spot looking out to sea from the miniature cliffs.
I was in the easy chair of my tiny living room, whisky in hand, deeply absorbed in the Koran. At that time, I still didn't know it too well and was savouring every line. I idly wondered if I'd have found the Bible so tranquil and fascinating if I'd been brought up 'vice-versa' as a Muslim.
'Have We not established for them a sure sanctuary, whereunto the produce of all things is brought (in trade), a provision of Our presence? Most of them know not.
'And how many a community have We destroyed that was thankless for its means of livelihood! And yonder are their dwellings, which have not been inhabited after them save a little. And We, even We were the inheritors.
'And never did thy Lord destroy the townships, till He had raised up in their mother(town) a messenger reciting unto them Our revelations. And never did We destroy the townships unless the folk thereof were evil-doers'.
Perhaps I'd read this passage once, twice, or a dozen times. I just wanted to read, and read, and read.
From nowhere, Enemy Two let himself in through the Being John Malko door and stood before me. I closed the book, set down the liquor, slumped backwards as if bored-but-attentive.
"Good book?", he held up my Koran.
I said nothing. He dipped his eyes onto me, a picture of busy-body sadness and hatred. Speaking, "The powers that be feel this experiment of ours, the Village, is failing. Badly".
As I continued to say zip, he took brisk steps to the far edge of the room, there to stand among the spidery strands of light cast by my ancient desk lamp.
"I hate it -and I'm sure you hate it, too—the way blank-hearted modern historians go on about the Stalinist purges, how they were about nothing except one man's psychosis. Were the party members he rounded up guilty of any real crime, political or otherwise? Obviously they were innocent. A lot of them were fine, devoted Communists. And yet, the ethos wasn't quite right. 'What does ethos, matter?', the plebs might ask. But Stalin was a man all about ethos, and I defy anyone to say that it doesn't matter, considering he led us through the bitterest siege, the most nightmarish, sniper-ridden street-battles the world's ever known".
Reader, I wanted to protest that, yes, Stalin was all about ethos, so much so that he died swatting imaginary bats from the sky like Hunter S Thompson on his way to Vegas. But it makes no odds to bad-mouth fellow communists.
Enemy Two was perturbed by my silence, just as I wanted. He said, "I'm planning my own purge. In this place. What do you say to that?"
Silence, for a long time. I didn't even move a muscle - so that when I unexpectedly shouted in the voice of a repressed parochial shop-keeper, he jumped. "Margaret! Margaret! The gentleman wants to know if we've got any pirate memory games".
Guarding his emotions for the most part, letting through actor-like bursts of incredulity, the man glared at me through twirls of yellow light.
"I have a handgun in my jacket pocket. I feel like shooting you through the heart".
"You'd have to find it first", I said, good-humoured.
Enemy-Two sneered. "Yes, I would. That's ironic. That's the very reason I'm going to have my purge. You people. You flit around with your hearts. You speak and you write as if they're overflowing with righteous zeal, while the truth is, you're measuring out every little cry for militancy until they're no more than drunken whispers. You're frightened of yourselves. You're petrified of doing what you know must be done".
I shrugged. "Daffy Duck said it better than you or I ever could. 'Of course, you know, this means war'".
Said Enemy-Two, "The only question is, are you going to be on the right side? Do you know what next Thursday is?"
"No". I considered saying something chopsy, and was glad I didn't.
"The fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I'm holding a memorial service at the Village Hall".
I said to him, "You don't seem much like the sort of person who was upset by 9/11 to me".
"Indeed I'm not", he said, basking in some kind of anti-heroic kitsch. "But I'm going to pretend I am. And those who turn out for the memorial will be summarily machine-gunned. We can no longer afford to have people here who are sentimental about the bloodletting of our enemies".
Well. We stared at each other for a long time, myself digging around for any trace of childish uncertainty. A child who's in a temper and has told his mother he hates her. But no, nothing like that. In fact, he jutted his jaw down slightly, the faith and certainty that a snide, rich housewife has in bitchy oblivion. All I could do was laugh, put my head in my hands.
"That's not even proper evil. It's a caricature of evil. It's the bad-guy from Hobo With A Shotgun clambering onto a crowded schoolbus with a flamethrower. It makes no sense".
"It makes perfect sense", he said. "And you know it, too".
I found myself speechless, which was unusual. Even more unusual when I've got half a bottle of whisky inside me. I wish I could tell you I was trying to formulate a clever and emotive way of telling him he was wrong. But I was grappling with the whole thing. Missing a beat. Missing several beats.
"Human life simply isn't that sacred any more. And if the bourgeois had the slightest awareness of the world, they'd be the first to notice". He said this in a light tone, perhaps as a nigh-infinitesimal concession to my gaping eyes.
"The only thing they'll notice is that we're psychopaths", I argued.
"Perhaps at first", he said, again in the light tone. "But eventually they'll see that they're not in a position to judge us. Even if we were exaggerating the problem, even if we were insane, how could they look us in the eye and say, 'Greed? Laziness? There's not a trace of it in our society. Not a semblance, not an iota'. The truth will out".
I sighed, big-time. "Look. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people are selfish, lazy monsters. No one can deny this. But the onus is on us to use our imagination to either turn them, or just survive them".
"And this can only be achieved through terrorist acts", Enemy-Two responded quickly. "In your novel, 'Leapfrog Jihad Unicorn', you wrote that the chances of dying in a terrorist atrocity were infinitesimally-negligible, but the chances of blue-collars hanging themselves because of the bourgeois-invoked recession are high, and getting worse every day".
"Those words were written by me", I admitted guiltily, Undiscovered Country style. But then, confidently, "All that proves is that we are spiritual creatures. This life we have –no one can deny that it's just a handful of days before an eternity of paradisal transcendence. And this suffering we have. God knows what we can and can't take. He has faith that we're like Woodward Woodward in the Wicker Man. For all we know, he didn't even feel the flames".
Why did I have to give him the idea of a wicker man?
It was Enemy-Two's turn to rub his face in exasperation, sheer. "We both know that bourgeois subjugation will drive us insane long before we get to Heaven. I've read your story 'Torch Beams, the End of the World'. The fate of Gibarian. I know you understand".
I said, "Just because I can emphasise a certain point of view, doesn't mean it's true".
Pulling his tiny mouth into a stupid, flat scowl, Enemy-Two moved off into the greyness. He stood before the night-blue window panes (I never drew the curtains), stood very close to me.
"I hate you. You're one of the weakest, most pathetic men I've ever known. And one day, when our ancestors have re-taken Britain and burned down every secondary education college in the country – you know that one you really hate, in your home town? The one that has the very mouthiest, most arrogant teenagers? I'm going to make sure it's kept running. And I'm going to have a statue of you, in your flashy little jacket, reading 'Felix King, Hypocrite'. 'Felix King, Friend of the Lazy'".
I shrugged. "To return to the madness at hand. This memorial service trap. I'm not going to let you get away with it".
Striding around the shadowy room, delighted, Enemy-Two folded his arms like I-don't-know-what.
"How do you hope to stop me?"
"I'll go around every house in the Village if necessary, and warn each person in turn".
But my enemy was ever-more delighted, believe it. "They'll be less inclined to think I want to randomly machine gun them, than you simply want to dishonour the memory of the worst sleight against humankind of the new century".
"People aren't stupid", I said desperately.
"I hope not", reflected Enemy-Two. "We'll see".
To expect to sleep after all that; a weird, trenchant determination. I fancy I did, all the same. No dreams, however. Spat out at 2 AM. Profoundly worried, I decided to visit Patricia. I remember I showered and wiped myself with the towel in an unprecedented frenzy. Then out into the nightscape Village.
Never a need for uniform street lighting due to the large number of white buildings. How the little streets were broad on the eye, while the dwellings were tight and angular. Exactly the sort of place you'd see a fox, though I never did, not in all the nocturnal hours I spent outside on abortive missions to bring down Two. I paused beneath the statue of Che, now horribly encased in scaffold. His serif eyes would have given me courage, perhaps, but could I see them? Could I f.
I climbed the hill, listening the sea viz-a-viz nothing. While approaching the pebbles, while directly on top of them even, the water made a heavy gulp. It was only as an afterthought, a drug-addled artistic whim, that the violent hiss was brought. Unbelievably powerful and resonant, still subdued-sounding. I frowned at this beautiful world and how we're kept apart from it like gentle, tragic lovers.
Here's one thing: Patricia's kitchen light was on, so at least I knew I wasn't waking her. The tinnitus, I thought.
She opened the door in an old-fashioned pool of fine, yellow light. There was a slight gasp at being pleased to see me, soon to be merged with that questioning smile. The sight of it conspired to make me blub.
I explained myself. "He's planning to do something terrible, and I don't know what to do".
"Never mind what that (m)ucking fool's done now. It doesn't matter. Come aboard".
She moved to the stove and put the kettle on, found some other ways of looking busy, too. My weird relief of being momentarily taken out of Enemy-Two's machinations was replaced by the awkwardness of melodrama-fallout.
"What were you doing up at this hour?", I asked.
"Two-thirty isn't a particularly weird time to be awake", she said defiantly.
"Perhaps we're dreaming", I suggested.
She delivered me a kiss of some passion. At the median, I surprised her by responding in equal force. We untangled ourselves and smoothed down our clothes.
"Have you ever read any of HG Wells non-sci-fi novels?"
"No", I said. "Although I think I read somewhere that he was as big a social revolutionary as we are".
Patricia nodded. She picked up a tatty Pan Paperback which had been tented open on the grey kitchen table. "Listen to this. 'They were good men and bore me no malice, and they served me up to the public in turgid, degenerate Kiplingese, as a modest button on the complacent stomach of the Empire. Though, as a matter of fact, X2 isn't intended for the Empire, or indeed the hands of any European power. We offered it to our own people first, but they would have nothing to do with me, and I have long since ceased to trouble much about such questions. I have come to see myself from the outside –without illusions. We make and we pass. We are all things that make and pass, striving upon a hidden mission, out to the open sea'. Have you ever heard anything so stirring? From 'Tuno-bungay', a novel about a man who invents a placebo elixir that could save the world".
I stood up straight beside the small kitchen chair. "One day I'll write about you", I promised.
"It's been a tumultuous life. But unfortunately, I'm the most modest, humble person in the world. Your reader would open it, and the book would implode in their hands".
"Well how do you think those hook-handed clerics became thus?", making her laugh joyously.
The excess of whisky in my system gave us Godzilla to deal with, and we dealt with him at length. Only then, energised, beneath the bed clothes and by torch-light, we slowly and surely drew our plans against them. I told her about the 9/11 faux-memorial, and she was surprised rather than outraged.
"I think it's time I broke my non-aggression pact and fell-in with the war", she said darkly, still very rosy-cheeked.
"Good to have you", I said, Bond-esque.
"Do you want to know where I got your Rolex?"
I wavered a funny little, "Yes".
"I took it from the skeleton of an air-pilot. Snapped off his hand to get it".
"Nice". I was phased to begin with, but then I looked at the watch and smiled appreciatively.
"He's in the cockpit of the sunken plane in the harbour", she revealed.
"I guess it really must be water-resistant to 125 metres".
"It's not nearly that deep. Probably less than thirty, enough for daylight to seep down. But it is in a big crag of rocks; my theory is that at one point there was an airfield at the edge of the peninsula, and they came down just shy. In any case, I'm the only one who knows it's there".
"Speak on", I said. I reasoned that maybe she thought there was a radio down there that we could use.
"When I first started diving down there, I had to have at least three attempts to jimmy the door open with levers, and on separate days so that Two wouldn't get suspicious about what I was up to"
"How come he allows you to go scuba-diving at all?", I asked, thinking that if it had been me who asked, even one of the 'nice' Twos, he'd have known I was up to something.
Patricia looked away, for some reason embarrassed. "The water-pressure helps my tinnitus. It's got such a lot to answer for. I never told you, but it's the only reason I agreed to come to this place. The then-Two said they were working on a pressurised chamber which would help get rid of it. And it worked, for a while. But then the tinnitus adapted and came back as large as life. They also suggested it might be psychosomatic and flew in a psychiatrist to drive it out".
Intrigued. "What happened?"
She looked at me and smiled innocently. Anything more wondrous than a torch-lit innocent smile from a beautiful woman? "I had my doubts about whether he was a real psychiatrist. If he was, he was also a militant. His idea of psychological liberation tallied far too neatly with Two's plan to have us all become 'freedom fighters'".
"Tell me more about the plane", I suggested.
She looked at me and smiled conspiratorially. Anything more wondrous than a torch-lit conspiratorial smile from a beautiful woman?
"It was a munitions transport. It's choc-a-block tail to belly with pistols, rifles, rocket-launchers, grenades. Enough to arm every man and woman in this frakking prison".
And slowly but surely we drew our plans against them.
Patricia would dive down to the plane with a lightweight fishing net and fill it with as many rifles and ammo-clips as she could swim with. Sometimes when she emerged from the sea, a Rover would be loitering on the beach. This only happened, she estimated, on a quarter of the occasions, but it was a risk we could do without. To this end, we agreed that I'd sit on the grass, pretending to read. Periodically, I'd sweep my gaze out to the tall line of rocks which reached out to sea. If I saw her eyes peeping out from water, I'd rise, turn around, pretend to stretch –all the while looking in all directions for any goons. If danger was present, I'd spin my head like the title-sequence of The Fresh Prince. If the coast was clear, I'd pound my fist into my palm like Burt Ward. We'd then haul our guns around to the little cove and be about it.
Oh that it should happen so easily.
Patricia got changed into her scuba-diving gear, which consisted of an Ursula Andress bikini. When she moved to leave the house, I was almost in a frenzy.
"Aren't you doing to wear a coat over that?"
She angled her head at me with a lascivious, insouciant smile, smoothing a hand between her breasts and down onto a hip. "No".
"Honestly, you're a fox".
From the cottage, we went our separate ways for a time. Me to my little house, to pick out a book and pace around worriedly. Something about taking the Koran along struck me as disingenuous and risky; it's not the sort of book you keep glancing up from to look out to sea. But similarly, if I just took some comics, that might look too lightweight, like a prop. I settled for taking two old copies of Vice. If I took my laptop, Enemy Two or God might think I was at last writing their precious propaganda stories, and start pestering me.
I was quietly frantic. Visions of shooting down Enemy-Two were primary; the thought of avenging the father of Mary's son, and would anyone ever know? Other thoughts at that time included memories of the Great Escape. Attenborough saying to Burns, 'You know, all this planning, the escape… it might sound silly, but I've never felt so alive' –right before being machine-gunned by the Aryans.
I changed my shirt, considered praying –but it would only be to the same god that, aged fourteen, I'd begged to stop my dog from dying. These days we ask nothing of God. God asks everything from us.
Out of my house and across the small chicane of cobbles, I fancied I was staring at the sky like a lunatic. Number Two-Six-Six put her hands on her hips and briefly stared at me. Other milling-about villagers barely took note at all. All prisoners together.
Number Nine-One-One seized ahold of my arm and wanted a game of darts in the community hall. I told her no, I had a head-ache, but from my pocket, I presented her with the Blocko shark I'd found during Year One of beach-combing, and she was content. As she sauntered away from me in that swingy, childish gait, something prompted me to stop her.
"Nine-One-One", I said (she refused ever to give me her real name, because she 'didn't like it'). "Are you listening to me?"
"No", she said jokily.
"Later on, if my headache goes away, we'll play hide-and-seek. You'll know when it starts. Make sure you find a good place to hide".
I sat down on the bank of grass overlooking the beach. It was just-smaller than man-scale, still surprisingly comfortable. About two hundred feet away was the craggy formation of rocks where Patricia planned to peep her head. Except it was still far too early. On the way was a hell of a nervous wait, I knew: the complex lapping and spiking of waves brought a weird meditation of anxiety.
I waited and waited. Mind an echoey corridor full of satanic problems. For instance, the way all this was following the exact trajectory set by my story, 'I Think Mr Smith Has Had Enough'. Boy meets Girl meets submerged plane. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so unnerved by this, because it was surely just coinci-mental. Except how could it not play on my mind, given how badly that story ended for the love-interest? Plus, is there a third level of reality somewhere, less abstracted, less convoluted?
If so, what's happening there, and what does it all mean?
The tame coastal gusts tested me. The waves around the rocks spiked and surged surprisingly little. Trying to imagine Patricia inside it all caused me to feel eerie on a par with having a new sense. Six or seventh. Something where godly emotions grow stronger in proportion to the mysterious macrocosmic depth.
"Vice? I hate that magazine".
Enemy-Two appeared above me and, horses for courses, sneered in arch-disgust. I put my head in my hands and said, "Oh god!", because it was safe to say this was how I'd react at the best of times.
The man sat down beside me and I felt curiously calm. What's more, weirder and weirder said Alice, the onus was on me to carry forward the conversation.
"Is there anything in the world you don't hate?", I asked him.
"As if you care, Number Six", he tipped his head back and shark-eyed the blue sky. "But there's lots of things in this life that I love. I love my wife. I want to see a fair and satisfying future for her".
"I want to see all the Scorsese films that've been made since you abducted me to this place. Ever going to happen?"
Enemy Two was thoughtful for a moment. "No. There hasn't been any more 'Taxi-Drivers' anyway. I think you would have enjoyed 'The Departed'. Matt Damon as a mobster undercover in the police force. DeCaprio as a policeman undercover in the mob. Nicholson as the mob-boss".
I glanced panic-stricken at the sea in fragment-of-a-second bursts.
"Maybe you could smuggle me in the DVD as a Christmas treat?"
Enemy-Six frowned, pulled his bottom lip tight; a horribly telling expression. "No".
"Cops as mobsters, mobsters as cops. Can't be any more of a head-(m)uck as this place, anyway".
"The Village is only as much of a head-(m)uck as you want it to be. If only you'd do what we want you to do-"
He was lost for words. I didn't understand his sudden thoughtfulness. I waited patiently for him to continue; it was a nice little junction in which I could pretend-daydream over the deep waters. The well-illuminated corner of rocks where the world was waiting.
"I've received fresh orders, but not for the better", he said.
Quite genuinely, I beamed. "What could be worse than machine-gunning half the people in the Village?"
It's funny –haunting to this day—how he managed to look both hateful, regretful, deeply human, all at once. I didn't much like the way he looked into my eyes, either –but at least he wasn't looking out to sea.
"I told you the Village was failing. It's just now been decided. It's a lost cause altogether".
"And that means we can all go home?", I said mockingly.
"It means that in a few hours, a squadron of helicopters will surround this place and destroy it with nerve gas and napalm".
I frowned, looked at the sea. "Easy come, easy go".
"You're not scared?", he asked, all about the grudging wonder.
"You know that old man on 'The Great Gig in the Sky' who says, 'Why Should I be Afraid of Dying'? He's trying to be me".
"There is a way out", Enemy-Two took a sharp breath. "For the Villagers, I mean. Not for you. What's the one thing we've asked you for all along?"
I remember swooshing my head around as if to look at him in a hurry, and actually hitting the magic spot full-on for several seconds via the corner of my eye. "You want me to participate in your grasping little propaganda wars. But if the choppers are coming in just a few hours, that's not enough time for me to write anything meaningful, prolific genius or no".
Enemy Two made a small expression of pain. "'Prolific genius'. You say that ironically, and yet since you've been here, you've won the Booker Prize. You won it, even though from their point of view, you're 'missing presumed dead'. The literary press love the novelty. But then the literary press love anything. Myself, I thought the book was pretentious and unreadable".
I said, "That's exactly why I don't believe you. I'm three times too good to win the Booker". (No offence, Booker judges, and sorry I've never picked up the award -he sneered).
Sure enough, Enemy Two slipped a tablet from his jacket and started messing with it until he brought up some video footage. Sky News. Martin Stanford. The actual Martin Stanford, and others, speaking in such a fluid way that it could hardly have been digitally manipulated. The unseen lady-reporter floating around the Oscars-like reception area in the style of my own disembodied consciousness.
'—with no real surprises. Because despite the big names and interesting themes on offer in this years shortlist, there could only ever be one winner. The British novelist Felix King has been missing since 2006, since his clothes and personal belongings were found scattered on a beach at the mouth of the Severn Estuary. His final novel 'Leapfrog, Jihad, Unicorn' hailed by some as a masterpiece'.
One of the Culture Show blahs was standing at an angle in front of an advertising hoarding. 'The book is about alienation, and, on one hand, subjects which are in the vogue at the moment like terrorism, the fragile economy, the British underclass – but it describes them in such an incredibly searing way'.
"God bless you, Gerard Depardieu. Am I in the Richard and Judy Book Club?", I asked Enemy-Two. "I always though Madeley would like me but Judy would freak".
He ignored my nonsense, ignored me altogether, giving me dispensation to scan the knuckle-shaped waves. "You're a celebrity, and it would be wrong to let that go to waste".
"How many times do I have to tell you? I won't co-operate".
"Not even if it saves the life of over four hundred people?"
"What do I have to do?"
"Come with us", said Number One-Seven-One, looming above me, flanked by two Rovers.
I glared out to sea, not even thinking to disguise my panic. I told myself that Patricia knew the risks, and so did I - not that this eased my mind or even registered.
I arose, brushed myself down and departed along the beach with them. All my will-power was required not to look back over my shoulder. We walked steadily along the shingle for a hundred metres or so, One-Seven-One making a meal of it because of her 'pregnancy'. Well-noted, how the two centurion Rovers remained by her side, as if protecting her, and what's all that about? From strength-to-strength, the feeling of doom in the pit of my stomach was something very special. I won't deny I was being 'brave' or 'courageous' –but these are very small and slight motivations; get over it. 'My legs trembled and felt numb'. There you are, reader, the part of your mind that requires novelistic-narrative-stimulation is satisfied.
Around the sharp corner of the beach – multiple surprises, the type of weird spurring we might experience on Day One of arriving in Heaven. Everyone in the Village had gathered before a jetty set in the deep waters beneath the peninsula's most prominent cliff-face. The crowd was vast, milling, nervous-sounding. It still looked slightly uniform because of the large number of people wearing Felix King style jackets. A few curious souls gripped the heavy wooden rail and looked out to sea. I followed their gaze.
To see an impossibly vast submarine sitting four or five hundred metres out in the harbour, black rubberised hull drinking up the sunlight. I knew a little about subs, and this was one of the monsters, something like the Russian's 'Typhoon' class or the Yank's Los Angeles. Along the back of the thing was a dozen missile silos which I earnestly hoped were empty. It was an awesome sight, and I felt bad for Patricia not being able to see it.
But Mr Practical, I returned my stare to the interned Villagers. They were being guarded very carefully by five or six Rovers, possibly the Village's whole compliment. Along the jetty there were three dinghys. It seemed obvious our entire population was being queued-up to leave.
Except Enemy Two's attitude suggested otherwise. He stared at the prisoners and smiled sadly.
"A crowd of people being held against their will in a very tight space. It makes me think of Auschwitz. To anyone else in modern Britain, they'd probably just associate it with British Rail. A service that should be the preserve of the working class instead manipulated into a hellish yuppie cattle pen. And no one's noticed. When the whole country becomes a cattle pen, no one will notice that, either.
"What do you say, Number Six? Do you want to set them free?"
I nodded. Felt the grey hairs at my temple just as surely as if I was Paulie Gualtieri.
"I suppose so", resigned. "What do you want of me?"
"To be a martyr", he said.
"I'll never wear a suicide vest", I said calmly.
"Not that kind of martyr", he said, and gently pointed towards the statue of Che. I saw that the scaffold had become embellished with further sections of wood until the resin itself was completely hidden inside the latticework. The effect was undeniable; it was a wicker man all set for burning.
It seems unnatural that I'm so unafraid of death, when I don't even have a specific religion, not even that hippy nonsense known as Buddhism. But there you have it. Running through my head, through the dim emergency back-up synapses, there was still a slight but undeniable logic; I believe in God, A-priori. Yet I wouldn't for a minute deny that the belief is hugely unnatural. So if my death, too, was unnatural – what was that except divine continuity?
Other strands of reassurance played out at leisure. I'd never see Patricia again, but whenever you lose something you truly love, you start to feel your own innocence, become overwhelmed by it. Luckily, it's impossible to feel innocent when you're willingly being roasted alive as the martyr of an armed militia. Besides, there was no point in feeling sore at the world. Listening to her play the sax was the most relaxed I'd ever been in my life. It was the most amazing sex, the most amazing scrabble. All of this belongs to me, and for eternity.
But yeah, I knew that being roasted alive would be unpleasant, though. Once they'd pulled the ladder away, my plan was to let the fire and the smoke have a fair go at me and then just swallow my tongue, or take a splinter to my jugular. It's fine. Don't let it worry you. Don't let it worry you any more than your own work ethos, or the economy, or your fat asses.
Enemy Two remained at the jetty to oversee the evacuation, while it was One-Seven-One and her minders that escorted me back inland.
It started to feel strange, as we approached the Wicker Che. A tiny, involuntary impetus could be felt in my legs, as if they had a mind of their own and knew it would be a good idea to run away. I imagined them carrying me away in such a way that I looked like Borat.
A fair distance from the W M, One-Seven-One had set up a video camera on a tripod. We stopped in front of it.
"Camera, begin recording", she said, and a tiny red light near the lens started to flash on and off. "Number Six, begin your martyrdom speech".
I thought for a moment, then smiled for the folks at home. "I'm Johnny Knoxville, and this is Jackass".
"Camera, stop. Delete previous recording". She withdrew a pistol, took aim at Little Felix and spoke sotto. "Do it properly or I'll shoot you in the balls. Camera, begin recording"
I breathed deeply. Looked into the camera. The only way I got through it was by imagining I was talking solely on Patricia's behalf.
"What I'm about to do, is a small thing. I have come to see myself from the outside –without illusions. We make and we pass. We are all things that make and pass, striving upon a hidden mission. For that mission to be fulfilled, for any of us, we must pull together as a society. We must rediscover the qualities of humility, hard work, grit, devotion. And it won't be that different from before, except we won't have to hide from ourselves. Have ambition for your inner life, not ambition to be chief logo-designer, chief art-consultant, head of advertising, head of media-management. This is a physical world, but we are spirits, defined by pride, boldness, fearlessness, our mastery over industry. Remember that, and you'll be free and omnipotent. Anyway. Long Live Britain!"
I expected One-Seven-One to say something, but she merely assumed a 'satisfactory' expression and gestured to the Wicker Che. I puffed my cheeks, exasperated, and mounted the ladder. Fifty-six rungs, up across a Shredded Wheat of dry, dusty timbers, and then in through the window. With all the wood, it wasn't an unpleasant smell; it also seemed that my death-heightened senses reacted well to being up so high –I felt the invigoration of the thin, lonely atmos. Blue sky and not a care in the world. No reaction from my heart-rate even when the ladder was pulled down all too quickly. She made a hash of it. I wondered why she didn't remove the fake hump in order to be more agile. Surely the pretence could end now?
From between the houses, I saw Number Thirty-Eight run out and try to save me. He had his little gun that he'd had since forever, but was too hasty in taking aim at her. She shot him dead. I shouted, 'No, Eric!', but that was that.
One-Seven-One waddled backwards and looked up at me. The two Rovers rolled across the base of the statue and, via psycho-pyro-kinesis, caused the wood to burst into growling swirls of flame.
I waited to feel some kind of heat; the plumes of black smoke were maddeningly calm and meditative. My lungs started to jerk in and out, crazily, just out of tension.
The panorama – I could just about see a corner of the beach. I saw Patricia being escorted by a goon and a Rover. She was in handcuffs. I wondered if she was being taken to the sub, and whether she'd ever find some semblance of freedom, even among enemies, even with the tinnitus. I recall my mouth was gaped open as if to call to her, but I eventually thought better of it.
I was about thirty feet up in the air. The flames were at ten, and spiralling around the wood in a highly ineffective motion as per the delicate breeze. One of Rovers understood what needed to be done and circled to an as-yet un-ignited section of the base. And this gave me Pause for Thought. Setting myself back in the tiny alcove, I closed my eyes and expelled the acrid air from my lungs as best I could. I meditated.
It's nine-fifteen and time to Pause for Thought. Today we're joined by Rabbi Felix King of the Communist lifestyle magazine 'Revolution!'. So Rabbi Felix, what have you been pausing to think about?
Well, Chris, I've been remembering the time I saw a mass escape attempt just after I first joined the Village ten years ago. The escapees thought the Rovers couldn't possibly molest them all into submission, but it turned out that even then, they still didn't stand a chance – the sphere just 'willed them to death'. (pauses sanctimoniously). 'And, you know, Chris / Terry / Richard Allinson, it makes me realise that the Rover spheres, whatever they are, are mostly psychic in nature. And if that's the case, maybe we can fight like with like? Thankyou, Rabbi Felix. Wise words indeed, and see you in a fortnight (Islands in the Stream).
I stared down between the columns of smoke at the reposing spheres and Willed Death. My mind roared – blunt, all-powerful Death; invoked. The smoke in my lungs and acrid vapour in my eyes were suddenly of no consequence whatsoever. Because I am become Death. The Destroyer of Worlds. I saw nothing. I saw everything. My nose bled copiously and the bones in my clenched fist spasmed to hell and back.
And the first sphere exploded with unimaginable force, but only for a fraction of a second. Sooner than that, it imploded in a ball of Godly light. Its brother quaked and levitated haphazardly in the air in a wild bid for freedom. Freedom? You're on the wrong planet, son. I had other plans for it. Consciousness jabbing and grasping at its puny mind, I had it attack One-Seven-One. Knock her unconscious, squash her, kill her like a dust-mote fly, whatever. Before she went down, she looked at me with hate-plus. Rover Two shook and imploded.
I now felt drunk on black smoke and coughing. Keep it together. Aching hands clung to the corner of the opening and despairing shoulders hauled me outside. It was all but impossible to cling on, let alone find hand-holds to ease myself down, even if I'd had the monkey-strength. All credit where it's due, I made incredible progress. But all too quickly I got the old black spots at the edge of my vision. I slipped down, grasped at the air –only to lose consciousness mid fall.
It was nothing. I squirmed around on the ash-ridden cobbles and soon managed an admirable, ambulatory pose across all fours. Dimly, I saw that One-Seven-One was also stirring. I scrambled across to Thirty-Eight's corpse to retrieve his dinky little revolver. It was in my hand and I felt confident – right until I saw that One-Seven-One was similarly stanced with her own gun.
She dropped the C-bomb as she snapped back into full consciousness.
"Yes, hello", I responded brightly.
"Get back in the fire", she hissed at me.
"No way. This thing is over".
"Camera!", she heaved. "Stop! Delete previous recording! Begin recording on my mark! Download directly to Youtube, caption: 'The True Capitalist Face of Felix King'. Mark!"
I pulled an exasperated face. Simultaneously, One-Seven-One made herself look petrified and persecuted to the ends of the Earth; it was Oscar-worthy acting, I'll grant thee.
"Don't come any closer! Please! I'm pregnant! Just let me go and I swear I'll never tell anyone that you're working for Builderberg".
"This is ridiculous", I said calmly, between coughs. "The Builderberg Group doesn't even exist. Throw the gun away and I'll just take you prisoner".
"And if I don't?", she gulped, just starting to form crocodile tears.
"Put the gun down", I warned her in the most commanding tone of my life. Nothing.
"What sort of man shoots a pregnant woman?", she shrieked.
I growled. I growled in despair. I levelled the gun directly at her head.
"Show the camera your hump", I told her.
"You're sick!", she yelped.
"And you're not really pregnant!"
"I just want to get away! I don't care about your stupid, lying books, just let me go!"
I felt the gun wavering in my hand –the worst sensation and the worse tension I'd ever known. Easily more nerve-shredding than when I'd been clinging to the wicker man. There it is; the feeling of justice and hope falling away into hell.
I dropped the gun and collapsed on the ground in exhaustion and despair.
"Camera", she said coolly. "Cease recording".
The stood over me and spoke in summation, "You're a very unfortunate man".
She rested the barrel of the gun on my head and I measured out the fractions of seconds. But for some reason the end refused to come. The fractions of seconds became seconds on end. I glanced up; the tip of the gun slipped meekly from my skull. One-Seven-One was gazing in abject horror at something just behind me. I worried that the Wicker Che might be about to collapse.
But it wasn't that at all.
Patricia advanced slowly towards us. From a single wrist, the hand-cuffs dangled impotently. In her hands was a mighty bow-and-arrow made from the same cedar-blocks she'd used to carve dowsing rods.
"Step aside, Butch", she told me.
I obeyed. She aimed the fearsome shiv-tipped arrow directly into One-Seven-One's eye.
"Drop the gun. Now".
And One-Seven-One was afraid as she'd never been during our own little gun-play. "Woman to woman. You wouldn't kill a pregnant woman, would you?"
"Put the gun down", said Patricia, "and I'll knit you some frakking booties".
"Back off", hissed One-Seven-One, "or I'll blow your head off and love every second of it".
Patricia sneered. "It takes less effort to loose an arrow than it does to pull a trigger. Think on that, you flappy-eyed (c-bomb)".
They rotated slightly on an axis made by the tip of the gun and Patricia's tensed bicep. I saw the sinews in One-Seven-One's forearm make an infinitesimal movement, and that was that.
I ask myself. Would you be more sympathetic to our cause if she lived or died, this woman that I love(d)? How do you feel about life and death per se? Where do your loyalties lie? We are all alive, while the society and the economy are dead. Not that I'm implying that most people in Britain are feckless hedonists. That's for your stupid, crawling consciences to inform you.
Patricia Alpha juddered as the life departed from her blasted heart, and I wept.
Patricia Omega stood tall and brushed herself down. Awed, "I think my tinnitus has stopped".
We walked free from the Village. Just before we rounded the cove to the jetty, the remaining Rovers rushed towards us. I had them fall in at our side in a formation.
To the jetty: everyone was gone. Looking out, we saw the penultimte dinghy ferrying off former villagers onto the fore of the sub. It was crowded and all eyes were upon us. It seemed it was just the two / three of us left on the whole peninsula. Myself, Patricia Omega and Enemy Two. Isolated and gun-less between the high ribs of wood, the man stared daggers. "Where is my wife?", he demanded.
"Where is my wife?", again, panic-stricken. And for a time, the vibrant sun and the gulping waves were everything. We each absorbed them like the sacrament of some climatic, transcendent dream. Couldn't tell you what our / my expression(s) must have told him, though bluntness: the order of the day. He rushed inland in the direction of the smoke.
And away. I was a boy who'd never even been within fifty feet of an oar, yet I / we made quick progress across the bay. Quite slowly, the curved edges of the submarine took on a high and imperious look. To a man, the milling evacuees stared down in benevolence. Lukewarm hands welcomed and hauled me / us up onto the mighty sonar-proof casing. Nine-One-One hugged me. Directly above, standing on the conning tower diving blades, the Captain and his officers were as tense as anyone.
"This is ridiculous", said Nemo. "Where did Number Two run off to? Who am I going to take my orders off now? We're about to miss the window".
My hand. Patricia's hand. Reached inside my jacket and fished around until it found the metallic '6' badge, which I'd never worn, partly because I believed I was a free man and not a number, partly because it looked like it had been stolen from a front door. My fingers. Patricia's fingers. Bent the protrusion of the '6' until it snapped off, leaving a perfect sphere.
I held it high for everyone to see. As simultaneously, a thousand Rovers emerged from the sea and formed ranks.
"Number Two won't be joining us. From now on, you'll answer to me. I am Zero, and we have a hell of a lot of work ahead of us. Each of you knows: there's a country out there waiting to be re-taken. And by hook or by crook, we will".