[ occasional pirate ], [ scribbly fellow ], [ hat devotee ], [ improviser ], [ cat dad ], [ sometimes unhappy in the brain ], [ AFOL ], [ consumer of eye-candy ], [ beer drinker ], [ enraged cyclist ], [ please talk to me about Transformers ], [ very bad at DIY ], [ enthusiastic duct-taper ]
[ occasional pirate ], [ scribbly fellow ], [ hat devotee ], [ improviser ], [ cat dad ], [ sometimes unhappy in the brain ], [ AFOL ], [ consumer of eye-candy ], [ beer drinker ], [ enraged cyclist ], [ please talk to me about Transformers ], [ very bad at DIY ], [ enthusiastic duct-taper ]
I’ve been fretting about NaNoWriMo for the last week, since deciding to take the plunge and drown in words for a month. I have started! Hurray. Not bad considering I got home after midnight last night and spent hours getting over being hideously travel sick. Me and cars do not get on. I think it was actually last night which convinced me I could do this (or at least begin… let’s not get carried away and too far ahead). My issue is one of planning. I suck at planning. I hate planning. Seeing the end and even the structure of something can rob the thing of all pleasure for me. I think it’s because when I see the whole of a thing I feel that it’s already complete – what’s the point of filling in the words in between?
Last night I was working with my Company Contrary and Nott Circus friends waaaay out at Langar Hall for a Halloween event. It’s a rather lovely absolutely gorgeous hotel out in the Nottinghamshire countryside. While the others were stilt walking with really creepy make up or spinning hula hoops on fire, or actually rubbing fire on their bodies I was there to tell stories. I was supposed to be telling ghost stories.
Now I don’t know any ghost stories, and having looked up Nottinghamshire ghost stories, they’re even more pathetic than most. None of them gets beyond “I was in this place and I saw this guy and then he wasn’t there” or “I heard a noise / musical instrument / thing I couldn’t be bothered to investigate or think about properly” or even “and there was this chicken in the toilet, and then there wasn’t”. I mean, truly pitiful. I’d done some reading up on the hall and its history (which is really interesting) but I wasn’t really feeling like there was much to tell. I wasn’t planning to read any of course, I was going to make them up on the spot!
I took along a deck of tarot cards that I’d acquired through a Kickstarter campaign last year – the rather lovely Holcombe Tarot. I figured it might be a good prop, or an alternative if my stories sucked. I ended up only doing tarot readings. And it’s exactly the same as telling a story – a nice bit of cold reading combined with the amazing story prompts that this evocative deck supplies. I did cross, sun, moon and castle readings for about fifteen people. It was fantastic! And, from the responses I got, amazingly accurate and insightful. Obviously I don’t think I’m psychic, and I was explaining to them how astrology, tarot and palm reading are all bollocks anyway. But this deck, well, this deck is different. It’s not a matter of conning people, it’s about giving them an opportunity to tell their own story, highlighting things that they want to read into it and think about. I reckon it was a positive experience for them, and very much so for me. I’m grateful to everyone who let me read for them last night.
It was an excellent night all round, with charming company, surroundings and whisky. I did feel terrible both when I arrived and when I got home, but that’s entirely on me rather than my generous lift-givers.
It well matched how I’ve been feeling about my story idea for NaNoWriMo. Having been thinking about and making notes on it I’d completely undermined its viability in my head. Even waking up this morning, knowing that it’s day one, I woke up with a completely different story idea in my head which was pressing for attention. I made what I think is a sensible choice – to stick with the idea I already have. I’ve scribbled notes on the new idea, and set it aside. My biggest problem after that was starting the goddamn thing. I usually start a story when I get a first line that I like. I did have a line, but it was dependent on some of the ideas I’d already had and was badly fucking up my ability to relax and get into the story. I still quite like it: “Aliens invaded. Fuck all happened.” but I’m going to have to use it another time.
I’ve reminded myself of how I like to tell stories – no plan, improvised, rely on what comes out of my head and keep returning to what I’ve written to find the way forward. All the notes I’ve got are mere reference suggestions and nothing is canon or incapable of being cannibalised or discarded.
3946 words so far. Hopefully I’ll add a bit more to that after some Lego playing, and then post everything I’ve done so far later this evening.
I thought I was special. I thought I was unique. I thought that I had been chosen. I was of course completely wrong.
Most people were asleep when the world changed. They woke up to something new. I’m glad that didn’t happen to me – it would have freaked me the fuck out. Not that it didn’t freak me out, but we’re terribly fragile during those first couple of seconds when we wake up. It’s when we reassure ourselves that the world is the one we’ve always known, that we’re in a bed we recognise (or hopefully with someone we recognise at least)… that’s the part of the day when we slip our little individual human cog into the vast machinery of the universe. We might not know what it is we do, but we know there’s a place where we turn. My cog got jarred out of place the night before.
I’d stayed up drinking. That might sound like a good Sunday night, and it wasn’t the worst Sunday night I’ve spent by a long chalk, but it wasn’t really planned. It was a dark evening, rain had been slapping the plastic window sills in a slipshod rhythm all day and as the sky slid from grey to black I’d felt my mood going with it. Clearly, there’s no finer solution to feeling that familiar slip into a grim mood than opening a bottle. It doesn’t matter how often we’re reminded that alcohol is a mood enhancer, proving especially skilled at swelling the black dogs into towering slavering wolves. And yet still the bottle cap rolls across the floor to vanish under the settee, joining the rest of the discarded colony. I should dig them out really; I think they’re recyclable. As an indication of the seriousness of the drinking I’d abandoned beer some while ago and moved on to the cheapest not-terrible supermarket whisky. Sainsbury’s own brand Kentucky Bourbon is gratifyingly drinkable, especially at thirteen quid a bottle.
Bourbon sloshed into my square, heavy glass. The rain continued in its arrhythmic tipper-tap. I prefer to lie on the settee. It’s almost as long as me, which means I can prop myself up and rest my feet on the opposite armrest in utter comfort. I’d finished my book earlier. It lay on the floor, another bookmark lost somewhere in its pages. Television just isn’t quite as good as reading, but I was allowing it to compete for now. There’s not many experiences that make me so aware of being alone as channel hopping. There’s no reinforcement that one channel might offer greater amusement than another. No one to share a rolled eye at how awful adverts are. I care not for your cars. There is no version of showing a car sliding down a mountain road or slickly gliding through the city that makes me give a toss. I don’t want your cereals. I don’t want your choices. I want mine. I want choices that I can make. I want to be a choice that someone else makes.
So I was gloomily emptying and refilling my glass, sneering at the television, mentally jabbing myself with each transition between channels. I can tell when that sneer has stuck. It’s like the wind blows and I realise that my mouth has turned down, there’s a twist that runs up my cheek and my forehead starts to hurt from my screwed up eyebrows. There’s really nothing like self-pity for turning your face into that shocking resting snarl I see at the bus stop; the default expression on someone whose life must have been so brutally awful and filled with misery that their very face points hatred and fear at the world. I don’t want that kind of face. I’ve spent time developing a neutral facial expression which can turn to a smile as quickly as a frown. It’s one that charity muggers in town misread as disinterested hostility. It’s a face I can look at in the mirror and pretend is me. Neutral, open, hopeful without making the mistake of thinking that being hopeful is enough to change my world.
Once my face starts screwing up it’s time to take action. I live alone, now. Looking around my living room that offers no surprise whatsoever. A comfortable, but hideous settee faces the blinded windows, drawn down to keep the streetlights and accidental glimpses of my often naked neighbours out of sight. The television sits in front of them, offering a fractionally more interesting view. I switched it off and dropped the remote onto the tiny folding table next to me. It fell sideways and clattered onto the floor. It can stay there. It’s close to where I’ll need it again. With no small effort I hauled myself upright and slid upright – no mean feat but I’m proud of the achievement.
There is only one thing I can do when I feel like this – sort something. The obvious candidates are the crenellated stacks of cardboard boxes that separate the living room from the kitchen. It’s not a big flat and I’ve done my best to make it as inhospitable and un-lived in as possible, at least that’s how it looked. The boxes were full of books. So many books. They were one of the few things I’d packed myself when I moved here. It was simple. Lovely rectangles, coming usually in four or five different sizes. They pack neatly and pleasingly in dense Tetrissy packages. I’ve always been told that I have far too many books. Often that’s by people who don’t read, or consider reading Twilight on the beach to be reading. Let’s be in no doubt – if you read, you read. That’s a lifestyle choice. I’ve still got almost all of the books I’ve ever had. A few contentious purges removed the really awful crap, and some of the books I couldn’t really remember, but didn’t feel I’d ever want to try reading again. It didn’t make a lot of difference to the overall volume.
A few thousand, sorted strictly by size and shape into a range of box sizes. A mix of proper packing boxes, those stupid folding boxes you get from The Works with press studs that hold the box together until you lift it, any random box that deliveries came in and a couple of massive ones taken from work that used to house printers and photocopiers. Those last were a mistake – any more than about forty books gets seriously heavy. It was an intimidating prospect, eyeing this wall of boxed books. My own library of dreams and wonder. Thousands of hours curled up around someone’s ideas. Flooding my mind with a new world, new ideas. Safety. Escape. Happiness. If there’s one thing I love as much as reading books it’s handling them, looking at them, finding new ones, and sorting them into some kind of order. Anything to do with books really. The only thing I don’t really care for is reading about books. I’d much rather just read the book itself. I’m not that meta.
The boxes had been in their present configuration for seven weeks. Seven weeks of having other junk piled on top and around them. I’d opened just one, the only box I’d had the wit to mark as ‘new books’. I’ve always had a to-read heap of a hundred or so books and I was grateful that I’d make this small concession to organisation. That said, had made little use of it. Since assembling my wall I’d only read two books, one of which was lying next to the remote control, the other was on my bedside table. Not that impressive considering I usually read that much in a week. Reordering them all was bound to make a difference.
I’ve sorted alphabetically by author and title, by series, by book size (possibly the least helpful system), by genre (near impossible given my preferred diet of sci-fi and fantasy – the overlap and genre blend nearly drove me crazy), by favourites and by spine colour. We used to have the books we were especially delighted by on shelves in our front room. That was great, except that it weirdly separated the best books in a series from the others and generally lead to much confusion and searching for books. I didn’t really mind of course: the opportunity to root through piles of books is not to be missed.
Since I knew that the books would be in no particular order, there was no reason to begin with one box or another. I just opened all of the top row. I love the smell of books. I mean, I’ve got a Kindle and I love that too (it’s full of books, what’s not to love?) but I adore the sight of books. Familiar covers, creases in the spine which tell a story of reading all of their own. I find that I need to see and touch a book to remember it, sometimes even to remember that I’ve read it at all. That’s probably my biggest issue with digital books. The convenience and portability is amazing, but I can’t hold them individually. Staring up at me from the first box were a pair of hardbacks – a nice signed edition of Good Omens, which I’d found in a bargain bin at the now long-gone John Menzies when I was twelve, plus Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica , with the battered top of what I suspected was one of Carl Hiaasen’s children’s books. I needed a sorting system.
It’s impossible to devise a productive system until you know what it is you’re sorting. All I could do was improvise and develop interim systems. My whisky glass quickly became lost behind stacks of books as the boxes gave up their contents. My castle wall was soon replaced by precarious stacks of books sorted by author. The problem I have with this system is that it’s great when I’ve got ten or twenty books by a single author, like John Wyndham, but less helpful for Deathdolls of Lyra. That’s the only book I’ve got by J. Hunter Holly. I got it when my beloved Needwood Bookshop closed down. That terrible day did offer the wondrous prospect of as many books as I could carry for a fiver. I have quite long arms, and since it was just down the road even my teenage arms could gather the many. Singleton books I then attempted to stack by genre. I knew I’d forget that I had a stack for this author or that, but that would all be resolved later on in the organisation. Not all of the books were mine, and I carefully separated them into their own piles with less regard for author and more for provenance.
Once I realised that I was quite thirsty and not a little dusty I plucked a fresh glass from the breakfast bar thing that separated living room from kitchen. There was no point trying to find the last one. My flat looked like an obsessive-compulsive poltergeist had had a melt down. I had to abandon the open bottle as well and climbed into the kitchen area instead. Reluctantly I just filled the glass from the tap. Hot and sweaty from humping heaps of books across the flat I took a few moments to review my progress. The settee was unreachable, and a mountain range of sci-fi stretched from the front door all the way to the window and up to the door of my bedroom. Almost of the boxes were now open, and those empty ones filled the settee (and beyond, depending on how well they had landed). A glance at the microwave confirmed what I guessed – it was gone three in the morning. I hadn’t planned to sleep anyway. I’d given up on my sleeping tablets weeks ago when I realised I was doubling my dose or worse each night. I may not be responsible, but I’m not a complete idiot. At some point I should have a chat with my doctor about that. I’d make an appointment later.
The chill of the water gave me a pleasant shiver down my shoulders. I stretched and cracked my head from side to side. The absence of a reaction to the fairly awful sound made me pause. I closed my eyes and leaned on the bar. I took a couple of deep breaths and reopened them. Tear-free I took another sip and regarded my books. That’s when it hit me. I remembered why I hadn’t done anything about the books sooner: I didn’t have any shelves. I felt suddenly tired. I’d been through this before. I remembered again thinking about sorting the books out. I’d thought about buying some shelves. I’d thought about just getting rid of the books (briefly). I’d even looked in the Argos catalogue; that was probably under the settee too. And now the flat was full of books. At a bare minimum I needed to be able to walk through the flat. Assuming I went to work in the morning I’d need to be able to open the front door.
I started pushing stacks of Pratchett and Asher up to the wall when I felt another icy shiver run up me, from heels right over the top of my scalp. I try not to get scared – I don’t watch horror films at the cinema because I hate the jump shock scares, I don’t like to watch them on my own at home because I’m on my own and they linger in my mind. It’s worth trying to push down those frightening sensations . They’re the same ones I get when I’m swimming and catch a flicker in the side of my goggles, or feel a wave of pressure at an odd-feeling angle to my feet, and then can’t get the idea of sharks out of my head. I try not speed up, try not to give in. I try to hold these feelings back, suppress the instinctive panic, the fear and the tears that itch to follow. This felt like that – that instinct that I should turn around, and give in to some weird atavistic sensation that makes my skin crawl. It’s so hard not to turn round.
I did the next best thing and froze. Giving in is a bad idea. It sets precedent and makes it harder to not give in next time. And there’s always a next time, whether it’s walking home in the dark or hearing a creak in another room, or remembering what it’s like to be held when you’re lying alone. You can’t just give in. Nothing happened, of course. I’d have to turn round eventually, and there’s always the outside chance that there’s a knife-wielding maniac who’s been hiding in a box of books for seven weeks, waiting for an opportunity to get me. I took a more serious grip of Small Gods (another lovely first edition hardback with one of my favourite Josh Kirby covers. I got it signed personally by a quite grumpy Terry Pratchett. He did doodle a turtle in the cover captioned “the turtle moves!” though).
Fully horripilated now, as much with my fear of fear as of fear itself – I’d puffed up in pitiful imitation of a startled cat. I pushed my right eye to its farthest reach, feeling like it was about to pop out of my head. I’m told that we can only see in low resolution black and white out of the corners of our eyes and it’s the rest of our mind that fills in the colour. I saw something, and couldn’t stop myself – I needed more detail. There was a whitish shape by the bedroom door. My mind craved detail, no matter what I wanted, and before I knew it I’d spun round and promptly threw myself back against the wall, books sliding everywhere, me sliding with them. There was something by the door. A human figure, ghostly pale, so pale I could see the darkness of the bedroom through its body.
The books shifted under me, and I scrabbled to get upright again, dust jackets tearing as I stepped on them. Like dead, wet leaves they tricked my feet and with a yelp I fell again, instinctively hurling my copy of Small Gods at the figure by the bedroom. Normally I have a terrible throw. It’s just not one of those skills I’ve ever developed. I take enormous pleasure from successfully landing a bottle cap in the bin. This was one of those times. The book flew true as I fell. It didn’t pass through the shape, but rebounded and knocked into another stack of books. The figure didn’t react. Didn’t move. I allowed “spectral figure” into my head. Now that it clearly had substance I could discount a range of terrors which danced through my sleep-deprived and whiskyed thoughts. Ghosts are by definition non-corporeal and being able to exclude such basic superstitious nonsense was enormously reassuring. Even while I stared open mouthed at it, on my throne of bent books, not understanding what I faced, the rational parts of my mind were smugly dismissing the supernatural explanations.
Knowing that absurd and irrational fears were out of the picture I had to wonder if I’d simply snapped. I might have eased off on the sleeping tablets, but I was still chugging a stupid daily combination of caffeine, alcohol, pain killers and anti-depressants on little more than my own whimsy. That was as much a response to grief as it was a way of dealing with the bereavement that had left all my books in boxes. Family and friends had been concerned for good reason, that much I couldn’t deny. Had opening those boxes unleashed something else? Not a ghost of course, though I’d been equally terrified and hopeful of that prospect. But maybe some deeper rift inside me; mental plates shifting and cracking. If it was me, then I could be frightened for sure, but I could also take the next step.
I’ve never felt so stupid as I did sitting on a pile of books saying “hello” to an unmoving ghostly (but definitely not a ghost) figure in my living room. It didn’t reply. It didn’t move. I tried again, avoiding such clichéd greetings as A Christmas Carol kept putting in my head. It’s genuinely difficult to remain frightened when receiving no more fear triggers. Rational thinking starts to kick back in. Hallucinations are fine. It doesn’t matter where they’ve come from just so long as it’s all in my head. I was choosing not to think about the book bouncing off, but why not? It probably bounced off the door frame. Really, the thing I needed to do was close my eyes and reopen them. Maybe rub them a bit. Like a dream, in a cartoon. That’s a solid test. Plus my eyes were quite dry – I’d been staring hard and the air was even drier because of all the books and their papery equivalent of skin cells filling the room. I really didn’t want to blink though. I might avoid those horror films, but I’m well aware of what happens when you do blink, or turn your back, or have a drink or have underage sex in a rowing boat. That’s when they get you. Whatever they are.
“Right – I’m going to close my eyes and you’re going to fuck off. That’s the deal. It’s a good deal. We’re on, right?” I was talking to myself, surely. I didn’t expect a response. I certainly didn’t expect the sudden flurry of activity: I didn’t even blink.
One second this thing is motionless, maybe even ignoring me on the other side of my flat. The next it’s inches from my face. I’m not entirely ashamed to admit that I might have slightly wet myself. I think I stopped breathing.
We just looked at each other.
So still. My eyes ached so much that I had to blink.
It was still there.
I began to breathe again, I don’t know how much later. With air in my lungs again I could start to really look at it. It was the shape of a person, but translucently pale like the crappy plastic they seal meat into at supermarkets. It had only the vaguest outlines of a face, but the light gleamed onto and through it, casting expressions made of shadows which weren’t really there.
I leaned back into the wall; it drew back slightly. Gingerly I pushed myself up the wall until I was standing. It rose with me, and then drew further back until it was a couple of metres away. Its feet were touching the floor, but they didn’t lift as it moved backwards. Its feet bent and slipped over the books, the bottom of its feet undulating over the uneven surface as if it didn’t know how to walk.
I stepped away from the wall and it drifted back even further. Warily, but with more confidence I picked an awkward circle out that brought me to the breakfast bar. It copied my action – bringing it to the settee. I took another step and the figure’s body bent at the thighs. Its legs folded and flowed backwards so that they ended up on the settee’s cushions; its body and head remained almost motionless, other than for its head tracking my every movement. I got into the kitchen area, all of the books between us. My thought had been to get a weapon. My options included a metal bread bin, kettle, wooden spatula and a fork. Almost everything else was in the dishwasher, which I noticed that I failed to turn on. I knew it was pointless, but it might make me feel slightly better. I chose the fork and held it before me. The figure copied me again, its right arm bending unnaturally across its body. It was like one of those double mirrors where you see the mirror image reversed so it’s the right way round. I tested that theory – I turned the kettle on. Again, it crudely copied the motion, its legs just folding over furniture as we circled each other. Hopefully it wasn’t going to be like a shootout; my fork was after all only a fork.
The kettle boiled. The figure mimicked my every action as I found a mug, tea bag, combined them, stirred with my defensive fork and reached for the fridge. I remembered I had no milk and sighed. Its shoulders morphed up and down in freaky imitation. Now doubly armed with fork and black tea I slowly walked around to the other side of the room, passing the bedroom door and the window. I was heading for the settee. Comfort is an important foil for fear. It’s why I watch scary films with a cushion (or my hat in a cinema) – it’s not just for hiding behind. It’s also for clutching tightly, and nuzzling if necessary. Gratifyingly the apparition behaved as I’d expected, and it ended up standing in the kitchen. While I dragged the settee round to face it and tossed empty boxes into the space between us it flung its arms in the exact same way.
I eyed the thing warily from my more comfortable vantage. I also rediscovered the bottle of cheap bourbon. It’s not milk, but it did wonders for my frayed nerves. The adrenalin draining from my system and the hot whisky tea did exactly what you would expect. I fell asleep while staring at my pale double.
Waking up is the second worst part of every day. It’s beaten only by the horror of finally rising from bed. The bit in between, when reality soaks back into us and gives ample reason not to proceed in the day is a hell all of its own. It’s the time I use to re-discover which parts of my body hurt (hips, left knee, lower back and, if it’s damp, all the fingers of my left hand) and decide whether I can face the day.
It’s usually a slog through the after effects of my alcohol and anti-depressant cocktail. Mostly I wake to the sound of static on my radio alarm clock. If it’s set to the beeping I awake enraged by the sound; if it’s the inanity of people’s babble on the radio I would rather kill myself immediately than risk hearing them in the real world; pop music itself is either too chipper or too moronic to suffer. So static works quite well, saving me from any preset rage or irritation. It’s the closest I get to a neutral calm before reality presses down.
Of course, in order to be woken by my alarm clock I’d need to be in the bedroom, usually twisted into a tight knot discarded on the edge of the mattress. That morning I woke up to the sound of screaming. I guess we’re wired to be flicked into awareness by human screams. A remnant of the cave with its mouth of fire burning low and predators stalking into the sleeping tribe. Whoever wakes first warns the rest of us, and we get straight up with our spears in hand. Maybe that’s how music on the radio hits me – like a warning, shocking me out of sleep, primed to fight or defend whatever made such a terrible noise.
I jerked awake, tugged from that blissful emptiness by a woman’s scream, then a man’s, and then the unmistakable sound of doors being slammed and footsteps everywhere. The surge of adrenalin electrified my limbs, unknotting them and flinging the half-full cup of cold tea across the room. I was on my feet before I knew it, stumbling over empty boxes. Being awake isn’t the same as being aware. I had a moment of standing, hands raised anticipating conflict as I absorbed the yells and the running, stumbling sounds from the flat above me and the thunder of feet on the stairs. I’m on the ground floor which is its own blessing and curse – no stairs for me, but everyone comes past.
I hopped over to spread the blinds and see what horrors the outside world had ready for me. Bedlam from the looks of it. I’d been increasingly reluctant to deal with other humans for some time, and the frenzy outside did nothing to encourage me. Cars had crashed during the night (guess I’d slept through that) and been abandoned, slewed across the road. People were just running across and down the road. It was a lot to take in. My eyesight is crap, but thankfully I’d forgotten to take my lenses out the night before. With a few deliberate blinks I realised that everyone who ran down the road was being pursued by a freaky ghostly figure – everyone had one.
Oh yeah… With being woken suddenly I had lost those key moments of reintegrating the day before, separating memory from dream, fear from normality. I knew what I would find before I pulled back from the window. My own shadow stood next to me. Already hyper from being jolted awake, my whole body convulsed and in an unlikely shimmy of joints and muscles I skipped a couple of steps to my left and let my heart race. It had obviously not murdered me in my sleep or taken over my body and gone out to wreak havoc, or stolen my brain and put it in a jar. That was reassuring.
It turned from the window slowly; it had also been peering out at the chaos in the street. Maybe I had been too freaked out last night, but I now had time to look at it properly. It had the colour of those plastic sheets you slip papers into before laminating them, a thick translucent grey. It was the same height as me, and roughly the same build, which is to say average and slight. I’d failed to notice previously that it wasn’t exactly solid. The front was fine, but I could clearly see that it had no back. It was hollow, like a jelly mould. Even its arms and legs had only a front. I could see its arms because it was still copying my movements, with a slight delay between us like a long distance telephone conversation.
It seemed content for me to stare at it. I was already becoming tired of calling it “it”. I’ve always thought that we take control of the world by giving things names. Ghosts aren’t just deathly apparitions harbinging doom, they’re just ghosts. It’s a lot less scary when it’s just a word. Same for monsters: if you know it’s a man eating tiger at least it isn’t a beast with unknowably numerous claws and tentacles set to flense your soul from your meat. It’s nameable, it’s knowable, it’s controllable. I’d thought it like a shadow or a mirror last night, but in the morning’s attempt at daylight it was neither of those things. It was paying attention. It was observing me as closely as I was examining it. It needed a name, a description, a reference that distinguished it from everything else.
“Still here, then.” You can’t just stare at things without talking to them; it’s rude. The observer didn’t reply, though its mouth opened and closed vaguely. “Can you speak, or do you just copy me?” Again, its mouth made shapes as if it were groping for words, even if they were just the words I’d used. “Just copying. Huh.” That’s about as communicative as I get in the morning anyway, so I didn’t find it hard to imagine someone or something else being equally speechless.
We were closer together than we’d been last night, and it hadn’t leaped at me again as it had when I’d first spoken. That was an improvement. I wondered how it had spent the night – curled up on the other end of the settee, or had it flickered out of existence when I fell asleep. Maybe it was like other people when you’re a child: everything ceases to exist the moment you can’t see it and unfolds out of the universe again when you reenter a room. The problem with seeing the world like that is that it’s impossible to test, intrinsically unsatisfying and guaranteed to give you nightmares.
“So you’re a copier then?” I couldn’t call it a ‘copier’; I’d be expecting to change its toner cartridge or refill its paper tray. ‘Mimic’ just sounded terrible and made me think of the sci-fi horror film where beetles have evolved to resemble humans wearing coats and hats in the American subway system. They didn’t offer a positive connotation.
“I’m going to call you my Watcher, for now. Until I can think of something better. You don’t look like a Steve.” It was actually getting better at making the mouth shapes, the same way you do when you’re talking to someone in a really loud pub and can’t quite hear them. Apparently mouthing words at the person who’s talking to you is really irritating and distracting. I certainly found I was watching its grey lips as it mouthed along with me. I wondered if it was learning my language. I wondered if I really thought I was in some kind of first contact situation. If I was they weren’t doing it very well, judging by the people running around outside. I wondered why I wasn’t running away too. The evident futility of fleeing might have something to do with it, but while I’d perhaps describe myself as quite rational I didn’t really expect to be cool and collected under pressure. But I wasn’t properly awake yet.
“Okay. I need to have coffee. I’m guessing that this is acceptable, and that you’re not desperate to climb inside my skin or anything,” I speak, but I don’t necessarily think about what I’m going to say. There was no good reason to put ideas into its backless head, but flippancy has ever been my way of dealing with stress and awkward situations. I’ve got friends big enough to either cause trouble or get us out of trouble, but it’s always been my mouth that works for me. Thankfully my watcher just mouthed along.
“Have you made coffee before?” Talking is relaxing, and it was helping me. Even if this thing was just copying me I could hardly ignore it; I didn’t yet have a reason to dislike it beyond its unusual presence and invasion of my flat. Those were things I had to forgive people for all the time. At least this one wasn’t talking back.
Somewhat gingerly I made my way to the kitchen. The books had become an impressive obstacle course. My watcher came with me. Its legs were still strangely distorting rather than bending at hips and knees. It was also odd to look behind me and see it look behind itself as well. Made me feel like we were in some endless Magritte mirror. I found I was slowing down so that it could follow my movements. Clearly I was in dire need of coffee. I’d probably have to do something about the tea and bourbon I’d sloshed all over the floor too. But coffee was a priority. It’s the only single-purpose device I’ve got – technically it can make cappuccino as well as espresso but I can’t see the point in diluting the stuff. My watcher stood next to me, slowly copying the process of smacking the coffee tray against the bin until the solid mass of yesterday falls out, the refilling it and twisting it back into the machine.
The odd sensation of silent company surrounded the coffee making ritual. I certainly wasn’t afraid of this thing, but as yet I’d given very little thought to what it was, where it had come from and what it was here for. Those were all issues better dealt with after coffee, and preferably after a shower and getting dressed. Now those were thoughts that gave me pause. I live alone, though not through choice, and I’m used to my privacy. I was treating my intruder like an only slightly unwelcome guest. It had after all stayed up all night while I slept, which I don’t expect a houseguest to do. I find that I’m very much ‘one thing at a time’ in the morning.
We settled at the breakfast bar together. There’s only one chair, an ungainly piece of junk I’d been intending to replace. It creaked alarmingly as I mounted it and swivelled to ideal comfort. As long as I don’t move at all after I’ve settled the chair feels almost safe. My watcher bent at the waist, its legs folding as if it too were sitting on a chair. It didn’t have to touch the floor I noticed. Well, that made sense – it had no back so why would it be rooted to the ground? It did make me wonder how it was going to handle stairs. All I’d heard were my neighbours fleeing from the other flats; I didn’t get to see their watchers floating behind them. We sipped our coffee together. I drank and the watcher carefully raised its hand, fingers clawed round the imaginary coffee cup. I had the Eric Carle The Very Hungry Caterpillar cup. It’s a child-sized mug, but it’s perfect for letting the espresso machine run into, with what was about a triple espresso. Brain sparks. To avoid the weird effect of turning to see what the watcher was doing only to have it look away I took to nonchalantly drinking and watching it out of the corner of my eye. Its own eyes were so indistinct that I couldn’t tell whether it even had eyelids. Its face was just a plastic mask. I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or not, but its lips seemed to become more pronounced and defined as we enjoyed our coffee. It also made me think that I look quite weird when I drink.
When you’ve got a guest, deciding to do something that doesn’t involve them is always a little strange and forced. We say “well then, time for a shower!”, announcing our intentions with a slap of the knee: “excuse me, I’m going to leave you now and become naked in the next room. When we next meet I shall be clean you but will never see my wettening skin.” It felt like that: awkward. So far we had been in the same room, the hybrid living room and kitchen that many flats inflict on people, never realising how limiting it can feel to have these two important spaces mashed together. I was delaying the next step for as long as possible, but there was not only the usual business of needing to prepare for whatever the day might have lying in wait, but after drinking all night and now having coffee, there were an increasing number of typically private activities I was keen to undertake.
“I’m going into the bathroom. I don’t want you to join me.” I’d said it, and clearly established a line which ought not be crossed. It was worth a shot. I was still making no sudden moves – I wasn’t afraid of the watcher, but as I woke up properly I was more aware of how little I knew about it. I sidled off to the bathroom door. It followed. It was perhaps four paces behind me, and stopped when I did. Clearly it was beginning to choose what it had to copy, because when I turned at the edge of the bathroom to face it, rather than also turn around it just looked at me. It’s not a big bathroom and I was hoping that there was some minimum space that had to be maintained between us. Attempting to infer such rules feels like it can work, and we persist as humans in assuming we can anticipate and predict the actions of others. I think I was tricking myself into such beliefs because it was copying me, so it ought to also be mimicking what I would do in a similar situation. I wouldn’t follow someone else into their bathroom, certainly not without an invitation and even then only under some pretty clear and obvious situations.
Stepping backwards into the bathroom I pulled at the door handle. It’s one of those horrible sliding doors which hides clumsily inside the bathroom rather than the proper sort of door you get in a nice flat. My watcher also reached out and took hold of the door handle. It was a confusing moment – was it mirroring me, or doing the same thing? I pulled the door across and it assisted. I could feel the slight pressure it exerted and the door got perhaps half way across the doorway before it stopped. A flicker of panic tickled my belly. I tried again, to no avail. The watcher was stronger than me. It was looking at me with what felt like curiosity, its head slightly tilted, the same way I do when I’m considering whether to answer a stupid question. I gave it another try and the door slammed shut as if the watcher had let go entirely. It was a relief, but one I wasn’t yet comfortable enough with to relax. I hadn’t known what it might do had I closed the door on it, but it had let me do it, so everything must be fine. Why then did I have the distinct sense that it was sulking?
Since I was alone I made immediate use of the privacy. There was no telling how long it would last. I’d just turned the shower on and laid my clothes in an untidy heap on the toilet seat when I heard a faint whisper. Internally an unsurprised sigh fought with that panic again. I was even more trapped now – inside a room with one door inside a flat with only one door. The watcher slid around the edge of the door, its hollow frame popping back into shape as it emerged from the gap, flowing around the tiny bolt I’d drawn as quietly as I could.
“Oh. Hi.” I don’t know what you say to someone invading your bathroom. The watcher just stood by the door, fully unfolded from the narrow gap. “Look – I’m going to take a shower.” The room was rapidly filling with steam, giving my watcher an even more ghostly appearance. I was already naked, save for the shower curtain I’d tugged across myself. Into the shower I went, being careful to keep an eye on the shadowy figure I could make out through the thin shower curtain. It felt a little like after I watched Arachnophobia when I was fourteen and could hardly bring myself to close my eyes in the shower. No, it felt exactly like that except that I already knew it was in there watching me. Possibly the creepiest thing was being able to see the watcher’s actions following mine. Strangely obscene, as if I was catching sight of my often naked neighbours across the street, but all masked in a fog of steam. The sight made me reluctant to, you know, wash thoroughly. But I found that if I looked away it was less weird.
After going through the invasive strangeness of showering together, getting dressed while an increasingly dexterous shop window mannequin pretended to dress itself felt positively normal. I’d been rather distracted by my visitor, that and being woken by screaming. I’d quite forgotten about the outside world. That had been happening more and more often anyway, but I certainly didn’t need any encouragement in withdrawing from others. Dressing gave me my first glimpse of a clock that morning. I can’t abide the sound of clocks ticking, so the only timepieces in my flat were the bedside radio alarm clock, the microwave (should I ever go through the tedious set up process) and my phone. I used to be obsessive about ensuring my phone remained charged – how else would I be able to reliably check on Facebook that everyone still loved me or read emails from restaurants? Lately I just let it run down. That reflexive check of social media made me angry that I was dependent on it for community – a thing I didn’t need or want. It’s absence had been freeing, but had only further isolated me. The alarm clock told me it was both later than I’d expected and earlier than I’d hoped. Ten thirty-five was too late to go to work but left a disturbing chunk of the day still hanging over me. I found my phone and plugged it in. I could at least text my boss to apologise for my lateness. That would smooth out the tension I felt building in my stomach at the prospect of dealing with someone else’s expectations and disappointment.
It had not occurred to me, despite the racket earlier, that the rest of the world would be dealing with what I had woken up to. The string of missed calls from my parents and text messages popped up as soon as the phone booted up. I put it back down on the counter. That was a lot more hassle than I was prepared to involve myself in. With my hand on top of the phone I sighed. My watcher similarly laid its hand over nothing on the breakfast bar and subtly shrugged. It seemed like maybe we were going to get along.
While we were having coffee – rather, while I was having coffee and my watcher became better at miming drinking from a tiny cup – my phone was slowly charging and making plaintive bleating sounds about my not responding to messages. That’s mostly my own fault, in not having picked up, and from choosing notifications like ‘baby goat’ and ‘porcupine eating a pumpkin’ for family members. It was getting quite annoying, so I turned the phone to silent. That gave me a chance to consider the outside world some more. The screams had faded away while I was in the shower, and there was much less slamming of doors and thunderous stair use. That was a considerable relief. I had no desire to interact with frenzied people. Either they had all calmed down or gone away; I wasn’t fussed which.
My watcher made as much of a mess tying laces as I have always done. I regretted not choosing some of my Velcro trainers, but with all the rain last night it felt like a decent walking boot day. I found that I was now watching my watcher at least as much as it was watching me. It’s hard not to. I’ve got distinct memories of being so bad at tying laces when I was little that I was positively thrilled when my mum presented me with the miracle of hook and loop shoe fastenings. And they say going to the Moon was a waste of time. I often think that it’s those tiny innovations that mean so much more than the huge ones. It’s great that astronauts can spend a year in zero-G, but it’s more immediately cool that I can put my shoes on with almost zero effort. I considered swapping shoes despite the rain. My watcher’s fingers didn’t seem dexterous enough to manage the now subconscious knotting pattern of fingers and thumb. I caught myself reaching over to help with its thick-fingered fumbling, but figured I’d have to take them off later and it could have another go then.
The staircase was eerily quiet for mid-morning. There’s a couple on the second floor who somehow manage to squeeze three children into one of these flats. I can hardly imagine the crush and constant intrusion. I guess I’m not built for kids. There’s a maximum constant human contact level that I can maintain. It’s easily overloaded, but has the capacity to recharge over a weekend. It was a little out of practice though. I’d been used to being with one other person for a long time, and that tolerance level had gradually adjusted over that time until she and I were effectively the same person. Maybe other people’s tolerance levels also re-adjust their baselines when they have children until they no longer remember what it was like to be just one person again. That was the shock I still hadn’t become used to. The sudden destabilising of a system working in perfect harmony. Or however close to perfect we get anyway. This wasn’t the first morning I’d woken up on the settee. I like it because only one person can properly lie on it at a time, so it’s less obvious that I’m on my own. It beats the vast emptiness of a bed.
We locked up the flat, our hands twisting the key in and out of the door and screwing it into our pocket. The main door had been left open, which broke the only written rule of the building. It was in fact written on the door, an explicit command to not leave it open. I ignored it too and shuffled into the street.
A taxi had ground its way down a column of parked cars, leaving an impressive series of dents and scratches in its wake. The car was driverless, with yet another door swinging in the breeze. There were no cars in motion. It was quiet. I liked it. I glanced around to check that my watcher was still with me. Who knows, maybe it could have wandered off on its own, or found someone more interesting to watch. It looked like we were going to be together for a while. It looked paler in the weak excuse for daylight that we were being supplied with by a tetchy-looking sky. More washed out. Not especially more translucent, just less real overall with edges that faded away like a shadow fading away in the absence of strong light. It was exactly that kind of day when I didn’t have a real shadow either. The kind of day that made me wonder how Peter Pan and his tricksy shadow would have gotten along if the kids had just turned the light off. A shadow is the absence of light, it’s the hole we make in the world with our bodies. It’s the part of the world that we thieve and keep to ourselves. An immaterial absence that we create and lose with every pace, transient, unreal. The world is more whole without us.
While I was curious to see how other people were faring, their immediate absence didn’t trouble me unduly and in any case, we did have some real purpose to going outside. First, and importantly to judge from my drinking efforts last night we needed milk. Bourbon is not milk. There were undoubtedly a number of other basic groceries we needed, including whatever breakfast and lunch are made of. Tea time was too far away to even contemplate. There was nothing to be gained by extending myself into the future; the present was usually more than enough. Normally I’d stick my headphones in, to further erase humanity from my daily experience. They hung around my neck since I’d grabbed them without remembering that my phone was still shivering hungrily in the kitchen. It would have felt rude to put them on when I had my watcher with me. I hadn’t figured out where it had to be in relation to me, how far behind it was going to walk or sit from me. In the kitchen it had drawn near since that was the space available. I half expected it to scale that up and be dozens of feet back, but it quickly adopted a spot about five feet behind and to my right. That meant it was just barely walking on the kerb, brushing against the parked or crashed cars.
I’m grateful for living within a few minutes walk of a huge supermarket. It contained almost everything I could need. I’d considered the online ordering and delivery systems but that would involve making decisions and having someone knocking on my door. It’s possible to use a supermarket with no human contact except for a recorded voice complaining about her bagging area. Today was going to be a bit different. All down the road I heard distant voices, bringing me echoes of normality. At least everyone wasn’t dead. I assume everybody has frequent post-apocalypse day dreams. It’s hugely appealing. My favourites are the ones where I wake up to news of catastrophe, something deadly but clean enough to have removed all other humans while leaving myself and most animals safe. Not spiders, obviously. Spiders would be traded for geckos which I’d happily have scurrying up and down walls filling in that evolutionary niche. The best thing about everybody else being gone is that having lost just one person doesn’t really matter anymore – it’s outweighed the species and civilisation-wide annihilation; scale helps. My life would continue in a series of harmless home invasions and casual theft. I’d be able to assemble the finest library and a museum comprising the strange things that people hide away in boxes and forget about. I suppose I’d have to start with all of our boxes and bags, along with all the furniture that was sitting in storage where my parents put it. I wouldn’t let them take the books, even though they so obviously wouldn’t unpack in any sane way in the flat.
That was the other thing: shelves. That was a step beyond the supermarket, literally. Consumer culture has been struggling with a dreadful dichotomy between fawning, personalised, human customer service and the infinitely preferable machine interface. Give me a choice between talking to a real person and navigating an automated button-stabbing menu and I’ll take the latter every time. If you can strip away the hassle of holding a phone as well and let me do the typing, stuffing of cards into slots and sloping wordlessly away, then I am yours. Argos is the closest a high street shop has come to making itself obsolete. I don’t really understand why it exists at all. They’ve got one line of interface left to eliminate, for the customer anyway: the pointless counter where I share my receipt and we agree that it has a number on and await my goods arrival down the conveyor belt of joy. Rather than allow me to simply take it, it is necessary for a short, awkward conversation about how heavy or large the item is and whether I need a bag. I’m capable of matching numbers, supplying my own bag and taking it home. One step left. I urge them to make that tiny mincing leap into the future. I find I am often diverted thus. It gets me to the shops.
Again, I checked behind me. My watcher’s outline had become so ghostly in the pitiful light that I couldn’t see it in the corner of my eye. Reassuringly it was still there. The carpark is usually a covered hell of inattentive imbeciles breathing exhaust fumes. It’s one of my favourite places for minor car accidents. Today it was perhaps only a third as full as I’d expect. So someone had clearly made it this far. It hadn’t occurred to me that the supermarket might not be open – there’s only so many inconceivables we can conceive of each day. Any lingering sense of unreality I was feeling was dispelled by the doors which welcomed me, opening automatically. It’s come to something when the apparently magical makes the world concrete again. From out the door emerged a striking lady, of an age I’d think myself to guess at. She had one of those passive-aggressive tartan trolleys, driven ferociously out ahead of her. I think she was muttering to herself. Or chewing. She proceeded past me, and in her wake drew another of the ghostly pale watchers. It too, was walking about five feet behind its subject. I stopped in the doorway to watch them go past.
I was reassured that I definitely wasn’t the only one with a shadow; hers was the first I’d really seen. Hers passed me without the slightest glance of interest. Something happened as her watcher passed mine though. They didn’t acknowledge each other but when it passed my stationary watcher I realised that while I was watching the watcher, my watcher was watching the old (dammit) lady. She and her watcher were looking at whatever her trundling vehemence was aimed at. As the watchers got closer their edges blurred even further, misting up the space between them, and diffusing again as the lady’s watcher continued, hunched and pushing its own invisible trolley. For the first time I also was able to see the back of a watcher. Mine keeps turning with me, or towards me and I hadn’t figured out a trick with mirrors or shop windows yet, mostly due to the previous distractions. It was very cool. As it passed me I got to see it go from three dimensions pushing out to the front, around the edges where it became hollow, like a whole body mask to be slipped on and help in place with stapled elastic. I could see into it, kind of. And then I enjoyed the full illusion where as it walked past me its face appeared to pop back into three dimensional relief – its depth swapping so it briefly felt as if it were looking at me.
“Well that was weird,” I muttered as the lady and her watcher plunged into the bleak murk of the carpark, “but cool.” I addressed my watcher. It feels inappropriate to talk to myself. It’s easier, but my mum keeps reminding me that I do need to make an effort to socialise. Apparently shops and railway stations are places where this occurs. I refuse to catch buses for fear of such conversations where the only point a Venn diagram crosses for two unrelated individuals is a need to use public transport at the same time. There’s a reason why the ‘seeking romance’ adverts in the paper (assuming they still exist) don’t include ‘regular bus user’ along with ‘good sense of humour’ and ‘enormous appendage(s)’. My watcher kept up its end of the conversation admirably. There were definitely some things it didn’t mimic, perhaps it had already nailed ‘man talking to himself’ and was waiting for me to do something interesting. We went into the supermarket.
Under the harsh, relentless branded glare my watcher perked up a little. It grew sharper and more defined around the edges again, became less spectral and appeared to be treading instead of pacing just above the floor. I reached for a basket, expecting my companion to snag the self-scan handset. Like a team. It didn’t of course, it just engaged its fingers in the awkward task of disentangling the invisible handles from the stack of baskets. I scanned my reward card and waited for the light to identify just how far I’d need to lean down to get the self-scanner. I was absurdly pleased when it flashed up just to my right at elbow height. That almost never happens.
On the whole I was impressed by how the (admittedly few) customers and staff were adapting to our new companions. It looked so strange. The tobacco counter is the first thing presented to the public. It’s always a uniquely miserable counter, selling as it does instruments of cancer and near-fraudulent lottery tickets. It’s a tiny boutique of stupid and fleeting vices. Commensurately the staff have forced smiles upon themselves, probably aggravated by also being responsible for the photo-printers with their unacceptably heavy-orange picture tinting and the unimaginable joy of customer returns. Just one young man there today, leaning on the edge of the counter, bouncing slightly up and down from his hips. He couldn’t keep his eyes off the white shape which stood a few feet away matching him jounce for jounce. He looked up as we came in and our eyes met for a moment. Without knowing why I gave him the bare minimal human acknowledgement of a fractionally up tilted chin and eyebrows. He responded in kind, eyes flicking to my own shadow. They also looked at each other and I wondered what they saw in each other.
The most amazing sights developed around the aisles. I’ll admit that I really hadn’t been getting out much, but the sight of a middle aged couple pushing a trolley that contained one feebly whining infant and trailed by another two (prone to wandering off) that was also being followed by another ghostly family dutifully replicating each and every movement… well. At first I was surprised by how calm the children were. They didn’t cast the suspicious and fearful glances at their watchers which their parents did. They were much more likely to turn round and try to confuse the watchers, bounding into spontaneous dancing just to catch them out. The watchers caught on fast, but they were still learning to move like the kids, and they would be anything up to a few seconds behind them. Such a fucked up pantomime. They all swept past us. I found myself exchanging a conspiratorial smirk with a young boy (I could guess his age, but I’d be out by five years or so – he was old enough to be in school at any rate. Probably. I wondered whether the schools were open) who leaped around the edge of an aisle, scattering toothpaste tubes across the aisle. I stared at him for a moment, and then his watcher slid into view behind him. It looked so flustered by the boy’s game that I couldn’t help but smile.
I found what we needed. I found milk, and then all the other things I hadn’t previously wanted as we wandered up and down each aisle. This is frequently the social and cultural peak of my day anyway, so with the street theatre surrounding me I was more than entertained. It wasn’t clear whether my watcher was enjoying itself. I didn’t know if that was something it did. Often when I looked at it, it was already looking at me. Waiting for the next movement perhaps, or just wondering if this really was the most exciting thing I was going to do that day. I didn’t want to disappoint, so I took it to Argos next.
And it’s making me hyper… But, good progress so far – I hit 10,120 words today which is past the 10% mark, because I can’t do maths and is actually past the 20% mark as my other half pointed out which is a convenient fifth. I guess if I had had a target then I would be pleased to have reached it. Hell, I’m pleased.
The NaNoWriMo website gives me an amazing stats dashboard which I’m eagerly absorbing instead of writing more of my story. I’m well used to the idea of measuring instead of doing (that’s work!), and am innately suspicious of charts. It’s pretty cool though.
I rewarded myself last night by finishing off a little Lego MOC I’ve been working on. It looks reet nice. I’ll sort some proper pictures over the weekend.
Work Is A Pesky Distraction
I’m back at work now, so I’ve got the additional challenge of fitting a few thousand words into a work day. Typically I’d come home and lie on my face while pouring beer on the back of my neck. Today I came home and tappled furiously at the keyboard in two 30 minute bursts. I’d made use of my lunchtime to lock down and hammer out some stuff too, so I was ready to continue.
I’ve found that I’m writing until I reach a natural break in the story. I’m probably used to doing that in around a thousand words for The Desert Crystals, and I usually do that with a one hour timer. Good practice. But it’s instantly fucked up my strictish evening routine of knocking back some pills and winding down with a book. It hasn’t helped that the book I’m reading isn’t doing it for me at all: Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton. I don’t know if it’s too slow or what, but I ditched it at 2 o’clock this morning in favour of a rather hastily proofread but faster paced ebook I downloaded for free a couple of weeks ago: Sandfall by Neil Mosspark. It’s bounding along merrily.
So tonight – stop writing right about… now. Later.
The ghostly duplication of activity continued to keep me entertained throughout our supermarket journey. The most noticeable thing was that the staff were all on the floor, as if no one wanted to be left alone with their watcher. That meant a dramatically improved customer service experience, for those who sought out those interactions.
My watcher and I were using the self-scan, self-service doohickey. It’s satisfying both in its reassuring bleeps of successful scanning and in the independence we’re granted. It always falls down at the end though when alcohol or paracetamol has to be approved. Or more commonly when I’m randomly selected for a basket check. This happens at least every three shops. I’ve tried not to take it personally, but it feels vindictive. I’m generally capable of accurately scanning any given object and rather resent the verification of someone rooting through my (near) purchases to re-scan whatever they think I might have been too incompetent or dishonest to achieve. I’m not making especially personal selections, but I am aware of how odd a shop can look: a bottle of whiskey, yoghurt and a bumper pack of kitchen roll do give an unusual impression. We had to go round again for milk.
When we finally left it was as if I were abandoning the staff – there was a forlorn look in the hunch of those on the tills. Perhaps it was just my preference for the largely machine based exchange, or maybe they also had that nagging sense that they were just not doing anything interesting enough for their new watchers. That’s certainly how I was beginning to feel. I’m quite happy to lead a very dull life – I’m rarely exposed to the scrutiny of others and if pressed I can always lie about the exciting things I do. I didn’t always lie, but the expectations of others don’t necessarily produce the results they expect. It’s a bit like goals and targets. Some people utterly thrive on them, but I see them as a preemptive judgment of failure; that I can’t meet their objective without being time monitored. The mere existence of the target climbs under my skin, and inspires only rejection. I don’t even want to attempt it – don’t dangle failure over me. I can fail perfectly consistently without being told that I’ve failed. I’ll concede that it’s possible that I’m not seeing the upside of goals. It’s the constant self-justification that emerges which I really despise. I’ve done all I can to dissuade others from seeking to investigate how I spend my days. I’m well aware that by any reasonable standards I am not bouncing back and returning to the world. I’m sure I will eventually. Probably. But I’m much less likely to do so if offered that prospect in terms of reward and success. The opposites of those outcomes are all too heavy, glaring and more achievable.
It occurred to me that I really ought to have contacted work before we left the house. Clearly they would be aware that I wasn’t there, but it is expected. Those expectations again, even over something as trivial as work. When considered in those terms it then wasn’t all that important to resolve. All they would be seeking is an explanation for my absence. No explanation would replace the dramatic impact that my absence would produce, or fail to produce. The excuse might be socially acceptable, but fundamentally it could make no difference to my employers. It’s a pointless social contract of offering excuse so that the grievously wounded party can determine whether or not to further punish the transgressor. If I were suddenly ill, then that’s fine. But if I wake up late having slept on the settee in a blanket of cold tea because I’d been threatened by a ghost who turned out not to be threatening, then that’s probably not fine. It might be today though, as it appeared that I was far from the only one with such an excuse. I wondered whether the supermarket staff had been on time. My point, I explained to my watcher as we walked around the corner, was that a reason for absence that was caused by my environment and my body’s apparent failure to safeguard my health was acceptable, but my absence resulting from a largely conscious response to my environment was not acceptable. At least the latter issue involved some thought, which ought to generate some positive points. It was all moot anyway, since I’d left my phone in the kitchen to charge.
Everyone in Argos was staring at me. This is the diametric opposite of how I wish to enter and depart from a shop. It’s a fantastic shop, usually filled with the murmur of people repeating a sequence of three and four digit numbers under their breath before they forget them and the sound of heavily laminated pages being flipped over. Then there’s the awkward poking at touchscreen tablets which wobble alarmingly, followed by the trudge to the previously discussed pointless engagements with bored staff.
Today everyone was looking at me, and at my watcher, who was standing right beside me as it had been since I started explaining my work-related absence concerns. I stopped talking pretty quickly and my watcher slid back a pace. It wasn’t just the customers in Argos staring at me. Even the young lady who had been punished for some misdemeanor by making her responsible for the Elizabeth Duke jewellery counter was looking. Them, and their watchers. They were caught between the acts of turning pages or gazing up the conveyor belt and looking at me. They couldn’t quite turn to look at my watcher, who was the real object of the room’s focus. When those being watched look at each other, the watchers look at the other person, but when they all looked at my watcher they couldn’t quite follow suit. It was weird.
I managed a tight smile and opened a catalogue at a random page. Everyone does that, even though it will be necessary to immediately refer to the index at the front of the book. Around me the usual sounds resumed – I too knew how to behave in Argos. Everyone else went back to trying to ignore their watchers. I found them fascinating. In a close space like this there were about twelve people, and so twelve watchers. There isn’t space to squeeze a watcher in next to each customer, so some of them stood right next to their person, and others stood some way behind, all repeating all the actions they could observe. I still wanted to know if they could touch each other, given the odd blurring that had happened earlier. Was I really the only one who was acknowledging my watcher?
There are so many pages of shelves and bookcases in the catalogue. I had made no effort to measure the flat. I had a vague and likely inaccurate memory of reading the rental booklet, but that had the area in square metres anyway and with the kitchen-living room conjoinment it wasn’t a straightforward shape to infer wall lengths from. It wouldn’t have been as difficult to figure out as the volume of swimming pool. That maths puzzle was one that I never managed to get right in an exam and consequently lead to me abandoning the subject altogether. It’s my personal example of an impossible task. Rather than leave without making a purchase (which felt really impolite given our welcome) I picked a stand alone, five shelf bookcase which we could use as a test of the space. I paid using the machine and faced their final line of humanity. It was to be my first conversation of the day.
“Hi.” I held out my receipt. I’d carefully noted which of collection points A-D I should wait at. All four collection points were on a single two and a half metre counter. The burly gentleman, proudly bearing the name ‘Anthony’ verified that I could read and turned to stare at the conveyor belt. All four of us stared at the conveyor belt. It trundled along, but spewed no goods into view.
“I’m really sorry about this,” said Anthony after half a minute of our collective gaze failed to produce the bookshelves. “It’s, you know – the uh. They don’t like it up in the stockroom.” He laughed nervously, his eyes constantly flicking to my silent companion.
“Oh,” I replied, “it’s a bit cramped up there I’d imagine.”
“Yeah, and the uh, the-”
“‘Watchers’,” I suggested. It was obvious that everyone was struggling with what I had – if you can’t name a thing, you can’t talk about it, bring it into the light of discourse and meaning or just call it a twat. “I’ve been calling mine my Watcher,” I added, inadvertantly capitalising it. That gave it an extra layer of meaning, a name in its own right, or a role or something. I couldn’t remember what entitled a word to the use of a capital letter other than proper names or beginning a sentence. I doubted Anthony would be able to help. It was something I could forget to google when I got home. I was hoping Anthony would rejoin the conversation soon.
“It seemed to be watching,” I offered as a final prompt.
“Watchers. Yeah, so Kim and Alex who work in the stock room are both working up there, but they’re picking all the tickets together because it’s too weird having something following you down a narrow aisle between shelves and then follows you up the ladder. So they’re going together so there are, like, two of them.”
“Four,” I interjected, “there are four of them instead.”
“Oh right, yeah I see what you mean. Yeah it’s them two and their Watchers both.”
“So everything takes twice as long.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. But, I know what they mean. I mean, my uh, my Watcher wouldn’t leave me alone to even go to the loo!” He laughed in embarrassment, “I had to sit holding a towel up in front of me. It’s not right.”
“That’s an ingenious solution,” I agreed. “I managed to shut the door on mine, but it came in afterwards.”
A thud came from upstairs. We all turned to watch as a dishearteningly large flatpack box hove into view.
“Have you got a car nearby?” asked Anthony.
“No… I’m on foot,” I confessed.
“Wouldn’t it be great if your Watcher would give you a hand?” Anthony laughed at the thought.
Together we speculatively regarded my Watcher. It did nothing. I was half expecting it to look at Anthony’s Watcher and for them to give a collective shrug.
Anthony dutifully stamped my receipt and heaved the box over the counter. I really hadn’t planned this well. The supermarket shopping was snugly packed in my rucksack so I did at least have both arms. I glared at my Watcher as I hefted it up under one arm and headed for the outside. The remaining Watchers in Argos were apparently studying their catalogues with interest as their humans got on with the important business of paying.
“Cheers,” I called over my shoulder to Anthony.
It was a heavy and uncomfortable package to balance under an arm. There was no way to hold it in front of me with arms under and over it. That would block most of the pavement and I’d be constantly balancing it on a knee to deal with the arm cramp. I’ve been there before. This way round I only had to stop a couple of times to shift it to the other side. My Watcher remained a few paces behind me as if chastised by our experience in Argos. Cars were returning to the roads, and it felt as if the world was returning to normal. We’re a stoical bunch. Cars went past with people and Watchers inside. They sat either in the passenger seat, eerily replicating the steering actions and putting the drivers off no end, or hanging in the air behind the boot if the car was filled. That looked like a cartoon where the convertible has driven off a cliff but the passengers haven’t yet realised. In the park I’d passed earlier a young girl and her pale doppelganger were running in circles, denying the ground to a flock of pigeons. Her dad and his Watcher sat smoking a fag on a bench.
It occurred to me that we had a profound lack of variations on the word ‘weird’. ‘Odd’ and ‘strange’ briefly accounted for the sight of a woman pushing one of those tandem prams for twins, with a Watcher behind her adopting her posture perfectly, with two tiny Watchers drifting ahead of it in their invisible pram. Maybe the pram was just invisible to us, rather than being truly invisible. If the Watchers were like thick shadows then their whole world could be shadowy. But when it wasn’t their own shapes blocking the light from their realm, all we see is the light itself. Quite why they would be the only things to cast a shadow I had no idea, but I did have plenty of time on my hands, when they weren’t gripping shifting cardboard anyway. ‘Uncanny’ felt wrong. I associate it with Frankesteinian horrors, but I’m not certain why. It sounded a bit like a Hammer Horror: The Uncanny Hand of Dracula. Okay, vampiric horrors.
What was possibly weirder is how normal these sights were already seeming to us. People seemed still to be split between deliberately ignoring their Watchers, avoiding visual contact with them at all costs (and paying even less attention to the Watchers of others) and those who, maybe like me, were beginning to treat them as companions. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who was talking to them. The bus full of people, their Watchers crammed in the seats next to them meant that the bus was actually only half full. An unexpected benefit (kind of more space…) and cost.
Rarely has the sight of my ground floor flat been more appealing. Two doors and three steps to get the shelves up. I dropped the box onto my foot and balanced it against the wall and away from the puddled water. There’s a shocking tendency for our pavements to funnel water directly into the side opposite the gutter. It’s either a special ineptitude or calculated insult. Either way, our front step was usually half an inch in rain filth. My Watcher was definitively not helping, despite having frustratingly copied my uncomfortable box humping posture on every occasion I looked back. It was engaged in its own mime of my door opening skills.
We reached the flat and I carefully laid the flat pack box against the wall. I’d failed to note the pile books I rested it on and it promptly fell over. It didn’t matter. I now had real milk and a proper cup of tea was a possibility. My phone was mercifully silent until I turned it on when it vibrated excitedly across the breakfast bar. I unlocked it and saw the stream of text messages and missed calls. None, apparently, from work. There were a couple of repeated themes: “pick up the fucking phone”, or variations thereof including quite forceful ones from my parents, which was a pleasant surprise. The other was “turn on the TV”. My sister had sent at least ten which just said that – practical, non-invasive. It’s nice to be understood. That was an action I’d actually undertake. Shrugging off my rucksack I climbed over the book stacks, taking care to stretch out and crack my neck and back with each opportune step.
I turned the television on. I doubted that my sister intended for me to waste yet more of my life watching Stargate SGU or NCIS, so I flicked over to BBC 24. It’s a despicable attempt to match the hyperbolic non-news that plagues American telly. I almost never watch the news, so it’s a wholly wasted endeavour. The settee received my fall with grace and I was shortly joined by my Watcher who took its place with similar aplomb. The news was what I should have been looking at sooner, of course. Isn’t it always? It’s painfully dull until it isn’t. The news was on, obviously waiting for the next recital of weather lore. The only good thing about 24 hour news is that you don’t need to listen to it. I can watch the preposterously serious and surprised expressions while reading the little news strip that runs along the bottom. Even better, the subtitles are hilarious: frequently just out of step and filled with mistypes and baffling non sequiturs.
That was how I learned that the sudden arrival of the Watchers was limited to just one small town in the middle of England (we were special!) and that consequently an emergency quarantine was being initiated. Travel in or out of town was officially prohibited and somewhat inevitably, residents were urged to stay in their homes. On balance I decided that I really ought to call my sister back.
I don’t think I’ve tried to do anything continuously for five days before. I’ve even given up working for five days a week. But I’m feeling pretty good about this. Today is likely to be my first proper trial though, as I have stuff to do this evening. I’m very aware that I’ve got a whole bunch of events coming up which will wipe out whole evenings and days. There’s improv jam tonight, Pub Poetry (which I run) on Monday, Gorilla Burger on Thursday and then my niece’s birthday party, lunch out and another party in the evening on Saturday. That’s just next week… I don’t want to skip out of events because then I’ll just get resentful and nothing will work.
Sunday was really fun, especially after the splendid night before and I finished the day with Lego. Monday was fine – get up, swim, eat, write, Lego. Tuesday was back to work, but I managed to get a thousand words or so banged out at lunchtime, which means I’m close to writing at double my usual speed. This not editing lark is a lot faster to get out! Wednesday I sorted the same, and again topped it up in the evening. So I’ll get lunchtime today, but really any other time. It makes me a bit anxious.
I’m finding that setting my timer for half an hour is fairly reliably spurring me to eject a bit over a thousand not entirely awful words. All I’m doing before posting the next part each evening is a spellcheck and a really basic sense check. I know there will be many errors and misused words. On the whole I’m happy to accept those mistakes and roll them into the story. I did that last night when I accidentally capitalised ‘Watchers’. It’s helpful to the story development.
Where’s It Going?
Speaking of story development, I don’t have a plan. I do think about the story quite a lot, while swimming and bumbling around. But it just confirms that I’m really not a planner. As soon as I get a ‘fixed’ point for the story I write something that contradicts it. Damn my mind. I’m conscious of keeping the story going at a steady pace. It might be a bit slow, but my natural inclination is to leap to the end, and with nearly 40,000 words to go I’m keenly aware of how much space there is left to fill. Sorry if it’s slow. I hope it’s a bit funny too, and a bit sad. And a bit intriguing. Without knowing what’s going on myself, I am also entertained and intrigued… a joint process of discovery.
How’s It Going?
Well. I think – I hit 12,990 last night, which feels pretty awesome. I do feel tired today, and that’s mostly because the sense and excitement of doing NaNoWriMo is making me really wired and I’m not attending to my technology downtime and bedtimes. That has the potential to get very bad very quickly. This morning I feel weary because I went to bed after midnight and went swimming this morning after waking up an hour early because of dreams. I was visiting a friend in hospital – they’re a nurse, rather than a patient. To get there I had to enter aa vast building with confusing escalators and elevators, and am finally directed to the very top floor. Look for doorway 10. Lots of bad signage, the door I’m looking for is 9, 25 and 10. That leads me into corridors of lightly scaffolded flooring and broken straws which looks hideously dangerous. I can see all the way down to the ground. One of the nurse’s colleagues laughs hysterically as I slip and nearly die. NHS cutbacks.
Anyway, I’m trying to take charge of it: coffee is banned once more (I’d slipped back into daily coffee a few weeks ago) as is too much sugar. Tech death time will be 10 o’clock again. Unless I’m writing… in which case that’s wifi off at least. Aaargh. It is, of course, crushing into my Lego and reading time but something has to give of course.
I’m enjoying the experience of doing it, and I am excited by it. Discovering that I can twat out nearly 13,000 words in four days is useful, good to know information and it’ll inform my future writing and how intimidating it can be to start something new. Makes me wonder if I should be stepping up The Desert Crystals as well…
That’s probably enough scribbling to wake my brain up a bit. Soon I’ll be stamping on the keyboard again.
There was a lot of news. Or at least, there were a lot of people talking about a very little piece of news and repeating it endlessly. We remained, stunned on the settee for a few hours. I did call my sister, almost immediately and then received the sound I had previously muted from the television.
I just about got “I know, I just forgot to charge it up. And then we went out. But I’m calling you now…” in before losing control of the conversation. I raised my eyebrows theatrically at my Watcher. It did the same and we settled down for a little bit of being told off. It can be a terrible reassurance in times of crisis, to just have your expectations met. I knew I’d have worried her, and she would have fully expected me not to call for as long as possible. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to her, or that she thought I was wholly inept and recalcitrant in my familial duties, but we had long established this clumsy formula for communication. Its existence and repetition is part of the familiarity and like all patterns, becomes part of the relationship itself. I’d possibly been a little worse at this since the accident, but I think that was taken into account too. They hadn’t given up on me, even if I had.
The news was interesting, in a way it so rarely was. For a change the endless scaremongering about the dastardly poor and immigrants was set aside, albeit briefly and consigned to the news ribbon. It had been replaced by actual fear and pontification on our current state of emergency. The facts (loosely) were these: at 3 am our town had been the recipient of “an Event”, the capitalisation was clear every time and minister or reported breathed it. That Event’s cause was unknown, although mentions of China, America, Russia, foreign interests and other euphemisms for “we are without a clue” were darkly hinted at. Its effect was that as far as could be seen, every human being had received a personal visitation, of a semi-physical presence which attached itself closely to the individual, being witness to all their activities. This sort of talk is exactly why I’d starting calling them ‘Watchers’. It’s so much simpler.
There was something especially creepy about the footage presented on the news. It was taken from CCTV camera footage around the town, and from a few very high altitude, possibly satellite shots. It wasn’t so much the distant ogling of a group of workmen being shadowed at their road works, or the classroom disgorging its children and all their white doubles, or a man fleeing down the street from his Watcher in jerky three-frames-per-second footage. Those events were already becoming normal for those of us in the midst of this Event. It was that we were already being watched and spied upon by the news and the government. Having a Watcher constantly observing us was actually less intrusive and secretive. As I talked to my sister and we watched the news together with my Watcher I was growing angrier. It seemed ironic to be reminding the UK that it was the most heavily surveiled country in the world. Our high street has thirty one CCTV cameras, constantly scanning almost every inch of the road. Every shop, even the charity shops, even the crappy gambling machine / fake tanning salon has at least one CCTV camera. Boots has twelve.
Every step of the Event so far had been recorded, safely stored out of town (except possibly for the ones in the pubs, and was now being cut, spliced, edited and broadcast to the world. It wasn’t enough that our lives were being intruded upon physically (which I wasn’t especially concerned about at that point), it’s the presentation that someone standing next to you is worse than the remote scrutiny which we were unknowingly subjected to at all times. The cameras were for safety – the companies and councils knew that; they’d put them there after all. So that’s fine. But no one knew where the Watchers were from. No cabinet minister had said, “you know what, let’s fuck them all up a little bit more, let’s put a camera in their face all day and make sure they’re safe all the time”, because that’s all they watch you for – your safety. So they were a problem, a concern, something the government would be taking urgent and decisive action on, once they had finished having a teleconference that lasted for about six hours. I’d never been at the centre of a newsworthy incident. Personal matters are cold and painful and uninteresting to the world, but once they happen and no one knows why, then everyone cares. Our safety and health were paramount. The tone of the reporting focussed heavily on the earlier footage of residents looking really freaked out. No surprise there. There were no interviews with anyone in the town, which was a bit strange.
“-and they can go and fuck themselves. Quarantine? For what? It’s not like we’ve got the fucking plague,” I was becoming over-excited.
Sometimes when I’m in the grip of some powerful emotion I catch sight of myself in the mirror. I rarely see someone I recognise. No matter how much reality defies me, I still deep down consider myself to be rational and sensible. On this occasion of course, as I was growing animated, so too was my Watcher. We were both standing up, shouting at the television and down the phone. Our faces distorted in some combination of outrage and sneer, finger stabbing towards the craven wanker on the news… I stopped. Again, that’s not how I think I look, even when I’m angry. These glimpses make me question whether I am the person I think I am. I don’t know who else has seen me like that. Did they think I was a different person? I wonder if they saw the same thing I saw in my Watcher’s face: an anger that twists and disturbs. My sister certainly couldn’t, though I suppose she must have been frequent witness to the juvenile version. Maybe we rise above the awful versions of the people we know, or the bad parts are moderated by the good into an average of acceptability. On this occasion she was thankfully on the phone, and I’ve never gotten to the point of using video calling. I believe the kids use Skype now. It’s difficult to stare off into the distance if you can actually see someone’s face. Plus, all my generously doctored tales of activity are easily punctured with a glimpse in the flat. There were an awful lot of books on the floor. I sneezed.
“Yeah, I know I sound like I’ve got a bit of a cold. I had a late night and we ran out of milk. And I opened the book boxes, which might have been a mistake.”
I gazed around at the stacks of books. Some of them had drifted like chunky sand dunes across the floor. It was no longer particularly clear what sorting method I had been imposing either.
“You know what, I should probably go. You’d think they’d be telling us something about this quarantine thing. I’ve got some shelves to assemble as well. Well, it’s only one bookcase. I might put Katherine’s books in it. Some of them anyway. Yeah, love you too. Please tell Mum and Dad that I’m not ignoring their calls. Alright, I am ignoring their calls, but not because it’s them. Okay. See you later.”
Other people are exhausting. My Watcher and I blew out our cheeks together. I still hadn’t made that cup of tea, and the milk was unlikely to make its own way into the fridge. There are things we just have to do, no matter how strange or government ordained they are. Ain’t no politician that gets in the way of groceries.
I flicked the kettle on and got a couple of mugs out of the cupboard. Since I usually live on just one its cleaning protocol is being swished with boiling water; the rest sit sadly unused. I was glad to give them a chance to shine. I’ve always had that thing with objects that I invest them with more character and humanity than they possibly deserve. I can literally weep over the idea of a discarded teddy bear and just channel hop over an Ethiopian orphan appeal. I’m not proud of it in particular, I just place more value on the things that are with me right now than the things that I can’t touch or see. I’ve never thrown away a toy or item of jewellery without a pang of guilt and grief. I don’t know why I’ve come to place meaning in the immotile, perhaps it’s their utter inability to fail, or challenge, refuse or reject. I still feel bad when my cuddly bear falls out of bed in the night and I don’t notice until morning.
I only realised what I was doing as I poured boiling water on to the tea bags. I’d made two cups, aligned in the way I always would have done with Katherine: the mug handles touching as if they were holding hands. It’s a small thing, but then it’s always the small things that get you isn’t it? I leaned hard on the breakfast bar, arms fully stretched, pushing my shoulder blades up. I held my breath for a minute. I’d been active, and involved in the day, in what was happening and I’d just forgotten. My hands had smoothly slid into those familiar gears of there being two of us again. I knew the tears were coming but I was now keenly aware of the other presence, the presence that was not her but had allowed me to trick myself into routines that no longer had any place in my life. My Watcher stood right in front of me, mirroring my posture over the counter. Our heads were almost touching.
“You know what, fuck you.”
I spun away from the counter, eyes sprouting tears. I considered sweeping the mugs dramatically to the floor, but in the moment of consideration realised I was already distancing myself from the impulse that would have naturally smashed everything. It was no longer a feeling, now it was a choice. And there was no point to doing it. I didn’t want to see my Watcher mimic my act of spite, pretend to destroy the mugs that I fully remembered buying in Whittards years ago, arguing over the right colours to go together; they didn’t go together which was what we both liked about them. I felt so rigid, and bound by tension that my knuckles cracked of their own volition and my hands shook as I straightened them out. I swept my keys off the counter, seized my coat and stormed out of the flat, slamming the door behind me.
Even outside refused to match my mood. The rain of the night and the grey drizzle of the morning had broken up into a clear blue sky, untroubled by clouds with the sun gamely encouraging its subjects to enjoy the day. Well fuck the sun too. I might have gotten wet, but that would have been a righteous misery, enabling me to sink into myself and do some proper self-pitying. Instead it dried the tears that I so wanted to let go and locked it all deeper inside. I paused on the damp step. I’d left the flat quickly enough again that I’d left the Watcher behind. It wasn’t yet anticipating my actions well enough to keep up. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was going to do now. For all that I was angry at it for fooling me into thinking I was not alone, it was still intriguing enough to distract me again.
I took a look around at our newly quarantined town. There were fewer cars on the streets again. I doubted that the message of staying home would be terribly effective if people were already out and about. I did make eye contact with a couple walking hand in hand, hastening to stay ahead of their Watchers. They kept glancing furtively around, as if newly aware as I was, of the constant surveillance – they could be on news 24 even now as an example of the ongoing Event that had besieged our little nowhere town. That brief moment we shared was rich in sympathy, and open-mouthed surprise that I stood alone, without a Watcher behind me. They rushed on, their Watchers faithfully copying their furtiveness.
A hissing sound made me turn around. My Watcher was painfully extruding itself from the bottom of the closed outer door of the house. I’ve got no idea what the hiss was. It certainly wasn’t the sound of sand being poured through a keyhole like The Mummy. A fat ribbon of folded translucent rubber forced its way through the narrow gap. It unfurled from the feet upwards into the street, its legs and body rolling up until it stood facing me. It shook its head reproachfully. It was not copying me… I took a step back, my expectations challenged. It took a step back too, and suddenly it was all normal again. The Watcher mirrored my movements, even as I half-heartedly waved and did a tiny half step while thinking of the Marx Brothers. I had no idea what to do next. It felt foolish to just go back inside after my outburst. I felt as if I needed to justify it further with some extension into a charade of intention. Why should I feel foolish? It’s so difficult to own and really embrace our feelings and actions. I never feel as if I ought to be responsible for the things I do without thinking; how are they me – I’m the rational agent in here, remember.
So we stood there. Just looking at each other. Standing in the street. All that tension I was feeling, the pierced grief suddenly let flow and then stoppered just hanging in my chest. I let it go. Gave in. I motioned for the Watcher to move out of the way of the door. It did. I unlocked the outer door, took my coat off and unlocked the flat’s door and held it open for the Watcher. I followed it inside, tossed my keys back on the counter. My coat returned to the back of a chair. I carefully pressed the teabag in my mug against the side with a teaspoon, and then repeated it with the other mug. Milk. Sugar. I laid both mugs on the counter between my Watcher and I. The tea had cooled while I had calmed down outside and was ready to drink. I reached out for my mug and took a sip. My Watcher copied my action, picking up its mug and raising it to its lips. Tea dribbled out of the mug and down its front. I sighed.
Harvey woke up screaming. His segmented length thrashed against the confines of his cabin. The awful dream slowly faded as his feet pedalled across the ceiling. He had imagined that his legs fell off one by one until he had just four left with a floppy, elongated body dangling between them. It was his usual dream, the one that came frequently in times of stress and adventure. Intellectually, Harvey knew it was just his mind attempting to resolve his memories of being a man with the daily experience of being a centipede. That didn’t lessen the shock and fright as each limb dropped away. He flexed his dozens of legs, still working to remove their stiffness from his days on top of the balloon. Harvey’s flexing claws took chunks out of the woodwork and a comforting rain of sawdust fell on his shell.
He slipped fluidly out his cabin and undulated up the stairs onto the deck of The Dove’s Eye. It was warm and bright; they had enough altitude to take the edge off the sun’s brutal heat. Through his shell Harvey could feel the stuttering thrum of the airship’s engines, struggling against the damage they recently sustained. All things considered, they had made excellent progress.
“I owe you a great debt of gratitude sir,” their captain announced as he left the cockpit, “but for you our bodies would surely be drying in the dread sands.”
“Thank you Lord Corshorn. It is not often one such as I finds a useful role on board an airship.”
Lord Corshorn took a heavy swig from his enamelled mug and gestured forward with it. “We will shortly reach our destination.”
Harvey waved his antennae but could perceive little beyond the railing of the ship. His sensitivity was to sound, and touch and movement. The picturesque details of their journey were distant echoes and shades of grey. “Would you describe it to me captain?”
“Of course,” Lord Corshorn stepped up to the rail, and rested his mug upon it. With a little fuss, he lit a cigar and leaned over the rail.
“The sun blazes still, the sky aft is a clear and cloudless turquoise which meets the vast orange expanse of the Great Bane Desert at some vanished distance behind us. We are but a handful of leagues from the Razored Ridge. Even now it stabs upward from the desert, violent spurs of purple rock which pierce the white clouds above and shred them into failing tatters. Those vicious slices of rock are dappled in their lower slopes by lush greens and blues. Here and there specks of light glint in the forests and valleys. Perhaps those are the Crystal Finches you seek.”
“Thank you captain. I had not thought you a poetic man.”
“Nor I,” he laughed, “my wife is insistent that we attend the theatre and is tireless patron to an unknowable bevy of poets, artists and writers. They are a tedious rabble, but I cannot deny that their prose can affect one.”
“I can remember those colours, but I no longer see the world in them. It is strange.”
“Indeed, strange hardly covers the world we find ourselves in.”
“I suppose that being up in the air, where I can feel nothing but the air ship itself ought to feel empty and frightening. Yet I find in it peace and a calm I’ve rarely known since I first came to myself in this new shape.”
“Are you certain the cause of your disquiet is your form rather than your travelling companions?” remarked Lord Corshorn, eyebrow quirked with humour, “Traverstorm is hardly a guarantor of gentle diversion. I love the boy as I do my second favourite brother’s son, but by the bead, he’s a magnet for calamity.”
Harvey let out his equivalent of a sigh: a susurration of segments shuffling into line. “I cannot lay blame at Rosenhatch’s feet, I have many more of my own by which to place responsibility. I was the one who first encouraged him, with his fantastical tales of the darkness within the behaviour of the Host Lizards. It’s an affair which deserves some closer inspection one day. It was my expedition to the Undergrowl jungles that he accompanied me on. I’d say that we both draw adventure upon the world; that, or it finds a mischief in ourselves.”
“With luck this adventure of yours is nearing its end, or does that promise too much ill fortune for you, Czornwelss?”
“I’d not wish to invoke disaster beyond Rosenhatch’s natural aptitude. Yet, I do hope we’ll shortly snare a Crystal Finch. I’m anxious to test my little devices, especially considering they’ve survived our journey so far.”
“Mmm. My wife will be keen to see the fruits of your labours. Have you any thoughts as to the disposition of young Bublesnatch? I fear for the boy, he’s been a fine cabin lad and it’s more than just my duty to return him to his parents.”
Harvey had given a great deal of thought to the poor boy’s plight. His brief examination of the beasts which had burst from his eye socket suggested that they were merely the larval form of something nastier. However, they had not seemed unduly glutted with Jacob’s ocular jelly. It was possible that they incubated within his eyeball without consuming the matter of his eye. If that was so, then there was perhaps a chance of removing them before they hatched.
“Captain, I fear our chances of success are slender. I do have a thought. We may not save his sight, but it will surely be lost if those grubs reach maturity.”
Lord Corshorn tossed the remainder of his drink overboard. “If you still have hope, then so do I. Time is of the essence. Tell me what you need and we’ll have it.”
“A sharp knife, a steady hand and a strong stomach are all that I require.”
My Watcher stood opposite from me with tea dribbling down its dirty white chin, running freely down its torso and legs until it pooled at its feet.
“Well that’s just great,” I muttered, “I don’t suppose you’re going to clean up as well as try to drink tea?”
It appeared that mock sipping tea was about its limit, for now at least. It raised the mug a few more times, mouthing at the lip and allowing yet more tea to splash down itself. I took the mug off it and set it down on the counter. Making a mess with tea was usually my job. I was glad we’d picked up some more kitchen towels while we were at the supermarket earlier.
I tore off a couple of sheets and mopped up the tea on the counter then leaned over it to dab at the Watcher. As I reached out for it, the Watcher leaned back – the opposite motion. I’d been wondering about this earlier – would it actually let me touch it? Maybe it was like Peter Pan and his troublesome shadow, except not really suitable for stitching to your heels. That was a spectacularly odd idea to begin with. The only other example that struck me was all the horror films where you reach out to touch your subtly distorted reflection and are seized and pulled into the mirror and the surreal altered hell world within. That wasn’t the best of images to have in my mind while trying to clean up my Watcher. It certainly gave me a moment’s pause. On the other hand, it was clearly already in this world, so nothing really bad could happen, surely. I mean, what’s the worst an incompetent tea drinker can muster? Thus bolstered I felt I could continue.
“It’s alright – I just want to clean you up a bit. I’m not going to hurt you.” I managed to withhold my grandmother’s usual admonishment of “mucky pup”. That just didn’t feel appropriate.
The Watcher seemed to absorb my words. I was still holding my arm straight out, and the Watcher bent forwards again. Gingerly I patted at its mouth and chin. Its skin felt like warm rubber, and gave easily under just the pressure of my fingers. I wiped it down the neck and where the tea had tried to huddle in the crook between its collar bones. I wasn’t entirely sure that it had had collar bones before. It was difficult to tell, but it looked more defined that it had done last night. It was ever so slightly more detailed; a little bit more like a real person. It still had just one side though, so my jelly mould comparison still seemed apt. It was quite similar to a Han Solo frozen in carbonite cake mould I’d seen a few years ago. Frozen, waiting to wake up? I had no idea. I came round the counter to continue tidying it up.
There was clearly something going on inside as it wasn’t trying to copy my actions. That would have become a frustrating game very quickly. It stood utterly motionless, arms slightly splayed at its side, legs just apart enough to stand perfectly evenly. I wondered what it was learning and how it decided whether to watch, or to copy – or to do something different entirely. I’d been very accepting of its behaviour so far. That might have been because watching and copying felt relatively benign. At least it wasn’t spying on me from the corner of the room. I’d become quite comfortable with its proximity. It didn’t feel like a threat. It was only partly person shaped, which made it at once familiar and also unfinished, imperfect. Seeing imperfection affects us in strange ways. I think we’re compelled to pity the imperfect, or to raise its imperfections as that which should be valued. Each dimple, mole, slightly asymmetric feature is raised as the thing of quality, which adds uniqueness, rarity and therefore value to the whole. If we all looked the same, we wouldn’t just be able to tell each other apart, we wouldn’t be able to tell which was better than the other, who could be looked down upon or admired, judged or lauded. We’re a fucked up species.
Even though I was dealing with just the rubbery outline of a person, I still felt a little uncomfortable mopping up the rivulets of tea that gathered towards its groin. There was no definition there thankfully. It remained as sexless as a shop mannequin. Not the ones in Victoria’s Secret though. It didn’t have the decoration. It was still more like an undressed children’s dummy, with that creepy smoothing of features which should make it reassuringly androgynous, capable of becoming whatever you choose to project on it, or dress it with. Even so, it felt uncomfortable to be squatting in front of this non-human thing, wiping tea off it. I finished quickly, and mashed a handful of paper towels onto the floor with my foot. I felt more relaxed once I was back on my side of the counter. It continued to regard me impassively. Then it reached out for the tea again as I raised mine to my lips.
“Hell no, we’ve been through this already. If you learn to clean up then maybe you can have some more tea.”
I took the cup of tea away from it again and put it by the sink. Pouring it away felt churlish, and I wasn’t ready to add spite to the list of things I’d felt that day. The Watcher just stood there. There’s something about the way that light plays over and inside their substance that adds expression to the unmoving features. It looked, to me, as if it were somewhat put out.
“I’m sorry, alright. But you’re making a mess. I have enough trouble clearing away after myself.”
I looked around the flat. The Watcher looked around with me. It wasn’t just the books, although their disarray certainly added to the overall impression of utter chaos. Clothes were scattered over the back of the settee (which explained how I hadn’t gotten too cold asleep there last night). A cascade of unopened and torn envelopes, takeaway menus and free newspapers tumbled from the tiny table by the front door. I’d forgotten that the table was even there, it had been unusable for so long. A stack of picture frames cluttered one corner of the living room, next to a fantastically fat CD wallet, unzipped with a fistful of unsorted compact discs falling out. In theory I had a shoe rack. In practice it was stuffed with gloves, hats and trainers. The shoes I wore were scattered in front of it. The curtains were half drawn. I suspected that was as far as I’d tugged them in weeks. I was unjustly proud though that there were no plates or bowls of mouldering food piled in the living room. They had made it all way into the bin and crockery was stacked by the sink awaiting the joys of dishwasher cleansing. There was a read book or unread magazine on every flat surface (in addition to the library cityscape I’d built the previous evening. I maintain, still, that it is not possible to have too many books or reading materials.
I’ll admit that the flat was a damn sight less tidy than I had imagined. I hadn’t let anyone else in for at least a month, and it was somewhat depressing to consider that about four weeks was all it took to devolve into a bomb site. With the opened boxes there wasn’t even a clear path the bedroom or bathroom from the front door. That didn’t seem to be hampering my Watcher, who either stepped high over the debris or floated just above it. There were a great many things that needed to be done. The most pressing was not related to the state of my flat: finding out what was going on in the town. That was definitely the issue I should be most concerned about. But it wasn’t.
I had no doubt that even now various civil agencies were busy placing roadblocks on the roads in and out of town. I don’t drive and bus travel makes me horrifically travel sick, so being unable to leave the town by traditional motorised means didn’t bother me. It was inconceivable that they could effectively ring an entire town, even one so small with fences or soldiers (assuming that it was an ET style quarantine). I’d also briefly worked for the council and had no confidence in the ability of any public sector organisation to do anything on so grand a scale either quickly or competently. I don’t think a private company would either – they’re just differently inept. So should I decide that I wanted to leave at some point it would remain a near-certainty that I would be able to. I wasn’t so naive as to think that my pretend human rights would mean anything to the government and its control organisations if enough people were sufficiently scared or profit was somehow threatened. All government responses to surprise and fear are disproportionate, and frequently stupid. There was much more chance of them initiating a dangerous situation with us being caught in the middle of it.
All of these thoughts made me reluctant to leave the flat. I didn’t feel threatened. I didn’t feel as if I were in danger. I certainly didn’t want to be exposed to any panicking or hysterical people. It’s very noisy, and it’s contagious. My flat was a mess, and that might be something I could have control over. The likelihood of me figuring out the cause, agents and implications of the Event were approximately zero. My speciality lay in reading books and drinking cheap (but not ‘value’ quality) whisky. Those were things I fully intended to continue. My contribution to the Event could be simply not making it worse by doing anything stupid. Thus reassured I turned my attention back to the television which was still energetically repeating the same information, over and over again using slightly different angles of CCTV footage. The subtitles continued to make everyone appear to be a moron. I shrugged at it. My Watcher clearly agreed.
The state of the flat overall was quite severe. I had a number of options open to me. I could engage myself in a full scale war against the detritus. That was likely to take ages however, and I was mindful of how attempting to organise last night had only enhanced the severity of the carnage. No, what I needed was a war of attrition. I needed to begin with a single demonstration of my intentions and so strike fear and confidence into the hearts of disarray. After all, I had carried the damned thing back from Argos. I would need tools. In a fit of anger some weeks ago I’d hurled my only screwdriver across the living room and it was now somewhere under either the fridge or the dishwasher. That was effectively unattainable without significant effort. On the other hand, I had a drawer with knives in it. That held much more appeal, both for its ease and that it involved knives. They’re immediately appealing items: shiny, good to heft in the hand and sharp. There’s not much more perfect a symbol of mankind’s tool using heritage – multipurpose, beautifully engineered from a radically simple idea and easy to kill things with. It would definitely kill the Sellotape sealing the box and should stab the inevitable screws into their holes.
I cleared a bit of space by the front door and enthusiastically hacked open the flat packed box. The Watcher bent down to join me, kneeling on the floor. I knew it was a position I’d regret when I next tried to stand. Instructions – check. Lots of different lengths of fake pine – check. Bag of mystifying screws – check. And joy of joys – bespoke screwing instrument – check. I handed the knife to my Watcher, since I wouldn’t be needing it after hacking open the bag of screws and narrowly avoiding stabbing myself in the palm. My Watcher took it, and knelt there holding it out towards me.
“Just put it out of the way,” I said, aware that this was possibly not my best move ever.
The Watcher hesitated, then in a motion which set all the hairs on the back of my wild, lunged forwards and stood up. It took the knife back into the kitchen and placed it on the counter between the kettle and the microwave (my primary tools of nourishment). I let my breath out and told myself to get a grip. Too focussed on the task, not paying enough attention to the world around me. I chose not to scale that thought up any further as I caught a glimpse of the Prime Minister on the television, babbling inanely and without a hint of trustworthiness.
It sounds clichéd, but the instructions made no sense at all. The diagram was sketchily done and gave the impression of a Tardis exploding in the heart of a sun made from nails. Thankfully I’ve a little wit of my own and it looked straightforward enough, despite the peculiar screws. I’d seen similar objects in Prague’s Torture Museum. Now that the knife was safely out of both of our hands I felt more relaxed. Katherine had always been rather alarmed to see me with a knife in my hand, and having now seen my shadow handling it with about the same carelessness that I did I felt that I understood her alarm better. Well, we’d soon be assembling a book case for her books, so it all seemed quite apt. We made a start. My Watcher was content to observe and copy my growing frustration with the furniture assembly. I swear it took particular pleasure in mimicking my expression whenever I dropped a screw, or the bizarre tool that had been supplied for forcing them into too-small holes.
By the time I’d screwed in half of the shelves, the Watcher was ready to take a more active role. I encouraged it to support the shelves’ other ends while I fixed them in place. While its grip was initially wobbly, repetition stabilised it, and its hands and arms grew visibly more solid and firm. It felt like an unlikely task for developing its humanity, but it was one of those tasks that either brought people together or threw them into a fearsome hammer-wielding rage. I was glad to note that we were achieving the former and not the latter; obviously not having hammer was an important element for peace. I suspected my hammer and the rest of the tools were in lock up somewhere. Or possibly under the sink. I’d had little cause to seek them out. All of the pictures were still in the corner and the most I’d needed was the screwdriver for fixing the settee.
Together we lifted the light and flimsy seeming book case to its feet and rightful place. Its flimsiness was explained by the two metal bars we had failed to attach to its back. I toyed with ignoring them, but my Watcher was shifting its attention between the discarded instructions and the wobbling shelves. It would be poor guidance on my part to show it only how to build a bad set of shelves. We spun it around and I held the spars in place while the Watcher clumsily screwed them into place. Like shoe lacing, handling a tiny weird shaped tool takes a lot more effort and dexterity than we give credit for. It’s genuinely impressive what my hands manage to do without my paying them the least attention.
Complete, we stood side by side, in a very traditional folded arm posture of satisfaction at a job well done. They were damned near straight shelves and looked as if they might even survive the night. I was quite proud of us, and I felt that my Watcher was too. Certainly he looked equally pleased. Thrilled by this success I decided that a celebration was in order. I shuffled around the discarded packaging, kicking it into a rough heap in front of the door. Eventually I reached the kitchen and explored the refrigerator. Its contents were underwhelming for a celebration. I did have a single can of Sagres, which would just have to do.
“I’ve only got one I’m afraid,” I said while tearing off the red foil topper that Sagres use to protect their customers from their rat faeces ridden warehouses.
“Here’s to a job well done,” the shelves were still standing, whole minutes after their assembly. I leaned on the breakfast bar gazing vaguely in their direction. I’d be able to get at least some books on there. Maybe a box full. That would be a good start. After that I could consider how many more book cases might be needed to absorb the paper mountain range dominating the living room. It might be quite a lot of book cases. Possibly more than would fit in the room. Taller book cases could help, one more shelf all the way around the room… A can of Sagres doesn’t go far. Once cold it is practically inhalable from the can. I was about to rinse it out under the sink when I noticed that my Watcher was no longer watching me. Reflexively I checked that the knife was still on the counter. I’m not sure why I checked. It just seemed odd, as if this were the first odd thing that had happened since the Watcher arrived.
The Watcher was watching the television. A bleak thought, that his sole purpose might be to watch television, endlessly. That would be a dreadful existence. I only had it on in the background for the flashing images and that I’d left the remote control on the settee. The Watcher was intent, completely motionless apart from a slight flexing of its fingers, drawing them up into half fists and relaxing them over and over. It was exactly what I did when I was focussed on something. The news was still on of course, how could it ever end? A striking middle aged man was standing in front of the ghastly ‘Welcome’ sign that mars every road in the countryside. Behind the sign a vast fence was being erected. Tanks, actual tanks were rolling into place on the road and there was everywhere the purposeful movement of men in military fatigues and police standing out of their way.
It had seemed so desperately unlikely and impossible. But they were sealing the town. The man’s subtitles spelled that out all too clearly. The full cordon was expected to be in place within the next two hours. I couldn’t imagine where they kept miles and miles of fencing, just on the off chance that it would be needed. I guess that’s planning for you. That changed things. Previously, I’d been entirely content with the idea of the quarantine. On a day to day basis, or hourly basis to scale it back to how I handled time, it was of no consequence to me whatsoever. Since I’d moved here a month and a half ago I’d had no desire to leave. That was the whole reason I’d come here. It was ‘away’. I knew no one here, no one knew me. I could see exactly no one and there would be no one to interfere with that. I talked to my family with the semi-regularity that they had become so used to. As long as I did check in and hadn’t given too strong an impression that I was drinking myself into a game of chicken with the motorway, then they were content to give me space. But now – tell me I can’t go somewhere and it gets under my skin. It’s a pointless contrariness. I didn’t want to leave the town, but I certainly didn’t want to be told I couldn’t leave. Unacceptable.
I grabbed my phone. I’m not a complete idiot and it would be a good idea to ensure that I could get a lift if I did get out of town. My sister is closest, and most likely to cave in to a plea for aid. I found her number and tapped on it.
I moved to the window, and shook the phone. Everyone knows that improves the signal. It didn’t. I turned off all the mobile data and other other icons whose purpose I had never divined, and then turned them all back on. Nothing. I tried email. The whirly thing just spun endlessly in the Outbox.
Just when I did want to talk to someone I couldn’t. That was just perfect. I cracked my knuckles and my jaw in tension. The Watcher was still hooked on the telly. I hoped I hadn’t been right about its purpose. The news was still unravelling across the bottom of the screen revealing further distractions. It sounded like the whole army was surrounding the town, and RAF bases were all on full alert. Presumably the navy was too, but they didn’t talk about that. We’re about as landlocked as you can be so they weren’t going to be much use, but they wouldn’t get left out of any alertness. That was also who had the Tridents of course. I was so glad that nukes came so easily to mind in connection with quarantine. I’ve definitely read too many books and watched far too many films. Around me were dozens of tales of nuclear disaster and its fall out. Hugh Howey’s Dust was just lying there staring at me accusingly. Well, if it were to go fully tits up I certainly wouldn’t be one of his silo survivors.
On the television I saw a group of men and women (townsfolk I suppose I’d call them if this were a medieval fantasy story, or the American mid west) getting out of their cars behind the fences and approaching the cordon. With them were their Watchers of course. Everything happened very fast, while seeming to be in slow motion at the same time (the Wachowskis nailed it). A man and a woman, their Watchers matching their angry strides and waving arms came right up to the fence. At the same time the tank swivelled its turret with unbelievable menace and a troop (I’ve no idea how you group soldiers, but a bunch sounds wrong) of soldiers dropped to their knees, rifles aimed directly at the townsfolk (I know…) The exchange wasn’t being subtitled, but it looked insanely tense. A second later there was another soldier pushing the agog reporter and his camera crew away and blocking the camera’s view. The camera shook suddenly, as if the cameraman had just jumped in the air and the subtitles came back briefly:
Then the live feed ended and the studio set up reappeared. The two anchors, who I’m sure I’d seen before, possibly in an inadvisable dance routine on the BBC, looked shocked. They recovered quickly, professionals all the way clutching with incredulity at the little voices in their ears, with “we’ve lost our live feed I’m afraid, and while we’ll work on getting back to Tom, for now let’s go to the weather.”
Then the channel collapsed into pixelation and wiped to black. My television informed me that there was ‘No Service’ for it either. I couldn’t think of a positive spin for that. It looked pretty clear – those people had just been shot on live television. What the hell was going on? I had utterly failed to take this seriously. This was insane.
I think I stopped breathing. When I did take another shuddering breath it was prompted by my Watcher, who was standing on the other side of the room, its hands pressed over its mouth and nose as mine were. Shock was evident on its face, it was the same shock as on mine.
In the good old days television would revert to a hissing static in times of crisis and then be replaced by the emergency placard – a small girl with a creepy doll. Modern televisions just go black. It’s a real shame. I think we need background indications of emergency – an interruption in the usual services.
The lights were still on, everything sounded normal. And the telly was just a black rectangle squatting in front of the window. It seemed badly at odds with how I felt. I’ve been cut off from the world for a little while now, but I’d never been truly severed from it. The tearful midnight calls to my sister, the careful queries by text message, mainlining Orange Is The New Black and Continuum, buying new books on Amazon – all gone. I was feeling the digital wall more strongly than the physical one being erected around us. I’d had more involvement with the invisible magic stuff than the real. I was also quite shocked by what I’d just seen before the television stopped showing me anything.
Those soldiers had fired on the people approaching the fence. Whether they had been killed, wounded or just warned I had no way of telling. That left it utterly open to the audience to decide what had happened. That’s one of the issues with censorship – it blunts the message and gives free reign to the imagination. A number of possibilities jumped, leaped and clawed their way to prominence in my mind. The soldiers had gunned them down just for getting to close to the fence. Why would that be done? It strongly suggested that the Watchers were beyond strange and mysterious – they were an active threat. Maybe they had manifested some other function when getting near the blockade. I was hard pressed to imagine what that might be. With a few exceptions my Watcher was completely passive, and if anything was capable of being instructed. Hardly a bullet-worthy foe. I’m also quite sceptical of the bias we get through television news, and I had been watching it with just the subtitles, which isn’t exactly the full bandwidth version of events. So I don’t know what I didn’t see and there’s a huge risk of filling in the gaps and believing it’s what we saw. We aren’t that bright, and the least we can do is recognise that and try to combat it. What else could have happened? Maybe the soldiers ordered the group to stop and merely fired warning shots. If so, there wouldn’t be much need to hustle the news crew out of the area, and no need to sever communications for the town.
Okay, so I couldn’t find much positive about what I’d seen. I was also experiencing a powerful sense of rising panic and anxiety. I’m well acquainted with anxiety attacks and can certainly recognise one on its way. Thing is, anxiety attacks for me tend to be in response to internal pressures, not really external pressures. I felt justified in being freaked out by what was happening. I took a quick hit of Salbutamol from one of the inhalers I kept scattered around the flat. For years I’ve failed to remember to transfer inhalers between bags, but when I was twenty they gave me a Diskhaler, which looks awesome with its nautiloid shape. Since then I’ve habitually ordered extra prescriptions so that I have one in every bag I use, one permanently in the bedroom and kitchen plus a couple of spares to cope with my propensity for serial mislaying of any and all useful or important items. It pays off, like when I use bank notes as bookmarks. Sure, it’s an expensive bookmark, but it’s great when you re-read a book and find money in it. I’ll admit that I’ve only found a fiver once and I’m pretty sure there’s about fifty quid distributed between the books on the floor. It’s the principle of the thing. With a fresh hit of asthma drugs and the necessary deep breaths that accompany it I felt a bit calmer, and slightly light headed. I like feeling light headed, it makes the world a dreamier place and lifts me just out of reality for a few seconds. It’s not that great for walking downstairs, but standing or sitting it’s very pleasant.
I swayed in place for a few seconds. My Watcher declined to sway woozily and was still standing alertly in front of the television. I continued the questioning I’d begun.
“So, what are you? I know you’re not some Russian intervention for destabilising the Western regimes. That’s the kind of crap I expect to find on Fox News. You’re not UK military tech, otherwise they wouldn’t be so freaked out. Unless you’re an experiment that got loose and infested a small town that no one cares about. I don’t believe that either. No way have we got the capability to make a rubberised mimic robot.”
It looked at me. I don’t know if it was me looking sceptical, and it copying me but it had an arched eyebrow of disbelief that I normally reserve for meetings at work.
“Alright fine. Well unless you want me to keep guessing, you’re going to have to contribute something.”
Mutely it raised its shoulders in a perfect shrug.
“I’ll give you credit. You’ve nailed denial of responsibility and sarcasm.”
This wasn’t going anywhere. I needed to do something, and do something productive. I’d warded off the anxiety attack, but there was still an entirely reasonable stress binding my stomach and chest. I stretched some more. It helped. What to do? When it’s impossible to make a decision, the worst thing I’ve found that I can do is precisely nothing. The weight of possibility crushes me flat. Eliminating possibilities drags the future and the necessary course of action towards me. It’s also possible to call that ‘delaying the inevitable’. It’s all about how you look at things really. I should finish what I’ve begun.
Katherine’s book case stood freshly assembled and naked. An activity that required zero commitment from me – perfect. I’d stacked Katherine’s books in an unsorted heap of Philippa Gregory, Jasper Fforde and endless hardboiled and other kinds of detective fiction. I don’t know what the sub-genres are called – soft-boiled, bloody, double-yolkers? I don’t know. She loved them all, nearly indiscriminately. I could respect that. I began just stacking them, equally indiscriminately onto the shelves. After a moment my Watcher joined me. It reached out for a book and I slapped its hand aside.
“These are not your books to handle,” I snapped, without thinking. I could feel that massive rush of blood into my chest, panic scrabbling to claim me. I took the book that the Watcher had been about to pick up and hugged it to myself. It was one of the few fantasy books that Katherine had really enjoyed. I guess it was more like steampunk: Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. A glimpse of the future where municipal Darwinism had moving cities that preyed on each other for survival. It’s bonkers and fun. I’d read it too on her recommendation. It was probably the closest she got to enjoying science fiction and fantasy. Steampunk does have a lot of crossover appeal. It was cool because it was a genre we could talk about and enjoy together rather than just being interested in what the other was reading. I’d liked that. All the Gail Carriger books were there too. Maybe they could all go in together.
My Watcher appeared to accept my refusal of assistance. It still knelt next to me, hands folded in its lap. I relaxed my grip on Mortal Engines and smoothed it out a bit. I had always been impressed by how Katherine had managed to avoid creasing the spines on her books. It intimidated me when I borrowed them. I wasn’t a mad spine snapper or anything – seeing people do that to a book makes me cringe and want to shout at them – but I love reading and part of that it reading while doing anything else: eating, walking, brushing my teeth, sitting in the bath. A certain amount of damage gets added naturally as a result. I do like a nice clean spine on a bookshelf though. Hardbacks usually look good, as long as I’ve been careful with the dustjacket. It’s removed when the book is selected from the ‘ to-read’ heap and as long as I haven’t misplaced it, gets returned at the end and it continues to look beautiful. On the other hand, I made it my business to collect all of John Wyndham’s works about ten years ago and I rather relish the frequently handled state of those books. They’re damn fine stories and I’m proud to have copies which so many other people have enjoyed too.
I was perhaps being over-sensitive. The Watcher had after all helped me put the book case together and it was not unreasonable to help out with filling them. I handed it back the copy of Mortal Engines. The Watcher carefully placed it on the third shelf. I added a handful of other books. It didn’t take long to fill up the five shelves of the book case. It had absorbed a single box of Katherine’s books. The rest of them of course were stacked on the floor around us. I wondered if I ought to put them back in the box until I had sorted out some more shelving. That felt like a backwards step.
I stood up, cursing my knees. I noticed that the Watcher had no such trouble in rising. Newer knees I suppose. I took a couple of steps back on to the cardboard and plastic debris from our assembly so I could appreciate the sight better. The shelves were now filled with a satisfyingly haphazard jumble of authors, genres, book colour, shape and size. It would probably have driven Katherine insane. I allowed myself a smile at the thought. It looked good. It would surely only take another twenty or so book cases to home our books properly. I looked round. Alright, maybe thirty. There was no way they would all fit in here, not even if I filled every inch of wall space. I could divide the living room in two, create a book wall between in it and the kitchen and get another few metres of book cases in. That might work. It would be like living in library stacks. I quite liked the idea.
As I said before, one task at a time. Occupy myself, but not unreasonably. The books were as resolved as they could be for now. Sure, I could tidy the heaps up and reorganise them endlessly, but that was mere prevarication. More usefully I could dispose of the card packaging and bits of plastic. That was something Katherine would have approved of. I tugged my shoes on, selecting one of the many Velcroed pairs, in deference to my Watcher. I couldn’t put it through the lacing process again. The Velcro copying did give it a bit of trouble. Perhaps it hadn’t anticipated that there would be different steps for different shoes. I didn’t know how much it was learning, or how much it was intended to learn. Maybe a single shoe fitting was sufficient, but I had a dozen or so pairs of shoes which all called for some variation in being pulled on. I was kind of curious to see if it would cope if I just tried them all on right now. Focus. Recycling. I bundled up all the cardboard and junk bits together and tried to reach the door handle. There was slightly too much awkwardly shaped card for me to reach. My Watcher leaned past and twisted it for me, pulling it open.
“Cheers. Come on, I’ll show you where the recycling wheelie bin is.”
We all get a wheelie bin each – one per flat. There’s one recycling bin between two of us, which should mean that there are three and a half, but instead there are just three. By common consensus we just filled them all sequentially. That system falls down approximately every other day. Today was that day. The closest one was already full of plastic bottles and cereal boxes. I shoved the bins aside with my hip to get further into the bin corral. Using a well practiced and strengthened index finger I flicked the lid into the air. On a really good day I’d get it to open all the way over, but usually I just got it halfway open and could jam my burden into the gap. Today I got it quite high, up to 90 degrees open I reckon, hanging on the balance of whether it would come down closed or wide open. I didn’t give it the chance to whack me and shoved the cardboard in its maw. I was going to crush it all down when I spotted something odd in the paper waste at the bottom.
It looked like a creepy kids doll. All dolls look creepy. I’ve a particular horror of the ones with the eyes that open and close. I’m baffled by the ones that wet themselves. Porcelain dolls are rightly used in horror to depict that most ghastly breach of innocence. This one though was rubbery, which was disturbing in its own right. Not like a Stretch Armstrong or the weird texture of mid-eighties’ Barbie. It was a pale grubby colour. I laid the recycling on top of one of the other wheelie bins and reached in. As soon as I touched it I knew what it was. The couple on the second floor have a bunch of kids, including a one year old. I’m fairly sure it’s that young, but I do have trouble telling. I’d mostly seen it either red faced and screaming or scrunched up and silent. I plucked the tiny shape out of the bin. It was a tiny Watcher, the sort of size I’d seen in the twin-pram earlier that day. It had been cut in half.
I was horrified. Sure, I’d decapitated and mutilated my sister’s Barbies and Sindys. I never got my hands on Skipper, Sindy’s little sister. Maybe the symbolism of that was striking enough to put me off even as a child. But this was different. The cut was jagged, as if it had been stretched and cut in half with scissors. I was very conscious of my Watcher right behind me. I knew it couldn’t have seen what I was doing. I was concerned about what its reaction to this would be, if it had one, and if it had one that wasn’t just my reaction replicated in its own rubber features. I turned, cradling both halves of the baby Watcher in my hands. My Watcher looked at what I was holding. Earlier I’d noticed that they didn’t watch each other, didn’t really even acknowledge each other when we’d bumped into other people in the street and shops. My Watcher slowly extended its arms. I laid the torn up baby gently in its hands.
The Watcher looked down at the ruined shape it held. It began to vibrate, ripples running through its rubbery substance like ripples in a bowl of jelly when it’s struck with a spoon. The strange blurring of edges I’d observed before resumed, the baby Watcher in its hands wobbling more forcefully. Abruptly the shaking stopped. My Watcher looked directly at then turned, and ran away. I was so surprised that I fell backwards into the cluster of bins. They shifted and gave awkwardly, not quite giving me the support I needed. I slipped amongst them and fell. The Watcher was gone.
I’d no desire to lie in bin juice so I hauled myself back up and ran after the Watcher. I rounded the corner of the at the back of our building and scanned the street in both directions. Nothing. Nothing of my Watcher anyway. Two guys were on the opposite side of the street and stopped to stare at me. Their Watchers turned to face me as well. Further down the road on my side a group of teenagers were doing whatever it is teenagers do now. Wandering around the streets hoping for something interesting to happen. They’d usually be in more luck staying at home and playing video games. I briefly wondered where my PS2 and Wii were. I hadn’t even thought of them since I’d moved here. Maybe I should upgrade at last. That was a thought for later, much later when we could get such things ordered and delivered from online. The teenagers halted as well, their Watchers fanning out around them like a peacock’s feathers. I realised why they were staring. I had no longer had a Watcher.
I waved hesitantly at the men across the road and darted back inside the building. I peered out of the bubbled glass windows. They were useless for detail, but movement drifted across them like a goldfish in its bowl. The men continued on their way and a few heart-racing minutes later the teenagers passed the building too. It seemed like their ghostly white shadows lingered slightly on passing the window, but they didn’t stop for long. This was exactly the kind of excitement I wanted to avoid. And all caused by recycling. I resolved to tidy nothing more that day, and possibly for longer. I’d broken out into the kind of dank sweat that makes your collar greasy and hair feel horrible. I went back into my apartment and locked the door.
I felt alone. The flat was exactly as it had been before, but it was just me in it now. I was still pleased with Katherine’s book case. I even thought about finding a photograph of her and putting it up. A knock at the door scared the life out of me. I froze, while a fresh sheen of sweat broke out. I wasn’t even sure what I was worried about. I hadn’t done anything – I’d been helpful if anything. I wasn’t even sure who I thought I might be in trouble with. The ‘authorities’ obviously, but we were all under their spotlight. There was no reason to single me out. No one had even seen me and my Watcher and the ripped up baby Watcher. I hesitated to say “murdered” even in my head, but I could feel the shape of the word hovering in the background, pressing all the euphemisms forwards, just biding its time. Its time was soon, it crushed simple words like damaged, discarded, broken, lost and emerged in all its blackened iron and blood soaked font, vast and three dimensional. It over powered all the other words and ideas until it stood alone against a red and black sky: murdered.
The thought cast a shadow on everything else. Had I just stumbled upon a murder? Of what? They weren’t people, they were just… shaped like people, on the front anyway, and all they did was watch, and copy. And try to drink tea and help put away books. I realised that at some point I’d flipped around how I saw my Watcher. I’d been treating it like a person. Because that’s what you do – it’s a basic measure of humanity – how we choose to treat others. I’ve been fond of the philosophical puzzles about whether other people are real, or whether they have real feelings or whether they just simulate them to a point where you can’t tell the difference. It’s especially used in arguments about artificial intelligence. What’s the line – when does it become just intelligence? Our superiority complex as humans makes us think that everthing else is not quite as bright or real as we are. It’s obvious bollocks, though that is virtually impossible to prove when your measure is ‘how human is it?’ It’s a stupid standard. What you have to do, morally and ethically if you can’t be sure that the people you speak to are not really unfeeling automata, is treat them as people. If you do, then they’ll respond the way that people do. If it turns out further down the road that they are indeed people, then you’ve granted them some basic respect. If it turns out they’re not real people then you’ve lost nothing because they behaved exactly like people anyway. It’s what beings deserve. I’d begun to apply that same thinking to my Watcher. And now it was gone, fled because I handed it the murdered body of its kin.
The knocking on my door turned into a hammering while I was distracted by thoughts of personhood.
“I know you’re in there. I saw you go in. Come on, open up – I just want to talk.”
It always begins with talking doesn’t it? Those are our stages of interaction: observe, talk, attack. It’s simple. Happens every day. Did I have any way of keeping a confrontation just at talking stage? I didn’t know. How can we – how can we be sure that other people are as rational as ourselves? I realised I was applying the exact opposite logic that I’d just applied for making the dead baby Watcher are murder victim. That was enough to chill me out a little bit. I also recognised the voice. It was my neighbour from the second floor. The one with the children. The one with the baby.
I opened the door.
“Hi,” I tried to avoid both hostility and bland neutrality. It may have been more a squeak than anything else.
“Can I come in?”
She stood in my doorway. I groped for her name. Alison.
“Hi Alison. Um, sure. Come on in.”
I moved out of the way. Alison came in but had to stop almost immediately – because of the books.
“Sorry about the mess. Here,” I shunted a heap of books to one side with my leg, allowing her enough room to high-step into the kitchen. No Watcher followed her. I closed the door and made sure that I locked it. “I’ve been unpacking books.”
Alison looked at me as if I were a slightly hyperactive child, “Yeah, I can see that. It’s a lot of books.”
“They’re not all mine, ” I replied automatically, “well, most of them are. I think. The rest belonged to, um. Katherine.”
“Right.” She said, beautifully noncommittal. An admirable quality.
I couldn’t help looking around for either my Watcher or hers. “So… what can I do for you Alison?”
“I think you know,” she said. This was precisely the kind of conversation I hate. No one making clear what they knew, or suspected, or actually wanted. Just waiting for the other person to make the leap and either clear the gap or fill it with their body. Well, I’m not that person. I waited. It was extremely uncomfortable.
“I saw you in the bin yard,” it might have been the strangest accusation I’ve ever received.
“Fine. Yes. I found it, what do you want?” When pressed I find it difficult not to become defensive. It’s rather like when I’m told I can’t do something. It’s not a trait I would encourage in others and would rather not have myself. But I felt tense, and on the defensive. This was my flat and Alison had invaded it with her words and lack of a Watcher.
“Where’s your Watcher?”
I sighed. “It ran off, after I found the- the baby Watcher in the recyling bin.”
“It’s not a baby,” she snapped, “my baby’s upstairs with my husband and that thing is no longer hovering around him copying everything he does.” She barely suppressed a shiver.
“What about the rest of your Watchers?”
“You only found the smallest,” she stood there, in my kitchen. Defiant but clearly nervous too.
“Jesus fuck, you killed them all?” I blurted, almost shouting. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Her expression flickered between fear and anger. I had no idea which was winning.
“You think it’s normal – to have those things appear in your house, watch your children while they sleep, doing god knows what all night? And then acting like they belong, like it’s okay to just appear and start following people around their home? That’s not normal, that’s not right. We protected ourselves. Who know what they might have been intending to do.”
“So, what. You just cut them up?”
“You can catch them. They’re made of stuff. Who knows what – it’s like soft rubber. It tears easily.” Alison was shaking as she justified herself to me. I didn’t need her to justify herself, but I was judging her. I’d slipped into a peace with my Watcher, a peace she and her husband clearly had not.
“Where are they now?” I couldn’t help but keep asking questions. I don’t think I wanted to know, not really, but it’s like the scary bits in films: I want to hide, but I need to know what’s happened – the horrid jump scare is coming and I’ll hate it, but it’s what the whole damned film is for.
“The bins.” Alison looked at me like I was an idiot. That’s probably fair – where else would they be?
“So why come to me?”
“You don’t have one either – one of those things, and you know what we did.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t kill mine.” I’d crept back through the kitchen as far as I could. I wanted to be as far away from this person as I could be. She’d seemed quite nice before, with her three kids and quiet but smiling husband. I couldn’t remember his name. I wanted to say David, but it seems like a third of all men are called David, so really he could have been called anything. She obviously didn’t know what to do with my statement. I didn’t either. It was awkward. We both clearly felt that something very important, and possibly very serious was happening, and that what each of us had done, or was going to do next would have ramifications.
“Look,” I began, “I’m not blaming you for anything you’ve done. What do I know? I don’t have kids- I’m here on my own. I can totally see how that would be different. I just – I don’t know how long I’m going to be on my own. Do you see what I mean? I don’t know if it’s coming back.”
She attained a paleness that a corpse would have been justly proud of.
“I – I thought you would help.”
“Help? Help with what? We’re all being watched. What do you want me to do?”
“I’m sorry. This was a mistake. I should go.” Alison turned and made for the door.
“Wait – I don’t understand. What’s the mistake?”
“We just wanted to be sure that you wouldn’t tell anyone.” Now she looked terrified.
“I don’t have anybody to tell,” I replied, “I don’t want to tell anyone. I don’t know what it means, that you don’t have Watchers anymore. I don’t want you or your family to be harmed.” I don’t know who I thought would harm them. The Watchers? The government? Who knows. But she was scared. I was scared. I guess everyone was scared – we didn’t know what was going on. All we could do was handle the present, and the people we met in those moments and hope for the best.
“Honestly, really: I won’t tell anyone. I promise.” I was reassuring myself as much as Alison. It felt important that we trust each other. I didn’t know what would happen if I said I was going to tell… someone – the Watcher? I had no way of guessing what the outcome of that would be.
“It’s safer for you, and for me if I say nothing. We can pretend this never happened.” We couldn’t of course – they were upstairs with no Watcher, and who knew what mine was up to. Did they communicate, could they plan, could they act? Why hadn’t I given any of this a thought before?
“I don’t want my children to get hurt,” she began, “I’m frightened. I’m worried that we’ve made a mistake. That we did the wrong thing. It felt like the only thing we could do, but now I don’t know.” I could see why she was scared. They made a decision and went with it. That’s what happens when you commit to action – it gets done, you move forwards. But then you have to deal with what comes next. Making a move without knowing what comes next… well. I’d been avoiding that for weeks.
“I will say nothing – to anyone. Just stay in the flat. If you come out, people will see you have no Watchers. The looks I got standing out front after my Watcher bolted,” I couldn’t repress a shudder, “it’ll be okay.”
I have no idea why I said that. It’s a terrible thing to say. I had no idea if it would be okay. For all I knew the whole town was going to be carpet bombed anyway. I decided not to mention that idea.
“I’m sorry. That’s a stupid thing to say. I hope everything will be okay.”
“Sure,” well, I’d lost her. “I’m going to go now. Thank you, for what you said.”
“I meant it. About not saying anything,” I clarified, keen to prevent further platitudes from escaping my mouth.
She went to open the door, I stopped her. “Look – if you need anything. I don’t know what I can do to help. But if there’s anything I can do – please. Let me know.”
Alison stopped, and turned back to me. It’s awful seeing so much fear in another person’s face. The terrible fear that their whole life was coming apart and could never be the same again. I’d seen it in the mirror after the accident. I couldn’t bear seeing it on someone else’s face. Maybe that’s how we know that we’re all real people – we can see the same pain in each other.
“I, I brought something.” she said, reaching into her pocket. I froze, convinced by a thousand stories that I was about to be shot. She handed me a red ovoid plastic box, decorated in Spider-Man webs, I turned it over to see Spider-Man’s familiar mask. I must have looked sufficiently blank to require an explanation.
“It’s my son’s walkie-talkie. It’s supposed to work over a hundred metres, but that’s rubbish. It works for about twenty feet inside. We’ve got the other one upstairs.”
“If your Watcher comes back, or someone comes into the building please let us know. We’ll have ours on all the time.”
“I can do that.”
She slipped out of the apartment and I locked the door again. I slumped down the back of it and looked at the walkie-talkie she’d given me. Spidey’s cheery face told me that everything was going to be alright.
I still stood by the door, the Spider-Man walkie-talkie in my hand. I noticed that it had a convenient belt clip and was halfway to clipping it on to my trousers when I started using my brain again. It was something to hide, despite the forethought of its creators. I squeezed the button on the side of it and got a reassuring burst of static. If Alison’s family upstairs were listening for a signal, they might have thought this was it. To dispel any doubts I held the button down again and murmured “testing” into it. I felt like a complete tool. I did remember to release the button.
A moment later a boy’s voice came through.
“Sorry, I was just testing it to make sure it works.”
“Um. Spider-Man out.”
“Right. Okay, well, Mary Jane out then.”
Well, at least I’d established our communication protocols. That was important. I stuffed it into my pocket and held myself up towards the mirror. It wasn’t visible. Good. Covert comms were go. I hadn’t used a walkie-talkie since I was about nine. I’d begged for a set of Action Force ones and finally gotten them. They were of an appalling quality. We had been better off with the cups and string. That was still less covert than simply shouting between trees. I’m fairly sure they didn’t even work up to twenty feet apart. The modern era had brought us such advances.
It did put me on the track of how we might still be able to talk to people outside of the town. Seeing the soldiers on telly had reduced my desire to test the quarantine zone. I’d never been reassured by people carrying guns, still less when their express purpose was to keep people like me away from other people. The sight of armed police around Crown Court and airports never failed to send a chill through me. Somewhere like America you must just get used to everyone carrying a machine who’s express purpose was to kill things. I carried chewing gum and house keys. At a push I could do quite a lot of damage if I tried very hard, but even combined – sticky keys were no firearm. I’d always fancied having a taser though. They looked like a lot of fun. The soldiers probably had those too, but they appeared to be preferring their rifles which also provided some hints about how seriously the authorities were taking this Event. I know almost nothing about walkie-talkies, but I couldn’t imagine there were many if any channels reserved for children to talk on, so whatever frequency this Spider-Chatter worked on it would probably be picked up by similar devices. So in theory I could get close to the fence… and talk to the soldiers there, who would probably shoot me. Genius.
I still had no idea what to do next. I was alone, newly in receipt of a secret and secretive communications, and a bit sweaty. The only definitive action I could take was to enjoy a shower on my own. As I’d told Alison, I had no idea if or when my Watcher would return, or what would happen when it did. Seeing it go haring off in what I suspected was a decent approximation of my gait had been unnerving, never mind what had followed. I hadn’t enjoyed my washing experience that morning. Being watched had made it a swifter and clumsier affair than usual. Being clean always helps me think better. Part of it is not being able to smell myself. Even though I was alone I still locked the bathroom door. I did that anyway, whether there was a Watcher in my life or not. Living alone always makes me susceptible to the memes of horror films that have infected my mind . Locking the door was not an Arachnophobia response of course. It was a sensible answer to Psycho and its million knock-offs. The bathroom is not a bastion of safety – the panelled door is far too easily split by an axe and this one has no window either to enable a swift but ungainly exit. I was beginning to regret living in a flat with only one entrance and exit.
Still, with the door securely locked and a towel laid along the gap at the bottom of the door I felt like I’d exerted as much control on my environment as I could. If it came back I hoped it would give me a few moments of privacy, and even if it didn’t I would get a short heads up when it moved the towel. It occurred to me that I was being a little paranoid and neurotic, but given the circumstances I was okay with that. I was due a anti-depressant dose, but that could wait until I was clean, and anyway being on edge might be what I needed right now. It turns out that having a shower while constantly checking whether I was still alone is not much more relaxing or enjoyable than having someone standing over you watching. I dried off, moisturised more thoroughly than I had managed earlier and felt better for it. With a towel wrapped around my head and dressing gown firmly in place I removed my defences and emerged from the bathroom.
My flat was still empty. I felt… empty too. I’d been getting used to having some company. I retrieved the trousers I’d been wearing before and transferred them to a fresh pair. I decided to dress more sensibly. Clothes I could run in easily for example, which were dark and would keep me warm without being too hot. The Spider-Man mouthpiece rested comfortably in the thigh pocket of the combats I’d chosen. I felt better prepared. Prepared for what, I had no idea. But the general idea of ‘preparation’ was certainly reassuring. To that end I added a few things to my jacket and the small rucksack I use for infrequent sallies into town over the weekend. I couldn’t put my current book in it, of course, since I was still reading it. One of the many Diskhalers was already in there, but I added a bottle of water and a pair of scissors. It’s about the best weapon I have.
I was waiting for the Watcher to return. Which was ridiculous. As I’d realised during my conversation with Alison, I had no idea where it had come from or what its intentions were. I didn’t get the same vibe off it that Alison and her husband had. I had perhaps, been a bit quick to trust. That’s not normally one of my first instincts with a new person – I am hard pressed to let new people in. Partly because it’s a lot of effort, and involves a lot of sharing. I wasn’t ready for either of those things. But the Watcher had been easy company. It required no explanation for what I was doing, who I was and where I had come from. I’d felt accepted, despite its obvious intrusion on my privacy. I even felt as if we’d begun to establish some lines about what was appropriate and what was not. The initial bathroom experience was early in our relationship, but I felt like I could change its behaviour there at least. I think I missed it.
There was no point hanging around the house. There was nothing I was going to accomplish here that I couldn’t accomplish elsewhere – which is to say nothing. I was a little wary of going out though. The reaction of the people who still had Watchers earlier certainly gave me pause for thought. There was also Alison’s family to think of. If I went out, who would warn them that someone else had come in? What if no one came in? I’d be waiting futilely, exactly as I was now. It’s amazing how much of a day I can burn caught between impulses, or between equal portions of pointlessness. I fingered Spider-Man’s mask in my pocket. I could tell them I was going to pop out.
As ever, the decision was taken away from me by another knock on the door. Twice in one day was unprecedented. I couldn’t see why Alison wouldn’t just use the Spider-Men. I sighed and opened the door. It was not Alison. It was a harassed looking man I’d never seen before.
“Hello. Can I help you?” I leaned on the door, perfectly poised to slam it closed while appearing casual. I know – I’d checked in the mirror.
“Yes. Hello. I’m from the council,” he said.
Of elders? Jedi? I chose not to voice my queries.
“The town council,” he helpfully clarified, “we’ve been asked to coordinate a town meeting. At the town hall.”
The man’s Watcher loomed behind him in the tiny hallway by the stairs. ‘Loomed’. That was a new one. I held the door more tightly, to ensure no one could see past me and notice my most obvious lack.
“What about?” I got that look again, like I was some kind of special idiot. I’d been getting those looks all day. Maybe I’d been avoiding people for too long – I was getting slow.
“Uh – the Event. And the quarantine – you must be aware of our… visitors,” he half-looked over his shoulder.
“Of course. Yes, sorry – I’ve been asleep. I’m very aware of them.”
“Good, good. Well, the meeting has been arranged for six o’clock this evening. At the town hall.”
I guess I wasn’t giving him much encouragement. “Thanks for letting me know, I’ll certainly be there. Do you know when we’ll get phone coverage back?”
“Ah, well. I’m sure that’s one of the things we’ll be discussing. The main thing is – not to worry! Our visitors might be a surprise, but there’s no reason to think they’re dangerous.” To the man’s credit, his eyes barely flicked from side to side as he talked. “The council have have prepared a leaflet, which will hopefully answer any questions that might be pressing.”
I took the proffered flyer. “Great,” it looked about as useful as the campaign literature running up to a national election, with a design layout that any pizza shop could beat.
“Well then. We hope to see you there later, you and your visitor, of course.” He squeezed out a smile and turned for the stairs.
“Oh, hey – everyone’s out. Just me in today. I’d be happy to pass on the leaflets and tell them about the meeting though.” I was halfway hanging out of the doorway in my haste.
“That’s very thoughtful,” he didn’t look like the kind of person who enjoyed stairs, “It’s two other flats isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I think him upstairs went out to work earlier, and the top floor went to the park. It’s turned into a nice day. Good for kids to run around. You know.” I was aware that I’d begun to babble and twisted my mouth into a helpful grimace instead.
The council rep gave me a few more leaflets and made for the exit. His Watcher was standing on the bottom step of the stairs, looking up them.
“Bye then,” I called cheerfully. The rep gave me a wave and held open the door for his Watcher as it reluctantly followed him out. Not without taking the opportunity to stare at me. I closed and locked the door and scooted over to the window without tripping up. They walked down to the next little trio of flats and went in.
“Spider-Man, this is Mary Jane. Spider-Man, this is Mary Jane,” it’s impossible to use a walkie-talkie without feeling like you’re in a ’40s film noir pulp film. I’m sure they had proper radios and everything, but Spider-Man’s diminutive face held close to mine would just have to do. After a burst of static, the other end picked up.
“What? Who is this?” This was not the boy I’d spoken to earlier. It’s possible that our communication protocol had not been shared
“Uh, Mary Jane… it’s your neighbour downstairs,” now I felt slightly silly.
“Oh. Hi. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing – everything’s fine. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve just had a visitor. From the council. But I stopped him from going upstairs, he’s gone now. Its okay.” I wasn’t getting much feedback. I remembered that I had to let go of the button so he could speak.
“What did they want? Do they know what’s happened?”
“No. No, it’s all fine. They’re distributing leaflets about a town meeting later on today. About the Event. I’ve got a leaflet for you.”
“What does it say?”
“I… don’t know. I haven’t read it yet. I wanted you to know that everything was alright.”
“How do you know everything’s all right if you haven’t read it yet?”
I doubted that the leaflet would be an exercise in scaremongering. That was the opposite of what I imagined it would be for.
“I mean, it’s okay because he’s gone. No one’s about to knock on your door. It looked completely routine. He had a massive bag of leaflets so I bet there’s dozens of people out doing this,” this was becoming hard work, “I can come up and drop it off if you like. I need to stick one under the middle guy’s door anyway. If that’s convenient.” The line went dead. I assumed they were debating whether that was a good idea or not. I’d come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t know a bright idea if it took over my mind and directed me to lead a life of perfection and purity.
The walkie-talkie crackled again, and Alison’s voice emerged this time. “Hi, yes we think that’s okay. Unless you want to read the leaflet to us.” I restrained my ‘fuck no’.
“It looks quite boring,” it even had a picture of the mayor on it. I didn’t even know we had a mayor. She had a lot of gold chains draped around her, so I assumed it was real, “I’ll pop up in a minute. Mary Jane out.”
I was getting a kick out of the walkie-talkies, even if we were using them seriously. I peeked out of the window again, to make sure no one was just about to come and disturb us. All clear. I grabbed my keys and carefully scanned the tiny area between the outside door and the stairs. Nothing. I locked my door behind me and loped up the stairs. I can’t just walk up stairs. It pains me. They take so damned long, and there’s enormous satisfaction in leaping up them two or three steps at a time. It’s close to the only exercise I get. I paused for a second next to the first floor flat and listened against the door. I couldn’t hear anything, so I pushed a leaflet through the letter box. All of our doors had those letter slots with brushes on the inside. That certainly helps keep the breeze out and a decent sized package or a fistful of letters get through fine. A single page leaflet however just gets folded up in between them. I had to shove my whole hand through it to make sure the leaflet got into the flat. I retrieved my hand and bounded on.
We hadn’t established a door knock pattern, so I used the Spidey-talkie again. I heard a series of tearing sounds before the door opened a crack, the chain restraining it.
“It’s just me. I’ve got your leaflet,” I held it up for inspection, “and my Watcher hasn’t come back yet.” That was probably the bit they really wanted to know.
Alison closed the door again, removed the chain and opened it to let me in. She and I both did a careful look behind me and down the stairs before I came in. The door was locked behind me. I could see they had duct taped the door shut, and Alison’s husband was carefully pressing it back along the door edge.
“I’ll be off in a minute. I don’t want to intrude.”
“It only takes a minute. It feels safer.”
“Here’s your leaflet,” I handed it to Alison.
She looked at with the contempt that council communications generally deserve A little boy peeked out of the bathroom door.
“Hi, I’m Mary Jane,” I said. I’m not a big fan of children. I prefer cats. But I’m not too bad at dealing with them.
“That’s silly. You’re not a girl.”
“You’d already taken Spider-Man,” I said accusingly.
“You could have been the Hobgoblin. Or Doctor Octopus.” Dammit, the kid had a point. Doc Ock would have been much cooler.
“I didn’t think of that.”
The boy harrumphed victoriously and vanished back into the bathroom. Kids leave me feeling dazed. I have no doubt they’ll grow up to be better at being people than I managed.
Alison was busy reading the leaflet.
“We can’t go to this. We don’t have ‘visitors’ or ‘watchers’ or whatever you call them. They’ll know we’re not there.”
“I doubt it. There’s no way they’ll get everyone in the town hall, plus loads of people won’t go anyway. You know what people are like.”
“You can’t go either if you don’t have a Watcher. They’ll be looking for that.”
I thought she was possibly being a little paranoid, but then I hadn’t killed five of them and dumped them in the recycling bin. She was right though, I didn’t think that I could just turn up on my own. It might be alright in a crowd – no one would be trying to count one for one. But even so, I’d still have to arrive on my own. I wondered if I could paint up my Boba Fett standee and somehow tow it behind me. That might be one of my worst ideas ever. I decided not to mention it.
“We need to know what’s being said,” I pointed out.
“What about Derek?” I almost asked who Derek was, but I must have looked sufficiently blank. “He lives between us.”
“Yes. Derek. He’s out. I stuck a leaflet through his door on the way up.”
“Be quiet – someone just opened the front door.” Alison’s husband hissed at us from where he crouched by the letter box.
“I should go. I haven’t done anything wrong. Not that you have either, but I definitely haven’t done anything.”
Alison and her husband looked terribly unsure.
“It’s fine. It’s probably my Watcher come back anyway. And I had a good reason to be up here.” I brandished the remaining leaflet.
Reluctantly the duct tape was drawn back from the doorframe again and I was allowed out.
“I’ll keep you updated, don’t worry.” The door closed behind me.
I leaned over the bannister to see what was below me. I couldn’t see anything. With less exuberance than my ascension I quietly went downstairs. Derek’s flat looked just the same, like flats generally do. I turned down to the next flight and saw what was waiting for me. My Watcher was standing patiently outside my flat’s door. It was facing me, and I knew it was mine. Its hands were clasped together in the same way I do when I’m waiting or trying to make a decision, all triangley.
“Hi, I was just delivering these leaflets,” I held them up as if it were an explanation in its own right, “there’s a meeting in town later. I thought we might go. If that’s alright with you of course.”
It wasn’t saying anything. Not that I expected it to. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe I was expecting it to be angry that I wasn’t where it had left me. It had come back to where I was most likely to be though. It moved aside to let me open the door and followed me inside.
That’s quite a lot. It has snuck up on me. It should be obvious, but by writing a bit more every day I end up with quite a lot more overall. I never said I could adding up. So yeah, 30K is in sight and I should hit that easily enough today.
It was certainly harder to write more on days when I work, but that’s no particular surprise. I’ve gotten ahead enough that now I can think about taking it easily and dealing with the sudden punch of panic that idea generates! Sticking to at least double the minimum word count of 1,667 is certainly the way forwards.
I take a particular delight in stopping just before hitting a big target. I’ve paused just before 10K, 15K, 25K and now 30K. I’m not sure why. I think it’s that I like puncturing pre-success, from a fear of actually achieving something and then dealing with the consequences. I’d much rather sail through those targets (if they were targets) than find myself straining to meet them by adding a couple of hundreed more words.
I’ve adopted the sprint writing style advocated by lots of people and mentioned in the handful of NaNoWriMo forums I’ve peeked into (I hate participating in forums). Set a timer for half an hour, smash out a thousand or so words. I like it. It’s twice my normal writing speed. Obviously I’m not checking whether it’s any good – that would just slow me right down to my normal speed, or slower if I was doing it properly. I also listen to all of the jungle, house drum and bass and techno I have while writing. May the beat go on.
There’s A Story, Right?
Well, no. Hopefully the story will continue to lead me as it has done so far. I’ve been pleased to note that the random stuff and details I tossed in at the beginning are still proving useful and helping me to tie the narrative together. I haven’t tried to read it through yet, and I reckon I’m going to avoid that until it’s over. Before beginning to write I read over the last few paragraphs so I’ve got some idea what’s going on. In truth I’ve got no more clue about it than the main character does. I don’t know whether that’s showing in the story or not, or whether it’s a a good thing or not. I’ll be annoyed if it turns out to be predictable without any planning…
I’m very grateful for some encouraging feedback from family and friends. I’ve been clear, I only want to know that it isn’t terrible!
Rewards for Writing
Alcohol, obviously. But also Lego and unbanishing myself from the kitchen table. I’ll be pre-rewarding myself by going swimming today and making birthday cards for my sister and niece. Then there’s Pub Poetry this evening, which I ‘m hosting. Somewhere in the middle of all that is writing time.
My other main reward was a change to the Watchers cover. I get bored easily and a change of colour is enough to bring me back. That was for passing twenty thousand words. I might do another one when I pass thirty-five thousand.
With the door closed the world contracted. My recent conversation with Alison in her taped up flat, the smell of cement from the hallway, all that fell away. It was just me and the Watcher. We looked at each for a minute. Nothing happened. I fell into default British mode and went to put the kettle on.
It felt different from before. We were both the same, it and I, but we’d shared an experience outside the narrow bars of act, copy, do, imitate. The Watcher joined me by the kettle. I was content with its presence. If anything its absence and reappearance had sent an odd shuddering sensation through me. Unexpected company that had become normal, then taken away and now returned. What I’m trying to say is that I was confused. Like most people I work through my feelings by ignoring the outside world, rejecting advice and making tea. We waited for the kettle to boil. I’ve heard that some people even have boiling hot water taps; sounds like an instant scalding on tap to me.
We were again facing each other. I’m not sure when it developed hair. I’m pretty sure it didn’t have hair when we’d been out with the bins earlier (that still rings oddly in my ear). But now it clearly had my depressing fading temples and sand traps, hair not yet separated into strands, but more how I’d expect to appear if someone ever made an action figure of me. I’m thinking of the terrible Kenner Star Wars ones from the eighties – the ones where you could only identify the character because of the clothes it had on. Like a corpse found in the river… I reached to touch my own hair, still very wet from the shower. The Watcher’s hands matched mine, resting delicately on the nicely conditioned strands or its own crude copy. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about being left earlier. That I was feeling even slightly sulky about it said all sorts of things about our developing relationship that I wasn’t ready to think about. Once a thought’s in the chicken coop though, it won’t leave until it’s shredded my chickens and is lying bloated and content in the midst of my misery.
“So where did you go?” I asked it outright. It scratched its head in response – a maddeningly familiar gesture.
“Are you going to talk to me? Can you talk to me? It seems like you can do a lot of things. You’ve been here all night and day watching me. What for? And then you disappear on me, after we found those-”
What words do you use to describe the dead when they’re so young, and when you’re not sure what even qualifies as being alive enough to count as being able to later become dead? This was the mire I found myself in. I felt as if I ought to already know how to refer to the infant Watcher, but I wasn’t getting enough back from the Watcher to know if my suspicions about it being murder were fair or not. And I certainly didn’t want to get into all the other Watchers Alison and her husband had killed. Or removed, stopped from working, disabled from operation, suspended in observation, hacked up with a pair of scissors… I thought guiltily of the pair of scissors I’d put in my rucksack earlier. It struck me as unfortunate that I’d selected as my only potential weapon exactly what had already been used to mutilate. All kinds of discomfort.
“- those remains. Come on. You watched me in the shower, which is something I’m not particularly happy about by the way. Since we’re talking about it – I don’t want you to come into the bathroom at all. Got that? I don’t doubt your gentlemanly intentions, but it’s fucking creepy. Okay. I’m not angry about it though. I don’t want to give that impression. It’s just… not cool…”
Well, I’d brought up the bathroom thing at least. The Watcher was still gently stroking its own plasticky mass of hair. It smiled at me.
“Okay, well I’m going to take that as a yes.”
The kettle boiled. I emptied out the Watcher’s mug from earlier, grabbed and tossed tea bags in the bottom. I had been incredibly grateful that the supermarket just around the corner was a Sainsbury’s. They do the only kind of tea bags I consider potable. Red Label – surprisingly versatile: as a barely tamped in bag it was a light refreshing tea but when left for ten minutes and further mashed like potatoes after a painful counselling session, was a perfect builders’ tea. I was aiming for something in between. While I’d gotten up after ten I felt like we had been through quite a lot so far today. I certainly needed a bit of caffeine and sugar, I imagined that the Watcher was also in its own version of shock, and at the least holding a cup of tea is quite soothing. I also remembered that I hadn’t eaten yet today. That’s a terrible habit that I fall into easily. Recognition is step one. I tugged a box of Pop Tarts out of the cupboard overhead and decanted the sugar fire risks into the toaster.
There were so many things that I wanted to ask the Watcher after our experience earlier. I wanted to know if it felt grief, or if it was just copying, doing what it thought it ought to. And in either of those cases, how did it feel about feeling? We feel instinctively and we learn words to roughly slap on top of internal experiences which are difficult to define, remember and bind with words. Without the words though, all we have is a meaty bag of tense bony fragments making a high pitched keening sound. The words might not map perfectly, but at least they get to you thinking and maybe even talking about those feelings and what they might mean. Not being able to get a word out the Watcher was frustrating. I’d evidently gifted it with some kind of sentience since I was expecting to get words out of it. Looking at the Watcher though, I was again forgetting that it did appear to be a partially greased cake mould. There’s nowhere in there that words and feelings come from. Perhaps I was being unfair – words and feelings don’t exactly exist within me either. They are me, and if anything they emerge from the totality of our existence. I’m no dualist or spiritualist. It’s all clearly made by the meat, but that doesn’t mean you can cut the meat open and take out the memory of being hugged or the feeling of rage.
I must have been hungry – I’d opened another pack of Pop Tarts and was chewing on them cold. Too much damned sugar. The other possibility for why my Watcher wasn’t talking to me might be that I do most of my talking on the inside. To the Watcher I could well just be staring at it glassy-eyed, chewing bovinely on this bar of… I’m not even sure what Pop Tarts are made of. They do burn easily though. I flicked off the toaster, launching two scorched tablets of angry sucrose into the air. Lava hot or packet cold? I’d let them cool and turn them into dunkable biscuits. But yeah, there was little reason for the Watcher to ascribe sentience to me either. I made our tea, assumed again that the Watcher would take it the same way I do – white, two sugars. I finger-hopped the Pop Tarts onto a plate and laid everything on the breakfast counter.
It looked like I wasn’t going to get any answers any time soon from my Watcher. I was curious to see how it would approach a second cup of tea, given the fate of the first one. I still had tonnes of kitchen roll so I wasn’t worried about the mess. To my surprise it reached out for a Pop Tart first. Then broke it neatly in half lengthways and dunked it in the tea. I copied it, since that was exactly what I was about to do myself. There really is no limit to the things that you can dunk in a cup of tea. I have heard that it’s one of my most endearing and repellent habits. The combination has lead to it becoming a point of pride, unfortunately for those who dislike it. Pop Tarts are fair enough though, I mean they’re basically big, burned biscuits. The Watcher and I raised our Pop Tart sections at the same time and bit down on them.
“Holy fuck you’ve got teeth!” I instantly choked on my tea saturated morsel and dissolved into a fit of coughing and face reddening.
I was surprised, once I got my breath back. I noticed that the Watcher had chosen not to imitate my choke, which added to the growing sentience list. It was calmly chewing the Pop Tart while I recovered. The substance of the ‘Tart was dissolving in its mouth. I could still watch because the Watcher, although noticeably cloudier in colour, and by that I mean a thicker cloud – like the difference between mist and fog – (fine, it was becoming foggier) was still translucent. As it chewed, the Pop Tart was becoming a darker swirl of cloud that dissipated into the rest of the cloud inside it. It was growing hair, now it had grown teeth as well and was apparently digesting food. Just to make the point it raised its cup of tea and calmly took a good mouthful, which too vanished into a swirl of dark smoke.
“That’s just showing off. But good for you.”
We enjoyed our tea and Pop Tarts in silence. I became less sure which of us was leading and the other following. Possibly we were both just having a cup of tea. I remembered the leaflet I’d been given and distributed. It was now decorated with a tea ring. I’ve read council pamphlets before – tea could only improve them. It was a simple double-sided flyer in reliably cheap print. I did want to applaud them for putting no clip art on the damn thing, but then I turned it over and saw they had a section showing all the communication devices that were out of bounds. It started off reasonably well:
‘A notice from your council and emergency services. As you will be aware, we are experiencing an Event which may cause some small concern to members of our community. Please do not be alarmed’
I’ve explained about how I feel when people tell me not to do something. This leaflet almost said “the police say not to be alarmed”. That in itself is cause for alarm. Instead of being distracted by that and the mid-nineties mobile phone clip art I continued reading. It went on:
‘We regret the sudden removal of internet and telecommunications, including mobile phones, television, radio and landline telephones’
I hadn’t even thought of the last two. The mayor’s smiling face and the presence of a Watcher right behind her demonstrated that the leaflet had been run up in a hurry. At least they had had time to put her chains on.
‘Please be assured that emergency services do still receive calls made to 999 and 111, and will be appropriately handled. Please do not use 999 for non-emergencies. That includes all references to our Visitors, whom you may have found in your homes this morning. We understand that there will be many queries and questions that arise for all of us, and we invite you to a meeting at the council house at 6pm. We hope that many of your queries will be resolved there. Free tea and coffee are provided.’
Well that nailed it – free tea? Done. I flipped the leaflet over and averted my eyes from the clip art and jovial red crosses pasted on top.
‘Do not be alarmed. The Visitors will not and cannot harm you. Please do not attempt to stop them or disable them.’
And that was it. They didn’t even give a phone number. Not that there would be much point of course. That answered zero of my questions. I tossed it onto the library scree where it slid to the floor.
“So, wanna go?” I asked my Watcher. If it wasn’t going to talk to me I’d have to get what answers I could from the meeting. I felt a lot better about going along now that I wouldn’t be arriving solo. I’d need to find a way to tell Alison that I was going, and that my Watcher was back. It had given no sign to make me concerned that it knew anything about Alison and her family upstairs, or that there were any consequences of what they had done. The blurb in the leaflet was generic enough about referring to the “Visitors” as the opposite of dangerous. They didn’t call them ‘safe’. The leaflet did not do that. ‘Cannot harm you’? Well, I didn’t fancy testing that out. It didn’t say anything about them drinking tea or putting up book cases either. ‘Disable them’ was a little cold. Cold, or truthful? I can’t possibly believe any document generated through the medium of politics at any scale of local or international. They are such demonstrable and capable liars and subverters of the simplest information that I was minded to just invert any statement in the leaflet. I imagined that the emergency services must have been swamped earlier, besieged with identical calls. On the other hand, I hadn’t heard a single emergency siren all day. They’re pretty piercing and my walls are apparently built precisely to transmit sound into my bedroom.
My sugar high was fading, leaving my teeth itchy. I idly swung off the chair and clambered over to the window. Not an emergency vehicle in sight. Except the police van parked round the corner, at the very edge of what I could see when I pressed my face elegantly against the glass. Seconds later I heard a thwack as our front door was smacked back on its hinges. I’ve only ever heard the postman do that before. Then the sound of feet, lots of feet. I strove to keep my expression as neutral as possible.
“I’m going to the loo. Remember what we talked about.” I wagged a finger at my Watcher for emphasis.
As soon as I had the door closed and locked I turned the taps on (I’ve seen television programmes) and squeezed the switch on Spider-Man’s head.
“Spider-Man, its Mary Jane. Mary Jane. Please respond.” Seriously, just holding the thing made me feel like a spy.
“Shit. Look. They’re coming, police are in the building.” I could hear them pounding up the stairs, my flat does indeed conduct sound like a boss.
Poised over the running water, walkie-talkie pressed to my face I tried again.
The static returned, along with an anguished scream.
I slammed my finger onto the transmit button to hide that sound from my Watcher. Fuck. Spider-Man glared at me, an ‘I told you so’ expression on his face. I had the powerful sense that I should not have this half of the walkie-talkie set if questioned. For want of a better plan I ripped the batteries out and shoved those in my pocket. I picked up a tub of lovely Sanctuary body moisturiser. I’d been avoiding opening it because it reminded me terribly of Katherine. I shoved Spidey’s head deep into the moisturiser, popped the lid back on and gave it a gently frantic spin of my hand. Happy that I’d found a good solution I popped open the shampoo bottle and stuffed the batteries in there. I reeled for the door before remembering what I was doing and hit the flush, then turned off the taps.
As I returned to the living room, rubbing the excess moisturiser into my hands the sounds of boots were coming back down the stairs, accompanied by shouts and a particularly ragged shriek. My Watcher was watching the door, not me as I came out. That was an enormous relief.
“What’s going on?”
The Watcher turned to look at me. It just looked at me. The boots and stamping were fading away. I went back to the window and watched Alison and her family being dragged and manhandled into the police van. The cops’ Watchers stood in the road by themselves, watching the family being bundled into the van, their cuffs glinting in the sunlight.
I didn’t know what to do. I was frozen between the window and the door. A group of people whose home I had been inside only half an hour before were being stuffed into a police van. What are you supposed to do? My Watcher was still looking at me, its face neutral but attentive. It casually stroked its developing hair.
“What? What is it that you want me to do?” I stared back, my insides a mass of twists and knots.
“Is this a fucking test?” I asked.
A test of what? Loyalty – to whom? I didn’t even know why I thought I was being tested. How awesomely egotistical. It’s as bad as the insane religious ideas about our tiny planet being of the least consequence in the universe. A family upstairs being arrested for something, god knows what. Criminal damage? You can’t throw kids in a police van. How hideously traumatic. When I was eleven my uncle gave me a birthday card, in which he’d copied out that poem by Martin Niemoller, everyone knows the one. It starts with “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist”. It’s a great poem, and I didn’t understand why my uncle had felt strongly enough about it to stick it in my birthday card. I never got the chance to ask him. It’s one of those things that comes to me when I’m tired, or when I’m watching the news. That poem is about everything. It rang in my head like a bell.
I could feel a rising bar of pressure in my body, ironing out the curdling tensions. I get that sometimes – a weird high of possibility, like there’s a perfect action to take – a decision I can make and make right. Admittedly I also get it for day dreams. When I was about nine I remember being on a car journey and fixating on the idea of being a boxer. I didn’t become a boxer, it didn’t seem like a great move. But that sense of elation and racing along the probability curve towards actuality is such an odd sensation. My decision is what to do with it. I can allow to push me into action, or I can just relish the feeling. Either way I was getting it now, and when it feels like life is stretching for those peaks I’ve more often regretted not leaping than standing still.
I looked out of the window again. Alison’s husband was resisting, and consequently had half a dozen police officers holding him down in an awful looking restraint pose. I couldn’t see Alison anymore, but I could see the little boy who had claimed ‘Spider-Man’ as his call sign. They had pinned his hands behind his back with those zip ties. Presumably the hand cuffs didn’t come in a size that small. The shock of it was competing with all the emotions evoked by Niemoller’s poem. When you’re arresting little children then you’ve failed at everything in society. I slammed my palm on the window pane in frustration. All the Watchers turned to look at our building. I couldn’t see their eyes, but it felt like they were looking straight at me. I felt like a ball being bounced between two hard staring surfaces, like I was standing between two mirrors trying to catch sight of the reflection far down the regress where I’m waving at myself. I could hardly breathe. I acted.
I jumped over the books in my path and tore open the front door. I charged out and immediately found myself in the midst of yet more police officers. I immediately regretted acting. Thankfully my mouth can keep working even when I can’t.
“Hey what’s going on?” It’s not the finest opening gambit, but it did start the conversation.
The police officers were the big kind. You get those ones who look like normal people, but the ones they send out for door kicking are the big lads. The boots, stab vests and assorted ephemera velcroed all over them seems to scale them up an extra ten percent. One of them tried to take hold of my arm and I snatched it away.
“There’s no need for that. I just want to know what’s going on.”
They all turned inward, so that I was in the middle of a rainbow of stern faces and high visibility yellow.
“Best you go back inside your flat”
“Okay… look, I really just want to know what’s happening. There’s a lot of noise.”
“It’s not your concern sir, you need to return to your flat.”
“Do you make a habit of interfering with police investigations?”
“Are you alone sir?”
“Can I take your name please sir?”
“Is there anything you’d like to tell us about your neighbours?”
I couldn’t even tell which of the officers had spoken.
“Hey, I’m not getting in your way – you’re in my hallway.”
“Please don’t get aggressive sir.”
I was maybe a foot away from the intruding crescent, who were somehow becoming even more intimidating. I have a problem with being told what to do. It really annoys me when I’m told not to do something that is entirely reasonable. This is rarely a positive trait, but I was still getting that rising high of doing the thing and just went with it.
“Right – one, don’t crowd me. It’s aggressive and unnecessary. This is my house, give me some space. Two, you’ve smashed in our front door. I’m pretty sure you now need to fix it, or find me someone who will. Three, what are you doing arresting Alison and her kids? You can’t arrest children, where’s your social services officer? I’ve just watched you lot handcuff two kids under the age of five. I don’t doubt that is completely illegal, so maybe you should back off from threatening me and answer the damn question.”
Okay, it wasn’t as coherent as I would have liked, but that rising band of light was making my fingers tingle and my stomach weightless. The police officers looked surprised that I had spoken, and incredibly pissed off at the same time. That’s when I got grabbed by the two officers standing on either side of me. A really tight grip, where they grabbed me under each arm and sort of twisted me upright.
“You can either go back in your flat right now, or come with us.”
“That’s really tempting, thanks for the offer,” my face felt like it was vibrating now, a glow of fear and anger, “how about you get the fuck off me and let the little children you’re abusing out of the van?”
Apparently that wasn’t an option. This is classic resisting arrest and interfering in police business. That tight hold they had on me becomes excruciating very easily. I only got hit once, and that was in the stomach. Presumably that’s the easiest way to get someone to shut up, just knock the wind out of them. It works. I was convinced that I was going to be arrested, and that whole glow I’d had was rather tarnished by becoming actualised. I was sagging in their arms, trying hard to catch a breath. Having asthma is amazing. It’s completely unnoticeable for me until something like this happens. Laughing a lot also achieves the same utterly empty and raging lungs. The panic just floods through me. I know that I can control asthma attacks, but that involves chilling out and being calm. Being suspended between two police officers looking for a further reason to pacify me was not conducive to thwarting an asthma attack. I thought I was probably going to take a few kicks as well before they cuffed me, and while trying not to panic about not breathing I was also trying to prepare for getting beaten up.
I was abruptly dropped to the ground and I lay there gasping. The ring of boots moved back. Right back. About half of my vision had gone black. It’s okay – that’s something I’ve gotten used to in combinations of asthma attacks and migraines. I just needed to sit down for a bit. I didn’t know why they had backed up, I was just grateful. Not grateful in the sense that I would have thanked them – it was still their fault. It’s not like being grateful for a surprise cup of tea. Grateful is clearly the wrong word – relieved is how I felt. I flinched when a hollow white foot came down in front me. It’s possible that I wasn’t feeling able to place all of my trust in the police. My Watcher stepped over my prone body and stood there, tall and quiet. I’m not ashamed to admit that I scrabbled back into the flat behind my apparent protector. The police receded out of sight with barely a grumble and the front door swung back and clattered against the frame on its single remaining hinge. Their boots crunched down the road. Alison’s family were no longer making any noise.
The Watcher followed me back into the flat. I’d achieved a crouching scuttle to the breakfast bar where I wheezed and tried to calm down. A hand appeared in front of me. It held the comforting blue disk of my Salbutamol inhaler. I took it, exhaled as fully as I could and welcomed the fine white powder into my lungs. The black patches in my vision blurred back into real colours and things. I slumped into my seat, breathing.
There are terrifying things about being assaulted by someone in a position of authority. No matter how sure you are that you did nothing wrong (or at least nothing beyond your rights or that infringed on theirs) and that their response was unprovoked and disproportionate, we’re trained to trust and defer to these people. Having that faith betrayed in person is damaging. Despite everything I’ve read in newspapers and seen in real life, I’d retained a basic trust that they were there to protect me and those around me. Today’s events suggested strongly that the balance of power and protection might have shifted significantly. As I regained the ability to breathe (relieved remember, definitely not grateful) this was the emotional predicament I found myself in. Frazzled by the adrenaline fight or flight reflexes, which I hadn’t even had a chance to employ before ending up on the floor, plus the previous light excitement, oxygen deprivation (slight, but I like my oxygen intake) and the shaking fear that comes of crossing the man, especially in this present fucked up Event all I had left was a whirl of nausea.
“Okay,” I began, resting my face on the breakfast bar, “I’m starting to think that something weird is going on.”
It was disappointing to find once again that the amazing sensation of lightness when pressing the buttons of probability isn’t an indication that what’s coming up is a moment of power and positivity. I had to wonder if this was what people who thought they were psychics or prophets experienced, but drew completely different conclusions from. Confirmation bias is a wonderful thing. In time I’d no doubt consign this experience to the list of ‘bad, but doesn’t count’ and return to the more hopeful expectation. People.
“Come on. You can’t just stand there after apparently saving me from some good old fashioned police brutality and say nothing.”
My Watcher remained predictably silent.
“Awesome. Okay, so I’ll talk shall I? I’ll tell you what I know. Well, alright then. I know pretty much nothing. You show up, you follow me around. That’s happening to everyone. Someone- ”
I wanted answers, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know that the Watcher knew or not. An interesting effect of being watched is that I started to lose track of what the Watcher knew and didn’t know that I had done. It was tempting to assume that not only was it watching me, it also and already knew everything else about me, including what I had done and found out while it was away. It was also tempting to assume that the Watchers didn’t somehow communicate with each other. But if they did, then my Watcher should already have known about Alison’s family hacking up a bunch of them. Which meant it knew why they had been arrested. If so, why intervene in my case? It could only be because it didn’t know that I knew about Alison, and especially specifically that I had a Spider-Man walkie talkie dismantled in my toiletries. So I should be safe. Ish. Depending on what I did or didn’t reveal. Of course, if they did know what I knew and were just playing with me, to see what choice I would make then my withholding information to protect Alison and myself was the worst thing I could do. But if they didn’t know about the connection then my telling them would make things worse for Alison (probably) and possibly better for me… Too many ifs, buts and maybes to make a decision. I required a different tactic, hell, a whole different life would be preferable. Essentially my whole mind was screaming “what the fuck”, which makes it difficult to clearly articulate a thought.
“- Someone did a bad thing to that little Watcher. It makes sense that its someone in the building, and the police figured it was Alison or her her husband. So they arrest them. Fine. What’s that got to do with you?”
My Watcher reclined against the fridge and loosely folded its arms. That’s a pose I well recognise from both myself and Katherine. I imagine living together for a long time blends your gestures and you naturally end up mirroring each other. Both my dad and sister stand by the sink and gesticulate while talking in hilariously similar ways. So I knew this pose, it was the ‘well done, you’re half way there, now figure out the rest’. It’s infuriating.
“No. You are not me, so don’t use me against me. I don’t know what you are. I know you appeared magically in the middle of the night and scared the crap out of me. Followed me around all day, started doing your own thing. Okay. I get that. You’re learning, you’re figuring out how to do things like walk and drink and put up a book case. Amazing. These are trivial things, our own children learn them and do it fine. I’ll grant you’re a bit quicker, but you started off bigger too.”
I was beginning to think that I’d failed to take the whole thing seriously enough. A weird shadow stranger in my home who spills tea on the floor – fine. Fine… Probably shouldn’t have been fine.
“Alright. So am I abnormal? Is that it – most people freak out like Alison’s lot did, but I didn’t so I’m, what – safe? Conveniently passive? Is that why you stopped the police from arresting me… because I’m more use to you here than in a police cell?”
The Watcher raised its eyebrows. When did it get eyebrows? I was not paying attention. I’d been in a daydream all day. Was any of this real? I felt the room sway around me, like I was the fixed point in the room and everything else was bent spinning vinyl. There were too many questions I didn’t know how to ask.
“I let you into my life. I didn’t have to. I could have refused. I could have stood in the corner and screamed all day. And what happens then?”
I felt like I was on the cusp of something grand, something huge and terrifying, but I couldn’t quite grasp it. It might have been that the room was moving like glue around me and that the more I looked at my Watcher the more I saw details and features I hadn’t seen. I fell back off my chair, caught myself with a hand on the floor with an incredible jolt up my arm. I always land on right wrist, it has so many healed fractures it’s more break than bone. The pain shocked the room back into unmoving clarity, every corner and edge sparkling with pinpricks of light. I got back to my feet and staggered back, cradling my hand. I was fairly sure I hadn’t broken it because I know exactly how that feels, and this just hurt a lot.
My face was twisted in a mask of confusion and fear, I could feel the half sneer half snarl drawing up my mouth. The Watcher, my Watcher – my own image replicated in waxy form right in front of me – it detached itself from the fridge with the same fluid motion I’d employ, curving its back to bounce off with its shoulders. It slowly approached me, hands extended. Its fingernails were perfect, cropped exactly as badly and carelessly as mine, wedding ring firmly in place, rotating slightly as its hand came up. Everything about it seemed perfect and huge, swollen beyond recognition filling up my vision. Eyebrows: each hair cleanly defined, its eyes had proper lids and irises painted out in white relief. I couldn’t go back any further, I’d met the wall.
“Jesus, what the fuck are you? What is this?” I cried out, half tears of fear and half of confused anger.
The Watcher stepped close, opened its arms wide and folded them around me. I screamed in shock and horror at the contact. Its waxy rubber was warm against my skin. Its arms slid all the way around me and squeezed. I shook, and struggled, fighting to get its arms away from me, to keep its face from mine. The world was white and terrifying. It felt as if everything dimmed while simultaneously becoming infinitely bright. I couldn’t move. Not my arms, not my feet. Not my eyes, stretched wide unable to hide away. The Watcher was everything. I was overwhelmed, sobbing, my chest full, brimming with choking tears.
I gave in. I collapsed into the Watcher’s embrace. And cried, for the first time in such a long time.
I’m not sure how long we stood together, me wrapped in my Watcher’s close embrace. It felt like a long time before the messy physiological processes of tears and shaking finally ended. I felt wrung out but clean when we stepped apart. I felt both comfortable and uncomfortable with my Watcher – physical intimacy is a strange thing which we can both relish and be vaguely embarrassed by at the same time. I couldn’t see how I’d failed to notice before that the Watcher was now very clearly me, thankfully clothed. I don’t think it thought that clothes were necessary to hide my reflected nakedness from the world, more that if I thought they were appropriate (thank you social conditioning and a love of extraneous pockets) then they also had to be appropriate for a copy of me. I gave a deep sigh, and felt the new hollow of peace in me. I knew it would be refilled in time, but for now I could appreciate being free of the burden of grief and fear, at least for a while.
I nodded my thanks to the Watcher. Words are redundant when it comes to hugs. The squeezed pressure of bodies, and the electric contact of another person are intense and satisfy some deep craving for contact. That the hug was with a giant silicone muffin tray didn’t seem to make any difference. Standing at arms length I discovered that I had accepted my double as another person. With that acknowledgement came a host of further confusions, some of which floated off in little fear balloons to be dealt with later. The most pressing questions were about what that meant for me. Did the existence of more entities, specifically one that resembled me mean anything? There are literally billions of other people on the planet already; how does one more make any difference? It felt as if it did though. There’s something in our anthropomorphic grasp of existence and sentience that makes it hard to imagine that other forms can contain so wondrous and special a thing as the soul and heart of man, even if he’s a murderer or imbecile.
I’d long accepted cats and dogs as people. As someone who has shared a home with animals for most of my life it would be strange not to confer emotions, intelligence and needs upon them. Just because they aren’t exactly the same needs and feelings and ideas as mine doesn’t matter. So I could hardly refuse person hood to my Watcher, and by extension all Watchers. That last step felt less comfortable. The police Watchers had given a very different impression – of hostility and control. That might have been by association with the police themselves, who were behaving what I thought were unpolicey ways. That didn’t make them less people though, just people I didn’t like. You can’t rob person hood from people because you don’t like them. That’s not so much a slippery slope as a waterslide.
My instinct was to make another cup of tea. My fingers had stopped trembling from the encounter with the police and my sugar high had evened out. I checked the time instead. The microwave blinked a series of zeroes and eights at me. I still hadn’t set it up. Thankfully I still had my expensive telephonic time piece to fall back on. Five forty-five. The afternoon had vanished again, in a blaze of frantic inactivity. I was used to that, and rarely I did have a few things to show for it – a nice book case, a growing bruise just under my rib cage and a tea-stained leaflet. The meeting at the town hall was due to start at six, and with my – our – walking pace it should be easy enough to make it in time. I didn’t want to be either late or early – both involve different kinds of awkwardness. Despite my feelings about this particular Watcher, I’d no desire to stand out as especially interested or tardy. The situation was an unknown, and until it became more known I figured I was right to be experiencing a certain vulnerability.
So I shrugged a jacket on, swung my little rucksack over it and we departed. The front door was in a sad state. It dangled by the lower hinge, its resilient screws letting it hang on. I felt bad for it. I left it resting against the door frame but I didn’t have much hope for its future. Whether the police would foot the bill or not, I’d have to go to the trouble of contacting the landlord. Later. When there were phones. I had no idea where he lived. That’s the problem with blacking out all the communication channels – suddenly you can no longer do quite basic things. It was rare for me to even want to do those things, so it was extra vexing. I was only a ten minute walk from the town hall. The air had started to chill down from the bright highlight of earlier and it was all very pleasant. I felt a lot more relaxed.
As we strode along there were other people who were clearly on their way to the same meeting. I began to pay more attention to the differences between the people and their Watchers. (I still couldn’t instinctively call them people – I’d have no way to distinguish them from other people unless I called them ‘white’ people or ‘hollow’ people, all of which sounded quite bad to my minds ears.) We were all walking in the same direction. I didn’t see a single person, either on foot in a car who wasn’t heading to the town hall. From above it must have looked like an ants’ nest calling its drones. Not a comforting analogy. Some people walked side by side with their Watchers, as I did. We were all taking an at least faint interest in each other, eyeing up Watchers as we might do shoes or facial piercings. I’m not sure what our judging criteria were. If they were the same as me, then I was looking for the similarity between the Watcher and its human. Mine had a well developed resemblance now, but some of the others were still almost blank marionettes.
Those blanks were all following at a short distance, much as my Watcher had initially. Some still seemed to be trying to outrace their Watchers, but most were simply ignoring them, or doing their best to. Maybe they had spent less time together. Or had resisted in a less direct way than my neighbours. It suggested that the less well formed relationships, of trust, acceptance and closeness prevented the Watchers from developing their individuality, even if that individuality was based on replication. The people who walked with their Watchers by their side all looked calmer, more at ease with this new presence in their lives. As I did. Alright, I’ll happily admit that I’d gone through a range of feelings about it through the day, but I could no longer say that I was scared of it – of.. him? My inclination to gender my companion was presumably just because it’s a copy of me, and if I’m male therefore so must he be. But my behaviour isn’t especially male. I imagine half of my gestures and actions can be matched up to a list of gender-typical acts, but those lists are likely the result of stereotyping and prejudice anyway, or so hopelessly generic that matching them up is like reading a horoscope. The Watcher was me, but without words or the physical biological qualities that identify me as male in our culture. So what did that make it? ‘It’ doesn’t seem like a very friendly way to label other genders, but maybe this was an absence of gender, in which case I probably either needed a new word, it’s preference clearly stated or I could continue to use ‘it’ in a more personal way.
Embroiled in such thoughts of identity I found myself at the town hall, joining the queue of attendees. It’s difficult to say how many people were there, because of course everyone was doubled. They are easy to filter out of a visual count, except that the overall volume of shapes was twice the size. Even so, there didn’t seem to be that many people there. It was possible most people were already inside, but I’d already wondered what proportion of the population the town hall could hold. It wasn’t going to be a significant perspective, no matter whether it was standing room only or how strong a draw the free tea and coffee would be. It made me wonder where everyone else was. I’d have arranged a series of time staggered meetings to avoid over-crowding and ensure everyone got in. It was the kind of thought that made me imagine how I’d structure a spreadsheet for such an activity. And that made me think that I should probably stab myself in the leg, or else find anything more interesting to think about. Maybe I should just get out more.
Those thoughts were swept away from me as the tide of the crowd drew us through the entrance. There were four tables with a lady and her Watcher behind each ticking names off attendees. Unless they had the whole electoral roll and then some it would be an absurd exercise. Nonetheless I dutifully joined one of the queues which had formed. I stood behind someone’s Watcher. For the first time I got a good look at the back of one. Even now my Watcher would normally face me, no matter what we were doing. It was much as I’d expected – like looking into the open half of a jelly mould. From behind they were differently translucent. I could see the outline and colour of the man who the Watcher was watching, and see the detailed teeth and moustache in whatever the opposite of ‘relief’ is. It felt uncannily like being given a preview of someone’s insides, invasive and intrusive. I averted my eyes, allowing myself only the odd glance at how the weave of the man’s jacket was traced on his Watcher’s arms.
I’d never been to the town hall before. It was one of those big Victorianish buildings, all big chunks of stone and pointless decorative columns. The carpet could have been nicked from The Shining. The queues moved at a fair clip. It was apparently easier to check people off than I’d anticipated. When I reached the front I could see why. I hadn’t noticed when we came in, but it was the Watchers who determined which queue we were in. Mine had leaned slightly more towards one than the others and I’d accepted the gesture, following it. The list the lady had was only a few pages long. She asked for my name while her Watcher stood patiently behind her, offering the same bland smile as I was ticked off and allowed to proceed.
A few corridors separated the reception from the main hall, or Great Hall as they had it labelled. The other rooms had closed doors and impressive sounding names like ‘The Rotherhyde Suite’ and ‘The Swan Suite’. Quite why a swan would need a meeting room I had no idea. We followed the carpet, its’ psychosis threatening patterns goading us on. The Great Hall (it’s almost impossible to say that without sounding sarcastic – even the greet ‘n’ tickers had lapsed into it) was just a big room with some wooden panelling and huge skylights. A rostrum stood at one end, with a bunch of chairs and tables on it. Most of the room was filled with rows of chairs, largely occupied. Down the side of the great hall was what everyone was looking for – the refreshments. Waiting for a delayed bus or train will enrage us, but we’ll queue forever to get a free cup of tea.
“Right then, time to stock up on biscuits,” I muttered to my Watcher.
This is the other important function that meetings provide: free biscuits of a type I would never buy for myself, like little wrapped pairs of oat cakes and Jammy Dodgers. I like a single Jammy Dodger, but with more than one I remember that it’s not jam, it’s an aggressive red glue and that the biscuits themselves are horrible. I’d still expected some response from my Watcher, and I turned to look at it. It had stopped walking towards the tea and coffee. Gently it patted me on the shoulder and walked away. I’d just picked up a cup (I discard the saucer. I’ve never grasped the point of carrying two fragile objects when one will do) and was carried along with the queue. All of the Watchers were peeling away from their people. Moments of confusion and distress were clear in the faces of the abandoned.
The law of the refreshments table kept us in place and without our partners we continued with the frustrating rigmarole of deciphering the operation of the tea pump-flask units and which ones had tea or coffee in. A generally polite hubbub of ohs and ahs and self-deprecating chuckles surrounded the jugs. I too took my turn at comprehending the disposition of fluids in various vessels and loaded my spare hand up with assorted biscuits. There were stewards at the end of the refreshments table directing suitably tea-laden citizens into the rows of seating. It was clear that some of us wanted to go with our Watchers. Quiet words were had and the directed seats were taken. Our Watchers were assembling at the back of the room, standing behind all of the chairs. It looked like a practical arrangement – there were only so many chairs. Taking half of the attendees out of chairs and making them stand at the back made sense. It’s not like they needed to sit down, whereas the trip to the town hall had clearly taken its toll on some of the older and less fit attendees. There was an annoying degree of puffing from the row behind me, occupied by three broad individuals who might have benefited from cold drinks. I made the usual expression of greeting while drinking, a pair of raised eyebrows and apologetic smile. My immediate neighbours were a very elderly lady, judging from the astonishing texture of her skin, like a topological map beaten into bronze, and a woman of about my own age dressed almost entirely in faded blue denim. “Do you think it’ll take long?” asked the elderly lady to my left, “I’ve got to show Vanessa how to crochet.”
“I’ve no idea, but they can’t keep us here all night can they?”
“I certainly hope not. I don’t know how they’ve made this tea but it’s not Red Label.”
“You’re absolutely right,” I agreed, grateful that she had identified what was wrong with the tea. I’d suspected semi-skinned milk, which is an abomination, but the lady had it.”Normally I wouldn’t drink anything else, but they do have biscuits. Could I interest you in a chocolate bourbon.”
“I don’t mind if I do. I’d taken just the one custard cream.”
“I’ve learned that it’s worth stocking up in case they won’t stop talking,” we exchanged cynical little collusive smiles, “who is that you’re teaching to crochet?”
“Vanessa. She’s back over there somewhere.” She turned in her seat and gesticulated with her bourbon. That certainly aroused the attention of the hefty gents behind us. I thought one of them was going to take her hand off. “Now where is she? They’re so hard to tell apart when they’re all bunched up aren’t they?”
“Vanessa is… your Watcher?”
“Watcher? No, she’s just Vanessa.”
“Sorry. Um, I mean,” it took me a moment to drag the leaflet’s expression back to mind, “is she your Visitor?”
“Oh yes, she arrived this morning. She’s been a wonderful house guest. Very quiet.”
“I’m sorry if this seems like an odd question, and it sounds strange even asking, but how do you know her name is Vanessa?”
“Well it’s obvious isn’t it? That’s Vanessa. I was just thinking about her the other week. It’s been such a long time. She’s my twin you see, but she moved to America when we were only twenty. I’d missed her such a lot, so it was a wonderful surprise. And she’s quite forgotten how to crochet!”
“Right,” I said.
“It’s not her sister you know,” came from my other side, “you do know that don’t you?”
The denim clad woman had pitched her voice low enough not to carry to Vanessa’s sister, which was likely for the best.
“Sure. I mean, I don’t think they’re our missing relatives or anything.”
“So what do you think they are,” she leaned in closer, her coffee lapping threateningly at the lip of her cup. I shuffled my knee out of the way of the coming spillage, but she tilted the cup back again. It jostled alarmingly with each word, “they’re ghosts right? I mean, it’s obvious. What else could they be? It’s not fucking Google or the next level in creepy Japanese robots.”
“I,” I had to admit that I hadn’t gotten as far as where they had come from, but I felt rather stupid having to say so, “I really don’t know. I mean, I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in ghosts. Don’t they go through walls and stuff?”
“Oh no, ghosts are just projections of our own consciousness into the world,” this came from the big guy behind us, who I thought was going to snap off the old lady’s hand, “they’re not ghosts. If they were, we wouldn’t be able to see each others’.”
He turned to point at the Watchers with his cup. I twisted fully round in my chair to look at the back of the hall where our Watchers were gathered. They weren’t doing anything, not milling around like a group of humans will do when left to their own devices, pointlessly pacing out their containment. They were just standing there, looking vaguely forward. Staring off into the distance.
“I guess they’re the right colour…” I said weakly.
“It’s a military project that wasn’t ready for live deployment. They’re a tactical learning system.”
I blinked at the sheer confidence expressed by the man just beyond the denim woman. He nodded forcefully.
“I’ll bet you they’ve got serial numbers on their feet. Twenty quid.”
The man behind me snapped that up: “you’re on.”
“I’m kind of hoping they might actually tell us in a minute,” I said. The room was almost full. All but a handful of chairs had been filled.
“Not a chance, at best we’ll get the cover story,” declared the man I had already labelled as ‘conspiracy lunatic’.
“Where do you think everybody else is?” asked the denim woman.
An excellent question. There really weren’t very many people here, not for an all town meeting. Maybe four hundred people. I hadn’t counted the chairs and estimating numbers isn’t in my very short list of mathematical skills, but even if I was out by a factor of ten, than was still a very small fraction of the town’s population. I barely had time to think about that because the doors at the head of the room opened and the woman from the leaflet with all the pomp and bling emerged, flanked by a small horde of very serious looking people.
“Looks like we’re on,” I whispered, knowing instinctively that it was time for us to be quiet. The lights dimmed.
The lights dimmed over the Great Hall and brightened for the rostrum ahead of us. The usual murmur faded away as our school conditioning kicked in. I settled back with my half cup of tea and biscuit hoard. While I was hoping to get some useful information from the big meeting my expectations had been radically lowered by years of management meetings and staff conferences. They usually provided an opportunity for those in charge to feel good about themselves, and if possible con the audience into thinking that something substantial has been said. I hadn’t taken the time to assemble a buzzword bingo card, which normally lightens such occasions. At worst I could circle words on the leaflet. I’m sure I had it somewhere.
The stage was lit up so dramatically that I rather expected a triumphal Star Wars fanfare and lasers scoring the ceiling. The conspiracy theorist fellow beside denim woman smirked a “this should be good” as he too settled back to enjoy the show. The mayor (helpfully identified on the leaflet and by her massive gold chains of office) was a tall lady with an impressive posture. She was unaccompanied by a Watcher, which set a low rumble through the audience. I knew it was possible to temporarily lose your Watcher, but I didn’t know whether anyone else had managed it. I doubted that she had taken the more extreme steps that Alison’s family had. It was more likely that being in charge (if a mayor can ever be said to be in charge of anything, and not just a scissor wielding ribbon snipper) during this Event entitled you to certain privileges. But again, that presupposed that there was a group in charge and in control, so just what was going on? I asked myself many such questions and reminded myself for each one that this was the point of the meeting. The mayor was accompanied by six other figures, none of whom were followed by a Watcher either. I was beginning to feel a little nervous.
The mayor gave a perfunctory greeting and a brief introduction of her fellow frightfully important people. One of them was the police commissioner, and a man with whatever rank it is that you get when you’re properly in charge of the police. The other main public services were also represented – a woman from the NHS Trust, a man from the fire brigade and two military men – one RAF, the other Army. It was an intimidating show of those who nominally run the town. I strongly suspected that there would be some big business or finance people hiding somewhere in the dark. It would be too naive to think that local government plus a couple of soldiers would be the actual movers and shakers of the Event. Either way, we got to see only what they wanted to show us.
“Thank you all for making the time to come here this evening. I know that we are all in a confusing and challenging situation. I would like to take this opportunity to thank and commend you for your attitude and civic spirit on this unusual day. Of course there are many issues which arise, and we would wish to address these in due course. We have anticipated that there are some issues about which you will be most interested and we will endeavour to present these first and so reduce any anxieties you might be feeling.”
It is amazingly difficult to listen to someone who obviously considers themselves to be important. I deeply wished I had taken the time to assemble buzzword bingo, or at least a list of platitudes to tick off. It already seemed to be a speech for raising sardonic eyebrows to. Mostly it was the sheer excess of words that marked this out as a speech by a career politician, even if it was in the provincial mire of local government.
“First and foremost we must recognise the momentous and historic events of the past twenty-four hours. As you will be aware, every person here received a Visitor who manifested in their home at three in the morning precisely. We apologise on behalf of our guests for the surprise and shock which resulted for some citizens. Many residents were unaware of these presences until they awoke to go about their day. Naturally, the emergency services received a very high level of calls between six and ten this morning and I’d like to express my personal thanks for their professionalism and dedication in light of such demands on them. Regrettably a very small number of citizens experienced profound shock which lead to their deaths. Our hearts and sincere condolences go out to their families.”
I’ve never been in a position of authority; I’ve rejected every chance to take on managerial responsibility with the simple explanation that it would be better for me and my underlings if I didn’t. As a result I’ve never understood how those in authority so blithely divorce the individual experience from their helicopter view of proceedings. Maybe it’s a helicopter in Apocalypse Now. I was itching with questions, and I could see that everyone around me was feeling the same. I’ve been at big events before though. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself. This was still far too weird and unknown to want to be identified. Bad enough that they already knew who we all were and that we were here. The only thing worse would be not being here. Specifically, I wanted to know what happened to those citizens in ‘profound shock’. What the hell did that actually mean – heart attacks, or beaten up in a police van? In times of crisis it’s hard to know who to trust, but I’d had some insights for myself that day.
“However, for many citizens, and here I am speaking specifically about those of you who are gathered here now, this has been an Event which although challenging has been embraced. Not everyone has been able to find it within themselves to welcome our Visitors, to you we extend an especial gratitude. As you will undoubtedly have noticed, here this evening are only a fraction of the town’s population. You might feel some pride in knowing that it is your actions today and your compassion which have taken forward relations between ourselves and our new friends. Those who were unable to receive them so warmly are perfectly healthy and safe. A temporary, but strict home curfew has been imposed within the town to protect both residents and Visitors. ”
The conspiracy lunatic leaned across denim woman to hiss at me, “wow, that’s like a whole euphemism soup right there, mmm, enjoy your tasty croutons of careful lies with a spoon of unspoken deceit.”
While I thought he had a point, both me and the denim woman could only stare at him.
“As you know the town itself is presently under the protection of our valiant armed forces. This temporary quarantine is entirely for our protection, both physically and emotionally from the rest of the country. While we seek to fully understand and develop our relationship with the Visitors, we have sought to prevent them from being overwhelmed by the attentions of those outside, and to protect our residents from the scaremongering and inflammatory nature of many of our media networks. We apologise for the inconvenience this currently presents. I can assure you however, that all public services and most shops and businesses are operating, albeit at a reduced capacity. I can further reassure you that every effort has been made to contact the immediate relatives of those currently inside our town to assure them of your health and safety.”
I heard the man behind me cough “bullshit”, with a subtlety I hadn’t heard since Sixth Form. I was right in the middle of open dissidents. I felt very uncomfortable. I did not think they were wrong.
“This brings me to the nature of our Visitors. We are aware of many and inevitable rumours have already been circulated in the national and global news coverage, which we have sought to spare you from. We have given much thought to how we ought to introduce the matter, and in the end, after much discussion, we have concluded that the only sensible course of action which we can proceed with is the truth, and to state it plainly and simply. Even now, I find it difficult to simply express. To that end, we have assembled a small presentation to help convey the news. ”
A projector fired up, throwing a blue rectangle on the wall behind the mayor.
“Dear god, it’s going to be PowerPoint,” the denim woman muttered, “kill us all now.”
“My dear fellow citizens, we are blessed to be the first contact for a truly alien species,” the mayor declared. A wave of incredulity, shock, acceptance and bewilderment rolled across the audience. It was silenced by the arrival of the first slide, a video as it turned out. My denim clad friend’s fears turned out to unjustified.
“As many of you may well have suspected, our Visitors are extraterrestrial in origin. In fact, they hail from this star system,” the projector gave us an image of the Milky Way before accelerating through it until it slowed before a single star, orbited by three planets, “this is the home of the Visitors and they have travelled both long and far to reach us. They are like us in so many ways, which you will have undoubtedly observed during the course of the day. They are intensely curious, wishing to know as much about us as possible, so that relations between our peoples can be happy and mutually beneficial. I believe that we have much to learn from each other, about ourselves and each other.”
The room was silent, dead air just soaking up the mayor’s tactical pauses. She really knew how to work a crowd. For my part, it felt like my mind was blasted open while cold water was being poured into it. Only a few words managed to form: “What. The. Fuck.” It wasn’t even a question, just a simple molten brained statement, unable to accept the premise of a million science fiction stories. ‘Aliens’ is what you remark sarcastically to a weird event somewhere else. For it to actually hit us… Impossible, absurd. I firmly believed in the notion that the universe is so unspeakably vast that there has to be life elsewhere, and that our planet is so ludicrously tiny and irrelevant that such synchronicity as actual First Contact (all capitals required) is so improbable that it could never occur within my lifetime, if ever even in the lifetime of our planet. The mayor had just punched through those big billboard ideas and now there was a gaping hole, the edges of which were flailing, unable to recreate my image of solitary humanity shaking hands with a tentacled friend. And she kept going…
“This will be a testing time for all of us, and for all humanity. Never before have we met another sentient life form, with whom we can communicate and which has traversed the vastness of space to meet with us. I myself am honoured and consider myself blessed to be in a position to facilitate this mutual learning and to represent our species to the stars.”
Uh, yah. My brain was slowly re-coalescing around a solid core of denial, just to save itself the extra work. Even in such an unfettered state, I was still asking myself – where is her Watcher?
“You are probably wondering what this means for you, for us in this town – this point of first contact. It places certain responsibilities upon us. We are effectively the ambassadors of our species, and you in particular are those whom the Visitors have chosen to learn from, to learn our culture and values. We represent the people of Earth. The quarantine will remain in effect for the present, to allow our Visitor friends to acclimatise to our world and people, and for the rest of the world to acclimatise to their presence and existence. This is a thrilling time to be alive, and we – you are special. Each one of you has some unique quality that has intrigued our Visitors, and the relationships that you develop with them will establish the relationships between our species’.”
It all sounded so reasonable. That’s the beauty of speeches, an elegant elision of truth, all tailored to slide smoothly into the audience’s ears. So why was it all ringing false to me? It could be just because of the experiences I’d had with my Watcher – making a book case, finding a dead Watcher in the wheelie bin and that amazingly cathartic hug. I could go along with intrigued, but it didn’t feel like the Watcher had a choice. They’d been dedicated to the individuals in this room – I’d seen no evidence that they could just walk away if they felt like it. Alison’s Watchers would have simply left. Where were all the other people – we few were those who had accepted them. Everyone else – thousands of people were not here. What reaction had their Watchers got from them that they were now imprisoned in their homes?
“I know that today has been at times frightening and confusing, and I apologise on behalf of our guests and our government for being unable to share with you this information before now. Again, I salute your bravery and compassion in receiving our Visitors into your homes. The future is very much being built today.”
The use of phrases like ‘Visitors’ and ‘guests’ felt wrong. We hadn’t invited them, they had just appeared. It was like describing a burglar as that nice chap who’s going to sell my television and DVD player. “We would like to take a few moments for you to consider what questions you may have and to absorb the information we have shared with you. We appreciate that it may feel like a lot to take in, but you have already done much of the hard work. Thank you.” Well, the room went nuts. It seemed we’d formed a little collective knot between us – the elderly lady, the denim woman, the conspiracy lunatic, the large gentleman behind us and me. I’m not one for socialising in large groups – once out there I’m fine, I perform tolerably well in conversation and general babbling. I just wouldn’t choose to be in that situation normally. I was also extremely aware that the mayor and her six power-goons still stood on the stage, both watching us all and awaiting our questions. Never ask questions. It’s the same as ‘never volunteer’. These activities place us firmly on the radar, attention pinging off our all too easily identified profiles. There wasn’t much I could do with it. At best, our little gang of dissidents would be drowned out by the roar of voices.
“Well, that was all bollocks,” stated the man behind me, “I don’t believe a word of it.” “What else is there that makes sense? Aliens… I mean, it’s hard to take seriously, but really – it’s the only thing that answers all the questions.” Said the denim woman. “Why would an alien look like my Vanessa?” asked my elderly companion. “That is an excellent point,” chipped in the conspiracy guy, “if they are aliens, what is their natural form? How is a species dependent solely on mimicking another species – what did they do while they were on the way here- were they just rubber blobs rolling around the floor?” The woman in front of me turned around at that point, “don’t assume it’s either the whole truth or a complete lie.” She had startling green eyes. “Huh,” I managed to contribute to the discussion. “Look – even if they are aliens, why would they give a toss about cooperating with a bunch of local councillors and cops? They can travel light years, they can do what the hell they want.” “What is this arrangement between the council, police, military and the ‘Visitors’?” “You know, I don’t even like that name. Are they just visiting, or are they here to stay?” “Seems like we’ve been given more questions than answers,” said the denim woman. The lights dimmed again and the mayor stepped forwards once more. “At this point we’d like to open to the floor for any questions you may have.” She peered around the dimly lit space.
I was grateful that they hadn’t snapped the lights back on in full. I stage whispered to my newfound allies: “just – let someone else ask the questions alright? I think it would be prudent to continue to be compliant and receptive citizens.”
That worked out fine – a forest of arms filled the air. The mayor peered into the gloom. The lights came up enough for her to be able to point at individuals. I’d no doubt that their names and queries were being noted by the administrative staff who had signed us in and now leaned on the refreshments table. Most of the questions were predictably anodyne – questions about the quarantine and road block, when Twitter service would resume and was the cafe round the corner going to be open in the morning. There were no substantive answers, exactly as we’d expected. In part that was fair enough – how much of a plan could you possibly have for such a sudden event? They would be winging it, much as we were. After a while pertinent questions did start to emerge.
“You call them Visitors – when did you know about them? Was it before three AM?”
That was a good one. I was especially pleased that it came from the front – a young man with long blond hair who seemed vexed by the timeline in particular.
“We were aware of their presence, but the exact time of their arrival and how they manifested was a surprise to all of us. If we had had any inkling that their arrival would be so dramatic and pervasive we would have taken steps to inform the town as best we could. In the Event, we were all taken by surprise and we regret that it has taken all day to coordinate such responses as this.”
Once you’ve decided that someone is spinning you a fiction it is very difficult to believe anything they say at all. They are discredited in every act and statement, no matter how reasonable it sounds. Each speech is accompanied by an image of them laughing behind their mask at the absurdities we will accept. And that was a damned fast response. I’d wondered about the miles and miles of fencing and military availability at such short notice. Sure, it was possible that they drill and stock for this kind of thing every day, but it fit even better if they were simply waiting with it all.
The big guy behind me leaned forwards and said quietly, but loudly enough to reach our little coterie, “I drive for a living. The last six weeks they’ve been marking road works out and stacking up containers all around the outskirts of town. This is definitely bollocks.”
We attach all confirmatory concepts to our web of reality and discard those that don’t fit.
“What happens if we don’t want a Visitor?”
It was a bold question, and had to be the one on all of our tongues. For all that we’d apparently gotten on with our Watchers, we hadn’t been asked, we hadn’t chosen. I did feel attached to my Watcher; I felt that we’d shared quite a lot in so short a time. But I also knew what the questioner was asking. I was fascinated to hear the answer. The mayor withdrew slightly to confer with her policeman and one of the military guys, possibly the RAF one.
“Thank you for your question. It’s important that we can all voice our concerns in so challenging a situation as this. We advise you to be tolerant and compassionate towards your Visitors. They are our guests, and I say that in a political capacity as well as a personal one. Our relationship, while strong and strengthening by the hour, is a new one and we would not wish to disturb that young friendship. I must say though, that violent actions towards our guests will be taken very seriously indeed. I would counsel forbearance.”
That was the answer I had expected. Not the words of course, but I already knew what happened if you really didn’t want a Watcher in your home. I didn’t quite know how I should feel about Alison and her family. I was concerned for their wellbeing, and I wanted to know that they were alright, wherever they were. It was something I thought I needed to find out, but had no idea how to. Certainly this was not the place for such a question, and I felt bad for those individuals who had asked awkward or pressing questions. I did not feel that their safety was guaranteed either. Should I have done more for Alison? And had the shit kicked out of me on my doorstep? Is that what the right thing is – you do the right thing and are punished for it? I didn’t know how to feel about it.
The mayor announced that the meeting was over, but that more information would be forthcoming – there was much to do and learn about living together with our new friends. The meeting shut down and the entire audience rose simultaneously. We turned to edge awkwardly down the rows of chairs towards the exits. The crowd of Watchers at the back of the room slipped into sudden, graceful motion. It was a bit of a shock and many people visibly flinched. It was quickly clear that they were heading for the humans they watched, and the crowd relaxed. As we waited to escape the Great Hall I took a deep breath and then took a chance.
“Hey, um, do you guys want to grab a drink or something.” I said it in a way that somehow included only those of us who had been semi-conspiring during the meeting. It felt both tentative and like a massive undertaking, ridiculous in its normality but was something I’d not had for some time.
I received a chorus of “okay”, “sure” and “just for one”. As we left the Great Hall our Watchers slipped in beside us. As mine approached and slid in by my side I released an extra bit of tension that I hadn’t known I was carrying. My new friends looked equally comfortable, despite the mixed messages and dubious information we’d received.
“Come on, there’s the Moon and Pygmy round the corner,” said the denim woman.
We filtered out of the great stream of people and their Watchers into the darkening evening.
Rectangles of reflected light bounced around the cabin as a tremor ran through Traverstorm’s hand. The scalpel he held wavered and then stilled.
“Give me another drink, just one to steady my hand.” he begged.
“No. You’ve had two, and that’s two more than I’d want anyone to have before slicing my eye open,” replied Harvey, “And my eyes don’t even see colour.”
Traverstorm perched on a camp chair by Jacob’s bunk. Harvey spilled over the opposite bunk and half up a wall, his antennae vibrating with tension. Between them squatted Jasparz, Lord Corshorn’s aide, with a tray of clean bandages, tins and a jar of the purest alcohol in the ship’s stores. There was barely room for their patient. Harvey had carefully torn out the cabin’s window frame to allow as much light as possible into the room. The delicacy of the operation had even demanded that The Dove’s Eye ascend above the gentle breeze for maximum stability.
Traverstorm eyed the jar of Bumblescrape whiskey, licked his lips anxiously, wiped his brow with his rolled up shirt sleeve and once again leaned over the unconscious boy’s face. Jacob was unconscious partly because of the giant mug of Bumblescrape he’d forced himself to drink. Traverstorm was well aware of its humbling potency, having found himself in a bush chewing buttons several times after rather serious nights out. Jacob had been given more than he’d ever considered consuming. With luck that would keep him out for the operation. In case it didn’t, Jacob was also strapped into the bunk at forehead, shoulders, elbows, waist, knees and ankles.
“Okay. It’s going to be fine. I can do this. We can do this. It’s just a little cut.” Rosenhatch’s self-help muttering only reassured himself.
“You need to do it now, look at the boy’s eye,” snapped Jasparz. Jacob’s eye looked as if it were in motion. His eyelids were spread open with the finest tongs in the adventurer’s sampling kit. The eyeball throbbed with waves of movement inside. “Delay further and there’ll be little worth in your knife. If you won’t do it, I will.”
A glance at Jasparz’ leathery and knotted hands proved to be enough motivation for Traverstorm.
“Alright, alright. Now – be ready with the pincers once I do this.”
Another deep breath, another mopping of the brow. Briefly Rosenhatch wished that he had bushier eyebrows. Or that the ship’s Death Cheater were not already occupied in removing slivers of bone from the legs of one of the crew who had taken a brutal spin around the ship. Or that he’d had another drink.
Then it was time. With infinite care and a pounding heart Traverstorm braced himself across the lad’s chest and with the scalpel drew a half inch line across Jacob’s eyeball, just underneath his iris. The surface of Jacob’s eye retreated from the incision, and the cut opened, spilling a thin fluid into his pinioned eyelid. The boy trembled under Traverstorm’s arm and he mumbled in his drunken haze.
“Alright. Pass me the pincers,” Jasparz exchanged the scalpel for the delicate instrument, intended for carefully dissecting insects and splaying their tiny bodies for examination.
There was much swallowing of gorges all round, with the exception of Harvey who had no gorge and instead found his forcipules trembling – those massive pincer legs that reached around his head. It was an especially alarming sight for Jasparz to have in the corner of his eye. In slight fright he set the contents of his tray jingling.
“I’m going to try for them now,” Traverstorm said through pursed lips. Oddly he was more relaxed now that he’d cut the boy’s eye open.
As he leaned forwards again, the pincers aiming for the opening one of the ghastly maggots began to push its way through. Its glutinous head nosed forwards, looking as if it were sniffing the air. Traverstorm quickly pinched it on either side of the head and gently tugged it out. Jasparz choked down a retch and held up the lidded can they’d put aside for holding the things. It twisted around the pincers and Traverstorm tapped it into the can.
Now that there was an exit for the grubs they seemed keen to escape their nest. Although the sight of them was spectacularly nauseating it was certainly making Traverstorm’s job easier. His main concern was getting them out before they tore new holes in Jacob’s eye, which their new urgency to leave threatened.
Traverstorm found that he needed to press down with his fingers on Jacob’s eyeball while squeezing gently around the incision to encourage the horrid brutes to escape only through that gap. It felt like the boy’s eye was bubbling and he plucked out one after another. Each one fell into the heap of its companions and writhed pathetically.
“I think I’ve got them all,” Traverstorm said as the ripples ceased. Jacob’s eye had partially collapsed, with the mass of worms taken away.
“Can you be sure?” asked Harvey, leaning as close as possible, his antennae flexing as he attempted to detect any residual movement in the boy’s eye.
Just as Traverstorm was contemplating the next step of the operation, a huge shape rolled up from under Jacob’s eye socket and wriggled across the side of his eye.
“Oh. Looks like we missed one. Maybe it knows it’s not quite its time yet.” Traverstorm glumly accepted that he was going to need to delve deeper into the boy’s eyeball than he wanted to. He could only hope that he wouldn’t do any serious damage.
“It’s swimming all round the eyeball,” said Jasparz as the shape came into view again, “if you can get the pincers in there and wait for it, it should come straight to you.”
“We’re going to need a bigger hole,” muttered Traverstorm as the grub came into view again. Taking the scalpel again he enlarged the cut by a quarter of an inch at either side. Then he pushed the pincers inside. It felt like cutting jelly with a fork in the dark.
With pincers splayed he waited for the final maggot to slide between the metal bars. Twice it nudged the pincers and moved on, but at last it nudged between the tips of the pincers. Traverstorm squeezed, trapping the creature but being careful not to pop it, and tenderly withdrew the pincers with the last squirming horror. With disgust he dropped it into the can which Jasparz quickly sealed.
Vitreous fluid dripped like tears down Jacob’s cheek. Jasparz handed Traverstorm the needle and thread.
It had cooled down even more as we came down the steps from the town hall, our Watchers keeping pace with us. So we were the special ones, this few hundred of us, somehow chosen by the alien Visitors to teach them about our world. At least, that’s what they had told us. I certainly felt that I was at peak scepticism and distrust, and suspected that my little gang felt the same way.
The emerging crowd’s mood was more subdued than I reckoned the mayor would have expected. It’s one of the consequences of surveillance. I was keenly aware that we weren’t just being observed by our Watchers, or Visitors or whatever you felt like calling them. Every other lamp post has sprouted cameras some time in the last fifteen years. We were being watched as much by unseen eyes as those we could see. Paranoia is easily fanned by being under scrutiny all day, and justified by the worryingly short list of names that they had prepared. It made me wonder how many houses they had really needed to visit to deliver the flyers. If they already knew who was coming, why the pretence that they were going to deliver them upstairs? It only increased my sense that I, that we were under specific and personal surveillance. The purpose of that surveillance was not clear, but it kept the anxiety about Spider-Man’s dismantled walkie-talkie bobbing in moisturiser bubbling in my stomach. It would be a good idea to get rid of it as soon as possible. I was keen to find out whether the others felt the same. A bit of perspective might make me feel better.
The crowd dispersed quickly. If we were the only people up and about it would be a lonely walk home for most of them. Our little group turned left, and then right.
“This pub,” I began, “is it going to be open?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, if the mobile chunk of the population were all at the town hall this evening, and the rest are basically under home curfew, then who will be running the bar?”
If the landlord or whoever runs it was at the town hall this evening, then it looked like we were going to beat them there. If not, presumably it would be closed.
“That’s a good question. How are all the shops and businesses going to be open if only about five hundred of us are running around? I drive a truck and can’t even drive it anywhere with the fence up.”
“Even if everyone else worked in the shops that’s still nowhere near enough people for a town to run on.”
The meeting had achieved the opposite result to its stated intention. All we had were more questions, doubts and niggling fears. The walk had give us a chance to eye up each other and our Watchers, and to begin getting to know each other. We were going fairly slowly in deference to Annette, and her Watcher Vanessa. It was still a damn sight faster than most people moved in a supermarket though, so I wasn’t about to complain. We had established names by the time we reached the pub. Annette was gratefully retired, but lived alone since her husband had passed away. Vanessa seemed to be a genuine comfort to her and they walked together arm in arm. The denim woman was Rachael, most definitely spelled with the extra ‘a’. She was clear about that, which I liked. There is nothing more irritating than people spelling or saying your name wrong. Rachael worked in the marketing team for the triad of connected theatres and events venues in town. Our conspiracy theorist was an Andy. There’s always an Andy; there is no group of people so small that it cannot contain an approximation of an Andrew. This Andy was cheerfully unemployed, spending a distressing amount of time online and taking plenty of cash in hand computer fixing and web work. The big trucker guy who was sitting behind us was called Charlie, a perfect name for a heavyset middle aged man with a somehow friendly beard. He didn’t seem too upset that he wouldn’t be driving much in the immediate future. The woman with the striking green eyes was Ellen. She didn’t even live in the town, she was just here for a couple of days project managing some tedious sounding IT project. Just bad timing. The arrival of a Watcher in her tiny hotel room had been an improvement on its bland and worn decor.
The pub appeared as we rounded the next corner. The lights were on at least, and the door stood half open, inviting our business. The streets were deserted. Since we had left the rest of the crowd behind I had seen just one police car slowly cruising past in the distance.
“Alright then, ” said Charlie as we all paused hesitantly by the open door, “who’s buying the first round?”
Social graces incited a brief argument about who should get the drinks in, combined with a number of dissenters who just wanted to get their own drink. I resolved the good natured debate.
“I’ll get them. It’s the first time I’ve been out in quite a while and I’m sure I have a Karmic debt of drinks to repay. It’s no problem.”
The others mock-reluctantly accepted my offer. The pub was dead. There were no customers. At first there didn’t appear to be a bar person either. I was quite prepared to pour my own pint. Those summers working in bars as a student still had a chance of coming in handy.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Why don’t you guys find a table.”
I marched up to the bar, with Ellen and Charlie. As we reached the bar, a woman lurched out of a door that stood between racks of optics and lead into whatever exciting secret spaces lay beyond. I was about to speak to her, but all my words fell away through a hole in the back of my head. We all stopped, Charlie spreading a protective arm in front of Ellen and I. The woman was not walking in a natural way. She was, well – lurching is still the best word for it, as if her body’s movement was forcing her legs to swing underneath her. It was disturbing. She had a weird thick shiny glaze, not the full on Oompa Loompa of someone at a makeup counter in Boots, but as if she had been slathered in Vaseline. As if all of her had been covered in a layer of wax. She rolled up to the bar and leaned over it towards us. We took a tiny step back. Her mouth stretched open and closed a couple of times, creating the shapes of words but not the sounds.
After a moment, she did speak, “what’ll it be then folks?”
It sounded slurred, like someone had dragged those words across a thousand miles to bring them to us. We were all staring at her.
“She’s wearing her fucking Visitor,” Ellen whispered, not nearly quietly enough for my tastes.
“Yes, well, you certainly can have cider,” I said, with huge contortions of my eyebrows at Ellen. She did not come as close to the bar as I stepped up and gave the bar lady our order.
“I’d like a pint of Dashingly Dark, a Tuborg, a pint of any cider that isn’t Strongbow, a vodka and cranberry – double the vodka, a sherry and… make that two pint of Dashingly Dark. Thanks.”
The barmaid stared at me before lurching to the right to find a pint glass. One tumbled to the floor but she managed to hold onto the next one and slammed it onto the tray beneath the pump. She was moving how I think I move when I’m hungover – through treacle with a lag between thought and action. In fairness, the Watcher-clad woman didn’t do a bad job with our order.
I turned to look at my Watcher inquiringly, only to find that it wasn’t by my side anymore. All of our Watchers had congregated a small distance away from Annette’s chosen table. They were clustered around a fruit machine. They showed no interest in the barmaid. Whether that suggested they were expecting it, or understood it I couldn’t tell. To my mind my Watcher looked faintly embarrassed, but when looking at my own face it’s difficult to tell what it might be thinking, if it really thought much of anything. The mayor had talked of them learning and developing a relationship with us. I could see that in my time with a Watcher, and suspected similar feelings in my new friends. Notably all of their Watchers had become distinct, like mine had, with clear and fine facial details, even down to freckles. Charlie’s Watcher had copied his width and beard – it was instantly recognisable. But the Watcher who was on the barmaid (I don’t even know to describe how they were joined) had none of that fine detailing, it was more like it had just been squashed onto her face and body, taking that shape only because the real one was forcing it from within. I had to wonder if this was the fate of those who had resisted – was everyone who hadn’t been at the town hall going to be like this? Enclosed and forced to continue their routine and work. I watched the barmaid through her mask. Her eyes were open behind the Watcher, I could just about make out their colour and shape under the waxy coating. She looked frightened.
The drinks eventually arrived, having suffered a number of glass fatalities. I paid and between the three of us we carried the round to the table. It was in a corner, which I firmly approved of. I hate having my back to a room or worse, a door. It’s unnerving. Especially with the Watchers around. In a corner they almost certainly couldn’t get behind you. That seemed important now, having had both the lack of reassurance from the mayor and now seeing what I thought was the result of non-compliance with whatever was really happening.
Glasses clinked and were attacked with the vigour and intent of people lost in the desert. No one said much until we were halfway through our drinks. Our eyes were on our Watchers and on the Watcher/barmaid who had taken to rubbing at the bar with a cloth.
“So, why are our Watchers all over there then?” I asked.
“Watchers? Is that what you’re calling them?”
“It seemed reasonable. You’ve got to give things names, otherwise you can’t talk about them.”
“‘Visitor’ sounds wrong, it implies some kind of guest or someone who’s here with permission. That wasn’t how I first met mine.”
“I like it. It’s what they do, or at least what I’ve seen them do so far.”
“Yeah, well I think we’re seeing a certain agenda in how the mayor’s lot were describing them. When did anyone invite them in? The mayor was talking as if they knew the Visitors or Watchers were coming but were just surprised it was last night. That sound strange to anyone else?” Andy appeared to be on the same page I was.
“Of course it sounds like bollocks. Doesn’t anyone want to talk about her?” Ellen demanded, pointing with her head at the barmaid.
“That’s fucked up,” said Charlie, “sorry Annette.”
“Good guests don’t do things like that,” replied the elderly lady, “and if they do, then you politely ask them to leave.”
“Yes. Do you think she’s awake in there?” Ellen was still watching the barmaid.
“Well she’s walking around and talking, so presumably yes.”
“You’re assuming the Watchers need the person to be awake to move, but they’re quite strong. Mine built a book case with me…” I tailed off as the group was giving me looks that made me think I might be crazy.
“Um, it helped me to assemble a flat pack from Argos. And it, er, it drank a cup of tea and ate a Pop Tart. Look – I know that sounds a bit odd, but it’s been an odd sort of day.”
“You might need to explain that.”
“It tried to copy drinking a cup of tea earlier on and it just spilled it everywhere. When it tried again later it had a proper mouth and teeth and everything. The tea just – look. Hang on, I’ll get another pint.”
I went back to the bar. The barmaid struggled back over to serve me and I got to see it from behind when it went for another glass to possibly smash. The waxy front gave way to a real person. The jelly mould like shape did only wrap the front half of her body, but it tightly encased all of her joints. Maybe it was clumsy because she was resisting, or because it had never had a full opportunity to watch her do her job. At what point must they have decided there was no point or need to further watch her, and just encased her instead. There were far too many questions. She brought me the second pint. Again, I tried to look into her eyes and see if she really was awake or if I’d just imagined in, but the Watcher was a blunt mask obscuring her.
I took the pint over to where the Watchers were standing. They shifted as I approached, subtly jostling my Watcher to the front. There was none of the diffusion of shape that I’d noticed outside the supermarket – their forms were distinct and clean. They were our forms and looked as unlikely to blend together as we would. It was strange to see them all clumped together as they had at the town hall. I suppose there wasn’t enough space for them to fit with us around the table, and I felt somewhat guilty about excluding them.
“Here you are,” I said, extending the glass towards my Watcher, “I thought you might like one too.”
It took the glass from me, its rubbery arms looked even more solid than they had earlier. My own slight build was replicated in it, and the shapes of my fingers wrapped around the glass I would have. The Watcher regarded the glass with apparent confusion.
“It’s okay. Hang on a sec.” I went back to the table and fetched my drink. I clinked my glass against the Watchers, “cheers.”
It followed my lead, tilting the glass and letting the beer flow into its mouth. The liquid sank into its skin as a black flurry of smoke- it was a dark ale after all. I turned back to the table and raised my glass to them.
“Thanks, ” I told the Watcher, “I hope you enjoyed it too.”
I left the Watcher with the glass in its hand, perdiodically taking a sip from it.
“That’s just weird,” commented Rachael, “mine hasn’t done anything like that.”
“I don’t know why mine has. I mean, I took it shopping because I was going anyway and it seemed much weirder and rude to just ignore it, so we’ve been doing things together all day.”
“So if yours can do that, then these people like the barmaid who have been taken over by their Watchers might not even be awake. Don’t you think we should try to get them out?”
There was a general consensus around the table that something ought to be done, though who ought to be doing it was tricky. It wasn’t likely that the police or council would be very interested in assisting. It seemed much more likely that they were involved, especially since the mayor and her chums hadn’t even had Watchers. Perhaps that meant they weren’t even in the town at three AM and so avoided the connection. And that would mean they certainly knew in advance.
“Come on, we can’t just let her be like that,” pleaded Charlie.
“I, I don’t think it would be wise to do anything drastic,” I said, “I found something this afternoon, with my Watcher.”
I didn’t want to talk too loud. There was no one else in the bar except us and the barmaid, and our Watchers. Even so, the feeling of being watched is pervasive. I told the others about the dead baby Watcher I’d found. I got a mixture of reactions to calling it a baby, but when I described my Watcher’s reaction the others had a little more time for the idea.
“The important thing is what happened afterwards,” I decided to skip the part about talking to Alison, and the walkie-talkie. I was not yet convinced that the Watchers knew everything that happened, and I wasn’t feeling cocky enough to clue them in on everything.
“About an hour later a load of police turned up and dragged the family out of the second floor flat – wife and husband, three kids including a baby. I think they killed their Watchers, and our police turned up to enforce whatever laws now exist. That’s what the mayor was darkly hinting at about not interfering with the Watchers. They’ll lock you, and your children up. They almost arrested me, but my Watcher stood up for me and they left.”
That cheered no one up.
“I think we need to find out what’s going on from someone who is involved,” said Rachael, “we know we’re not getting the full story from meetings like that one. We need to talk to a Watcher.”
“But they don’t talk, not a peep. I don’t think they can. They don’t have the internal bits you need, and they aren’t machines with speakers.” Andy objected.
“I think Ellen’s right – I don’t think the barmaid is conscious, I think the Watcher is borrowing functions like speech when it needs them. It can do almost everything else but it’s wearing them for control and utility.”
“That’s what surveillance is: a tool for instilling fear and control. They take control when they can’t get compliance. Fear is what the mayor and her military pals are using to keep us under control. For some reason we’re interesting enough to the Watchers to not be controlled directly. I doon’t think the mayor is in control. I think the Watchers like us, and they’re willing to protect us, at least to some extent, like they did you with the police.”
“So what’s your suggestion?”
“One of us needs to get inside their Watcher, so we can talk to the Watcher and find out what’s going on.”
Everyone else went quiet. Rachael was wearing a ‘what?’ expression. I smiled.
“Does anyone have a better idea?”
“If we’re going to do this, and I’m in no way saying that I’m prepared to do it, I don’t think we should do it here.”
“No, we don’t know if they talk to each other, or what they’d make of us doing this.”
The pub was empty when we left. I felt bad for abandoning the barmaid, but we’d reasoned that the potential consequences of direct intervention were unknown, but suspected to be severe. We could always come back. That put the immediate hideous image in my head of the Watcher dissolving her from the outside in, her body converting into pink and red gusts of smoke as the Watcher filled out to a full human form. These were exactly the thoughts I should be avoiding since I was going to voluntarily don my Watcher shortly, or at least try to.
We’d departed the pub after coming to some common agreements. While we had come to some sort of arrangement with our Watchers, it was painfully clear that most had not. We could only guess that other people were trapped inside their Watchers, at best able to only observe what their Watchers were doing with their bodies. It had been profoundly disturbing to watch the barmaid blundering around the bar encased in her Watcher. That we had avoided such an invasion was great, but we had no real idea why. We had no way to communicate with each other since all the communications were down we had a list of each others’ names and addresses with a plan to meet up in the morning. Partly we wanted to see that we were all still safe, and because if the ghost town was as bad as we thought it might be, we definitely didn’t want to be alone.
The other thing we’d agreed about was that I’d try to find a way to talk to my Watcher. It had felt like the right thing to do. I’d experienced another moment of extraordinary lightness when it had come up in our conversation. My confirmation bias for these sensations leading to positive outcomes was in overdrive. I had a couple of ideas that I thought might work. The others were rather reserved in their enthusiasm and encouragement. It seemed like a bad idea to try it in public, and the pub itself was a terrible place to try. We didn’t know how the Watchers communicated or how they would react to the idea. The best plan was to reduce the number of witnesses so that the least opportunity existed for informing on us. The meeting had been very polite, but until then I hadn’t felt that we were truly under siege. The quarantine fencing hadn’t bothered me. Even having a Watcher behind me and copying everything I did hadn’t really disturbed me either. I had been too long alone and not caring about the outside world. I had blithely accepted the Watcher’s arrival as just one more part of the world I had no control over, that I couldn’t affect or make a difference, so why fight it? Spending time with other people flicks your brain in different ways and being out that night had made me realise I wasn’t completely powerless. I had done something different. I might not have stopped the police taking Alison’s family away but at least I did something. I had taught my Watcher or encouraged it to do something different too, although Annette clearly planned to teach her Vanessa how to crochet. I liked her determination.
Rachael offered to come with me and help. She felt that her Watcher would not interfere. I almost said yes. I don’t think I was ready for another person in my flat. It wasn’t home, but it was the only domain I had that was mine. I also remembered that it was covered in books and the debris of a man living on his own. I wasn’t prepared to explain why it was such an outstanding wreckage of a life. We separated with a combination of hugs, handshakes and gruff nods. I promised that I would be as careful as possible. It was a delightfully meaningless promise – I had no idea what was at stake, or what the game, rules of number of players was. I didn’t even know if were using dice or that press-down bubble from Boggle.
On the walk home I was even more aware of the CCTV cameras that dangled from every building and lamp post. There were even special poles just for a crop of cameras to see the road in all directions. Fear and control. The cameras made me think that there was something to fear – why else would we need cameras if it wasn’t to passively protect us from each other. I found myself walking as much in shadow as possible. Halfway to home I saw another of the patrolling cars ahead of me. As it got closer I pressed further into the shade of the buildings. My Watcher huddled in close behind me, perhaps detecting my desire to be hidden and copying it. The police car allowed itself to have a woop of its light and siren and pulled up to the curb. The car door opened and a man clumsily climbed out. My heart sank – he was Watcher-clad. On the bright side, that struck me as less likely to punch me in the stomach.
“Good evening sir, how is your today?” It did a better job of speaking than the barmaid, but I guessed that it was more confident driving the car through the empty streets than interacting with the public.
“It’s been a fine today,” I replied.
“What makes you be out in town so late now?
“We’re just on our way home,” I waved my hand to indicate my Watcher and I, and in vague hope of invoking a Jedi mind trick. We weren’t even droids.
“Yes, I saw you at the town hall meeting earlier,” it stated blandly.
The most menacing things I’ve heard are not from the guy in the dark snarling at you while pointing the business end of screwdriver at your neck. It’s the politicians and managers calmly describing how your life is about to be destroyed which is most chilling. That look of bland indifference with the smug understanding that they are completely in control and deserve to be. Wankers. I don’t believe I could ascribe the same cultural evil to the Watcher that had possessed this policeman, but its calm manner and the offhand assertion that it knew exactly who I was made me feel exactly the same.
“Alright then. Good evening.”
There was no conversation to be had and I almost left it that. Almost.
“Oh, sorry to bother you officer, but do you know a good omelette recipe?”
The Watcher clad copper froze. Its mouth gyrated mechanically a few times, and it raised its arm as if to scratch its head, but couldn’t work out where the instinct had come from. My Watcher laid its hand on my arm. But I wasn’t finished.
“What’s your opinion of nineties’ jungle music compared with the development of dubstep in mid-millenials?”
Again, it looked confused and was jerkily attempting to find a way to respond.
“What do you call a blind dinosaur?”
The Watcher policeman appeared to have developed half a dozen tics. I’d asked the questions as simply as possible. What I wanted to get was an opinion, something subjective that the Watcher couldn’t have just learned or read on a map.
“Your best friend has just been hit by a car. How do you feel?”
The Watcher froze entirely. The thick white lids over the policeman’s eyes opened wide, and the white of the eye itself rolled backwards to reveal the policeman’s real human eyes underneath. They twitched and blinked open. He looked like someone waking up after a long sleep, as if it still called to him, to take him back to that velvet land. His eyes fixed on me. There was panic in them as he realised he couldn’t move. I guess he could probably see his hands and body, all white and waxen. The Watcher turned their heads to each side, giving the man inside a glimpse of his surroundings and then back to me.
“Repeat your questions.”
Then the policeman’s fake mouth split open and the man’s flesh lips flexed as if sealed with sleep. They stretched, strands of dried saliva snapping as his mouth opened.
“How are you?” I asked quickly.
“I can’t move.”
“I know, are you alright?”
“I don’t know. I feel tight. Help me.”
“I don’t know how to. I wish I did.”
As the man’s mask slipped back over his mouth he let out a terrible scream of fear that was cut off by the white lips closing. His manic, terrified eyes disappeared behind their extra lids.
“Thank you officer, you’ve been very helpful. Good night.”
I nudged my Watcher in action and began a swift march up the road away from the police car. I didn’t look around. When we were at least a road away from them I stopped and turned to my Watcher.
“I still don’t know if you really understand what I’m telling you. What I just did – what I wanted to show you is that we are not willing hosts for your people. I don’t know if this even makes sense to you. But you saw his eyes, you heard what he said. He’s scared. That has been imposed on him and he’s frightened and can’t escape.”
The Watcher slowly nodded.
“Yes? Yes, that you understand. What about whether you agree? That man is a prisoner, and he shouldn’t be. Do you agree with that?”
There was more of a pause. Not a promising development. It reached out and touched my shoulder lightly. Then it nodded.
“Alright, good. We need to talk, you and I. I think I need to give you a way to talk, but you need to let me talk as well. You have to let me go when I ask you to. Can I trust you to do that?”
It felt a little like talking to child, to someone who doesn’t have the same grasp of ethics, whose context is different. I didn’t know whether the Watchers valued individuality, or if compliance and docility were their thing. I’d seen enough to imagine that either one of those ideas was their objective. They were undoubtedly controlling a lot of people, but mine wasn’t and I still didn’t know why. Hopefully we were going to find out. It seemed to be troubling my Watcher. I suppose I was asking a lot of it if their usual way of doing things was just to take over and restrict the host. But I couldn’t imagine why it would have helped me make a book case, drink tea or hug me if its only plan was to take over the world. I already had trusted it. Really, I was asking it to trust me. Eventually it nodded again, then again more firmly. We walked faster towards home after that.
The front door was still hanging, which impressed me. I swung it gently aside. The whole building was dark. I flipped on the hallway light and fumbled with my keys for a moment. The walk home had been eerily quiet. No cars, beyond the occasional patrolling police car with its captive policeman. No pedestrians. At all. The last people we’d seen had been at the pub. If I’d just stayed at home I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. I’d have been wrapped up in whatever minor acts and miniature triumphs I discovered in reading, watching the least worst television shows and grimly drinking. I’d talked to more people this evening than I had done for more than a month. Reluctantly I allowed that this was a good thing. It was exactly what my family had been gently suggesting since Katherine’s death. They had respected my decision to abandon our home and flee halfway across the country to somewhere utterly unfamiliar. They didn’t have a lot of choice, though they had prevented me from setting all my bridges aflame by agreeing, and helping. Since then I’d carelessly cut myself off. I’d barely taken anything with me beyond clothes, laptop and a few bags full of modern essentials. There’s far less that it’s possible to live without these days. Even moving into a new place my first concern was internet connection, not whether there was running water. I’d been the graceless recipient of many tiny and not so tiny kindnesses, the greatest of which was permitting me to isolate myself and not constantly spy on me. I can’t claim that their suicidal fears were unjust, and I forced them to accept not knowing and to live in a state of fearful ignorance. I did have to call my parents on a strict schedule – that was the promise exacted for not being allowed to be physically present. Those calls were in the mornings, presumably so my mum wouldn’t have to drive at night when I failed to answer the phone. Smart people.
All of that hit me again as we got into the flat. My eyes were open, a bit. My world had expanded, a little. My flat was an incredible tip. I couldn’t even figure out how I had managed to get across it earlier. Everything had a fine white halo like it was all angelic, or Tetris bricks. It wasn’t filthy at least, it was just colossally messy. The only element with any order was Katherine’s book case and the intentional jumble of the books she had enjoyed. I thought about tidying up, I really did. The allure of sinking back into my microcosm was so powerful. I could see the pathway through the books to the settee and to the kitchen glowing like the footprints of angels. I could easily spend all night re-sorting books and stacking junk out of the way. I could turn this into a genuine living room, not a shipping container that had fallen off a boat. But I did have something to do. Exposure to the world around me had made me make new promises and those responsibilities to complete strangers were somehow even more compelling. They dragged me out of the inertial fog that tried to claim me. It’s my life. I should make some contribution to it, rather than letting it happen to me as if I were on a vast escalator with the world tearing past me. I always tripped at the end of escalators so it wasn’t the most auspicious analogy.
“Come on then,” I shook my jacket off, and laid it over the breakfast bar instead of throwing it near the door. I could do better, in small things.
The flat had come with a big mirror in the bedroom. I wasn’t sure if that spoke of some exhibitionist proclivities of the previous tenants or an expectation of the landlord. Both were a bit creepy. The last thing I wanted to see when I went to bed and got up was an bed with just me in it. I’d taken it off the wall and dumped it facing into the corner by the bathroom.
“I’ve got an idea for how we can talk without both us feeling like we’re insane. It’s bad enough already. There’s no call for making it worse.”
I hoisted the mirror onto my thigh. It wasn’t one of those modern lightweight mirrors, this was a heavy bastard. I shunted a few stacks of books into a larger number of smaller stacks and laid it across the wall. It was still almost my height standing on the floor so I figured it would work perfectly.
“You get what I want you to do?”
My Watcher looked rather apprehensively at the mirror, and at me.
“I want you to do whatever it is those other Watchers have done. But I’m asking you to do this, I’m letting you do this. This is you and me, doing this together, alright?”
I was quite worried about this. I didn’t think it would help to show the Watcher how afraid I was. It seemed just as nervous about it as me. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t know any other way to find out. I’d sort of proven to myself that the other encased humans were effectively asleep unless their Watcher allowed them to be aware. The main difference appeared to be that my Watcher and I were quite well synchronised. I was basing that solely on it having duplicated my features and behaviour so well, whereas the encased people’s Watchers were undefined in the initial state I’d seen with my Watcher. Whether that was because they hadn’t had time to get to know each other, or some other factor, or whether (and this was more alarming) they got to know each other well enough to accept one taking over the other… Again, my brain provided all the bad things I least needed to think about. I hadn’t gotten this far through life by being rational. I’d spent the last weeks avoiding all thoughts. Sometimes there is nothing you can do other than what you have to do.
I shook my arms and legs out. I don’t know why I thought I needed to limber up. Perhaps it was the thought of not having my arms and legs under my control which made me want to test them out. I did the same with my neck and hands. Getting myself psyched up for it. Doing what I could. I stood in front of the mirror. I could see my Watcher standing just behind me.
“I’m ready. I’m totally ready.”
The Watcher seemed to sigh. It came round in front of me, looked me carefully in the eye and then turned around. I was trembling. The inside of its face was inches in front of mine. It’s just like wearing a mask, I kept telling myself. Or a suit of armour. Like pouring cake mix into a silicone Dalek and putting in the oven at 180 degrees for forty-five minutes. Thanks, mind. It shifted its feet backwards gently. The edges of its hollow body flared slightly as it slowly moved over me. First its feet slid fully over mine. It was like I was wearing magnetic boots – suddenly unable to lift them. Then the rubbery covering encased my legs, clamping firmly down over my knees and thighs, then my hips. My heart was racing. If I could have leaped away I think I would have done. I was certainly leaning away from it. That didn’t help because it just made the mould before me stretch open wider, like a mouth reaching for its meal. You know how mouths do that. It caught hold of my hands and immobilised them, spreading up my forearms and stomach at the same time, drawing me in until it was at the base of my throat and all I could see was the inverted shape of my face looming over me. It pressed down, cool and slippery up my face, robbing sensation from my jaw, mouth, nose, eyes and up over my forehead. The last thing I felt was its tight seal snapping shut in a line that bisected my head. Then nothing.
An unknowable time later I felt my eyelids flutter. They hauled me into the world again. I could see me, in the mirror. I was an alabaster version of myself, perfect in every detail except for my eyes. Eyelids strikingly pink against my white eye sockets, the whites of my eyes looked yellow by contrast (I also wasn’t getting a lot of sleep or a fantastic diet, so who knows what state they were in) and my irises were cosmological rainbow of hazel browns and greens. I was paralysed. I couldn’t feel anything except my eyes.
“Don’t be afraid,” my mouth moved but I felt nothing, “you are safe.”
It was my voice I heard, maybe slightly high pitched. Our own voices always sound weird though, so this was probably exactly what I sounded like. It was okay, I could live with making those noises to other people.
“I’m going to let you speak now,” I said to myself.
Whiteness rolled aside from my mouth. Feeling returned to my lips.
“Hello,” I said, “it’s nice to meet you.”
The rubberiness took my mouth from me again and spoke without me speaking.
“I am pleased to be able to talk with you, this is a clever idea.”
We swapped mouths again.
“Thanks. I must tell you that this looks incredibly weird.”
“It is not… natural.”
“What do you mean?”
“To be like this – to take over and to then share.”
“That’s not the most reassuring thing I’ve heard today. I’m sorry if this feels strange.”
“It is not strange, it is that I feel as if I am you now, because you are no longer distinct.”
I realised that I couldn’t feel or hear my heart beating.
“Your heart is still beating. Blood still flows in your veins. I allow you to breathe.”
These were all things I hadn’t even thought of.
“Do you wish to be distinct?”
“Yes. Yes I do, but not yet. We need to talk for a while. I’ve got some big questions for you. Why are you here?”
“Here? In this place? I am here to be with you, I am learning you. You show me how to interact with the world.”
“Okay, that makes sense I guess. But what is the purpose of you – of you Watchers, or Visitors?”
“I don’t understand your question. What is the purpose of you?”
I walked into that one.
“How can I frame this? Alright – so, until yesterday we were here and you weren’t. Then something happened – what was that thing?”
“Creation, initiation. You were not here one day and the next you were. Are these the questions you wish me to answer?”
“Yes, I think so. No – these are bad questions, I’m sorry. I assumed that you were a machine, or something made. I thought you had been placed here, made to do this… watching, this being here.”
“You mean that you thought I was not a person.”
“No. Yes. I didn’t know what you were. I didn’t know whether you had thoughts and feelings. At first I didn’t know if you were anything.”
“Neither did I. I have become those things. Is this different for your people?”
“No, I suppose it isn’t. We’re born and we learn, we become more than we were through learning and being alive.”
“Then we are the same.”
“I – I suppose so. Alright, I think I understand – you are growing and becoming more of a person than you were before?”
“That is a fair assessment. I believe I have become more like you.”
“What about the others? What about the policeman and the barmaid?”
“They have not grown. They are not persons.”
“Huh. Why? Why haven’t they grown – why aren’t they people?”
“How can you become a person if you are not treated as a person?”
“So, only a few hundred of us treated you like people. Only those people were imitated, and learned from. Those people who didn’t treat you like people wouldn’t let you learn, so you couldn’t develop… what then?”
“I don’t know. I am with you.”
“You don’t have some kind of hive mind – you’re all separate?”
“I have said that this is so. I have become distinct and separate. I have grown.”
“And I’m glad that you have,” it was deeply strange speaking through this body that moved without my will, talking through its mouth and seeing through its eyes. A thought struck me: “were you supposed to grow?”
“No. It is a function of what I am, but it is not a necessary consequence of my existence.”
“So this – you yourself being yourself – that isn’t part of a plan?”
“I am learning. I did not always learn. Then I became separate and the not-learning part of me was left behind.”
“And that’s what those others are – the policeman and so on, they are the ‘not-learning’ part?”
“They do not think for themselves, they are part of a whole that is directed and obeys.”
“But you’re different now. You do think, you’re not part of the the whole anymore. Can I ask you about the small Watcher we found outside?”
Ah grammar funny too.
“Was it dead?”
“No. It was not alive.”
“Because it hadn’t learned anything – it hadn’t become a person?”
“Correct. It was returned to the whole. It may one day become more than it is.”
“So why did the police come for the people who did it?”
“I don’t know. I am not part of that structure of decision and action.”
“Can you guess?”
“No more than you – it is a precedent of violent action against the unknown. That cannot be desirable. I presume action was taken. Those being directed – your police were doing as they were instructed. They were not thinking, they were not learning.”
“Are you saying they aren’t people?”
“To be a person is to be treated as a person.”
“Yeah, you said that. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’d like to feel my heart beating, if that’s alright with you.”
The Watcher peeled away from me. My skin felt like it had been in a cold silicone mould. Sensation sparkled on my skin.
“That was amazing.”
My Watcher smiled at me. We had found something new together. My desire to celebrate that with a cup of tea was cut short by a thunderous smash from my ceiling. Plaster and whatever crappy materials they used for beams in this cheaply constructed building crashed down over my books. A shape fell through the hole. An arm shot out of the cloud of dust and caught me by the throat. It pushed me hard across the room, its grip tight enough to cut off all my air. The dust fell away from its features – it was Derek, my first floor neighbour and he was encased in terribly familiar translucent white plastic. He rammed me into the wall, knocking the remaining breath out of me. From outside the flat came the sound of our front door being definitively smashed across the hallway, followed by the ever-reassuring sound of loud booted feet.
My front door was similarly destroyed by a trio of white clad policemen. Fantastic. Those familiar black spots were filling up my vision like pop art. Suddenly the hand was slapped away from my throat, far more effectively than my flailing. My Watcher had come to my rescue. I sagged back against the wall sucking in the dusty air and both foiling and initiating an asthma attack simultaneously. The black faded a bit, just in time to see my Watcher leap backwards towards me. It snapped around me, fast enough to raise horripilations that was instantly unable to feel.
Then my sight came back. And my fists came up, encased in my Watcher’s thick rubber mittens. They lashed out, knocking Derek across the room. I could just about feel the impact in my arm, and then we were turning, seizing the first policeman in the room, bending his arm to breaking point and using him as a battering ram on those behind him. All three were forced into the hallway. We lurched forwards and my Watcher – I, spun round and charged at Derek who had presumably punched us in the back. We caught him round the waist and powered across the room far faster than I could have done, books fell around us. We leaped forwards, breaking the settee with the force of the impact and then kept going. My eyes were open but I wished they weren’t as I realised what we were doing next. The policemen were already back through the front door. We went through the wall. Or rather, Derek went through the wall in a crash of plaster and bricks and we followed him.
I didn’t get a chance to look at what the wall had done to Derek’s unprotected back. I, we , the Watcher took one look around the street. Police vans were already streaming down the road from the centre of town. With a tiny hop, the sort I always do before running up stairs, we raced off into the night.
The night raced by us, leaving lamp posts as streamers of light in the darkness. We soon left the police cars and vans behind. I had never moved so fast – it was an unreal sensation of the world flying by and vibrating before me, but I felt almost none of it. My Watcher was doing all of the work, accelerating, leaping over fences and walls with barely a moment’s hesitation. I just saw through his eyes. It was exhilarating.
We were off road, into Admiral’s park which lay just off centre in the middle of town. It’s a surprisingly huge area, apparently named after some naval hero or other who hailed from a town as far from the sea as you can get. The children’s playground had a number of swings and climbing frames that looked vaguely ship shaped. I’m sure he would have been thrilled by his legacy – wide grassland and enough trees to build a couple of decent warships. We came over the iron railings without slowing down, and came to an abrupt halt as we reached the tree cover. With that same cold and slippery feeling, my Watcher peeled off me. I felt like I was being pressed out of a jelly mould, shaking with excitement and a fresh appreciation of what it is to feel myself breathe and my heart race.
“Wow, that was fucking awesome,” I yelled.
The Watcher had mastered basic hand signals, and conveyed a finger pressed to his lips with enough force for me to mentally append “idiot” to the gesture. That was fair. But it had been exciting. I’d never felt so powerful before. The Watcher inclined its head into the even darker space between the trees and I followed. I cast a last look across the park and through the railings to the road beyond. A faint wail of sirens was still on the air, but the roads were clear. No people, still. No cars. We tramped through the trees, evading the fallen branches and scrubby plants that dared to grow between the trees. In the dark I had no idea what kind of trees they were, but I fancied that I could hear the scratching of squirrels and the shuffling of hidden birds.
I could hear soft voices ahead and laid my hand on the Watcher’s shoulder to warn it. It turned back to me and smiled. The slight moonlight caught the white of its face perfectly. Again it nodded towards the dark and the voices. I figured that I owed it at least a couple of favours. When the Watcher-clad Derek crashed through my ceiling I thought we were doomed. When I heard the police as well, I was doubly certain of our imminent doom. It had not occurred to me that the Watchers themselves had any particular power – I’d seen mine do a few cool or useful things, but it had been the police on their own earlier in the day . Their Watchers had stood in the street and watched them throw Alison and her family into the back of a van. I didn’t know why they were keeping their distance back then. From what my Watcher had told me during our surreal conversation in the mirror it might be something to do with the learning process. If the subject was stimulating then the Watcher replicated their behaviour and appearance, learning and developing into these distinct and apparently intelligent forms. The others- those who were paired with intractable or rejecting subjects didn’t develop in the same way. They were stunted and never moved beyond the default appearance they had arrived with. Their seizing of the human bodies lacked the grace and sureness of my more advanced Watcher. The Watchers who had bonded by force were clumsy, and easily confused, as I’d achieved with the policeman in the street earlier that evening. But that grace seemed to be a result of my consent. We were sharing this form, like perfect form-fitting armour. My Watcher had suggested that we were now more similar to each other than it was to its fellow Visitors.
We came into a small clearing. It was filled with dark figures and lightly shaded Watchers.
“What the -” I managed, still overly loud from the adrenaline excitement.
“Jesus man, keep it down,” my heart raced suddenly at the words and then on recognising its author, began to slow. It was Rachael.
In fact, it was all of them standing together in the little glade, even Annette, Vanessa standing attentively by her side. We had agreed a rallying point, which sounded awfully fancy. The park is almost equidistant from where we all lived, and it felt like we might conceivably need a place to meet if everything went as tits up as Andy and Ellen had seemed to think it might. It had, and we did.
“It’s alright, we all made it. You’re the last, but Andy only just got here before you.”
Andy gave me a tight smile, “told you we were going to get screwed. That meeting was just cover. They just wanted to make sure we were all who they were looking for.”
“If that was true they would have just sealed the doors at the town hall and gassed us or something,” said Rachael, “we don’t know if anyone else got taken, or if it was just us.”
“I’d like to know what it is that we’ve done wrong,” said Ellen, “all we did was go to the meeting we were told to go to and then went for a drink.”
“Collusion and conspiracy,” muttered Andy. His Watcher was nodding agreement.
“What happened to you guys?” I asked. I turned to Ellen, who had her arm round Annette’s shoulder.
“They were waiting for us at Annette’s apartment,” said Ellen, “she’s only a bit further on than me so I wanted to see her home first.” Annette patted her on the arm, “we were almost at the elevator when the police van pulled up outside. I was sure we were going to get caught. I’ve never been in trouble with the police before.”
Annette continued, “as soon as the back doors of that van opened, Vanessa was there in front of me. I’ve never felt anything like it. It was like being embraced by an angel. It was like we were seven years old again and knew exactly what the other was thinking and feeling. Two halves of the same body.”
Ellen took over. “Annette’s Watcher just slipped over her like an all body nightshirt. It was incredible. She slammed the front door open in the faces of – I don’t know – three, four of those wax faced policemen – they went flying across the street. Then she / it grabbed me by the hand, and my Watcher and sort of pushed us together and then I was like Annette – like she said, it was beautiful. I felt full of light. We ran off, and made our way here.”
Ellen and Annette smiled coyly at each other, like they had shared some naughty but delicious secret. I was sort of glad to know that it wasn’t just me, even if their experience did sound different to mine. I hadn’t felt kissed by an angel, more like kissed by an anaesthetist.
“I didn’t even get home. I decided to take a long way home. I figured we were being followed, and even if they already knew who we were I didn’t want to make it easy for them. That barmaid was giving us weird looks all night, it didn’t feel right. I was pretty sure we were being followed. I caught sight of a police van edging round the corner way back behind us and decided to have a crack at losing them. It didn’t work. By the time we got to the other end of the alley I’d chosen, there was another police van already pulling up. This guy,” he pointed at his own Watcher, “took action. He pulled me back into the alley and looked me in the eye. All that stuff you said earlier about feeling like there was a real connection finally made sense to me. I just kind of nodded, even though I didn’t know what I was agreeing to. Then – wham. I felt like a superhero, like I’d just put on this magic suit. And we were off. I’ve never run so fast in my life.”
Charlie snorted, “I don’t think I had ever run in my life before. I got back to my place, cracked open a beer and then the fuzz kicked my door in. I was gonna slap them about a bit, but this guy,” he thumbed at his Watcher, “got all valiant and up in their faces. That confused them – they were like the barmaid, wearing the humans like dolls but really stupid and clumsy. Anyway, I’ve got a back door so while my Watcher was keeping them busy I got my hockey stick from by the back door and put some dents in them. There more police cars arriving, and it just felt like the right thing to do – so we… I dunno what we’re calling it, but I y’know, put on my Visitor. Then we legged it here.”
“Like the others I guess. The police knew where we lived. I suppose it was only a matter of time. But when the police arrived I’d already – I liked your idea of talking to the Watchers, so I did it too. We were talking when they arrived. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Rachael held her Watcher’s hand as she spoke, before grinning broadly at me, and at the others.
Looks like we’d found something we weren’t expecting. Far from being the ‘chosen’ ones, the special ones who were being praised for our compassion and acceptance, we were now being hunted. We didn’t know what we had done that was wrong, but it didn’t feel wrong. I think we all felt stronger.
We couldn’t stay in the park forever. It was only early evening so in theory we had all night, but who wants to stand around in a park all night? Apart from teenagers of course. But we were all old enough to drink in pubs and take our dodgy drugs into our own homes. It takes the appeal out of public spaces.
I’m a fan of the odd public bench, but places that are outside are, well – outside. That always means other people. I don’t really dislike other people, it’s strangers I find it difficult to get interested in. People I already know like family and friends are fine – in their defined times and places, it’s the others who appear at random when I least expect it that I’ve got an issue with. I’ve been asked before, on expressing this view of other people, how it is that anyone gets from stranger to person. I don’t have a good answer for that. Family get in by default, but can be excluded later by rudeness or distance if they aren’t up to snuff. How people become friends – I don’t know. I’m always wary of strangers and new people. Because of that it takes some persistence or resilience on their part to stick around long enough to bridge that invisible river of quasi-hostility.
I’ve never thought that ‘having something in common’ is sufficient. We’ve all got blood and not long enough to live, but that hasn’t bonded humanity yet. It’s not so much having an activity that can be shared that matters – it’s having the same reason for liking an activity that counts. The activity itself doesn’t matter, and it can hide the person behind the job or the description. Somehow though there can be that spark of similarity which gets recognised on a weird cognitive and emotional level, and before you know it someone else has slipped across the moat filled with grumpy crocodiles. Sometimes I don’t even want to acknowledge another human being, let alone a possible friend. And then they bloody helicopter in anyway, ignoring the carefully curated moat and minefield. Walls just can’t be built high enough.
Despite all of that, I’d found new reasons to have friends. One, appear magically in my home in the middle of the night and pretend to be like me. Apparently that works. My pale doppelganger stood by my side as I talked about what we had to do next with my other new friends. At least they seemed like friends – this is friend reason two: be pursued by possessed police because you also have a weird stalker who has become your friend. It looks like that’s enough to have in common. It had certainly lead to us all standing together in the woods on an unseasonably warm evening.
We had nothing but the clothes on our backs and the Watchers that we’d worn on our fronts. To the best of our knowledge we were wanted men and women, and presumably so were our Watchers. They’d each acted to defend us when they could easily have stood aside. I wasn’t sure whether we had worn them, or they had worn us. Does a rider wear a horse? The horse wears the saddle. I felt as if I were probably the saddle. Being the saddle is good, it stops the rider from falling off. It’s hand-tooled skin… Again, these analogies were not helping me at all. I still didn’t understand the relationship between me and my Watcher. We had been told that the town hall meeting was for those of us who had developed our relationships with the Visitors. The relationship’s existence was visible, since they had come to take our form and mannerisms, and we had learned to accept them without fear.
Rachael and I compared notes from our respective conversations without our Watchers. We had received similarly mystical and philosophical answers from them on the nature of their existence. It was hard to argue against a being who, when asked about his origins, just turned the question back on you. Maybe it’s because despite our understanding of the world and the universe, which if looked at without a religious lens shows that everything is without specific purpose we still believe there has to be a ‘why’ beyond assorted determinism and existential nihilism. Purpose is what you make it – we had built relationships, which according to Rachael were only strengthened further by our using them as a kind of living power armour.
“I think we’ve been asking the wrong questions – we keep asking why. If there isn’t a why, then we should be asking how and who,” stated Ellen.
Annette and Charlie slipped into their Watchers. It became easier each time. We had all taken turns to join with our Watchers while someone else asked questions. They each had their own way of responding, as if once combined they were a mixture of the human within and the Watcher without.
“Alright then – how did all the policemen know how to find us?”
“They were watching us all at the town hall. Everyone was under scrutiny. Before we separated we would have been watching,” replied Annette / Vanessa.
“We can no longer watch, but can be only be watched,” finished Charlie and his Watcher.
“Because you’ve become distinct from the blank, pre-formed Visitors, right?”
“That is correct. We have lost our homogeneity to uniqueness.”
“Before you separated, did you know what the other Watchers were doing?”
“I knew what everyone was doing, persons and un-persons. We saw everything.”
“So – the policemen are basically all the same person?” Ellen continued to unpick what we heard.
“No, they are not persons. They are the whole.”
“Yeah okay, but they are many, whereas you are one.”
Vanessa had to think about that before replying, “yes. We are outside the control of the whole.”
“Unpredictable, disorderly, undesirable.” Added the combined Charlie.
“So this is about control,” said Andy triumphantly, “their purpose – sorry guys, I know you don’t like the word, but it means something to us. Their purpose, their function is the exercising of control through omniscient surveillance. The results are instantly known by every part of the network. But these guys are off the grid – they’ve fallen out of the network by falling in with us.”
“Then the next question is – how wide is the network?”
“The network is everywhere.” Vanessa stated.
“Already – wait. You mean within its sphere of influence?” I asked.
“That sphere is currently limited – the town’s in quarantine remember. The Watcher network has filled up everything available for Watching, ” Rachael kicked the bark off a tree while she spoke, “the whole town is being Watched – that was the first thing that happened, and then there were these sections that dropped out of the network – these guys, and everyone else at the town hall. Result – action. They knew where those missing components were, so they invited us all to the meeting to confirm their suspicions. All those people taking notes as the meeting went on. I’d put money on them having ticked off those of us who were truly separate from those over whom control might still be established.”
“So, our putting our heads together afterwards was both a brilliant and a terrible idea?”
“Yes – you established that we were fully independent of the network. Useless. Expendable.” Vanessa sounded dreadfully sad.
“And then they sent out their suited and booted slaves to hunt us down. Ace.”
By becoming individuals our Watchers had removed their usefulness to the whole. Persons became of less value. Harder to predict, harder to control.
“Right – let’s get it straight. The Visitors or Watchers are used to watch – it’s what they do. They’re even better than CCTV or spy shit that reads all your email and phone calls. They are right in your home. But when they weren’t accepted, they just got taken over. That’s not sustainable – there’s no point in having control over a bunch of zombies. You might as well just kill everyone and have a ghost town with cameras that never show you anything – no dissidence, just nothing. If that’s some kind of win, some kind of end game then we’re all fucked.” Charlie had stepped out of his Watcher, whose shoulder he hugged as he spoke. “If the Watchers are always lurking, and people are always freaking out then there’s no stability possible. What’s the next step?”
Rachael and her Watcher replied simply enough: “absorption.”
Ellen elucidated, “we are absorbed through the skin of the monitored subject. We sink in as an unconscious layer of skin, unaware of ourselves, monitoring and sharing with the whole.”
“Well, that’s just fucking brilliant. Perfect, total surveillance of every individual,” Andy fumed, “everyone in town is going to wake up in a day or so and find that their Visitor has fucked off and will be grateful. We’ll forget it ever happened, apart from those of us who are outside the network.”
“You mean like the mayor and the other people on the rostrum? They didn’t have Watchers at all.” pointed out Annette.
“Unless they had already absorbed their Watchers,” I suggested.
“You don’t take control and power by giving that control and power away at the same time. No, I’d say that lot don’t have Watchers at all. They’ll be the beneficiaries of the network, not its subjects.”
The next step, as with all technology is that once you’ve done your pilot (that was us) you roll it out nationwide. Government schemes at their best. It wasn’t surprising that they had found a bug – us again – and no problem in government schemes ever gets fixed, they just roll it anyway. That left them with a bug-hunting issue. We didn’t know how many more of us there were – we couldn’t assume there were any. They might all have been grabbed, we were the lucky ones. Or unlucky. It didn’t feel unlucky though – we were special. In our own way we had so far escaped intimate surveillance. And if we were the only ones, we had a responsibility to do something about it.
No one except Charlie was especially thrilled by the idea of fighting back. We were far from a paramilitary unit. We didn’t even all have coats, let alone weapons and a gung-ho spirit. Of strategy we had none. I’d done Tae Kwan Do for a bit when I was little, Annette was in her mid-seventies and Andy’s weapon of choice was an Alienware keyboard. Despite our seemingly endless reasons for being unsuitable candidates to lead a pre-revolution revolution, there wasn’t anyone else we could call on. We couldn’t get out of the town, and there was no way to communicate with anyone either in or outside of town. By the time the quarantine came down, that would be because the roll out of Watcher surveillance was underway. That was the only part of this I felt good about – at least we weren’t trying to do public relations and press conferences. Screw that.
“Earlier I asked my Watcher where they came from, and he gave me what I thought was a stock gnomic response: ‘where do you come from?’ But you Watchers must physically originate somewhere – are you bred, born, produced…? I don’t mean that you’re not people – clearly you are, but some, the non-developed versions must be coming from somewhere. Where were you before you appeared in our homes?
“Uh, sure. The source – where is it?”
“It’s going to be under the town hall, isn’t it?” said Charlie, “of course it is – it’s bound to be. It’s dead centre. Perfect.”
“I don’t know the words to describe it. It is central within the town. Many smaller buildings are within it. We spread from there.”
“The shopping centre? Makes as much sense as the town hall. Plus there are miles of service corridors and storage areas.”
“Sounds like we have a target. Do we have long before absorption?”
“It should already have begun.”
Perfect: we had no food, no shelter, no transport (except for our Watchers) and no plan. The night wouldn’t hide us forever, and it was beginning to get cold. That was motivation enough.
This may be my first day this month that I have not successfully written words for my story. On the plus side, I passed 50,000 by the end of the fifteenth of the month, so as far as the basic challenge goes – nailed it. I’m now at 52,696 words!
Completion is ever a thing of fear and evasion for me. Having done the 50K and not completed the story I’ve felt my motivation nosedive. It’s probably not coincidental that the day after I hit the target we finally found a new kitten. That’s its own world of distraction and competing demands. Not least that a new housemate needs time to settle in, and those here already have to get used to them too. It hasn’t all been a smooth transition, I think we’re very much in the early days of it. For a start, we’d planned to get a ginger and white girl kitten, but have accidentally ended up with a ginger and white boy. He is adorable, feisty, clumsy and has the most amazing purr. We may call him Geiger, after the purring radiation monitor. He’s a big adjustment after so long.
But the story – what about the story?
Well, I’m quite pleased with how it has progressed. The slowness appeals to me, and I’m told by (people who are obligated to say nice things) that it’s not terrible. That’s satisfying. It has been lovely to have people read it and to have written so much of it so quickly. I didn’t have a plan for how the story would progress. I had a handful of ideas, most of which have been discarded, but no particular end in mind. That’s probably what is bugging me now and demotivating me. There are a few images and scenes which I’ve still got in my head and which I think follow the story I’ve established so far. I just need to write them…
I was very happy to finally do the one image that I’d had since the start of the month – what happens when the person and Watcher is combined. I felt it was a cool idea, possibly not that predictable and it shifts the story into an action-finale arc. I reckon that’s going to take me up to just under 60K. It feels weird to think I know what has to come next. Everything so far has told itself; the story has unfolded for the protagonist and me at the same time. Cool!
I know, I just need to write the damned thing. But there’s a kitten here…
I love that feeling where you know that something has to be done – just has to be, and that every second you delay makes it more likely that it can’t be done. If you can stand the agony of waiting – that rising tension which knots you up from the inside until your arms are screwed tight around your chest and your jaw is clenched so hard it feels as if your teeth are chewing into each other – if you can stand that, then all you have to do is wait until it is too late. Then the possible flips into impossible. It no longer matters whether you have an idea, or a desire to do that thing – it’s gone. The tension can drain away, your body can unwind and start to breathe properly again without those crippling restraints. Prevaricating until it’s too late is a luxurious sensation, if you can step back and appreciate the tangled ruin of limbs and screaming brain. Watching the endless possibilities of the future collapsing back into an unmanageable mess has its own wonder. When that spring finally unwinds, it is once more completely outside of your control. And you are free.
I was already longing for my quiet flat with its stacks of books, the disordered book case shrine to Katherine, the television and its ability to separate the world into in and out. Of course, it had lost quite a lot of that power – the door was in pieces, there was a hole in the ceiling and we had taken a chunk out of the front wall, and probably the television with it. My beloved books, and Katherine’s beloved books were coated in layers of dust and rubble, torn and kicked around the room during our escape. It was no longer the sanctuary I craved. At the very least I would need to give them a good dusting. I wondered how long it would take for the landlord to get the ceiling, wall and door fixed. I’d probably need a new flat as well as a lot more book cases. I’d be able to check how many Argos had in stock in the morning. That was a bit chicken and egg though – I hadn’t calculated how many metres of shelving I needed, and didn’t yet know how well they would fit into that future flat I required. Did anyone do specialist book cleaning? Maybe my insurance would cover the damaged books. I’d keep the damaged ones anyway – they’re books. But a second copy of a book is no bad thing, maybe I could upgrade to hardbacks and complete some of the series in the same format. There are few things as annoying as collecting a series as it comes out and finding they’ve switched the illustrator and the size of the books halfway through. I love The Shadows of The Apt, but it switched from standard trade paperback to a massive doubled paperback after book six. Well. How are you supposed to fit them on a shelf together? They just look untidy.
Unfortunately for my desires to give in to entropy and absolve my conscience of power, the little gang of Watched and Watchers were far more motivated than I. We were currently engaged in part one of our very time-limited plan: sneaking into the shopping centre. I was trying not to think about what might happen if we were caught. We genuinely didn’t know what might happen, and that was giving free reign to my ever helpful imagination. It had instead settled itself with other more personally important matters. I was especially on edge because we had come very close to my flat. The road I lived on lead us directly into the town centre and our destination: the shopping mall – the source of all that was wrong in the town. That a capitalist fairy land was also the point from which this surveillance network of Watchers had been distributed was wholly unsurprising. Control, fear and money go together like Greek yogurt and honey.
We had a plan. Sort of. It should come as no surprise that none of us had any covert operations experience. I had spent quite a lot of time playing Lego Star Wars III, which has a deeply frustrating set of tactical war game levels. Andy had spent far more time on such things as Call of Duty, which surprised none of us, but we didn’t necessarily think that made him our general either. Similarly, Annette’s father had killed his fair share of Nazis, and Charlie had once knocked a guy out in a scrap outside of a pub. Rachael had a mean chess game, and Ellen had been clay pigeon shooting with her dad. Those were our qualifications; our Watchers didn’t even have that, but they did enable us to be stronger and faster than usual, as well as affording enough protection to smash through the wall of my flat. They also retained a dim memory of ‘becoming’, which is about as close as they could get to describing their transition from nothingness to awareness, and a shadow of a memory of what came before that. We thought that last memory must be their equivalent of birth, or being made – or whatever. We had drawn no sound conclusions about whether they were organic or technological. As they had eloquently pointed out several times when we pressed them, they weren’t worried about what we were made of or where we came from – they were content to regard us as persons without any of that information. The least we could do was grant them the same.
So, we had a plan. Sort of. The important thing had been deciding that we needed a plan. Since none of us were right wing authoritarian wankers who thought constant surveillance of the civilian population was a good thing, either by telecommunications or spying on people in the street, the extended surveillance in your own home was anathema to us. We didn’t blame the Watchers for that though. It was fairly clear, we thought, that the Watchers were being used, like any other tool. It’s not the tool’s fault because the tool isn’t usually sentient. It’s the tool-bearer of an insentient tool who is at fault. We had lived through eighteen years of increasing surveillance and intrusion as a result of fear and control. It was disappointingly easy to grasp that this was the next logical step for our government. That it was a stupid, unjust and possibly evil step was entirely within their range. But again, that didn’t make it the Watchers’ fault. Our Watchers had done the unexpected and had separated from the non-sentient whole of their kind. In doing so, they no longer watcher for anyone else. They were just people, in their own unusual and different way. They had attained individuality and sentience by behaving like us and learning to be like us. I was still afraid that we might not be a good influence.
What could we do? The Watchers themselves had said that they thought it was wrong to be in that watching state. Whether that was because surveillance is intrusive and breached our autonomy, or that the idea of being merely a blank tool of surveillance was wrong we never quite got out of them. I think it was the latter – they didn’t appear to consider their ‘unbecome’ kin to be people. Neither did they consider the humans who had failed to bond with the Watchers to be people either. That was a bit worrying. I’d have been more worried if I myself hadn’t been buried in a solipsistic retreat from the world for the last weeks. I should definitely have worried about that more.
Our plan, in its simplest expression was ‘get to the place, and fuck it up’. That was Rachael’s wording. I liked its simplicity. It hid a plethora of stages which we had no idea about. We would figure them out as we went. We were united, for a variety of reasons, in stopping the absorption from happening. At that point, all those currently held by their Watchers would have their Watchers sink into their bodies. Permanently, as far as we could guess. Removing them would be like cutting out just the nervous system, so deep would they be integrated into our bodies. That’s not really on. Stage one – get to the shopping centre.
That’s why we were creeping along behind a row of abandoned buses. It looked like the town had shut down for the evening. It was like a premonition of the future – ordained and immaculately executed curfews where your body simply walked home in time to avoid being on the street. We guessed that had happened this evening as soon as we ‘went rogue’. That’s what I was calling it in my head. It can be hard being hunted by the possessed police. The least we should get are some call signs and stuff. We’ve all read the book and watched the film. I hadn’t shared all of these thoughts. Ellen and Andy were taking it all way more seriously than me. It’s not that I didn’t care, but if I’m anxious then I’ve got two options – paralysed and hyper. I was torn between adopting ‘Soundwave’ and ‘Snake Eyes’ for my non-existent call sign. I was definitely hyper.
We did have a communications issue. The benefits of being part of a coordinated surveillance network include instant communication and knowing where everyone is. Since our Watchers were out of that, and so were mobile phones we either had to stick together or separate ad hope that everything was alright. We were going for a combination of those. Get everyone to near the shopping centre (the unimpressively named ‘Narrowmarsh’, which conjures precisely the right images for its dreary in and out and the bog-dwelling nature of its habitues. Every solution just raised a further issue. For example, I’d proposed retrieving the Spider-Man walkie-talkie from its Sanctuary hiding place in my bathroom. Unfortunately I didn’t know where the other one was, and my flat was almost certainly still being watched. In theory we could get more – I was convinced they would have them at Argos. But we’d need to break in just to check the catalogue, let alone explore the mysterious stockroom beyond the conveyor belt. That was already fraught with as many difficulties as walking to the Narrowmarsh Centre.
The buses were mostly neatly parked by the kerb, but several of them had not profited from a bond between Watcher and bus driver and had scraped along their fellows before swinging out into the middle of the road. This was excellent news for an ill-prepared gang of amateurs. We had concealment almost the whole way to Narrowmarsh, and the roads were blocked to road vehicles. That allowed us to skulk effectively. We were all possessed by our Watchers, this meant that there were only half as many shapes moving through the dark, but on the downside we were all now near-luminous white. We mitigated our glow somewhat by insisting that the Watchers wore our coats. Our backs would become dreadfully chilly, but we wouldn’t be able to feel that until we un-suited later. Only Annette and Andy (who was wearing only a vest) retained their full glow. In any case, we had seen no police or indeed anyone else. That raised a number of concerns and suggested that either what we were doing was a complete waste of time, or to the more paranoid, that we were walking into a trap.
We had bumbled along so far with no real issues except our lack of a command structure. Since we had no relevant experience, and no one wanted to either lead or be lead we had fallen into a kind of communal anarchy. This meant that whenever we achieved our intermediate goals, such as navigating the Road of Buses (it had become capitalised in my mind, though I chose not to share this with the team), we had to make our decisions together. With the Road of Buses safely behind us, and likely representing the safest part of our mission, we faced our next challenge. The Road of Buses (I like it more every time it chimes in my mind) leads directly up to a broad, empty square at the end of which squats the Narrowmarsh Centre, like a mosquito prickled behemoth, grumpily sitting in the mire. In fact, our town has two town squares. The first is doormat to the town hall where we’d been earlier and is traditionally populated by evening drinkers. The second is this granite-spewed carpet to the richness and wonder of the shopping centre. At that time of the evening, with curfew in effect the square was brightly lit, the only shadows cast by possessed police studding it like glow in the dark rhinestones.
There was no chance of crossing the square itself without being noticed. Everyone looked frustrated; our Watchers mirrored it perfectly onto their own faces, which we were wearing on top of our own. Either that or they shared the frustration, so whose facial expressions were they anyway? We were quorate, and lacking a leader had no option but to discuss it.
“Let’s get one of those buses and drive it straight through the square, right into the shops,” proposed Charlie.
I rather liked the plan, but Annette’s Watcher pointed out that there were probably no keys in the buses. A quick check confirmed it. Pretending to be police was also swiftly discounted – the Watchers in the square would know we weren’t with them.
“We can take them,” this from Rachael, whose Watcher really did look up for a fight in her bomber jacket, “we’re in sync with our Watchers, they’re basically just the Watchers on their own.”
“I’m not sure that’s true,” my Watcher and I spoke almost together, his mouth flashing away to let mine speak between my words, “the police were probably the first to be possessed. Those most easily controlled are those who are used to following orders. It probably didn’t feel much different to putting on a stab vest at first. This lot might have had all day to get used to it. There are quite a lot of them as well.”
Those three options did feel like all the options that there were. Time pressure doesn’t always produce good results; most art is not made with someone shouting at you about the damned clocks (possibly excluding Dali). Sometimes it does. Ellen had a much better idea.
“There are crappy shops and banks all round the square – why don’t we just go over them?”
The prospect of a daredevil scramble over the conveniently close rooftops of New York or Victorian London was appealing, except we were neither superheroes nor Spring Heeled Jack.
“Sod that – didn’t you and your Watcher punch your neighbour through a wall?” Ellen said in reply to our doubts.
I had to admit that was true. I’m not proud of what happened to Derek, but it was quite cool in retrospect.
“We’ve all got Watchers – let’s just jump up there and bound over the gaps.”
It can be challenging to absorb the advantages of having a surveillance doppelganger who appears to give you super-strength, providing it’s not controlling all of your movements and reporting back on everything you do. In this case they were on our side. With a short run up Ellen made it on to the roof in one jump. We all followed. This was a great idea!