Watchers – Part 3 (NaNoWriMo 2015)

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.

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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.

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