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.