Watchers – Part 5 (NaNoWriMo 2015)

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 It had been replaced by actual fear and pontification on our current state of emergency.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.

“You could have helped with the bookcase.”



The Desert Crystals – Part 36: We Tell Ourselves We Can Live Forever

Part 36 – We Tell Ourselves We Can Live Forever

Last episode (for these characters)


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.”

Coming Soon: Part 37 – Ask Not, Get Not

Watchers – Part 6 (NaNoWriMo 2015)

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.

“Ah fuck.”

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.

‘No Service.’

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.

“Right. Bastards.”

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.

“What are you?” I breathed.