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.

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 It had been replaced by actual fear and pontification on our current state of emergency.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

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