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.
“What are you?” I breathed.