With the door closed the world contracted. My recent conversation with Alison in her taped up flat, the smell of cement from the hallway, all that fell away. It was just me and the Watcher. We looked at each for a minute. Nothing happened. I fell into default British mode and went to put the kettle on.
It felt different from before. We were both the same, it and I, but we’d shared an experience outside the narrow bars of act, copy, do, imitate. The Watcher joined me by the kettle. I was content with its presence. If anything its absence and reappearance had sent an odd shuddering sensation through me. Unexpected company that had become normal, then taken away and now returned. What I’m trying to say is that I was confused. Like most people I work through my feelings by ignoring the outside world, rejecting advice and making tea. We waited for the kettle to boil. I’ve heard that some people even have boiling hot water taps; sounds like an instant scalding on tap to me.
We were again facing each other. I’m not sure when it developed hair. I’m pretty sure it didn’t have hair when we’d been out with the bins earlier (that still rings oddly in my ear). But now it clearly had my depressing fading temples and sand traps, hair not yet separated into strands, but more how I’d expect to appear if someone ever made an action figure of me. I’m thinking of the terrible Kenner Star Wars ones from the eighties – the ones where you could only identify the character because of the clothes it had on. Like a corpse found in the river… I reached to touch my own hair, still very wet from the shower. The Watcher’s hands matched mine, resting delicately on the nicely conditioned strands or its own crude copy. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about being left earlier. That I was feeling even slightly sulky about it said all sorts of things about our developing relationship that I wasn’t ready to think about. Once a thought’s in the chicken coop though, it won’t leave until it’s shredded my chickens and is lying bloated and content in the midst of my misery.
“So where did you go?” I asked it outright. It scratched its head in response – a maddeningly familiar gesture.
“Are you going to talk to me? Can you talk to me? It seems like you can do a lot of things. You’ve been here all night and day watching me. What for? And then you disappear on me, after we found those-”
What words do you use to describe the dead when they’re so young, and when you’re not sure what even qualifies as being alive enough to count as being able to later become dead? This was the mire I found myself in. I felt as if I ought to already know how to refer to the infant Watcher, but I wasn’t getting enough back from the Watcher to know if my suspicions about it being murder were fair or not. And I certainly didn’t want to get into all the other Watchers Alison and her husband had killed. Or removed, stopped from working, disabled from operation, suspended in observation, hacked up with a pair of scissors… I thought guiltily of the pair of scissors I’d put in my rucksack earlier. It struck me as unfortunate that I’d selected as my only potential weapon exactly what had already been used to mutilate. All kinds of discomfort.
“- those remains. Come on. You watched me in the shower, which is something I’m not particularly happy about by the way. Since we’re talking about it – I don’t want you to come into the bathroom at all. Got that? I don’t doubt your gentlemanly intentions, but it’s fucking creepy. Okay. I’m not angry about it though. I don’t want to give that impression. It’s just… not cool…”
Well, I’d brought up the bathroom thing at least. The Watcher was still gently stroking its own plasticky mass of hair. It smiled at me.
“Okay, well I’m going to take that as a yes.”
The kettle boiled. I emptied out the Watcher’s mug from earlier, grabbed and tossed tea bags in the bottom. I had been incredibly grateful that the supermarket just around the corner was a Sainsbury’s. They do the only kind of tea bags I consider potable. Red Label – surprisingly versatile: as a barely tamped in bag it was a light refreshing tea but when left for ten minutes and further mashed like potatoes after a painful counselling session, was a perfect builders’ tea. I was aiming for something in between. While I’d gotten up after ten I felt like we had been through quite a lot so far today. I certainly needed a bit of caffeine and sugar, I imagined that the Watcher was also in its own version of shock, and at the least holding a cup of tea is quite soothing. I also remembered that I hadn’t eaten yet today. That’s a terrible habit that I fall into easily. Recognition is step one. I tugged a box of Pop Tarts out of the cupboard overhead and decanted the sugar fire risks into the toaster.
There were so many things that I wanted to ask the Watcher after our experience earlier. I wanted to know if it felt grief, or if it was just copying, doing what it thought it ought to. And in either of those cases, how did it feel about feeling? We feel instinctively and we learn words to roughly slap on top of internal experiences which are difficult to define, remember and bind with words. Without the words though, all we have is a meaty bag of tense bony fragments making a high pitched keening sound. The words might not map perfectly, but at least they get to you thinking and maybe even talking about those feelings and what they might mean. Not being able to get a word out the Watcher was frustrating. I’d evidently gifted it with some kind of sentience since I was expecting to get words out of it. Looking at the Watcher though, I was again forgetting that it did appear to be a partially greased cake mould. There’s nowhere in there that words and feelings come from. Perhaps I was being unfair – words and feelings don’t exactly exist within me either. They are me, and if anything they emerge from the totality of our existence. I’m no dualist or spiritualist. It’s all clearly made by the meat, but that doesn’t mean you can cut the meat open and take out the memory of being hugged or the feeling of rage.
I must have been hungry – I’d opened another pack of Pop Tarts and was chewing on them cold. Too much damned sugar. The other possibility for why my Watcher wasn’t talking to me might be that I do most of my talking on the inside. To the Watcher I could well just be staring at it glassy-eyed, chewing bovinely on this bar of… I’m not even sure what Pop Tarts are made of. They do burn easily though. I flicked off the toaster, launching two scorched tablets of angry sucrose into the air. Lava hot or packet cold? I’d let them cool and turn them into dunkable biscuits. But yeah, there was little reason for the Watcher to ascribe sentience to me either. I made our tea, assumed again that the Watcher would take it the same way I do – white, two sugars. I finger-hopped the Pop Tarts onto a plate and laid everything on the breakfast counter.
It looked like I wasn’t going to get any answers any time soon from my Watcher. I was curious to see how it would approach a second cup of tea, given the fate of the first one. I still had tonnes of kitchen roll so I wasn’t worried about the mess. To my surprise it reached out for a Pop Tart first. Then broke it neatly in half lengthways and dunked it in the tea. I copied it, since that was exactly what I was about to do myself. There really is no limit to the things that you can dunk in a cup of tea. I have heard that it’s one of my most endearing and repellent habits. The combination has lead to it becoming a point of pride, unfortunately for those who dislike it. Pop Tarts are fair enough though, I mean they’re basically big, burned biscuits. The Watcher and I raised our Pop Tart sections at the same time and bit down on them.
“Holy fuck you’ve got teeth!” I instantly choked on my tea saturated morsel and dissolved into a fit of coughing and face reddening.
I was surprised, once I got my breath back. I noticed that the Watcher had chosen not to imitate my choke, which added to the growing sentience list. It was calmly chewing the Pop Tart while I recovered. The substance of the ‘Tart was dissolving in its mouth. I could still watch because the Watcher, although noticeably cloudier in colour, and by that I mean a thicker cloud – like the difference between mist and fog – (fine, it was becoming foggier) was still translucent. As it chewed, the Pop Tart was becoming a darker swirl of cloud that dissipated into the rest of the cloud inside it. It was growing hair, now it had grown teeth as well and was apparently digesting food. Just to make the point it raised its cup of tea and calmly took a good mouthful, which too vanished into a swirl of dark smoke.
“That’s just showing off. But good for you.”
We enjoyed our tea and Pop Tarts in silence. I became less sure which of us was leading and the other following. Possibly we were both just having a cup of tea. I remembered the leaflet I’d been given and distributed. It was now decorated with a tea ring. I’ve read council pamphlets before – tea could only improve them. It was a simple double-sided flyer in reliably cheap print. I did want to applaud them for putting no clip art on the damn thing, but then I turned it over and saw they had a section showing all the communication devices that were out of bounds. It started off reasonably well:
‘A notice from your council and emergency services. As you will be aware, we are experiencing an Event which may cause some small concern to members of our community. Please do not be alarmed’
I’ve explained about how I feel when people tell me not to do something. This leaflet almost said “the police say not to be alarmed”. That in itself is cause for alarm. Instead of being distracted by that and the mid-nineties mobile phone clip art I continued reading. It went on:
‘We regret the sudden removal of internet and telecommunications, including mobile phones, television, radio and landline telephones’
I hadn’t even thought of the last two. The mayor’s smiling face and the presence of a Watcher right behind her demonstrated that the leaflet had been run up in a hurry. At least they had had time to put her chains on.
‘Please be assured that emergency services do still receive calls made to 999 and 111, and will be appropriately handled. Please do not use 999 for non-emergencies. That includes all references to our Visitors, whom you may have found in your homes this morning. We understand that there will be many queries and questions that arise for all of us, and we invite you to a meeting at the council house at 6pm. We hope that many of your queries will be resolved there. Free tea and coffee are provided.’
Well that nailed it – free tea? Done. I flipped the leaflet over and averted my eyes from the clip art and jovial red crosses pasted on top.
‘Do not be alarmed. The Visitors will not and cannot harm you. Please do not attempt to stop them or disable them.’
And that was it. They didn’t even give a phone number. Not that there would be much point of course. That answered zero of my questions. I tossed it onto the library scree where it slid to the floor.
“So, wanna go?” I asked my Watcher.
If it wasn’t going to talk to me I’d have to get what answers I could from the meeting. I felt a lot better about going along now that I wouldn’t be arriving solo. I’d need to find a way to tell Alison that I was going, and that my Watcher was back. It had given no sign to make me concerned that it knew anything about Alison and her family upstairs, or that there were any consequences of what they had done. The blurb in the leaflet was generic enough about referring to the “Visitors” as the opposite of dangerous. They didn’t call them ‘safe’. The leaflet did not do that. ‘Cannot harm you’? Well, I didn’t fancy testing that out. It didn’t say anything about them drinking tea or putting up book cases either. ‘Disable them’ was a little cold. Cold, or truthful? I can’t possibly believe any document generated through the medium of politics at any scale of local or international. They are such demonstrable and capable liars and subverters of the simplest information that I was minded to just invert any statement in the leaflet. I imagined that the emergency services must have been swamped earlier, besieged with identical calls. On the other hand, I hadn’t heard a single emergency siren all day. They’re pretty piercing and my walls are apparently built precisely to transmit sound into my bedroom.
My sugar high was fading, leaving my teeth itchy. I idly swung off the chair and clambered over to the window. Not an emergency vehicle in sight. Except the police van parked round the corner, at the very edge of what I could see when I pressed my face elegantly against the glass. Seconds later I heard a thwack as our front door was smacked back on its hinges. I’ve only ever heard the postman do that before. Then the sound of feet, lots of feet. I strove to keep my expression as neutral as possible.
“I’m going to the loo. Remember what we talked about.” I wagged a finger at my Watcher for emphasis.
As soon as I had the door closed and locked I turned the taps on (I’ve seen television programmes) and squeezed the switch on Spider-Man’s head.
“Spider-Man, its Mary Jane. Mary Jane. Please respond.” Seriously, just holding the thing made me feel like a spy.
“Shit. Look. They’re coming, police are in the building.” I could hear them pounding up the stairs, my flat does indeed conduct sound like a boss.
Poised over the running water, walkie-talkie pressed to my face I tried again.
The static returned, along with an anguished scream.
I slammed my finger onto the transmit button to hide that sound from my Watcher. Fuck. Spider-Man glared at me, an ‘I told you so’ expression on his face. I had the powerful sense that I should not have this half of the walkie-talkie set if questioned. For want of a better plan I ripped the batteries out and shoved those in my pocket. I picked up a tub of lovely Sanctuary body moisturiser. I’d been avoiding opening it because it reminded me terribly of Katherine. I shoved Spidey’s head deep into the moisturiser, popped the lid back on and gave it a gently frantic spin of my hand. Happy that I’d found a good solution I popped open the shampoo bottle and stuffed the batteries in there. I reeled for the door before remembering what I was doing and hit the flush, then turned off the taps.
As I returned to the living room, rubbing the excess moisturiser into my hands the sounds of boots were coming back down the stairs, accompanied by shouts and a particularly ragged shriek. My Watcher was watching the door, not me as I came out. That was an enormous relief.
“What’s going on?”
The Watcher turned to look at me. It just looked at me. The boots and stamping were fading away. I went back to the window and watched Alison and her family being dragged and manhandled into the police van. The cops’ Watchers stood in the road by themselves, watching the family being bundled into the van, their cuffs glinting in the sunlight.