THE CONDITION

Chris R-0151-3 Image by Christine Renney

Thomas was having a bad day. The bugs were everywhere, he was rife with them and he was writhing. He hated this – he knew how he looked. He had seen others like it, in a high level state and unable to control themselves and quite frankly he had thought it undignified.
No-one commented. They didn’t stop and stare. That had all stopped long ago. The jeering and the abuse, the low-level whispered disdain, the disbelief. Everyone suffered now and everyone understood. They were all too aware that tomorrow, or in just a few hours or merely minutes, it could/would be their turn.
Frantically trying not to scratch and claw at his body, Thomas was gesticulating wildly, Inwardly he was pulling away from himself and he wondered if he might be disappearing, moving in and out of the space he was occupying like an image on a screen, flashing on and off.
The more he thought about this the less outlandish it seemed. After all, the bugs weren’t real, they didn’t exist. Perhaps when he was suffering it wasn’t really him but a virtual incarnation somehow controlled by an external force.
There were so many theories about the cause of the condition it was impossible to keep up, to follow each and every train of thought. That the bugs were contained in the city was indisputable. Those out in the country didn’t suffer but despite this there had been no mass exodus. People had decided to stay and suffer, to live with it.
The media companies had been quick to defend against the idea that the bugs might be fallout from our digitalised addictions. They argued that life out in the sticks was just as immersive, that everyone, everywhere, had a tablet or a phone. But in the over-crowded city it was such an unholy mix. People constantly huddled over screens in an impenetrable clash. Thomas was convinced the bugs were the consequence of this, a digital flotsam as it were.
Thomas hadn’t ever suffered so badly. He had always managed somehow to cope but his levels hadn’t ever been this high. Always self-conscious of the writhing he was aware of just how desperately and manically he was squirming and gyrating but Thomas didn’t care how undignified it was or if anyone might be looking he just wanted it to stop.
And suddenly it did. It was almost as though someone had turned a switch and he was no longer there and no-one was watching or seemed to care.

GHOST LETTER 33

Chris R-0314-2 Image by Christine Renney

I try to convince myself it is sudden, this want, this need. It has been growing inside of me, unbidden, a well without water.
How can I talk again after so long? Each time it surfaces I suppress it and resist. I could so easily run, abandon the City, and make again for the road, find that other place, the one in between here and there, where I could stand off to one side and, unheard, shout at the sky and down into the earth.
I look up, not because I must, or because I might stumble or have gotten too close to the edge and could fall into the abyss, I look up to see what is happening right here and now. But it is too bright and, squinting into the harsh light, I am hardly able to see. Everyone is moving so quickly and everything is blurred. At last someone slows a little and I focus on him.
I watch him moving in closer and he bends and drops a handful of coins onto the pavement in front of where I am sitting.
‘Thank you,‘ I say, staring down at them but when I raise my head he is gone.

VANTAGE POINT

Chris R-0851 Image by Christine Renney

He repeatedly makes his way down and comes back up. He times his visits for when the place is at its busiest, at rush hour, early in the morning and again in the evening.
He moves through quickly, weaving his way amongst them, his progress almost frenzied. Once he is clear, he slows and pushes his way back.
He has established a routine of sorts and, loitering on the outskirts, he waits. He steps out a circuit beginning at the edge of the ring road and eventually taking in the grounds of the cathedral. When the grass verge begins to widen, he makes toward a remaining section of the old city wall. There is an iron railing and, clambering, he swings himself around it and steps down onto the narrow ledge below.
In his ragged and dusty clothes he leans back against the grey stone. He can see so much from up here. It is the ideal vantage point.

Most of them have disappeared into the buildings. He watches the others, the ones still moving in and out of the shops. The tableaux from up here always looks the same but it isn’t. Some of the shoppers leave and others arrive and he is all too aware that this is constantly changing. Only during the lunch hour, when the workers emerge from the office blocks, can he be sure. And it is important that he has completed his circuit and is back here by then.
But he still has a little time and he lifts the rifle. It isn’t real but a replica. Still cost him a pretty penny though and leaving it here is risky he knows. But he can hardly carry it with him and anyhow the fact it hasn’t been taken and is just as he left it, propped up against the wall, reassures him that he hasn’t been discovered, that nobody knows.
Pushing the rifle hard against his shoulder and crouching he takes up position. Pressing his eye against the telescopic scope he picks out first one shopper, then another, and another. CLICK, CLICK, CLICK.

SALESMAN

Chris R-0845 Image by Christine Renney

‘Door-to-door sales is a dying art,’ he says.
I don’t want to answer, to be pulled into this again but the others around the table are looking at me, waiting.
‘It’s just a job,’ I say at last.
‘A trade,’ he muses, ‘a dying trade.’
The woman sitting beside him, I think she’s his wife, sniggers and the others are now watching me even more intently.
‘Maybe,’ I mumble, then more forcefully, ‘but…I don’t know, maybe not.’
‘Oh, come on,’ he is almost shouting, rearing back a little in his seat, ‘shopping is so easy now, almost instant. The idea of buying from a little man on the doorstep with his samples and brochures in his little suitcase, it just seems, I don’t know, so……..’
‘Anachronistic,’ the woman, who may be his wife or mistress, says.
‘Yes, exactly,’ he laughs.
I shrug.
‘So, you sell vacuum cleaners?’ he continues, ‘and other “Electrical Goods and Appliances” – am I right?’
‘I sell a vacuum cleaner.’
‘Just vacuum cleaners?’
‘A vacuum cleaner.’
‘Just the one make and model?’
‘Yes.’
‘You don’t offer any choice or variety?’
‘No.’
‘Wow, it must be something special this vacuum.’
‘It is very efficient and has proved to be reliable.’
‘Okay, so how does this work? What exactly do you do? Obviously you drive around from town to town?’
‘I drive, of course I drive, but mostly I walk. I walk from house to house, street to street.’
‘Okay, so you knock on the doors and people invite you into their homes? They are taken in by your spiel – I suppose it’s as simple as that. You show them the glossy brochures and they make an order.’
‘There aren’t any brochures.’
‘Then how do they know what they are buying?’
‘I show it to them.’
‘You show them the vacuum cleaner?’
‘Yes.’
‘You carry it with you?’
‘Yes.’
‘Isn’t it heavy?’
‘No. Is your vacuum cleaner heavy?’
‘No, I suppose not. So, you show them how it works?’
‘No, not really. Everyone knows how a vacuum cleaner works.’
‘So what do you do? How do you make them believe that they want, that they need it, that it’s better than the one they already have?’
‘I can’t tell you that. Tricks of the trade, I’m sure you understand.’
‘Tricks of a dying trade,’ says another woman to my left, but she doesn’t snigger.
‘Okay, I’m intrigued. You must have it in your car, show me this vacuum cleaner and make your pitch.’
‘No, I can’t do that.’
‘Why not?’
‘I don’t sell to friends,’ I pause, just momentarily, ‘or to people I meet like this, outside of work.’
‘You don’t mix business with pleasure?’
‘No, never.’
‘Okay, I’ll buy one on-line. You can give me the details.’
‘There is no website.’
Incredulous, he glances around the table and realises that all the heads have turned and the focus has now shifted on to him.
‘The shop then,’ he says, ‘there must be a shop or showroom somewhere?’
‘No.’
‘Okay, the factory then, I’ll visit the factory.’
‘You can’t buy direct.’
‘And I can’t buy from you?’
‘Of course you can buy from me or from any one of the other Salesmen but only if and when we knock on your door.’

GHOST LETTER 32

Chris R-0355-2 Image by Christine Renney

I know this place. I have been here before. Is it possible I have been heading for this particular city all along? That the idea of the road as endless was merely a conceit and no matter how often I have stopped and turned myself around, that the walking in circles was, in effect, little more than an effort to prolong it. To put off the inevitable. And no matter how protracted and arduous the journey, my intention had always been to come here, to this city that has been forgotten. A place most people pass on their way to somewhere else, that they circumnavigate. And here I am – at the edges, stepping out a boundary, desperately trying to make it real and still prolonging it.
Looking up I see I am walking along a street of terraced houses. I look back toward the city but the only view I have from here is of the roofs of the derelict factories. There is a bicycle leaning against the wall to my left. In the garden beyond it I see an inflatable paddling pool filled with rusty rain water.
Somehow I have stumbled and strayed to here, to ‘somewhere’ and although the street is deserted and quiet everything now feels weighted with possibility and I begin to panic.
I can hear a crowd in the distance, but the jeering and cheering is safely contained elsewhere. And I am reassured by this, by the fact that for the duration of the game at least I am alone out here. Convinced all the houses are empty I push on and I am getting closer, making my way toward it.

THE MAN WHO MOVED OFF TO ONE SIDE

Chris R-0077-3 Image by Christine Renney

It happened quite suddenly. Douglas was standing with his colleagues early one morning and they were talking as they always did at that hour, before scurrying off to their stations and beginning the day’s work. They were talking about the games of course. Douglas had watched the tournament the night before and he had much to say and yet he didn’t say it. He was listening intently, nodding along when he agreed, and when he didn’t stepping back a little and shaking his head. The others didn’t notice him moving off to the side, that he was no longer a part of it.
Throughout the morning Douglas brooded and at lunchtime he was still brooding. Hunched over his plate he listened again as the others picked up the conversation from earlier. He realised that they were in fact beginning again. The venue had changed but amid the clutter of the canteen it was a repeat performance.
Douglas watched his colleagues enthusing just as enthusiastically as they had before. He gazed around the vast dining hall, groups of workers were gathered at every table. Douglas couldn’t hear what they were saying from where he sat but he did notice each tableau was identical, the same body language, the same inflections and expressions.
Douglas pushed aside his plate and he started to wander. The hall was cavernous and he tried to concentrate but the voices weren’t in any way synchronised. No, it was an angry clash, an impenetrable din. In order to hear, he needed to get in close. And this he did, moving up on table after table, from group to group. It was one conversation, the one he was already familiar with and it was playing out at varying levels of intensity, a debate constantly finding ways in which to begin again.

NOWHERESVILLE

Chris R-0200 Image by Christine Renney

He leans over the rail and gazes down. The Precinct is big and it is flat and featureless and, if it wasn’t for the people, the paved areas, the walkways and the communal squares would be indistinguishable from the roofs of the buildings. It is a rough sketch, an idea at best. A still from a film, a panoramic view of nowhere.
The wind is trying its hardest to push him back, to keep him from the edge. But gripping the rail with both hands he holds firm. There is an old newspaper at his feet. He nudges at it with the toe of his boot. Wet from the rain, it is sodden and heavy. He tries to dislodge it from its resting place but the newspaper is stuck to the gravel and the felt. Holding onto the rail with one hand he crouches and, using the other, he works it free.
He stands and, nudging again with his foot, he slides the newspaper over the edge. But it doesn’t drop, doesn’t plummet as he thought it would, as he had hoped it would. Taken by the wind the newspaper erupts noisily above his head. He turns and, moving away from the rail, he watches its sheets flapping and flailing.