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.

THE FORUM

chris-r-0048-2 Image by Christine Renney

They have always wanted to take them from us. I don’t understand why. Perhaps it is because they can’t and this is also why they have never stopped trying. They could have cut out our tongues and rendered us insensate. The mutilation would have been quick and easy but it wouldn’t have worked. They couldn’t then, and still can’t now, remove the words, at least not with surgery or through violence.
The words inside us are like a virus. The most virulent of computer viruses and no-one is able to break it. Nevertheless, I often wonder what would happen if somehow they did. Could we still function? But once, of course, we did. In the time before we began to grunt and to nod and to point, first at each other and then at the sky. But this moment must have been so fleeting as to have been almost non-existent.

We all have our monitors. The notion we might be without them is inconceivable. We carry them with us wherever we go, brandishing them wherever we are, constantly checking the word count and reassuring ourselves.
Years ago a friend of mine put his monitor in his jacket pocket, unlocked. Throughout the course of the day, as he went about his business, rummaging for small change and his keys, he inadvertently punched in some words. Hours later, when he at last looked at his monitor and checked his count it had dropped dramatically. He had lost six words, a whole sentence wasted. He hadn’t used these words to search for something on the web, or to leave a message on one of his forums. He didn’t even know what the words had been. We surmised that they must have been short, one, two, three letters at most.
Anyhow, my friend tried to make light of it.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said, ‘I still have enough, if and when I need them I’ll still have enough.’
But I couldn’t help noticing he had upgraded his monitor. It was one of those early self-locking models. We all have them now of course but back then they were very expensive.

I can access five forums, which is a lot, especially nowadays but as long as I visit often enough, I don’t need to use a word and so I make the effort to keep them active. Whenever someone does key in words and looks at something on the web they always drag it across to share it and it isn’t too long before it is on all the forums and everyone can see it. New content trickles through slowly and it is always an event. No matter what it might be it is the subject of much verbal debate and conjecture. A pop video perhaps or a baseball game or some trashy tv show from yesteryear. Everything on the web is old, there are no up to the minute bulletins and no new pop songs. I suppose that most of what we share is superficial and insignificant. Perhaps that is why we all have aliases so that out there in the ether no-one knows who anyone else is.
News reports are shared infrequently but the repercussions are far greater. The coverage is always of terrorist attacks or hate crimes, of rebellions and uprisings and military coups, of political prisoners proclaiming from inside a stark prison cell or from some poorly lit courtroom. All of this happened long ago of course but people are still passionate and quickly enraged. This is the cause of division and violence often erupts and these outbursts, these incidents, are identical to those we watch on the forums.

There is very little of the written word on the forums. It is generally videos and photographs but mostly videos. There is the original accompanying text with every share, but this somehow doesn’t count and people rarely leave messages. It takes too many words to say something clever or funny, to write something thought provoking or meaningful.
There must be so much out there on the web, from magazines and newspapers, articles and essays, poems and stories and novels. Almost everything up until that point, up until it was stopped.
Just a few months ago somebody did drag a story across, a story by a once popular writer. Most people thought it pointless to share this work when it was still in print and readily available in libraries and bookshops.
We all wanted to find something within this story, to glean something from it. But it was just a story. A good one, yes, but one of many.

ADJOINING ROOMS

Chris R-0772.jpg Image by Christine Renney

‘If, in the First Act, you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there’ – Anton Chekhov

Since the disappearance Carter hadn’t ventured into his son’s room, not properly. He had stepped across the threshold, yes, but mostly when he opened the door he simply peered in at the son’s things, at all he had left behind.
His son had outgrown the room, both he and it had been at odds for years. He hadn’t even bothered to take down or replace the posters on the wall and Carter realised he was sick of the sight of them. Tired of looking up at them, at the outdated Superheroes and forgotten pop stars.
Turning, Carter closed the door, shutting himself in – the first time he had done this. He began to rip them down, scrunching the posters into unruly balls. He threw them to the floor where they promptly began to unravel and Carter kicked at them angrily.
There wasn’t anything in this room that was representative of the man who had deserted it; the one who had deserted it, the one who had turned his back on Carter and who had walked away. And because of this Carter wanted to dismantle it, to pull this room apart and he wanted to do this methodically and calmly. But already he was lashing out, sweeping the boyish things from the shelves, the old Airfix models and dog-eared paperbacks.
Opening the closet he began taking the clothes from the hangers, flinging them out into the room. His intention it seemed was to make a mess. To pile everything up in the centre and later he would bag it all up and get rid of it.
And then he spotted the sports holdall on the top shelf. Reaching for it Carter knew instinctively that there was something hidden inside. That it would be another question at least but possibly, just possibly, it would also be an answer.
He dropped the holdall onto the bed and, without hesitating, he unzipped it. It held a gun – nothing else just the gun, gleaming and immaculate. Carter was shocked and also surprised that it hadn’t been wrapped in something. An old sweatshirt perhaps or a towel. It seemed incomprehensible to him that anyone would place a gun in a bag without sufficient packing, without some sort of insulation, a bed sheet at least, better still a heavy blanket.
Carter tipped the holdall onto its side and, using his index finger, he coaxed the gun out and onto the bed. He lifted the bag, looking inside again, but it was empty. There were no bullets or a clip and no holster. Casting the bag aside, Carter knelt down beside the bed and studied it. It was the first time he had seen a gun other than in films or on television. In photographs and comics and such. Of course, it could be a replica but how would he know? Was his son the type of person who would purchase a fake gun, who would stand in front of the mirror and pretend?
Carter was wary of touching it, because he didn’t know it, didn’t understand it. He wasn’t able to take it apart and put it together again. He and the gun weren’t intimate.
But when he did lift the gun it slipped easily into his hand and it felt comfortable, natural even. And gripping it his finger found the trigger and was readying to squeeze as he pointed it at the wall. And beyond the wall was his own room, the room where he slept.

THE GIFT

The bird landed on the window ledge and began tapping with its beak against the glass. From inside the room I could hear but couldn’t see it. I moved closer and was strangely unperturbed by the fact that it was invisible. I was surprised, yes, but it was fleeting at best and I was much more concerned about what kind of bird it might be. Judging by the sound of the flapping of its wings and the squawking it was big. Probably one of the fearsome looking crows that scavenge alongside the dual-carriageway.
It was obviously in distress and I was convinced that what I was hearing were its death throes. I didn’t need to see it; I could quite easily picture it in my head – bloody and broken and writhing in agony. And I wondered if at some point during the course of its dying it would reappear and if I had been chosen in order to witness this.
I hoped I was wrong. I didn’t want to have to deal with the remains. A dead thing out there on the patio, a bloody mess of feathers. I wasn’t even sure that I could cope. But the bird was still alive and I couldn’t abandon it. Very, very carefully I opened the window, just a little, and determined I stood and I listened.
Amidst the flapping and the beating, the bird’s fractured cawing had a strange sort of rhythm, a cadence that almost resembled speech. And I realised then that it was in fact talking. It struck me also that this was the cause of its pain, of its suffering. That the effort for it to do so was so great and that every word it managed to form was taking its toll. And if the bird was dying, and I still believed it was, then it was because of the words.
I wondered how long it would take and how many more words the bird could manage to make. I abandoned it, just for a moment, searching for pen and notepad and returning I started to write, to transcribe.
The bird was flailing violently, beating its head and beak against the glass and contorting itself and out of each twisted shriek another word emerged.
I could have ended it, I should have put the bird out of its misery. I could so easily have fetched a towel, a heavy bath towel and smothered it. But I didn’t, I wanted so badly to know, to hear, what it had to say.

Sign of the Times-1110902

Image by Christine Renney

PUPPET SHOW

Sign of the Times-0272

Image by Christine Renney

Isabella courted catastrophe or, more accurately, she carried it with her, dragging it behind her on a string. Invisible and weightless, for almost fourteen years it didn’t hinder her and was benign. Only when it struck, when catastrophe bloomed, did she feels its weight.
It almost lifted her from the ground. She was standing in the lounge of her grandmother’s flat, on the eighth floor of a sixteen storey block. Seven flats below and a further eight above.
‘What is happening?’ her grandmother asked.
Isabella, struggling to remain upright, didn’t reply. She managed to grab hold of the string, it was delicate, just a thread, but it didn’t give. She wrapped it around her right wrist and then tried to trace the line, to find out where it was attached and, as she knelt down to gather the excess at her feet, it cut into her skin.
‘OUCH!’
‘Isabella, what is wrong?’, her grandmother sounded distraught.
‘It’s nothing, gran, just a power cut, you know, like in the seventies. Remember you told me all about it?’
‘No, I don’t mean that’, her grandmother said sharply.
‘What’s happening over there. What are you doing?’
‘I just stumbled in the dark. Don’t worry, I’m okay.’
Isabella stood and, with her left hand she fanned the air above her head but couldn’t reach whatever was trying to pull her up. She groaned.
‘Are you hurt? Are you in pain,’ her grandmother asked.
‘No.’
‘Then what is it, Isabella?’
‘I don’t know but it’s heavy.’
Her grandmother crossed to the window and pulled back the drapes. The block of flats opposite stood like a mighty obelisk and there were squares of light dotted here, there and everywhere.
‘It isn’t a power cut’, her grandmother said softly, ‘at least not like in the seventies.’ She could see her granddaughter a little more clearly now and she resembled a pen and ink drawing. A skinny girl buffeted in a gale.
‘I have to step outside’, she said to Isabella, ‘just for a moment. I won’t be long.’
Carefully she manoeuvred herself around the dark shapes that were her furniture. Grappling and groping, she made it into the hall, but before reaching the door at the end, she could see through the glass a dim light from the flat opposite. Nevertheless, stepping outside, she hit the switch on the wall and the landing and stairs below burst into sight.

She placed her hand at the centre of Isabella’s back, gently pushed and they began to move forward, the excess line dragging on the carpet behind them.
At Isabella’s wrist it was taught and she tried with her free hand to grab and pull at it, but it slipped through her fingers and cut into her palm. She held out her hand.
‘Look, gran, can you see it?’
‘No, not in this light.’
‘But you believe me?’
‘Of course I believe you.’
At last they reached the sofa and as she sat, Isabella managed, with considerable effort, to lodge the line beneath the wooden arm and both she and the sofa began to rise.
‘Now can you see it?’
‘Yes, I can see it,’ her grandmother sighed. ‘I’ll fetch the scissors,’ she said resignedly, ‘or a knife and we’ll cut it. I’ll set you free.’
‘Oh no, we can’t do that,’ Isabella wailed, ‘if we do, it’ll go up through the ceiling and through all of the flats or it might go down, it might fall through all the flats below, either way it’ll be a catastrophe. Anyway, it’s too late, whatever it is it has a hold of me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know exactly but I know we mustn’t cut it and I can’t be free of it, not now.’
As Isabella spoke something began pulling at the excess line, taking up the slack. She reached down and, grasping hold of it with her right hand, she struggled to wrap it around her left wrist.
Her grandmother began to sob as, suddenly, everything seemingly returned to normal. The lights came back on and the television began again to glare and blare.