CHOSEN

Chris R-1110581 Image by Christine Renney

Robert had received one of ‘the letters’ offering him a room. He had been chosen, selected and it was that simple. He had a month in which to decide. Back when the Scheme was in its infancy Robert would not have had this luxury; a whole month to think about it, to weigh up the pros and cons. Then, one of the men would have knocked at his door and stood on the threshold. He would have had only minutes to make up his mind. In those days most people simply said no but this had gradually changed. Nowadays it was almost unheard of for anyone to refuse, to not accept a room and all that came with it.

Moving into a room would mean security and peace of mind and Robert would at least have time to himself. He wasn’t quite sure just what he might do with it but in the room he would of course have access to media. He wouldn’t have to work. In fact, he wouldn’t be allowed to work but Robert, like almost everyone else in the city hated his job and he was all too aware that he was just a cog in a not so pristine machine. Robert didn’t even know what it was that he did nor how nor why it mattered. But he supposed that somehow he was part of it and that he helped to keep the mill wheel grinding, as it were.

Robert had worked at the same office for over twenty years and he was proud of this. He proved himself resilient, hadn’t given in and dropped out like so many in the city had. Robert had always considered himself lucky not to have been placed in one of the factories or the yards or the foundries. The work he did was boring, yes, but it wasn’t physically hard and he had always been able to manage the long hours.

Robert enjoyed having money in his pocket. It had only ever been just enough to pay the bills, his rent and buy his food. Robert had always saved for that rainy day, for when he needed a new shirt and tie or shoes. For when he had to replace a mug or a plate. On the few occasions he needed to replace the bigger and more expensive items, his old armchair or stove for instance, Robert had found it particularly satisfying handing over the cash and filling out the forms, arranging for delivery and installation. Once he had moved into the room Robert wouldn’t ever have money in his pocket again but neither would he have to scrimp and scrape to save.

There was much he needed to do. Robert would have to give notice at work and to the landlord and to clear the flat of his belongings. He would be allowed to take just his clothes but eventually even those would be replaced by the standard issue. The little money he had he would give to his sister along with the almost new stove. Everything else was worthless and he would have to pay someone to cart it all away. And then he would re-decorate, re-instating the neutral colours he had over the years rebelled against.

Advertisements

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.

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.

THE LAST TOURISTS

Chris R-0779.jpg Image by Christine Renney

Despite the continual warnings, all the official advice, they continued to travel. Despite the very real threat of a bomb or poisonous gas or a man in the middle of the night coming into your room and holding a hand over your mouth whilst plunging a knife into your side. Despite all of this, they continued to visit and explore.
It was easy enough to get a flight, find your way to anywhere. Still possible to climb part of the Eiffel Tower or gaze at the site where the Parthenon once stood. For the most part they set off alone but were easily identifiable in their raggedy uniforms of jeans, a sweatshirt and sensible shoes. And so, with their backpacks, they banded together. There was safety in numbers or so they hoped.

‘Why do we do it?’ Joe asked.
‘Because we can,’ Eve replied, without missing a beat, ‘because it’s all out there and we want to see it and experience it for ourselves.’
‘But at what risk?’ Joe mused, ‘is it really worth putting ourselves in danger?’
‘I don’t think about it,’ Eve said, ‘I really don’t and after so long I’m not even sure if I believe.’
‘But the terrorists are real,’ Joe declared. ‘The bombs, the murders, it’s all real.’
‘I suppose so,’ she said, ‘but I just want to look at the world.’
Joe realised then that he was falling for her.
‘The girl who wanted to look at the world,’ he said. ‘It would make a good title for a story.’
‘But it would be a sad story, one full of regret,’ she said.
‘Is that how it’s been for you?’
‘No, no, of course not.’
‘Well then it’s your story,’ he said.
‘But I don’t write.’
‘Yes, you do. You’re writing it now.’
‘Describe those men,’ Joe demanded, a little too forcefully. ‘The ones sitting behind you at the table closest to the door.’
She laughed. ‘Ok. They are young, in their early or mid-twenties. They are dressed smartly, are a little dandyish. They have dark hair and olive skin. They are from here, I think, and they keep glancing across at us. They know why we are here and they have polished, shiny shoes and they despise us.’
‘Are they terrorists?’ Joe asked.
‘It’s possible, it’s always possible.’
‘But you don’t care?’
‘Of course I care, but I won’t not do what I want to do.’
‘You really are impressive,’ Joe said.
Eve blushed. ‘Why didn’t we do this in Paris?’ she asked.
‘Do what?’
‘Talk. Why didn’t we talk, it would have helped pass the time.’
‘It was pretty grim, wasn’t it?’
‘I’m serious. Why didn’t we do this?’ she repeated.
‘We were all too desperate,’ Joe replied, ‘we weren’t capable of talking in anything other than clichés and platitudes.’
‘It sounds as though you dislike us as much as our friends at the table over there,’ Eve said.
‘Sometimes,’ Joe sighed, ‘I think that I do.’

Joe and Eve had met the previous year, had been part of a larger group, fifteen of them holed up in a grotty hotel in Paris, waiting around on the off-chance that they might be able to visit the Louvre.
In Paris they had indeed been desperate. They were reduced by it, lessened. It wasn’t that they hadn’t been disappointed in their travels before. They had all journeyed hard only to come up against a locked door or a barred entrance. To find a ruin, fenced off and hidden, a once fine building dilapidated and in disrepair. To discover that something had disappeared entirely, had been moved or stolen, possibly even destroyed. But they had believed Paris would be different. It had been announced in the newspapers that the once world famous gallery would be open, just for one day from nine in the morning until five in the evening. Although it was an advertisement and not a news report it had the stamp of authority, the air of officialdom and so they had gathered, only to have their hopes dashed.
Before their disappointment had been able to sink in the rumours had begun to circulate. The day had been changed and there was still a good chance that the gallery would open. Those that could afford to do so stayed. Joe and Eve were amongst the very last to leave.

‘Would you do it again?’ she asked.
‘Of course,’ he replied.
Satisfied by this response Eve settled back into her chair and grinned.
‘Tell me something good,’ she urged. ‘Tell me about somewhere you’ve visited, something you’ve seen, something that amazed you.’
‘Ok,’ Joe said, ‘but let’s go back to the hotel. We can get a drink there.’
‘Yes,’ excited, Eve stood. ‘And we can compare notes,’ she enthused.

The table closest to the door was now deserted. Eve took Joe’s hand and in their sensible and soundless shoes they began to make their way.
Stepping from the restaurant and gathering themselves on the pavement, they didn’t notice the two men standing deep in the shadows beneath the awning directly opposite.

SENTINELS

Chris R-0470

The homeless have always been prevalent in the City. We pass them on the streets every day, stepping around them on the pavements.
But the Men were different; they simply stood, like sentinels, on the corners or in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, almost anywhere in fact. They didn’t move or at least hardly at all. They certainly didn’t move for us. They didn’t step aside and give us the road.
At first, we didn’t mention the Men. And even as more and more of them began to appear in the City, the place where we come to work, still we tried to ignore them, pretending they weren’t there.
It seemed impossible to me that the Men could stand like they did and for so long and I attempted to steer clear of them and keep my distance but this wasn’t easy. The Men tended to take up position at the most crowded of places. They blocked our way, causing us to slow down and holding us up. It was fleeting, I suppose, but it was an inconvenience nonetheless. And on the busy streets we were jostled and pushed up against them and forced to stand alongside them.
I was unnerved by the Men and this was only compounded by the fact that we didn’t talk about them. All of our questions and the speculation had been stifled and the silence had become an entity in and of itself. Not only in the City but also in our homes, with family and friends and it quickly turned into something sharp and pointed, something dark and foreboding.
The Men, with their arrogance and indifference, were an imposing and intimidating presence. It wasn’t unusual for the homeless to come into the mid-levels; it is easier pickings here, I suppose, for the beggars and the hawkers. But the Men didn’t ask for money and they weren’t trying to sell anything. They hardly seemed to notice us at all. It was as if we weren’t there. And when they talked it was only to each other and those moments of camaraderie were few. It was unusual in fact to see more than two or three of the Men standing together, although I often spotted one of them alone and talking to himself, mumbling incoherently, as if locked in some inner conflict.
The Men were always dressed alike. This again wasn’t unusual. The Salvation Army provides clothes for the homeless but the Men appeared different, they had achieved a uniformity. I suppose it was because we were looking properly at these clothes for the first time, taking in these garments, the heavy overcoats and woollen hats, the crudely cut jeans and working man’s boots.

The Men stood out. They were clearly defined both when it was busy and when it wasn’t. I still tried to avoid them, but not to ignore them as this, of course, would have been impossible. But I was determined to maintain that distance, to keep them away, apart.
I was almost entirely pre-occupied with the Men. I could hardly think about anything else. Even in my office on the fourth floor I couldn’t settle, couldn’t concentrate. I would stand at the window gazing down until I found the Men, located them. I needed to know where they were and if and when one of them moved along I needed to know when another appeared.
Perhaps if my office had been up above, somewhere in the higher levels and I hadn’t been able to see what was happening down there, my work wouldn’t have suffered.
Eventually, however, the Men began to leave. Gradually there were less and less of them. And so the Men became much, much more difficult to pinpoint.

Image by Christine Renney

THE COLLECTOR

Chris R-1110366

Thomas collects the needles. It is an unpopular job but is open to all. No qualifications are required or prior experience, not even a recommendation. One has simply to turn up and register at an Agency office, take to the streets and, using the bags provided, start Collecting.
The needles are everywhere, at least here in the lower levels where they are a part of the landscape. The Refuse Department is desperately under-funded and can’t cope. The Cleaners sweep up the needles, gathering and moving them to the designated areas. These, at first, had been tracts of wasteland; a part of this part of the City, but now almost anywhere that has been abandoned and deserted is used as a dumping ground. Many of these places have become so rancid and rat infested that even the hardest and most dedicated of Collectors won’t venture in.
The progress the Cleaners make is so slow as to be almost impossible to detect. In the interim they gather and pile the needles wherever they can find a space; where the pavement widens a little at the end of a street or on a busy corner for instance. Even on traffic islands or grass verges that run alongside the roads. At the communal areas on the housing estates, the needles are, of course, a constant. The Cleaners can do little more than push them into the middle until they resemble unruly bonfires that can’t be lit. The hypodermics are made from a hard plastic that won’t burn easily; it is inflammable although, if the heat can build up enough, they will melt and meld. And where this has happened strange shapes appear, grotesque sculptures with the needles protruding like the spikes of some medieval weapon.
It would be wrong to assume, simply because there are so many of them and that they can be found almost everywhere, that collecting is easy.
The main body of the hypoderms and the plungers are susceptible to being crushed when trampled on and so don’t last for long. They are easily cracked and squashed and the needles, which are delicate, get twisted and bent out of shape and are quick to rust and corrode.
The Opportunists are also a problem. They aren’t attempting to make a living from Collecting but are always alert and whenever they spot good needles they will snatch them up.
Thomas has heard that, in the mid-levels, all the users bag and return their own needles, collecting the cash for themselves. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened here. But some of the users do make an effort to dispose of their needles in a reasonably responsible way. Separating them from the rest of their trash at home, they take and dump them on one of the countless piles or heaps that are littered throughout the city.
The Opportunists often stalk a User, waiting for him or her to drop their needle and, like vultures, they will swoop in, grasping and grabbing and yet the needles that make it into the rubbish heaps they choose to ignore. Many of them are merely chancers and it is a way for them to make a little extra. If they see a good needle laying in the street why wouldn’t they, and why shouldn’t they, pick it up? But there are others who appear much more desperate and are quite obviously Users.
Thomas wishes that he didn’t feel so resentful toward them. He doesn’t want to be judgemental – after all, everyone is using, although there are levels of course, especially here in the lowest of places. But the Opportunists won’t get their hands dirty and they don’t grub and sift through the garbage because they don’t want to be mistaken for Collectors or Scavengers.

Thomas began collecting closer and closer to one of the designated areas. At first he kept to the perimeter but gradually edged his way in. The work was slow, laborious, but there were still good needles to be found and at least he didn’t have to compete with the Opportunists or with any of the other Collectors in fact.
No-one came here now, not even the Sweepers who had long since stopped using this particular site. There had once stood here a large warehouse or factory of some sort, but it had been demolished and levelled in order to create a space. Much of the debris from the original building remained. Brick rubble and broken glass and such, which made the collecting even more difficult. But Thomas was determined and started to clear a path and make his way toward the middle.
He dragged old pallets and broken packing cases from close by and shored up the sides to prevent the needles from falling in on him. Eventually he had to add a roof section, using sheets of corrugated tin. And as he pushed his way deeper and deeper into the heap he added another of these sections and yet another and another. And from this vantage point Thomas hacked at the rock face, as it were. He collected the needles in heavy hessian sacks, rather than the flimsy plastic bags provided by the Agency, placing the good needles in one and in the other those that were misshapen and blunt. And as he worked below the needles rained down from above, covering the roof until the tunnel was entirely hidden.

Image by Christine Renney

CONFINES

Number 2-0155

Despite the confines we are encouraged to want and to have things. Although we can only achieve so much, it is instilled into us, at an early age, just how important it is that we are successful.
Anyone who works hard can have a house, a home, and is able to fill it with all that they need plus a little more; with trophies, big, bright and shining things. A flat screen TV, surround sound and a car in the garage, something sleek and stylish or bulky and reliable. Whatever one may want, despite everything, despite the constraints and the cut off point, at least here in the mid-levels there is still a whole lot of choice.

We are middle-management material. We can work only for particular companies and corporations and in particular government departments and we can rise only so far in the ranks. We are allowed to achieve and succeed but at a certain point, we are stopped, cut off. I think it is harder for us here in the mid-levels because we are so close and many of us could easily make that little leap and continue onwards and upwards.

I often stay on at the office after my colleagues have left for the day. I don’t use the computer, not even my own devices. I don’t want my presence to be monitored. I am not breaking any rules but I am aware that my behaviour would be considered more than a little odd.
The lighting drops to an energy saving low level and in the half light I sit with a newspaper and try to read. But mostly I listen to the noise coming from the floor above. Long after we have completed our day’s work they are still hard at it up there. At regular intervals I fetch myself a drink from the vending machine. Carrying the little plastic cup, I wander as I sip from it. The coffee is always too hot and bitter. I listen to the laughter coming from above and I try to pick out individual voices, one sided telephone conversations. I can’t make out the words but it all sounds so focused and urgent.
I hear those that leave out in the lobby and I always flinch but they don’t look in through the glass doors. They don’t see me. They are far too pre-occupied, eager to get home or perhaps they are heading for a restaurant or a bar. Maybe their day’s work isn’t over, not yet, and they still have much to debate and discuss, to decide.
Eventually I have to think about leaving myself in order to catch the last train. It is still a veritable hive of activity up there and I am annoyed by this. I want to outlast them, to be here when they aren’t. I consider booking a hotel and staying overnight in the city or even sleeping here in the office. A clean shirt and a different tie and who, come the morning, would know, who would be any the wiser.
But I don’t make the necessary arrangement, I don’t bring that shirt and tie. Perhaps I don’t really want to know whether or not it does stop up there. After all, it’s only one floor and even if there were a lull, in the early hours of the morning, what would it prove? This block is tall, fifty two floors in all. The wheels don’t ever stop turning and from down here I just wouldn’t be able to hear them.
Many in the mid-levels decide not to enter these tall building. They don’t apply for jobs with the most prestigious corporations or with the government. Despite the fact that they have garnered the necessary experience and have ticked all of the right boxes they choose to coast, to keep working for the smaller companies, those that operate out of the storefront offices both here in the city and out there in the suburbs. They don’t have the security or get the retirement plans and the extra holidays and the end of year bonuses but if they are good at what they do and work hard they can earn almost as much out there. They call it the ’Real World’ and those above us don’t like it; it is frowned upon and they groan and gripe but ultimately they haven’t any choice but to accept it.
I made that step from there to here as soon as I could, as soon as I was able. And that is all I have managed to do in almost five years of working here. I step into the lobby, push through the doors and make my way across the ground floor office space and I sit at my shared desk in the far corner. I haven’t ever been moved up, haven’t been required elsewhere, I haven’t even as much as stood on the stairs.

Image by Christine Renney