Thursday, 12 May 2016

Be honest

This is a return to a slightly more "regular" tone for this blog. It may shift back and forth. It will probably shift back and forth. Here's something that happened to me today.

I have a love-hate relationship with commuter trains. I can't stand the way we're packed in. I can't stand the studied indifference of people who board and don't move down. I can't stand the soggy heat of too many people standing, perspiring, breathing hot damp little breaths.

But sometimes you wriggle down the aisle and find yourself a gap, because each row of seats has a handle on it. You can't stand between the handles, as there's nothing to hold on, so if you inch down the aisle you can get a decent half-metre on each side of you. And - bonus pleasure - you can nose into what your fellow commuters are doing.

Some of them watch last night's television, and for 17 minutes I am sucked into whatever they're watching. There's no sound, of course, and I haven't the first idea who anyone is. Instead, it's just a tiny little window into what this passenger enjoys. It's perfect.

Sometimes people text, and I rest my eyes lazily on their screen, always ready to whisk them away as if I were simply a connoisseur of train ceilings and floor coverings, and had merely rested my eyes on their passage between the two.

Two days ago, someone was learning Russian and texting someone. A colleague, perhaps. They ummed and ahhed over the words, fingers uncertain on the keys. They'd downloaded a Cyrillic keyboard, and everything was in the wrong place. Or was simply the wrong letter.

Fun game: try and find the equivalent (not the facsimile) of a Roman "P".
Then do the same for "D", "G". and "L".
Then weep forever.
"What are you up to?" their colleague asked.
"Nothing," they responded. This time their fingers were quick and responsive, tapping out a staccato lie.

Why did they hide that they were learning Russian? It's not a crime to learn it. Was there a Russian in the picture; some mysterious, attractive, dangerous liaison of which the colleague disapproved? 

Or perhaps this person worked for one of the services and was merely texting an acquaintance, trying to keep a cover story up while giving themselves a boost before heading into the field?

Or perhaps this is a closer friend but a friend with whom our student has fallen out. Preparing for a trip to St Petersburg with other, closer friends, they lie in order to keep the peace?

Of such things are novels made. 

But I want to tell you about someone I saw today. She was texting a man, and the conversation was the same flirtatious conversation people have when they've slept together and feel a little guilt and a lot of excitement.

"So...shall we do something on Friday?" he texts. There is a novel in those ellipses; sex and lust and something we shouldn't have done and something I'm so glad we did.

"Do you want to?" she responds. Testing the water. There's an out here; he can say no; he can back out. No judgement. Don't get my hopes up, it says.

The answer comes back quickly. "Do you?" Batted back, a quick volley. He puts it on her, and instantly in my mind there's something even deeper going on. This wasn't too many drinks or a one-night stand they're feeling a little ashamed about. There are other people in this story.

By now I am staring so intensely at this woman's screen that I'm afraid the weight will flip it out of her hands and onto the floor. I give the carriage a quick once ever, examining the handle I'm holding, the floor, the windows.

Yup. Still good.
I look back.

"I do. I'll meet you - " and for a moment I imagine going there and watching this couple greet each other. How do they do it? Are they awkward, or do they slip easily into each others company, fitting together like people should? Is that how you can tell who's meant to be?

"I'll just tell Paul I'm out at something. I'll see you then. I can't wait."

Paul must be a boyfriend then, or something more. Her hands and legs jiggle with nervous energy and I feel my own heart speed up in sympathy. Is Paul a bad guy? Is he just dull? Does he know, and does it matter?

And for a moment this is a delicious thing, an exciting adventure. I'm wholeheartedly with this woman, ditching her dull and uninspiring boyfriend for a night of passion. It probably makes me a bad person, but I'm too caught up in the excitement. She flicks over to a different conversation.

"Paul," she types, fingers tracing half-truths on the keys. "I've been invited out with the girls on Friday after work. Helen's leaving do, so don't worry about staying up."

"But since it's after work could you pick up Nina from school?"

And then suddenly it's not a romantic fling, or an exciting exploration of sexuality. Objectively it's probably still both, but I'm suddenly horrified by the depth of my support for her - depth that has now simply evaporated - and the sympathy of equal depth that wells at once.

I looked up, suddenly feeling intrusive and unpleasant. It was as if, biting into an apple, I had found it soft and maggoty. 

She got off the train. I moved to let her past, and she looked straight through me. She doesn't know that I know. I don't know who she is, or what happened next. Perhaps, right now, she is having a conversation with her husband. Perhaps not.

I sat in her seat for the next few minutes as the train came to my stop, and people shuffled along. I texted my partner. I looked at some emails. I glanced up, and noticed that someone had been watching my screen the whole time.

And I wondered what they thought of my life.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Night Train

There are rail tracks outside my flat. They're a little way away, but trains run all the time. Sometimes, late at night, you can look out of the window and watch empty trains, the lights all on, pass gently by. Sometimes there are people but from here they all look the same; indistinct fuzzy blobs that rock and sway with the motion of the train.

Sometimes the trains that pass are freight trains, full of gravel or piled with metal frames or just empty. Then it looks like a jaw with all the teeth pulled out; just sharp, pointed gaps where things should be.

And once, the train that passed billowed smoke. The carriages had curtains in them, but they were all drawn, and I could see the passengers inside.

And they could see me.

You understand what I mean when I say that, of course. We all know what it feels like to suddenly be aware that someone is staring at us. It prickles the back of our neck; it sets us staring all about us. Between myself and the passengers were two panes of glass and metres of empty air and yet I felt their eyes on me as intently as if they had been sitting on my balcony.

There was no end to the carriages. I could feel now each set of eyes settling closer on my features; where before they had grasped at my countenance now they luxuriated in it, devouring every inch of me. And I stared back, unable to grasp who these people were. I saw flashes of silver; forks and knives that glinted in electric lights. 

The diners put down knives and forks in a symphony of metal and china. I must have imagined the sound, for how else could it have been so clear to me? Against all instinct I stepped closer to my window, and as the windows flashed by I saw that each carriage had one window, and in each window was one light, and lit by the light was one pair of diners. 

And yet every pair of diners that I saw looked almost precisely the same to the previous pair. The only difference was a slight change in position, as though each pair had been carefully posed before each window, so that any viewer might be fooled into thinking they were moving. 

The carriages kept coming, and each new pair had moved a little more, and a little more. They seemed to stand and stretch, keeping always their eyes fixed on mine. The train increased in speed and the movements began to blur so quickly that my eye was fooled; that it began to seem as if there was only one pair of diners that stepped closer to the window, and closer. Only one pair of diners whose eyes stayed fixed close to mine even as they set their fingernails to their cheeks and pushed through the skin, clawing off gobs of flesh, splashing red blood agains the windows.

I had not realised until now how close to my own window I had stepped. The window was thick with blood but still their eyes were visible, fixed now, unblinking. They had torn off their own eyelids.

A whistle shrieked. I jumped, blinked, and saw the last carriage retreat away. It was a single carriage, with one window, and in the window was one light, and lit by the light there was no-one at all.

And then the night was silent but for the drip-drip sound on my balcony.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

This space

“This space existed long before you were even born. It started as the centre of someone's home, and after some time it wasn't. And then it was again. And then it was home to small crawling creatures, who were unaware that the low ceilings and nearby railway made it practically uninhabitable. Then there were people who lived there because their parents said it was uninhabitable, and then there were people who thought that was charming, and then there was a man with an accent who was only in the space for a day but whose sharp-bleach smell kept everyone out for years.
This space was always a different space, but to you standing here right now with blood on your hands this space has always been this space. It has always had beige linoleum that wipes clean. It has always had an island in the middle with a stainless steel hob. It has always had cupboards whose contents you do not know. It has always had a knife rack. It has always had a knife missing.
It has always had the dead man lying on the floor. He has always been here. His blood has always been this glossy. His eyes have always been this open. His mouth has always been this scared.
You have always held this knife. You have always felt the curved shape of the handle in the palm of your hand. You have always been aware of the slightly sticky, slightly wet sensation of blood that is not yours between the handle and the palm of your hand.
Except now you are putting down the knife. And if you are putting it down then always does not stretch so far in the future as you thought, and if that is true then it stands to reason that is does not stretch as far back in the past as you thought either. And now you think about it, there was a time when you did not feel the curved shape of the handle slipping and sticking in the blood in the palm of your hand. There was a time when the dead man was not lying on the floor. There was a time when his eyes were not this open and his mouth was not this scared.
There was never a time when his blood was not this glossy.
There was a time when the dead man was standing up. There was a time when the dead man was not here. There was a time when the dead man was not dead.
There was a time when the dead man had a name.
 Do you remember it?”

Sunday, 10 January 2016

A perfect model

Work this week has been fantastically exciting. My overseer at the vague yet menacing government agency where I exchange labour for the right to continue living gave me a very exciting project. I'd barely got in and checked my desk for booby-traps when I heard her voice over my left shoulder.

"You know, it occurred to me over the weekend that our lives could be made significantly easier if we could model precisely how our fellow citizens would react in any given situation. Then we could react quickly to outbreaks of rioting, political unrest, or unauthorised book clubs."

She laughed. I laughed too. We both know that all book clubs are unauthorised, but tautologous statements are a great way for colleagues to share humour and build a rapport. (How to make friends with Alien People, p. 43).
Your naivety is hilarious, and has been noted in your file.
"I would like you to build such a model. It should be accessible to everyone, open-sourced, and involve no more than three blood sacrifices. Oh, and it had better be accurate. We've had word that fourteen copies of Cat's Eye made it across the county border."

I started to speak, but she held up her hand.

"It seems there was a mix-up, and the out-of-town suppliers we get our ingredients from thought for some reason we'd like some books." Her lip was curled, showing the pointed teeth that all overseers receive upon promotion. She spat the word again. "Books. As if we were a town of degenerates."

Her eyes were now flashing from their normal inky-blackness to an iridescent shade of pearl and back again. Against the darkness of her skin, the effect was not dissimilar to lightning, if lightning were a natural phenomenon and not something scientists kept in a cage.

"So before they arrive, I want to see a model of exactly how each of our fellow citizens will react. I want to know their every movements before they do."

I nodded. "Of course, overseer. It's the only way we can ensure their safety."

Her eyes faded back to their normal empty black void, and she clapped a friendly hand to my shoulder. "Your understanding of our mission is adequate." she said, and I blushed. Isn't it great to work with colleagues who appreciate you?

There was a crack as she moved away by crossing through dimensions, and I turned back to my desk. This project was exciting, but a logistical nightmare. How do you capture the infinite depth of a human being? Their thoughts, their fears, their hopes - all of these things combine to propel them into random, unplottable, uncontrollable actions. I shuddered. Even thinking about it gave me the heebie-jeebies.

But from that shudder arose a glorious idea, like honey from the corpse of a lion.
Of course, you can get honey from any dead animal, but lion honey is far superior.
These thoughts that our fellow citizens have are the fuel that propels their fleshy bodies to action. Indeed, by itself a brain is almost entirely harmless.

Almost. Poor Uncle Jean.

Here, then, was my first solution. We needed only remove the brains from our fellow citizens, keeping them alive (or not! After all, the dead are notoriously peaceful.), and then simply permitting them to play out their lives as virtual creatures, just a brain floating in liquid that believes itself to be doing fleshy things.

I wrote up the idea, submitted it by folding it into a paper aeroplane and shooting it through the nearest air-duct, and got ready to home. I made sure all the traps I'd disabled this morning were set again (we hot-desk) and then headed home.

I was woken shortly after midnight by agonising, crackling pain in my skull, as if all of the bones were being ground against each other. I knew it could mean only one thing.

The Director liked my proposal!

Now all that remains is to organise this enormous undertaking. I'm incredibly excited, as it means getting to do some of the hands-on fieldwork that really helps people: drugging them and extracting their DNA to create clones we can experiment on.

Honestly. This is the best job in the world.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

New Year, New Me!

Isn't the new year exciting? We stay up until midnight, gathered with our friends around the stone monolith in the centre of our little town - not the one made of bright white stone that whispers to you, the other one - and we prepare to welcome the new year. We embrace the people we love with arms that feel peculiarly heavy, and talk about all that's happened even as our eyelids droop and our jaws grow tired.

And then, as the monolith hums us gently into slumber, our bodies go slack and we fall, like cut grass, to the warm earth. The earth around the monolith made of bright white stone that whispers to you is always so cold that your skin sticks to it and your breath forms clouds the moment you step onto it, but the earth around the other monolith is always warm. It's wonderful to sleep on, but the dreams are always so peculiar.

I had the same dream I have every year. I dream that I wake up in a white space. There must be floor, because I awake lying on something - but it has no form or feature other than flatness and infinite size. On every side, there is only an expanse of whiteness - as though light were bouncing off a white wall somewhere, but on every side.

Yet as far as I go, there is no wall.

The floor I know is white - I can see it - but looking above me, there is only further whiteness. It could be a ceiling out of reach, or it could be nothing but an infinite, empty space. Of course that hardly bothers me; after all, when we look at the sky, we're seeing the same thing - although the infinite empty space is black, rather than white.

Two things do bother me though, and every year in this dream I walk (eternally) and puzzle over them.

The first is that I can't find the source of the light. We can only see things because light bounces off them and into our eyes - but no matter how far I walk or run, there is no source of light. The light just is.

And the second - as I walk alone through this space, this pristine, empty, place where my voice does not echo but is swallowed by the size of the space I can neither perceive nor understand - is this.

I know this place. Not simply because I come here every year, but on a deeper level. It is knowledge that nags at me like a loose tooth, and I know if I can just find the angle - or the courage - to push hard enough, it will come out of my head.

I am not sure I want to do it. Perhaps I will next year.

Speaking of next year - I assume as you read this you are all awake and settling in nicely. This, for me, is the best part of the new year - working out the kinks, checking out your hair, deciding if you like your new eye colour and the way your voice sounds.

Remember - New Year, New You!