We’re watching TV and it’s pizza and chips for tea

The Red Crescent bibs are suggestive of authority, but, amidst lots of dust and confusion, it is an older man in casual shirtsleeves who shouts out the orders. Dead bodies have been lined up alongside those of the living. Now there’s a heated debate about which stretcher to lift first.

We hand out our pizza and chips.

At last, the stretcher-bearers move forward and scoop up a shrapnel-damaged child whose green and gold T-shirt is splattered red. They stumble and sway down through the rubble toward the open doors of the single ambulance waiting below.

We agree that the chips are a disappointment. The oven cook ones are much easier and safer. However carefully prepared, fresh-chipped potatoes spit darts of pain when deep fried in spluttering hot fat.

And look, these lie here all short, stodgy and lifeless. Pass the ketchup sauce please.

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Five minutes of freedom

Michael flapped his arm around his head. The beeping went on burning a new day into his foggy consciousness. The Digi-direct Deluxe had been playing up all week, bleeping when it should be beeping, turning off lights as he entered a room and on as he left, heating shower water when he was at work and delivering double doses of the best-in-show Pet-We-Love slimming syrup to Minxie, bringing on an unpleasant flatulence in the overweight mongrel.

“Deluxe” supposedly denoted inclusion of the latest “bio-attunement technology,” delivering “personalised, whole-home control at the flex of your wrist, swipe of your finger or wave of your hand.” Nothing there about flailing your hands around your head in the manner of an 18th century wheat harvester tripping on Speedril, the latest legal-high, just to shut down the Digi-direct Deluxe’s morning alarm function, thought Michael as he carried out his ablutions.

Pulling the front door behind him, he waved his palm across the communal access screen hoping for a red light, a reassuring sound-sim “clunk,” or some other sensory prompt to tell him that his worldly possessions were safe behind a locked door for the rest of the working day. Nothing. So he put his shoulder to the door hoping that he was giving it enough of a nudge to open it if unlocked but not so much to set off the Digi-alarm if secure. Nothing again. A re-assuring nothing this time.

Michael worked at Jobscape, placing people who couldn’t or wouldn’t find paid work for themselves with employers who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the going rate for the job – “matching the needy to the greedy” as the graffiti-artist sprayed on the wall opposite the office.

Demand was high. The “no work, no pay, no play” rules introduced a year ago were offering dividends all round. More demand for work had been created by denying benefits and public services to anyone over 16 and under 70 without a job stamp in their Access Card, while employers had new freedoms to offer unpaid work of all kinds in return for the weekly stamp that allowed the recipient to access a doctor, childcare, public transport and more. No cash was changing hands but everyone was getting what they needed – including lots of jobs at Jobscape administering the system, many, like his, of the highest quality, that is semi-permanent and paid, Michael mused.

Unfortunately, this boost to human activity had pushed ever more people on to the streets, turning the day into one long sweating, painful rush hour on the city’s buses, trains and trams. For sure, the trains ran on time and the buses and trams were given traffic priority, but the crowds, the smell, the noise, the physical proximity of so much humanity crushed the senses and induced in Michael an anxiety teetering on paranoia.

Michael’s daily travel dose lasted 40 minutes from front door to the Jobscape log-in terminal. He aimed to arrive on the dot of 8.25am. His Digi-chip Personalised Freedom Pass embedded in the subcutaneous layer of his right ring finger let him travel on any of three prescribed public transport routes between work and home.

The routes included the Golden Line, aptly named as it was the route that offered the shortest, fastest, least crowded passage between home and office; so long as he completed his outward journey within the hours of 7.30am-8.30am and his homeward journey between 6pm-7pm.

Golden Line access was a privilege earned through anonymity, Michael had decided. It was his reward for staying off the system radar and merging with the mass, working hard and keeping his pre-pay utility contracts topped up. He had been called into the office toward the end of his third week and told that his performance, attendance, punctuality and out-of-work systems-compliance had earned him his Freedom Pass.

“Congratulations. You are Mr Average, not seen, not heard and that deserves recognition,” the man in the shiny suit told him.

The 7.37am Golden Line 82b bus would carry Michael from Lime Lane to Trout Green train station in 12 minutes. There would be a seven minute wait for the Golden Line Bullet and an 18 minute standing-room-only ride to Jericho Square before a three minute walk from station to the Jobscape log-in terminal. Clock in before 8.30am and all was well. A minute later and his Digi-chip Personalised Freedom Pass would report a time violation.

Michael liked to play with time. It was his secret. He aimed to clock in at 8.25am on the dot. Success gave him a quiet, deep satisfaction; a belief that he was beating the system. He could complete the journey and clock in by 8.20am, but there was nothing in that for him – no credits, no reliefs, no thanks. He would be handing over 10 minutes a day of his time to Jobscape for nothing.

On the other hand, he didn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker or, indeed, seen at all. He held back from the dangerous, juvenile practices of some of his colleagues who tried to log in every day between 8.29-8.30am. Sometimes one would miss, opening a deep void of misery. Violation was serious. True, nothing seemed to happen first time, apart from the audible creation of a de-credit log on your Digi-chip Personalised Registry, but successive violations triggered a credit absorption algorithm that would progressively reduce your buying power, slice points from your work assessment profile, and eventually lock you off the Golden Line. Michael was keen to avoid stepping anywhere near the edge. He had heard of people locked out of the mainstream within just six weeks of an initial violation and left to fend for themselves with no credits, no freedom pass and no job stamp.

Michael was comfortable confining his rebellion to the minutes between 8.20am and 8.25am each morning. Five personal minutes that belonged to him and no one else. Five glorious minutes which were his to hold and caress, to treasure and share with no one but himself.

They weren’t guaranteed minutes, of course. While interventions from commuters and work colleagues – the smiles, nods, attempts to exchange polite meaningless words – could usually be forestalled through the studious avoidance of eye contact, and transport delays were rare, a residue of fear dwelled within Michael. What if his minutes, his freedom was stolen by a delay or inadvertent human contact? Inevitably, just now and again, the worst happened. Michael would find himself fuming as some lost soul attempted to solicit directions, or a charity fundraiser would attempt to sell a direct-debit indulgence with a forced grin. It could take two or even three minutes to brush them off, long enough to disorientate Michael and rob him of his time for that day. Rare days. Awful days. Their existence as mere potential was more than enough to cause unease on even he best of days.

His minutes, his freedom, his time, his space were precious. What to do with them? He couldn’t display them or parade them. He had to keep his secret rebellion secret, after all.

Michael’s rebellion had been underway for over a year. He had experimented by using his minutes to walk very slowly, strolling to work without a care in the world, but that did risk stepping out of the mass and making him an easier target for the lost, so he stepped up his pace to the average. He had stopped and stared in shop windows before noticing that many had CCTV cameras trained on the streets, reporting stragglers to who knew where. He had paused to look up to the sky and dared to daydream amongst the clouds as he had done on those sunny early summer days back in school. He had tried a different route from the Square to Jobscape each day, extending the distance a little until the three minute walk from train station to office had fully extended by his five minutes of freedom. One day, he had paused for a coffee at the trendy ‘T,’ where laptops vied for table-top space with lattes and over-sized cappuccinos, and didn’t make it to the login station until 8.29am. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Discovering back then that he had the power to rebel was liberating. It was exciting to experiment by simply doing what he did everyday a little differently, to twist and turn and resist a few of the numerous, tiny, suffocating bureaucratic rules and behaviours. He had time and space in his control, to use as he wished without direction, instruction or advice.

Slowly though, the last 12 months had produced a different frame of mind. These act of choosing what to do with his free time increasingly troubled him. It was impossible to weigh one alternative against another, to decide what was best or most desirable. Each liberating act seemed to generate a greater degree of anxiety. Nagging questions seeped into his mind. What if someone noticed him? He began scaling back his rebellion, reining in his desires, trying once again to enjoy the comfort of the crowd, the contentment of compliance. Risks were minimised. Rebellion was constrained.

Michael felt a light tug on the arm of his jacket.

“Is this your digi-music thingy?” the man asked twisting the tiny sphere between forefinger and thumb.

Michael looked up. It wasn’t his. He didn’t own one. “Is it yours?” the man queried a second time. “I found it here, set on top of the door release next to you. Here,” he pointed across Michael’s shoulder.

Michael twisted his torso as much as he could in the crowded carriage and looked at the shelf above the door release. It didn’t change the fact that he didn’t own a ‘digi-music thingy’ but he looked anyway. “No,” he said averting his eyes from the questioner. “It’s not mine.”

“Are you sure?” he asked. “You do look like the sort of chap who might well travel with one.”

Michael tried to process all the possible meanings of that assertion. What sort of “chap” was he being taken for? Why was the man insisting on knowledge about Michael that he couldn’t possibly have? “I am sure,” Michael replied keeping his eyes on his shoes.

“A pity,” said the man. “It’s a wonderful thing, I’m told. Matches your lifeline information to the global music database so it can play tunes aligned to your biorhythmic mood or ones that bring back memories of your fifth birthday party. If that is what you want. Nostalgia on the go-go,” he laughed. “I’m getting off at Jericho Square, so we can hand it in there. They’ll be able to find the owner through the DNA trace.”

“He said ‘we’,” thought Michael. “Why did he say ‘we’? The object is nothing to do with me and I didn’t find it, so why would I have anything to do with handing it in?” Michael kept his eyes on his shoes and stayed silent.

“This is us,” said the man as the train signalled its approach to the Square.

“There is no us,” thought Michael as he caught the man’s eyes for the first time. Chestnut. Calm. Insistent. They held Michael now. “Come on,” said the man, “let’s do our duty.”

Michael followed him off the train, turning right along the platform away from the station entrance and against the oncoming commuters. They moved silently to end of the platform, took six steps down and turned left into a tunnel Michael had not been along before. They were alone now, walking single file, the man leading Michael toward a sign that read “Lost Property.”

The man reached out and pressed a buzzer. Michael waited, wondering why he had followed and yet knowing that he had to.

“Found this piece of lost property on the train that just pulled in on Platform Nine.” The man was speaking to someone behind a grille have placed the device on a small tray next to it. Michael couldn’t see who was being spoken to. Nor could he hear the reply. “Of course. Will do. No problem. Yes, we will,” said the man. Michael found the man’s affirmation comforting, even though he had no idea what had been agreed to.

The man turned to Michael. “How wonderful. The DNA trace links this wonderful little gadget to someone who works just a few minutes from here. I said that we would deliver it. That will save everyone lots of time and effort and we all need to save on those, don’t we? I’m sure that is OK with you,” the man stated flatly.

Michael felt himself nod. He knew now that the system was exerting itself but drew comfort from the ease with which he had fallen in step with events.

Michael and the man walked in silence up to street level. They headed north out of the square and toward Jobscape, turning left before reaching the office block, but in sight of it’s clock. It read 8:23.47. Michael’s head was a fog, but he could feel his heart beating calmly. Less than a minute from work, he thought. Today may turn out to be just fine after all.

He and the man entered a mock-marble fronted office block and headed for the reception desk. The man gave a name and the receptionist repeated it into her desk-top computer. She smiled and nodded at the man, who gestured Michael to move with him to a red sofa in the waiting area. They sat. They waited.

People passed through the reception, waving fingers and palms across security pads, encouraging gates to slide open and glass lifts to carry them to upper floors with more glass screened workstations and meeting rooms. Michael understood where he was now. This was the world of paid, permanent work. The best you could get, but available only to those at the heart of the bureaucracy.

The realisation should have filled Michael with terror. He knew he wasn’t here to be recruited and he had heard all those tales of people entering buildings like this across the city only to lose credits, have work stamps revoked and freedom passes torn out from under the skin. Yet, he felt a disembodied peace. Whatever was going to happen was now happening and he had gone along with it from the moment of his encounter with the man on the train. He was to be relieved of a huge burden that had been pressing down on him for months, but he didn’t yet know how.

A woman in a too-smart suit appeared and held out her hand to the Michael’s guide. They know each other, thought Michael. He waited while the man and the woman exchanged pleasantries. The man reached into his pocket and handed her the tiny sphere he had carried off the train. She laughed her thanks but didn’t look at Michael or acknowledge his presence. Michael imagined the biorhythmic device that was now in her hand locking on to something modern and upbeat to match her mood. He sat and he waited.

The woman turned and walked away, waving a farewell to the man and using the same sweeping movement to swing open the security gate and call the express lift that would carry her to on of the uppermost floors.

“I wish my hand movements could command my Digi-direct Deluxe with such authority,” thought Michael.

The man turned to face Michael. “You’re free now,” he smiled.

Michael took five steps to reach the street and looked up at the Jobscape clock in the next road. It signalled 8.31am. His Digi-chip Personalised Registry beeped. His de-credit log was active.

 

X died one night, lived on just a little longer and now he is gone

In the morning, his existence was established by his absence. His non-presence brought him to mind, placed him in the consciousness of others. His material non-existence created voids filled with the potentiality of his being there, because he clearly and materially was not there in any shape or form. Behind his name plate on the office door sat an empty room that would, in the coming weeks, have to appear on written proposals for its re-allocation. It would have to be discussed as his office. The new occupant would, for a while at least, guide people to his own presence by referring to it in terms of the space vacated by X: ‘I’m in room along the corridor. You know, X’s old office.’ People would nod, recognise the name, feel his existence and orientate themselves through his non-presence. Minutes would record his absence and also make him real again. Sorrows would be expressed and noted at his passing, arrangements made for a collection, an annual memorial tribute would be discussed and notes of condolence drafted and distributed to his loved ones. His unfinished tasks would be re-allocated or, perhaps more likely with the passing of time, be discussed and agreement reached to leave them undone.

Soon, these voids of potentiality would be filled, closing off a vague notion that his existence was continuing. The new office occupant would move the desk by a few degrees, replace the books on the shelf and, through time and convention, fill the space with his own existence. The last team, office and committee minutes recording his name and the eventual failure, after much consideration, to find quite the right format for that lasting tribute and the votes cast instead to make a donation in his name to the firms benevolent fund, would be moved to the archive.

Somewhere to start

He rose and offered his hand.

She accepted it in her own, wondering what it expressed of the man.

It had the colour of polished mahogany, the texture of gnarled oak and exerted a gentle pressure.

This hand had been held close to the harshness and uncertainties of nature rather than clothed in calf-leather gloves, bathed in protective creams and softened in soothing oils by night.

It was a kindly hand, living a natural, moral life.

It was the hand of friendship, she decided.