Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Substitute

‘What do you mean it’s your lab? I’m away for two weeks and suddenly my lab isn’t my lab anymore? After fifteen years?’ Julie said to the young man in his immaculate white coat, which matched his immaculate white teeth.

She hadn't raised her voice. It would be unbecoming of a senior scientist, and PhD candidate. Not to mention it might jeopardise her position if she was seen shouting at a junior member of the R and D team. Then she could forget about her doctorate.

‘I’ll be taking this to the Director,’ she said.

Those too-white teeth flashed again. He must have charmed his way into a lot of places with those gnashers, Julie thought. Probably even this very lab. It was well known that the Director had a penchant for young, handsome men. It was a wonder Julie got the position at all. She liked to think it was testament to her skill as a scientist and researcher.

‘You’re welcome to,’ he said. ‘She gave me the appointment herself. I believe she is in her office at the moment, would you like me to accompany you?’

Not only did he have that toothpaste-ad smile, but he was confident and charming as well. It made Julie hate him even more.

‘No, that won’t be necessary, I will speak to Ms. Cage myself, thank you,’ Julie said, standing with her back straight trying to impose her full height and authority on this young man.

She did not storm or stomp out of the lab, she walked. She was in the right, she did not have to worry. There had obviously been some mistake. She and the Director had never liked each other. Julie thought that had changed when she was awarded the privilege of going to Barbados for the annual conference of Lab-Tec, one of their suppliers. The Director usually went on this herself, saying that it was important to make the effort.

Her feet rang out on the marble floor of the foyer of the office. Darren, the Director’s secretary was sitting at his desk, gaping at the computer monitor like the massive gorilla he was. The man used to be a pro weight lifter, before being given a job as Ms. Cage’s PA. Obviously no one wondered why, but Julie hated the fact. He was an imbecile.

‘Darren, I have to see The Director, right away,’ she said with all of the confidence she could muster.

‘Do you have an appointment?’ the man-ape answered, not looking up from his monitor.

‘No, but—’

‘No appointment, no…get in. That’s what she says,’

‘No appointment, no admittance is what she says. But that’s not the point. I need to see her, and I’m not leaving until I do,’ Julie said. She could feel her face starting to go red.

‘You are welcome to take a seat,’ Darren muttered, gesturing at the sofas at the other side of the gargantuan foyer. They were there for style, not comfort.

From the moment she walked into the Lab and saw that all of her things were gone, Julie had promised herself she wouldn’t get angry. She wanted to use the calm and relaxation of the previous two weeks to fuel her self-control. But this idiot was proving to be an obstacle that was looking like it would trip her.

‘Listen, Darren. I have something to tell Ms. Cage and if she doesn’t hear it, she won’t be happy.’

‘I can take a message,’ he offered, putting his hand out—eyes still glued to his monitor—to fumble for a notepad.

‘No,’ Julie said, loud enough to wrench his eyes from the screen. ‘No, it’s urgent,’ she continued in her normal voice.

He looked at her, a little startled.

‘If she doesn’t hear what I have to say, Darren, it could mean your job,’ Julie went on.

His eyes widened, almost imperceptibly, but enough that she knew she had him. ‘My job?’ he stuttered.

‘Your Job,’ she confirmed. ‘She won’t be happy at all if I don’t get in there. And when I tell her it was all your fault, well…’

Darren pushed the button to his right which popped the magnetic seals on the top and bottom of the frosted glass doors behind him. ‘Okay. You won’t tell her I wouldn’t let you in?’

‘It’s okay Darren, you have my word,’ she said. Adding, ‘moron,’ under her breath as she walked past him.

The Director’s office was extravagant in the extreme. The outer entrance area had sofas and an expensive looking rug, a chandelier and a full grand piano in the corner. She hesitated a few moments to catch her breath. There were pictures on the walls of The Director meeting with all of the heads of government there had been since she took up the post, the same year as Julie did.

‘Oh, Julie. I’m glad you’re here, sit.’ The Director said.

Julie sat down in front of a large mahogany desk, at the other side was The Director. In her thirties, Julie thought, The Director would have been considered good looking, beautiful even. Now though, in her fifties with all the work she had done, she looked like a plastic bag pulled over a skeleton.

Julie got straight to the point. ‘My lab, there’s some boy in it and my stuff, it’s gone. What’s going on?’

‘I’m sorry Julie, I should have told you myself. Your project, it’s been axed. I really am sorry, the word came from higher up. They just don’t think it’s viable.’

Julie was shocked into submission. She was speechless. All of her working life now wasted on this project. A substance that can stand in for fat in foods. . As time went on people realised that it wasn’t fat alone that was causing the problem, but sugar too. She needed to find a substitute for both. Then, five years ago, she found a compound that could do it. In it’s solid form it was almost identical to saturated fat in melting point, taste and texture. With a little simple chemistry it could be changed into something much closer to the carbohydrate sucrose. It was so similar in composition that it even tasted sweet in this form and—dried in the correct way—it could even feel like granulated sugar. The last five years had been packed with tests and safety, she was almost finished, nearly ready for it to go to market. Now this.

‘Julie? Is everything okay?’ the director said.

Julie realised that she hadn’t said anything in quite a while. ‘Yeah…yes. I’m fine. So what am I to work on now? What a about my PhD?’

‘Well that is the other thing I needed to tell you. I’m afraid that since you have been away, and your project had ended we have hired some new staff. Which means that we will no longer be requiring your services.’

This hit her even harder. Not only had her project been axed, but now her PhD was gone. And because she was under a confidentiality agreement, she couldn’t even take her research elsewhere and continue. It was as if the last fifteen years of her life had been wiped off the board with a damp cloth.

‘My research…’ she began.

‘Is no longer yours,’ the Director said.

Julie left in a daze. There was no one she could turn to, the labs were run directly by government. The Director answered only to the Prime Minister. There was no appeals to be made and no courts she could go to. She was on her own.

The confidentiality agreement she had signed was something to behold. Over a hundred pages which covered every possible permutation of her telling anyone about what she was doing, before, during or after the fact. There were clauses in there to deal with the exact situation she found herself in and she was familiar with them all. The full force of the law was against her, and even going to a solicitor to speak about her case was forbidden and could land her a life sentence with no parole. So obviously she couldn’t go to the papers, or even put something online in the hope it went Viral. It would be ten times worse for her than it could have ever been for Edward Snowden. For a start she would not be allowed to escape.

Her walk home, usually the favourite part of her day, was drab and bleak. The Palace was surrounded by hoards of noisy tourists, making the majestic structure look tawdry and cheap. Her stroll through Hyde Park was marred by the grey sky and spitting rain which was slowly, but relentlessly getting her soaked. The short tube ride, where she normally read her book, or watched people was noisy and hot and smelly. She was glad to get out at her stop and make her way down the deserted midday street where her flat was.

A cup of tea, she thought, that’s what I need. She walked straight into the kitchenette that was the first door off her little personal hallway. She took some teabags out of the cupboard, which she had obviously forgotten to close that morning, and put one in a cup. She didn’t want to waste time emptying and cleaning the teapot. She needed tea and she needed it now. She had found a cup on the side, which was unlike her, but then she remembered that she had been in a rush that morning. The first day after a long break was always a bit of a rush. The process of making tea was so comfortable for her now it was a kind of  meditation.

She brought her tea into her combined living/dining room and almost dropped it when she saw him sitting at her table. He had a cup in front of him too, black tea visible inside.  He was wearing a suit, with no tie, as usual. Not wanting to look too stern or business-like. The crossed legs and welcoming easy smile was also a calculated effort to this effect. She recognised him instantly, but it took a few seconds for her brain to register that, in fact, sitting at her table was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

‘Julie, I’m sorry to drop in unannounced,’ he said. Then without getting up but extending a hand he continued, ‘my name is—’

‘I know who you are,’ Julie said, a bit more abruptly than she usually would have.

‘Yes, quite. Well I’m here to apologise about pulling the plug on your project. It’s not because there was anything wrong with your work, in fact we couldn’t have asked for a better result. I mean with what you’ve created we could end the obesity crisis. We could save thousands of lives, millions if you’re talking worldwide, every year,’ the Prime Minister said, shaking his head.

‘Then why pull it? It’s safe, you know that. We’ve had five years of trials and every version of the compound has come back safe. The latest had no adverse effects at all,’ she said.

He sighed a theatrical sigh. ‘I know, I know Julie. And I wish it could be released, I really do. I wish we could tell the world that we have created a fix for humanities greatest struggle of recent times. Food is killing us, Julie. It’s killing us slowly and inexorably and now we have a weapon. A weapon that we can’t use.’

‘What do you mean we can’t use it? It’s there. All that is needed is to introduce it to manufacturers and it will be easy. It’s cheaper than sugar, has a longer shelf life than fat, and it’s easier to produce than both. They will lap it up, it will increase their profits and even allow them to avoid the new sugar tax that…’ she said, then it hit her, of course, how could she be so stupid? ‘That’s what this is about isn’t it?’

‘Julie I—’

‘Isn’t it?’ Julie said again, more forcefully this time. She had nothing more to lose. They had taken her job which was her life and they had erased the last fifteen years as if it was nothing. They could do nothing to her now that would even compare to that.

‘You have to understand,’ he began, spreading his hands in a placating gesture. ‘There’s an election coming up. Next summer. We have promised to reduce the national debt to a fraction of what it was, and to do that we will all have to make sacrifices.’

‘What about the reduction in health care this will cause, that will help bring it down. And you could put a tax on it, it’s so cheap to manufacture that it would still be cheaper even with a high tax on it.’

‘Time, Julie, that’s the trouble. Time. It will take years for the pressure on the health service to abate, and longer still for the country to see the benefits of that in monetary terms. The sugar tax is immediate, and we need it now, if we are to continue the good work that this government has started. Which would also be the trouble with an unpopular tax on this new compound of yours,’ he said, giving her a mock sympathetic smile. ‘It just wouldn’t be popular.’

‘So that’s what this is about. You getting back into power, getting re-elected. You could wait until the start of the next term and then bring it in. If you win.’

‘It’s the same problem Julie. It would take too long to make a difference. We can’t afford for this to happen at the moment, there is too much instability, and we need the sugar producers and suppliers on side if we are to get out of it.’

‘But you have spent so much on this already,’ she said. She was getting desperate now. If it was money he cared about and re-election maybe that was the way forward.

‘Nobody’s going to know that though. It’s well hidden in the accounts, overseas aid, health care, even some welfare budgets are overstated so that we can carry out secret projects like this.’

‘Why though? Why pay for it in the first place?’ Julie asked.

She was stalling now. There was no reason for him to be telling her any of this. She had the gagging order, which would probably cover everything that was being said today, but still it was a risky move on his part. Why was he there? Why was he telling her anything? She was worried. She needed time to think.

‘Well it all began with a more idealistic government, in more idealistic times. As you know they only served one term, they had a lot of projects like this one, both public and secret. It was well underway and so would have been a waste for us to stop it before seeing it through to completion. Like Macbeth said we were stepped in so far and all of that. Anyway we saw an opportunity. In watching your methods and getting to the end we knew the best way, so if anyone else looked like they were getting close we could take the appropriate action.’

Neither of them had drank any of their tea, and the cup in Julie’s hand was too cold to be drinkable now. Maybe this was her way out. She lifted it to her lips and made an obvious grimace.

‘Uuugh, I hate cold tea. I’m just going to make myself a fresh one. Would you like me to get you another?’ she said in her best imitation of nonchalance.

‘Not for me thanks, anyway I’ve got to be going,’ he said, pushing his chair back as he stood to leave.

Julie saw him take out his mobile as he stood. She walked to the kitchen, as normally as she could. Should she go straight out the door? Probably there would be someone waiting and if they don’t see the Prime Minister going out first then she was finished. She decided on going into the kitchen. As she turned left, she saw some movement at the front door. It was opening.

She put on the kettle to cover the sound of the cutlery drawer opening. She stood with her back to the wall just inside the kitchenette, clutching the blunt kitchen knife she had taken from the drawer. As soon they came for her she would—

The pain ripped through her side before she registered the crack of the pistol. She slid down the wall, the strength gone from her legs. His polished black leather shoes were the last things she saw.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Coddle

Ah, yer awake! Good. Ye were so keen te ge’ inte me taxi, I thought ye wer in a hurry te ge’ somewhere. Mus’ be late now. Ah well. Maybe ye can stay for dinner instead a whatever ye were goin’ te.
Don’t struggle too much, ye might break me chair. That’s it, take it easy, just sit back and let me cook ye a nice dinner. Oh! Nearly chopped me finger off there, better watch wha’ I’m doin. Tha’s the trouble wi’ onions though, they make ye cry if ye look too close.
Coddle, in case yer wonderin’. What I’m makin’, it’s coddle. Lovely word isn’t it? Coddle, like a cuddle y’know? S’pose that’s what it means, it’s like a bi’ of a cuddle it is. Me ma’ used ta make it for dinner on a Sunday. Was a great treat, it was. Tastiest thing ye’ll ever eat, not great lookin’ but none a the best tings are, wha?
A bit dark in here don’t ye tink. Can’t even see me spuds. Dats wha’ ye get for settin up in an auld warehouse though. Ye know they’ve left this place here for five years. There’s plenty a these places. Left te rot.. Then I give ‘em a new purpose.
There, that’s the spuds peeled.  Ye see they have te be cut about that thick. Any more an they tend te break up inte chunks, any less an they jus thicken the stew. Me ma never used te peel them at all ye know. Used te say all the goodness was in the skin. Never really like it though, them skins were a bit crunchy. So I peel ‘em, then boil ‘em.
Such a simple thing, isn’t it? Coddle. Bi’ like me. Nah, but seriously, simple tastes. Keep meself te meself an never bother anyone. But I was bored ye see. Never much te do when yer all alone. So I says te meself, I says: ye could prob’ly be famous ye know, yer ma never brought up no gobshite,  as she use’ te say. Wha’ can I do? I ask meself. Wha ’ would make me famous?
There we go, the spuds are done. Now it’s time te do the sausages an rashers. Me favourite part. Nothin like the smell a burnin pig. Delicious isn’t it? Oh careful a the splatters, them sausages spit a bit. Ye don’t cook ‘em too much, just enough to get ‘em nice an colourful, otherwise they go a bit grey an chewy in the stew. The rashers can stay though, they want te be nice an cooked, plenty a fat comin off. All good stuff. Been eatin’ this for years, an it hasn’t done me any harm. I’d say I’m thin enough wouldn’t ye? A long streak a piss they call me, wha?
I could’a been a footballer ye know? Had me trials for Arsenal when I was back home in Dublin. Scout came over an watched a game. Said I was good. Got in a bit a trouble when I came over for the next bi’ though. Had a fight with some fella from Brixton or somethin’. Stuck a knife in ‘is leg. Should’a seen his face though. Priceless. Anyway I’m a bit old now te be a footballer. Te be startin’ out anyway.  I got away with stabbin’ him, cos I told em it was his knife. Was lucky tha’ I knew where his parents lived as well. Told him I’d cut his ma up if he didn’t say it was his. An’ he did. So I thought, what else could I ge’ away with?
Right, the kettle’s boilin’. The pan wi’ the sausages an rashers gets tha’ boilin’ water an’ I scrape it around. Some people say te put stock in it, bu’ it’s much nicer wi’ this stuff. All the fat, an’ the burnt bits, an’ the little bits a rasher that come off. Lovely stuff it is. I know it looks a bit grim, wi’ the black bits floatin’ in it and the blobs a fat all over. It’ll be lovely though, trust me. A fitting last meal.
So anyways I goes to the swimming pool where I usually go an there’s this aul fella. Now this fella’s been annoyin’ the hell outta me for weeks. He goes in the fast lane, right, an he swims as slow as ye like. I think he’s had a bleedin’ stroke or something the way he swims. An’ he weaves over an’ back across in front a ye. This day I’m swimmin’ along an’ in he comes, slidin’ inte the water when I’m not lookin. I’m swimmin along, anyways, an’ I crash inte this wrinkly lump. I says te myself, I don’t want te be touchin his wrinkliness while I’m tryin te have a nice quiet swim. So I gets te thinkin. I could prob’ly kill him. I could prob’ly kill him, an get away with it. Easiest thing in the world. So, away I goes an I find some H and a needle.  An’ the next time I go in I stick it down me togs. Carefully, ye know what I mean, wha? There I am, swimmin away, mindin me own business an who slips inte the pool, only this auld fella. I seen him this time an’ casual as ye like I go on with me swimmin’. Him doin’ his usual auld weavin’ an bobbin’. Next time we clash, though, he goes down an’ doesn’t get up. Bloody lifeguard started askin’ me all these questions after, says he saw me crashin’ inte him. So I makes sure I get the needle an’ slip it inte his little first aid bag and I tell him te watch hisself an take off.
Ahh, smell that? That’s the smell a nice rasher an sausage gravy. All ready, pu’ a bi’ a pepper in it. An that’s most of it. The next thing is assemblin’ the thing. Me ma used te put the sausages all on top, like the spokes of a bike. I like ‘em in the stew, though. Makes ‘em nice an’ soft an’ everythin’ gets a nice flavour a sausage. Bet ye like a flavour a sausage, wha? Only jokin’, don’t look at me like tha’. I’m not like tha’. Bleedin’ sicko. Anyways, I like puttin a good layer a spud on the bottom, makes it easier te spoon out after. Then the onions, rashers an sausages, then another layer a spud. A good few layers is great, gives a bi’ of a bite. Then the lid goes on an ye boil it for a few hours.
Anyways, I got away with killin tha’ auld fella. Cops arrested the lifeguard, found the needle in his little bag. The papers said he tried te tell ‘em it was one a the swimmers, but how would one a them carry a needle? Very carefully that’s how, wha? It gave me a taste for it. Not the killin’ really, tha’ was grand, like, fun I suppose. It was the gettin’ away with it I really liked. Ye see they all thought I was a bit of a thinko. Ah, look at him, the Paddy, thick as shit isn’t he? But I know better, we know better don’t we. Next time I upped it a bi’, ye know, somethin’ riskier. I decided on the taxi driver trick, genius if I say so meself. Sure I’m not even a taxi driver, don’t even have a driver’s licence. All I’ve te say if I get stopped is I left it at home an I’ll drop it at the station. Then I move. Then there’s the pickin people up at the station malarkey, I love that one. Ye see all a yiz are comin’ from somewhere or goin’ somewhere. All I’ve te do is arrive around the time the trains come in. So I’m not hangin’ around too long. Then as soon as I’ve got someone I bring ‘em somewhere new to show ‘em me coddle recipe.
Smells good doesn’t it? It’s the minglin’ of all a them lovely juices of the meat, with the onions and everythin’. Some a them new fangled chefs put some Guinness in at the end, they say it makes it better. But that’s all nonsense. We could never afford Guinness to put in the coddle. Me da had usually drank it all anyway. He’d batter me ma if he found out she’d put some in the food, wha? Ye know Johnathan Swift used te eat this stuff, some fella told me it was his favourite food. There was some other famous fella too who used te like it. Bleedin Joyce or someone I think. Great stuff I’m tellin ye.Ye could eat it now, but like I said it’s better if we leave it a bit.
The first a them ones I collected at the station, nothin’ to it like I told ye, he just hopped right inte me taxi. Said he was a business man, nice suit, leather case an everythin’. Didn’ even look me in the eye ye know. Not that I minded really, sure wouldn’t he be dead soon after. Brought him to an auld abandoned slaughter house. Great spot really, me da was a butcher, in more ways than one, wha? Nah he sold meat, like. So the slaughter house had a meanin’, ye know. Show me auld fella I wasn’t a thicko, well if he had still been alive te see it I s’pose. Anyways, I killed him, made the coddle, had a bit of a chat. He pleaded a lot, wasn’t keen on tha’, that’s why I’ve gagged yiz all since. Slit his throat in the end, felt right, plenty a beasts been killed like tha’ in a slaughterhouse.
So I guess yer wonderin how I go’ rid a them? Ah not like tha’ ye gowl, what’re ye like? Nah I didn’t eat them, or put them in coddle or nothin’. It was another clever plan a mine. Not exactly puttin’ them in the coddle, but inspired by it, kinda. Ye see I was thinkin’, people either hide the bodies, or destroy ‘em. Bu’ I thought, wha’ abou’ doin’ both. Layer the usual ways a doin’ things. Burnin’ is the first, cos it gets rid a most of the weight and space the bodies take up. Then, whatever left goes in a barrel a acid for a couple a hours-like cookin’ really isn’t it?  Then the bits left over, ye know the bits that won’t burn or melt or can’t be sold easy, they go out te sea on a little boat. Bleedin’ genius I tell ye. An it’s all about layerin, jus’ like coddle. Good for everything that stuff, inspirin’ I’d say, wha?
Now let’s see, coddle’s nearly ready so how’re ye goin’ te die. Let’s see; yer a pretty little thing so I could do the nasty on ye, bu’ tha’s not me bag, told ye tha’. Ye didn’t seem all tha’ bad a sort when I picked ye up. Proab’ly make it quick for ye then. How abou’ I jus’ inject ye wi’ some H, an’ then slit yer throat. Tha’ way it’ll be a nice mellow way te go. I’m glad yer calm, women tend te be ye know. Great sex ye are, sometimes wish I was one, wha’? First things first though, love, we have te taste this coddle don’t we. It’s smellin’ great, best yet I think.
Why d’ye think I leave a bit a the coddle after me? Seems a bi’ silly doesn’t it?  Evidence an all tha’? Well ye see it’s me middle finger to the cops. It’s me tellin’ them they’re bleedin’ stupid. See, no one know’s what it is, coddle. They find a bit a this, an’ a bit a tha’ an none a my DNA on it. It’s like the people went mad, cooked some nutso meal an jus’ left. No blood, no body, nothin’ te say they’re dead. They jus’ lost it an’ went missin’. Great stuff that coddle, inspirin’ stuff.
Here have a taste. What d’ye think? D’ye like it? At least yer smilin’, must be good then, if ye can smile before ye die. Wait, what was tha’? Tha’ crash, did ye hear it? Wait there an’ I’ll have a look…

Coddle Killer Caught

The police have solved a series of recent disappearances and break-ins as being the work of the Coddle Killer. He would cook his victims a meal of Dublin Coddle—a lesser known traditional Irish dish from the inner-city of Dublin—before killing them. Then leave some behind to tease police. He was caught during an under-cover police operation after an Irish officer recognised the dish and linked it to an unlicensed taxi driver through some clever detective work involving tracking the ingredients and questioning shop workers about an Irish man. She said she built the evidence up in layers before coming to her conclusion. The officer was tracked and followed, by colleagues, to a derelict warehouse where she bravely sat and listened to the killer’s confession before signalling for back up. The man was responsible for at least three deaths and is expected to confess to more over the coming days.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Tears

As to why I answered the advertisement, I can’t exactly remember now. Perhaps it was a matter of boredom, or some feeling of restlessness. It could have been my indefatigable interest in science, or maybe I was curious as to what exactly a person would want with human tears. Looking back, the only thing I remember now with any clarity, is that I was enthralled by it and needed to know more.
At the appointed time, on the appointed day I went to the appointed place. So much time has passed and so many things have happened, the details escape me. The building looked scientific, that I do remember, it was grey and square and clean. I had been instructed to ring the bell marked “Schlossmann”, which I did, and the door buzzed open. I suppose I was told to go to a particular floor and a certain room, which I did.
Upon being admitted into a waiting area, I was shown to a chair and given some forms to fill. I presume I filled in all of the usual details: name, address, date of birth. Then I signed a lengthy contract, which I think said some things about the ownership of the tears once collected transferred to…now that I think of it I can’t remember who, but I’m certain I didn’t care who they belonged to after I had shed them. I had no use for them after that point.
Following a suitable wait, I was ushered from the waiting area to a room. Due to the sheer number of visits I made here, I can remember it as clear as if it had been my childhood bedroom. It had four walls which were painted lime green, with no pictures or windows on any of them. The door I entered through was the only thing to brake the monotony. In the centre, facing the door, was a large leather-bound chair in a slightly bluer-green than the walls. It was one of those reclining chairs, the kind that dentists use to lay you flat while they torture you by engaging in conversation at the same time as drilling into one of your prize molars. Anyway it was one of those chairs. Comfortable enough, while leaving the sitter vulnerable.
To the right of the chair was a machine. Now, this machine was unlike any I had seen before. I will do my best to describe it. I should be able to, considering how many hours I spent in its company. There was a series of tubes which at one end had a most peculiar mask that a technician would put on my face. The mask was made of silicone, and covered the area from my upper lip to the bridge of my nose, coming right under my lower eye lids, a little closer than is comfortable. At the other end of the tubes was a closed box which hummed and sucked the tears into the mask as I shed them. At the other side of the box was a pair of bell jars, connected by two more tubes.
Once I had the mask on they got me to cry. How? Well I guess that I must have told them more than I thought in that first questionnaire. What they would do is: they would remind me of sad times in my life in order to induce the appropriate emotional response. Some days it would be the story of how I accidentally shot my dog while playing with my father’s gun. Other times it would be a reminder of how my grandmother died in a nursing home, and how she had forgotten all of our names and faces by the end, screaming any time I would come near her. There were all manner of sad things in my life—as I’m sure there are in anyone’s—that they could draw upon, and they drew upon them all.
Of course they would keep me hydrated, and fed as it would last about  two hours, or was it three? Now, as I have mentioned I went to this room many many times—too many to possible count—and each time I gave my tears and they gave me some water and food and I went on my way. Other than that I can never call to mind any instance where I was paid for my donation in those early days. I suppose it was all voluntary and that I did it for the good of science. I presume, also, that I was reasonably well off, so that the lack of monetary inducement was of little consequence. What was happening to me in my life outside of the room is a mystery to me now. It is like nothing, long periods of grey between the activity of my donations.
After doing this for, oh let’s say, a year, I was approached by a lady in a white laboratory jacket. It was perfectly clean, without any badge or logo; this along with her blond hair, white stockings and astounding beauty makes me remember her as some kind of angel. It was a break in my routine, and a welcome one at that. She asked if I wanted to take part in the next part of the experiment. She went on to say that there would be some remuneration for taking the time to do so. I must at this point mention that if there was any moment during this process where I asked what the experiment was, I do not remember. And I don’t think I was ever actually told.
In any event I accepted to go on with the experiment. I can only assume that the reason—you will have to bear with me here, as this is purely conjecture—was that I had spent so much time going through the first part, that: firstly, I was now entirely invested in the project and secondly, I had lost any other means I may have had to make money. Whatever the reason, I did accept and she explained to me what it would entail.
As well as tears, she said, for this next stage they would need other bodily fluids. Namely urine and blood. Naturally I would be monitored carefully while giving these and given appropriate care. I was assured that it would only take a small alteration in the machine’s workings to manage the collection of these other fluids. A second tube was connected to the vacuum box and at the other end was attached a kind of nappy. Except that like the face mask, it was made of silicone. It only covered the necessary parts for the carrying out of its primary purpose. The blood was extracted via a small needle which the technician put into a vein in my groin which, via the lower apparatus, was connected to the machine also.
The technician was quite expert at phlebotomy, as it turned out, and very professional also. He always turned away while I removed my clothing and put on my collection-underpants—as I came to know them—and never caused undue pain or distress while tapping the vein in my groin. As this memory also is very clear, this too must have gone on for quite some time, and it seems to me that it went on at regular intervals as well. Daily, if I’m not mistaken.
It was then I became fascinated by the bell jars. While the machine was taking tears, and the jars filled up with clear liquid, I took, really, very little notice of them. But my interest was well and truly piqued when, upon collecting the scarlet blood and urine in various shades of yellow, the liquid that came out the other side of the machine remained perfectly clear. If anything, I fancied that it was even clearer. So crystal that it appeared to have a kind of glow of its own. Of course this is silly, but at the time it really seemed that way.
I asked the technician about it, I think…or maybe I didn’t. If I did I can’t recall if he told me. So I do not know for sure why the bell jars were still filling up with this clear liquid. But they were. I have a theory that the machine was changing the fluids somehow before they got to the jars. It probably makes more sense to say that it was removing everything: blood cells, plasma, proteins, salts, fat, anything that would give colour, then putting the remainder in the jars. The more I think about this, however, the less likely it seems. Firstly, there would be no reason to do this, as any water they got out, they would have to put back into me and secondly where would everything useful go, if not into the jars? There was nothing more to the machine, no other tubes leaving, no other jars and it was far too small to contain a large amount of separated components of blood and urine.
With no frame of reference I can’t tell you after how long, but after some time I was visited again by The Angel. She arrived at the end collection one day and explained that there was a third part to the experiment that everyone was very excited about. And that if I was interested, then it would mean an increase in my pay. Again this change to normal proceedings is clear in my mind, and this time I remember asking what it would entail. She explained that I would be required, at the end of every month, to have my entire body shaved and my nails clipped in order that they could also be collected. I imagine that I didn’t have any opposition to the notion, in any event I accepted and they took the first lot of hair and nails that very day. Again the technician proved a very able a barber, pedi- and manicurist. He shore me faster than a shepherd and left my nails neat and even. Then, bald as the palm of my hand, I left. Probably, to go home or wherever I happened to be going.
  I didn’t notice the first time, or don’t remember noticing. But the next time this happened, the technician placed the hair and nails into a funnel, which was attached to yet another tube, which was attached to the box of the machine. It sucked them up greedily and out he other end came more of the clear liquid. Except, this time I am sure that it was even clearer still. Almost invisible now apart from an even brighter internal glow from the jars. I’m quite sure that at the time I didn’t have the faintest idea what the jars contained, I’m sure of this because…well because I still don’t know.
Some time passed from the first time I was shorn, and the last thing I remember. It happened as I turned up one day to do my duty. I was early, for some reason, and having been coming there some time now was accustomed and indeed encouraged to make my own way to the room. When I pushed the door open I saw the strangest thing. It was me. I was lying on the bed in my usual place. My eyes were closed, but oddly concave. Connected to me was the machine, except it was only connected via one tube in my arm. Nobody saw me (at the door) at first and I had time to observe what was going on. The machine seemed to be working in reverse. The level of clear, glowing liquid was going down, and it appeared to be travelling up the tube into my (on the chair) arm. I can tell you I (at the door) was shocked. ‘What’s all this then,’ I shouted, somewhat upset at seeing myself on the chair when I myself was standing at the door.
It was as if those very words set off some kind of explosive energy in the attendants who were surrounding the me on the table. They sprang from their chairs, disconnected me (on the chair) from the machine and covered me with a blue sheet. This all happened in an impossibly short time. I (at the door) was then hurried away from the room, and that is all I can remember.
It is as if my life has been taken from me, and all I can think about is those bell jars with their clear, glowing liquid. Pushing everything else out of my head.
Until, that is, I awoke here in the dark talking to you. You never told me your name by the way. Ah, what a coincidence, so is mine, and your surname?  Now that is funny, we have exactly the same name. Well it’s very nice to meet you. Oh do you? That’s a shame, on your way could you ask someone to bring me a glass of water? I really am terribly thirsty.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Social Worker

It was coming way too fast. Her little Corsa was taking up most of the road as it was, there was no way they would both fit. She pulled in as far as she could, coming to a stop. There isn’t even a lay-by, she thought as it approached, seemingly gaining speed. She winced as it passed, a flash of green, barely able to look in case it hit her. Then it was gone. Flying down the country lane at stupid speed. Bloody country drivers.
            Anna usually worked in the town, visiting vulnerable old people, and making sure their homes were safe. This sometimes involved telling a well-meaning carer that they were doing things wrong, or would have to change something. After she convinced them that she was only suggesting the best for their parent or grandparent, they generally were fine.
            She hated coming to the countryside. It wasn’t only the long journey, which made her day that much longer, or the crazy drivers and worse roads. It was the people she had to visit. Because of their isolation, problems tended to be worse and had usually been going on much longer. That, coupled with the fact that they were usually more stuck in their ways, and claimed to have absolutely no money to do anything about their situation, made her job that much harder. Then there was the smell. She wasn’t squeamish, but having grown up in the city and lived there all of her life, she never could get used to the smell of livestock. Her extra air fresheners were flapping about in the breeze created by the air-con. Even on a sweltering day like this, she wouldn’t dare open the window.
            As she got near her destination she remembered, too late, to change to recycled air for the air-con, it was the smell that reminded her. The worse she had ever smelled by far, it was as if she was driving through an actual farm, not just beside one on a public road. People shouldn’t be allowed to make the road smell like this, she thought, it’s disgusting. The sat-nav flashed up that she had reached her destination, and she cursed it for its accuracy, as well as the agency for sending her here.
            It looked worse than it smelled. There was a little bungalow, which seemed to be on a little island only just bigger than it, in a lake of effluent. A four foot wall separated the road from the stuff on the other side. If the house was on a lake, then opposite it, on the left hand side of the road, there was an ocean. Rising up out of the ocean, or drowning in it (she couldn’t quite decide), was a cowshed with bales of hay, only half visible, and cows which were swimming up to their bellies in their own excrement.
            She hoped it was the wrong house, she hoped it with all of her being, she even prayed, for the first time in about ten years. Scanning the wall for a name she didn’t want to find, she even bargained that she would never swear again. But there it was, behind some grass, rusted almost to oblivion “The Farm House”. Although half the letters were missing so it actually said “The arm Ho se”, she laughed to herself at the thought that she could skip it, claiming she couldn’t find it. As she was thinking this she saw a twitch in the pink lace curtains, and knew she had been spotted. No turning back now.
            As she expected, it got worse outside of the car; the rain that morning combined with the heat of the day made for a cloying miasma around the farmhouse. At first it felt as though she couldn’t breathe, it got marginally easier as she made her way toward the house. The driveway functioned as a bridge to the island, rather than a place to leave a car. Squeezing through the gap in the gate, she realised that there was no fence separating the drive from the lake where the cows were swimming. Great, she thought, not only could I choke to death on the stench, I might be mauled by amphibious cows.
            She quickly reviewed the case notes in her head as she went: in the house lived a man, his sister and elderly mother. The man ran the farm and owned the deeds to everything, left by his father, there was cause for concern for the elderly mother’s living conditions. The mother’s GP had reported that she hadn’t been seen at the surgery in some time. The son rang recently asking for medication for her recurring gout, when the doctor asked to speak to the mother, he was told she couldn’t speak. The doctor offered a call out, which was declined. That was three months ago, and nothing since. The surgery tried re-arranging a few times, in the end they called Social Services to make a house call and make sure everything was okay. Of course that entailed much more than it sounds like, but she was used to that after more than twenty years.
            It wasn’t a typical farmhouse, in fact it was more like the houses she was used to visiting, suburban bungalows. It was yellow pebble dash with a mossy corrugated tile roof, plastic framed windows and a plastic door. She looked through the window at the grubby pink net curtains, and thought how it was such a shame that colour wasn’t a crime. The front door was around the side, as is normal with these style of houses. She rapped on the white plastic with her knuckles, there being no knocker or bell and waited. No sound came from within, and nobody opened the door. Anna knew they were home, because she saw the curtains twitch, so she knocked again. Still nothing. They knew she was coming, and knew it would be at this time, she couldn’t believe they would…footsteps along the drive interrupted her internal rant.
            Around the corner came a man of unknowable age. He was average height and build, maybe on the skinny side. He walked with a stoop so he could have been taller. On his head was a messy ring of brown hair, surrounding an uneven dome of peeling sunburned skin. The sun had caught the skin on his face too, leaving the tip of his nose red and flaky. He stared at her with red-rimmed, watery eyes as he approached. As he came level she realised he hadn’t been staring at her at all, and that one eye was just fixed in that direction. He walked straight past her, pushed the door (which had been open) and would have closed it again had she not said: ‘Ahem.’
            He turned and grunted what might have been come in, but sounded more like: ‘Gumh umh.’
            She took it to mean the former and followed him into a narrow hallway with floral textured wallpaper that might have once been red and purple. The radiator in the hall had left brown grey stains on the paper above it. She followed the man into the front room, the one with the front facing window and pink net curtains. It looked to function as a living room and a bedroom. There was a wooden framed bed against the wall, and a very old commode, which looked clean, and didn’t smell. Along with the normal living room furniture it looked cramped, but cosy.
            He pointed to, who she could only assume was, his mother and grunted something that sounded like ‘there,’ with a finality that suggested that her work was done.
            ‘Thank you Mr. Hynes, do you mind if I take a seat?’ she said gesturing at the sofa beside the one his mother was on.
            ‘Sumph.’
            ‘Thank you. Now to begin with I would like to meet everybody who lives here.’
            ‘Humh,’ he said, pointing at his mother.
            ‘Yes, I can see that this must be your mother, who the doctor was so worried about. Thank you, I will interview her later, I would like to meet your sister also, we have on record that she lives here.’ The last was said as a statement, and not as a question. She needed to be authoritative with this one, she guessed.
            He grunted something unintelligible and left the room. Anna turned toward the woman sitting in the chair, and for the first time saw that despite all appearances she was in fact awake. Her eyes, bright and attentive, were looking directly at her.
            ‘Hello Mrs. Hynes. My name is—’
            The old woman put a hand up to stop her. She then started stabbing her finger at a device on her lap, that Anna hadn’t noticed before, at an unbelievable speed. When she had finished a voice came from it.
            ‘I’m deaf,’ it said.
            ‘Ah,’ said Anna, nodding to show that she understood. She took out a piece of paper and wrote who she was and why she was there.
            Mrs Hynes nodded understanding, after fishing around in the back of her chair for her reading glasses, and mouthing the words one by one. Anna wondered why their notes hadn’t detailed the old woman’s deafness and use of the speech aid.
            By the time she had introduced herself Mr Hynes had come back. He was followed into the little living room by a woman. She looked at the ground when she entered, her shoulders rounded and arms by her side, holding onto her ankle length skirt. She flinched when Anna spoke to her, as if she hadn’t been expecting it.
            ‘Hello, you must be Ms Hynes, I’m Anna. I would like you to stay here while I talk to your mother, if that’s ok?' Anna had on her notes that Ms Mary Hynes had a learning difficulty, something all of the old notes said, in the days before the diagnosis of things like Autism and Dyslexia.
            She didn’t move, except to look at Mr Hynes; who grunted and gestured toward the sofa. Then she shuffled in and sat down as far from her as she could, arm folded, head down, eyes turned away.
            Anna turned her attention back to old Mrs. Hynes. She asked her how her gout was, by writing on her notepad.
            ‘Sore,’ said the electronic voice of the machine. Mrs. Hynes then lifted her foot up from under her skirt and showed Anna her swollen, red big toe.
            ‘I think you need to see a doctor,’ Anna wrote.
            ‘No can’t get out,’ said the machine.
            ‘One can come to you.’
            ‘No.’
            Anna asked some more obvious questions, to try and win the old woman’s trust. Was this where she slept? Yes. Could she get to the commode unaided? Yes. Has she had her ears checked? No. These were all things Anna suspected, or knew already. But she asked them, and nodded understandingly when they were answered. The next one was important.
            ‘Who looks after you?’
            The old woman looked up at her son and then at her daughter with a smile. There wasn’t any fear in her expression, or hesitation. Anna didn’t usually believe in intuition, but she felt as though this woman was happy being where she was, with her family. She was comfortable, as much as possible, with the living arrangements. The house was dirty, but not awful. So she decided that she would ask that they brought a cleaner in once a week, and that she allow the doctor to visit. After convincing the old woman that it was for the best, she finally acquiesced. Mr Hynes just grunted in what she assumed was the affirmative.
            Truthfully, Anna wasn’t worried about Mrs Hynes, all of her needs were being met. She obviously just wanted to do things her way, and was happy not to have any outside interference. She told them that she would be back in a month to see that a cleaner and the doctor had visited. Leaving the house she felt a bit better about everything, even the smell didn’t seem as bad. Though that could be that the sun had caused a hard crust to form over the lake of brown around the house. She walked quickly to her car and tapped in the address for the next call. Another farmhouse, only half a mile away. She hoped this one would be as quick and easy.
            It was a like a dream, this next farmhouse. A beautiful square two story building set in well a generous well-manicured lawn which was proportionally large, but not overly so. The long driveway was perfectly smooth, and felt nicer to drive on than the road she had just turned off. That’s better, she thought. Between a Land Rover Defender and a fashionably old Saab, she parked her car. Walking toward her was a large man with his enormous hand outstretched in greeting. She matched his wide smile and shook his hand firmly.
            ‘Welcome,’ he boomed. ‘Anna isn’t it? Your office said you would be around about now.’
            ‘Yes I had another call close-by this morning.’
            ‘Ah,’ he said, his face a mockery of seriousness. ‘The Hynes Farmhouse I suppose.’
            ‘Well…yes, it was in fact how did you—’
            ‘Oh everyone knows everyone else’s business around here. Funny old bunch those ones.’ he said, smiling broadly again, with an added wink of theatrical proportions.
            ‘I see. Shall we then?’ Anna said, gesturing toward the house.
            ‘Ah yes, that’s why I came out. My wife, well she, she’s a bit doolally, you know?’
            ‘Yes, Mr. D’Arcy, it’s why we’re here. Part of our new service, we are going to try to make yearly calls, at least, on all dementia patients. I suppose they are being more careful now after that awful case recently, you probably heard about it on the news.’
            ‘No, I don’t believe I have. Anyway as I was saying, she is having rather a bad day today, and has said she would  prefer not to see anybody.’
            ‘I see, well I won’t have to stay long, I suppose I could ask you the questions, but I will have to see her.’
            ‘I’m sure, but it’s just that today, well we’ve been having a time of it. She didn’t even remember my name this morning. What’s more she’s been just doing dishes all morning, won’t come away from the sink. If you have a look in this window, you can see for yourself.’
            Anna followed him to a large window which looked into a large kitchen. At the back, was a sink full to the brim with white soapy suds, and true enough there she was, hands moving around in the sink. She watched for a few seconds, and something seemed odd, she never took her hands out, and there were no dishes drying on the draining board. She put this to Mr D’Arcy, who told her that there was, in fact, no dishes in the sink at all. But that it was best to leave her to it, because she tended to got violent if taken from it.
             'I’ll tell you what, I will be back in the area in a month or so. I’ll see her then. Perhaps if you warn her in advance of me coming, that way she will perhaps be a little more receptive.’
            ‘Good idea,’  he said. ‘I’ll do that. Now you said you had some questions?’
            Anna asked him the regular list of questions for spouses, about her routines, and moods and the facilities they had, and needed. Happy with all of the answers she waved goodbye and drove her car out the lovely flat drive onto the narrow country road and went on her way.
           
            It was nearly two months before the office managed to schedule her to go out there again. Plenty of time for the Mr. Hynes to organise a cleaner, and hopefully for the doctor to be out, she thought as she drove down the road that lead to their house.
            The outside certain looked no better. It had been raining all day and was unseasonably dark as she parked her car in front of the gate. The level of the brown lake around the house seemed to have risen since she was there last. She felt sorry for the poor cows who were standing around in it. It couldn’t be comfortable to stand in your own mess for hours on end.
            One knock was all it took this time, but it wasn’t Mr. Hynes who came to the door, but his sister. She answered it so quickly, Anna could have sworn she was standing behind waiting for the knock.
            ‘Hello,’ she said to her feet after opening the door.
            ‘Hello dear, how are you?’
            ‘Come in..’ she mumbled.
            ‘Yes, thank you,’ Anna was glad to get in out of the drizzle, which was starting to get heavy again.
            The hall was less cluttered than before, and the floor had been swept at least. There was still a heavy stain above the radiator, but she supposed that it wasn’t that easy to clean off. Mrs. Hynes’ room was much the same as it had been, the bed linen had been changed, she was sure of that, and there had definitely been some light dusting done.
            ‘Tell me, how many times has the cleaner been since the last time I came?’ Anna asked Ms.Hynes.
            ‘Bernard is out he’ll be back soon,’ she replied, mechanically.
            Anna didn’t think she was going to get anywhere by pushing too hard, so she tried something simpler. ‘Awful weather we’re having,’ she said.
            Ms. Hynes looked directly at her and said: ‘yes, and I think it will get worse. Look at the barometric pressure, it hasn’t been this low in September for five years, and that year we had ten-point-five inches of rain that month,’ as she finished she pointed at the digital weather gauge on the wall, an anachronism Anna hadn’t noticed last time.
            ‘That’s very interesting, and what was it like the day the cleaner came?’
            It didn’t work, she saw that it hadn’t from the moment the words left her mouth. Ms Hynes’ face dropped and she repeated her previous response about Mr. Hynes being back soon. Anna decided to leave it.
            She took out some pre-written questions she had for Mrs Hynes, and handed the first to the old lady; who squinted at it and proceeded to punch letters into her speech-aid.
            ‘Good thank you,’ it said.
            She handed her another.
            ‘Yes gave me tablets for toe,’ it said as Mrs Hynes pushed some gout tablets into Anna’s hand.
            ‘Good, I’m glad,’ Anna wrote in her notepad; which earned a smile and a nod from Mrs. Hynes.
            It wasn’t a complete success, but she was glad the place was at least a bit cleaner, and the doctor had obviously been. She was also secretly glad Mr. Hynes wasn’t there to grunt at her.
            She said her goodbyes, got into her car and left, thinking that perhaps the smell wasn’t that bad after all.

            The D’Arcy’s was her last call of the day, and she was glad of it. It was really coming down now, and the clouds were dangerously dark, promising more rain still. Something was bothering her, and she couldn’t figure it out. It had bothered her ever since she had reported back to the doctor who had sent the request in to visit the Hynes’s. She had handed it in in person, as she was passing. Unusually the doctor had been in the waiting room. Anna knew her for years, and they got chatting. She mentioned the odd situation with Mrs.D’Arcy washing the dishes, and the doctor had thrown her eyes up to heaven and said that every time she visited the woman was doing the same thing, then she laughed and said she didn’t think she had ever actually seen the woman’s hands. She didn’t like the thought of the poor woman being forced to wash up, and she resolved to find out this time if that was the case.
            She pulled up again between the Land Rover and the Saab and locked the car. This time there was no Mr. D’Arcy to greet her, either the office had forgotten to tell him, or he didn’t want to get wet. He was sure to be waiting at the door, she thought. But he wasn’t. She knocked, with the large wolf head knocker a few times, and shook the string on the antique bell they had hanging over the door. She doubted he would be out, both cars were still there, and he did know that she would be coming some time today. She started back toward the car, to call the office, when she happened to glance in the large kitchen window. Mrs. D’Arcy was standing at her post, hands in the bowl, but this time there wasn’t so many suds. But there she was, still washing nothing, up to her elbows in the water of the sink. There was something wrong about the picture though, apart from the lack of suds and delph.
            Then Mrs. D’Arcy stopped moving altogether, she was staring into the water. A scream forced its way out, high and harsh, like an animal caught in a trap. Anna saw the stubby ends of Mrs. D’Arcy’s wrists as she lifted them from the sink, screaming all the while.
            ‘I suppose you think you’re clever? Checking up on people that don’t need checking up on.’
            Anna felt dizzy as she came around. Her head was throbbing, she was wet and shivering.
            ‘Answer me,’ said the voice again, she wasn’t sure where it was coming from. She felt first the jolt in her whole body, the crunch happened almost at the same time, then the pain roared to life in her knee. There was screaming again, but it was her screaming this time. Her eyes were open, but they were only now beginning to see. The room was swaying, like a poster billowing in the breeze; she felt sick.
            He walked in front of her, in his hands a heavy red monkey-wrench. Her head was slumped on her chest, pulling at the muscles in her neck, she tried to lift it, but she couldn’t.
            ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you,’ said the voice.
            A hand under her chin lifted her head, and she saw him. Still red faced, but sweaty now, wispy hair stuck to his face. Her knee was starting to throb, the initial pain ebbing away. She didn’t know which she preferred.
            ‘You think you know it all, you people. You don’t know what I have to go through.’
            Anna said nothing, she was starting to register what was going on, and trying her best not to panic. She was sure if she did she would lose her mind. So she tried to keep calm, and said nothing.
            ‘She used to make my dinner every day. I would come home, and it would be there, then she would clean, and I would relax in front of the fire. Then she started forgetting. She forgot to make my dinner. I had to punish her, I had to,’ he looked at Anna hard, daring her to argue.
            She said nothing, fighting the hysteria.
            ‘First it was just the belt, but that didn’t work. Then the iron, but she still forgot. You see, I had to take her hands, I had to. She wasn’t even using them any more,’ he was sobbing now, waving the wrench around as he spoke.
            ‘Then she started screaming, so I put them in the water, and made suds. If she couldn’t see them she wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know. WHY AREN’T YOU TALKING TO ME?’
            She tried to, oh how she tried, but every time she did, she felt like she was going to go mad.
            ‘Stupid woman, just like her aren’t you? Well if you aren’t going to use your tongue…’
            He moved slowly to the right, out of Anna’s eye line. There was some rustling and finally he came back with a large set of kitchen shears, and a pair of pliers, which he put on her lap. She tried to speak, she wanted to, she wanted to more than anything, but if she opened her mouth she would scream and never stop. He brain was blocking her. There was nothing she could do.
            ‘Now hold still,’ he said,  reaching forward to prise open her jaw.
            He pushed against her forehead and chin with huge hands and her mouth started to open, then close. He braced himself and tried again. No, she was forcing it shut with everything she had.
            ‘I wonder if you will be so strong with a broken jaw,’ he said. He picked up the big monkey-wrench and took aim. He swung it back and…
            Thud
            He landed just in front of Anna’s feet. She could see the dark patch on the back of his head. It was spreading into a pool on the ground at her feet. Her hands were being untied.
            ‘Who—?’ she asked as she tried to put weight onto her shattered knee.
            She heard an unintelligible grunt as she collapsed into the arms of her saviour.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Responsibilities

The TV was wrong; that holographic technology was far too expensive for someone who lived on this tier. O’Neill had just bought a similar one himself, an older model, and he’d had to save for a year for it.
            He got paid reasonably well for being a police officer. Enough to assure his place on the upper tier, as long as he respected the rules. Despite this he couldn’t buy most of the things available there. But he could live there, most importantly; a decent life for him and his family. His daughter would have a good education, and proper health care. They might not have the best of everything, but it was better than living down here.
            He flicked the switch on the wall by the plug, it didn’t fit with the picture: people on the lower tier had to pay for electricity. Not so on the upper; with the advent of free energy it was always on. These holo-units weren’t meant to run on old fashioned ‘on and off’ alternating current. They  were designed to be on all of the time, to be ready to offer entertainment instantly. This one, therefore, would have to be set up each time it was turned on, unless…yes it was hacked. The image flashed into being, it was like a window into reality. He wondered if they really wanted more reality down here.
            A centenary celebration, commemorating the death of President Obama was being shown. O’Neill had seen this one already. The sound wasn’t on, but he knew the voice over was detailing how this great president had signed off on the “International Declaration of Human Responsibilities”  less than one year before his assassination, on the last day of his presidency. It would go on to say what effect the signing had on life at the time.
            O’Neill knew all about the Declaration. It  was an important part of being a policeman, especially one who works between the upper and lower tiers. His main duty as a Tier Liaison Officer was to deport people who contravened the Declaration. Then he had to follow each person, or family he deported for a year, to ensure they didn’t break any more rules. The work was hard, and dangerous, but it was worth it, to see the look on his daughter’s face on birthdays and Christmas when he could buy her a gift.
            Contraventions of the responsibilities in the first place lead to sentencing in the Lower Tier. The people he was here for were serious offenders. A family of thieves and thugs. They were in contravention of at least five of the responsibilities, among them: Article 1 - Each and every person must respect the rights of others in society, Article 6 - In all things each and every person must abide by the rule of law set down by the country in which they abide, and Article 16, which was a particular tough for O’Neill, - No person may have a child for any reason other than to love and care for said child until they are legally their own responsibility. He hated these cases, he kept thinking about his own family, the trouble he and his wife had conceiving.
            A lifetime in the lower tier was what was handed down in this case, to the whole family, until the next generation. This meant their children’s children would have to live there until they were 18. Then the hope is that living in the lower tier was such a deterrent that they would not offend as their grandparents had. O’Neill, or one of his colleagues, would have to watch them for a year once they got out. He hoped to be retired by then, he was ten years off the early retirement age of 70. As long as he had enough saved by then, he shouldn’t have a problem. Otherwise he would be doing this until he was 80.
            The TV show was over, now the news came on, which wasn’t in holographic broadcast. It was in old fashioned 3d, it didn’t look as real. The time flashed up on the top right hand corner: 23:05. He had to get out of there by midnight, or they would send a search party. He couldn’t call to say he would be late, there was no mobile phone reception in the lower tier. That was seen as a luxury, one of many which was denied the inhabitants. Another was any more than one channel on the TV, it showed the same documentaries again and again, followed by the news. Access to the Internet was also highly restricted,  it was only allowed once a day for an hour to search for jobs, or study. Officially there is no drugs, cigarettes or alcohol either, but O’Neill knew better, having confiscated his fair share.
            Any breaking of the rules on the lower tier and things got very bad. The Declaration of Human Responsibilities was emphatic on one point Article 2: Any contravention of the responsibilities lead to a loss of the corresponding Human Right. For obesity, binge drinking/alcoholism or smoking specific health services were denied either at the time or later in life, or both. For example a person who is overweight will be denied diabetic treatment, a smoker - treatment for lung cancer, an alcoholic - for liver failure, stomach cancer and diabetes also, along with any treatment for injuries obtained while drunk. It got worse for more serious infringements. For example the people he was here to see also had been involved in a number of violent robberies. This is obviously against the law in all countries. There is no protection in law for them from robbery or violence. They are put on a list which is broadcast on the television in the lower tier. This means for the duration of their stay they can be robbed and beaten, and the perpetrators don’t have to answer for it. It is a particularly savage element of the system, but one of the most effective. For the rehabilitated, it means a low likelihood of repeat offending. For the lifers, as they call the people banished for their whole lives, it is a punishment befitting the crime, or so the politicians have you believe.
            The apartment was lush, by the standards of the lower tier. Along with the Holo-TV they had an Auto-Oven, and most impressive of all they were in possession of a Reality Window - a Nexus 3000 it looked like. It looked as if he was under the sea, he saw a perfect representation of a shark swim by. O’Neill grinned, this was a big bust. And he had under an hour to make it, they were still out. There was no point in chasing them through the lower tier. He could find them as they had been tagged, but he had his pick up arranged, and he couldn’t change it now. Something should be done about comms down here, he thought. An officer could be killed, and no way of preventing it.
            They should be back by now. His source that told him they came back to the apartment around 11pm each night. He had said they were laden down with boxes most nights. Now O’Neill knew what with. Could they be late? The source had been emphatic, 11pm, without fail, every night. The news was nearly over: 11:30. It would take five minutes to climb to the roof for extraction. And they wouldn’t wait.
            Then the world turned white. All colour blended together from one second to the next. What was that noise? What had been silence was replaced with a sigh pitched screech.
            Everything came back with a rush of colour and sound and pain.
            Then darkness. What had been white was black. The noise changed, now a rhythmic thumping; his heart. It sounded fast. He tried to move his hands, something bit into his wrist, struggling made it tighter. He tried his legs - the same thing. He tried to tell if there was something over his head. He didn’t think so. That meant his eyes were closed, probably swollen shut. He tried lifting his eye lids. It hurt more than it should. Wait, a sliver of light, his right eye was just opening. It was excruciating so he let it close. Darkness again. Then a voice:
            ‘O’Neill, isn’t it? You been good to us, you have. Such a pity.’
            He tried to speak, ask what was a pity, shout or scream. His jaw erupted in agony.
            ‘Wouldn’t try speakin if I was you, O’Neill. Think your jaw might be broken there.’
            A whimper escaped his throat.
            ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure it’s quick, an painless, well, from here on in. Ya see, O’Neill, you’ve stumbled into somethin bigger than you know. We’ven’t been stealin stuff to make our flat look nice. We been sellin it, once we’re sure it works. Ya see O’Neill. We’re sick of it. Sick of bein trampled on by you upper tierers. And now you know…well…that’s that, isn’t it?’
            Something cold and hard pressed against his temple, there was a bang.
            The simulation ended and O’Neill was untied. He was assessed for injuries, hearing the paramedics report as he was carried away on a stretcher: punctured lung, cracked ribs, smashed jaw and molars missing on right side of face, fingers broken, on and on it went. The vague memory that all of this could be healed easily; that the simulations needed to be real; that it was the only way to properly prepare for work in the Lower Tier. Retirement couldn’t come soon enough.