A new draft story for the gamblers and data administrators, but dedicated to M.H., wherever he is. It’s an experimental piece, a little too long, but I’d love to hear people’s impressions. It can largely be read in any order with the exception of the first and last part. Please – it’s not a confessional work, but explores some dark new psychological non-places that have appeared elsewhere in my stories, characters, lives and scenes. It requires an essay to explain it, and in some ways is the creative equivalent of my MA dissertation, which I am on the verge of finishing. Sometimes a character possesses you. Don’t make assumptions about the author, I’m quite fine, as is everything…
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‘It would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls, the ashes from the fire, the clouds, the mud, or other similar places. If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, animals, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like…‘ – Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting.
This exercise works like this: he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that’s all. The exercise is over.‘ – Sigizmund Khrzizhanovsky, “Red Snow”.
There was a certain liturgy of words that had to be kept pure, uncontaminated. Words were sick creatives, continually expanding and mutating as new data-streams ruptured their existing semantic structures. We had to write and maintain entries for every word on the continually-expanding database. To say the task was exhausting, well – even that phrase catapults one back into a realm of etymological tracings, clauses and a mania to have done with it all.
The “I” was a construct of all these words and entries which were arranged and re-composed like elaborate sand-mosaics at the hands of children at the shore-side. No longer anything, but this infinity of things and names needed always to be characterised and organised. New words were being created at every second, disrupting the flow of existing meanings and requiring the databases to be updated and adjusted on a continual basis. Sleep, if necessary, was deferred for exceptional occasions. The body was a passive media device whose highest utility and calling was in coding its flaccid impressions into truth as digitised information. To this end, such externalities like physical health, reproduction and the like would have to be submitted to the regulation of pure information. To say that the task of data administrator was important would be no understatement. I had seen men and women slumped over their digital devices, their inactivity mocked by some asinine screensaver.
There was a person I used to think about very much when undertaking this vocation.
The work could be intensely demanding. We were frequently having to deal with trojans, viruses, errant codes. Working in former shops and warehouses, usually in industrial estates surrounding the M25 ring, our networks were safer and network-intruders were easier to detect away from the busy information traffic of the central metropolitan areas. Frequently though we shifted location. Many of the older workers stood at their workstations, it was a fairly effective way of remaining awake – it was easier to eat, piss and shit where you were. Any wandering around the perimeter was incredibly exhausting, and there’d been unfortunate moments I’d spent looking for some more Eudex, waking hours later slumped in the kitchen area or garage of the office, wrapped in my jacket. Lost time.
Gil Upscott was a fairly typical case. His deletion order had come through from the National Identity Database (NATID) and I’d been emailed a Temporary Licence Exception Order (TELEO). It was easy enough work. I had no idea what Upscott’s crime had been, but NATID wanted all digital traces and evidence of his existence to be deleted. In the past this had been a difficult task, but his traces could be found primarily in 3 or 4 locations. Facebook was used to disable his account under some unknown abuse. His blog http was reassigned to a minor basketball sports academy in Chicago. If they were well known, data administrators had to be a little creative – so I created a fake identity. Instead of being an obscure legal historian, Gil Upscott was now a mediocre US Basketball player from the early 1990s who had been forced into retirement by injury. I rewrote his Wikipedia entry, used Youtube to replace his speeches with some old digital footage of basketball games, and went to remove his Amazon page but this had already been deleted. That was generally enough. I got into the NATID database and found out his bank account, email addresses and phone numbers, and had these either deleted or rendered inactive. There was something immensely satisfying about this. Getting a new ID was intensely difficult. Afterwards I earmarked a few favourable reviews and websites discussing his most recent work, “Law and the abuse of emergency”, as criminal under the Anti-Terrorism legislation, a fairly convenient way of closing down websites without question. The Google algorithm was adjusted by a huge number of simultaneous data requests that brought the fake basketball player up when Gil Upscott, Gil Upscott law, Upscott emergencyand other phrases were typed in – the most time-consuming task. After around 35 continuous hours Gil Upscott effectively no longer existed. Even if a man with this name claimed to be asserting his identity, he would either be arrested as an identity fraud or confused with the American basketball player. It was ingenious touch and I was very proud of the shift’s work, as would be the client.
There was a menacing atmosphere in the air, as if I had offended some minor tyrannical deity whose language I would never know.
The children were having bets on who could explode a collection of fire extinguishers and found crockery. Somehow they’d managed to make it up to the top of the medium-rise housing block, and were throwing down rocks. The extinguisher wouldn’t explode of course, but most of the windows on my adjacent car were smashed through. As I gingerly approached the vehicle, they began urinating from above.
I climbed into the wrecked vehicle, but my presence here was dangerous. I found a lighter in the glove compartment, next to a pack of latex gloves and a wedge of dictol. The car upholstery eventually caught alight after a few abortive attempts that burnt away the plastic seat coating. The insurance company would provide an alternative vehicle. But the words would continue increasing and elaborating well after the data parsing was over. I was very tired, and somehow I fell asleep in one of the transport depots. Whether it was night or morning I could not discern.
Another time, leaving the building where these tasks were carried out, Claude had asked me to join him in one of the hotel rooms of a Travelodge in a nearby retail park. Occasionally we needed to work together, corroborate some entry or data set, and after that we might drink, wander around the retail park, perhaps eat some McDonalds before returning to the room to watch pornography. The June evening air was glinted through with a greenish dust that momentarily appeared beneath the street-light glare like the cheap trick of a mystic, a stage-prop of a mediocre punch and judy show.
I had not seen Lola for some time now. Exhausted, we had abandoned our attempts at feelings after our reproductive period was over. Our two children had been genetically successful and her parents had proved adequate in supervising them. Resource executives like her were wired, their work made them impatient, short-tempered, impulsive – so I thought. They generated all kinds of idiotic codes and slang that needed to be continually regulated. Like most couples we had been encouraged to have multiple temporary partnerships to enhance our ‘balance’ – absurd terms stolen from New Age medicine were frequently employed, with suspect origins, but little matter. Spas had been a regular feature of underground gay sex but a new mythos of compulsive eroticism had emerged with improved health and mental agility cited as benefits, and registration fees for spa memberships increasingly constituted the bulk expenditure of myself and Lola’s bored, disintegrating relationship. I actively consented to this system. I found myself attending two particular spas on the M25 periphery around three times a week, and would’ve attended more if there had been time left. It was our one leisure activity. Users would rate each other’s performance, liaisons were generally arranged online before, so even the workday was filled with a fairly insistent if monotonous sex-chat, a kind of call-and-response testing of interest. I was very proud of my 78.8 score, though it had been in general decline over the previous months, and was beginning to jeopardise my membership at one of the more premium spas. After the suggestion of one of my colleagues in another department, I insisted on home sessions with colleagues from various associated companies, but the weekly meals and sexual activity after soon exhausted the attentiveness of our limited range of taboo and transgression. I had now lost track of her lovers and she mocked my failure to emulate.
I had described my personal life for over 1000 words now, but this was a fallacy, as the I has already been established as not existing. Passengers on the transport networks occasionally erupted in violence and collectively these would stalk dreams, generating new codes for fear, outsider, terrorist, disruption.
It was a cool July evening. The swoosh of tires of a bulky goods vehicle against an oily erupted gutter injected thick fuzzy memories of the South-east, the regular transit of buses and the animalistic fighting and general violence pounding through the gated communities and retail parks like bad hip-hop. On a night not unlike this very one, I’d spent the day completing some semantic re-upping on a client’s database. Back then I’d largely been working as an Oreo™ Child Flourishment Executive for the South-Eastern district Social Services. It largely involved processing probation details and inputting the details of reoffending justice reports, arranging custodial transfers, but to supplement my income I’d occasionally sell parts of the database to media agencies or identity letting organisations. Hacking into databases out of a nihilistic boredom had given me the strangely obsessive taste for data admin – an obsession a few old pros like myself and Claude had and took pride in.
The heavy bags in my hand were full of scotch, lager, supermarket sandwiches and a couple of pornography films. Claude was sat inside the silver vehicle, engrossed in his media device, and I had to wait for several minutes before he was able to let me in, his self-deluded paranoia and lack of social skills almost charming. The car radio was reporting some criminal disturbances around the major metropolitan centres, with a large imperious voice, possibly that of the Justice Executive or the President announcing new emergency powers for the military.
“The country’s sick”, I offered, quoting the words of a TV presenter I’d heard earlier that day.
Claude ignored me. “Butt-fuckers Booty-camp 2, I’ve seen that one”.
“No matter”, I replied, handing him over a can of lager.
“Have that”, he returned, shoving a couple of mittex into my gaping mouth.
You have always been a good friend to me”, he offered.
“I suppose so”, I said.
“It takes love to tell a person truly what their faults are”, said Claude, tracing the outline of his lower lip with his index finger.
“It’s possible”, I replied.
Often we would go back to a hotel room but tonight we stayed in the vehicle, watched wiry foxes, bloated middle-managers with their chicken-tikka suits and roach-swagger, and anaemic young women with their plaintive rock music and depressive self-narratives scutter across the deserted car-park towards one of the supermarkets. We were watching a particularly violent male prisoner pornographic film, Prisoner from Cell Block XXX 9. Claude was getting quite turned on, the mittex and scotch often had a profoundly disinhibiting effect. Depressed at the likely outcome of events, I insisted that we drove around for a bit, but we were both too drunk to accurately command the vehicle, and we got stuck on a roundabout on the exit of the now-deserted retail park, the vehicle rolling and twisting around in perfect concentric circles, Claude roaring with laughter until finally I managed to switch the vehicle onto manual control and plough it into a small embankment, sustaining some minor bruising in the impact.
Myself and Lola habitually had sex, yet these sessions had recently become increasingly violent, more so the less intoxicated we were. She now encouraged regularly cutting, usually in the soft hidden skin below her buttocks, and a certain violence, biting and hitting had become necessary to reach climax. It was hard to estimate how many times we’d come together, but I’d recently taken recourse to sleeping at various hotels that were closer to my workplaces, or in the beds of various lovers, even the spas on occasion when I was too tired to travel back to Lola’s. The cutting was a concession to the banality of love-making. It had begun under my instigation. Resentment and frustration was satisfactorily played out in violent exchanges, but for a while I had desired to taste another part of her, and was given the opportunity after a particularly pathetic attempt at self-harm. I’d taken the blades and applied them fairly carelessly to a point she’d lack self-consciousness over, close enough to the major erogenous zones. As I forced the wound open I wilfully spread the blood around her, and the heady metallic taste, spread through kisses, drove the pair of us to push through the other limited range of taboos available.
She joked later that it was curious that such behaviour would land us both in a prison cell or at a mad house any other time.
My eyesight was diminishing. The words continued creating, mutating and modulating into innumerable new forms, perverted by number, splitting like quantum particles each time I attempted to make any sense of them.
The data input device that had once represented a part of my anatomy was now corrupting through age and overuse. The sensor I often wore above my eyes was increasingly crashing. Tiny silver and gold circles like bullets or firecracker-flashes exploded across my retina, confusing my vision. I collapsed and held my head, scrunching up my eyelids in a vain attempt to deprive my brain of witnessing the corruption and sickness already inside it.
Time had increasingly flattened into an infinite and endless present of interminable demands and data-streams. The events that might constitute my identity and life were one such data bank, whose experiences I could increasingly tap into and use, though the characters of this earlier life had all departed. And where, I could not say now. One memory: I’d wandered through the wreckage of an old leisure centre taking photographs. Isla was sitting quietly as I came in, her pale and spidery fingers generating Satie’s first Gymnopédie out of the keyboard in the corner of the apartment. I sat next to her on the stool, the third-floor window in front of us depicting some colourless scene of a central European housing block of the previous century’s Brutalist school, a billboard extolling the virtues of a new brand of toothpaste. She smiled, she was wearing some ill-fitting stripy frock probably belonging to an older sister, which her soft brown hair, unusually undone now, flopped against.
“It’s wonderful”, I said finally.
She carried on silently, though smiling now. It was only her failure to keep the pace of Debussy’s moonlight song that finally had her erupting in giggles, the song creaking over like a runaway tram down a tranquil frozen Sunday morning hill, in the snow, possibly.
I kissed her neck and offered her a handful of Burfurine, but she ignored the request. The words were running rampant now, flickering and corrupting into new combinations and variations. I was feeling very nauseous. She eventually came back into focus after I managed to regulate and reduce my breathing to a slower speed.
“You have so much love in your heart but none for yourself”, she replied.
I found charming but a little sad the way she would project her own qualities onto others and compliment them on these, whilst ever-castigating herself with apologies and sudden, sharp self-condemnations (“I’m stupid, I can’t”), when of all of us back then, only Isla could and only she would, though like in all these juvenile moments I said nothing.
“Sol”?” Perhaps I’d failed to get her sarcasm on these occasions, an esoteric subtlety of words that they might in fact contain their own self-subversion, their own energetic undoing, puncturing the integrity of the steely-eyed data administrator like a jack-in-the-box. But no, Isla was strange always, laughing hysterically and out of rhythm to some unknown and unknowable joke.
I was day-dreaming into the car rearview mirror. Rain was falling and bringing a copperish dust onto the evening windscreen. I grimaced at my own reflection and inspected my teeth. In the glove compartment was the same brand of Burfurine, a physical link now back to those times. I’d only been known as Austin as part of the necessary identity change for the job, but so little in a name. I swallowed two pills. My user-rating was in decline at the spas, reducing too the potential amount of meetings available on my membership. The pills steadied my nerves, and when mixed with a couple of lines of Eudex made the user feel highly energised, beastly. Parking the car from the deserted goods-track round to the multi-storey car-park, I wondered one last time what might have happened to her and those words, her codes.
Hairs in butter. Various murmurs were now circulating about Claude, insanity and his bad DSM record, his expected departure. Such circulars were issued by the HR-PR departments about imminently departing employees. Some pop-psychology about blocked neurolibidinal receptors. Half the department of administrators were bipolar alcoholics with a declining grip on what was going on, as was I. It made us take our jobs even more seriously given there was very little else successfully occurring in our wearied and self-destructive existences. The industrial estates of the M25 were packed with drunken autistics, driving around in sick and deathly circles.
“Happiness is a matter of science”, a woman later erupted at the spa later as we approached climax. It was strange how people often uttered catchwords as their bodies shook in tremors, manically licking their upper lips, another side-effect of the Burfurine. She was presumably a doctor as the tone had the self-confident semantic staccato of grade 4+ medical history programming, but there was no need to ask questions, as we generally lied about our backgrounds anyway. I had somewhat recklessly began telling people the truth about my life lately, just because it was so unlikely. I later slept in my car outside Lola’s apartment.
I gently held her chin with my snooked hand.
“You know I’m not experienced”, Lola said. No, not Lola. Who though.
We’d been wandering around Westfield East in search of some cheap duvet covers for one of her service support users. I had kept pulling at her hair and clothes in a somewhat vain effort to amuse her. Our union had always been founded on a certain idiotic friction, either in gesture or word.
“Who is, in this day and age?”, I replied, using one of a certain TV presenter’s favourite expressions, who had in hindsight been a real father to me.
“You lot are only ever after one thing”, she replied.
“I suppose it’s better than not being after anything”, I came back. I still enjoyed making her laugh, even back then, stealing smiles from her face like that.
The words and impressions shifted into one another, the unspecified parameters of more vague concepts like law, or love, or fuck, or war, troubling and confusing this jittery flow of data through my conscious thoughts.
Perhaps I was still dozing in my car, the Eudex comedown and the greenish dust, the rain. It was now a cool August afternoon, I forget the year, but it was certainly before the children were born. It was before even the prospect of the generous tax-breaks had come to appeal to us, on one of those rare occasions where we both had taken leave off work, and were out together. Unproductive days like these were not so unusual as they are now today, but I remember the rebellious buzz of our uselessness. We’d spent the day wandering around the old City of London, its forgotten churchyards in between the shambling pseudomodernism of the last century, and were now at Old Spitalfields market, watching elderly couples dancing slowly with care in each other’s arms. Whilst Lola was capturing images on her phone, a particular couple caught my attention. It’s strange how I’m so used to calling her Lola now, but she’d been encouraged to take on a new name after the children and the sicknesses of that year. She was called Eleanor I think when I met her, again I forget now. This elderly couple had both been shrunken by age and seemed at first entirely nondescript. But after watching their peaceful rhythmic gestures, I discovered just once a melancholy beauty in the careful motions of the human form. As he held her hips in his outstretched hands, she thrust her pelvis around and he emulated, but the peaceful way their hands clipped together, now his hands around her arched back, gave the lie that he was in control. They shuffled back onto her backfoot, then so quickly twisting around, left-right-left under the old market pavilion, her vintage blue floral dress, his at first ludicrous thick mustard Aran sweater and suit trousers, his cream soda quiff and her over-application of blusher and strawberry lipstick.
Their graceful gestures in imitation and synchronicity with one another, the mediocrity of the music made virtuous by these ancient, repetitive moves, motions myself and Lola in our relationship had perhaps known at certain points. But our real marriage was to our jobs, even during the kids – us both inadequate lovers highly capable of loving one another. No matter now. Eleanor become Lola, Sol become Austin, the mass-popularity of the spas cannily assuaging heterosexual angst with a wonderfully-simple panacea. Work and fuck. No matter the identity of who licked or loved whom, just a cool and lonely transaction, the wounded architecture of our lives, desire rendered to the status of hotel breakfast buffet where everything is on offer and nothing no longer tastes of anything, the possibility of the future now deferred or abandoned.
I asked her if she wanted to dance, but she gave me a dirty look. “Don’t be stupid”, she said.
“You’re far too passive”, I replied.
“It’s the work. I’m exhausted”, she said, looking away as if distracted, but with a certain hint of panicked excitement, which at the time still mistakenly struck me as intriguing and erotically charged, almost hysterical.
“It’s not the work”, I replied again. She was upset, and would only hold my hand once we’d left the crowds. We saw friends later. I was surprised at how young we looked when I saw the photos after.
A fashion had come in for taking photos and short films of couples and group sexual activity in public places, particularly casual and busy sites such as a McDonalds, a bus, an airport terminal, anywhere more risky that might result in more hits and kudos. Lola was into these things. As info-workers, a certain classiness was used to distinguish our sexual acts, usually with ‘quotes’. These could be fashioned fairly easily: our parents’ generation had been very much into pulp literature like Harry Potter or Marvel/DC superheroes, so a certain classiness could be immediately connoted with an appropriately-applied lightning flash or a certain lurid choice of neon spandex. But this kind of garb wouldn’t be enough to get your photo listed on MSN Favorites or one of the Mirror or Sun videos pages. A certain inventiveness was called for. I remember myself and one of her colleagues were encouraged to dress as Wilde and Bosie in Victorian gear and were captured fellating on the boating lake of the Serpentine in Hyde Park, full of American and Chinese tourists. Of course amateur images were preferred, especially where obvious evidence was provided that the image had been taken whilst in the act, and a certain normalised vogue of either the missionary or cowgirl position, taken from a 45 degree descending angle usually, was preferred. Media outlets especially liked it if you could quote their name in the image, either by having their latest daily edition in your back trouser pocket or having some inane reference to a trending news topic scrawled on your body. It may sound perverse to describe all this in such detail, but much of the slang and data-codes that emerged out of these public practices constituted the entries upon which my vocation was predicated. Indeed it was the largely sexualised nature of data administration which first led me to enforce many of the experimental practices that would later have such a powerful effect on our relationships. The media outlets had abandoned their original moralising and were now largely full of home-made sex clips, of which one usually abandoned the copyright to when uploading, and a crude new terminology had appeared which required even more information processing. The entire process was ridiculous.
Who knows why, but later we were rolling around in the gutter like pissed dogs, grit and grease coating our collars and hair. We went without shaving for a while, allowing our bodies and clothes to acquire scents, allowing the afternoons to acquire a certain lazy cheekiness. We stayed with her brother in Lausanne during this time, often poaching his savings to take long sorties out into the country. He was a fool and we often took advantage of his self-pity to take him to dinner, ask him about his latest tryst or depression whilst conspiring to incite one another to further offensive behaviours. I was still working on a software data-processer at this time, one that would around all MS English 2006 words within a comprehensive semantic dictionary. It was a hopelessly naïve pursuit, and my algorithms were continually corrupted by errant data from web-gamers. My obsession with data-process had a negative effect on Eleanor. Yes, Ellie. Ha, that was her name when I first met her. We moved back to London after I announced to her with a complete lack of conviction that my devotion was to her alone. My cynicism possibly appeared from that date.
I returned to the apartment where the TV had been left loudly on a porn channel. The heavy breathing next door was unmistakeably that of Ehren, from another department, and a man, seemingly a little overweight given his deep, resonating whimpering. Outmanoeuvred by this sexless night with Claude (we hadn’t even masturbated together), I wandered into the living room where from the bar I lifted an old cointreau bottle and took some blue pills out of a leather pouch. I undressed and joined the lovemakers, curiously Lola was not there, and they were engrossed in servicing one another, a formulaic repetition of certain key phrases. Breaking one of the rules, I became violent and directed the fat man’s face towards my torso, pushing it down. A circular from the Health Association had emphasised that regular intercourse would improve mood and productivity.
Ordinarily rules and agreements were established beforehand, but the man was compliant and useful. Lola came in later in a gown. After a few lines were shared, the others became more intoxicated.
Anxiety of new words following corruption of non-user language on gaming databases – potentially revealing the huge number of non-human users, which may lead to political scandal. These improved the game experience but there was some anger against these A.I.-avatars that they were dangerously useless, consuming valuable energy and data, parasitic and decadent.
The new phrases didn’t bear the flexible usage of ordinary human phrases, being at least one third made up of numbers, but user chat was seeing a strange semantic crossover. The new words kept mutating and corrupting their entries. I took great pleasure in code-epidemics like these. Word-sicknesses. Policing data, like a gamekeeper in a frontier of nonsensical, non-meaning chaos.
A fox strolled across the deserted car-park. I had a letter in my pocket, a strange interconnecting series of observations of my own life titled “Three Swords” and addressed “To You”. I had to dispose of it in some organic way. I tore up the small notebook I’d scrawled into during my hours at work and pushed the notes inside the meat roll I had lost interest in, the papers scattering around, my childish cursive drifting into the pocked asphalt. The fox eyed me viciously. I flung the roll towards some rubbish a little ahead of his or her path. After a moment, the famished creature stole towards my papers, sniffing and devouring the meat roll, but the papers scattered everywhere. I kicked them around for a minute into the dusty potholes before hurrying along. So long as the words could not be encoded into any database I was safe in the security of my own self-pity and banal excesses a little while longer.
Lola had now returned, by now the fat man and the women were in the bathroom, and myself and Ehren were discussing some trifle on the bed, I think it may have been whether Tom Hanks would have been a great comic actor, some nonsense all the same. She returned after with one of our blades, the other two coiling in after, now lying against the pleated headboard, the woman massaging Lola’s shoulders, the man laughing like a pig. Her distracted delivery as she swept back and rustled her fringe was characteristic.
“Look, he’s already turned on. This little thing, you know how it is to play?”
The other man, Ehren, possessed a charmless, guilty glare in the proud yet pathetic sorrow of a man who might’ve felt profound guilt over killing an ‘innocent animal’ or breaking the heart of a certain dewy-eyed youth. Such moments occur hideously quickly – a few words, a defiant gesture and everything shifts, callously quick. The blade slips in, or the facial architecture is undone by a few poorly-selected words, a heart’s hopes unmade. No matter in the end. I admired the way he had restrained the growth of hair around certain parts of his anatomy. Lola’s choice of red halogen light-bulbs in the bedroom, which had struck me as expensively over-indulgent at the time what with the animal-skin furnishings too, now seemed strikingly inspired. The Miscox was already kicking in and I could feel my armpits and the backs of my knees becoming very itchy and my temple sweating, a familiar sign of its efficacy.
Whilst Ehren held down my shoulders, the fat man began licking my exposed chest, whilst the woman began masturbating my sex violently with a jejune lack of sensitivity. Lola slithered up the black bedsheets and met Ehren’s lips.
“Come on Loli, you know it works one way alone”, I said, attempting a certain playfulness in my words.
“No no Austin, you’ve shown me enough to know what a thing really is”.
As the other woman’s lips met my stomach, Lola raised the blade and with a fairly clumsy lack of precision drove it straight through my nipple, and etched what might have been a V-shape. I couldn’t tell, the pain was extremely great, and Ehren had cupped his hand over my mouth as the woman aggressively worked her amateur technique.
Lola’s face was pale but seemed pleasured all the same. But these impressions wouldn’t cease. There was Eleanor and I again, we were somewhere in Switzerland. Her brother couldn’t drive, it was a somewhat ridiculous handicap given the suburban nature of Lausanne, so he depended on me for lifts and so on. Either way, we had gone for a weekend drive and were out near the woods. He wanted to see some old war burial pit, so we left him south of the haunting Lac Léman I think, while we took the car up towards the Jura mountains, getting lost amongst the hills until the road came to an end. The fresh morning with its cool hints of lemon, blackberries, mint and other nameless herbs, pine and late-summer blossom already fluttering onto the vehicle bonnet and into Eleanor’s hair. I left her with the car as she struggled into a dress, and I began hurrying through the trees, laughing, hoping to discover an old dwarf’s castle amongst the woods. I scrambled down a clearing and across a leaf-filled stream, the trees thin and young now growing deeper, knotting thicker into grotto-canopies. As I scrambled down another slope in the distance, my foot collapsing into some rotten wood teeming with small red beetles. Around me now though in this clearing were a collection of fallow deer. I fancied the mad idea of throwing my arms around one of these gentle creatures, and assuming it would dart off in response to my violent energy, I instead slunk gently towards one of the larger deer. The other three began to slink away, but this creature continued gazing at me out of the corner of its eye, its soft fur the same colour as the thin trees behind it, its spindly legs seemingly attached to the forest floor. I smiled idiotically, somehow thinking this would persuade it of my misguidedly amorous intentions.
Eleanor’s cry behind me, she’d somehow caught me up. And beside me almost was a great hart, its rich brown eyes huge and worldly, its mode calm and poised, ready to run me through with its glare as though nothing. And my phone began ringing, and the vibrating tone frightened off the creature, the deer sloping quickly through the dense wood which seemed to close up behind them.
“What you doing crazy boy”. And all the colours of their bodies, their slumped shoulders and erect shoulders, the various hues of hair-colours and lengths, the various tones of their eyes and lips of all those I had ever loved shivered and fused into one, who now guiding himself or herself upon my hips, their gentle sighing.
“He’s drying up”, and I recognised the girl’s brown eyes and the thin lips, straight out of my earlier dream. And they carved another new line beneath my armpit, the skin opening up like a burst plum, though they had cut too deep, I could sense this, but they too were hungry.
“I’ve made a big mistake”, murmured Claude.
I glared into his eyes, scanning their pinkish rims, assessing their whites, the thick brown pupils. After a moment, I handed him the bag of supermarket sandwiches, lager and scotch.
“I doubt you know what it is to love a person”, he said.
“Don’t be ridiculous, you sound like a child”, I replied.
“It’s more like a sickness”, he said.
I began adjusting the internal heating of the vehicle. “And I suppose you have no intention of ever saying or doing anything about it?”
He was engrossed with pouring the whisky into a couple of small shot glasses he presumably kept in his bag for unusual occasions like these.
Irritated by his failure to respond to a basic command prompt, I continued. “I can see why you’re always looking sad and sighing. You’ll never make any money with all of these profitless side projects.”
“Take this, Austin”, offering the whisky to me.
“Nonsense. What people call love, for a person or a God, or an idea, is just love for some part of themselves. They never match the reality, Claude, and it’s bad for both sides when they’re expected to. That’s when peoples’ emotions become damaged.”
“And you know all this, sir”, he replied. He often mocked our difference in age to excuse his relatively slow speed of sexual climax or my lack of liberalism on the rare occasion we were comparing opinions on contemporary political events.
After silence, he resumed.
“And I should call you the hanging man”, he said.
“I am the man who will hang you”, I replied.
He glared into my eyes, an unusual gesture, but he lacked the dramatic sense to communicate his intention with a certain look, whereas I was well-schooled in all these things. He turned away and switched the classical music back on again.
“I enjoy it”, he replied.
“I’ll tell you what you really need”, I snapped back.
We sat together in silence for a while. He got out of the vehicle and began smoking one of the cigarettes.
A certain sexual liberalism was encouraged amongst the data administrators on the other side of the M25 ring, in the industrial estates and car-parks of Purley, of Thurrock, of Bluewater, of Dartford, of Hemel Hempstead, Foots Cray and Potters Bar. We were widely encouraged to exchange more psychologically harmful intoxicants like alcohol or cocaine in favour of Eudex, Burfurine or Mittex and the ‘dutty padders’ as they were nicknamed, but our habits were fairly well-established. The double and treble-shifts took their toll no doubt, but we were custodians of html, C++, UN-EN, and my speciality, MS English 1998D. As the labour was increasingly outsourced to India and Nigeria, workers like ourselves were killing ourselves and those around us in whisky and pills binges. Claude was already shattered. A man like him only had a certain amount of lives left to piss away.
Later I heard that Claude had been reassigned to another department. We were notified in a collective bulletin. I had hoped he would contact me separately to express his great friendship, perhaps offering a gesture of goodbye. Such a private memo was not forthcoming, and offended, I did not even make formal notice of his departure.
This had been perhaps two days before the night now with Ehren, Lola and the other two. I’d stopped attending sessions at the spa and found the compulsive eroticism of those occasions somewhat staged, as if all our labour and intoxication and exchanges were exhibited for someone else’s benefit. Largely I didn’t mind, so long as this absent other might declare their interest. But I’d stolen home late at night. We’d attempted something but I’d fallen asleep halfway through, it was my own fault for being so drunk. Whenever I’d been drinking scotch and snorting Eudex I found my sleeping patterns totally disrupted. This night was unusual – late summer and sticky, she had candles burning that against the red bedroom wallpaper struck an eerie impression. But rather than watching Sky-screen or masturbating, she was just staring into the empty space. I could see some kind of problem, like she’d been crying.
“Why you awake”, I murmured, twisting around in the sheets and adjusting my pillow, facing her now momentarily.
“Doesn’t it bother you how bloody pointless it all is?”
“Nah you don’t know. You give your body, and you suffer every day to live in this city for a job you hate and a life you despise, and all this debt you get into, for nothing, all this debt for a miserable life. In debt for nothing, for this? For a man who knows nothing, and for kids you never see? I bet you can’t even remember what their names are. And to think, despite that, Austin, that I’m mad enough to care about you, even though the only thing you might have ever loved is fucking random strangers and updating your bloody databases”.
She was surprisingly relaxed the morning after. Several items of post had arrived for me, one of which bore the Health Association’s logo on it.
“You good?”, I said to her, with a certain disinterest, as I padded into the kitchen whilst unpicking the first of the envelopes.
“You a madman now, honey”, she replied, without her usual irony.
The letter was in fact already open, as were all the others.
“Yeah looks like you saw our kids what, 0.8 times in the last 3 months? Yeah don’t say nothing, fool. I saw your psych report, its saying you’re in danger of developing narcissistic dissociation aggressive disorder.”
“Cheers Loli bunny. We don’t need a report to know what a junkie you are neither, rah. Has it got the right name and NI number on it too? I bet it says ‘ To the occupier’, yeah?”
“No Austin, it’s got your name on it. Don’t you ever get bored of lying to everyone?”
“It’s junk-mail. You look like shit.” I flicked her ear with my fingernail as I walked past. The result was bad in fact. She’d not read to the end, but my DMS V score was -0.28, a decrease on the last quarter by 0.18, quite a margin. If it got below -0.30 it might start appearing on my work record. I decided to put it down to a careless typing error, perhaps when I’d been inputting my weekly blood levels during a particularly sleep-deprived shift.
She looked sad and exhausted. Part of me wanted to console her, to hold her shoulders and kiss her hair better the way I knew would work, and part of me found her sadness repugnant in equal measure, and mention of the children equally patronising. I’d been raised by my grandmother and not knowing my mum or dad hadn’t affected in any way my strength or character in any way whatsoever, and I despised the implication.
The fridge was empty. After her silence, I felt emboldened enough to reply angrily back with some truths. I saw from the previous night that her hairstyle had changed, that there were new photos and colours in the apartment, that I was increasingly and deservedly obscure in my own life. Whilst I was happy to leave, I felt compelled to wound a former partner in the way only intimate lovers can.
“You think after these gifts, after these meetings, he’ll somehow look after you in a way I couldn’t? Like I can? Because I can give you gifts”, and I picked up a gilt frame of a fairly handsome young-looking man smiling, with some kind of botanical garden in the backdrop. “And when we fuck, I know it’s right, and you know it too. I know every term inside you, every bit of data inside your skin. I can take you to dinner for fuck’s sake. What ultimately is this dickhead’s point?”
“You don’t get anything at all Austin. There’s a world out there which you can’t even see”, she replied.
Unusually, I lacked the semantic content to respond to her proposal. I took a shower and then left the apartment block. The dust-count on the city was unusually high, and I’d used it as an excuse to clarify a large amount of the semantic backlog of queries, hacks and abuse on some of the user-forums. Mina and Perry were fairly heavy Mittex users. Knowing they were fairly young and naïve still, I took them along to an area processor meeting where my team supervisor largely spoke over myself and the other admins for ‘extra vigilance’ for over an hour. We yawned and appreciated the sandwich allowance at these kinds of non-events. Afterwards we drove around and picked up some whisky and a couple of their friends and started dancing and playing music in one of the Stansted car-parks. Mina’s hips snaked around Perry’s as I sat on top of the vehicle, laughed and threw bottle caps and coins at their skipping shoes while some poor girl, easily affected by the combination, rambled on about her miscarriage and the young Irish boy who loved and left her, with all the naïve idiocy of an illiterate. I yawned and wondered about Claude. Rumours had gone around about his apparent perversities which I hadn’t sought to correct. I realised very little regarding a personal reputation was factual. I had even taken to doctoring my own data entry with false quotes from invented clients.
“Are you OK.”
The woman had disembarked and it was Ehren now, his mature, hairless face now filling the entirety of my vision. I had faded back into consciousness again but couldn’t move my spine. My belly was soaked. I couldn’t tell if it was the heat, but his pupils were fat and I knew there was very little activity going on beyond the sensory excess.
“And what’s your date of birth, Austin.”
I’d come to in the back of a car, the insurance replacement model for the last burnout, judging by the plastic light fitting above my head.
“It’s alright, I’m a nurse, sometimes”, said the same unknown man’s voice again. There was muffled laughter.
“He’s a data-parser. They don’t share anything unless you’re paying.”
“How much do you reckon I’ll get for the shoes?”
“Enough of you. Piss off now, rah.”
“Look at the state of him”.
“Piss off now, he’s coming up”.
The car was blacked up, smoked out.”You can trust in me”, said the man again.
I could hardly move, the words all spun out of shape, a nameless and wordless panic blocking my throat, suffocating my flattened lungs with horrible, shrieking gasps of some inarticulable pain which might have signalled the formation of a new language beyond semantic utterances. My chest was in unknown pain, but between my exposed legs was an outstretched young man trying to adjust my shoulders. I could see what looked like quarry ruins behind him, but it was in fact a KFC and a boarded-up Currys store, and a series of parked cars in front of these retail warehouses, a cold grey morning with a certain greenish tint in the air. Most of the car was melted away but the upholstery was untouched. They’d tried to torch me in the vehicle perhaps after the fucking, make it look like another M25 suicide burnout like Claude’s, which I’d heard about a day or so ago. But after the fire with the children, the insurance company must’ve given me a fire-proof model, perhaps my DSM record had scared them. I was too sore and too tired to really get up.
“Give him a packet. You can see the pain he’s in, struggling around ain’t he like a drowning cockroach.” Muffled laughter again, perhaps two others with this young man.
“You’re quite fine aren’t you, bone man”, the young man said to me now, addressing me properly for the first time. “A brave day to play the Three of Swords, hey duke?” And he reached over and flicked my ear, and smiled again.
“I’ve spent all my time, Sol”, I replied.
“Thanks again”, I offered, in a vain attempt to appease the hopeless circumstance.
He reached over again and pawed into my mouth a bundle of pills. “Paxil. Midazopam”.
“You’ll never learn anything like that,” I replied. There was silence now.
Later I could hear the monitors of the cops as they pulled out my cold naked body from the wreckage. I pretended to be unconscious still, it would be too much explanation, too much data, and I was quite done with all that now.
The reassignment process would take a matter of hours, the insurance-nurse told me later.
“Just like that”, I murmured finally.
Some of the tattoos would need to be re-inked, but they’d otherwise faithfully followed the diagrams and instructions etched on my chest.
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