Here is the second instalment of my novel. If you like it, please share it. The whole thing will be available soon from Levellers Press.
During the week leading up to the final review, the junior’s mind continued to plan her impressive position at the City Hospital. She imagined herself mentioning her new role casually to other professionals. She wondered whether she would still eat alone in Solefood. But she slept badly. She would wake from nightmares crawling with the live embryonic tissues used in genetic training, or one of the unspeakable viruses that she had heard were common in the Suburbs. When she woke, she was afraid. She had to get up in the grey light, re-check the locking system and oxygen levels before lying down again, still afraid. She began to take sleepers, which she bought in the Drugsmart on the way back to her student apartment. In the day she focused on work with forced energy.
She passed the exam easily. Her review followed immediately, in the Consultant’s Common Area with its bizarre dusty old unhygienic leather armchairs and flaky images of unsmiling dead officials in antique costume. She waited all afternoon for details of her appointment to the City Hospital.
Later that day, everything fell to pieces. She immediately messaged a query and received personal confirmation, from K herself, that there was no mistake. She would be spending the first phase of her career in the suburban Freshair Hospital. To be transferred out of the City was a fate normally reserved for medics who had barely passed the exam. They were useful there: disposing of contaminated corpses; limiting the damage caused by rampaging gangs with ancient and modern weapons. She was assured she would be given appropriate protection: an infection proof medisuit and a guarded apartment. It was even possible she could return for a level two post, after a short quarantine period. But she would be leaving her specialism. Psychiatry, a discipline that commanded respect and that she found endlessly fascinating, was out of the question in future.
The next day she arrived early at the hospital, when the sun did not burn and the air did not grate. She had only three days left to work here; one day after that to pack her things and leave.
She sat on a nearly empty tram. The few commuters were lost in their screens. She had cried during the night – pathetic, like a deranged in the special measures ward. The fragile skin beneath her eyes was vaguely purple.
Her mind, still heavy from an over-dose of sleepers, was absorbed in the exuberant chat of the Fashion Channel; she didn’t want to hear the news, especially not of the Suburbs. Voices described the latest creations of artists displayed at the Festival of Fashion – famous erotic dancers discussing the ‘unbelievable sensuality, retro-futurism’ of a bony girl in supersized UV goggles spinning around a parasol crafted from found objects. The teenager rotated her pelvis to an electronic miaow; a tube of silver satin stretched over her anorexic frame projected images of the City, apocalyptic waves, aerial shots of the Suburbs with smoke rising, newscasters, laughing teeth. ‘Wow! A challenging new take on individualism’. Ads – ‘Set your unique beauty free…’ Young climbers scaling a tower – ‘Joy, give your mind a lift…proven to have zero side-effects.’ The positive energising voices comforted her. Some of her earliest memories were of little songs sung at night by the screen – ‘sleeping lamb don’t be afraid, drink your vitz five times a day…’
She smiled, remembering vaguely her nursery mothers who sang the little songs over and over to comfort them at night.
She was trying not to think of the suburban posting. I must be positive. There is so much to hope for; I could study the savages. She decided to spoil herself, make a date, indulge in some extravagant sensual pleasure. She had credit in her account. She could book a suite until closing, buy some Joy, order room-service, wear no panties in the restaurant – they always liked that.
She stepped into the hospital lobby and realised, next week I will be gone. A few patients might remember her for a while. But the only lasting record of her work would be in the data. She thought with bitterness of the respect commanded by K. Her own ambition was confused now. Her plan to pioneer, to create intricate models of the synapses, would never happen. She was afraid. But, reminding herself focus on the the positive, she began to calculate the number of work hours she would need to complete before returning to the City. She could make use of the Suburbs. She would be in a unique position as a gifted researcher there. If there was a way of studying the multitude of diseases and abnormal mental states that had long been eradicated within the confines of the City. She was young. She could still be great.
Her ward round went as normal. But XR4’s room was empty. She had expected that. The windows of the vacant room remained tinted, deactivated. There was just enough light to make out the shape of a tidy bed and grey chair returned to the correct position.
Her chip had not yet registered his transfer. Maybe the internet was experiencing interruptions, or maybe he had only been transferred in the past few moments, so she was left with five empty minutes. She should have returned to the bright corridor and tuned into hospital news, but she stood there doing nothing in his old room; she remembered the strange comment, which had cost her so much. She wondered why she wasn’t angry. She wondered where he was. Her mind presented many scenarios: in some he was being given a forced drip of mood stabilisers.
The sadness of the week before was still inside her. She recognised it as simple emotional confusion and she saw that it had caused her inability to make basic medical decisions. She stared at his empty bed. Memories weren’t something she wasted much energy on. But, in this emptiness, she thought about the little plastic toys she had played with in her nursery. She remembered herself lining them up on their backs and tucking them in to nap under hygiene wipes. They were all professional figures and it was difficult to lie some of them down, as they were fixed with their arms stretched, poised for work: a manager, a teacher, a fashion model, a fitness professional. There was even a governor with a real miniature digital palm control. The guards were the most difficult, because of their proportionally large weapons and combative postures.
She noticed his blanket pulled unevenly over the pillow. She felt the emptiness of his bed in her gut. She stared as if he might appear from underneath the blanket – like an advert.
She saw a scrap of white sticking out behind the bed and walked over. One, probably filthy, tissue had been neglected by the automatic Cleener and, oddly, by the nurse. It was resting on the screws that attached the bed to the wall. She pulled it with the tips of two fingers. An unused tissue slid out. In tiny script something was written in pen. Who owns a pen? It took her a while to read the spidery letters written in in imitation of digital font to make them legible: MY NAME IS GREEN. FIND ME. Real names were not appropriate in the workplace. Medics and patients certainly did not use names. She was almost dizzy.
She noticed underneath, much more faintly, he had written MY DARLING. Terms like that were used all the time in adverts, and by some enthusiastic lovers during orgasm. But Green must have planned to use exactly those words so inappropriately. He was expressing plain emotion. Emotion he felt for her, regardless of what he could get back for it. She choked with unforgettable sadness, though in that moment she thought she could shrug it off. She had to highlight this.
Her audio beeped. She left the room fast, in fake readiness for the last patient on the round: the one who went on about Extremesport. She knew some staff would be aware of XR4’s transfer, so she regretted the five minutes she spent in the dark doing nothing. All errors were recorded.
In Solefood, she drained her cup of Smoovie: ‘a cocktail of vitamin enriched tropical labfruits perfectly designed for the professional’, leaving fibrous lumps at the bottom. The early lunch slot was ending, and other professionals were rising, dropping their packets into the correct bins. She scanned her empty table, feeling that there was something she had forgotten: she hadn’t highlighted Green’s note. It was still crumpled inside her sleeve. But she could never highlight this now: it was negligent to let so much time pass when a potentially dangerous psychotic trait had clearly presented. She dreaded knowing that her poor conduct would be logged. She would keep the note, drop it in the bins outside the Drugsmart on her block, which were emptied frequently.
She walked back to the hospital through boiling streets shrouded in poisonous smog. Indistinct figures filed past, clothed in drab uniforms or bright suits. Some wore masks, but most accepted that they didn’t really purify anything and went bare-faced. People passed wordlessly, plastic figures on a conveyor belt. An un-chipped observer would have heard little apart from the sound of the tram doors and coughing.
She entered the cold white lobby and thought about the note. In the lift on the way up to data offices, her chip switched to work-mode: visuals were disabled; the audio began to transmit hospital announcements, ads and reminders. The lift doors admitted another medic. Was Green being intravenously treated? She wondered if there was a way she could find him. Could she pose a researcher? Of course not: professionals needed specific authorisation for each ward. And all abnormal conduct was logged.
The doors opened. The other medic exited and two orderlies entered, pushing a stretcher. She moved to the corner; feeling impatient as they slowly manoeuvred the bed. She didn’t want to be late on top of everything else. She turned her face away to conceal any expression. Something touched her hand. Cold fingers? They clasped her thumb lightly. She felt her heart beating. She saw Green lying there, his bloodshot eyes half open. He had a drip in his vein and bruising on the underside of his arms.
The orderlies hadn’t noticed his hand move. She edged backwards until he lost his grip. Painfully, he lifted his head to search for her. She turned away. ‘This patient appears disoriented, please alert his medical team.’ She spoke too loudly. The orderlies stood like a pair of startled lab animals. They couldn’t understand how a medicated old could lift his head so far. It was incredible he could move at all – with that amount of sedative in his blood. One of them had noticed Green’s hand drop. It looked as if the pair had been holding hands.
Looking into her eyes, without reproach, Green said – ‘The short nurse will help you…’
‘Goodbye.’ She spoke to Green and she imagined that her voice expressed no emotion. Then she composed herself to face the orderlies, pretending she had been addressing them. Relief washed over her when, a few seconds later, Green was wheeled out of sight and the doors closed.
On the night before her final day of work, she lay on top of slippery sheets in one of the luxury suites of Dolce Vita. A thin purple satin dressing gown was pulled around her naked body. She shivered in the air from the vent, but didn’t move. Her eyes looked through the window, following the lights of many aircraft. To the right of her vision, the screen played erotic dance: naked male, female and androgynous. They splayed and merged. Their movement was punctuated by adverts for performance or pleasure enhancers. The sound was groans mixing with a teasing sliding melody over a heavy drum beat. She turned it down as low as she was able.
Her date had been a young man barely out of the Academy: an information analyst with aspirations to govern. He had already left the hotel because he needed to be up ‘bright and early’ for work. Data on food distribution had to be processed the following day using a programme that he had designed. His talk had been about his work – the reduction of waste; the safe and ecological daily transport of produce from the Suburbs. She recognised his ambition and confidence, which set her teeth grinding. It made her miserable, because she knew she possessed the same. But her plans were totally ruined. And she wasn’t sure, anymore, that it mattered what she did. Ideas poured from the boy’s lips like waste water from a drain after a flood. Listening to him had made her dislike herself.
She had tolerated him as they ate curried soy and drank jasmine tea laced with Joy and she had been comforted afterwards by the touch of his sweating body and the sound of his voice saying her real name. Her name was Tuesday, named after the day she was named on, by a nursery mother who had run out of ideas. She sometimes told the men she dated her real name, because it added a certain sweet passing intimacy to the fucking.
Now Tuesday was alone, she wept and told herself to just get over all this pointless emotion. She was grateful no one could see. She felt in her body a sense of grief, though she wouldn’t have been able to call it that. She thought it might be thirst, but knew it wasn’t. She glanced at her uniform: in a pile on the floor. Still pushed into the lining through a hole she had made were two notes from Green. The second had been passed to her by the short nurse within a case containing a blood pressure monitor. The nurse had looked at her as if to say ‘ah poor thing’: the sympathy of a kind nursery mother who knows you are being laughed at in the dormitory every night, but can’t do anything to change it. And she had wanted to protest that she didn’t know him, didn’t want any of his weird deranged notes. Written on the second note were the words GOOD LUCK and an address on the southern outskirts of the City.
She disabled her visuals and kept the audio low by setting her chip to ‘sleep’, dreading automatic reactivation. She dressed still shivering. In the bathroom, washing her face, her reflection didn’t please her as usual. There were purple blotches under the eyes and two little ugly white spots in the crevice of the nose. Strands of tangled hair stuck to her face. She smiled, but it only made her eyes appear more depressed.
Maybe these pills do cause side effects? She had taken well over the recommended dose of Joy. And she knew from regular users that there was often a come-down period. She found the box and swallowed two more bright blue tablets.
As she slipped on her pink high heels, she looked out of the window. The lights of the City were very beautiful. The distant music in her ears, hypnotising.
Sitting on a night tram, she turned the music up to max. Her heart thumped. She was lifted in her mind like a dancer, a cloud. She drank sweet crystal water from her flask. She watched her feet slide back and forth in perfect time. Maybe her feet controlled the music? Maybe she was inside the music like a drum beat? With no Iscreen playing, she let her eyes wander. She watched images on the tramscreens of healthy young professionals holidaying on a distant beach drinking Perfectfruit cocktails. The colours were heavenly. Time faded into the distance. She nearly missed her stop.
She stepped into her apartment feeling awake and stood studying her things. Her clothes hanging still were like repeated versions of herself, frozen ripples in a stream. A friendly microwave winked. Empty boxes lay with their arms open, longing to be filled with objects. Her flat duvet cover was speckled with tiny sparrows that all seemed to be singing ‘Tuesday’. She lay down, floating on drafts of sound, thinking about her own name, maybe she could still change it, would it still feel like her if she was called Ocean Breeze, or did it sound too much like an air freshener? Maybe just Ocean? She chewed the inside of her cheek and decided to use this burst of energy positively. She started to pack. Objects slid into place. She neatly stored every last item, apart from the uniform, clothes and makeup she would need for the last day of serious work and for her day off packing. Then she sat on the floor drinking hot black coffee from her flask, watching the dirty light drip into the sky through tinted windows. When the flask was empty, she lay down on the floor and fell asleep.