Take a look at my new article – Why Dystopia? On Kate Vane’s website…
This has been on my site before, but for anyone who missed it, here’s the opening of my novel, now available to buy on Amazon…
“They are so confident that they will run on forever. But they won’t run on.”
‘WE ARE THE VOID AND WE FIGHT FOR SILENCE.’ The man wrote these words carefully, with an ancient felt tip, on the concrete wall next to where he sat, legs dangling over the dirty undulating mass of plastic bottles, packets and carrier bags that floated on the tide. To his left, not quite touching him, sat a young dark woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform frowning at the hazy red sunrise, shading her face with one slender hand; her fingernails were perfectly manicured burgundy. She followed the seagulls with her eyes, diving and fighting, sighed, let her head drop into both hands and massaged her temples and eyes.
She was watching an advert…Do you crave truly stimulating orgasms? Love lets you go deeper. For truly intelligent passion. Buy Love, the mindful fuck.’ Sound effects, electronic bells, fade out…
The man lightly tapped her shoulder and she looked up at him, frowning with expectation: as if what he was about to say might solve everything, but she doubted it. He pointed to the words he had written on the wall; she leant over him to read them, not permitting their bodies to touch. His hand moved a fraction toward her, then dropped away. She looked into his face, still hoping for an answer, then bent her head to read the words again. She nodded sadly and returned to rubbing her face and forehead with her fingertips. The morning sun began to burn, warning of the terrible heat that was to come. Using the same felt tip, he scribbled over the words until they were illegible.
Awkwardly, he took her hand. She allowed this, but kept her eyes fixed on the piles of rubbish beneath their feet. He held her fingers softly and spoke under his breath,
‘Do you agree to that?
‘How can I agree?’
Fear shot through him. ‘I thought you wanted to?’
‘I thought I did.’
His pulse slowed, ‘You did, you did. One day we will live in silence together and we will be as free as birds my darling, trust me.’ She looked up at the gulls, her face immobile. His cheeks burned – it was a bad line.
‘But I can’t remember silence.’
‘Believe me. Come this way.’
He stood up, holding her hand tightly. She rose more slowly, dusting off her uniform. They were both sweating. He led her across the tramlines towards a derelict shop with its shutters pulled down. Outside, he coughed loudly five times. Someone inside approached and began grappling with the shutters…
Better to be dead than pumped full of Corporation excrement, the old man thought. Outside the hospital, the air burned. Inside, the man sat facing the window in the hard chair he had moved so that he could look out. He was still: gazing into the foggy yellow distance. Cold air, blowing from the floor, stirred the hairs of his balding head.
Outside his glass door, a junior medic paused for breath. Normally she liked the ex-government patients. They lived in the City Hospital, as there was no apartment space in the City for olds. The Suburbs were far too dangerous. And it was best practice to keep them under observation. Olds could become unstable and, as all psychiatrists knew, instability was a danger to the patient and to the peace of the entire City.
She glanced at the sensor and the doors slid open. She entered – XR4, old medic. The disorder was abnormal. Used issues lay beside his bed and around his chair. His slippers looked as if they had been thrown. He turned to look at her. She looked past him.
‘How are we this morning?’ Always Cheerful, a psychiatrist’s maxim.
‘Her eye passed over him. She guessed from the abnormal fixed stare that he wasn’t focused on his Iscreen. His apparent disregard for the screen upset her. Could it be disabled? It wasn’t possible. But she could feel his eyes roaming her face. She became conscious of her limbs. A lonely animal part responded. Doctor’s visuals were disabled during work hours; despite herself, she looked right back at him and felt a jolt. She struggled for air. She moved her eyes away. He hummed four sad notes. He’s disabled the audio too? (A thought, an intuition.) One only ever heard humming in unison with the Iscreen. She didn’t recognise this melody.
She was cheerful again. ‘What activities have we got lined up for today?’
‘Hot Yoga, Community Movie.’
She took his right finger and attached the blood pressure monitor. His hand was heavy and muscular. He was still strong. The delicate skin was warm. His blood pressure was dangerously high. She recorded the data on her palm control. Her eyes took in his bony bare toes. Some of the tissues around his feet were neatly rolled, not crumpled. She glanced down at the paper cup to make sure his meds had been consumed. She waited for her audio to signal the end of the five minute consultation. He was trying to meet her eye again. Time passed painfully.
‘Are you nearly finished this rotation miss?’
Patients never spoke unprompted. She was confused. ‘A new junior will take over in two weeks.’
‘You remind me of somebody.’
Despite the bizarre nature of the comment she was not surprised. Without thinking, she smiled.
Her audio beeped. Grateful, she turned away. She felt her arms dangling. She didn’t want to be watched and enjoyed knowing he was looking.
Once alone, he hummed a little and enjoyed the silence. Silence was his last friendly companion: it left his tired brain in peace. He was aware of familiar pointless emotion and the physical memory of a woman leaning heavily against him. He allowed himself to imagine, for a moment, the room where they used to sit. He gave the wall a kick. Suddenly, he couldn’t catch his breath. There was, again, that choking tightness in his chest and arms. Gagging on disinfected air, he gaped at the yellow sky. Why should all that noise bother me so much? There was something in her look
Off timetable the following afternoon, she sat outside her consultant’s office. Cold sweat dried in her armpits. Her uniform stuck to her. It was summer; she had been suffocated by the record heat on her lunchtime walk. But, inside, the Cleenair was chilly. Her teeth chattered; she ground them. Her audio beeped and she rose to enter the office of Consultant K.
K, a renowned researcher and practitioner, was Head of Psychiatry at the City Hospital; she possessed assured status and power. Part of her role was to advise The Corporation on mental health policy. She wore a shimmering white suit and a genuine gold blouse. Her slippery red mouth did not move when the junior entered.
‘I see that patient XR4 presented high blood pressure yesterday?’ Did you highlight this?’
‘Yes, no… But the patient has a history of high blood pressure so I didn’t action the reading.
‘A psychiatrist must notice the physical as well as the behavioural.’
‘Please attend an urgent review after your work is finished at nineteen o five this pm.’
‘Will do.’ She smiled, positive at all times. And rose, dismissed.
The meeting began with formalities: cameras and identities checked. Attending were the psychiatrist, Consultant K, a short nurse from Rest Ward and a mid-level manager who – disgruntled with the after-hours conference – was fiddling with his ear.
The junior was agitated. Her fear had been gathering all afternoon. She tried to think it was just the automatic response any cityzen experiences when the guards appear in a City mall, though they are never there for the professionals. She had told herself that she had followed procedure during yesterday’s consultation with the old, but knew it wasn’t true. And she desperately needed K’s endorsement, because K was one of the three seniors conducting her final review in one week’s time, which would decide upon her first real professional role.
K asked her for her opinion on XR4’s level of engagement the previous afternoon. The junior stated the data as she had recorded it, humbly acknowledging again her failure to highlight his blood pressure. K was glancing slightly to the right, reading from her Iscreen; she tapped a number into her palm control. Cleaner than life, a recording of XR4’s voice, and the junior’s, played inside the ears or all four.
‘Are you nearly finished this rotation miss?’
‘A new junior will take over in two weeks.’
‘You remind me of somebody.’
K looked at her with triumph, delighted to have the hard evidence. She asked if the junior had, by any chance, become acquainted with this particular old in a professional capacity during her training. She hadn’t.
‘Then could you explain why you have simply ignored his pathetic attempt to create attachment between himself and a professional medic? As an ex-medic he knows this is totally outside the parameters of acceptable dialogue. His disregard for parameters is a clear symptom of potentially delusional transference, which – as you know – ought to be highlighted so that a consultant can conduct a review, prescribe meds and recommend a way forward. We are not friends with the patients. He don’t help them by encouraging delusion. We must engage in personal dialogue only once we are qualified and only for professional reasons.’
‘You are correct.’
‘So, having recognised your error, what can you recommend? I suggest transfer to a ward where his heart abnormality can be properly managed, and an immediate course of appropriate mood stabilizers. Would you support this?
All transfers required the certification of two medical professionals, one of whom could be a junior, but not a nurse. The question was therefore an official request for endorsement of a senior’s medical opinion. The answer had to be acquiescence.
The junior realised with horror that she might cry – something she hadn’t indulged in since she was a teenager at the Academy. She looked over at the nurse, whose eyes were fixed to the floor. K gave her an angry smile. The junior’s mind was yellow, like the sky over the City. She didn’t have a medical opinion. Whom did she remind him of? The manager let go of his ear and loudly tapped one toe several times on the plastic floor: he was about to miss the early tram for F Block. She thought of the future. Before she had always imagined herself making decisions, discovering the intricacies of relationships between synapses, sleeping in a luxury apartment in C, or even B, Block and choosing her own exquisite furniture. Now she saw a small old woman sitting in XR4’s chair staring into the foggy yellow sky. She understood that she missed his face and – even – that she would like to touch him again. At the same time, she remembered she hadn’t even taken a swab to confirm his standard meds had been consumed. In her distress, one single thought was clear – I am alone.
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 stabilizers.
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.