Lila stood at the window as what passed for daybreak began to light her room. Her bed was unmade and would stay unmade until she returned to it. A twitch of the coverlet and a brief smoothing of the sheets was all she would do to make it ready for sleep. The bed bore the indentation of her body. No longer did she turn the mattress, as her mother had taught her. Sheets were washed irregularly. The mould of her form and the residue of her own body odour were comforting when she retired each night. She slept alone. Lila’s husband had left many months before, seeking work up at the Confluence. He had heard that labouring was well paid there and living was cheap, that the air was more consistently purified, that grass grew in parks and kine could occasionally be seen at pasture. It was an old story. At first, gelt was delivered to Lila, through clandestine routes; she assumed it came from him. It was welcome and bought the odd comfort. No word came from him for Lila, however; no message to join him. Was he now one of the vanished? It was not a question that kept Lila from sleep at night. Things happened. No-one maintained the fiction of things turning out for the best any more, least of all Lila, who knew disappointment well.
Did she miss him? Attachment was not in fashion any more. Best to keep the strands of life loose in these times. She missed the weight of another at night, counterbalancing the mass of her own body. At first the tilt of the bed, towards the hollow where her husband had rested, rolled Lila often to the other side of the mattress, into his absence. But these days she did not turn the mattress and she stayed put throughout the night. Partly his absence explained her neglect of house-keeping. Partly, it was the malady of indifference that contaminated everyone, the decay of the faculty to imagine a future. Domestic orderliness did not seem to have a point any more. How could that notion store any meaning? Keeping a room tidy just for herself, when she did not much care about dust and cobwebs in any case? She never had, despite her mother’s training. The gloom of this version of daylight seemed to favour insect life, Lila believed. There was a persistent rumour that this life form would inherit the earth. Why fight evolution, by taking a broom to the corners where the earth’s future masters drew their diagrams of domination in silk? Why make enemies of them?
Lila raised an inch of curtain to look outside. Daytime and night-time had lost their differentiation since the energy wars. The seasons too were not well demarcated. A muggy twilight was ever present. Streetlights were never extinguished now, night or day, but they provided little illumination. The synthetic gas that they burned, devoid of carbon, too late to make a difference, was manufactured cheaply in the great towers that bordered the town. Cheaply, because the materials were cheap. Cheaply, because the labour was cheap. Lila earned her crust there, on the day shift this week. She suspected her duties, adjusting the dials that controlled in-flow and out-flow, could be done just as well by a machine, but machines cost more to build than humans.
Often Lila’s diet was literally a crust. Everything tasted the same anyway, so no loss especially. Apple trees grew in museums. She remembered as a girl how the trees squandered their apples, to rot where they fell. Now they were framed behind glass. The last man to break that glass and taste that forbidden fruit vanished five years ago. Though he was never named, he was remembered by some, even if remembrance was proscribed.
A fog rolled down the street. It was thought poisonous when it first appeared and a convenient explanation for how so many had vanished over a brief period, many of whom were veterans of the energy wars. Victory for the West Lands was claimed after the war ended but the only evidence of triumph was the new gas that lighted the streets. Homes and even some workplaces still used candles. The gas was unstable in a domestic setting, it was claimed, and suitable only for municipal and industrial locations, where it could be controlled. Rationing continued. The loss of fells and farmland to the floods continued. The celestial zone remained forbidden and gated.
The first pneumatic tram of the morning was clanging into view, exhaling deeply as it slowed to take a steep corner. The grey faces of the two or three occupants held a steady gaze forward; eye contact had become tricky, confrontational. Only members of the Argus kept the right to go eye to eye with commoners. It was said that they had facial recognition chips implanted in their eyes that would scan you as they gripped your head, holding it still in their gloved hands. Even their gloves were rumoured to have temperature sensors to detect liars and the ordinarily guilty. Lila herself doubted all this. One face was pretty much like another these days, pallid and emotionless. Skin tone and eye colour had been homogenised in the Confluence Equality Denominator programme. And besides, everyone was guilty. Proof of breathing was sufficient proof of guilt.
Most of the houses in this street had been converted into one-room boarders. The conversion was crudely done, walls arbitrarily divided to make uniform spaces or kennels as they were called by the occupiers. Many were vacant now. There was only one other person living in Lila’s tenement house. It had once been full, with several families in residence, but children were rarely seen or heard in this street nowadays. Permits were required to reproduce. Credit tokens were offered to those who agreed to be sterilised. Over-population had long been libelled as the cause of society’s ills, but Lila and others guessed that this was just another ruse to control the impulses and longings of commoners. Her husband had been sterilised long before she met him; he got an extra credit for being circumcised at the same time.
Lila was aware time was passing, and she hastily prepared for work. All workers in her factory wore the same basic issue uniform. There were no gradations of office or responsibility in the factory. There were no overseers or managers present and everyone received the same basic pay regardless of role. Compliance and efficiency were monitored remotely and deviations in performance were reflected in your pay packet. You were never informed of the infraction or dereliction that had cost you part of your remuneration. You were just expected to redouble your efforts to improve your own performance and always aspire to meet the standard required of you. Quotas were the only guide to what the standard was, and these were mostly kept secret, unless Visitors were due.
Lila stood at the tram stop. The next tram would take her directly to the factory. Across the street from her, an old man was leaving his house. He was something of an anomaly in the street. He lived alone and had always, as far as everyone knew, despite the size of the house. The old man left home at roughly the same time every morning, usually in the same clothes: an old-style three-piece suit, a grey scarf, an overcoat when the weather dictated. Lila never saw him return to the house. He did not work at the factory. Perhaps he was too old to work but stubbornly kept on living.
Who he was, where he came from, no-one knew, and Lila tried not to give it too much thought. Speculation was dangerous. Likely, people thought, he was Argus in disguise, his bizarre appearance calculated to lure you in, to incite you to betray confidences or express feelings or, worst of all, reminisce. Looking back was the worst of crimes. It betokened discontent, disloyalty, a subversive attitude and anti-social tendencies. Lila averted her eyes if he ever glanced her way. Luckily, it was rare for him to converse with anyone but himself as he wandered, muttering down the street. Harmless as he might appear to be, it was axiomatic that anything remotely unusual must be wrong and should be scrupulously avoided.
Get to work, do your duty, Lila repeated to herself.
Later, just as Lila was completing her shift, she was detained by a remote message on her work-screen. The system had expressed unexpected demand. Without further explanation, she was informed that she must stay at her post and immediately join the night-shift. She was not allowed to leave the factory during the change-over. She was allocated just half an hour of rest but could go nowhere and had nothing with her to eat. These random redistributions of labour were not uncommon. No-one believed for a moment that they were linked to the ebb and flow of outputs and inputs. No-one believed that they had any function other than to reinforce compliance, to disrupt any incipient sense of self-determination. Lila accepted the sudden change of the work plan without a thought of dissent or discontent. It should mean a few extra credits, unless she inadvertently committed a breach of observance. This happened all too frequently during a double shift.
Lila sat waiting, eyes cast down, in a lobby reserved for Recreation, until she had to return to her dials. At some point, in a rare act of kindness, as she waited someone dropped an inch of jerky into her lap. She took it and chewed without raising her eyes to see who had taken pity on her. Lila knew that after five days of night shifts she would again have to do a double shift to translate to her day shift again. She vaguely wondered when she would get the chance to shop but was hesitant to make any plans; too much forethought was perilous.
After her long week of nights and back on her daytime schedule, Lila found herself again at the tram stop, watching the old man leave his house. Latching his gate, the old man caught sight of her across the street and came hurrying over to her, despite the resolute way she avoided eye contact. He stood beside her but she hissed in an aside: “Please do not talk to me. This is a crime for both of us.”
He ignored her injunction and angled himself to face her.
“Has anyone been asking for me?” he said. “Has anyone been at my door when I have been out?”
Lila said nothing and took a step away from him. He held her arm to detain her. She froze, utterly horrified. People were not allowed to touch casually in the street. He might as well have spat in her face.
“I am expecting a delivery,” he said. “There have been many years of litigation, misunderstanding, denial and subterfuge. I am held here unlawfully. I have been wronged and cast aside. But they cannot assail me, cannot remove me, cannot control me. I have expectations. And it will be soon. I feel it now, subcutaneously.”
This was madness, pure and simple, thought Lila. It was likely a side-effect of the gas. His manner was arcane, obsolete. How had he survived into this era, this antique? What was this nonsense about expectations? What did that word even mean?
The old man hovered in the street, looking up and down, suddenly indecisive. It was as if he did not really see Lila, did not even see the streets around him. The grease of another age stained his lapels and seams. Now he was whispering to Lila.
“If you see anyone — anyone with news, anyone who looks like a stranger here — please let me know. I am always here. Everything comes to my door so I never leave the house, except for what is necessary. Let me know if I miss a caller.”
Then the old man leaned indecently close to Lila, imparting a great confidence: “I knew the fallen ruler. The last century has been a huge mistake.”
After that uncomfortable encounter, whenever she stood waiting for her tram Lila was acutely aware of the moment the old man left the house. Over the course of a month, when she worked on days, she saw him leave and meander down the street, to who knew where. He once raised a hand to her in greeting, once or twice he crossed the road to speak to her, but he only ever muttered a few incomprehensible words about his future hopes in cryptic, covert asides.
There was one final occasion when he said more. There was a jauntiness about him as he left his house. He did not lock his door, his steps were light as he skipped down his path and crossed the road to her without paying any attention to the approaching tram. He reached her as she was about to step on board. He was excited, flushed in the face.
“I had a communication,” he said. “I am to come into my inheritance, finally, my birth-right. It is long overdue. There has been an opening, a facilitation, a loosening of the cords of bureaucracy. Unlike the others, I will not forget those who have been loyal to me.”
Lila never saw the old man again. He had remained at the stop as the tram departed with Lila inside. Her final glimpse of him was of him crossing to his house and letting himself back inside.
The morning after this encounter as Lila was heading off to work, her neighbour approached her. Why is this happening, thought Lila, one neighbour after another accosting me in the street, bringing disruption into my life? Lila could only see it as a conspiracy to trap her into some outlawed position. The neighbour was breathless to tell Lila her news. She whispered that a big black car had pulled up outside the old man’s house in the middle of the night. Yes, a real car, slick and black and pouring exhaust fumes. Did such things still exist? Surely they had not been seen by human eye for generations? A petrol car. Such decadence. Such expense. Even the museums did not preserve any examples of the combustion engine. It would have been like preserving the detonator for a nuclear weapon, the canister of a forbidden gas, the bayonet that had pierced a child’s eye. Dark relics that must never see the light of day. To Lila’s neighbour, the car should for all these reasons have been a nightmare, a carriage for death, but it was like a dream, something from an old tale, a conveyance for a potentate, ethereal and stately, swathed in the plumes of its own breaths of mist. The woman thought she would be vanished just by looking at it, but she couldn’t take her eyes away.
“You were dreaming, Esther,” said Lila. “Or you need a new filter in that fermenting duct everyone knows you keep in the cellar. What was in it this week? Spuds or beets?”
“You wait and see. That old man has gone and I for one think some elevation has occurred for him. Everyone in this street knew of his aspirations. He spoke to all of us in turn. He spoke to you too. More than most. I saw it with my own eyes.”
Lila scoffed and hurried away. Too many words had already been exchanged to go unnoticed. The whole palaver had the flavour of a great hoax, a plot.
Despite herself, Lila still thought about the old man and his story, almost on a daily basis. The fact was, he had completely disappeared, was never so much as glimpsed on the street again. This in itself was not unusual, people vanished all the time, but other aspects of this saga rankled into her. What persisted were the singular aspects of his case. How did he survive so long? A remnant of a lost, taboo past. Someone with no obvious means of support, living in a house that should have either been condemned or commandeered years before. There was a story to tell, a story to know. And how had it ended?
Whilst Esther was the first to believe the old man’s story, soon Lila, discarding all her training and conditioning and life experience, became one of many others who began to admit an ounce or two of credence. If him why not anyone, why not me? people began to ask. So an idea spreads, like a contagion. So people begin to believe in high mountain streams where the water runs clear and anyone can drink. So rumour becomes longing. So quotas and targets collapse and walls do not seem too high to scale any more.
So the hammer falls.
Or the empire falls.
Ian Carass has spent most of his professional life working in education, but has published occasionally. Since scaling back work commitments Ian is spending more time writing and in the past few years has had poetry, micro and short fiction published both on-line and in print publications. He has a couple of novellas available on Amazon Kindle and is currently finessing a novel. Ian is based on the coast in the East Riding of Yorkshire in the United Kingdom.
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