by Chris Bailey
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Robbie’s experience was typical amongst those who worked with the public: tradesmen, retailers and municipal servants who found themselves identified in their daily need to repeat actions or phrases; a shopkeeper opening a till perhaps, or a newspaper vendor requesting. ‘Forty pence, please’.
Nonetheless, others in similar business might hear numbers when performing actions that had no bearing on their livelihoods: cleaning their teeth or loading the dishwasher or opening a book. Those with socially questionable lifestyles found there was no moral judgement attached to their signature actions: the heroin addict might be marked by drawing a curtain, the prostitute when buying breakfast cereal.
Almost imperceptibly, people began to change their ways, and daily routines were discreetly modified. They took different routes to work, suddenly abandoned a treasured hobby, or laboriously trimmed the front lawn with shears rather than mowing. Kevin Reece bought a pair of smart slip-ons. Tradesmen feigned sudden deafness and wrote messages or performed elaborate mimes in order to name their price. No one understood why they reached such unspoken agreement but there was a mute compact in the air: stay well clear of one.
Of course, such a silence could not last.
There were whispers and there were muttered private conversations. The media, with ironic snickers at the bottomless credulity of foreigners, started to pass on curious reports from international new agencies. Online chatrooms began buzzing but it took comedian Lee Racivius to snap British reserve and to bring the phenomenon to full public debate.
Lee was renowned for his disrespectful routines about authority figures and for his generally confrontational manner; he had a record as a youth offender, and now he simply brought his challenging behaviour into the public realm. Late-night television was broadcasting one of his live shows, the usual rapid skating-on-thin-ice improvisations and merciless hounding of audience members.
‘I’ve been told I can only fly twice more — other passengers get a complimentary drink, I get rosary beads.’ There was a delighted shout of recognition from the audience, so Lee carried on. ‘You, yes, lady in a red top, second row... You’re only allowed, what, eight more ice cream cones? You go ahead and enjoy them, love. I like to sprinkle mine with chocolate flakes. Talk about topping yourself. Gentleman near the back... yes, you, you fat bastard... When you put on aftershave? You’re gonna be out of odour, mate. You’ve lost your common scents...’
* * *
Lee had gone on to suggest that the voice-numbers were a sinister authoritarian scheme to curtail the homely pleasures of the working man. This was not a convincing theory: as it turned out, the Government would have no difficulty in proving that in the current economic climate the cost of mounting a national thought experiment would be insupportable. However, Lee had released something pent-up.
Indiscernibly, a consensus emerged that the number voices were called ‘pointers’. No one could account for this label or where it had come from, yet it became established within days. A palpable sense of relief swept the country as people realised they could at last chat about having to sweep instead of hoover or listen to the radio on the internet instead of their once-trusty old portable.
Government spokesmen said that the administration was ‘keeping abreast of events’ and ‘taking measures’ but they were as helpless as everyone else, especially if they were warned off attending the chamber or consulting their private secretaries. In many areas of life, a welcome new honesty came into the open, as Dave Parkin found. He was making love with his pretty girlfriend Celia.
‘Thirty-two,’ said Dave.
‘Three thousand four hundred and ten,’ said Celia.
Other people could not adjust to the new order and still practised old evasions. ‘I do think it’s so much nicer to meet face-to-face, don’t you? Those chatrooms are so impersonal...’ was a transparent circumlocution for ‘I can log in three more times.’
The happening was international. While buttoned-up Britain had toughed it out, much of the rest of the world had been less reticent. ‘Has The Tallyman Counted YOU?’ yelled USA Today. The U.S. media had swiftly decided that this was an underhand attack on American values and cited tearful tales of injustice such as that of the Cincinnati schoolboy whose life ration of Dunkin Donuts was already down into single figures.
Having no identifiable source for the ‘attacks’ — Iran and North Korea robustly denied responsibility and were in any case having enough problems themselves in trying to stamp out this perfidious Western subversion — the news outlets were inventive in creating bogeymen: the Tallyman, the Countdown Kid, Old Nick Numero.
There were demonstrations in Washington, and grizzled veterans pulled faded bandannas from the bottoms of drawers and painted fresh slogans onto dusty placards that had once protested against more obvious enemies. ‘Protect us from the pointers!’ they chanted at their government, which hid behind shutters and called out the National Guard.
Eventually, an uneasy compromise with the new disposition developed. Few people found the pointers a direct challenge to the business of daily living and learned to work around them. It was understood that one was the terminal point and most people kept well clear, encouraged by the few and widely reported cases where individuals had tried to be clever, had bought that final pint and then, unlike George McCann, walked away, leaving it untouched on the bar. Shortly afterwards, hearts or brains would seize up and stop.
There were those who played reckless games with one and deliberately confronted the pointer, accomplished the action, spoke the word. Some expired dramatically, clutching their chests. Others merely slumped lifeless. Their brains had switched off.
Others took a headlong charge, gambling they would connect with whatever lay on the other side of one. They would utter the pointer — ‘Our help desk administrators will be pleased to assist you’, as it might be, and immediately reiterate: ‘Our help—’ They did not reach the end of the sentence.
* * *
Then the rules — if ‘rules’ they were — changed. Those who had calculated that they had a secure lifetime’s ration of answering the phone or walking the dog found, after a day or two of blessed silence, that their pointer had slipped down into single figures or had changed entirely, perhaps to combing their hair or mopping the floor. Suddenly, there was no security. The process was not to be subverted or sidestepped.
Tension gripped the population. There was distraught behaviour but no overt panic. The feeling was too shadowy to arouse strong emotion; no passion could be stirred against an enemy — if enemy it was — that offered no clear opposition. People wondered: would their next action presage disaster? Would their next movement or utterance be their last?
Inanition paralysed the world.
Kevin Reece’s claim assessor post had been transferred from the Motoring department to Life, to help cope with the tsunami of new claims. He had not had much to do anyway, because so many people had motoring pointers that they had given up driving.
Kevin did not like Life. He grew weary of pressing the insurance industry’s line to the claimants: that their relative’s demise could not be construed as an act of God but was attributable to the deceased’s own reckless conduct in that he or she had willfully persisted in posting letters, feeding the rabbit or boiling the kettle.
Kevin stopped going to work. He was exhausted by the quarrels with the claimants and was further persuaded by the return of the pointers. He had experienced one day’s blissful silence after abandoning his lace-ups and now the countdown started on his new shoes, at a frighteningly low level: ten, nine, eight. He stayed at home in trainers: five, four, three, and now padded barefoot round his apartment and spent hours watching television, surfing the further reaches of the satellite channels. On Revelation TV he came across the Reverend Jimmy Headstart.
‘And you may well call the numbers pointers, my friends, but what is it they point to? I tell you, it is the finger of God pointing, and He is pointing out the error of our ways! He is pointing at us and he is saying: You, my friends, you have sinned, you have left the path of the Lord, you are wandering in the wilderness, and He is pointing you in a new direction...!’
Kevin, hoping for pornography, switched to Loveworld but it was another evangelical channel and he got only Pastor Porteous Hugh: ‘These so-called pointers are in reality intercessions, messages from the Lord telling us to rein in our insolent challenge to His authority! We count and account, we reckon and gauge, and think in this way to encompass the mysteries of His creation. And now the Lord is fighting back! There has been too much doing! Too much achieving! Too much grasping...!’
Kevin changed channels again. The soccer was substandard. Many top players had been warned against kicking the ball. The following week, TV schedules began closing down. There was no one to do the broadcasting and nothing to broadcast. Commerce, entertainment and public services had been abandoned by their operators. People kept to their homes, afraid to risk the world.
A few radio stations still ran, and Kevin listened to the solitary voices scattered across the wavebands. He heard philosopher Sir Frederick Ashbourn.
‘We are confronting a crisis in causality. Previously, you resolved to do something and you did it and there was an event. But now, we specify the cause, yet the effect is not permitted. Some power — no, I don’t like that word, but some influence maybe? — is intervening in that process. Perhaps we are at last getting an answer to that oldest of philosophical conundrums — do we have free will to decide to do as we wish, or is ours a deterministic universe? Our capacity to make decisions has been compromised. Our thoughts no longer register on the world. Perhaps human cognition is winding down...’
Kevin went to the bathroom. He turned on the tap.
He picked up the towel.
He walked out of the house and through the suburbs and into the surrounding woodland. Between the trees, he glimpsed many people, all trying to escape the cause and effect of their accustomed lives.
* * *
Robbie Wallbank chews on a sliver of wild garlic and swallows.
Clarris Kabeya scoops up water from a stream and sips.
Kevin Reece takes a deep breath.
Copyright © 2012 by Chris Bailey