FICTION: Date Night (2016)

*** Shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize 2016 ***

 

He said, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ He said, ‘Tell me about you.’ He said, ‘Tell me everything. I’m interested.’ He said, ‘I want to know.’

He said, ‘I want to know where you’re from.’ He said, ‘What you do.’ He said, ‘Do you like what you do?’ He said, ‘Who does.’ He said, ‘I’m lucky to be doing something I love.’ He said, ‘But you are who you are.’ He said, ‘Not what you do.’

He said, ‘What do you do at the weekend?’ He said, ‘In your free time?’ He said, ‘Do you like music?’ ‘Films?’ ‘Art?’ ‘Books?’ He said, ‘Sport?’ ‘Gym?’ ‘Cycling?’ ‘Walks?’ He said, ‘Can you drive?’

He said, ‘What are your ambitions?’ He said, ‘What are your goals?’ He said, ‘Hopes.’ He said, ‘Dreams.’ He said, ‘This is cheesy, I know, but what would your wish be if we saw a shooting star?

He said, ‘What star sign are you?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t believe.’ He said, ‘It’s nonsense, of course, but isn’t that the fun?’ He said, ‘I’m a Libra. It means I’m easygoing and urbane. It means I’m an idealist.’ He said, ‘Of course I don’t believe.’

He said, ‘I don’t believe how good this is.’ He said, ‘Have you tried it?’ He said, ‘Try it. Honestly. Take a sip.’ He said, ‘I told you.’ He said, ‘Didn’t I tell you it was good?’ He said, ‘One more before we leave.’ He said, ‘I’m going to get you drunk.’

He said, ‘I’m not drunk.’ He said, ‘Look, I’m fine.’

He said, ‘I’m fine doing whatever you want.’ He said, ‘I’d rather not.’ He said, ‘How about this place I know?’ He said, ‘Only if you’re sure.’

He said, ‘I’m sure this is the way.’ He said, ‘This is definitely the way.’ He said, ‘Of course I know how to get there. I go there all the time.’ He said, ‘It’s down here.’ He said, ‘Trust me, it’s great.’

He said ‘Let me show you.’ He said, ‘I’m very impressed.’ He said, ‘You’re a natural.’ He said, ‘Beginner’s luck.’ He said, ‘I saw that. Don’t think I didn’t see.’ He said, ‘That’s not really allowed.’ He said, ‘No-one likes a cheat.’

He said, ‘I should tell you.’ He said, ‘I’ve got a family from before.’ He said, ‘We were young.’ He said, ‘I was young.’ He said, ‘Better to be open, yes? No secrets from the start.’ He said, ‘Two girls.’ He said, ‘My children are my life.’

He said, ‘My work is my life.’ He said, ‘Ten, twelve, fourteen hour days.’ He said, ‘But that’s the industry.’ He said, ‘The way things are.’ He said, ‘The trick with work is to leave it there.’ He said, ‘Work hard. Live hard.’ He said, ‘That’s the life.’ He said, ‘Hold that thought. I have to take this call.’

He said, ‘It’s so easy to talk with you.’ He said, ‘I feel like I have so much to say.’ He said, ‘I feel like we could talk like this for hours, and not let anything interrupt us, and not run out of things to say, just be caught in the moment of talk, our talk.’ He said, ‘Two people out talking through the night.’

He said, ‘It really is a nice night.’ He said, ‘Look at the stars.’ He said, ‘Orion.’ ‘Draco.’ ‘Cygnus.’ He said, ‘Ursa Major.’ ‘Ursa Minor.’ He said, ‘The Plough is inside Ursa Major.’ He said, ‘Most people don’t know.’ He said, ‘Follow my finger. I’ll trace you out the shape.’

He said, ‘You’re funny. I like the cut of your jib.’ He said, ‘The cut of your dress.’ He said, ‘Do you mind if I put my hand here?’ He said, ‘That’s my hand.’

He said, ‘That’s me and my girls on holiday last summer.’ He said, ‘My youngest is twelve.’ He said, ‘Twelve.’ He said, ‘Fifteen.’ He said, ‘It’s going to be so much better for them when the divorce finally comes through.’

He said, ‘You know how sometimes you think you’re through with relationships and love?’ He said, ‘Okay. But you can understand the thought?’ He said, ‘Really? You’ve never felt that?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you how it feels.’ He said, ‘It’s this feeling inside, this kind of slow closing down, or like a clearing away.’ He said, ‘You look in the mirror and don’t see yourself in yourself.’ He said, ‘You see someone else.’

He said, ‘I like that scarf. It brings out the colour of your eyes.’ He said, ‘Nice coat.’ ‘Nice shoes.’ ‘Nice dress.’ He said, ‘It shows off your figure.’ He said, ‘The way it clings.’

He said, ‘You check your phone a lot.’ He said, ‘I have to ask.’ He said, ‘Are you dating other men?’ He said, ‘I don’t mind.’ He said, ‘It’s just I’d prefer to know.’ He said, ‘I don’t mind. I’d just like to know where I stand.’

He said, ‘Where do you stand on anal sex?’

He said, ‘I thought that was the right way.’ He said, ‘Honestly, I swear.’ He said, ‘I know where it is. I just don’t know where I am.’ He said, ‘It must have moved.’

He said, ‘Do you mind if we move table?’ He said, ‘The waiter keeps bumping me when he walks past.’ He said, ‘This is better.’ He said, ‘Except the view.’ He said, ‘Well, maybe if we move the table a little this way.’ He said, ‘How’s that?’ He said, ‘Maybe back a bit more.’ He said, ‘A bit more.’ He said, ‘I want to get this right.’ He said, ‘I’m happy if you’re happy.’ He said, ‘How about some wine?’

He said, ‘How’s the soup?’ ‘The fish?’ He said, ‘The wine is very good.’ He said, ‘I’ll order another bottle.’ He said, ‘I’m not really a sweet man.’ He said, ‘I’ll have the cheese.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you a tour.’ He said, ‘Cheshire.’ ‘Wiltshire.’ ‘Wensleydale.’ He said, ‘Double Gloucester.’ He said, ‘Cornish blue.’ He said, ‘Stilton.’ He said, ‘Do you want my grapes?’

He said, ‘You sound bitter.’ He said, ‘That’s not what I meant.’ He said, ‘It is what I meant, but it didn’t sound right.’ He said, ‘I didn’t mean anything by it.’ He said, ‘It was a stray observation.’ He said, ‘Okay. Very stray.’ He said, ‘Where’s that waiter gone?’

He said, ‘At first sight?’ He said, ‘Sure. Why not?’ He said, ‘I’ve seen it happen.’ He said, ‘Not to me. But to others.’ He said, ‘Look around and you’ll see it.’ He said, ‘It happens all the time.’

He said, ‘You’re not how I imagined.’ He said, ‘I’m not sure what I imagined. But you’re not it.’ He said, ‘Better.’ He said, ‘Of course.’ He said, ‘How about me?’ He said, ‘How am I measuring up?’

He said, ‘Define “loving”.’ He said, ‘Define “love”.’ He said, ‘Isn’t this what we’re all trying to do?’ He said, ‘Isn’t this what all relationships are?’ He said, ‘Interpretations of the word?’ He said, ‘There isn’t a scale of what’s right or what’s correct, or the one true way to do things, the one true way to feel.’ He said, ‘Of course you’re entitled to your opinion.’ He said, ‘That’s all I’m saying.’

He said, ‘It’s been the same for thousands of years.’ He said, ‘Hundreds of thousands of years.’ He said, ‘Exactly the same.’ He said, ‘The old in and out.’ He said, ‘Men and women haven’t changed.’ He said, ‘Our bodies haven’t changed.’ He said, ‘I’ve thought about this a lot.’ He said, ‘Show me the difference between me and a caveman, and I’ll show you the difference between a rock and a stone.’

He said, ‘It’s obvious.’ He said, ‘It’s hard fact.’ He said, ‘I know we’ve only just met but I think we’re falling in love.” He said, ‘It’s powerful.’ ‘It’s serious.’ ‘It’s clear.’ He said, ‘That’s what this is.’

He said, ‘It was rhetorical.’ He said, “I wasn’t trying to freak you out.’ He said, ‘Rhetorical means I didn’t mean it.’ He said, ‘It means you don’t have to respond.’ He said, ‘So don’t respond.’ He said, ‘How am I supposed to know you know that when you continue to act like you don’t?’ He said, ‘So don’t respond.’

He said, ‘You sound bitter.’ He said, ‘When did I say that?’ He said, ‘I didn’t.’ He said, ‘When?’ He said, ‘It’s like you’re looking for something and you don’t know what.’

He said, ‘Have you seen her?’ He said, ‘The woman I was with.’ He said, ‘She went to the bathroom and—‘ He said, ‘You’re right.’ He said, ‘She probably had to take a call.’ He said, ‘She’s probably waiting for me outside.’

He said ‘Have you seen a women just come out here?’ He said, ‘Yes, alone.’ He said, ‘I don’t know where she went.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t be asking you.’

He said, ‘Hey, you two lovebirds.’ He said, ‘I’m talking to you.’ He said, ‘Have you seen a woman—‘ He said, ‘No, I won’t just “leave you alone”.’ He said, ‘What are you even looking at?’ He said, ‘You don’t know what you’re on about.’ He said, ‘That’s Ursa Major.’ He said, ‘Don’t call it the fucking Plough.’ He said, ‘It hasn’t got anything to do with me, but you should be told when you’re wrong.’ He said, ‘Don’t talk to me like that.’ He said, ‘Shut your mouth.’ He said, ‘Look what you made me do.’ He said, ‘You deserved that.’ He said, ‘You had that coming.’

He said, ‘Where did you guys come from?’ He said, ‘I’m only taking a piss.’ He said, ‘What’s it to you?’ He said, ‘Can’t you see I’m looking for my date?’ He said, ‘I’ll do nothing of the sort.’ He said, ‘I know my taxes.’ He said, ‘I pay my rights.’ He said, ‘I’m a father.’ He said, ‘I’m on a date.’ He said, ‘Well, it’s a funny story, actually.’ He said, ‘Where are we going?’

He said, ‘Where are we going?’ He said, ‘Why are we going there?’ He said, ‘This seems a bit.’ He said, ‘Un.’ He said, ‘Un.’ He said, ‘Unnecessary. Thank you.’ He said, ‘There’s been a mix-up.’ He said, ‘You’ve got the wrong man.’ He said, ‘This is a case of mistaken identity.’ He said, ‘Why am I here?’

He said, ‘What are you here for?’ He said, ‘We all make mistakes.’ He said, ‘I punched a guy and tried to piss on his leg.’ He said, ‘We all make mistakes.’ He said, ‘It was embarrassing.’ He said, ‘I didn’t even need to go.’

He said, ‘When’s it my turn?’ He said, ‘How long am I going to have to wait?’ He said, ‘Don’t take my shoelaces.’ He said, ‘Don’t take my coat.’ He said, ‘I’ve got nothing on me. Nothing dangerous. Nothing sharp.’

He said, ‘There’s nothing I haven’t told you.’ He said, ‘Nothing you don’t know.’ He said, ‘It was a misunderstanding.’ He said, ‘Crossed wires.’ He said, “Different page.’ ‘Different hymn sheet.’ He said, ‘Wrong end of the stick.’ He said, ‘Well, the right end, I suppose. But you’re not listening.’ He said, ‘What don’t you understand?’ He said, ‘It happened exactly as I’m telling you, as I told your colleagues at the time.’

He said, ‘What time is it?’ He said, ‘You’re joking. What a joke.’ He said, ‘This is a joke.’ He said, ‘Why am I still here?’ He said, ‘Isn’t there a maximum you’re allowed to do this before you have to let me go?’

He said, ‘Go via the park.’ He said, ‘It’s quicker that way.’ He said, ‘Take the next left.’ He said, ‘Here is fine.’ He said, ‘How much do I owe you?’ He said, ‘How much?’ He said, ‘Daylight robbery.’ He said, ‘You should be ashamed.’ He said, ‘What’s the world coming to?’ He said, ‘Same to you.’

He said, ‘It’s the same thing as always.’ He said, ‘Get in and go to bed.’ He said, ‘It’d be helpful if you found the right key.’ He said, ‘You are a stupid man.’ He said, ‘She was nice.’ He said, ‘Was she nice?’ He said, ‘We got on.’ He said, ‘But then she left.’ He said, ‘Maybe she had reason to.’ He said, ‘What did you expect?’ He said, ‘She was nice.’ He said, ‘Put the key in the lock.’ He said, ‘I really felt that we got on.’ He said, ‘Climb the stairs to bed.’ He said, ‘There was a connection.’ He said, ‘Is that true?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’

He said, ‘What matters is to live.’ He said, ‘To live and to learn.’ He said, ‘That’s the truth.’

 

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FICTION: Heavy (2015)

*** Shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize 2015 ***

It is a two lane road somewhere in North America. The car is pulled onto the shoulder with the brake lights on; a grey midrange sedan from twenty years ago. The road is edged on both sides by thin half bare trees. It is winter, autumn, or spring. The day is blank, covered in high cloud. Now and then another vehicle goes by. A police officer walks forward, gun drawn, towards the driverside door of the midrange sedan. He is state police and wears the felt hat and the uniform with the thick dark stripe on the outside trouser leg, the hat pinched at the top with the wide flat brim. The shirt is tucked and tight round his paunch. He is thick-bodied, heavyset. He takes small steps, in a strong shooting stance. There is someone inside the midrange sedan. Through the back window there is a head, unclear, in silhouette. They have not deserted the vehicle or fled the scene. At least one person sat in the front. Black dot birds scatter from the tops of the trees, and now and then another vehicle goes by. The trooper is pointing with his right hand the gun at the window, and with his left hand he his reaching for the handle, going for the arrest. He is shouting, has been shouting the whole time. He pulls open the door and shouts at the driver. He is pointing the gun and shouting at the driver. He tells them get out of the car now. He says get out of the fucking car. He holsters the gun and pulls the driver from the sedan to the road. The driver is female, Caucasian, middle-aged, and overweight. She is facedown on the asphalt in her black slacks and baggy jumper, with the trooper on top of her, his knee on her back. He hits her on the back of the head and unclips the handcuffs from his belt. He is shouting, has been shouting the whole time. He says get on the floor, get on the floor, I’ll cut your clothes off, get on the floor. The driver is very overweight and does not put up a fight. The woman facedown on the floor with her hands in cuffs behind her back, the trooper standing up still shouting, telling her to get on the floor, do not fucking move. Other vehicles go by. Police means do not stop, do not get involved. It is police harassment, police violence, official police business. Police means do not get involved. The image fades to black. A voiceover says the woman sustained bruises and cuts and pleaded guilty to speeding. The voiceover says the trooper, a seven year patrol veteran, has been fired and is expected to appeal. For a few seconds it is solid black and silent.

The event repeats, but quicker this time. The trooper moves quicker, the cars go by quicker. The shouting, the pulling, the punching, the shouting is all quicker. And the event is done, over slightly quicker. The screen fades to black. The event repeats and the screen fades to black. The event repeats and repeats, each occurrence getting quicker, shorter, the action rushed and hurried, the voices higher in pitch, higher until they sound like some helium cartoon, higher until just noise, just squeal, the image just noise, just blur. The moment is compressed out of shape, a moulded thing. It seems to reach a critical point, an aesthetic threshold or some technological limit, and the screen fades to black and is black for longer than before. This is credit space in any other film, the vast list of rolling names. Instead it is black, just black, silent, until it starts again, at normal speed, on that North American two lane road.

There’s a couple next to you, also watching, a young woman and a man you guess is slightly older, faces washed with projected light. They came in around the same time as you. The guy is telling the girl how funny it is. He’s not laughing, but he’s telling her about how the whole thing is so funny, how he’s getting such a kick watching the fat woman get it. He says the best part is knowing that the cop gets fired. He says this is the icing on the cake. The girl is nodding, not saying much. She looks sort of spaced out, or bored, or thinking about something else. They each have a beer in both hands. They are good-looking in a wrecked sort of way. Her in a heavy sweater and drainpipe jeans, he entirely in black—trench, trousers, big clunking boots. You decide that maybe they’re not a couple after all. It’s awkward, stunted. They don’t seem close in that way. There’s a perceptible layer of performance, at least in the girl. The smile she gives you as you walk past. A faint thing, half-bothered, half-formed. Not half-bothered in that she doesn’t care to smile, but half-bothered in that she almost doesn’t care to not smile, that she can barely keep herself from smiling, barely has the energy or will to maintain the presentation, the unmoved unbroken unsmiling face. She can barely be bothered to keep the pretence intact, whatever the pretence might be. You remember being like that, finding pleasure in games and half-reality. You remember inventing and testing and teasing, pushing outward, new things, forms, external conditions, the discovery each day of a new way to be. The smile admits the act without defining it. The question is why admit the act at all, and why admit the act to you.

You take your coat from reception and say to the staff, yes, thank you, interesting, goodnight. Outside, people hurry with umbrellas and collars turned up against the rain. You take two aspirin and walk onto the street.

*   *   *   *   *

Marie thought it was rude that Johnny still had on his boots. Her shoes were by the door. She sat crossed legged on the floor holding her bare ankles. It was his place so she didn’t say anything, but she was entitled to her opinion and her opinion was it was rude. He’d left big footprints all over. And in the kitchen, where it was tile not carpet, she had to step around several pools to keep her socks from getting wet. Now he had them up on the table, not far from her face, as he leaned back on the couch, waving his arms as he talked. He would splay his hands or jab a finger at the air, and sometimes clap or rub both together like it was cold—which it wasn’t, so Marie figured it to be the cocaine. He tilted his head to face the ceiling. Heavy traffic noise washed up from the street.

“The way they drive here,” she said.

“The Iranians are worse. Way worse.”

“And when were you in Iran?”

“You know, never. I read it someplace. Or I heard it. Yeah,” he said, pointing. “I heard it on TV.”

“Right.”

“I’m serious. The Iranians can’t drive. It’s a thing. Like, they’re crazy fucking people. Suicidal, homicidal. We’re talking major death wish.”

“Sure.”

“I’m serious,” he said.

“I know. I’m not laughing. This is smiling, it’s different.”

Marie watched him put his feet on the floor and lean forward.

“The talk is always New York.”

Marie nodded. “Los Angeles.”

“New York.”

“New York, oh sure. But Los Angeles.”

He thought about this for a while, scraping his credit card back and forth, tapping it on the table top glass, staring at the white, the plains and heaps and dusty bounds.

“It’s bigger,” he said. “I suppose.”

“It exists for the car.”

“Is it bigger?”

“They were made for each other. It’s the natural habitat, really, the pure expression. What other city has this? The pure expression.”

“I think the Italians would disagree.”

“The Italians?”

“And the Swiss,” he said, carving the air with a hand. “In the Alps the roads are ribbon thin and winding.”

“In Los Angeles they drive one block to buy milk.”

They did the lines and went silent for a while, Johnny rotating the bottom of his glass against the table, watching the remaining rum tip and swill in the bowl, Marie lighting a cigarette, blowing smoke rings and Irish waterfalls, enjoying herself getting high and watching him think. Johnny finished his drink and squinted at her.

“Is that a car thing or a people thing, one block to buy milk?”

She said, “They’re inseparable. That’s the point.” It wasn’t like her to speak this way. She was trying not to laugh or talk about her dad.

“You know,” he said, “in Rome the car is like a second language. In some areas they speak more car than Italian. Celebrations, condolences, disputes. There are phrases, meanings, ways of meaning, things that can’t be translated because there isn’t any other, other way to say it. It doesn’t translate. Large sections of life discussed only in car horn.”

“ ‘The talk is always New York.’ ”

“And not only the horn. The headlamps, the brake lights, the way you take a turn or how you park. The skilled reader knows whether you’re married with children just by how you overtake. Speed, proximity, the context of the street. The skilled reader sees you approach the Colosseum and knows, instantly, who you are and what you’re about. Near intimate details of life at that point.”

Marie sat back on her elbows and unfolded her legs, peeling each out straight and stretching.

Johnny said, “They see you coming.”

She lifted one leg higher than was required, drawing it down, crossed at the knee over the other.

“You know, that’s the car, you know, when it reaches that point, that level of intuition and understanding. The skilled reader sees and knows, speaks and sees and reads and knows.”

Marie didn’t know him very well, in fact for only a few hours, but she guessed he talked like this most of the time. It was how they’d met, earlier in the night. Johnny talking to some people and her close by, listening, thinking, thinking who is this guy. Marie had stood next to him getting a beer and now it was his apartment at midnight. A musician, he’d said. And that made some kind of sense. He’d said, let’s go to mine, I live like four blocks from here. She lived a train ride away and had missed her last train. This fact seemed somehow essential, an element the experience required. You didn’t go to a stranger’s place and take the last train home.

They talked and smoked and finished the coke and Johnny got up and went out to buy more. Marie lay on her back on the floor a while, listening to the street and tapping her foot to whatever song it was on the radio. She let her gaze fall loose over the objects in the room. The TV was on without sound. Some show with people dressed up as animals running an assault course or the like. They kept falling, these people, over and off things, down things, into things, as things, things that kept falling while trying to run and climb in the costumes and the mud. A dog collided with a chicken on the downhill tyre slope. The camera cut to disappointed loved ones watching from a bleacher to the side. There was a wine bottle holding a candle on top of the TV. There were wine bottles all over, upright, on their side, huddled in dimness in corners, under furniture, by the skirting. She counted five shoes from her position, each without their other. She got up to go to the bathroom, pausing on her way back in the doorway, leaning against the frame. A TV, a couch, some mismatched wooden chairs. She moved into the centre of the room. A low table, a desk lamp on the floor. She went to the hallside wall and took small steps clockwise round the room. Peeling paper, odd stains and small burns, smudges and finger marks near the switches that didn’t switch, near the pinned up photos and cuttings and magazine pages, one mainly unused shelving unit, books in floor-stacks and piles, half-burned candles, one fitted closet, mainly unused, a tall window and battered aircon box, plant pot full of dry soil on the ledge, cigarette butts stuffed into several brimming trays, stuffed into any container that could serve the same purpose, in mugs and glasses, on plates and in one shoe, the main door with three locks on it, three locks and a chain. She went quickly to the kitchen and then back to the bathroom, basically a toilet and a shower, a sink with taps that twisted for an age before the water dribbled out. She went through the livingroom to the bedroom and opened the wardrobe, the drawers, the drawers in the desk, the bedside cabinet, the large chest with the cushion on top, the three shoe boxes at the end of the bed, the plastic storage crate in the bottom of the wardrobe, the plastic storage crate beneath the bed. Beneath the bed she found an acoustic guitar, generic, light brown, missing three stings.

Johnny had been gone a full hour. She thought about going to look from the window, but it seemed wrong somehow, in some way against her idea of the event, that she might be seen from outside standing within that glowing frame—the woman at the window waiting for the man.

She walked round the living room, mindful now of her place among things. She picked up her shoes and put them on an empty shelf. She took one shoe off the shelf and put it behind the TV. She pushed the table round ninety degrees. She dragged the couch to the opposite wall. A song she liked came on the radio and Marie moved quickly about the apartment, picking up things and putting them somewhere else, sometimes trying three or four places before it felt right, sometimes putting an object back where it was found, citing lack of inspiration or some other wrong kind of  vibe. It was an impulsive activity, one that worked with haste or did not work at all. She didn’t know exactly what it meant, but the more she moved things the better it felt. The gesture was total, made sense within itself.

She removed her clothes down to her underwear. This would lessen the impact of the image whenever he got back. You go out and come back and she’s there in her underwear moving the furniture around. The half-naked woman run amok; a funny thing to tell his friends. And, only a half-step from sex—talking, laughing, fucking on the floor. She picked up her clothes and put them in the fridge. She sat on the couch and lit her last cigarette. The early weather report came on, promising strong northerlies and angular rain. Marie lay sideways with a blanket and her legs tucked up to her body.

It was early afternoon and light hung stale in the apartment. Marie woke up and tried to think about the night. She said his name, Johnny. She said it more than once. She went saying his name from room to room. She said his name and thought his name, hoping some form of the word might make it true.

She went to the window and looked for him a while. The traffic was there, as ever, blaring and blurred in the rain-streak of the glass. Car light, light from the street-level stores, from the offices and apartments above, light in long pools and streaming chasers, in glittering dabs and smears and flecks, light the city’s underflesh, shimmering and exposed. Marie watched the street fade as the window fogged with breath. She drew a small rectangle lengthways on the glass. Closing one eye, she aligned the shape with a busy section of the street. Cars went through it, enlivened for a moment before dulled again by fog, and slowly the rectangle began to steam and cloud and rejoin the larger patch.

Marie remembered to take her clothes from the fridge before she left.

[Note: this version is slightly different from the version shortlisted by The White Review]

FICTION: The Threat (2014)

*** Shortlisted by Dazed & Confused in their ‘Surveillance Stories’ competition ***

You sense the threat before you see it. You sense that there is a threat before you think about what you’re seeing, before you’ve actually seen what you’re now thinking about. The threat, you sense, is imminent, but it hasn’t occurred, you’re not yet actually watching it, thank God, on the foggy monitor in front of your face. The monitor makes a sound, not unlike air-conditioning, a low hum, atonal, constant, casually oppressive. You’re rapping your fingers on the desk, staring at the monitor, trying to make sense of it, willing it one way or the other. You’ve followed procedure and now you’re waiting for the callback, willing that, too, hoping they take their time, the time you need to think.

In front of you is the perceived threat, frozen in time, hazy and glowing. The image is a low quality zoom from a live video delay. You’re looking at two minutes ago. But, given the delay, that was already seven seconds into the past. It was two minutes ago when you perceived the threat, two minutes seven seconds since the threat went live.

You reach to the playback controller and rewind the recording. The image jerks in rhythmic lines, like waves crawling up a beach or a long train passing slow. You click resume and the jerking stops and the familiar arrhythmic motions of life return. In front of you, a rush-hour inner city transport terminal, the threat currently out of frame. Men and women in suits are talking, laughing, frowning on the concourse. Others, suited and unsuited, are on phones or not on phones, with or without bags or luggage, alone or with friends or with people who look like friends, reading or pretending to read newspapers, books, magazines, walking by or stood looking, some looking at the departures board, also out of frame.

This is only the second time you’ve watched it through, you realise, having paused sometime during the original stream, when the threat was perceived and the follow-up procedure began. Paused, the moment seemed to throb, the threat moving in micro-measurements that don’t actually exist, curious gestures that are fictions of the machine. You remember that glitch comes from the German word for slippery, but you can’t remember the German word. All the machines in the room make a sound – the monitor, the computer, the digital recorder, the relay equipment and motion analyzer, the command system, the control system, the wall-clock and the lighting overhead. The sounds rise and fill the surrounding atmosphere – the machines speaking their language of claustrophobia.

Paused, it seemed all options were possible, the threat made more viable, more real. It seemed entirely possible, likely perhaps, that anything would happen, especially the kind of anything that you’re supposed to prevent. The still, hovering image implanted menace in the threat. But now, now the video is moving and you’re watching it move, you can’t see where the threat, the perceived threat, could appear. It seems impossible in this everyday vision, this world where people read newspapers and hustle for space near the doors.

You’re watching and making connections between the strangers in the scene, seeing patterns in coincidence, momentary alignments across the entire visual field. You see current trends in clothing style, haircuts moving in and out of fashion, white-collar women in merciful sport shoes, men in two button mohair of grey, charcoal, navy, ink. Drawing imaginary lines between colours creates wild, confused abstractions. There is music here, you say to yourself, in a range beyond the human ear. The frozen image dared you to make sense of it. But in motion it makes only sense. It sweeps into and over you, easy and irresistible.

You’re looking for you don’t know how long and the phone rings and you spasm and hit your knees under the desk and put your left hand into the remains of your lunch, on a plate beside the keyboard. Grabbing the phone with your clean right hand, you hear a woman’s voice right away, on the other end of the phone.

‘Asset Monitoring?’ asks the voice.

You pause, gulp, then say, ‘Yes.’

‘Do you perceive a threat?’ asks the voice.

‘Yes,’ you say, ‘Yes, I perceive a threat.’

‘Asset Monitoring, can you confirm the threat?’

‘No,’ you say, unsteady, ‘I . . . don’t think I can.’

There is a long pause and you notice the threat has entered the frame, must have been in frame for half a minute or so and you’re past the moment when you first froze the scene. What are they doing? They’re moving against the flow, making their way from one edge of your screen to the other, edging and dodging among the crowd, mildly frustrated. They match the description, as far as you can tell. Their movements are unusual; their behaviour is unusual. There is a deep incoherence, you sense, in this person and their activities. But now you notice other irregularities, other misshapen movements on the concourse of the transport terminal. Either something is going on, or nothing is, and this is what life looks like – loose and shaggy, open to apophenic abuse.

‘Can you,’ the voice returns, ‘confirm the threat?’

You begin to describe the scene, speaking quickly, going into great detail, listing the aesthetic qualities and also your sensory reactions and impressions, your analysis of the world as contained within that frame. You’re saying all this and trying to ignore all else, looking carefully at the monitor, talking to the woman and waiting for her voice, clear, on the phone.

‘Asset Monitoring, can you confirm the threat?’

Can you confirm the threat? The words crest and break inside your head, meaning pitching like a troubled ship – question, accusation, declaration, demand – and it’s making you dizzy, you think, no, it’s making you feel trapped, trapped in your own skull, like you’re a person within a person, hidden and captive within your body, and you say something, because you have to say something, because, really, there’s nothing else you can do.