Victor sat on his bed. He looked out of his first-floor pod-flat bedroom window at the dual carriageway that was no longer a dual carriageway – not strictly speaking.
Electro-ped-cycles zipped. Freight trams glided. Electro-buses moved little by little, final phase commercial time drawing to a close – a fizz, a drone and a hum of noise.
I’ve sat here too long, Victor said to himself; just watching it move. I ought to get up.
He got up, clawed at the stiffness in his thigh. Kneaded it a little. When the pain in his leg intensified, he sat back down on the bed, not thinking in any sense about his physical condition, the ever-present fatigue that was its hallmark, or the muscle pain, which caused him to rub his thigh.
He rarely thought about his illness.
No, he said to himself, I live with the cost. I gaze out of my bedroom window at the dual carriageway that is no longer a dual carriageway, watching the same old trams, grey-green in cloud-dogged sunshine. This new batch of ritzy steel blue electros, iridescent even in poor light… and I see bikes, always bikes; wheeled bikes, powered bikes, mostly dual function models, especially late on in the afternoons and this afternoon, sandwiched in between electro-buses I see… a car!
He got to his feet, edged a little closer to the window.
With only twenty minutes of Commercial Traffic Time left to run, who in their right mind would drive a leisure orientated four-wheeled motorised vehicle along the dual carriageway that was no longer a dual carriageway?
‘Are you trying to get yourself killed brother?’
Victor forgot about Citizen Death-Wish, when out of bumper-to-bumper traffic he observed consecutive electro-buses exit the highway and pull into the forecourt of the Power-Up Station – the last-but-one refill before the city hub. Out of the wider of two vehicle bays, the Station Manager appeared. Even from this distance Victor could see Joe Carter was angry.
Both electro-bus drivers were out of their cabs now. The lead driver, an imposing sort sporting silvery short cropped hair and tattoos brushed past Carter on his way to the restroom at the rear of the building. The tail driver, pale, fair haired, and devoid of dermal ornamentation, jumped back in his cab. Seconds later, jumped back out again.
There will be hell to pay, Victor thought, and sure enough, the Station Manager was already in the smaller man’s face. No doubt Carter is reminding the electro-bus driver that back in 2120, the now defunct Department for Energy Efficiency (DfEE), commissioned three research teams, who, after systematically putting NASA inspired computer wind-tunnel models through their paces, arrived at the same aerodynamic conclusion; slipstreaming, or, as the DfEE preferred to call it back then, bumper-to-bumper public transport streams, cut the nation’s energy needs by 0.9 per cent.
NOUGHT POINT NINE!
Which equated – as every citizen knew – to around two dozen medium-sized offshore wind farms, which was about one and half nuclear power stations in old money. Why then, for heavens sake, were electro-bus drivers suddenly contradicting State Transport Directive 27 (a), which stated:
Drivers must maintain radio contact at all times in order to enhance slipstreaming capabilities… under no circumstances should consecutive vehicles leave the transport stream to access Power-Up facilities.
The void left behind by the buses low on electric was eventually closed. The passengers from the second vehicle got on the first, rejoined the stream, whilst the driver of the second electro-bus paced the forecourt.
Victor felt sorry for him; but not that sorry.
I shall not dwell on it, he thought, especially as it’s Carter I feel really sorry for.
Worn down by the whole sorry affair he considered lying back on the bed, but changed his mind about that when the car he had seem only minutes ago reappeared. Speeding in the opposite direction the car narrowly missed an electro-bus before running a red light.
Looks a lot like the early Sub-40 two-seater Nissan model, Victor said to himself, the one with the twin battery exchange.
Not entirely convinced about either the make or model, he kept the strange little vehicle in his sights long enough for him to hold no doubt in his mind that the car was in fact almost certainly one of the original ground-breaking Japanese vehicles. Victor felt a lot better off for knowing this, and yet after a time even the rare and seemingly unexplained manifestation of some crazy driving pre-domestic time on a public highway in the electro-bus gate of all places, failed to sustain his interest in the dual carriageway that was no longer a dual carriageway.
He closed his eyes.
Better all round, he decided, if I switch off for a time.
Meditation was the thing. Communing, as some would have it, and yet Victor remained in two minds about the benefits of so-called mind strategies, and so with indecision playing on his mind, he lay down on the bed; his head deeply cushioned in a bolster pillow loosely filled with final-phase recycled guff – man-made of course – and manufactured at a time when the Petrochemical Industry still called itself King.
I’ll try and rest instead of communing. Close my eyes and rest. See what happens. Not concern myself with the supposed beneficial properties of meditation. Nor worry myself with the academic debate surrounding rest versus meditation once irritatingly fashionable in Sector A.
Some time passed. A lot less time than Victor might have imagined. During a short period in which he was neither asleep nor awake, he drifted in a nether world with his eyes closed, his head dovetailing nicely with the guff-stuffed pillow thinking about nothing – or at least nothing that he would later recall. Whilst he remained uncertain about absolute certainty, when roused from the neither-here-nor-there-world by what he at first supposed was gunfire, he deemed it only natural to assume he had imagined the sound.
No doubt that Nissan was a figment of my imagination, too, he thought; I must get more rest. No one has discharged a firearm. No one drives pre-domestic – end of non-story.
He got up off the bed, went over to the window and took a last look out the window to satisfy himself nothing was doing outside. The usual trams and buses in the stream; an armada of cycles, too many, in fact, to catalogue.
‘No cars,’ he said aloud. As it should be.
In the kitchen he made himself coffee. Sat down. Ten minutes later he was up again to answer a knock at the door.
When Victor opened the door, Joe Carter stormed past him.
‘Did you see that Victor?’ Carter said, sucking in air. ‘For heavens sake can you believe what those guys were up to?’
‘The electro drivers?’
‘Of course the electro drivers!’
Victor took a step back from Joe Carter, feeling somewhat breathless. As though Carter had burned up all the oxygen in the air around him and left in its place a near vacuum, charged with negative energy.
I best retreat, Victor said to himself: find a fully oxygenated, positively charged pocket of air in which to reassemble my thoughts. Regain an equilibrium.
With that in mind he headed for the sink and two glasses drying beside it on the drainer.
‘Sorry Victor,’ Joe said, ‘I should never have blasted off at you like that, I’m just… you know?’
‘I understand Joe, please sit down.’ Victor examined the glass he had picked up off the drainer. ‘How about a drink of water?’
‘I’m furious Victor. I cannot believe what those guys just did, I mean… oh hell, what does it matter anyway?’
It matters Joe, Victor thought, putting the glass down; you know it does.
‘Why don’t you sit down Joe?’
Carter pulled up a chair, sat on it. When some of the tension appeared to have left him, he said to Victor, ‘Please tell me you saw exactly what happened?’
Joe Carter’s tired eyes, which were streaked crimson, blinked heavily.
I don’t like the look of Joe, Victor said to himself. His oily skin is a notch too tight across the brow. It hangs an ounce too saggy around the jowls. You look ancient Joe, but I guess you know that?
‘Did you see what happened?’
‘I saw it Joe.’
I observed, Victor thought to himself. Watched events unfold. Bore witness if you like, but to what? What did I actually see? Would my account tally with that say of a passenger on the lead vehicle or either of the drivers or even a passer-by? That’s what the incident people will be looking for, in reality, two, preferably three or more witness statements that correspond.
A measure of shared reality.
‘Well?’ Joe said.
‘I saw it Joe. Of course I did. I mean; I couldn’t believe my eyes. Believe that it was truly happening. Then again, I often don’t trust my judgement. I see things. Then I think – I’m seeing things. So I never know for sure if I’m actually seeing things or not… if you see what I mean?’
And slowly, or in fact, more precisely it could be said by degree with cumulative effect; with every response, with every half sentence Victor shuffled his way through Joe Carter’s as broad as railway sleeper shoulders, slumped.
I suppose, Victor thought to himself, observing the Power-Up Station Manager’s dwindling posture, Joe has guessed by now exactly what I’m driving at?
‘Do you see what I’m driving at Joe?’
‘I do Victor. And I understand… and,’ he went on, ‘I don’t want to speak out of turn here, but…?’
‘Go on Joe?’
‘Someone ought to tell you Victor.’
‘You spend too much time up here… ’ Carter gestured towards the kitchen door, which led to the living space and the bedroom beyond it, ‘just staring out the window.’
‘You’re right about that Joe. I should get out more. To the Civic Jams for instance?’
Joe Carter’s dispirited eyes suddenly lit with merriment.
It’s as though Joe is reliving a treasured memory, Victor thought, perhaps a musical episode from his youth? Which makes me wonder if he is certificated and mention of the mass-musical events has inadvertently given him the wrong idea about me? I hope not. I hate misunderstandings.
‘What instrument do you play Victor? No, let me guess…’
Oh hell, Victor thought, why did I go and do that? Joe Carter really does think I’m a practitioner and I hate misleading folk even when it later transpires I had nothing to gain by the deception. That it was all a misunderstanding.
‘The guitar?’ Joe proffered, ‘Am I right Victor? I used to play a bit myself when I was younger.’
Cocking his thumb, the fingers of his left hand gripping an imaginary fret-board, Carter continued to enthuse.
‘The Accordion?’ he said, tucking an elbow into his midriff, both arms assuming the likely posture for the said, windbag instrument.
Victor stared at Joe. Joe returned his stare with a jolly countenance that bordered upon I-don’t-have-a-care-in-the-universe village idiot quality about it, which naturally unnerved Victor.
What do I say to him? Victor thought. How do I break the terrible news I don‘t play? It seems more than a little uncharitable, on reflection, to immediately shatter Joe’s illusion. On the other hand, it is entirely at odds with my creed to pass off a misconception as the truth.
‘Joe?’ Victor said, ‘perhaps I’ve –’
‘– Right now I am picturing you with an Accordion?’ Joe said, ‘no, it’s not an Accordion is it, it’s err… I have it, it’s the Harmonica!’
Before Carter had the chance to cup the imagined instrument to his mouth, Victor said ‘None of those Joe. I’m ashamed to say it, but I don’t play… anything. It would be enough for me to just to sit there in the midst of them all.’
‘Then why don’t you?’
‘I don’t have the… I’m too busy Joe.’
‘What about those Jams in the non-regulated countryside, Victor? It’s not that far is it? I mean, you could catch a tram and then walk the rest of the way. Plenty do. I’m sure it wouldn’t take up that much of your time?’
‘What’s the Eco-Toll… approximately?’
‘Half an hour,’ Joe said, ‘weeding, pruning and suchlike. A full hour if you attend the full-scale Civic Jam.’
Labouring. Semi-strenuous work, Victor thought, carried out for a living, and as a rule, by citizens of Sectors D to F. The kind of work I used to enjoy. Not to do for a living as such, but as a hobby, in my own time. Only now it would be too much; like a mountain to climb with a child on my back. I can’t do it. It’s a shame, but there it is. No point pretending. Not when it comes down to it.
Victor drew another glass of water.
Even if I could make it from the end of the tram-line to say the rim of the natural amphitheatre, where I could no doubt find a spot on the upper terrace overlooking the practising musicians, the resulting Eco-Toll would finish me off. I’d have to climb ladders to get to the upper branches of fruit trees in order to discharge the payment in kind. Lug buckets of organic feed mixes to and fro, and my legs just aren’t up to it. It’s a non-starter, he said to himself, but hey-ho, the idea was nice.
‘You could take a friend Victor? Take a picnic too? Meet new people?’
‘You’re right Joe,’ Victor said, ‘I’d love to go to the Civic Jams. I’d love to just get out there into the open spaces. I really would, but it’s my work you see. I don’t get the time. It’s very technical. I need solitude. Time to think. And there’s an irony, because if I had the time to get out there, into the grain fields, the fruit plantations, or to the Civic Jams to listen, to commune perhaps, I could think a lot straighter? Work in a manner more efficient than I do at present. Work things out a damn sight quicker, too, which would not only help me on a personal level, but also benefit The Common Good.’
For a moment there, Victor thought to himself, Joe Carter came alive. I stirred up memories in him. Ignited something which has lain dormant. But now, whatever it was that fired, has gone cold.
‘That’s what you’re doing then Victor is it?’ Joe returned Victor’s thoughtful gaze. ‘When I see you up at the window, you’re thinking about your work are you?’
‘Solar powered battery operated electrical switching systems can be a real so-and-so at times Joe. Fathoming out some of the glitches in the micro-schematics is… mind-blowing! I have to switch off, you see, recharge my batteries, if you’ll pardon the puns – focus.’
Joe is considering all that I have said to him, Victor thought, breaking down our exchange bit by bit, which means eventually, when he sets aside the misunderstanding about me being blessed with musical abilities and our discussion about the merits of me attending the Civic Jam or just paying a visit to the non-regulated countryside, his thought processes will naturally redirect him back to where he began.
The reason he came here in the first place.
Which means any moment now Joe will figure out what I already know all too well that I, Victor Parker, do not have the guts to stand up and be counted. Joe, he thought, must know this by now.
‘I guess,’ Joe said, ‘what you’re saying is Victor; you can’t say for sure what you saw?’
‘I’m sorry, Joe, I’d hate to string you along because of course that would not be fair. I saw it, but…?’
‘You didn’t see it?’
‘How about that glass of water I promised, Joe? The tap water is really good in our block.’
‘It is, is it?’
‘It’s all down to that prototype stainless steel filtration system they hooked up to the original subterranean holding trough.’
‘I heard that too, Victor, but… no thanks, I ought to get back.’
Joe Carter got to his feet and reached down into the deep and wide enough to easily house an entire set of socket spanners pocket of his dirty overalls, kept his hands buried there as he trudged over to the door.
Victor followed him.
‘You sure you won’t stay a bit longer, Joe?’
‘I’ll be getting a visit soon enough from some official or other in the department – so it’s time I got back and faced the music!’
It’s not too late to get Joe off the hook, Victor thought, even now. I could still offer to provide a statement even after what I have said to him and really I should as it always looks better in these sorts of situations when there’s sworn testimony independent of the parties involved to back up your assertions. All I have to do is say exactly what I saw, swear to it and then…
‘If you’re really stuck Joe,’ Victor said, ‘I could give an account… of sorts.’
‘Forget about it Victor,’ Joe said, ‘I‘ve been in worse fixes than this.’
The Shell Power-Up Station Manager stepped out the door. He was a couple of yards along the concrete landing when Victor remembered something.
‘Yes Victor,’ Carter turned, ‘what is it?’
‘Did you hear gunfire?’
‘When? Just now you mean?’
‘No,’ Victor said, ‘it was awhile back, around the time of the incident with the electro-bus drivers, either just before or just after? After I think. Sounded like it. Gunfire that is. Of course, thirty years ago you wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Petrol driven vehicles often backfired back then didn’t they? And often as not you’d think was that a gun? It sounded like a gun. And often as not it was a gun and not a car backfiring, because of course, there were a hell of a lot people discharging firearms back then… ’
‘No Victor, I heard no such thing.’
Victor closed the door.
Joe Carter is way too caught up in his own reality, he thought, too busy sorting out his own (and other peoples) mess, to have registered the sound of gunshots. I shouldn’t have bothered him about that. Enough on his plate as it is. And besides, if it is as I suspect it is, and I imagined the sound of gunfire, then Carter couldn’t possibly have heard it. That would be impossible; two or more people simultaneously sharing the same essentially psychotic episode at exactly the same time. Unheard of, Victor thought; or at least, unheard of in a random sense. Random that is, as opposed to calculated, or worse still, premeditated, in a very deliberate and as a rule dishonest fashion as in the workings of the Charismatic.
In the kitchen Victor drew a glass of water from the sink tap. Drank it. Refilled the glass.
Whatever happened to the Charismatic, he thought to himself as he walked back to his bedroom – the false prophets, who seemingly by means of magnetic personality alone were capable of engineering a shared, but intrinsically false perception. Who would, often as not, lead their followers, in the end, to an unholy end.
And for what purpose? No one, had ever worked that out.
Header photograph: By New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons