Eric thought about death a lot these days. It was unsettling and would catch him off guard sometimes. Walking down the street on a perfectly crisp, sunny day and suddenly he’d feel suffocated, overwhelmed and terrified as he’d remember his existence was unstoppably, irreversibly finite. That one day it would all be over. No more sunshine, no more sharp, cold, pleasant air that he so enjoyed drawing deeply into his lungs until it almost hurt.
He tried to comfort himself with the fact that it really didn’t matter. That he was but a speck upon a speck in the world and that was a speck upon a speck in the universe. Sometimes that would help, and he could calm himself with thoughts of his own total irrelevance. More often, however, this would only make him feel more threatened, like he needed somehow to fight it, to protect himself, to prove that he mattered.
It would get worse at night. He’d avoid bed. He’d always been afraid of the dark, a shadow of an unhappy childhood where the noise of his parents shouting at one another over the TV would wake him and he’d feel unsettled and unloved and alone until Kate came to rescue him, as she always would. She would climb into bed with him, and he’d fall asleep to the sound of her breath and the feel of her warm feet pressed up against the backs of his shins.
It had been gradual. As if the older he got, the more his body became aware that time was inevitably running out. On the worst nights he’d lie, wide awake, unable to shake the image of himself on tiptoes peering over the edge of a screaming black hole, his body stretching, his eyes being pulled from their sockets, shouting hopelessly into the darkness, ‘who am I?’ and, ‘what does it all mean?’.
He couldn’t quite recall when it started. Perhaps when Kate had first got sick? That would make sense. His sister, the person he was closest to in the whole world, being given a death sentence would naturally conjure some fairly macabre thoughts from time to time. Or perhaps it was after the Wall went up, when they’d begun to seal in the city and he’d seen the faces of those people who hadn’t made the cut. The kids wailing, protesting, pulling at the sleeves of their parents not fully able to understand what was happening but knowing that it was nothing good. Their parents ignoring them and continuing to shuffle, tight-lipped and blank-eyed toward the checkpoint. He knew he should feel lucky to not be one of them, but the sense of dread that sat like a lead ball in the pit of his stomach told him that luck had nothing at all to do with it.
If he was honest with himself he knew that these thoughts had always been there. As a child he’d often wake from a nightmare that he could never explain. All he could remember of it was a single blurred image, of something dark, scabby and charred. It would flash into his mind from time to time still, but he could never settle on it nor make sense of it. All he could say was it felt like it was something in his future, and that was coming for him, no matter what.
Lately the thoughts were getting more frequent, and that he didn’t know if there was anything he could do to stop them.
Eric paused, turned away from his computer screen, and gave a slow, deliberate look around the office. He checked his watch. They had been away at the senior staff meeting for over five minutes now. He was safe.
Making as little noise as possible he slowly stretched down towards his top desk drawer, pulling it open, wincing as it squeaked. He reached in, his fingers flexing to find their way through the hole in the plastic before clenching firmly and steadily around the biscuit. He pulled, pausing as the rustle momentarily gave him away, then with one swift movement, he brought it to his mouth and took a bite, brushing the crumbs from his chest with his other hand as he did, to ensure no evidence remained.
He glanced around again. Plenty of time for another bite, surely? He brought the biscuit up to his mouth once more, licking his lips, his stomach grumbling through his neatly ironed shirt. He took a mouthful, a big one, then shoved the remains back into his drawer, pushing it closed with his knee and breathing a sigh of relief.
There was a tapping sound below him. He heard someone clear their throat. He looked to where the noise was coming from and saw a glossy black stiletto banging rhythmically against the edge of his desk.
His stomach sank.
His gaze moved upwards. A slim calf clad in expensive black leggings, a tight camel colored pencil skirt which clung to every ravishing curve, a white silk shirt tucked in and undone just enough to set a man’s pulse racing. Red lips pouting, a long slender nose, shoulder length, thick, impossibly shiny black hair, and the eyes, oh the eyes! They were so huge and so green, and so full of total and utter contempt.
‘What the fuck is this?’
Camilla Klein, Editor-in-Chief, threw the sheets of paper onto his desk. Eric glanced down and recognized his latest effort. It was an article about the resident’s horror at how the new girl in town, Lucy McDrake’s West Highland Terrier had been voted ‘Overall Best Pooch’ in the village’s annual dog show.
‘Errrr…’ Eric spluttered, and some biscuit crumbs landed on the crisp sleeves of his shirt. ‘It’s the article about the dog show. You said you wanted it by Wednesday noon. So, well, there it is.’
Her eyes narrowed. They reminded Eric of the baskets of gooseberries he used to pick in the summers when he was a kid. He could tell what was coming next and wished he’d worn his glasses instead of his contacts today; they always made him feel slightly more protected.
‘It’s fucking horse shit is what it is!’ She stabbed her finger on the headline. ‘WESTY IS BESTY, I mean Jesus, Andrew, what were you thinking?’
‘It’s Eric.’ He muttered, not loud enough for her to hear.
‘Um so what exactly is the problem with it?’
‘EVERYTHING!’ she yelled and drew her face close to his. He could smell her perfume, vanilla mixed with orange and cloves. To his embarrassment, he could feel himself getting slightly aroused. Her eyes dropped down to his chest.
‘Have you been eating at your fucking desk?’
‘No. Well, yes. Sorry, Camilla, it’s just I’ve been here since six and didn’t have time to grab any breakfast and…’
‘We don’t fucking eat in the fucking office! Now fix it, fix it now. I want a re-write on my desk in an hour. Argh! Fucking interns!’
The sound of her heels rung in Eric’s ears as she turned and strutted off.
‘I’m not an intern.’ he muttered when he knew she was out of earshot, then sighed and picked up the paper from his desk.
‘Westy is Besty, what’s wrong with that?’
‘It is a bit shit mate, to be fair.’
Eric felt a hot meaty breath on the back of his neck which made him jump. He turned round to see a pair of tiny currant-black eyes shining with amusement. Dougie used his feet to wheel himself laboriously around to Eric’s side of the desk.
‘What did you want to write about that bollocks for anyway?’ He grinned, his fat lips quivering like two slimy, red slugs on his face. He leaned over, pulled open Eric’s draw, and, without asking, grabbed a biscuit and stuffed the whole thing into his mouth, barely chewing before he swallowed.
‘Hey, I was rationing those!’ Eric glared at his friend and pushed the drawer shut.
Dougie Ledger had been working at the Barrymore Gazette for over twelve years and yet was still one of the most unsuccessful individuals Eric ever had the misfortune of knowing. He had started much like Eric – a young graduate full of enthusiasm for the job; sure he was going to find one fantastic story that would lead him to the big time. As the years passed by, however, he slowly realised it was not meant to be, and, as the stories he was given got smaller and smaller, so his waistband got bigger and bigger until finally, at 37, Dougie appeared happy just to fill in the dead space.
He did the horoscopes, the weather and, in Eric’s opinion A somewhat racist weekly cartoon. How he had kept his job, especially with Camilla now at the helm, was anyone’s guess, but whenever Eric pointed that out to him, Dougie would tap his nose and say he had something on her that she’d never want anyone to know. It was bullshit of course. Perhaps somewhere deep beneath that icy veneer, she had the heart to feel sorry for the guy.
Eric stared harder at the piece of paper. ‘Maybe you’re right.’ He shrugged.
‘Right.’ Dougie guffawed and clamped a warm, heavy hand on Eric’s shoulder. ‘Mate, it could be the best fucking article in the world, and you could be Joseph Pulitzer, but it wouldn’t make any difference. Camilla hates you, she’s never going to fuck you, your time here on this earth is a huge mother-fucking waste, and one day you’ll be fat and old and miserable, and then you will die, sad and alone. So why not just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride?’
He then pushed off from Eric’s desk and turned himself around, so he was astride his chair, ungracefully wheeling back round to his computer while humming both loudly and out of tune.
Eric looked around him. He couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t supposed to have turned out like this. In the beginning, there had been so much potential, but now the future looked so profoundly, disappointingly bleak it was almost too much to bear. Where had it all gone wrong?
He’d arrived into the world on a grim February morning in 2066 in The Vale of White Horse, just outside Oxford. His parents thought that by merely being born near the Great University he was somehow destined to go there. This, however, was unsurprisingly not the case, and fast forward 21 years of average grades he had emerged victorious with a rather disheartening 2:1 in Journalism and Media Studies from the neighbouring, and not quite so majestic, Oxford Brooks.
Eric remembered their faces at his graduation, his mother weakly smiling, her pale blue eyes full of tears that an innocent passer-by would have mistaken for tears of pride. His father, arms crossed neatly over his thin chest and leaning back in his chair in a pose of resigned disappointment.
If it hadn’t been for Kate, he would have probably ended up on the Dougie Ledger carousel to loserdom a lot sooner. She’d turned up in some weird outfit that might have been fashionable twenty years ago, hair a mess of auburn curls strung about her face in an unruly, comical and loveable arrangement, and, of course, a customary ten minutes late. She’d sat as near to the front as she was allowed and whooped inappropriately, her bangles clattering about her wrists as she clapped with a strange ferocity when they called his name.
Afterward, when they had freed themselves from the eye-glazing chit-chat of the post-graduation ceremony, she’d taken him to one of the few remaining traditional pubs in the city where bartenders would still serve you a proper pint if you gave them a conspiratorial wink, and she’d told him not to worry.
‘At least you got the penis.’ She’d laughed, eyes bright with mischief. ‘Can you imagine how fucking bad it is for me? The crushing disappointment of having a daughter who wants a career, and who is yet to be married? God, if it was 30 years ago, I could have been doing what I’m doing and would have been considered successful, intelligent even, someone trying to do some good on this planet, but now…’
She’d sighed and stared into her beer glass, letting him see a rare moment where she wasn’t cheerful. ‘The world’s a right fucked up place Eric, you know?’ Then she’d reached for his hand. ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down OK? You can be whatever you want to be little brother, OK?’
Eric had squeezed her hand and sighed. She sometimes got all soppy like this. Being three years older than him, in her mind, seemed to have given her a disproportionate amount of knowledge and understanding about what had happened in the world over the last decade. She certainly liked to talk as though she was an expert on all of it.
If he really tried, Eric could remember a time when it had been different. When the city had been full of rubbish, with bins overflowing, and buildings caked in filth. A time where it was OK to get dirty, where if you coughed or sneezed people wouldn’t look at you in horror and insist you went home until you got the all-clear from a medical professional.
He didn’t let on to Kate, but he preferred the city the way it was now. It was less frightening, more ordered, cleaner, and the air was free of that thick dust which used to make his allergies flare up and time and time again.
Of course, he knew the price they had paid to get it that way, and like every other good, moral citizen, he didn’t exactly agree with what had happened. On the other hand, like every conforming, dispassionate citizen, he was not so appalled as to do anything about it. He was enjoying the many benefits of the city’s healthy new makeover after all.
Kate claimed to prefer how it was back then. She often talked about how disgusted she was by what they had done, the way they had separated, and segregated the rich from the poor. Those who could afford it were able to stay in the cities, those who could not had to live beyond the Wall. Kate worked with different groups and charities, fighting to give them rights, and trying to send them aid, though this had become increasingly dangerous and futile of late. She also spent much of her time risking arrest by campaigning and protesting in an ever-losing battle to have the Wall taken down.
Still, she too was living in the city, and she was also enjoying all its benefits, even though sometimes she acted as though she was doing so against her will.
‘Sorry’ she’d laughed. ‘It’s your night; I don’t want to spoil it.’ So just as soon as the moment had come it passed, and then they were drinking tequila dancing by the bar to golden oldies and laughing their heads off at anything and everything, just the way they always did.
They’d piled out of the bar at some ungodly time in the morning, when the sky, though still black, was quivering with the promise of a new day. The streets were dark and quiet, so the sounds of the two of them clattering and stumbling their way home only fuelled their hilarity. They’d pointed up at the billboards and mimicked the women. Those perfect, beautiful women who chattered of agelessness, of eternal youth, of miracle cures for smoother skin, better hair, the perfect smile. They’d passed the shops lit up with flashing neon signs. ‘Stay clean! Be healthy!’ they demanded, with every other shop window advertising a new extreme germ-busting product or vitamin that would supposedly keep all diseases at bay. They’d congratulated themselves for not falling for it, and Eric felt superior and free, as though they were rebelling against it all. But they weren’t rebelling, and he knew it. They were intelligent and moral enough not to agree with what was happening in the cities, yet also invisible, and powerless, and too scared to do anything about it.
Of course, they hadn’t known it then, but things would only get worse. The fear of disease intensified over the years, and the authorities passed law after law to try to appease the increasingly hysterical masses. Imports and exports could only come from other designated clean areas. Fresh food became a thing of the past; everything was canned up, powdered down, vacuum-packed. You could still get a biscuit or a stick of gum if you knew where to ask, but generally, meals became joyless. Restaurants closed and new health spas sprang up in their place offering cleanses, and powdered juices in packets that would clean you, scrub you, and make you sparkle from the inside out.
The most significant project was when the government had decided to move the hospitals underground in a bid to prevent the airborne diseases from spreading, and, shortly afterward, came the construction of the enormous domes, sealing the cities and other clean areas in. People could still travel, but only between destinations that had been determined safe. Even then it stopped being easy to go anywhere outside the city; there were tests for everything imaginable both on the way in and on the way out and people started to wonder whether it was worth the hassle. It wasn’t just their city, after all, it was happening all over. They’d begun to vacuum-pack the world.
The Wall was still there, but now it didn’t just divide the rich from the poor but was a permanent barrier between them. No one could get in or out of the cities unless they went via the checkpoints, which were guarded carefully by the Defence.
There was little need for people living in the city to go outside it anyway, and if they did, there were routes, sealed off passages out to the protected bits of land, the preserved villages, the Jurassic coastlines – so people still felt as though they could go places, that they weren’t trapped. That they were living healthier, better lives, convinced that this was for their own good, and that they were still free.
Occasionally, groups from beyond the Wall would come into the city, having gained permission under the Better Lives scheme. Once they had been vetted and checked, these people would be given a tour, be shown what they were missing, what a great life they could have, if they only worked a little harder, sacrificed a little more. The joys of a sterile home, uncontaminated food and water, and access to the healthcare system were all theirs for the taking if they wanted it. They would have to work to pay for this ‘upgrade of lifestyle’ of course, take the hard labor jobs, the ones that broke your back and didn’t pay, but were worth it in exchange for an ‘existence’. The authorities told them this was their chance to be free, but to Eric, it sometimes felt as though it was the other way around.
It was a quarter past four when Eric finally built up the courage to knock on Camilla’s office door, the newly written article tucked under his arm. The door was slightly ajar, and he could see her frowning at her computer screen. She was biting her lip and tapped on the screen angrily before turning her head to see who was there. Camilla Klein did not mind keeping people waiting.
‘Here’s the revised article you asked for.’ He shuffled from one foot to another, not quite looking her in the eye. ‘Hopefully, it’s acceptable.’
Camilla leaned back in her chair, stretching out her arms and folding them behind her head. She was cat-like in her movements, eyes narrowed, lips pursed to hiss. Eric could see a flash of black lace beneath her shirt. She arched an eyebrow. ‘I highly doubt it,’ she said.
After she had dismissed him with a casual flick of her wrist and a sigh that indicated her frustration at one so very far beneath her in this world, Eric returned to his desk. He skimmed through some local websites to see if anything cropped up that might be worth pursuing.
There was still an interview to do with the man whose dog had saved him from drowning last week. The man was on the mend in a hospital not far from the office, and there was talk of the dog getting one of those old animal bravery awards, despite its unfortunate end.
It was, in fact, a rather strange story, and despite not being the hard-hitting political journalism Eric had once hoped he would be reporting on, he couldn’t help but find himself intrigued.
He knew that the man had been walking with his dog by the canal in one of the preserved villages when, for no apparent reason, he’d tripped and fallen in. In ordinary circumstances, it should have been easy for the man to swim out, the canals weren’t very deep, and the currents were weak, but by an unfortunate twist of fate, the man’s trouser leg became caught on something at the bottom. As he was coughing and spluttering and no doubt considering his last, not only did his faithful dog jump in after him but it managed to swim right down to where the man’s leg was trapped, free him and pull him out of the canal and back onto the bank.
Had it ended there it would have been a heart-warming story, a tale that might even evoke a tear or two from the dog-lovers of the city if Eric told it right. However, this was not meant to be. For unfortunately the dog, having saved his master, became defensive and wouldn’t let a soul near him, barking and snarling and baring its teeth when anyone tried to approach.
The man, at this point, all bulbous-eyed and purple-skinned, was quite obviously in need of immediate medical assistance. According to onlookers he was clutching his throat, squirming and flip-flopping on the bank of the canal, like a fish freshly plucked from the water.
The story took a rather gruesome turn via the quick thinking of the local butcher who came running out, gun in hand, and shot the dog right between the eyes.
After receiving mouth to mouth, the near-drowned man regained consciousness and was not best pleased. Ignoring the fact that the butcher was at least as much to thank as the dog for saving his life, he had been unable to see it this way. Instead, he screamed, shook his fist, and swore his revenge, before being sedated by a paramedic and carted away.
Yes, it was a strange story, but intriguing nonetheless.
‘So,’ Dougie megaphoned in his ear. Despite his immense size he always managed to sneak up on Eric with impressive ease. ‘It’s Wednesday night. The ladies will be loose and liquored up, and we’ll be the lucky lads to look after them. Where are we headed, Kingston?’
Eric shook his head and grinned at his friend. Despite a catastrophe of rejections, Dougie never failed to remain positive about the idea of getting laid.
‘I can’t tonight, sorry.’
‘What?’ Dougie scrunched up his face, so it looked like a big red tomato that had been left in the sun. ‘It’s ladies night. What am I going to do without my wingman eh? Don’t be a pussy mate, come on.’
Eric shook his head again. Standing up, he pulled on his waterproof and wrapped a grey scarf tightly around his neck. ‘I’m sure you will manage without me.’
Dougie stood up, aghast, and tried to block his path, but Eric dodged around him and headed for the door.
‘But Kingston, what about the dancing, and the ladies, and the sweet, sweet…’
‘Have a good evening Dougie,’ Eric called, not looking back as he pulled the door open and quickly walked out of the office.
At home, Eric showered and dressed, choosing a simple navy-blue wool sweater, some jeans and his smartest pair of brown leather shoes. His clothes were all this way. Neat, simple and functional. If he liked something, he bought two of it, and he’d always preferred comfort over fashion or expense.
After dressing, Eric ran a comb through his thin black hair, arranging it neatly in a side parting as he always did. His face was pale, angular and smooth as a child’s. Only once had he made any attempt to grow facial hair, which had ended in a farcical mess of baffling tufts which spurted sporadically about his cheeks. His eyes were his mother’s, ice blue and by far his best feature, his nose was a button and too feminine to add anything pleasing to his appearance.
He sat on his couch and waited. He checked phonepiece was on and connected several times.
It rang at six minutes past eight.
‘Im freeeeeeeee!’ Eric smiled, he didn’t recognize the voice, but he didn’t have to – he could always tell when it was her.
‘We have exactly 6 hours to make our wildest dreams come true, let’s make every moment count.’ She was laughing and breathless, as if she had too much to say and needed to say it all at once. He could just picture her, hair all puffed up, eyes sparkling, bracelets banging about her wrists. Her excitement was contagious.
‘Are you at the usual place?’
‘Damn right little brother, see you here in ten OK?’
‘You got it.’
Eric hung up, grabbed his keys and his wallet from where he had chucked them on the bed. He opened the front door to his flat, slammed it behind him, and began running down the street.