Friday, 21 January 2011

Ethically Outsourced

Dear sir and/or madam (please, delete as applicable)
We regret to inform you that your country of origin
Is just not right for our company’s business plan
So we will not be taking your application further.
Unfortunately, you also lack the necessary experience
And why should we bother actually training you
When we could hire someone from a better postcode
Who was able to do unpaid internships for a year or two?
Not that we actually would of course because they
Would inconveniently demand paid parental leave,
And for some strange reason no one else wants jobs
That they’ll lose when a new mum or dad returns to work.
Certainly, no doubt you could possibly relocate
But to be honest we’re just not willing to wait for
Someone who doesn’t want to join us because we’re cool
But because they genuinely care about what we do.
So the job has gone to someone thousands of miles away
Who gets to be exactly like you for a fraction of your wage;
And yes, we know you must be incredibly disappointed
But it’s alright because this letter was printed
On one hundred percent genuinely recycled paper,
Unless of course we sent you a copy-pasted email.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Old Lie

Cracked, like the makeup she pretends not to wear,
The pavement is a million health and safety lawsuits
Lying in wait where firelight is replaced by monitor glare
And trans-oceanic cables become the veins of the world
Used in a bypass operation for our too-hospitable shore.
Whilst waiting in yet another bloody line, we realise
Our minds are full of secrets which have never been told
But that despite our best efforts everyone seems to know,
So reality is something completely hidden but in full view
Like fear in the eyes of a salesman when we’re not buying.
Although we live and die as little more than consensual slaves
Time and eventually the truth will make monuments of our graves,
Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves as months turn to years
Then years turn to regrets of never being rich enough to laugh
At ourselves for feigning happiness when we checked our wages.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Happy Thoughts

It’s your body, not you, that’s getting old
and yet that doesn’t matter to everyone else,
because you’ll never have a job that
doesn’t involve being called an assistant or
Whilst that face in the mirror belongs to a man
that you wish you didn’t have to be,
you force yourself to believe in something
so your life will not have been lived for nothing.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Embrace, Extend, Extinguish

There. That glow on the horizon, framed neatly between grasping fronds of foliage and held up by a sconce of miscellaneous building detritus. For the briefest of moments Len was not sure exactly what it was. But then he realised, or rather forced himself to remember. It was a city. The City. Even so far away its lambent aura spread out across almost the entire sky as though it were a cloak of lingering flame cast off over a bed of cooling coals; a beacon to which people were drawn in their tens of thousands like flies to an insectocutor. It was the pride of the nation, the engine room of the economy and a gigantic cess pit made of metal, concrete, tarmac and glass.
He used to go up onto that bluff outside of town and reach out towards the warmth of a billion twinkling lights, to bask in it and to live off it like some anthropomorphised lizard. But that had been ages ago, as far as he was concerned. He no longer saw a source of life when he peered into the deepest reaches of the dark-shrouded distance. The gleaming that was once as radiant as a star on the brink of bursting, had grown pallid and sickly like the waft of visible stench that heralds the rebirth of an old plague god as it claws its way out of its grimy bower and belches upon the world. The light formed into dripping talons that gouged great rifts into the earth and indiscriminately shovelled people into its maw where their essence, but not their flesh, was slowly consumed. As he scuffed the heels of his trainers in the dirt he found that the wind asked him: would the world be a better place if all of those lights went out? He could not answer immediately and even if he could there was no one there to listen. But after a few pensive puffs on a superking his voice sounded in the paralysed air like a knock without a door: ‘Probably.’
As hard as he found it to believe there was a time when even he had wanted to live in the city, when he had pinned all his hopes on simply being in that place. He thought that would have been enough. It was not. It never had been and it never would be. He had come to know better, and he wondered if everyone else that went there also knew what he did but chose to ignore the fact out of some misguided optimism or foolish hope. Hope not Hate. It was a noble sentiment and a fine slogan. But its creators failed to understand that hope was often the cause and driving force of hate. Hope could make people believe any lie they wanted to. Hate could make them understand that they had never been told the truth. The truth foremost on his mind was that it was late and he had to get up early.

Len grimaced as he tied a faded blue sweatshirt around his waist, not that he found the action uncomfortable it was just that it was the same sweatshirt everyone else he knew had to wear. He understood the need for wearing a uniform if you were a member of the emergency services or the military, but when it came to everyone else it seemed that uniforms existed simply to mark you out as “lesser”, as if everyone had to know you went to a certain school or had settled to spend the rest of your life working for a supermarket. It was not the uniforms themselves he disliked, it was everything people thought they stood for and more than that he disliked that they may have been right about it. Surely the only difference between a wealthy and successful child of wealthy and successful parents and a fulltime supermarket employee was that the former simply tried harder. Wasn’t it? No, Craig thought as he crushed an empty Coke can under his foot outside a shop with “Closing Down” emblazoned across its windows.
 His parents were both still at work so they had asked him to pop in and get some batteries whilst they were going cheap. They were not incapable of doing it themselves but it would save them time between leaving work and sitting in front of the television all night, not that what Len did was any better than that. In fact, if he was being honest what he got up to was probably considerably worse. As he rummaged through the bargain bin of batteries (the sign had been written with a silver glitter pen) he glanced to his left. At the counter there was a man flicking through a catalogue and muttering to himself, pausing on every other page to tug on a beard so improbably rat-ish that even elderly rodents would double-take at the sight of it. Len’s shrug against the cold was longer than it should have been as he tried to hide the fact he was checking out the growth rate of his own facial hair. It was still non-existent. Maybe it would not be so bad to eventually be able to grow a beard like that. There was something uncanny about the stranger, who on cautiously distant closer inspection was not so strange after all. It was like looking into a time refracting mirror and watching an older version of himself searching desperately for something to buy without knowing why he wanted to buy it. Probably the same reason for anything else, because it was something to do. That was the trick to getting by in a place like that, learning to turn nothing into something. If that blank living room wall got on your nerves and you could not afford anything to brighten it up, you took something until the nothing turned into a collage whilst overlooking the fact that although the drugs were probably more expensive in the long run they were certainly more convenient. Every little helped.
            After he left the shop  the area was draped in a mist like smoke, as though someone had decided to raze the town to the ground without the common decency to alert the inhabitants beforehand. Although all things considered their untimely deaths might not have been much of a loss. It would probably have been in the papers for a week and then some girl that went missing years ago would turn up as a heroin-addicted sex slave in a stereotypically bleak eastern European city and attract the roving eye of the ravenous media monster. Cue a shit storm of debate about the plight of modern women, which would completely ignore the fact that it was virtually impossible for a woman to fail. They had the shield of motherhood to protect them from the world’s scorn. A man who had nothing to show for his life other than a few sprogs was the absolute height of fashion when it came to failure. Len wondered if at the end of his life he would be able to look back in anything but anger as a song outro heard from a first floor cafe window played over his thoughts.
Sunlight filtered through the solid sky in rigid shafts like crystals on a chandelier, although he did not actually know what a chandelier was to make that comparison he made it just the same. The air was cold and clean, or just slightly less filthy than it usually was, and made the experience of breathing fairly pleasant. He could feel the pictures on the side of cigarette packets every time he took in a lungful, but he would not have to worry about that for a long time. Not as long as he might have hoped though, as things that need to be heard are never said until it is too late. Which was why he saw a crying couple come out of a bank. He felt like saying “Merry Christmas” to them but well, it was not going to be was it? Still, it could have been worse. They could have been caught up in a Haitian cholera riot.
The local council had done a passable job with the decorations on the high street but there was a conspicuous absence of cheer and good will, so much so that the overall impression created was that of hanging tinsel inside an iron maiden. Very...festive. Just like the way Nev looked in his Father Christmas hat whilst working in the news agents. Len pressed his middle finger against the window. Nev saw him, pretended to swoon and blew a kiss back. Len breathed on the window and scrawled “U Wish” in the misty patch, only he forgot that Nev would see it backwards. So he wiped it away, started again and wrote “LOL.” That worked. Kind of. Not really but almost. It was good enough. Nev was older than Len and had officially finished school the previous year, but he had given up on the whole idea of education a long time before that. He was not stupid, exactly the opposite in fact, he just knew there was no point in having a load of certificates that could not even be used for wiping his arse. He thought it was better to quit whilst he was not ahead than come to a slow and painful realisation after years of wasted money, time and effort.
‘I’m working, what do you want?’ Nev shut the shop door behind him to stop his boss complaining about the heating bill even though he would moan anyway.
            ‘Nothing. Just came to see how you are.’
            ‘Been shopping?’
            ‘Nah, not really it’s just something for mum and dad.’
            ‘Errand boy.’
            ‘Pfft. You feeling alright?’
‘No, I feel like shit.’
            ‘You look like it too.’
            ‘Oh, ha-fucking-ha. It’s this fucking cold. It’s killing me.’ Nev snorted a breath through a snoutful of sludge and spat. A dollop of discoloured phlegm landed with a heavy splat a few feet away.
            ‘Thanks for that.’
            ‘You’re welcome.’ Nev managed to cobble together what he thought was a smile. ‘Doing anything later?’
            ‘Same as always.’
            Nev nodded, ‘Fuck all?’
            ‘Pretty much.’ Len wished that was not true.
            So did Nev. ‘Tunnel? Usual time?’
            ‘Could do, yeah. After dinner.’
            ‘I’ll message the others. Cya.’
            ‘Yeah. Cya later.’
            The streets were filled with kids he knew, kids he did not know and kids he knew but wished he did not. He was not exactly a picky person but he had his standards, even if for the most part they were what everyone else considered to be incredibly low. It struck him again how much he was frustrated by the uniforms. They made everyone look the same. They turned a horde of children into an army of clones, all taught to think and feel and act the same way. The trouble was that whilst most of them did not, they pretended that they did. The main problem with that was that they pretended so well that no one believed them when they said otherwise. Consequently the charade eventually ceased to be a charade and they became what the government liked to call “hardworking and productive members of society.” Len already felt it starting to happen to himself, in the late hours of the night when the loneliness of his own flesh was his sole companion he could hear his thoughts grow bland and obnoxious, like a advert. There were times when he told himself that he would do anything for a quiet life, even if that meant giving up on everything that made life worth living. But although those times were few and far between, they were still too frequent for his liking. As he approached his house he checked his phone for the time. It was already getting late. He had homework to do and he had to defrost something for his mum to cook when she returned.

The night was as dark as a portrait of itself. Traffic lights blinked like rokurokubi eyes. Somewhere there was a conspicuous bang followed by a scream. They were background noises; the kind of sounds that most people ignored or confused with the Turkish couple that ran the local corner shop having a domestic. The tunnel Nev had mentioned earlier that day was a disused underpass on a section of the estate that the property developers had never got around to finishing. Apparently, the company had been largely publicly funded and with a royal wedding coming up money was in short supply...mostly for the people who needed it. Twas ever thus, popped into Len’s mind out of some vague recollection of a class as he huddled up against the wind with his mates. They sat on breeze blocks around an improvised table made from an overturned wheelie bin that had been cut in half, well not exactly cut more like melted. Only one light functioned in the tunnel and its baleful flickering was like that of a watch fire on a distant hill, both a reminder and a warning that those not already sitting at the fire were not welcome. Small drifts of snow were kept at bay by the meagre light, as though the north winds recognised that it was a place in which small comforts were sorely needed and deigned to grant it reprieve from all their wrath and rime. There were several other enclaves like it scattered around the fringes of the estate, some on top of tower blocks or in partially constructed houses that had subsided due to poor foundations. Some were even in playgrounds that had forgotten the sound of laughing children and the presence of happy thoughts. But no matter where they were located there was always the constant swirl of letters and numbers carved or sprayed onto any available surface as though everything had potential to be an oracle bone. The groups that gathered at the camps were not protecting any particular territory, they were protecting themselves. Not from each other, at least not always, but more often than not from the bulk of the estate itself. That place did strange things to the mind. It had a way of getting inside you and festering like some dark, unnameable entity that despoiled all thought and feeling. How easy it was then to point the finger when you didn’t have to worry about a gun being pointed back at you. How easy it was to look the other way when it wasn’t your sons killing each other on patches of wasteland or in piss-soaked stairwells. How easy it was to say, “It’s just a way of life around there.” How easy and how cowardly.
Len dismissed his thoughts, they were making him and uncomfortable and asked with a toker’s grin, ‘So, left or right?’
Sol cracked open a can of beer and after a swig said, ‘Left.’
‘Left.’ Len volunteered and looked across the bin.
Nev weighed up the options as though he were voting on going to war. After a second of consideration he answered, ‘Right. More control.’
They all glared expectantly at Ash. The silence made him lose concentration on sorting and grinding. He looked out of his hood like a monk glancing up from his parchment and asked, ‘What?’
‘Which hand? Left or right?’ Len enquired again. The thought crossed his mind that all their names were monosyllabic. In fact most names that blokes gave each other were monosyllabic, well the polite ones at least, probably because at the age when they were given nick names they could barely manage more than a grunt before forgetting several thousand years of evolutionary progress and reverting to type.
‘Huh?’ Ash searched through his numerous pockets for suitable roach material.
‘Come on, which hand do you use?’
Ash was not getting into that. ‘Fuck off, I’m trying to roll.’ With that he returned to his shamanic work, before he paused and with a cheeky chuckle said, ‘Both, innit?’
            The others laughed and waited. Many times had they tried to learn how to roll and many times they had failed. They left the task to Ash as he better understood the skills required. Only he met the dealers because he looked the least like bait, even when he was standing right in front of someone it was almost as if he was not there. But they were all like that to a certain extent, there but not there and forgotten before they had even been remembered. That was why when a politician had visited their school they had been locked in the library. Apparently they were troublemakers. Although it was trouble that had made them and had seen to it that it was not their place to aspire or succeed, they just had to try not to fail too much.
If they had been lucky enough to have grown up with their fathers, then they had done so living not from wage slip to wage slip but rather from supermarket receipt to supermarket receipt because even the weekly shop was almost unmanageably expensive. Each of them had learned a long time ago that there was no point in asking because they would never get and there was no point in looking because they would never be allowed to touch. The horizons of their lives were bound not just by a glass ceiling, but by glass floors and walls as well. Ash sparked up and together they allowed the smoke to make the knowledge of their limitations just slightly more bearable. They nodded; both in appreciation of the weed and of the presence of each other. They all knew that if they had to be alone then they may as well be alone together. Yet despite a sense of brotherhood that bolstered them against the cold of the world and the great emptiness of their lives, something dreadful lingered in their minds like a secret written in shadow. Sol had an “employer” who liked to drop in unannounced. Where he took Sol and what he made him do they never dared ask. But he had told them. The other three were the only ones who would listen; they were the only ones that cared to actually hear. That was why he loved them and that was why they had to love him. No one else did. No one else ever would. Not in the right way or for the right reasons at least. With them he was safe and protected, as though for just a few hours he was beyond the reach of all harm. He was not, but it certainly felt like it and that was the next best thing.
Dinner had only been a few hours ago but on the way back from the tunnel Len stopped in a chicken shop. It was the kind of place where everything on the menu looked great, but once it was actually handed over it was only just recognisable as food in much the same way as stains on a hotel mattress viewed under a black light were innocuous enough at first, even fascinating to a certain extent, until it became obvious what they were. Not that it really mattered, the stuff was edible at least and in the dismal world of fast-food restaurant annual health and safety inspections that was good enough. Besides, whatever else it may or may not have been it was certainly tasty...palatable...tolerable once it was drowned in sauces and garnishing. A “caution wet floor” sign had been placed over a splash of bleach-diluted blood. One of the mirror tiles on the wall had a forehead sized crack in it and a light fitting had been torn loose. Well, it was a Friday after all and violence was the only possible outcome in a place where the veneer of civilised behaviour had become so cracked and warped that the uncontrollable rage just beneath it was constantly exposed. Len took a bite of his fillet burger and was glad it was not his blood down there.
Over the din of the customers over-enthusiastic jaws and a foreign radio station he had begun to make out the sounds of people on their way home from the pubs. He had made it a personal policy never to be caught out and about at chucking out time. It was not wise. Which was why he forced down the last of his burger and left. He did his best to sneak through the estate, sticking to the shadows cast by Pathfinder project buildings that looked like they had been built simply to fall apart. Which as he fumbled for his key he realised they had, so that in a few years time they could be flattened to make room for executive apartments whilst the previous occupants were forced to relocate. Len pressed his head against the front door and wondered if he would ever be able to afford a real home.

His mum had worked late at the factory last night running water through sausage skins, so she was in bed. His dad was out in the front “garden” trying to figure out why strips of barren dirt did not qualify for herbaceous border status. But still the television was on in the front room listening to its own echoes. There was a repeat of some lifestyle show on the screen which featured the kind of people who had cheeks like rotten apples covered with concealer and eyes that scanned their surroundings as though they disapproved of everyone and everything except themselves. With their snouts firmly planted in property magazines they would every now and then declare that 350k for a house was an absolute bargain. Yeah, obviously positively bargain basement. He had lucid dreams about that kind of “person.” Usually they involved lining up of them and telling them their lives were not worth the bullets they were about to be shot with. After one of those he always woke up smiling, only to sneer once he realised that unfortunately it had indeed only been a dream and that he would have to go on living in a world where something would be taken away from those who had nothing to begin with so that it could be given to those who already had everything. He may have been little more than a child but even he knew that was just...wrong. There was no “if” and/or “but” about it. Yet no one wanted to offer the poor any meaningful help if it meant inconveniencing the rich.
            Len flicked through the dog drool stained television magazine. As he lazily spooned flakes of almost stale cereal into his mouth he could not help but wonder where exactly he slotted into the grand scheme (and it most certainly was a very cunning, malicious and ridiculously circuitous scheme) of things. He had once wanted to be a policeman, a psychiatrist or maybe even a geologist. He could not for the life of him remember why though, until he looked at his father through the net curtains. It was only then that he realised that all he had ever really wanted was to be as little like him as was genetically possible. How long would it be before his own complexion dulled, the light went from his eyes, and he had made so many mistakes that he had no idea which ones to regret and which ones to tell funny stories about? But then again he was not sure how he would ever make watching various American animated comedy shows and making polygon-meshes move about a screen even vaguely interesting let alone hilarious. In any case, it would not be long. Experience had taught him to only ever expect the worst because it was all that ever happened so at least he would not be surprised. He had not taken too kindly to his mother either, well not in a way that involved having “mum” tattooed above his heart. She was more of a passive authority figure than anything else. Regardless of his thoughts about them, his parents had never really talked to him about what he wanted to do, but that was mainly because they had no idea about what they even wanted to do with themselves. Not that they did not want to encourage him of course; in fact exactly the opposite was true, it was that just like Pratchett’s Death they understood the meaning of futility better than anyone. The world ignored them, and through no fault of their own they had ended up ignoring it.
He sipped from a mug of bitter, brown tea which seemed reluctant to let go of his tongue as though the liquid thought that his stomach was the last it would see of the world. His slurps rebounded off the bare walls and got lost somewhere amongst the padding of his feet on the lino. His teeth had already started to gain what was considered to be a distinctly English, biscuit-coloured patina. As far as he was concerned if teeth were meant to stay immaculately white then they would not get stained in the first place. Besides, surely there were more important things to worry about than having a mouth full of teeth like slabs of imported why he was crouched by a single panel gas heater for warmth instead of just switching on the central heating. The answer, so he had been told a million times, was that it made no sense to heat the whole bloody house when he was only in one bloody room. Of course, that skipped over the inconvenient truths of his not wanting to have to lug the damned thing around from room to room and that his parents could not really afford to pay the heating bill. It also ignored the fact that there were people in the country who could be classified as alive-but-not-living; who were those that never had to worry about being cold or whether the food they were eating was actually doing them more harm than good. But as he let the dog in he thought that there were people in far worse situations than him, like that homeless bloke (not much older than he was) who slept between two bins outside the derelict community centre. He was one of those who could be called dead-but-not-deceased. Len was not sure which one he would prefer to be, but anything had to be better than being unable to hear his own screams over the sound of nothing. To avoid any further discussion of the matter of heating he had taken to wearing a woollen hat indoors.
            When he went back up to his room the pictures on the walls were the first things to greet him. What exactly were heroes for? What did they do? Disappoint you and then die, for the most part. But that did not stop people from trying to be as much like their chosen idols as they could though, even if it meant they had to dance around in a fluorescent unitard whilst being superimposed over a photograph of a sandwich to get even the slimmest (practically at-death’s-door anorexic) chance of “making it.” As much as he liked them, Len hated them because they reminded him of all the men he would never be and all the women he would never sleep with. That was an unfortunate realisation, but the truth knows no master and would have made itself known to him whether he liked it or not. It was only fun to pretend when you did not know that was what you were doing. Once you understood that everything you had ever believed in was a complete fantasy then it became harder to feel comfortable about being employed as a cleaner, shop assistant, sales representative, warehouse operative, kitchen porter or having some other such pointless job that took away more self-respect than was worth it for the minimum wage. But as much as he hated the posters and magazine clippings on the walls he hated his own reflection even more. His eyes always seemed as though they were looking backwards through time (his older self regarding the younger) and being overcome with loathing at the sight of so much promise that would never even be given the chance to try and fail, let alone actually succeed.
A siren and a descending plane struck up a duet as Len slumped down onto the edge of his bed. The last of the night’s body heat ebbed away into the surrounding air in such sudden strands that the loss was almost palpable. He shuddered as though the breath had turned sour in his mouth. Leftovers from dinner festered slightly on a plate by the foot of his bed; globules of fat had congealed in puddles of stiffening gravy. The image of that muck clung to his eyes, his retinas felt like they were submerged in a quagmire of gelatinous beef stock out of which arose crumbling spires of scorched bone like the ruins of a world that was ancient before the first mortal memory. For a second, the shock of the vision threatened to completely overwhelm his mind until he realised he was looking out of the window. He saw that the town had not changed overnight. Had he expected to? No. But he had really hoped. Not the paltry hope of someone who demanded to be given presents just because it was their birthday, but rather the hope of someone who expected their wish of not having to go to work in the morning would come true. That is, the kind of hope that always met with disappointment. Whilst he got dressed the thought that he would have to spend the rest of the day coping with that feeling constantly crossed his mind and was almost enough to make him wish that he had not bothered waking up.

Night. It had fallen without anyone noticing as though, like time’s leash around our necks, it had always been there. It was of an uncompromising blackness so complete in its absence of discernable tonality that it was like the deliberately covered badge number of a police officer. From the roof of the tower block Len stared out bleary-eyed into the great gusts of mist and snow that twirled around nearby buildings like the ends of villainous capes. It occurred to him that snow was the only kind of weather that never lost its charm, if you were a pedestrian at least. Perhaps the very sight of it tapped into the same kind of juvenile joy that was felt when your parents pointed out snow out to you for the first time and you were too young to really understand what it was but could see that it was beautiful. Beneath such a serene sheet of sheer white the town itself looked almost like it was sleeping...or rather, waiting. For what he could not say, nor did he really know, but somewhere out there school children who had the guts to stand up for what they believed in were being beaten up. Whilst elsewhere men in hoodies perched on top of vehicles or clung to traffic lights above shouting crowds. Their silhouettes were milestones, the sound of their stamping feet and hoarsely chanted slogans like drums being beaten at the crest of a hill before the cavalry poured over it. He wondered if in twenty years kids would be wearing t-shirts with such images on them instead of Che Guevara’s face. Probably. If someone with slick hair and a fake tan stood to make a profit from turning warriors into something akin to X-Factor poster boys then so mote it be
There was little movement in the world below, as if a photograph of desolation had been placed between the two panes of the glass ceiling. Whoever it was that was really in charge no longer needed to put suspiciously identical black cars, driven by suspiciously identical men in trench coats on street corners to keep the people quiet. Such things were deemed as tacky throwbacks to days when governments cared more about staying in power than staying in the black. Such expensive, touchy-feely (often stabby-punchy) security measures had been replaced with nice, cheap, little black cameras. After all the government could not put everyone in prison (even though they had invented enough laws so that everyone would be guilty of breaking at least one) and a vast network of informants and enforces was not exactly cost effective, so instead the ever-present they used thousands upon thousands of artificial unblinking eyes to turn the country itself into a panopticon. For a moment Len felt like dropping off the roof, as Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s medley of Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World played in his head, just to see if he could fly like some ASBO-toting superhero. And also to see if anyone was really watching. He suspected that there were even cameras watching the cameras. But if that was the case: who watched the watching watchers? In fact, scratch that. He did not want to know the answer; the possibilities were too dreadful to contemplate. The two-tone pavement far below called out to him, orange patches under streetlights twinkled like the eyes of sirens. In a nearby car park an engine backfiring sounded like John Lithgow getting over a chest infection. He snapped himself out of whatever it was he had been in and stepped away from the edge of the roof.
            Most of the shops had closed hours ago but lads not much older than himself were doing the night shift stacking shelves in the express supermarket on the high street. Little did they know that unless something was done then they would be doing pretty much the same kind of job for the rest of their lives, if not indeed the exact same job in the exact same place. Although that was probably wishful thinking, well not exactly wishful and it involved very little thought if he was honest. He wanted to warn them, to make them see what they really were, to wake them from their catatonic somnambulation. But he realised that if they did not already know then the disturbing probability was that they did not want to. Their hearts understood reality but their minds kept on silently screaming, “Blue pill! Blue pill!” Perhaps it was better that they remained ignorant of their fate, that way they would never feel the anguish of their lost lives. At least, not so much. That small respite was what Len most craved. He wished he did know that just like them he was nothing and never would be. Then again that was too harsh. He was human like them, just like everyone else. The problem was that they were not treated like it. By those in positions of power and control, and sometimes even by themselves, they were perceived as and treated like soulless thralls who existed for no other reasons than to serve and suffer. According to some they did not meet, fall in love, get married and have kids (not necessarily in that order) instead they merely...bred. But if that really was the case, Len did not get the chance to put their erroneous theory into practice as often as he would have liked.
            Puffs of exhaust fumes and coils of wind seemed to swirl around Len’s body as he stood in the darkness, as though he were calling upon the very essence of his soul to teleport him...somewhere, anywhere. It did not really matter to him where he ended up; it had to be better than that place. When he opened his eyes they were lashed by spiteful scraps of wind as he looked down into the river. At least it had been a river at some point during its existence. Decades of watercourse management had turned it into little more than a turgid stream. In places the water seemed to be lapping at itself like a dog licking its wounds. The remains of stunted fish collected against outcroppings of mud and rubbish. If Len had not been so certain of where he was, he could have sworn that hell had frozen over. Maybe it actually had, that would explain one or two things. Far away to the south in countries, where as a result of “climate change” coupled with industrial waste dumping and unethical farming methods, water was actually thicker than blood, wars were on the verge of breaking out because there was not enough to drink. If their water looked anything like the stuff in the river below him, then he wondered why they would want to. As he took a sip from the can of drink he had bought in the nearest corner shop, he found himself thinking of all the good that could be done with the money given to those who had not earned it and most certainly did not deserve it. It was strange that even though he had next to no money he understood its true value better than those who had more than they could possibly ever spend.  
A police car prowled further along the mist-deadened street, its lights were off and its engine was running low so that most people would not know it was there until they were handcuffed or unconscious (or both) on its back seat. But Len knew better than to let that happen. He had heard all about the handbooks of restraint guidelines that were distributed to officers so that they could blame the authors instead of themselves when someone died in custody. Without drawing attention to himself he dropped the can in the river (one more would not make a difference) and as the fog drew in around him he turned back towards home and faded out. To the untrained eye, or any eye for that matter, it was as if he had not been standing there. It was as if he had never existed. How much he wished that was the case, he did not want to admit to himself. The worst part of it was that it would not have made any difference. Not to him. Not to anyone. If tomorrow morning the world woke up and he was not there, no one would have noticed. It would have been like taking a single locust away from a swarm of a hundred million. The individual creature would be lost, but the great mindless mass it was separated from would carry on consuming, and consuming, and consuming until there was nothing left. Or until they were exterminated, whichever came first. But...he would wake up in the morning, the world would still be no different and the very idea that it could be would make him laugh at his own stupidity. He hated that he had hope, and hoped that hate would be enough.

They came for the people next door. None of the neighbours knew when or why. One day the Stewardsons had been there, the next they were not. Their possessions were still in the flat: tables, chairs, televisions, crockery and cutlery, even the family computer remained on its desk. Everything was in its rightful place, except the photographs. The faces of the family had been removed and along with them all certain memories of their presence. It was obvious that someone had lived there but one well-dressed old man swore out loud to other onlookers that no one had lived in that flat for years. Had it really been recently abandoned, or had it always been empty? Did the Stewardsons actually exist? When Len thought about it, maybe they did not. Then how did he explain all that stuff? Everyone staring through a barricade of police tape down the entrance hall of the flat preferred not to, and as he adjusted his school bag on his shoulder Len noticed that so did he. A cold and dreadful notion reached across the abyss of his most secret thoughts and made his mind tremble. If a single family could vanish without anyone seeing or hearing anything, then what was to stop the inhabitants of an entire block of flats doing the same? Whether all at once or one by one they would disappear without a trace. No one would be able to say how it happened or where they went. They would simply be gone. Which would make property development companies happy because once the undesirables had been taken care of the area would suddenly become perfect for regeneration. Len kept the thought to himself, but someone out there had already had it and the wheels were in motion.
            School had never had much appeal to Len and as such he usually ignored his surroundings whilst he was anywhere even remotely in the general vicinity of the low-lying building that squatted in amongst his nightmares. There were extensions that would remain forever half-finished because all the funding had been pulled for more important projects, like repairing the damage done to royal vehicles as they recklessly and inconsiderately drove through crowds of pissed off people. It was easy to ignore such minor details but the disappearance of the Stewardsons had changed something in him. He started to pick up on little tell-tale signs; like the way the deputy headteacher still cared enough about her job to greet the students at the gate regardless of the weather, or the way one of the secretaries savagely slapped his own face when he thought no one was looking before he got out of his car. As he sat at the back of a classroom just waiting for the end of a lesson even the other students seemed more alive to him, their nascent neuroses all the more obvious for his having never noticed them before. There was no telling when any of them might disappear for no reason, or at least for reasons someone wanted no one to know about, so he promised himself he would remember even if he was the only one. Would he be the only one though and was remembering really necessary? If enough people with video phones or camcorders turned up to an event YouTube would do the job even better. Not that his parents could afford those things for him. Just like him they were worried about leaving a light on just in case somewhere a starving child died to afford them the privilege. But when compared to the fact that there were people out there willing to pay unholy amounts of money to, for example, get a taste of the first cheese to be carried on a commercial space flight their concerns did not just seem rather petty they were entirely insignificant.
The only thing he was not paying attention to was the actual lesson. Whenever he thought about doing that he realised it was pointless. He would have no need of a well-rounded education when he was wearing a polyester uniform and working for minimum wage. Local employers did not look kindly on those who actually realised they were being treated like they were worthless. Besides the class was over and as the other kids left the room Len felt a tap on his shoulder. Mr. Hoque motioned for him to sit back down.
‘Len, do you mind if I ask you how you were feeling when you sat your mocks?’ Mr. Hoque perched on the edge of his desk in a very particular way which could have qualified him as being the dictionary definition of the word “teacher.”
‘The same way I feel every day. The same way we all feel.’
‘OK, but how exactly?’
There was a pause. A long one. The caretaker finished sweeping the hallway outside the classroom. Len broke the near perfect silence, ‘I felt nothing. I feel nothing. Ever. At least, not about this shit.’ He finished by sending an exercise book flying to the other side of the room.
‘Hey! You might be upset but there’s no need to use that kind of language.’ Mr. Hoque retrieved the faded green notebook and waved it reproachfully in Len’s face. ‘Or to start vandalising other people’s work.’
‘Fine. If you don’t want me telling the truth, I’ll shut up.’ Len folded his arms and did his best not to look petulant. Although that was how it worked most of the time. Don’t like something someone said, force them to stop talking.
‘You know that’s not what I meant.’
‘Isn’t it?’
‘Listen, Leonard. I’ve been going over your results from a while ago, and frankly I’m worried.’ Mr. Hoque looked up from his grade ledger in order to gauge Len’s response.
Len shrugged. ‘I’m not.’
That was not what he had been expecting. ‘Well, you should be. These exams are important.’
There was another long pause. A class that had been held back a few minutes after the end of their last lesson poured by the door. Still there was no answer.
Until, ‘Because they’re potential indicators of your future performance and they could determine the path of your school career.’ Word for word from the textbook, the headteacher would have been proud.
They were not supposed to say that. ‘Well, that’s about it I suppose.’ It was time to try something else. ‘Just think about this: what do you want to do with your life?’
Len actually thought about that. He thought about it a lot. All the time, in fact. He spent every minute of the day thinking about what he wanted to do with his life. The problem was he spent every other minute of the day discovering reasons why he would never be allowed to do it. He thought about Nev working at the news agents for the rest of his life or being fired because his boss got bored. Sol doing things he did not want to think about until he got too old and was discarded. Himself and Ash stacking shelves, sweeping floors or feeling their lungs rotting away at one of the town’s factories and wondering what went wrong. Every minute of their lives would be wasted. They were part of several generations that were not only lost but had never been found to begin with.
After sifting through his old thoughts Len came up with answer. ‘I want to live.’
‘We all do...but believe me, that’s not enough. You can go, Len. We’ll talk about this another time.’ Mr. Hoque could not help but stare out of the window, first of all because he was following a train of wistfully painful thought and secondly because a fight had just started. It was no different to the ones he had gotten into as a youth; two young men grabbing each other and spinning around. Neither of them had any real intention of actually hurting their opponent, they just wanted to prove a point. To themselves mostly.
Len turned and was unable to keep himself from asking, ‘What did you want to do with your life?’
The fight outside was being broken up and offered Mr. Hoque no distraction from how off-guard that question caught him. ‘I don’t want to answer that, Len.’
‘Go on. You can tell me, sir.’
What had he wanted to do? Certainly not spend his time marking the work of kids who did not care about anything, and who no one cared about. The real answer was, that there was no appropriate answer other than, ‘I wanted to live too.’ Mr. Hoque took a long sniff of his coffee. He hated the stuff but drank it anyway. It was just easier to pretend and fit in. ‘Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?’ He was not sure who he was asking.
‘No, sir, it’s not.’ Len said as he closed the door behind him and left his thoughts alone with Mr. Hoque.

A voice came through the mist. The syllables that it spoke were so precisely formed that the sound of them could have cut raindrops in half. Len wondered who was strange enough to stand outside in the middle of the night giving instructions to anyone who happened to be passing by. Maybe it was one of the eastern European migrant workers who lost their job and had been forced onto the streets to “live” on a diet of barbecued rats and alcoholic handwash. That might have been the case, but as he turned away from where Ash was taking a piss against a freshly weather-proofed fence he discovered there was no one there. Instead the voice was coming from the automated recycling centre in the car park of a nearby supermarket. A screen displaying various “how to” tips for local eco-warriors cast a patch of white light into the drizzle-drenched air. Did anyone actually use that thing? It looked like it had never been touched. Somehow even though he knew it was impossible the thing also sounded lonely as if it were the last vaguely sentient thing in existence. Its words, which faded like breath into the air even as receptive thought made them solid for a second, seemed to be the only sounds for hearing on the planet as they called out to the bones of people which had long since crumbled into dust to bring it by way of profane tribute their cans, carrier bags and cardboard boxes.
            Len was dragged back from his post-apocalyptic vision as Ash touched his shoulder. Cracks in the desert dirt around his eyes filled themselves in at the sudden rush of reality. ‘One toke over the line, man?’ Ash asked as his face blended into the atomic smudge of his cigarette cherry.
            ‘No, no I’m fine.’ But for life of him Len could not stop his teeth from chattering. It was the cold, he told himself. A cold that came in a grievous whisper upwards from the cursed vaults of the earth and knotted itself inside his flesh. Then again he had smoked a lot, maybe Ash was right.
            ‘Where're Nev and Sol?’ Ash asked to take Len’s mind off of his mind.
            Len double-checked a text message then grumbled, ‘By the Sisters.’
            ‘That’s fucking miles away. What they doing up there?’
            ‘Waiting for you to pick up.’
            ‘I already did. Met the bloke who lives near Cost Cutter. I can’t get hold of the guy I know up by the Sisters ’
            ‘Yeah, he got busted.’ Len kicked a pile of leaves but was disappointed when instead of fluttering about they just slid along the ground in soggy clumps. There was a blackish smear on the tip of his trainer. Damn.
            Len double-checked another text message. ‘Last week.’
            ‘Fucking noobs.’ Ash spat in the general direction of someone he hated even though they were not there. He expected to be looked at funny when he spat, but the truth was that it was not really that disgusting.
            They continued on through the twilight wasteland of what was euphemistically called their hometown, tapping their feet against a curb every now and then to knock off the putrid sludge that was all that remained of the latest snowfall. Christmas lights, the festive variety of defective “No Vacancy” signs, flashed on and off in windows all around them. In a dazzling clash of holidays some people were burning a mannequin in the square where the community tree had been put up. It did not matter who the dummy actually represented because everyone watching it melt imagined it to be a suited spiv from the city. A few local police watched from the sidelines, not daring to get too close just in case they became the next targets and they certainly did not want that to happen until there were more people in hi-vis jackets and body armour than there were in civilian clothing. There was no sense in their fighting a losing battle after all; it would look bad in the papers. So they stayed in the background reminding people they were being watched, even though no reminder was necessary. Every hour of every day it was made obvious to them that their lives were not their own; that instead they answered to the fanciful whims of men, women and children who were only distinguishable from everyone else because they happened to have been born rich. Len wanted to go over and warm his hands by the flames but Ash nodded into the darkness as a few more police made their presence known by testing their truncheons against a bollard. Not being particularly keen on having their heads smashed in, they skulked off into the shadows. A few minutes later they heard a woman scream and Len wondered to himself if the full force of the law would ever have to face the consequences of its own actions.
            Nev and Sol were hunched in the doorway of some flats, neither of them wanting to discuss the marks on Sol’s neck. Above them the grim edifices of the twin tower blocks known as the Sisters stretched up into the winter-choked sky like two haggard fingers insulting the world or testing the cauldron of the sky. They hopped from foot to foot and swapped rancid roll-ups whilst they waited. An old woman eyed them apprehensively from the end of the ground floor corridor before hurrying inside and bolting her door. It was not them she needed to fear, it was the men listening to all her phone conversations because her grandson had a foreign surname. Foxes barked somewhere in the middle distance. Nev coughed as Len and Ash emerged from the deepening gloom.
            ‘You two took your time.’ Sol grumbled through a plume of smoke that he hoped would look dramatic but in reality did nothing but add to the fog.
            ‘Well, you could’ve come to meet us instead of standing here freezing your bollocks off.’
            ‘Doubt walking about would have made much of a difference.’
            ‘Good point. How about you go sit in that puddle?’ Ash pointed in a random direction and hoped there was a puddle in it as he lit a cigarette.
            ‘Yeah, sure. If I can teabag you afterwards.’
            Ash took a mock bow. ‘Of course, a gentleman never refuses a teabagging.’
Their laughter rang around the nearby streets and those who put too much faith in tabloid horror stories about the various clich├ęs of youth trembled at the sound. Len caught himself before he made a remark about there being no carollers. Why would there be any? Tidings of comfort and joy were thin on the ground and they were going to get even scarcer. Besides, most people had enough of the songs blaring out over the speakers at work. Christmas cheer was important for the shoppers but the sanity of shop assistants did not seem to matter. Although as much as he really hated it, he could always tell what time of year it was because The Pogues were on the radio. On reflection it did not seem likely that anyone would want to be out and about on such a night, especially not on the estate. The newspapers may have sexed things up a bit when it came to the place, but it had a reputation for a reason. The puddles of darkness that lurked where streetlight bulbs had been smashed at random intervals were proof enough of that.
Passing out of the bulk of the estate they walked by a house with newspaper over a hole in the kitchen window. The front garden was a patch of ragged grass and churned mud; a few bushes marked the boundary line between that property and the ones on either side. A car that would have been flattered by being called clapped-out was parked in the street outside. Everything about the place had the distinct air of the “Keep Out” signs that always got ignored in horror films. Like everyone else, Len knew who lived there. An ex-soldier. That  did not make him special; there were loads of them around. What made that man different was that he did not care if people knew. All the others either changed their name out of shame or proclaimed themselves to be a hero, but that one did not pretend to be anything other than exactly what he was. Did he put on his uniform and stare at himself in the mirror with a mixture of pride and disgust like veterans always did according to Hollywood? Did he dread the day that he would be called into court when someone decided his actions were crimes after all? Len had no idea. It looked like no one was home. The lights were off but Len could have sworn that someone was waiting in the dark, watching them as they moved towards the outskirts of the estate to smoke together under a water tower.

Later. Len stared out through the Monet haze of late winter weather from his uncertain perch on the bluff on the edge of town. Roads the colour of scorched metal stretched towards and away from the city as though a legion of mechanical soldiers had been decimated and the corpses of the fallen were equidistantly pressed into the ground by their emotion-engineless comrades. Lights blazed like impromptu fires on street corners, the restless amber glow threw the world into greater contrast as though everything had been given an extra dimension without anyone noticing...or caring. In amongst the clouds of misty light he could just make out the indistinct spike of a skyscraper under construction far away in the corporate candy land of the city’s concrete quadrangles. It was to be the tallest building in the country to date; yet another pinnacle of architectural achievement, yet another reason for fat cats to preen and gloat. It was also yet another literally shining example of some having almost everything and everyone else having basically nothing. Despite the fact the building was only half finished, it already looked like the edge of a blade held at the throat of a wobbly-eyed, condom-headed monster who protested his innocence with one hand whilst shovelling gold into his pockets with the other. Len wondered if the death stroke would ever fall and despite the ruthless cold he actually crossed his fingers. He knew it would not make any difference, but it never hurt to try.
Behind him an accidental insurance fraud blaze at one of the factories on the industrial estate turned to dawn breaking and the rancid glimmering of the city lost the very last of its dwindling allure. At that moment Len saw around and before him a far green country that stretched from one edge of his vision to the other. The wind caught itself under his hood and the hem of his coat fluttered, the sound of the stirring fabric was like the ruffling of pennants at a hushed mustering. Tears came to his eyes because as the weakened sun gave back some measure of glory to the world he knew there was hope yet and his heart was most glad for it. Although he had grown so weary of hate, it was not yet time to set it aside completely. There was much still to be done, and whilst he knew what and why he was not sure how to go about it or even if he could. But when he looked forward to the rest of his life and saw nothing other than the same vague grey nothingness of a descending fog that threatened to staunch even the golden tide of a sunrise, he saw light that lingered yet amongst the creeping shadows. He took solace in its presence because he knew that even if he forgot everything and all his hopes came to nothing, his death would not be forgotten because the memory of history was long indeed.