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Sometimes, a building is so large and central that nobody sees it. A passing wonderer might look up to see if anyone’s about to jump off the roof, but mostly it’s just there, grey, like an uncle’s suit at a wedding.
Deep, down, down, in the bowels of this building nobody sees, we can find young Whelp at an antiquated urinal. This is his third pee in an hour. The team meeting with Stratum is imminent. He’s nervous, hopes Stratum’s wall eye is happy with what it has seen of him so far. Stratum’s watching nine-tenths of the world. Whelp wants to be the one to give him the complete planet. I, Whelp, present you, Stratum, with this luminous orb. Whelp brings his trickle to a close, jiggles a bead of urine off his penis tip, imagines himself inside it, tiny and vital, a zorbing Borrower.
Over at the hand basin, Whelp looks in the mirror at what he can see of his face. He’s five feet seven and the mirror hasn’t been positioned for the likes of him. If he had a sudden need to see his chin he’d have to stretch himself like some hot tease. He is narrow-skulled, with dry skin, almost eczematous. Nurturing sorts might want to spoon thick yoghurt into his mouth. This isn’t a thought that Whelp himself would have, though he has many other thoughts.
Boom, one of his colleagues, enters the Gents like a trawler in a heavy swell, crashes into the urinal. ‘What you up to over there, Whelk?’ he says, tucking in his spine, knees bent, beginning to enjoy his own flow with a sob of relief. ‘That’s better, back teeth were floating.’
‘It’s Whelp.’ The P pops off the tiles. ‘I’m washing my hands. Some of us do.’
Boom shouts over the splashiness. ’What’s a bit of piss between mates?’
‘I may have to stop sharing pizza with you.’
‘You want to lighten up, you do, Whelky.’
This time, Whelp lets the name thing go. Boom wants him bothered. Boom is good-looking, six-three, brilliant, shouldn’t feel the need to be a wind-up merchant. Whelp thinks Boom’s got a nerve to not be at one with the world. He can’t work out if Boom is irritated by being a nerd who looks like a welder or because he looks like a welder and that is what he wishes he could be. Is Boom fuming because some arc flash of super-duperness hi-spec’ed his forming neurons while he was in the womb and he’s never been able to feel like his mam and dad’s baby? Boom’s parents have a fish and chip restaurant in Darlington. Boom should be helping the old man batter haddocks up north, worrying about his TripAdvisor rating, but instead some genetic fun and games have him a whizz in the capital.
‘Best we get back, Whelk, stop looking at yourself like that, you tart.’
‘Idiot,’ Whelp whispers to the mirror. Boom’s holding the door for him. When he gets there, he has to duck to get under Boom’s arm, feels good.
Bust’s waiting for them, head in the corridor. ‘Move it, you tools, it’s nearly time.’ Boom does a little dance to annoy her. She annihilates the last of her cigarette and her eyes disappear with the hard draw. Boom and Whelp take their place at The Oblong along with Crake and Quoit. This room at the heart of it all looks untouched since the 1950s. The dust on the iron radiator was formed from skin scuffed off temples during the removal of bowler hats. It’s a room that should have typewriters and telephones in it that are big enough to anchor ocean liners, not the sleek Macs standing on the six old desks pushed together to form The Oblong at which they work. The room’s smell is in keeping though, three of them smoke like it’s 1959. Everything is covered in a sticky ochre. There is no No Smoking around here. Whelp’s looking at a lung cancer horizon. He could leave. Get his balloons out of here while they still feel pinko silk with nothing suspicious growing on them but, truth is, he would never leave here, not without Stratum’s e-foot on his backside. When a fish out of water finally discovers his water, he isn’t going to be all up in the air the way he used to be. Not now he’s in his element. A happier fish is Whelp of late. He’s found a shoal.
His colleague, Crake, is as young as himself and the other one, Quoit, could be forty, has a receding hairline and a long yellow-grey ponytail hanging down to his arse crack. Bust turns various strip lights on and off until she’s happy with the level of illumination. This meeting with Stratum takes place on the last Friday of every month at 2300 hours. Whelp is the newest member of the team and this will be his first meeting. He’s been working so hard his mind feels like plate scrapings. He must shine, prove he deserves his place. Like the other four, he was found, sniffed out, hunted down by Stratum’s people.
Whelp does not think Bust pretty but her skirts tend to end mid-thigh over bare legs. Whelp fantasises about her. Two days into being here and high on the buzz of it all, his head full of algorithms, he’d wandered by mistake into the Ladies and caught Bust and Boom doing it standing up against one of the hand basins. They hadn’t noticed him and he’d silently reversed himself out into the corridor but his mirror neurons—they’re the monkey see, monkey do ones—had fired up and though Whelp still has his cherry, in a way, he really doesn’t.
Bust joins the four men at The Oblong but doesn’t sit. ‘Are we good to go?’ she asks. She’s looking for thumbs up and nods. Crake and Quoit are off somewhere in their heads and Boom’s poking at a back tooth with a straightened paperclip. ‘Anyone?’ Bust says. ‘Hello?’
Whelp slides his eyes to where she has a green vein at the back of her left knee. That’s one caterpillar he would love to squash. ‘Good to go,’ he says.
Bust takes her seat with a lament. ‘Save me,’ she says.
They wait for Stratum to appear. Stratum doesn’t give good face. He doesn’t give any face at all. Keeps it south of neck during the monthly teleconference.
‘What’s the collective noun for nerds?’ Boom says.
Whelp waits for the punchline, then realises it’s not a joke.
‘We’ll make one up’ Quoit says. This month, Quoit has been getting into mind control via neurocinematic studies.
‘Don’t bloody bother,’ Boom says. ‘I was only shooting the breeze.’
‘Ah,’ says Crake. ‘You were shooting the breeze with mouth bullets?’
Whelp looks at Boom looking at Crake. Boom is surprised because, like Quoit, Crake rarely interacts. ‘Yes, Crake,’ he says, ‘they’re called words. Words! Words! Words!’ Boom fires off a round.
Animated, now that he’s got something else to think about, Crake bum hops in his seat. His mild moobs rollick underneath the tight red tee stretched across his torso. This short wait for Stratum will be interminable for him. Crake works and that is all he does except for that time he stopped to tell them he was a savant cyberjacker who’d been doing a triple-decade stretch in the pen—so not that clever then—until Stratum’s people had all that sorted out nicely for him, had him flown over the pond to here where he works and hides from any potential disturbance by covering his face with his side fringe
Chitchat is not their bag. This wait is tricky for Quoit too, he’s off visiting somewhere in his head, unable to be present and correct, his lips move and his eyes flicker.
Boom’s sat opposite Quoit. ‘I feel like I’m at a bloody Victorian seance,’ he says. He wails, ‘Is anybody there?’
Whelp can see that Quoit doesn’t care if anybody’s there or not. Quoit’s a genius with a photographic memory but you wouldn’t let him use the cooker on his own, or mind your cat.
‘Come on, Stratum, we’ve things to be getting on with here,’ Bust says to the computer screen and she looks owlish for a second when it lights up and a headless body in a business suit speaks.
‘Folks! How y’all hangin’? Y’all look so darn good.’
Whelp hadn’t been expecting Forrest Gump.
‘We’re fine, Mr Stratum, thank you,’ Bust says, answering for them all. ‘And may I say you’re torso looking very well?’
‘Y’ get me every time with that one,’ he says. ‘Ah do love a funny lady. Now, ah’ve glanced over the notes and, yip dee dip, about these initiatives…’
Whelp holds his breath, cursing Stratum’s slow drawl. Tenterhook City.
‘Not bad goin’ y’all.’
‘OK, so some o’ these surveillance breakthroughs ah’m really kinda stoked about, no darn need for anyone to get into bed with anyone else these days, unless you’re offerin’, Bust, hon?’
‘Anyone know a good lawyer?’ Bust clicks her mouth.
‘Hon, you go rub that sexual harassment lawsuit all over me,’ Stratum says, you press it right up against me now. OK, let’s get serious here, folks. Ah spy with my l’il eye, somethin’ beginnin’ with T.’
‘Tosser,’ Boom says, behind his teeth.
‘Trouble?’ Bust says, to cover Boom.
‘Warm,’ Stratum says, and his shoulders move with a nod they can’t see.
The team has been developing a system to help better identify culprits of public disorder offences. Big disorder offences. Country large. Countries large. Continents large.
‘Could we be talkin’ ’bout those l’il ole terrorists again?’ Bust says in Stratum’s voice. ‘Hell, ain’t just about everyone these days?’
‘Give that lady a carrot,’ Stratum says. ‘A sackful of carrots for that l’il lady, hell yeah.’
‘So…what about the terrorists?’ Boom says.
‘We gotta draw ’em out, seduce ’em to reduce ’em. So ah’m talkin’ subliminal messagin’ here, some good ol’ carrots and the like. Quoit, fellah, ah’m diggin’ your findin’s. You’ll do it, you’ll have those terrorist brain reward systems lightin’ up like Caesar’s Palace when it hears we got Elvis back. You’ll get ’em round to our way o’ thinkin’ and have ’em comin’ out o’ hidey-holes feelin’ like they wanna group hug the whole darn world.
Whelp is desperate. He needs to hear Stratum say that he’s digging his findings too. He needs his own special shout-out. His pat on the head. His very own Whelp, ma boy, ma fellah, ah’m diggin’ your findin’s.
‘Aw, now ain’t he just as cute as a box o’ possums,’ Stratum says. Whelp smiles but he is not the cutie in question. ‘Crake, ma boy, diggin’ your findin’s. Ah do admire your use of the Gamers. We gotta use the Gamers. Throw a few free games their way. They call it enjoyin’ themselves and we call it gettin’ the shit bits done. Gotta harness those manic thumb fiends. There lies potential. We can get into so many rooms that way. Think about it y’all. Rooms, minds.’
Whelp waits for praise to shoot out of Stratum’s throat, a geyser of gush to endorse him, him. Whelp, for God’s sake.
‘We’re doin’ fine,’ Stratum says, ‘but we can do more. Remember now, rethink, reduce, reconfigure, retool, re-sequence, redesign, re-frickin’ everything.’
Isn’t Stratum going to personally acknowledge his work? Affirm he is a great asset? Whelp coughs but it doesn’t draw Stratum’s attention.
‘Y’all keep on movin’ forward and ah’m feelin’ we are done for another month. POIP remains as always. Are we done? Any other business?’
Whelp is frantic. He has to know if Stratum is pleased with his work. POIP stands for Passage Of Information Policy but at this moment it’s the sound of his blood giving up the ghost in his disappointed heart, poip, poip. Stratum hasn’t even welcomed him to the team. Not so much as a dicky bird of acknowledgement. He’s not having this. He breathes in and—
‘No other business,’ Bust says, and Whelp holds onto his breath like its a leashed terrier with a rabbit blowing kisses in its face.
‘Yay! Now we carry on innovatin’. You will all remain freed up from the usual bureaucracy. We are an elite group and you know also, dontcha, that when we go launch Project U, life will never be the same again. That is no slogan. It is a literal fact. See y’all next month.’ Stratum puts a high five hand in the air and all of them reciprocate except Whelp.
Bust stretches across The Oblong to log out. Whelp looks at the green grub on the back of her knee, ready to pop.
‘Pizza,’ Boom says.
‘Too bloody right pizza,’ Bust says.
‘I’m not hungry,’ Whelp says.
‘Come on, let’s enjoy the lull before the off-we-go-again,’ Bust says. ‘Boom, ring the order in. Ham and pineapple for me. Anyone want to go halves on some potato wedges?’ She goes to flick the lights to a fuller brightness.
‘I refuse pizza,’ Quoit says.
‘Quoit, you are having pizza like a normal human being so shut up,’ Bust says.
Boom’s on his phone to the pizza shop. He looks up, ‘Cans of pop all round, yeah?’ He looks at Whelp. ‘What you having, Whelk?’ Whelp shrugs. Boom indicates with his hand that Whelp better hurry up. ‘Sorry, just one moment,’ he says to the person on the other end of the line, ‘we’ve got a petulant child here.’ He shakes his hand at Whelp. ‘Come on, you’re hard work, you are son, what do you want? Right, balls to that, you’re getting an 8 inch Margarita.’
‘Get Quoit the same,’ Bust says.
Boom gets off the phone, laughs, ‘look everyone, look at Whelp, he’s not happy. He’s worried Stratum’s not convinced he’s got what it takes. He wanted a little love.’
‘I didn’t hear him loving you,’ Whelp says.
‘I’m the longest serving one here, kind of says it all, mate.’
‘Oh, give it a rest you two,’ Bust says. ‘Christ-y,’ she cries, and tilts her face to the ceiling. ‘Where are all the nice people?’
‘Not here,’ Boom says.
‘Do you ever think about the rights and wrongs of what you do?’ Whelp says.
‘Are you talking to me, Whelk?’
‘Not especially, Boom.’
‘Rights and wrongs? Bust says. You’re taking it back to basics there, aren’t you, Whelp?’
‘We’ll never go that far back, no, never again,’ Boom says. ‘The rights and wrongs are thought about for us these days. I’d probably think it was shit if I could stop long enough to think about it.’
‘People like it, you tool,’ Bust says.
‘Yeah, Boom, they love it.’
‘What? Being spied on, assessed?’ Whelp says.
Bust inches down in her chair, kicks her shoes off. ‘They’re all exposing themselves of their own free will anyway, most of them, the so-called privileged ones. They get off on it, being watched, it’s the only way they know how to know that they’re alive.’ She moves her naked feet. ‘Hard work afterglow, nothing like it,’ she says. ‘Love this cusp of the new month, and I know we can’t see it from this dungeon but did you know it’s a full moon tonight, boys?’
Whelp is sitting with his head down. He’s done great work this past month. He thinks of all that concentration, the obsession, the breakthroughs and then the not so much as a kiss my arse from Stratum. He’s hardly slept since coming here. His brain has been too stimulated for any sort of proper Off. He hasn’t been off for the whole time and Stratum, headless hiding spineless stalker of nine-tenths of the whole world didn’t even acknowledge him. Well, the clown, whoever the hell he was, could go and whistle for his last tenth. Whelp’s got his own mind and he might use it in supporting the underdog. Yes, he just might go and bloody well do that. This thought is a thought Whelp should not have had. It is a thought that would have remained a thought. It is a thought thought in anger. But, Stratum can’t let it pass. You see, young Whelp was right in thinking he’s got his own mind, he certainly has, but Stratum has access to it. He didn’t get to be Stratum without keeping a few things up his sleeve. Whelp’s finished, a goner, though he doesn’t know it yet and, anyway, that’s a whole other story.
Bust’s off to the Ladies. Whelp thinks about following her. He wonders if he were to shadow her in would she do it with him like she did with Boom, standing up, her skirt all twisted up around her ribs, her buttocks finally ending up dropped like two bruised grapefruits into the sink.
‘Penny for your thoughts,’ Boom says.
A rock of embarrassment blocks Whelp’s gullet. He dare not answer for fear his voice is altered by desire, anger, sound softly husked, different, a giveaway.
Boom pulls at Whelp’s head, whispers into his ear. ‘Follow her, go on, son, take the road less travelled.’
‘We saw you.’
‘Peripheral vision, Whelk, we know a bit about that, don’t we?’
Whelp feels pixelated with alarm. The atoms of his being jump apart and he is made up of a shock of dots.
When Bust comes back, Boom and Crake go to have a ciggy with her in the corner so they can all share the ashtray. Quoit’s working on something. They’re all obsessives but Quoit would get to take the trophy home, if they ever went home.
Whelp watches from across the room as the smokers spark up. Bust sucks on her cigarette, says to Boom and Crake. ‘Are we going on the vapes, dear coworkers?’
‘Are we fuck,’ Boom says. He shouts from across the room, ‘Ciggy, Whelp?’
‘No, thank you,’ Whelp says.
‘You’ve never smoked, Whelp?’ Bust says.
‘Does he look like he’s ever been round the back of the bike sheds?’ Boom laughs, they all laugh, except Quoit who’s never laughed. May not know how to.
‘We all have the same centre,’ Whelp says, then he hears what’s escaped from his mouth. He doesn’t know where the words have come from. What he’s talking about even. Sleep deprivation probably.
‘Do we all have the same centre?’ Crake asks. He inhales his cancer stick and goes off on one of his thought voyages.
Quoit’s scribbling on a piece of paper and hissing at it.
Boom and Bust are looking at Whelp.
‘We all have the same centre,’ Whelp repeats, to feel bold, to hold out some boldness to the world. He wants to cry.
‘Do we?’ Boom roars. ‘Do we all have the same centre?’
Boor, boor, boor, Boom! Whelp thinks. He looks right at Boom now. Bores his stare into Boom. ‘You say that as though you’d be horrified to have the same…bullseye as me.’
‘You call your soul, bullseye?’ Boom says. ‘Interesting.’
‘And you call my bullseye my soul…now that’s even more interesting, Boom,’ he says.
Boom drags heavily on his cigarette. When he comes to pull it away from his lips it sticks and his fingers knock the red end off. It falls down the front of his sweatshirt. Burnt fingers, burnt chest and a shouted ‘Sod off, Whelp.’
Whelp’s watching Boom doing a pain dance. Crake and Bust are calm, smoking. Whelp goes over to Bust and takes the cigarette from out of her fingers. He sticks it into the back of his own hand.
‘Whelp, for God’s sake,’ she screams.
Whelp keeps it there, burning, burning, until Bust knocks his arm.
‘Head case,’ she says.
Boom’s still now, forgetting his own pain, his own piss takes. ‘You need locking up, Whelp.’
Whelp rolls up his shirt sleeve. It’s a four hundred pound shirt. He’s nineteen and he earns more than an astronaut. He’s looking forward to all the starry possibilities. He feels better now all of his pain is focussed. He holds up the cigarette. ‘Would you like me to do it again?’ he asks, and he turns the cigarette, holding it poised, red end down, over his bare forearm, ready to launch. On the back of his hand a tiny planet, burns, burns. He looks at their hideous bright faces. ‘Do you want me to do it again?’ he repeats.
The intercom buzzer goes.
High above them, out on the street, the pizza delivery lad waits for an answer, his handsome face illuminated by the moon, he’s smiling, he’s thinking about this girl he likes.