Good morning everyone, and welcome to Tuesday. I have delved into the records today to bring you a section from a piece I actually finished before Christmas last year. I’m still not one hundred per cent happy with it, and of course – as you know – I welcome comments and suggestions. Today, let me ask you a question: where does authority come from? Specifically, why do we follow the rules, and who is it who makes them? This piece is called Passengers.
The room was dark; the rods of light that pierced the shutters barely reached the figure on the bed. Michael opened his eyes. It was 6:02, and the voice had already started.
He always woke up around six o’clock, six o’clock being the optimal time for doing everything required of a man before he goes to work, and although today he happened to have stolen an extra two minutes of sleep, he hadn’t required the help of an alarm clock since he was a teenager. He lay in bed for a few moments more, staring into the murk.
The voice chattered away in his head, far more awake than he felt. Prosperity is Good. If work promotes prosperity, then work is Good. Today is Friday, Friday is a work day. Friday is a Good day. Today is a Good day. He did his best to silence it and rolled out of bed.
It appeared that today was yet another Good day.
Michael poured a cup of coffee and eased himself onto his creaky chair. For a few moments, he simply sat there; he had prepared a fruit salad, and he didn’t want it. Fruit salad is Good! insisted the voice. Michael picked up the bowl, tipped the whole thing into the bin, and made toast instead. He didn’t want the toast either, but at least this way the voice was as dissatisfied as he was. A splinter pushed into his back. He smoothed it flat and then leaned over, the chair creaking again as he reached for the radio. The radio was Good, because it prevented loneliness.
“–quavet Hysteria, which still has no cure, has today been proven to be a delayed effect of the heat of the equator and its suppressive effect on the Passengers,” said the voice of Kit Fisher. “The violence that goes with it, however, remains unexplained. For the war itself, there is still no end in sight. Last night, the Equatorial Forces detonated several explosive devices in key areas, cutting off Allied supplies as well as their own. Clearly, they have resigned themselves to defeat, but the Allied victory is coming at a huge cost. To date, the death toll–”
Kit’s news was equally as depressing as if Michael had never turned the radio on.
He killed it.
* * *
Michael’s workplace was walking distance from his house; the Gilbert Ryle building; a giant concrete monolith, perfectly suited to the task of housing data entry clerks in relative comfort, while being at the same time extremely cost-effective in its use of paint and other decorative materials: it didn’t use any. Of course, everyone in the building knew that such resources were much better used elsewhere, and did not complain. As Michael rounded the corner of the building, he brushed his hand on its rough, grey surface. He was careful to do it in exactly the same place every day, and to watch for signs that he was making an impact. To date, there were none.
Michael knew for a fact that he had a Good job, because he knew that prosperity thrived on order, and that he was instrumental in maintaining that order. Every day, new people were born, and old people died. People moved house, people got married, and sometimes – even now – people got divorced. Michael catalogued everything. There could be no doubt; his was a Good job.
At some point in the past, the carpet under Michael’s workstation had gotten damp. He was sure he could smell rot, but his colleagues insisted he was imagining it, leaving him to wrinkle his nose and ignore it. The computer clicked like a beetle as it awoke; soon it was ready to be used. Michael got to work. Adding, editing, and moving, it was an endless sea of information, organised by Michael Cantwell into stackable, bite-sized yoghurt pots of data. He altered and amended, compiled and consolidated, attached commentaries and removed redundancies until his eyes swam with fatigue. He glanced at the giant clock. Yes, 11am; time to go.
The other guys from pillar 14 were waiting for him in the cafeteria, dutifully shuffling along the sofa to make space for him as he approached the machine.
“You got any taste buds left, Michael?” asked Harry.
“There’s a couple still working,” he replied, punching the ‘Espresso’ button again.
“You ever think about taking it easy on the caffeine?”
Business as usual. First Harry, then Jake. Next, would come–
“Yeah, you’re not getting any younger. How about just the two shots today?”
Ah, yes. Rob’s contribution.
“You want me to sit somewhere else? I can go somewhere else, you know.”
“Look, we care about you, Mike. Everyone knows about your heart, we just want you to make a Good choice for your health – nobody knows the systems like you do, what if you…you know…”
“Thank you, Jake. I’m well aware of my importance to society.” It had come off a little stronger than Michael intended. He tried to take some of the sting out of it. “Look, don’t I have a right to damage my own body if I want?”
“Not really, Mike. If one of us has a problem, we all have a problem. It’s not Good to put yourself in danger.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let me just enjoy this one last real cup.”
“Come on, Harry…”
“Alright, one shot. But no more! OK?”
Michael grumbled incoherently and drank the rest of his cup in sullen silence.
* * *
Three times a week, after work, Michael called his mum and chatted to her.
“Michael! So good to hear from you. Perhaps you could tell your father how the phone works.”
“Well, the war isn’t going well, mum.”
“The last phone call wasn’t anything to shout about. Five minutes, and – poof!”
“The Equatorials aren’t playing by the rules any more. Scorched earth. Suicide runs. I’m surprised he can find the time to call at all.”
“Don’t you take his side!”
“Alright, alright! I’m not. It’s just…I feel like this should all have been over years ago. If the Equatorials are as much of a rabble as everyone seems to think they are, then we should have long since finished them off. What’s the hold-up?”
“Why don’t you ask your father? He seems to–”
Michael snapped. “Why is everything about him!” He took a few deep breaths. She just needs to let off steam, he reminded himself. Letting off steam is Good. “If you two are having so many problems, why don’t you get counselling, or…a divorce? Or something?” Michael’s voice rang of futility, even to his own ears. It was at about this point in the conversation that he always began to grow hoarse. His mother’s problems were like water torture; they were grinding him to dust.
“Why should I? I don’t want the world to know my problems. Normal people don’t have problems. Equatorials have problems. No order, no prosperity.”
“I have to go, mum,” Michael croaked. “Talk to you on Monday.”
This piece will be continued in subsequent weeks