A short story
When he keyed in the code, sent to his wrist tag by the security camera over the flat door, the rapid and impatient knocking ceased. A woman pushed the door against him, coming in whether he liked it or not. He stepped back, shocked and confused, as she breezed in carrying a bag in each hand, and strode away from him as he turned and watched. The bags landed heavily on the counter between the kitchen and dining areas. She called back to him, angrily.
‘What took you? I was knocking for ages and the shopping’s heavy. Give me a hand, it won’t unpack itself.’
He had never seen her before.
Cautiously he crept along the threadbare carpet in the hall. Passing his mother on the wall, he reflexly straightened her. The woman was putting tins into the cupboard under the sink. Kidney beans and black-eyed beans.
‘You might have washed the breakfast dishes. What have you been doing? On your phone, I suppose?’
The woman turned, smiling resignedly, and sighed, ‘You’ll never change.’
His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he was glad to look away. Three notifications clawed at him, the urge to check them irresistible. The game was addictive.
‘I’ll do it, then,’ she moaned, stuffing the empty plastic bags into her pocket. She ran the tap and tested the water with her hand.
‘Are you really sure this boiler’s okay? It’s taking ages to heat up.’
How does she know that? He shook his head and turned to go back to the bedroom.
‘Bring your mug, will you? You left it on the floor again!’ Obediently he returned with the yellow mug. It said “BARRY” in large green capitals on the side.
‘Are you watching that again? You only saw it yesterday.’ The woman had opened his room door where the TV blared.
“Broadsword calling Danny Boy. Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” He liked Richard Burton’s voice.
The woman frowned. ‘It’s like Groundhog Day in here. Every bloody day!’
‘It’s not. It’s Where Eagles Dare,’ he replied. ‘And I haven’t seen it for years.’
‘Oh, you can speak, can you?’ she said smiling as she turned to go back to the kitchen. ‘That’s the first time you’ve opened your mouth since I came back.’
Came back? I’ve never seen her before. Who is she?
The woman’s presence made him uncomfortable. He closed his bedroom door quietly, hearing her call out,
‘Okay, I’ll clean up, shall I? As usual, you do your own thing, I’ll be your skivvy and make dinner. Always the bloody same!’ Her voice was muffled through the closed door. He turned up the TV volume.
Sitting on the edge of the unmade bed, he wondered what to do. As usual, his thoughts raced, reverberating round in his head. Who is she? Who’s Barry? Why is she here? Where is this? Why am I here?
To fight the rising panic he lay on the bed, pulling the crumpled downie over his head. He breathed in traces of Kate’s perfume, memories of her touch and presence calming him a little. The muted droning of the Heinkel engine on the TV and the woman’s muffled rambling somehow added to the soporific effects.
Woken by persistent buzzing he rolled over, reaching for his phone. Eleven game updates. The vibration continued though, and sleepily he realised it was his wrist tag. He read the scrolling text. “hello barry it is time for your session it is wednesday afternoon it is your day for your face to face go now to the centre please hello barry it is time for your session it is wednesday afternoon — “. By pressing the pause button he was able to stop it. The small green screen now instead told him he would be reminded again in 15 minutes. It would keep reminding him until he turned up at the Centre. Only going through the scanner would turn it off. “Face to face” confused him.
What’s face to face?
Leaving the flat was easy. Now that he had been summoned the door swished open without a code as he neared it. He obediently followed the pathway leading to the Centre. There were a few other souls trudging the path. He saw people on other paths moving much more quickly. They seemed to be streaming in dizzying numbers down myriad branching tracks, never straying, occasionally pausing. He remembered the film he saw in school biology yesterday, corpuscles flowing through magnified capillaries.
His path had a lane in each direction and somehow never intersected with the busier tracks. Occasionally someone shuffled on to his lane from a nearby flat, or slipped off the other lane towards theirs. A woman a little way in front of him was half asleep and drifted to her left as the lane curved away from a busy tangle of other paths. With a jolt she jerked back into line. Her left ankle sensor had spazzed.
As he passed through the door to the Centre the noise increased. The traffic noise and confusing babble of the busy city were replaced by music in his ear bud. He had heard it before somewhere. Loud enough to mask all other sound, it was frequently interrupted by The Voice. Calming intonations reminded him of his programme.
“Hello Barry and welcome back to the Centre. Are you enjoying your favourite music?”
What is that music? I feel like I have heard it before. I must be Barry.
“The music is your favourite, Barry, as you told us on your first day here. Your song is ‘Coz I Luv You’ by ‘Slade’, a 70s pop band very popular in their day. A good choice, Barry, well done!”
Ah! I like it.
“Today is your day for face to face, Barry, isn’t that exciting?”
Face to face?
“Proceed to the blue chair, Barry, your face to face will begin when you sit down.”
A chair on the other side of the room lit up in blue, and blue lights led across the wheaten carpet. He obediently toed the line, rounded the chair, and sat facing the pale blue wall.
“Well done, Barry!” said his ear bud. “Your face to face will now start.”
Facing him at eye level was an illuminated sign.
YOUR BUSINESS IS EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS
The Supreme Consultants for Efficiency in Medical Advances
have proved that
was inefficient and bad for society.
A panel in the wall lit up to replace the sign. He looked into a room where six people wore headsets. Seated in a circle, they faced away from each other. Five were looking at screens, but the girl smiling brightly towards him commanded his attention. It was as if she was in the Centre with him. Although he’d never seen her before, he felt a sudden pang of excitement and wondered if she was his mother. When she spoke into his other ear bud his elation evaporated, replaced by a confused panic he was familiar with.
‘How are you this week — err — Barry?’
He managed, ‘Who are you? What is this? Why — ?’ before she interjected, ‘I’m Carol, and your records tell me I spoke to you at your face to face three weeks ago.’
‘What the hell is a face to face?’
There was a short and painful sting in all of his limb sensors. The deep voice in his other ear barked sharply, “Profanity!”
‘Oh, Barry, come on now! I can see you said that to me last time, and it says you ask the same thing every week. You know very well face to face is your individualised and essential therapy, recommended by the High Consultant and guaranteed to help holistically with your mental health problems. Now, let me call up my script — I mean your script, of course! I must stop saying that, the HC will be listening in.’
‘Therapy for what? There’s nothing wrong with me.’
‘Oh, come now, Billy — I mean Barry, let me see, yes, it says here since your accident 3 years ago you have had memory failure — that explains a lot doesn’t it? And your wife died and your brain surgery……‘
‘What? My wife? Nonsense, I saw her this morning, she’s gone out to work, before that other woman turned up.’
‘Oh, Barry, not this again! Your notes are full of proof of what you have been told. Everything the same, each week. I remember you now. You’re not the burnt out schizophrenic I thought you were. Haha! Silly me!’
‘My wife? What has happened to her? Kate was fine this morning. Was there an accident on the way to work?’
‘Oh, Barry! For goodness sake! And what did you say about another woman in your flat?’
‘She came in with shopping. She knew where to put it all, all the cupboards and things. And about the hot water.’
‘Don’t be silly, Barry, there’s no woman in your flat. Maybe you’re hallucinating. We’ve had a good lecture about hallucinations. The High Consultant beamed it to us this week. People like you see and hear things.’
‘She is there! Or she was when I left to come here. Come and see if you like.’
‘You know I can’t do that, Barry. Remember I am talking to you from the Therapy Control Centre in Coventry. It’s flagged up here that your yearly Care Assessment Visit is due — let me see — yes! — it’s this Friday! Isn’t that lucky. Then you can show the Assessor if there’s been a person there. But I’m sorry, Barry, it is all a sort of dream. Except what I told you about your accident, and Kate dying, and all — .’
He let out a moan, and when he lifted his head there were tears streaming down his face.
‘Barry? Oh, dear! Don’t! Stop it! I am not qualified in grief. I’m not allowed to help you if you cry. Barry, stop it. Stop it at once! Barry! If you don’t stop crying I am going to have to terminate this face to face therapeutic event. Barry!’
The screen went blank, and was replaced after a few seconds with a scrolling message in red capitals which read “YOUR SESSION HAS BEEN TERMINATED FOR NON-CO-OPERATION.”
“Coz I Luv You” resumed briefly in his ear, but was quickly replaced by “Lonely Goatherd” from “The Sound of Music”. This was interrupted suddenly with the announcement, in the deep, male Voice, “Stand up, turn round, and follow the red line to the door, then proceed home to your flat. You have forfeited your Centre visit.”
Unable to remember why he had been crying, Barry did as he was bid, and was soon ushered out of the automatic door by the red line and his ear bud. The pathway was quiet. Suddenly extremely tired, part way home he was spasmed after veering to the edge of his designated channel.
On reaching his flat, he was surprised to find that there was a woman in his kitchen. He had never seen her before.
‘Ah, you’re back. I thought I was going to miss you. I have to go now. See you!’ The woman brushed past him and went out into the street.
He sat down and ate his meals on wheels. Happily singing ‘Coz I Luv You’ he munched his nutricake and drank his 5aDay. Clint Eastwood was in Nazi uniform in what appeared to be a castle. He’d never seen this film before but had the feeling he was going to enjoy it when it ended and played again.
He was transfixed by the blonde serving girl with the inviting cleavage. The German soldiers were vying lasciviously for her attention. Is she my mother? He was relieved when Richard Burton stepped in to halt their vulgar advances on her. The noisy carousing in the inn was suddenly interrupted by an officious command in his ear bud.
“Go immediately to your door. Your yearly Care Assessment Visit is about to start.”
Passing his mother on the wall he absentmindedly straightened her. The door opened before he reached it.
‘Hello, Barry Mitchell. I can hardly believe it’s a year since your last visit, can you?’ The cheerful woman in the blue overall carried a tablet in her right hand and quickly typed into it as she scanned the flat, looked him up and down, and marched into his room. She switched the TV off and sat down in the only chair.
She’s left handed. My mother is left handed. Is she my mother?
‘Now, let’s see. What did I write about you last year, Barry? Oh! It wasn’t me who did you. Sorry, I’m always doing that. Thought I’d been here before. Ah well, they all look the same!’
‘Who are you? Have you come to get rid of the woman in the kitchen?’
‘What? Oh, yes, I read something in your notes, you’re having hallucinations.’
‘I’m not, she is there now, she came this morning, just after Kate left for work. I’ve never seen her before today.’
‘Kate? Ah, yes, your late wife. I read about that, you must still be very sad about her death.’
His head whirled.
’Who’s dead? The woman in the kitchen?’
‘There is no-one in the kitchen, Barry, you’re imagining it.’
‘Come and see if you don’t believe me.’ He turned and as he approached the kitchen door the Assessor reluctantly followed him, saying, ‘This is a waste of my time, Mr Mitchell. Mind you, I’ve got to inspect the whole flat for damage, and I’ve only got ten minutes, and I have to write my notes and get to the next one by half past, the caseload is getting ridic…. Mr Mitchell! Have you got a guest in the flat?’
The Assessor paused behind him at the door, through which they could both clearly hear a woman singing “I’m in love with a man from Texas, Texas, Texas.”
‘Wait a minute! I know that song. It’s Geraldine’s therapy tune. She’s wandered again!’
When she swung the door open, he could see the woman putting tins in the cupboard. Kidney beans and black-eyed beans.
‘God, I’m good at this job! I knew I’d been to this flat before! Come on, Geraldine, let’s get you back to your new flat. You moved out of here last summer. You ought to have been spazzed. Your sensors must be faulty. Just as well someone knows what they’re doing, eh?’
Clint and Richard were on the roof of the cable car when his ear bud said, “hello barry it is time for your session it is friday afternoon go now to the centre please hello barry it is time for your session it is friday afternoon — “.