With millions dead following the outbreak of a plague caused by plastics pollution, young politico Fred McVelly masterminds the creation of an ecofascist nanny state as an elaborate practical joke.
Chapter two… we meet Pontiff…
*disclaimer: this is a long chapter
PONTIFF LAY NAKED on his bed. The Time Indicator, or clock, as such things had been known in the past, indicated he needed to get to breakfast. Attendance was compulsory.
On cue, a light tinkling of piano began over the speakers. This was the Sonic Technicians’ idea of a nice alarm call but it was entirely unnecessary. Every Misaligned in here would already be awake given the punishment for missing an appointment.
As the first forays of a summer morn lapped his face, Pontiff rubbed his bald head and yawned. He bathed a moment in the warming rays and tried to ready himself for another day. After a couple of seconds he reached onto the floor to locate his white briefs and white t-shirt, and levered himself out of bed. He clothed and set about his morning routine: fifty sit-ups followed by fifty-press ups followed by fifty sit-ups, followed by ten pull-ups on the metal curtain rail that surrounded his single bed. He was a man of medium height and well-set build, and needed to keep his strength up in this place.
At the small sink in the corner of his three-by-three metre cell Pontiff splashed some water on his face and head and took in his reflection. He was lightly tanned, a surprising skin tone given the land of his birth, and the scars of battle were evident. He had felt the full force of the People’s Republic of Britannia on an almost daily basis at Life Camp – and indeed for some time before that – and staring into his own green eyes he felt every minute of his forty-three years.
For three months this place had been his home, just one of the many centres brought in to aid those that could not cope with the rigours of the improved, modern life. Many in here had been interred a lot longer. Many had become so institutionalised they felt they would never be able to live outside the parameters of LifeManagement4Life, the prospect of returning to society to fend for themselves filling them with dread.
As he did every morning Pontiff looked out across the playing fields to the perimeter fence. Standing a mere thirty metres high with a subsidiary bulwark beyond, it was peopled with the requisite armed Blackguard and had all the allure of a Cold War-era Berlin Wall. Scanning the horizon, Pontiff’s eyes came to the entrance arch of the mammoth gated complex and the start of that long gravel drive, the approach to the imposing white grandeur of LifeManagement4Life. The flag of the republic billowed delicately in the breeze. A poor mock-up of the Japanese imperial standard, the red sun spouted alternate red, white and blue rays, the colours of the old Union Jack.
Pontiff rubbed his bald head again, gave it a robust itch, and leant across his bed. From a small table he picked up his LifeManagement4Life booklet – A Guide for the Misaligned. He looked over his timetable to see which of the lessons, field activities or roleplays he had in store today, or which of the daily chores he was to complete to ensure he (like every Misaligned) understood that a clean and tidy home made for a clean and tidy mind. There was a relentless obligation to always be somewhere, always doing something. Letter Posting Best Practice awaited him before lunch. Today’s bonus? An assessment-cum-pres-entation, and a key moment in demonstrating his realignment. Then, later in the day, he… He didn’t want to look. He knew what else was coming. Modern medicine beggared belief.
From atop the dresser on the window-side of his bed, Pontiff grabbed his Life Camp uniform and donned the all-in-one linen suit and regulation moccasins. Both white, naturally, like everything else in here. The Liberal Compassionates felt white best evoked feelings of purity, of goodness, of transparency.
“Not to mention a little slice of heavenly godliness,” Dr Zini had added. “It will help you realign.”
Pontiff left his room to passages teaming with anxious Misaligneds, all dressed in white, all trying not to be late for breakfast.
“What a fucken shit show,” he muttered, following the throng through the curved corridors. There were no corners, no hard edges. Anything as abrupt as a right-angle might upset the balance of a Misaligned.
Hoisted on the parabolic walls were holographic screens upon which the camp’s leader, Dr Zini, would appear to pump out mantras, advice, timetable amendments and any other messages she might have. These screens were also used to play images from the recent past, of the millions that had met their ghastly demise at the hands of Plasticitis, of toothless, ill and washed out people sobbing into the body bags of their loved ones, of the time of great fatigue, of people shuffling through life amidst pollution and disease, of the outgoing government dripping with the carnal goo of sleaze, energy sources all but vanquished, when many, if not most, had slipped into poverty. These images were reminders of why life had had to change, reminders of what had led everyone to where they were now, reminders of the importance of Easification-Facilitation. Nobody spoke.
“Misaligned, time to meal-on, time to meal-on. Misaligned, time to…”
As the droning tones of the Sonic Technicians filled the corridors Pontiff remembered he was due to mentor today. A new intake was arriving after lunch and Dr Zini had decided to see how he would react to some responsibility. He laughed in anticipation.
A series of long benches filled the cafeteria, and enough room to accommodate the two hundred or so campers that lived here. Sunlight flooded in from the adjacent playing field and Pontiff found an unoccupied bench at which to sit. He perched on the end, struggling down a piece of toast and a cup of tea, a numb sickness disallowing hunger. He was relieved to be unaccompanied. The fact that many Misaligneds seemed to reserve a special anxiety about his presence was a blessed break from the mania that characterised his spell detained at the President’s pleasure.
On a bench close by were the remedial diners – Misaligned that had not yet been cleared to use forks at dinner times. They had to be segregated. Health and Safety. Incredibly some had failed the Cutlery Usage Test more than once.
“Morning,” said a female voice.
Pontiff didn’t have to look to see who it was.
“Awright,” he responded as Susan sat opposite him.
“Still popular, I see.”
Pontiff looked up and, as ever, felt slashed by that arctic gaze. Such piercing blue eyes. Susan was somewhere in her mid-twenties, tough-looking and slender and though her beauty had not been entirely washed out of her, life seemed to be taking its toll. Pontiff noticed her shoulder-length brown locks had gone.
“You’ve hud a haircut,” he said. “Very chic.”
“They said a cropped look would make me more appealing to you.”
“Fuck me, Susan, it’s first thing in the fucken mornen!”
“It’s a joke!”
“Aye, well dinnae joke about it. No that.”
He hated it when Susan made light of the horror of what was expected of them. He feared her troubled mind didn’t understand the gravity of what she said. He had come to regard her as somewhere between a daughter and a sister and the only thing he had was to try to keep her safe. Alas she was not as strong as the first impression he had had of her. They ate in silence.
“I had my test yesterday,” offered Susan.
“Oh aye. An you got away wi jus huvven a haircut, eh?”
“I scored very highly.”
Christ, she seems genuinely pleased.
“Did you do anything good last night?” Susan asked.
“Did I dae anyhen good? In here?”
“Alright, alright, no need for the tone!” Susan replied, slurping on her porridge.
“Do you have tae dae that?”
“Jesus! Who pinched your prick this morning, moody!”
“Oh well sorry for killen ya buzz.”
“Oh come on. Don’t be like that. Ask me what I did.”
Given Susan’s spritely mood Pontiff feared they’d upped the dose. Sometimes she was virtually mute at breakfast. She had been at Life Camp for just under a year, sent for realignment for a crazy passage of behaviour that had seen her try to visit her aunt two days before her Designated Family Day. The next day she had attempted to board the Monorail on her no-travel day. It was because of this free spirit she had been paired with Pontiff.
“So what did you dae last night?”
“Had my group’s mantra chant.”
“Oh Jesus,” groaned Pontiff.
“No! It was good!”
“Yeah. The theme was too much thought leads to numbness of emotion.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Oh! He’s off again!”
Pontiff looked to the ceiling and clenched his teeth. All he asked for was a couple of minutes at the start of each day to acclimatise.
Soon the bench started to fill up, and there was great excitement. A group of experienced Misaligned were approaching realignment. Having excelled at a number of tasks five of them had a Controlled Leisure Excursion that evening – a constituent part of every Misaligned’s Realignment Programme – and in plain terms, a trip to the pub. Pontiff watched on with a mixture of jealousy, mirth and unease.
“It’s gonna be amazing!” said a young man Pontiff found excruciatingly eager. “We’re gonna be treated like celebrities!”
“Now Jack. You know we don’t worship celebrities these days.”
Pontiff turned to the green-clad man who had made this comment, a man he had taken a dislike to the moment he had met him – Technician Peter, the smug, scrawny, ferret-like specimen with the intellectual acumen of a serial killer. The Ratman. It was interacting with this character that Pontiff perhaps detested most of all about his interminable stay at Shrink Clink.
“Sorry, Technician Peter,” said Jack. “I’m just so excited!”
“Me too!” said Meredith, a twitchy middle-aged woman seated next to Pontiff. They had enrolled on the same day and she disgusted him terribly with her inability to eat with her mouth closed.
Surely they had to sort that out before they released her back into the wild, thought Pontiff.
He pitied whoever’d been partnered with her for Instinctive Joy.
“You can imagine how this’ll play out,” Pontiff said to Susan. “They’ll be flippen out and have to be tranquilised before they even leave the grounds. An if th’actually get tae the boozer they’ll all start fainten left, right and fucken centre, gan tae shock at the sight of normal people.”
“Your negativity knows no bounds does it, Mr Pope?” said the Ratman.
“Oh Technician Peter, you’re talken tae me. What a delight. All I can say is good luck.”
“Luck doesn’t enter into it but thank you for your concern.”
“Don’t mention it.”
The Ratman turned away to address his group but Pontiff stopped listening. His heart was pounding. The sickness was welling up inside again, a feeling only ameliorated by drink. He’d been forced to cease intake of alcohol at the LifeManagement4Life Institute and it had had a profound effect on his psyche. Three months without booze – the clarity wasn’t appealing. The elixir combination of tobacco and alcohol allowed Pontiff temporary detachment from the absurd cruelty of new Britannia and was the one aspect of normal life (whatever that meant now) he most missed. How much longer could he go without a drink? He thought he’d kept himself remarkably together given its absence. But again the question came – for how much longer? The one hope he held onto during his stay-without-end was a Controlled Leisure Excursion but he knew it unlikely he would be granted a stab at this task given he had not performed with his IJP.
Though it had been difficult to be an honest smoker-drinker for some time, many commonplace habits and desires of the people were now deemed incongruous to their collective safety. Pontiff knew things were going wrong when jelly babies were banned because they promoted cannibalism.
Seeing Pontiff’s discomfort Susan reached across the table and took his hands in hers.
“You know, Pont, I’m a lot happier for knowing you. I feel a lot healthier now.”
“Aye well less no get carried away while we’re all still in here, eh?”
“Well if we are going to get out, it might be wise to-”
“No!” shouted Pontiff, pulling his hand away. “We’ve been through this!”
“Anyone would think you don’t find me attractive.”
“Stop it! Fuck’s sake.”
“Does my new hair not do it for you?” asked Susan with a smile.
“That’s enough!” shouted Pontiff again, getting up. “Jesus I need a fucken cigarette.”
“Oh dear, Mr Pope. We are in a state this morning,” said the Ratman, his attention diverted from a chat with another table. “And still intent on contaminating your lungs?”
“At least when I contaminate ma lungs I take full responsibility for it. An that’s a fucken rarity these days.”
“Aren’t you supposed to have given up by now?”
“Well the fact that you and the Government want me tae stop is reason enough tae carry on, tae fight the political ethos of the People’s Republic of Britannia that simultaneously treats everyone like naughty schoolchildren and terrorists. What a country, eh? Revolven around the idea that everyone’s incapable of self-determination and needs rescuen from themselves.”
“Well we are right in most cases, wouldn’t you agree?” countered the Ratman, nearing Pontiff.
“Well to be honest it’s a real chicken and egg sit’eeation, Technician Peter. We’ve bred a nation of idiots, only comfortable when they’re conformen to crazy levels of control. They’re either too scared or too stupid tae think for themselves.”
“Well I think you think too much. I’ve been watching you this morning. I knew I was right. You two,” the Ratman said, pointing his claw-like finger at Pontiff and Susan, “have such passion together, such chemistry. Is today the day, Mr Pope, Miss Baxter?”
“Time to Meal-Off! Time to Meal-Off!”
“Well,” said the Ratman with a smile, “no doubt we shall find out later. But come now, you’ve heard the Sonic Technicians. You best get to class. And you especially better hurry, Miss Baxter. You’re expected on the Athletics track shortly and that’s a trek in itself. But Mr Pope will see you later, when you have some free time before our session.”
Free time was an odd phrase, thought Pontiff. The cost varied but there was always a cost.
“See you at lunch, Pont,” said Susan as she left the table.
“I see the way you look at her, Mr Pope,” said the Ratman as Pontiff watched Susan leave the canteen. “Quite something, isn’t she? Come. Let us walk together. We are going to the same place after all.”
In his mind Pontiff played out his fist colliding with the Ratman’s jaw. What difference would it make if he attacked? He doubted he would ever get out of this place anyway. He ambled to the canteen exit, his daydream taking on a particularly pleasing hue – the Ratman’s nose rearranged all over his face – when, without warning, he was knocked to the floor. A young man of about twenty – a fellow Misaligned – had run straight into him trying to evade the clutches of a pair of Life Technicians both dressed in the requisite green. He landed on top of Pontiff and was screaming and pleading as he was hoisted to his feet.
“No! I don’t want it! No! Please! I want my own face! I want my own face!”
“Come on now, don’t be a silly boy,” said one of the Life Technicians, restraining him. “It’s for the best.”
As he uttered these words the other Life Technician eased a syringe into his arm.
“That’s better, isn’t it? It’ll make you all nice and calm for your surgery.”
The young man withered and melted, and was placed in a wheelchair.
“So what are you doing now, Technician Georgia?” asked the Ratman.
“Well Technician Peter, as per your instructions he will be taken to solitary confinement and be provided with the necessary nudging to undergo this critical part of his realignment.”
“Good, Technician Georgia. You are having an excellent first week. You are undoubtedly one of my top students.”
“Oh thank you, Technician Peter. I’m learning so much.”
“Good. Well don’t let me detain you. Keep up the good work.”
“Thank you, Technician Peter.”
Pontiff watched this unfold lying on the floor. He felt numb and a little sad to be so normalised to this type of occurrence.
There had been many new and wonderful ideas put into practice by President Hair’s coalition of Liberal Compassionates and Neo-Luddites but the preposterous malignance of Pretty-Making had taken things to a new level.
Despite banning publications like Cosmo for the negative imagery they forced down people’s throats (not to mention the pollution they caused) and dubbing advertising ‘institutional violence’, President Hair, or somebody in his office, had come up with the idea that a pretty face is a happy soul. Wanting to make everyone as equal as possible (amongst the common folk at least) Hair, or somebody in his office, had decided on a quite revolutionary scheme to improve personal happiness.
All Misaligneds were required to undertake a beauty test in which a whole host of attributes were analysed and discussed by a panel of Holistic Medicine Technicians. If you failed, under the knife you went. It was a rather literal take on the remit to restructure each person’s life. If anyone refused their voluntary-compulsory surgery they were sent to solitary confinement, to rooms with wall-to-wall mirrors and huge speakers piping through messages telling them how ugly and disgusting they were. Distressed and crying people were taken from these mini-detention centres straight to surgery once they had relented. It didn’t take long, as you can imagine. That’s where the young man was headed.
“People want to, and should, feel good about themselves,” reasoned President Hair. “These measures can only be beneficial in the long run. You’ll feel better after surgery. It is obviously making society better and I don’t think anyone can argue with that now. After all, a pretty face is a happy soul.”
When people returned to the main Misaligned population they were often hard to recognise depending on the severity of their procedure. In some cases only the voice remained of the original person. Pontiff had taken his test the week before. Happily he’d been deemed attractive enough in his own right and was not part of the group liberally and compassionately described as Fatties and Uglies.
Pontiff remained on the floor watching the last few Misaligneds make their way to the exit, going about their business, studiously ignoring what had just transpired.
“Well Mr Pope, I suppose we both better make our way to the entrance hall,” said the Ratman. “Dr Zini will be waiting for us. I do hope you will behave a bit better than you have this morning. We wouldn’t want to have made a mistake in giving you this opportunity. Dr Zini is trying hard for you. I hope you appreciate that.”
The refreshment area was drawing large crowds and Pontiff stared at the rabble of assorted shapes and faces, young and old, male and female, all still dressed in their own clothes. Pontiff took in the tears, the farting, the general sulphuric odour of nervousness. He remembered his first day – it had been much the same – though there’d also been the whiff of booze emanating from his pores. It had all created quite a heady atmosphere. Chewy almost. At that stage Pontiff had been too pissed to feel perturbed. He’d even found it funny initially. But as that first day wore on and an afternoon hangover started to kick-in, a vague nausea and a strong desire not to be here anymore started to grip him. He remembered pondering trying to escape but with the alcohol starting to wear off and hunger setting in he didn’t want to jeopardise his chances of securing a bacon’n’egg roll. And though he had eaten then, his appetite had never really returned.
In a matter of hours he had gone from drinking and talking tactics with the RevKev to being unable to reach satisfactory conclusion at the post office to being bundled away to a LifeManagement4Life centre. It had been rather unfortunate timing to be taken into custody just as things were hotting up. In fact, he felt a bit careless to be taken out of the game on the metaphorical eve of action. He wondered how they were getting on out there. He’d heard nothing on the news but then even if it was happening, it wouldn’t be reported. And certainly not in here.
Thinking of his comrades Pontiff noticed a curious looking little fellow putting three chocolate bourbons in his pocket while two others battled over who was next with the hot water. People feel they’re missing out if they don’t get their fair share, whether they want it or not, thought Pontiff, particularly if it’s under the banner of free.
The biscuit thief had a slight build and nervous disposition, his sharp nose fitting perfectly the eager face. Clapping eyes on this meek little man gave Pontiff the sense the whole LifeManagement4Life operation was akin to Crufts – snappy little dogs on a shit assault course.
Pontiff watched Crufts approach the posters that adorned the walls of the entrance hall.
Health is Wealth; Money can’t buy everything, let’s aspire to something else; Valuing People; The Great Clean-Up; Don’t forget to brush your teeth; and information on the Life Camp’s imminent Republic Day parties. This was nothing new. This type of stuff was rammed down peoples’ throats in what was loosely termed the ‘real world’ as well.
“Fucken absurd, eh?” said Pontiff.
Crufts turned, terror-struck.
“Pontiff,” said Pontiff sticking out his hand.
“Oh, er, Clyde, Clyde Trepid” said Crufts, meekly reciprocating. The weakness of the shake made Pontiff want to vomit.
“So Clyde, how you finden it so far? You met your IJP yet?”
“Welcome everyone,” said Dr Zini. “Welcome to LifeManagement4Life.”
The group turned to the doctor who smiled a warm smile. Pontiff estimated she was sixtyish, and certainly still an attractive woman. Like him, she had green eyes though only one was visible, the other concealed behind a black leather eye patch. This in turn was partially covered by grey hair that tumbled down to her elbows. She had an intelligent raunch, was petite and in good shape, with a certain Helen Mirren-ness to her. The enigma as to why she was one eyed had also always given her a certain je ne sais quoi.
“Now,” continued the doctor, “you are all here, as you know, because you have been diagnosed as Misaligned. Some of you are here voluntarily.”
This point was still shocking to Pontiff.
“Others have been referred to us because it was in their best interests.”
“Why she looken at me?” said Pontiff, nudging Clyde. But Clyde didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to be caught talking on the first day.
“Here,” announced the doctor, “we shall give you instruction that will help you manage your life for the rest of your life. Hence the name.”
“And what a good name it is,” offered Pontiff, looking at the group and nodding, again nudging Clyde. Clyde looked petrified.
“Thank you, Mr Pope. And maybe this can be our first unofficial lesson. To know when it is appropriate to voice your opinion. This is something you still clearly need to learn.” The doctor looked directly at Pontiff as she said this before she smiled, flirtingly, at the rest of the group.
“Once you leave us, you will be ready to reintegrate into society. How long you stay here depends on you. But none of you can now be discharged without the express approval of our panel of Life Technicians. You will be under constant assessment and we will review your continued presence here at regular intervals. The Government cares for your welfare and we, the staff, will all work tirelessly for you. But we need help. Help us help you. Here you will be reminded that nothing in life is smooth except the slippery slope.”
The doctor went on to talk about the great strides – always that phrase – that had been made by President Hair and his Liberal Compassionate Government. She reminded the group that they too could experience the positive in the new way of life. And today, in the run up to Republic Day, there was a special treat. President Terry Hair himself. Or rather, a recorded message to be played on the holographic screens. HairVision! was a feature of life everywhere and reminded the simple man what was what. The group watched Hair turn and smile, as if a sportsman being introduced on TV from days of yore.
“Liberal Compassionatism delivers joy to the masses and peace to the good people of this country. We care for you. We know what is best for you. Life’s decisions are easier under us. We will improve your life, the complexity of everyday survival tossed aside!
“We have the confidence in our conviction to carry out the consensus of change and will continue to meet the challenges for modern Britannia, meeting these challenges with rolled-out, front-end, top-down systems, enabling us to reorder the configuration of choice. Through reform we will ensure fit for purpose delivery of service!”
People’s lives are hard enough without contaminating their ears listening to that guff, thought Pontiff. To him, the political vernacular was little more than the pseudo-cerebral cousin of footballer chat with all the cosmic revelation of “Dazza’s got the ball in the box and I’ve got on the end of it,” as footage showed Dazza getting the ball in the box and the interviewee getting on the end of it.
Apart from the content, it was the sinister visage, the toxic grin, the diabolic eyebrows that were so unnerving. They seemed the embodiment of malevolent evil. Also, Pontiff could never trust a man who could fully cross his legs over like a woman. It wasn’t right, was it?
Ah yes, he thought, Terry Hair, what a fine charismatic young man, a man who claimed to possess a clear idea of what the country wants, a man who spoke in a I’m a reasonable guy kind of way, a man of principal. Of that, Hair was, as is the political vogue, absolutely clear. His best friends had been bankers, lawyers, the leaders of multinational conglomerates, Arabic dictators. It was all absolutely clear. Until the now infamous Liberal Compassionate Party conference, that is, and a most dramatic political volte-face. As Hair read out the speech that changed everything for everyone, Pontiff recalled how even some LibCom high rankers had looked shocked. Especially Heath Cliffe, the finance man. It almost seemed as though Hair had come up with it at the last minute. And what about his wife, Sherry? Cruella Deville. At her happiest speaking at charity events. Or when she got the pay cheque afterwards. Terry and Sherry, thought Pontiff. Good Lord.
“Now let me make this clear,” Dr Zini intoned, soothingly, “at the moment all smokers will be permitted to smoke. We are well aware-”
A match scraped and popped. Rings of smoke filled the air.
“Mr Pope, please will you extinguish that cigarette.”
“I thought-” all innocent.
“Mr Pope,” again soothing yet firm.
“Where shall I-?”
An ashtray materialised from nowhere, thrust into his hand by the Ratman.
“Oh, thanks. Thanks very much,” said Pontiff, stubbing out the cigarette. “Where shall I-”
The ashtray was promptly snatched off him and dispatched.
“He’s very efficient.”
Don’t try me, said the Ratman with his eyes.
“Mr Pope, if I may continue.”
“Of course, Doctor.”
“Thank you and thank you also for another lesson.” She turned to the group, calmly and pleasantly. “I think Mr Pope is really taking his mentoring position seriously by showing you all how not to do things. How very thoughtful. I will have to give him his reward later. Now, as I was saying. We are all aware that coming here may cause a certain amount of emotional upheaval and for a bedding-in period, you will be permitted to smoke.” She looked at Pontiff. “In designated areas.” A pause. “Ultimately, it is our aim, and soon will be yours too, that the habit is kicked. There will be designated smoking times, and there will be ten such times throughout the day. You may not smoke outside of these times. This will also provide all smokers with company as you will congregate in the smoking area. We believe, rather, we know, through literally months of experience, that ten smoking times are ample and sufficient.”
While a Life Technician escorted the smokers to the designated area Dr Zini addressed the other half of the group, those that were uninitiated in the splendour of nicotine.
“So,” she began, smiling a sweet smile. “I trust you are all settling in, even if it has only been a couple of hours. We are all aware, as are you, of the problems you have experienced living among others and adjusting to the demands of our modern, improved way of life. Here at LifeManagement we believe in a holistic approach to care and rehabilitation.” She started to walk amongst the group, touching shoulders, smiling as she floated through.
“One of our beliefs we have cultivated here is that experience enriches the soul.”
A few of the assembled nodded their agreement.
“As we know, an ideal of our Government is to facilitate, and that is one of our remits. So,” and with that she pulled a hemp purse from her white apron, held together with a thread made of natural fibres. In a show of mock rebellion she untied the packet and tossed the thread to the ground. She then pulled a thin sheet of foil from the pouch, screwed it up and again threw it to the ground, smiling at her enraptured audience as she did so.
“Now,” she said, “I’m going to join you, so you won’t be alone.”
There was disbelief as she started passing round cigarettes to the group of worried faces, who received them completely dumbfounded. A weaponed guard produced a black lighter and started to ignite each individual’s cigarette.
“What, you want us to smoke them?” came a quiet voice.
“That’s right, Clyde. Breathe in that new experience.”
There was a cacophony of spluttering, wheezing and a haze of smoke. Clyde was looking doubtful at the object in his left hand, letting it smoke in front of him, holding it between thumb and forefinger.
“I don’t want to, Doctor.”
“But it’s a new experience for you. And that enriches the soul.” She walked towards him. “Look, I’ll do it with you,” and she inhaled, seductively so, thought Pontiff.
“Come on Clyde… For me?” She lowered her head slightly to look straight into his eyes.
“Dirty bitch,” Pontiff whispered to himself, in a state of semi-awe. The doctor seemed younger in these moments with an easy, elegant feminine charm. She looked smaller, though no less authoritative. She was compelling in her playful, girl-like manner and succeeded in teasing and tempting Clyde into trying smoking.
“Well done,” she said, with a ruffle of Clyde’s hair. He wasn’t convinced.
“But the important thing is that you tried. Your life is now fuller.”
At that, a girl emptied her stomach, a sort of carrot-tomato compote, all over the white floor. Pontiff laughed loudly.
“Bravo!” he shouted before two sets of black-gloved hands seized him and dragged him out of the entrance hall.
“I do hope you will be this exuberant later,” said the Ratman as Pontiff was restrained on the floor by two Blackguard. “By rights I should tranquilise you for your performance this morning but I have a feeling that a man like you will perform if your blood is up.”
“Oh Technician Peter, you misunderstand. I was jus tryna be supportive, tae be the best mentor I can be.”
“And the smoking, Mr Pope?”
“I dae ma best thinken when I smoke.”
“If you persist with this behaviour you will have all the thinking time you want in solitary confinement. See you after lunch.”
The Ratman and his assorted cohorts departed. Soon after, the new intake filed past.
“Good luck Clyde, ya wee bass!” shouted Pontiff, still laid out on the floor.
Clyde looked at Pontiff briefly before quickening his pace.
The mentoring had gone well.
“Misaligned, time to meal-on. You are important. Life is worthwhile. You must integrate. You must eat together. Commune and improve. Commune and improve. Time to meal-on, time to…”
Pontiff had been enjoying a nap in his room until this interruption jolted him awake. For once he actually felt quite hungry, his appetite not compromised by the Sonic Technicians’ quasi-American-cum-Management speak.
All in all it had been a particularly galling morning. After his swiftly aborted mentoring, Pontiff had been returned to his standard timetable and, as expected, called to the front of class to demonstrate best practice when posting letters and generally how to conduct oneself at the post office. He had had to talk through where he had gone wrong in the past as though confessing in an AA meeting while the rest of the group were encouraged to applaud once he had made his confession and completed the task to a good level. This was part of a wider module in Pontiff’s realignment – The Importance of the Life Administration Directive, of Easification-Facilitation.
The Life Administration Directive had been one of the first acts of the Liberal Compassionate government, its aim – to provide the necessary provisions for all people and prevent any further deterioration to the environment.
But first things first. Before anything else had happened in The Great Clean-Up of the country and most people’s favourite bit – the apportioning of blame (including but not limited to: bankers in stocks, big business nationalised, the Royals dethroned, gated communities with private militias broken up, the 1%’s assets seized to fund the rebirth of the nation) – the scourge of poverty had had to be addressed. But this wasn’t as easy as it sounded. You couldn’t just go round dumping rations on communities. No no. It had to be properly organised. The country had to be simplified. Easified.
The easifying of existence began with the whole country being divided region by region, city by city, area by area, into alphabetical groups (Surnames A-E was Life Administration Group 1 and so on). Then, to ensure the smooth running of Life Administration another new government body was set up – The National Identity Proof Scheme Department (NIPSD). This department assessed each individual before providing the relevant benefits. To that end, each Citizen had to set up a Citizen’s Account and prove the specifics of their case before they could receive their rations, healthcare and housing.
In order to receive the most bespoke care and benefits, all past afflictions, psychological traumas and abuses had to be confessed. Indeed, every aspect of a Citizen’s existence had to be divulged. All social media posts, likes, comments, email correspondence, phone records, texts and internet browsing history were combed to corroborate the information each Citizen had provided – and to weed out those with questionable pasts. Many a low-level facilitator was adjudged an arch criminal for selling an eighth of hash here and there. The plethora of personal details held by various private agencies and companies and state-run departments were also collected. Details of every app you’d ever used were gathered and if details emerged of, say, an STD, then your interactions on dating apps were looked at to see who your sexual cohorts had been and then they in turn were checked out and so on. Only once this process was complete was a NIPSD card issued and benefits able to be enjoyed.
In the past such cards had been threatened for reasons ranging from international terrorism to identity theft. Finally, they’d been brought in to set up an elaborate dole.
Granted, a version of the NHS had been brought back after a previous government had privatised it – along with everything else – but Pontiff lamented the day he’d set up his Citizen’s Account. He knew at the time it was a mechanism through which more control could be exercised on the people, the scope of the scheme widened in response to each perceived emergency. What else they were going to do with all this data wasn’t clear. But they had it. As Pontiff often noted, the Facebook age had fucked us all.
Now, without these cards, you didn’t exist, you couldn’t live. Every Life Transaction required them. Wages and benefits were paid onto them, travel was only possible by paying with them, picking up rations, purchasing food, having a drink at the pub, entrance to buildings, exit from buildings, everything required these cards. Problems were endless. There were stories of people coming home to find their entire block of flats locked because the central NIPSD engine room was on the blink. They’d have to sleep huddled together in doorways, made homeless by the Government. One time Pontiff had gone three days without being able to buy food because his NIPSD card hadn’t been updated with his wages. Sometimes people were overpaid and made to pay it all back, whether they had the means or not.
The other function of Life Administration Groups was to determine what day of the week each Citizen was to carry out a task or directive designed to protect the environment or improve social cohesion.
Examples included – Designated Family Day, Designated Non-Travel Day, Designated Dry Day, Designated Activity Day, Designated Letter Posting Day – all “necessary regulation as the environment has been trampled on and it is imperative to step lightly.” Attempting a task on the wrong day or ignoring a directive (boarding the Monorail on your Life Administration Group’s Designated Non-Travel Day, for example) resulted in accruing Social Behavioural Points.
Pontiff’s little episode at the post office had been the last in a long list of Life Administration misdemeanours though it was a mystery two Social Behavioural Points showing up on his Citizen’s Account that fateful morn that had propelled him into incarceration. Despite the system having the propensity to go awry, and the very real prospect of wrong information finding its way into your data, NIPSD evidence was 100% irrefutable. Falling foul of the scheme had become known colloquially as being ‘nipped’ or ‘nipsd’, and Pontiff had certainly felt the pinch.
He finished his lunch quickly and it was then that things went from bad to indescribable.
The incident in question began like every other interaction between the Ratman and his two most reluctant charges. He met them, as always, in the Cell of Intimacy. The room contained a round bed, mirrored walls and ceiling, and a small fridge full of oysters.
“Good afternoon you two. Are you going to be good little children today and perform for me?”
“Not on your fucken life,” responded Pontiff.
“I have to say we are all getting a little sick of your intransigence,” said the Ratman. He was flanked by his usual phalanx of Blackguard, dressed, as ever, in their usual get up of black military gear, small firearms and red berets. Today there were six in attendance instead of the usual two.
“Well let me say, dearest Technician Peter, I’m getten a little sick of your presence in ma life. In fact, I have a wee theory of m’own about you. I think you’re a fucken pervert. Am I close?”
“Mr Pope, while you are undoubtedly a prodigiously talented comedian, you are spectacularly unwell. You would do well to follow the instruction given to you to ensure you do not suffer a further deterioration to your already compromised health.”
“Technician Peter, please go away. We were huvven a nice conversation til you lot turned up.”
“Conversation? You are not required to talk, you are required to perform! Am I going to have to show you how to do this?”
Pontiff laughed. “Oh, that’s class. What are you gonnae do? Get a blow-up doll and talk us through the birds and the bees?”
The Ratman smiled a brief smile and reached into his briefcase, removing a small card and a document.
“Do you know what this is?”
“It looks like a bitta paper and a NIPSD card.”
“With your name on it.”
“So it is.”
“Would you like to be able to use this card again, Mr Pope. Mmm?”
The Ratman waited for Pontiff to respond. Pontiff said nothing.
“I suspect you do.”
Again Pontiff declined to respond.
The Ratman put Pontiff’s NIPSD card back into the briefcase and turned his attention to the paper.
“Do you remember what you wrote for your last essay, Mr Pope?”
Pontiff shook his head.
“Allow me to remind you then.”
“Please do go on.”
The Ratman began to read aloud:
“I think Life Administration is tremendously important for this country. My only reservation is that it doesn’t go far enough. I, for one, would greatly appreciate lessons on how to tie my shoelaces as well as some guidance as to the correct method for picking up crockery. I have smashed so many plates, you wouldn’t believe! Also, I feel the country as a whole would benefit massively from NIPSD SwipeScanners being installed in Toilet Facility Chambers so that there is a record of bowel movements for every Citizen. I have no doubt that social harmony would improve if everyone knew what time everyone else was taking a shit.”
Pontiff nodded and mmmed.
“I have to say Mr Pope, I’m very concerned about your anger and deep self-loathing. You seem to be in a state of permanent, smirking annoyance.”
“I thought that essay was ma best effort yet.”
“Mr Pope, very soon that sarcastic tone will desert you and you will confront the reasons you are here. As you are unable to care for yourself, I am responsible for your care. You will be realigned. Susan,” continued the Ratman, suddenly distracted. “Put that cigarette out. You know you can’t smoke in here.”
Susan took a last drag and extinguished her cigarette against the wall.
“Well that’s just lovely isn’t it? Would you do that at home?”
“Yeah,” she responded, giving a ‘fuck-you-and-all-you-stand-for’ smile.
“I do rather fear Mr Pope has had a negative influence on you, Miss Baxter. You’ve always performed in the past. Why not now?”
“Well. Despite your attitude today and how you have both behaved these last few weeks, you are still the perfect partners to help each other overcome your blockages. You have been alienated from your instincts. It is the root cause of all your problems.”
“As I’ve said before, Technician Peter, it’s ma natural instincts that have landed me in here.”
“We are looking for intimacy, not insolence, Mr Pope,” said the Ratman.
He turned and motioned to the Blackguard behind him. Three of the six approached Pontiff matter-of-factly and restrained him. The other three guards approached Susan and restrained her.
The Ratman approached Susan now too.
“Why must you force our hand in such a way?” he said, returning his gaze to Pontiff and unzipping his fly. “You leave me no choice, Mr Pope.”
“What the fuck?”
“Get your hands off me!” yelled Susan.
The Ratman turned back.
He ripped Susan’s linen suit to her waist and began.
“This. Is. How. You. Get. Intimate,” words in rhythm with the thrusts.
Pontiff tried to wrestle free of the Blackguard and went to call out, but his mouth was covered. After a short while, the Ratman shuddered. He paused before withdrawing. He then zipped-up his fly and patted Susan on the bottom, licking a bead of sweat from his upper lip. After limbering his head and shoulders like an athlete about to take on the long jump, he turned to Pontiff.
“That, Mr Pope, was very avoidable, but you wouldn’t listen, would you? Be in no doubt that this was your fault. You are making us do your work.”
The Ratman mopped his brow and blew out his cheeks.
“I do hope you will listen in future. Both of you. I think you’ll both enjoy it once you get started. We’re not asking for much after all. Just a bit of dogturtling.”
“Yeah, come on Pope. Just slip her the loveturtle,” chimed in a guard.
The Ratman put his gleaming face next to Susan’s. She was still gagged by a black-clad hand.
“I think you may have enjoyed that a little bit already,” he said. He grinned, purulent cheeks and rodent dentures on display. “OK, guards, you can release them.”
Susan remained motionless. Pontiff was momentarily frozen in reovulsion too, but he soon sparked into action, his right fist making favourable contact with the Ratman’s face. He rained down a few more blows but his fightback, though virulent, was short-lived. Not for the first time in his recent history Pontiff was outnumbered.
Having been sent to the floor, the Ratman staggered to his feet. He dabbed at his lip.
“Oh dear, Mr Pope, we are aggressive today, aren’t we? Perhaps we need a little chat with the doctor, mmm?”
After the Blackguard had given Pontiff a thorough and physical reminder of his responsibilities, he was dragged through the camp in full view of his fellow Misaligneds. They distanced themselves from the scene. Those that still had ambitions in the outside world did not want to do anything that might impede the speed at which they would be permitted to leave. Any comment or wrong glance would no doubt lead to repercussion.
Carried like a coffin, Pontiff’s head banged into the door of the LifeManagement4Life: Management Office, his elbow smashing the door frame. The impact made the window shake and the neatly rolled Venetian Blinds suffered a violent rattle.
Everything in the office was white save for the large wooden table, a chair either side – the doctor’s leather and comfortable, the patient’s rigid metal. Dr Zini rose in the surrounds of the reassuring whiteness to greet Pontiff.
“Oh dear. Not more trouble from Mr Pope was it, guards?”
“Fraid so, Doctor. He attacked all of us this time.”
Pontiff swallowed back some blood and tried to focus with his one open eye. He couldn’t stand up on his own given that he’d taken about as much as a man could take, and was handcuffed to boot. This was certainly a very liberal and compassionate way to break his will.
“You’re not ignoring me are you Mr. Pope?” asked the doctor.
Pontiff, slumped forward, again propped up by hands under his armpits. He could not make his mouth respond.
“Oh dear. OK, thank you guards. Leave him with me.”
The Guards seated Pontiff, fastening one of his arms and both his legs to the chair.
“We know how you work, Pope” said one. “You better behave in here or you’ll have me to answer to.”
The Ratman and the guards shuffled out, leaving the schoolmistress with her charge. She raised her eyebrows at Pontiff and gave him an I-told-you-so smile.
Pontiff sat, his one open eye fixed on the doctor, lip bloodied, elbow throbbing.
“You are a mess, aren’t you?”
With that she slapped him.
“Naughty boy. Time to learn some manners.”
Pontiff’s head rung, his eyes crossed momentarily.
“I did warn you not too long ago that if you darkened my door again a different phase of medicine may be required. I even tried giving you some responsibility with the mentoring scheme, but that only seemed to make your behaviour worse. Why do you keep sabotaging yourself? Clearly you need re-educating.”
Zini leaned on her desk and lit two cigarettes. She approached Pontiff, bent down and popped one in his mouth.
“Now, what was it this time?”
Pontiff said nothing.
“Let me ask you a different question, then. Do you think you are making progress? Because I think I can say your case may need quite a bit of time. We are here to help you, remember. And you are a particularly troubled soul, Mr Pope.”
He couldn’t argue with that.
“Robert,” continued the doctor, in softer tones, “do you not think that all this reticence to co-operate creates barriers, barriers that obstruct you from relating to your fellow man? Does this not in turn permeate all your relationships and create this pent-up aggression that, to name but two examples, erupted so violently at the post office and now again this afternoon? Do you actually want to leave LifeManagement, Robert?”
Pontiff’s only response was dropping his cigarette butt to the floor.
Zini sighed through her nose.
“You know, your reticence does nothing to help you. A strong person is someone who can curb his natural will to destruction and rein in some of his vices. And that’s what we’re trying to teach peo-”
“I just seen a rape!” shouted Pontiff. A new horror swept through him, evinced by saying out loud what he had witnessed.
Zini tutted and shook her head.
“You are in more trouble than we first thought. It is indeed unfortunate that you, how can I put it, misconstrue, what you have seen. It appears that in addition to your general intransigence, your mind cannot process what your eyes see. It is clear you are deluded, as well as ill. I think you’ve lied so much to yourself that you’ve started to believe the lies.”
Pontiff’s head slumped and bounced as though falling asleep on a train. Zini got up from her seat and removed a bottle from the cabinet behind her. A whisky bottle. Pontiff’s heart started to beat faster. I will not accept that, he promised himself. Not like this. Zini poured two whiskies. She sipped from hers before placing it on the table. She then opened Pontiff’s free hand and closed it shut around the other glass. He wanted to reject but his desire was greater. Three months without the warming burn of equanimity weighed heavy. He knocked it back, but as the booze began its gracious slide, unease swam with it.
The doctor refilled the glass, smiled and touched his leg.
“That’s better isn’t it?”
Zini sat on her desk, pulling her chair in front so her legs were exposed as they rested on it. Pontiff had again finished his whisky yet perspective remained elusive.
“We are trying to help you,” continued the doctor. “It is evident you have this internal congestion. Your mind is telling you that you have seen a rape. But that is wrong. We are engaged in facilitation. It will have done Miss Baxter no harm. Now what we are-”
“Are you fucken serious?”
“Mr Pope, I really don’t think there’s any need for such linguistic dexterity.”
“Do you approve of what that Ratfuck did today?”
“Approved, Mr Pope, approved? Good Lord.”
Zini laughed before her smile collapsed abruptly. Pontiff felt he had spied the Beast in that moment.
“You don’t think Technician Peter comes up with all this theory on his own, do you? Good grief.”
The doctor rose from the table, walked slowly to the damaged man before her. She placed both hands on his cheeks and gently lifted his head by his sweaty face. Pontiff’s eyes, like his mind, were unable to focus as Zini lent in and whispered, “I ordered it.”