London was hyperventilating. Madness descended on the capital, marched through the streets on the backs of both residents and visitors, electrifying the city with their panic. The air hummed as the city buckled under the new pressure of entertaining and supplying those who flocked to it. They had followed The Shard’s beacon of wealth blinking in the night sky as if breathing in some of London’s atmosphere would, by osmosis, increase their DVs in the final stretch.
Shops were open round the clock as the wide-eyed and over-tired aggressively spent the remainder of their personal earnings, unable to carry it over into the following credit year. Such spending was a cheap trick to boost their Value before the coming Death Value Test, but the government packaged it as a pre-emptive celebration of National Pride and released videos into the city that encouraged their spending to ‘Keep Britain Great’. It was a ridiculous but incomprehensibly effective method they had adopted from the old American corporate giant, Walmart.
Instead of laying full blame on the advertising genius, however, the blame had to be shared with the people who gratefully and unquestioningly accepted such indoctrination. They were joyful to take responsibility for the country’s identity with their spending, which allowed them to shuck all responsibility for their own.
It left a bitter taste on her tongue to be surrounded by the insane heat exuded in the mania. It warped the capital’s mirage into an even more swollen and distended womb, like a London caught in a bleeding snow globe. And the people were not human, but cattle filling the roads with their feverish stench trapped within the womb’s membrane, causing the smog to feel even stickier than normal. This drove them harder, faster, madder until the sound of hooves rattled at night as the insidious gas penetrated even the sleeping.
In the midst of it all one lunchtime she found herself buying gifts for her parents and for Robert. Later, she was disappointed in herself.
But she didn’t need to worry. Unlike other areas, the financial sector had a more obvious correlation between the individual and the money they pushed back into circulation. As a top performer at her level, her shaky consumer record was of no concern, whereas her colleagues shot through transactions like rounds of bullets on a machine gun to claim second place.
For almost everyone else around the country this was a threatening time of year. A new career path could be dictated, for better or worse. Jobs could be gained or lost as easily as property. Marriages could be cleaved in two if the DV of one spouse changed and they no longer qualified to live in the zone of the marital home. In a time of Great security a Great Depression lingered over the eyes of individuals much like the symbiotic film grown over their retinas.
The unsaid anxiety was a huge factor as to why Britons as a whole threw themselves into the National Pride celebrations when it was all over, releasing the sickening, pent-up mania as frenzied enthusiasm. Through the release offered to the majority in happy results they became strident Nationalists fevered with gratitude, spittle flecking their lips as they brayed and marched together.
The minority? Nobody could hear their cries and complaints over the sound of fireworks. By the time the party had finished they had already been moved to a different level of the honeycomb.
Robert had been a great comfort to her in the aftermath of her disconnection from the professor, which had left her with the tremors of a child who wakes to the silence of the night. Although desperate to tell him what had truly happened when they stood smoking on her balcony on Tuesday night he didn’t ask her to expand when she explained her quiet mood with: ‘I lost a good friend from university.’
She waited for the questions to appear through the smoke but they never came, and she could not bring herself to become a burden. Instead, she folded herself into his armpit and murmured her embryonic impulses of running away before aborting them with reason. Robert crooned with her and stroked her hair, not noticing that her reasonable abortion was the birth of something much bigger than the mere act of running.
When he rocked his way inside her that night she dug her nails harder into his skin and clamped her teeth around his collarbone. Still, his rhythm would not be broken. She let him lull her with his body that seemed not to belong to the man who opined on hardship and justice. The fear stabbed at her with more force than him that she may not be able to love him - but it was lost in the crook of his arm when he pulled her back to his chest and held her tightly until the very moment he fell asleep.
She noticed his presence kept at bay the crisis she felt bubbling behind her. But whenever she looked over her shoulder there was nothing, truly nothing: A hollow void sitting in place of her past. Whenever she tried to lock onto it with her eyes it slithered away, emitting a high-pitched, endless tone that silenced all other sounds - even her thoughts - and seemed to be the slowing down of time itself. It was as if the speed of light had become the speed of sound, if such a thing were possible.
When she heard the high-pitched tone it made her feel invisible. She would tilt her head - at her desk, on the tube, in her kitchen - and the rest of the world rushed onwards as she tuned in. She tried to listen back along the sound to its very beginning, not yet realising the origin was her own nature. When she panicked she could neither find its inception nor silence it, her breath would quiver in her throat. Thankfully, Robert always took her calls. Sometimes she wished he wouldn’t.
Angela seemed increasingly desperate to speak to her daughter, which was not uncommon behaviour for a parent leading up to the DVT. But after her conversation with the professor she couldn’t bring herself to call her mother back and so rerouted Angela to emails. Her mother launched into a cryptic ramble about the party and the joke her daughter had made about Angela’s decision to use a surrogate. Angela said it had been playing on her mind and it was important that they talk. This was a big enough warning to her daughter to continue screening her calls - she couldn’t be bothered repeating the sorry explanation she’d emailed that cast it off as humour. The calls kept coming but she ignored them. Recktall must have really wound her mother up and she didn’t want to be locked into some extended gratuitous apology that would do nothing to soothe the genuine cause of upset.
At night, she was kept awake by the city’s roar that seemed much more onerous then, as if the noise reached the moon and was bounced back, amplified by her craters.
If she did find sleep in the bottom of a glass she was awake again at 3am. Perhaps these hours were gifts of a different kind of madness, she thought. Standing under the night with a cigarette in hand she felt the comforting urge to jump over the balcony. Yes, she would follow the sound in her head - that would lead her to it. The tone became sharper and more intolerable in the dark, but cloaked in the black she allowed herself to derive purpose from it. She knew she simply must follow that sound, and the future would follow. In the lunacy of the moon, she would almost see how, but then the sun would rise in all its magnificent and reasonable life-loving glory and the idea would burst like a soap bubble caught on a fingertip.
The Tests started on Saturday and continued for a week. During the working week before, the tension was so palpable it crackled. The brokers hauled in eighteen-hour days armed with caffeinated sports drinks to rehydrate them during their cocaine binges (the DVT tested for many things, but for reasons she could only guess at, not drugs in the individual’s system.) Nervous of the Class A, Kathy was one of those who preferred to pop pills like Adderall and Ritalin and relied on valium to snatch at sleep each night.
One man took it to an extreme and was found asleep in the bathrooms on the Wednesday night. He point blank refused to be sent home by the cleaning staff and immediately went back to his desk to continue working. The Arena was a barnyard of crowing and flaking, crying and flaying and, ironically, it meant they rarely worked well.
She continued her clockwork routine doodling tortoises on her screen as she worked. It was during a phonecall Robert sent her a message with a screenshot of his lock screen showing a message from one of his female friends obviously half way through the conversation: ‘She sounds amazing! Can’t wait for next week.’ He had arranged for them to go out after the DVTs with some of his friends who were ‘dying’ to meet her.
She smiled, but something about the screenshot bothered her in the same way the vanishing text from their first night had made her twitch. Before her tongue had the chance to make its way against her bottom teeth her attention was snatched back by the client who had sensed her slip in attention.
When she left to go home on the Thursday evening she swung by Kathy’s desk to check in on her friend who was noticeably stressed. Kathy was in one of the first Test batches on Saturday.
‘Kathy - Kath!’ she sing-songed on approach. Kathy blinked at her slowly. ‘Hey, go home and sleep.’
‘That’s what I’m trying to decide. Sleep or work.’
‘You’ll do far better work tomorrow if you go home now. Come on.’
Kathy watched with drooping eyes as her friend switched off her computer and then disconnected her headset. She dropped her head into her hands for a second, rubbing her temple, and then was on her feet, pulling on her coat.
‘What are you doing tomorrow night?’ she asked as she escorted Kathy around the edge of the room.
‘Bubble bath,’ Kathy croaked.
‘Well, I’m on call if you need me.’ Kathy nodded a thank you but they both knew she wouldn’t call.
‘When’s your DVT again?’ Kathy asked.
‘Next Friday,’ she answered as they passed under the glass floor of Bateman’s office. Both women looked up and saw him pacing wildly, lashing his hands in the air to supplement the heated argument he was having with whoever was speaking in his ear.
‘Who do you think he’ll be with the night before,’ she murmured so as not to be overheard. ‘His husband or his mistress?’ Bateman wrenched his headset from his skull and flung it at the door. ‘I wouldn’t want to be either of them.’ Kathy remained silent.
‘How’s the cat?’ she asked as they pushed through the double doors out of the Arena and into the corridor.
‘Stupid and needy,’ Kathy spat with a trembling voice, stopping suddenly just past the doors.
‘Kathy-’ She turned to her shaking friend. ‘Kathy, come on. We’ll get you home - I’ll take you all the way - and we can talk about whatever’s going on, get it off your chest before Saturday.’ Whatever was bothering Kathy, it wasn’t the cat.
‘I can’t,’ came the whispered response. Kathy’s eyes beseeched- what? She moved closer to her friend and saw silent begs for forgiveness echoing in Kathy’s pupils.
‘I can’t go home. I have to go back in,’ Kathy said abruptly, spinning on her heels and storming back into the Arena. The doors slammed shut behind her.
She was left in the grey corridor, her mouth parted in confusion. She pivoted slowly away from the steel doors and the grey stretched out in front of her. Deep in the centre of the building, she may as well have been underground.
‘This can’t be real life,’ she muttered to herself, passing through the nightmare not even her imagination could have dreamt up.