The arresting spark of the yellow scarf and its wearer had cost her six minutes in trading time and, quite possibly, her entire lunch hour. She swiped into the Trading Arena and fought the urge to trot towards her desk as she pulled off the pink coat that was garnering more attention than she needed, being late. The Arena (a nickname fondly given by the media and subsequently adopted) was in the centre of the bottle-shaped building, on the twentieth floor. It was the only space guarded by steel walls rather than glass. Those cold walls stretched up a further three storeys to meet a glass ceiling that doubled as a floor for the offices of senior management. It hovered in a circle overhead, leaving a large glass tube in the centre shaped from their walls to continue directly above the trading floor in the middle of the arena straight up to the roof of the building. If the sun’s glare was ever too bright for the screens below a steel shield could be summoned across the stained glass roof at the top to beam a softer artificial light down on them. The shield rarely had to be deployed because London was infamous for its miserable weather (thank god for E-weather, she heard her colleagues trumpet) and even if the sun shone it struggled to break through the smog that hung like poison over the city - not that anyone else could see it (thank god for E-weather.)
The brokers loved nothing more than thanking the image of the Virgin Mary who hung in the glass above as they traded, bearing their canines as they laughed at her watching over them. One of the now-board members found he was always successful in the Arena after a visit to the Virgin at St Paul’s cathedral, but as he climbed the ranks he couldn’t afford the same time in the dusty pews. Mad with the fear of losing his lucky streak and ever-climbing DV, he approached the cathedral offering to pay to have their windows updated with E-paint as long as he could keep the original Mary and replace her with an entirely new E-window. They agreed and she was installed so all the worthy could benefit from her benevolent gaze in their pocket of financial heaven.
She threw her coat under her desk and logged into the three screens that curved around her head like an over-sized helmet. She stole a glance at Mary while the system came to life, as humbled by the rainbow palette caught in her pane as she had been that first day. As ever, the Virgin’s face echoed her own sadness knowing she could never share this sight with the colour-blind drones who worked in offices, spilling out onto the grey streets at night to pick up their children who would never know the pink of their flesh when they skinned their knees.
She sat with twelve of them in one of eight tiered horseshoes that curved around the circular trading floor, facing inward. Behind each horseshoe stretched two lengths of desks manned by assistants and trainee brokers. By facing the trading floor, they could all pay homage to the huge screen that encircled it displaying share values and market trends, so that you only had to raise your eyes up slightly from your own screens to see the full picture. When standing in the circle, the inner lip of the screen also displayed this same information.
She grabbed her silver headset sitting on her desk on the second tier and pulled open her top drawer, retrieving a cone-shaped plastic ear bud from a box of hundreds and snapping it over the earpiece. She placed the headset over the crown of her head, levelling the small rod with her ear before pressing with her forefinger, gently encouraging the earpiece to penetrate her fleshy tunnel. With her left hand she fiddled with the small silver microphone raising it parallel to her mouth and then moved to the back of the band above her ponytail to click the ‘connect’ button. She shivered as the band clamped around her skull to ensure it wouldn’t slip during aggressive trades or phone calls, and her middle screen confirmed the wireless connection to the rest of the system with a notification in the upper right-hand corner. As she pulled up the business newsfeed on the left screen and the trading software in the middle, an email automatically opened on the right. It was from her boss. he computer began dictating in her ear:
What’s that phrase? Time is… time is…. Perhaps you can help me.
She ground her molars and pushed her tongue back behind her bottom teeth, desperate to push through and lash out at the man who made no attempt to hide his desire to rid SM of her. Unfortunately for them both, she was too good at her job, and although the ritualistic hoops they jerked each other through exhausted her more than her pride would admit, her own syncopated moves equally frustrated him as he stalked her, blinded by the footlights of his own stage.
She quickly searched for the origins of the cliché, copying and pasting the entire Wikipedia entry into and email before dictating at the bottom:
My sincerest apologies, Mr Bateman. I’ll make up both the time and the money.
Send. Her hands busied with work at the black and white screens as she envisioned the fury firing from his pupils to his brain upon reading her reply. She imagined his whisper that he’ll make her pay. You already do, she thought.
At 9am she dictated an email to Joe’s Kid, her favourite café on Fashion Street, cancelling the lunch reservation for two knowing Bateman would triple her workload for having the audacity to step out that day. After sending the email she glanced around at her colleagues but none were paying her the slightest bit of attention as the room occasionally rang with threatening phone calls supported by the constant rumble of dictation. She placed her mic closer to her mouth as she connected the phone call on the right screen.
‘Hi, it’s me. Listen, I have to cancel lunch, I’m sorry. I know, I’ll call tonight and we can reschedule. Yes. Have you seen the news? Him, yeah - he wasn’t wearing grey. I will - talk later.’
She disconnected the call and leaned back in her seat making a few notes on her pad with a pencil, watching the market trends onscreen. A countdown appeared on the huge screen above their heads and all around her Pinstripes jumped to their feet, still on calls or mid-dictation, and stalked towards the arena. The woman who sat two places behind her glanced down at her notepad as she passed and, smirking, quipped, ‘Old school’, before squaring her shoulders at the sunken pit and arranging her features so they were ugly and hostile as the timer flashed 10 seconds. They all squirmed on the outer rim of the arena, jostling each other as they threatened to push their neighbour onto the floor, which would violate their trading ability for the day. She could picture their tails twitching from side to side, the men puffing out their chests and jutting jaws to intimidate one another, and the women hissing softly under their breath. She knew they imagined themselves to be a lion pride but in reality she longed to tug on their corkscrew tails and see if they squealed. A few of the more collected ones threw her a nervous look as she stayed sitting at her desk. She checked her ‘old school’ notes and then gave a little wave just as the timer hit zero and they flung themselves into the arena like rabid dogs. They furiously bidded to buy shares in a British pharmaceutical that were at an all-time high after the release of their latest drug.
She waited, fingers poised over the dial button on her screen that would connect her to her most venerable client the minute her impulsive colleagues and a blogger’s review she had stumbled across late last night slating the ‘vicious side-effects’ forced the stock to crash prematurely, at which point they would claim it before selling it on in the afternoon once an American celebrity released their own review championing the ‘ultimate sleep repellent’. News of the blogger’s disgust hit faster than even she anticipated and the shockwaves rippling around the arena morphed the features of the brokers from jubilation into panic. She hit dial and turned the brightness of her screens right up - she didn’t want to see her reflection mirror their earlier snarls as she growled: ‘Buy. Buy!’
She woke with a gasp lying diagonally across the bed, taking in the stripe painted across her ceiling by a crack in the blinds. Snapping her lids shut again, her eyes roved under the lids trying to hold onto the dream as it melted away from her like winter. She saw the sea as it caressed Ramsgate’s shore and its blue that deepened to cerulean in summer but frothed white with fury in the colder months, and always made her think of the spittle escaping her own mouth when she hastily brushed her teeth. The beach was her favourite bolthole in the nursing town - where the children of the Inner Zones’ citizens were raised during the week so that their parents could get back to work quickly without distraction - and throughout the four years she had stayed there as an infant, the staff had marvelled at the toddler who would laugh with delight at the waves even as the wind ravaged her tiny body like it did the straw grass. Even as a child she remembered finding peace in the shifting roar of the water, utterly transfixed by the spectrum of wild colours breathing from the earth’s pores.
The luminosity of the dream retreated further and, along with it, the cyan horizon and glittering, golden expanse of sand, grains of which she always managed to trample into her room much to the nurses’ exasperation. With that thought the face of the Head Nurse she had been dreaming of bloomed forth, as clear and fierce as the woman herself who, although she stood at under 5’3’, had the presence of an ox. Her curling grey hair betrayed her age but in her skull she transported an incredible intelligence and empathy that shone out through her black pupils, around which were dozens of creases marking each child who had come into her care. The nurse had had an unnerving habit of pausing at odd intervals in her speech, and it was then that her powers of perception were felt most by those she was addressing. It was as if she could unclasp their skull and peer into their thoughts with the same care some women open jewellery boxes to survey their finest jewels. Although her role was more akin to that of a commanding officer than nurse in the head position, the older woman had developed something of a ‘soft spot’ for the oddly behaved little girl.
The little girl exhaled before sitting and reaching up the wall to find the light switch. She squinted as the overhead turned on, one forearm shielding her face as she turned toward the antique battery-powered alarm clock sitting on the bedside table. The hands below the silver bells read 3:47am - earlier than usual. She rolled out of bed and grabbed the hoodie discarded on the wooden floor by her feet and padded across the expansive and empty bedroom, yawning as she opened the door to the en-suite. Her toes curled on the cold tiles as she sat heavily on the loo in the dark, still thinking of the nurse. There were no cobwebs to blow off of that memory as it was a face she thought of often - she had never again seen a face quite like it. As a child she could sit and stare adoringly for hours at the nurse, and despite not seeing the woman in over twenty years she could still picture her eyes as clear as day. The left eye was a bright blue and the right one green with a splinter of brown in the bottom of the iris; an old medical encyclopaedia she uncovered at university called it heterochromia. She wished she could have told the nurse who died never knowing.
She stood and stretched, kicking her leg behind her to flush the toilet, as was her night-time ritual. Occasionally, her ankle would come down on the porcelain cistern instead of on the handle and she would sport bruises for a few days, but she didn’t mind - purple was a favourite of hers and hard to come by in the world. She finished washing her hands and hunched over the sink, gripping its smooth curves as she gazed at her reflection, half of which was hidden by the shadow thrown from the white light of the bedroom. Her own eyes weren’t bad - they were nothing on the nurse’s - but they certainly weren’t grey, as everyone thought eyes to be. The colours were deep and layered, the green dashes pushing through the blue like grass growing out of a lake. From her pupil flashed bolts of yellow-
‘Like scarves,’ she whispered to herself. The skin on her bare legs pimpled as her hair stood on end, warring the impossibility of the man’s existence. Who was he?
She stared at the half of her that was shrouded in darkness, willing the answers to burst out of the black hole that could be anyone’s face, or no-one’s at all. She reached up and traced two lines across her cheekbone and it burned faintly with the trace of her invisible fingerprint.
She moved back into the bedroom, grabbing a pair of black leggings and two thick, knee-high socks to sheath her cold legs in from the built-in wardrobe opposite her bed. Opening the bedroom door, she made for the kitchen across the open plan living room, weaving between two large velvet sofas (were they brown or mauve? she’d forgotten), her reflection appearing again, this time whole, in the flat black of the television permanently turned off at the mains supply. A wall jutted out six feet from the windows separating the kitchen and living room slightly, housing her desk that faced out onto London. She had traded her overpriced E-desk for this when she found it at one of the Outer Zone markets, not having any cash to buy it with. The seller thought she was mad and didn’t quite believe the deal until he came to make the swap, and even then he shot off as soon as he’d loaded the expensive model into the van in case she changed her mind, not offering to help move the battered desk from her doorstep inside. But she didn’t care; she had fallen in love with the solid oak and its coffee stains possibly to a point of madness. It was alluring, and sported three drawers on the right hand side which could all be locked with a key. She kept this in a vase that sat on the mantelpiece perpendicular to the TV, along with the key for the tall narrow cabinet that stood next to the desk. She was glad to have found a use for the vase she had been gifted that she could tell, even if she couldn’t see the colours as proof, was garish as hell.
Sensing she was in the room, the computer on top of her desk came to life with a faint whirr. She stuck her middle finger up at it and ducked through the alcove into the kitchen. As the kettle boiled she thought about humming - but didn’t bother - instead rummaging silently through a cupboard for a new box of camomile tea. She found the tea, ripping off the plastic with her teeth and turning it the right way up: Calming camomile.
‘The perfect blue for a sleepy you,’ she simpered, mimicking the actress from the adverts dressed in nightwear that made the viewer anything but sleepy. Pulling her favourite mug from the dryer (white, clay, chip in handle), she tossed in a tea-bag, throwing the paper packet in the bin as she filled the mug from the kettle.
‘Multitask as nature intended,’ she muttered the slogan for an android system in an American accent.
The box of tea said the water would turn a ‘soothing shade’ of blue. Does it hell, she thought, playing with the string attached to the bag making it bob beneath the surface of the clear liquid. She pulled her bread bin towards her (another gift, this time from her parents) and shoved her right hand in, nails scrabbling in the corners as she looked to the right to assess the temperature outside on her balcony. The slight mist on the glass door betrayed the cold so she removed her hand to flip up her hood before grabbing the bin with both hands and shaking it upside down in frustration. She heard the rolled cigarette bounce on the floor before she caught sight of it.
Grabbing a lighter from a drawer, she picked up the cigarette in the same hand and seized the mug by its handle before turning to open the door with her arse. She lit the cigarette while just inside the kitchen before stepping out onto her South-facing Zone Two balcony, curling her upper lip at the view that stretched from the tenth storey of her expensive postcode down to the river. She dragged on the white nicotine stick questioning her sanity at her odd routine of hiding one at a time in the bread bin despite living alone.
Zone One at a distance was an awesome sight to behold - half workspaces in the inner city and half residential. The Circle line ran between the two halves in a loop separating the towering office spires sitting opposite the gently sloping glass ceilings of penthouses on the North side like jagged front teeth collected above a line of molars. Each penthouse began at fifteen storeys high and stretched up a further three, only allowing for one home per the foundations thrusting it into the air. From her viewpoint they looked like grotesque caricatures of the greenhouses that had fringed Ramsgate, but instead of incubating growth they kept warm the greed and envy that radiated in the dead space between their bottoms and the pavement. She began replaying a conversation she’d had five years before.
‘You are a bee,’ said a man.
‘Ok, imagine I am a bee-’
’No! You are a bee - a worker bee.’ On the balcony, she nodded, hearing the man as if he was standing beside her while her mind emptied itself of the present.
‘The Britain as we know it runs like a beehive drawing its incredible efficiency from the most slickly-oiled machine it has on tap - its people. We are the worker bees of this giant, multi-faceted hive and all produce the same sweet, sticky, golden liquid, but in different quantities, as dictated by what level of the tapered structure we buzz around, yes? Those at the top squeeze out the finest syrup in enormous quantities and are rewarded for such, whereas those at the bottom produce the building blocks for the rest of the hive to live upon and can only look at the towering upper levels in fear of it toppling onto them. The bees are divided into levels based on their ability, testing their size, ingenuity and willingness - you know this as your annual DV test. The most ruthless that steal from others’ hives are rewarded, and those willing to sting to create demand are rewarded further still.
‘Now, in the centre of the hive sits the queen, hidden deep among the inner workings and rarely seen outwith the safety of her rectangular compound. If you could look closely at her you would see instead of one powerful bee she is a collective of worker bees using the honey produced by the rest to stick their bodies together and imitate the size necessary to dictate to the majority. They know the best way to force the buzzing masses to produce more liquid gold is to take it from them and label their successes with opportunities for consumption rather than collection. So as some bees survey their kingdom from penthouses and are thanked with golden drops credited to their accounts others slog endlessly below, witnessing what would have been theirs had they only been smarter, happier, healthier. And the deformed queen bathes itself in pools of amber, clandestine within the solidifying gold frame around it.’
‘Why don’t we overthrow her?’
‘Because they are all blind!’ he cackled.
‘But so is she, so we’re equal, surely.’
‘Everyone except you.’
‘Why do we still live like this? Why is she still in power?’
‘Because she doesn’t have a DV.’
‘So? A DV is just a number - it’s fiction.’
’And does that fiction not negate your reality as a human being? Does it not uncreate your existence as an individual? And if you do not exist - how can you act?’
Her cigarette was finished but she took a long drag anyway that burned her lips and fingertips, inwardly cursing as she dropped it to the street below. Her Death Value was 14 million that morning - the estimation of how much money she would pump back into the economy over her lifetime - but her impression on this world was less than that of the filter tip disintegrating in a puddle below her. A tremor ran from her feet to her palms, and she clutched the steaming mug tighter, as the realisation that though the man with the yellow scarf could not exist, he was the only truth she had seen that day. She took an audible sip before blowing on the hot tea(a nonsensical routine learnt from her mother) wondering what shade the yellow had been when first made, and when it was made - was it recently? Was it made for him? Sip, blow. Who the hell are you, she thought to the empty city.
She finished the colourless camomile on the balcony before turning back into the warmth, not bothering to lock the door behind her. Leaving the mug - teabag and all - in the sink, she went back through the alcove into the living room, crossing straight into the open hallway that led to her front door. At the other end, close to her bedroom, was another locked door, the key for which was a code that could be tapped into a security console hidden behind a sliding wooden panel she had spent a fortune installing. She tapped in the code, - the title of a book she had never had the chance to read, but had adored upon hearing the abridged story - and the door slid open like that of a lift, locking automatically behind her when she stepped in. In the far left corner was a small fridge humming quietly. Next to it sat two small buckets stacked on top of each other, and a large chest stretched perpendicular to the fridge along the wall. In the centre of the small room was a piece of equipment that looked something like a crucifix with a second wooden beam running through its middle. She stepped around it and took two steps to a small and smooth plastic desk and matching chair, lowering herself into it. On the desk top were remnants of yesterday’s papers she had already torn through with a pair of scissors, but in the excitement of this morning she had forgotten to pick up today’s on the commute home, so the scraps would have to do. She picked up the pencil sitting atop the massacre and put it between her teeth, using both hands to pick through the printed sheets, consequently covering her fingers in ink stains.
She quickly found a large photo of a man and began sketching over him, using his face as the template for the scarf’s owner, the garment’s own shape curving over a headline that she would eventually reduce to block shading. She sketches for - who cares - and with no windows in the room she loses herself in the movement of her wrist. When she is finished neither photo nor drawing is distinguishable, but she turns off the lights and her fingertips sketch the face clearly in her mind’s eye by tracing the indentations in the paper.
At some later point her alarm for work tolled from her bedroom, but she sat sucking the lead from her fingers - even if only for a moment.