Stone The Crows

Synopsis


Tom Bishop knows something is happening. But when The Horror begins, it will be too late for everyone else.

The crows outside Bishop’s flat have destroyed the morning birdsong. A vicious, aggressive black cloud of razor-sharp beaks and talons begin to taunt then attack him, a stark warning that the delicate fabric of daily life in the commonsense world is about to be altered forever.

The woman, the Japanese assassin, is pursuing him through the snaking dark streets of London. No matter how hard he tries to shake her off, she is always there waiting for him like a spectre. Is she some kind of shape-shifter morphing into familiar surroundings, lulling him into some false sense of security before she attacks him again? What does she want? Why him? But she is only a small fragment of this apocalyptic puzzle.

He knew they existed. The Inorganics. Flickering around him, as if on the extreme border of his consciousness, corporeally invisible, Bishop felt their presence as strongly as any worldly creature. It was as if energy had seeped into his existence and acquired a predatory soul. He knew some Inorganics could be harmful, but through his training he could defend himself  so far.

Roulla Mavromati, the enigmatic woman he meets one day on the train, craves his knowledge. But these will not be the lessons found in any university surrounded by the leafy comfort of academia. She will be pushed to the very edge of pleasure and pain to discover they spring from the same source. As her thirst for Heaven and Hell intensifies, Bishop has to find new extremes where the boundaries of flesh and consciousness dissolve. Roulla possesses a power Bishop has never encountered in any woman he has known. Unleashed, the potential could be devastating. As Roulla excels in her studies, Tom Bishop realises this is the woman he was always destined to meet and that these are not merely games of master and slave but a frightening prelude of what is to come.

Then it begins

It is during one of the many conversations with another resident of the house, his philosophical sparring partner, the Red Yank, an out-of-work actor with a passion for classical music, pipes and women. His flat is cluttered with chaotic displays of his theatre and film work, and he shares it with the love of his life, a politically incorrect parrot called Louie.

At first it seems like a simple car accident in the street outside with the two drivers in an angry stand off  maybe an exchange of blame, then insurance details? An axe swings, bullets spray from a gun and a man lies dying on the floor. A hate-fuelled mob floods the neighbourhood charged with insanity and chaos as Bishop and the Red Yank unbelievingly crane their heads out of the window to watch as the police, outnumbered and helpless, disappear beneath a tidal wave of blood and anarchy. It could be the beginnings of a long overdue revolution. But this is what Bishop has always known. The Horror had begun.

The landscape has dramatically changed overnight. Dismembered corpses hang from trees, the dead litter the streets as the crows and rats feast on the banquet. At first it seems that the only living creatures are the crows. Patrolled by armed guards, huge razor wire pens have been constructed. Inside, a new breed of animal is being broken in and conditioned to obey their new masters. Naked and dehumanised, the filthy rich, the ex-rulers of the people and the upper echelon, have become the primary fuel as they pull the new order around in makeshift chariots. Whipped into a pulverising subservience, these scarred and tattered people scream out for a system that has crumbled into the bloody filth and human detritus of stinking London streets.

Animals with reborn primal savagery hunt in packs, tearing apart anything in their path and adding to the growing carnage. The Horror is engulfing everything, not just people. The earth is in revolt.

Tom Bishop and the Red Yank find to their amazement they can walk around without drawing attention to themselves while watching the blasphemy of deconstructed humanity at their leisure. But the crows see them. The crows always see them, and the crows haven’t forgotten.

Then Bishop hears The Voice and learns why things are the way they are. Why they always will be. Why The Horror has to exist.







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3. Chapter Three

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

“I like-a pain,” she continued, her voice loud, as if she were addressing the crew from the bridge of a ship.  The other passengers froze in their seats.  “I like-a sexual pain.”

 

Tom Bishop found himself grinning, really amused.  The blood drained from the face of a middle-aged woman sitting nearby.  She was ashen and held her hand to her chest as if she were having difficulty breathing.  The mouth of a young man sitting opposite sagged open.  He picked up his backpack and moved unsteadily down the aisle.  When he looked back, his mouth was still locked open,. Suddenly he dropped the backpack and began to cough uncontrollably from a fragment of polo mint sucked into his windpipe.  He started to beat his head slowly on the glass partition with his face devil-red as he fought desperately for air.

On the other side of the extraordinary woman who just spoke to him was a black girl chewing gum.  She, too, had an open mouth.  The gum rolled out and landed in her lap with a perfect impression of her dentures.  An up-for-it Jack-the-lad sat next to Bishop drooling over Page 3 of the Sun.  In a single instant Jack was not up for it, and the tabloid slipped from his fingers to the floor.  He was making a hissing noise, and Bishop wondered if he was developing a fatal leak.  He imagined Jack, empty of air, draped on the seat like a deflated male plastic blow-up doll.  The middle-aged woman was now struggling to her feet.  Her lips met and parted as if she were in an aquarium sucking water across her gills.  She began waving wildly, making a guttural noise.  Further down another woman sat with her ten year old daughter looking as if she had been hit in the face with a wooden mallet.  She stared at the foreign woman with a flushed face.  Her eyes slowly bulged with terror, as if she were looking at a hobgoblin from hell.  Any moment Bishop expected an explosive mutiny and the air streaked with curses as some of the passengers attacked and others fled.  A tiny spark could set it off.

 

Instead the train jolted to a stop at Tottenham Court Road where Bishop was changing to the Central Line.  He rose, still holding the woman’s eyes.

“I’m getting off.  Want to come?”

She rose decisively, completely ignoring two ranks of dumbfounded passengers.  “Yes.  I do.”

They pushed past the incoming passengers and disembarked from the carriage.

*

It was a kind of compromise.  Bishop knew he and the woman must talk.  But where?  He was still suspicious, wary.  He didn’t yet want to lead her back to his flat in Ptolemy Terrace.  His memory of the Japanese woman was still wet with freshness.  He needed a little time to scan her.  It was raining and chilly, so parks were out of the question.  He suggested to her that they stop at White City.  White City was a junction on the Central Line and the first open air station after the train emerged from the underground tunnel.  The platform was large but covered by a roof.

When the train reached the station, they found a bench towards the edge of the platform and sat down.  Her name was Sotiroulla Mavromati.  She was a Greek raised near Athens.  Her mother and father now lived in Lefkada, having bought a small hotel with their savings.  Mavromati worked as a freelance translator and also taught the ’cello.

Bishop crossed his legs.  “It’s a pretty name.  I dread to ask how you spell it.”

“Call me Roulla.”

“Roulla?”

“It’s simpler.  A nickname.”  She paused and cocked her head towards him.  “Your name, Bishop.  Are you a churchman?  A minister?”

He returned her look impishly.  “Don’t you see the six, six, six scored across my forehead?”

“What are you saying?”

“Six, six, six.  The sign of the Beast.”

“You are a beast?”

“A beast and a multi-disciplinary pervert.”

Her laugh was full.  She threw back her head, and her red lips stretched round her teeth.  The laugh came from her belly and her loins.  “I knew it!  You are the right man for me!”

His smile faded slowly.  “But I don’t know if you are the right woman.”

She arched her eyebrow and turned towards him.  “Of course I am.  Why not?  What more do you want than a real woman?”

“I…”

She leaned forward.  Her voice was intimate but forceful.  “I tell you I see things.  I see so much pleasure between you and me.  I had a husband, and he bored me.  I now have a lover.  He is pretty, but he bores me, too.  These men are weak.  I want a strong man.  I want a man who can bring me to my knees, make a slave of me, beat me, break me and release my spirit to float high to the heavens.  I want to grow, not wither and die.  I’m not yet old, and even when I’m old I will not be old because I am Greek.  You know Greeks?  After death their spirits return to the earth and the most beautiful country in the world.  We are so sane because we are so mad.  To be average, to be normal is to be lower than a dog, not worthy of living.  Do you understand me, Beast?”

Her intensity and passion were crashing over his consciousness in tidal waves.  Her personality was an elemental force like the ocean or dark thunderheads on the horizon.  It was irresistible.  He’d never met anyone like her.

He turned away from her and folded his arms decisively.  “The Japanese woman had no spirit…”

“What Japanese woman?”

 

“She was cold as stone.  There’s nothing but heat in you.  That’s good.  Hard to disguise, impossible to duplicate.”

“What are you talking about, crazy Beast?”

 

He turned back to her, but his arms remained folded.  His voice was even.  “I’m not a compromiser.  I don’t nuzzle and cuddle.  I’ll take you apart physically, and you won’t know your own name.”

Her voice was heavier now – heavy and low.  But she held his gaze.  “I knew you were a good one.  I could tell it in your eyes.  Unforgiving eyes.  I like that.”

 

“I’ll lead you to horizons beyond your dreams.”

“That’s shit.”  She bit off the word like a piece of hard candy and tossed her thick hair from her face. “My dreams are beyond your imagination.”

 

He laughed in spite of himself.  “I’m going to enjoy breaking you.”

“Hah.”  She wagged her forefinger in his face.  “If you do not break me, Mr Beast…if you fail, then I will trample you underneath my feet until you are nothing but a phantom of a man.  Every day I will wipe my feet on you.  I step in dog shit, and I wipe my feet on you.  You listen to me, Beast, and listen to me carefully.  I do not play at these games.”

 

“Good,” he replied.  “I’m tired of silly girls who flutter and faint.  I’m sick of women who say they want adventure and flinch at the first level of risk.  I don’t want love, Roulla.  Forget it.  Also, go somewhere else if you want affection.  I’m strictly interested in meat.  Flesh.  You understand me, you Greek whore?”

She swung at him instantly using her fist, not an open hand.  Bishop was snake-quick.  He caught her wrist and closed his fingers on it, forcing it back, down into her lap.  With his other hand he slapped her cheek – hard.  The sound was like a rifle shot.  A man standing nearby folded his newspaper nervously and moved away.

Lightning flashed in Roulla Mavromati’s eyes.  Anger quickly changed to rage, and the rage was frothing into incandescence.  For half a second Bishop was uncertain whether or not the two of them would wind up on the floor with hands around each other’s throats.  For that half second he was convinced he had a fist fight on his hands, and his thoughts started to break up chaotically.  Abruptly there was a change in the light in her eyes.  Rage unexpectedly landslipped into wry humour.

Her cheek was on fire, burning.  But she pulled back from the absolute certainty that she was going to sink her teeth into the jugular vein she saw throbbing in the side of his neck.  He was strong.  A thin man, but his muscles were like piano wire.  The hand holding her wrist was a talon.  She couldn’t move her arm.  Unless she bit through his jugular.  Then…

She smiled a half smile because one side of her face was numb.  “OK, Beast.  But I’m not a Greek whore.”

He felt the tension building in his chest and increased the pressure on her wrist.  “You are.  You are scum.  A Greek whore, a scrubber.  A slut.”

 

Her chest was heaving now, and the rage returned to her eyes.  She leaned towards his neck, and her lips pulled back as her teeth opened.  Her wrist was breaking.  The pain was unbearable.  She turned her face to his, very close, and she spat.

Tom Bishop did not flinch.  Queerly, he anticipated her move and knew it was coming. His fingers gripping her wrist found the nerve he was looking for.  He compressed it against the ulna, and the blood instantly drained from her face.

 

“Lick it off,” he said quietly and confidently.  “All of it.”

He eased off the pressure on her wrist as she leaned forward.  He turned his wet cheek to her as her tongue emerged stiff and hard, pink and long.  But her tongue relaxed as she licked his cheek softly and gently, like a cat.

 

“It’s true,” she murmured.  “You are a Beast.  Six, six, six.”

He didn’t try and look at her.  “And you?  What are you?”

 

Still catlike, she slowly smiled as she continued to lick.  “I am a whore.  A Greek whore.  A slut.”

His voice was still even.  “Take off your underwear, Roulla.”

 

“Hmmm,” she purred.  “I’ll go find a toilet…”

“No,” he interrupted her.  “Here.  Do it here.”

 

Her eyes widened suddenly, and her voice was a ragged whisper.  “Here?  You want me to take off my clothes here?  On the platform?”

“Not your clothes.  Just your tights and knickers.”

 

Her eyes widened more.  “You CRAZY…!  I…OK, I do it.”

She turned away from him, crossed one leg over the other and pulled off a boot.  Then the other boot.  She placed the two boots between them and stood up.  With a sudden movement she pulled up her full woollen skirt, hooked her thumbs in her black tights and pushed down.  It was done so quickly and confidently that a train full of disembarking people didn’t even notice.  The man leaning against a pillar looked up from his magazine, frowned, shook his head, then went back to reading.  Everyone was so absorbed in themselves that no one observed her. 

 

Breathing heavily, she sat down and handed him her underclothes.  “OK.  There you are, crazy Beast.”

He shrugged.  “Don’t get excited.  No sex today.”

 

What?”

“You heard me.  Today I’m busy.  Not today.  This weekend.”

 

“You bastard.  Today you could have anything you wanted.  This weekend, maybe not.”  She took a deep breath and shook her head angrily.  “Where, then, you English shit?  Your place?  My place?”

Bishop stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing his boots at the ankle.  “My place.  It’s a little small.  I wish I had more room.  I need room for you.  I want to train you like a horse, a wild mare.  Outside.  In a park, in the woods.  Maybe Epping Forest.  You know Epping Forest?”

 

She was trembling with frustration.  As he spoke, though, she felt herself relaxing a little in resignation.  “I have a farm.  In Devon.  Not a working farm.  A holiday house.  My ex-husband bought it while we were married, and it was part of the settlement.  He took the house in London, I took the farm.  Now I, too, have a small flat.  Naturally the worst part of the deal.  I hardly ever get down to Devon, and I planned to rent it out.  Or sell it.”

Bishop’s eyes brightened.  “A farm?  You have a farm?”

 

She bobbed her head.  “Yes.  And you’re probably right.  We may spoil it if we do it now.  These people around us, they are animals, without souls.  A flat - people above, underneath, on both sides.  Like a zoo.  Unnatural.  If you scream, they call the police.”

“Do you have a car?”

 

“Yes.”  She threw her arms in the air in a theatrical gesture.  “We will use my car, my farm, my body.  But see here, Beast.  I don’t waste my breath when I warn you.  You make one false step at my farm, and you will eat breakfast with the pigs.”

She reached for her boots, but he picked them up and put them on the bench on the other side of him.  He stuffed the tights and knickers into one of them.

 

“My boots.  Give me my boots.”

“I’ll give them to you when I see you on the weekend.  Friday afternoon?  Saturday morning?”

 

“You want me to walk home barefoot?  In this weather?”

“You have to deserve to wear boots, you little whore.  Who do you think you are?  When you pick me up, I want you to be still barefoot.  And no underwear, ever.”

 

There was a silence.  Even the train platform was momentarily quiet.  And for the first time since they met, her voice was small and timid.  “Friday afternoon?  Pick you up?  Tell me where.”

* * *

 

The man moved slowly up the hill.  He was in deep concentration, and wore a long dark overcoat.  He stopped, then patted his buttocks with both hands twice.  Immediately he shuffled around in a 360 degree circle.  Pausing to get his bearings for a moment, he then carried on walking up the hill.

When he saw Tom Bishop standing at the top of Ptolemy Terrace watching him, he stopped again and turned around, this time patting his buttocks more nervously.  He decided to change to the other side of the road in order to avoid a confrontation with the man in the boots.  As he stepped between the parked cars, a big white van squealed round the corner from the Gardens, trapping him in the middle of the road.  In desperation he stopped, patted his buttocks and shuffled slowly anti-clockwise.  The van driver screeched to a halt and angrily blew his horn.

 

This was confusing.  The man frantically tried to reach the other pavement but after one step had to turn around again.  He stopped, patted himself and turned.  The van driver blew his horn.  Again the man turned.  The driver angrily held down his horn and moved slowly and menacingly towards the turning man.  He rolled down the window.

“Get the fuck out of the middle of the road, you crazy cunt!”

 

A first floor window was thrown open, and Arsenal Joe leaned out.  He was without his teeth.  “Oi!  Oi!  You!  You fuck off and leave him alone.”

The driver was now enraged.  He was half out of the van window.  “Come on down here, you old toothless fart, and I’ll run you both over!”

 

Arsenal Joe was wound up now.  “Who do you think you are, threatening him and me with a fucking big white van?  I’ll get the police on you, you hear?  I’ve got a gun!  I’ll phone the police!”

Fuck off you old cunt!

 

Tom Bishop stepped over to the van.  Mr Turnaround was turning continuously near the middle of the road.  “Why don’t you just drive between him and the parked cars?  There’s room.”

The van driver was a spotty 30 year old with the beginnings of a gut.  He was wearing a gym sweatsuit and had tattoos on the backs of his hands.  “What the fuck has it got to do with you, cunt?”

 

“That’s right, Tom!” screamed Arsenal Joe.  “Kick the fuck out of him!  I’d kick him meself, the schmuck, but I’m seventy-two years old!”

Bishop stepped back as the van driver backed up, crashing the gears.  He was in a demented state now.  There was drool on his chin, and he danced on the seat top with uncontrollable rage.  “Cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt…!

 

Bishop watched as the van lurched sideways.  The driver floored the throttle and shot between Mr Turnaround and the row of parked cars.  The shaved head appeared out of the driver’s window.

“Cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt…!

 

The van veered to the right, and the driver corrected the steering too late.  He sideswiped a rubbish skip with the back quarter of his van.  The entire rear bumper assembly clattered to the road and bounced crazily after the departing vehicle that was now slowing for the sharp bend at the bottom.

Cunt!

 

It was screamed with an insane violence as the white van disappeared from view.  Bishop heard another distant crash and wondered what else the man had hit.  Meanwhile Mr Turnaround finally reached the opposite pavement and celebrated the event with a final turn around.

“Good for you,” Arsenal Joe shouted from his window.  “Good for you…”

 

Bishop waved.  “Alright, Joe?”

“We’ve got ’em on the run,” the old man screeched.  “The filthy corrupters who tax the poor so the rich can live like kings.  Look at ’em!  I can see it all on TV!  We’re got ’em on the run!  They’re in disarray!  We’re in with a chance, you hear me?  We got a chance now!  How you doin’, Tom?  How’s it going?  You alright?” 

*

Three days of rain had turned Upper Holloway into an open sewer.  Now a skim of water stood on top of the mix of rancid cheap cooking oil, mashed American-style French fries, snot, softened, smeared dog shit, sweet wrappers and sticky, cheap milk chocolate.  Near pubs, the sewer was decorated with occasional sheets of vomit, accompanied by an acid smell of urine.  Every bare wall, every white door was etched in blue, red, black, silver spray paints.  There was no attempt at art in the graffiti.  It was random, wrecking, incomprehensible.  Attempts at tag names were made, but they were primitive and brutal.  It was tribal scrawl, a throwback to far earlier times than elegant cave paintings of the past.  It was the equivalent of squeezing an emotional zit onto a blank space in an insane bid for immortality.

 

Bishop shook his head.  He didn’t know the answer.  There was no hope any more.  He could remember the early 70s.  A time full of hippies and silliness, revolt and pop music and passion.  Looking back, it seemed almost quaint, a little risible, kind of simple.  But – whatever they said – there was hope.  Now there was no hope any more.  None.

A fat woman pushing a complicated-looking pram approached him.  As she walked she was gnawing on some kind of burger.  The oils squeezed from the meat dribbled down her chin and left it wet.  Her other hand dragged a fat girl of about six years who was squalling and refusing to walk.  The mother shouted at her child, revealing an ulcerated mouth packed with mechanically recovered meat product and gooey bun.  He couldn’t understand anything mother and child were saying to each other.  It didn’t sound human.  There was no grammar, syntax or even complete words.  There was just anger, rage and despair.  Finally the fat woman let the child go.  The little girl fell on the slick pavement and rolled over a soft dog turd to lay on her back and scream.  The mother screamed as well.  She leaned over her fat child and yelled at the top of her voice.  The gnawed burger and bun fell out of her mouth like wet cake.  Meanwhile the fat baby in the complicated pram threw its bottle half full of cheap orange squash onto the pavement.  The child lying on the ground was now caramel-coated in shit.  She wiped some in her eyes with the back of her hand.

 

The rain had stopped earlier that morning, but the day was dull and heavy, cold and damp.  Shops glittered obscenely beside the running sewer of the pavement, giving the road a fake, florescent neon glow.  Inside the shops were clothes made of nylon and plastic mobile telephones and audio equipment, TVs, washing machines, electrical goods.  There were too many fast food joints.  Competition was intense.  Profit margins were slim.  Shops closed only to open the next week with new management.  Buy cheapest, sell cheaper.  Besides the suspicious, sticky burgers were gut-wrenching doner kebabs.  The window rotisseries were packed with sweating pressed lamb products.  Bishop tried not to imagine the ingredients or how they were pressed or by whom.  Probably dozens of dirty, illegal immigrants stirred the reeking mixture of unwormed guts, slaughter detritus, discarded cancerous flesh along with any other protein, living or dead, natural or unnatural.  It was all minced and squeezed onto rotisserie bars and sold to the bleak little shops staffed by wretched underpaid blackmailed pilgrims who clung to the shop with the same melancholy hopelessness as the shop clung to the street.  They fought for customers at the end of the food chain.  The unemployable drunks, cripples and drug addicts crawling like insects out of the housing estates and damp terraced properties behind Holloway Road.  There was no hope in anyone’s eyes.  No light.  No life.  No spirit.

North Star House.  It radiated menace.  On the outside it looked like one of those utility buildings erected in the 1950s, an office block for oil company hoodlums.  Or maybe an insurance company.  The initial occupant had since eaten bigger prey or been eaten by deadlier foes.  Bishop wasn’t sure of the ownership now.  Did it belong to the Department of Health and Social Security, or was it owned by the private company that bought the slaves working inside from the government?  He remembered the reports in the newspapers and the pickets outside.  When the service was sold some of the staff were summarily fired as an example to the others and, of course, to cut costs.  The rest were offered short term contracts with long working hours, no extra money for overtime, low pay, fewer holidays and the threat of dismissal for any number of petty reasons.  They were subdued by fear, because they saw very clearly what could happen to them.  Because they were the processors of the jobless and the monitors of the dole money issued after each signing-on.  When one employee was dismissed, the replacement would be plucked from the listless, submissive, miserable ranks of hunched shoulders – those lost souls crumpled on nylon sofas with caps in their hands.  None of them bothered to show any fight any more.  Tempers and anger had already been dealt with.  Try shouting and demanding your rights or physically revolting against the oppressive huddle, and you would be introduced to the modern system of management.  Which wasn’t really modern at all.  It had a long, long history.  The CCTV cameras were new, but that was about all.  Every inch of every floor was covered by cameras.  Security guards in ill-fitting uniforms – themselves caught and pressed into service – would converge, followed by the police.  You could be charged and jailed or – even worse – have your benefit reduced or stopped altogether.  The rebels-with-or-without-causes were now sitting on cold pavements in cities around the country holding cardboard signs around their necks with their hands out, palms up.  They were learning a lesson.

 

Tom Bishop mounted the stairs slowly.  His station was on the third floor.  He was not wearing his cheeky gear today. He was wearing one of his disguises.  His trainers were old, torn and ripped.  So were his trousers.  There were no boots or bomber jackets or leather hats – nothing to offend the eyes of staff greedy to suffocate him with one of their jobs.  The rags were all clean, though.  He couldn’t bear filth.

He passed a man sitting on the stairs.  He was fat, bald, red-faced and seemed to be in his mid-50s.  His breathing was laboured, and Bishop could hear his chest rattling from the effort of climbing the stairs to the top floor.  Finally the middle-aged man turned and leaned against the wall, still gasping.  Bishop shook his head sadly.  He was convinced the man was assigned to the top floor because of his age and obvious disability.  Surely if he died the local supervisor could claim a bonus for permanently shaking off a claimant – a man who had no value and was of no further use to the State.  A useless liability.  He looked back at the man still collapsed on a stair sucking in air and wheezing.  Did he ever have hope?  Bishop made an effort to visualise the old boy as a child.  Or an adolescent groping his first girl friend.  Impossible.

 

He walked in, punched the machine and tore off a ticket.  He looked at the number, then checked the screen.  Eight people in front of him.  When he sat down he decided to have a look around, just to keep his mind flexible.  He knew they were after him, and it was important he keep on the balls of his feet, ready to move in any direction.

It was an open office.  All partitions had been torn down.  The windows were sealed and covered by plastic blinds.  Acrylic floor tiles were laid wall to wall.  Each desk contained a crackling video monitor flickering with agency software files.  Above, the neon strip lighting was covered by plastic sheeting.  Since he last signed someone had added a phoney rubber plant by the window.  And behind the desks were the sad, frightened faces of the staff.

 

Bishop tried to take an aerial, objective view.  Over all, he gave the Organism responsible for the organisation a fairly high rating.  Eight or nine out of ten.  In the old days offices were cubicles with doors that opened and closed.  There were sash windows and wood flooring, cushions, leather, wooden desks and filing cabinets.  Even in those days offices were stressful places, but now many more refinements had been introduced.  Nothing at all in the room was stable.  It was as if an ugly invisible electric current sizzled constantly through the stale, lifeless air.  Desks once made of oak were now counter-screwed slabs of MDF – mid-density fibreboard.  A substance that, when cut, was a deadly health hazard.  Breathing in the fibres could kill.  It was the modern asbestos, and it was everywhere now.  Sniff an MDF desk and your nose dried out instantly.  Touch it and your hand went cold, and body energy levels declined rapidly.  Every piece of metal was painted by powder coating.  That is, metal and paint are electrically charged in the painting process – so it doesn’t feel like old-fashioned painted enamel.  Everything in the room was cannily designed to excise spirit and raise agitation.  It was proof that human beings could be finely tuned after all.  Add the flickering neon above and the emissions from the video monitors on the desks and the static-emitting nylon carpet below, then seal it off with security doors at each end.  Weld the windows closed.  Increase the hours of employment.  Lower wages.  Make employees wear smart or formal clothes – all man-made fibres and uncomfortable.  Designed to be uncomfortable by “fashion”, that clever tool used by the Organism to help shape human behaviour.  In such places humour is impossible, as is any sense of community.  Instead there is fear of authority paired with hatred of those organised on layers beneath them.  It was a mechanical mechanism, not an intellectual one, and it was designed like a piece of machinery.  Bishop scorned those who felt it was all “accidental”.  No, he saw it very clearly.  It was based on the concept of the ratchet and could be tightened one notch at a time.  He had observed with wonder how cattle were rounded up for slaughter.  In a sense, cows knew they were going to die, but they joined the thundering herd nevertheless and followed the leaders into the pens and chutes – straight into the revolving knives and rivers of blood.  Human beings were no different.  When roundup time came, Authority herded human beings on the same principles.  Pack ’em in tight and drive ’em hard.  You could do nothing but follow the leader.  No turning, or you’d be cut down and trampled underfoot.  No choice…

Bishop folded his arms and smirked.  No choice.  Or so they all thought.  The point was that they didn’t have time to really think.  They were worked and stressed, then sent home to watch television designed to keep their minds packed with trite stories and idle gossip.  Or sport.  The only two legal drugs allowed by the Organism were highly refined and dangerous – alcohol and cigarette tobacco.

 

No.  It was as deliberate an act as pulling wings off flies.  The human animal was being domesticated on a hugely impressive worldwide scale.  For most of the population freedom was a thing of the past.

Which is why he knew they were tracking him.  He glanced up at the number.  Four more ahead of him now.  The Organism knew there was still resistance, rebellion and the threat of anarchy at the fringes of the campfire.  These were mainly just individuals now. Few big groups remained any more.  So they would be mopped up one by one by the tracking machines.  So none of those sitting in the queue on the fire-retardant foam sofas would be able to stand up and shout about their “rights”.  Because they no longer had any – the secret that no one dared ever mention in public.  All of them – including Bishop – sought anonymity instead.  No one wanted to be fingered to join the herd and thunder towards the revolving knives.

 

It was a nightmare.

Yet Tom Bishop was a superlative survivor.  A battle-scarred veteran, much decorated.  So was the old Red Yank.  The Red Yank knew the score, and Bishop grinned again when he thought of him.  The two of them.  How on earth had they managed to wind up in the same house?  Coincidence?  Yeah, right.

 

In a perfect world there was no coincidence.  And this was a perfect world.

Bishop heard the buzzer and glanced up.  His number.  His eyes quickly located his signing-on station.  With great relief he noted it was a handsome Caribbean woman.  Not one of the Africans.  The Africans were the frontline shock troops of the Jobcentres.  They came mostly from west Africa - Nigeria or Ghana.  West Africans made the worst petty officials in the world.  They would fuss over the smallest detail and delight in awarding penalties, particularly to their former white oppressors – even though they enjoyed parading in the starched white shirts and ties they thought gave them more respect.

 

He swung into the seat in front of the desk and smiled.  He looked frankly at the chocolate cleavage displayed above the top of her dress and curtained by a yellow cardigan.  “Jamaica?”

“Na, London,” she replied with a shy grin.  “Parents born in Trinidad.”

 

“You don’t know a guy called Keef, do you?  Keef Springer?”

“Keef?”  She was beaming.  “He’s my uncle!  Lives in Ashcroft Road.”

“That’s the one.”  Bishop nodded his head and glanced again at her cleavage.  “What’s your name?  I’ll tell him I saw you here.”

“Rosie,” she said as she –vitally – passed over the paper for him to sign instead of hassling him with job opportunities or retraining.  “You tell him to call me, you hear?”

Bishop signed between the lines.  “I’ll tell him he’s been hiding a beautiful niece from me.  That’s what I’ll tell him.”

She giggled with easy delight as he rose and waved her goodbye.  From the edge of his vision he saw the corners turn down on the mouth of her supervisor.  His guess was that she wouldn’t be there when he returned to sign on again.  Moved to a filing job, probably.  Maybe even dismissed.  But meanwhile he had managed to survive another visit to the dole office without being forced on some lick-a-stamp course or sent for an interview on the other side of London for a job paying peppercorn money. He glanced around at the other desks.  Several luckless “clients” were trapped in west African lobster traps and were being categorically humiliated.  Supervisors watched with pride.

 

And it was with pride Tom Bishop walked smoothly from the office.  For several years now he had evaded the circling predators.  They knew and he knew there would eventually be a reckoning.  Meanwhile he had won another small battle, so he might as well enjoy the feeling.

As he skipped down the stairs he noticed the middle-aged gentleman still sitting in the same place.  He was holding a black morsel of lung in the palm of his left hand and stared at it without comprehension.

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