Fiction November 21, 2017
p11_Harrison

The Crisis

M. JOHN HARRISON

“The Crisis” is taken from M. John Harrison’s new collection of stories, You Should Come with Me Now, which is published this week by Comma Press.

You sit over a one-bar electric fire in a rented room. As soon as you feel recovered from the commute you’ll boil some potatoes on the gas ring, then, three minutes before they’re done, drop an egg into the same water. You can hear the family downstairs laughing at something, some dressed-up cats or something, on the internet. After people have cooked, they can often get use out of their gadgets – join a world building game, preorder the gadget they want next – although the load soon precipitates a brownout. During the day you work in a fourteenth floor office in the stub of the Shard. Publicity for a fuel corporate. It’s nice. All very heads-down but worth it to have the security. A few years ago you got involved with an East Midlands junkie who claimed to have a telepathic link to another world and to be able to control a 3D printer with his mind alone.

This was how he told it: he came down from the north and to begin with lived on the street. He was young for his age. He started at Euston where the train emptied him out, then moved into a doorway near a bus stop. It was all right for a while. Then he met a boy called Alan and they went up to the centre together. Alan wasn’t that much older than Balker. They were about the same height, but Alan knew more. He was a London boy, he had always lived there. He had bright red hair, an alcohol tan and a personalized way of walking. He could get a laugh out of anything. For a while Balker and Alan did well out of the Central London tourists. But Alan’s lifestyle choices moved him along quickly and he started to limp up and down Oxford Street at lunchtime saying, “I’m in bits, me!” and showing people the big krokodil sore on his neck.

“Hey, look mate, I’m in bits!”

After Alan died, Balker stayed away from the other street people. They had a language all their own he never learned to speak, but he knew the same thing was happening to them as to him. He knew about the crisis, and the iGhetti. He knew the same thing was happening to everyone. There were new needs, there were new rules in. New rules had come in, and everyone in London was in the same position: if you couldn’t look after yourself there was a new way to pay.

Sleeping on the street is hard. All the reasons for that are obvious. It’s never quiet. The police move you about, the social services and NGOs won’t leave you alone: everyone thinks the boroughs belong to them. You’re hungry, you’ve got a cough, there’s other stuff, it’s an endless list. No one sleeps well in a doorway. You get fragments of sleep, you get the little enticing flakes of it that fall off the big warm central mass. Wake up, and everything seems to have fallen sideways. You guess it’s four in the morning in November, somewhere along Bloomsbury Street; but you could be wrong. Are you awake? Are you asleep? Rain swirls in the doorway. You’ve got a bit of fever and you can’t quite remember who you are. It’s your own fault of course. You wake up and he’s there in front of you, with his nice overcoat, or sometimes a nice leather jacket, to protect him from the weather. You never really hear his name, though he tells you more than once. He seems to know yours from the beginning. “Your health’s going”, he says. “You want to start now, before it goes too far.”

So he leaned into Balker’s doorway – maybe it was the night, maybe it wasn’t – and took Balker’s chin in his hand. He turned Balker’s face one way then the other. He was gentle, he even looked a bit puzzled, as if he was wondering why anyone would choose to live that way, what bad choices they must have made to find themselves sleeping in a doorway behind the British Museum.

“You want to start now”, he repeated.

Later, when Balker told you all this, you weren’t sure you believed any of it. It was difficult to believe anything then. The most difficult thing to believe was the crisis itself. No one was certain whether the arrival of the iGhetti was an invasion or a natural catastrophe.

They resembled stalks of fleshy, weak rhubarb, which appeared and evolved very quickly from nothing, like the tentacles which seem to bulge out of nowhere when you burn a piece of mercuric sulphocyanate. You would see them for a fraction of a second just at the city skyline behind the buildings, just under the cloudbase, evolving very fast like stopframe film of something organic growing, then running out of energy, then growing again. They seemed like neither a thing nor a picture of a thing: they seemed to be extruded from a space that wasn’t quite in the world. The sirens would go off, all across the city from Borough to Camden. The artillery would fire and recoil, fire and recoil. The iGhetti would pulse and grow against the lighted clouds. Then they were gone again for another day.

Various simple beliefs surrounded the invasion. Some people associated the iGhetti with Dark Matter; some with the banking crisis of the late Noughties. Others believed that they “came out of the internet”. (Indeed, this was the favoured theory of the internet itself: the medium still firmly – if a little desperately – casting itself as the message.) While none of these theories could be described as true, they did, perhaps, mirror the type and scale of the anxieties that led the iGhetti to us.

The truth was simpler. Originally they had leaked into our world from the astral plane. Most of them were found dead. At first they could manifest only as a kind of transparent jelly. This was spread on grass and the trunks of trees. In this form, for hundreds of years, they were known as “astromyxin” or “astral jelly”. Then, quite suddenly, at the turn of the 1980s, their efforts became both more determined and more successful. The new form appeared only in West London and only near water. Lakes and reservoirs were their preferred location, but they were also found on the banks of streams, and on one occasion at the edge of the carp pool in the Temperate House at Kew Gardens. Soon they had rolled down the River from Chiswick to Chelsea, and thence to the Square Mile, although no one could say by what means, or what that meant.

Balker started, anyway. For the preliminary tests they took him to a place in Aldgate. It was full of hospital beds. You’d get a meal afterwards, they said. They warned him that you could expect your head to swim a bit, but come on: somebody in Balker’s condition was going to notice that? In the end it was easy and it was a bit of money in your hand. It was a way of being responsible for yourself. Balker passed well, they said. He showed real ability. That could be a beginning, they told him; or he could just leave it at that. But what Balker liked most was the clean bed, the warmth and the calm. It was worth it just to lie down and not think about what to do next. He looked around and fell asleep. When he woke up again, he said he wanted to go on with it.

“You want to go all the way?” they asked him

“Yes”, Balker said. “I want to go all the way.”

That was where it started for him, really. Aldgate, on the edge of the Square Mile, was where his whole life started, and where it finished, too, although he lived on afterwards.

All those streets – residential now, along with everything around Liverpool Street station – were in perfect condition despite the constant bombardment of the City from positions in Camden, Peckham and Borough Market. Restaurants remained open and ready to serve, in a wide arc from the Duck & Waffle round to St John. It was as if nothing had changed, as if the City fringe, like West London, still believed itself to be intact, functioning, the heart of what we used to call, before money lost its confidence, an “economy”. Brokers were commuting into Liverpool Street every morning, where, puzzled by the disorder, they attempted to do handshake business with one another in the cafés and bars. Others, unable to place themselves, feeling that the Square Mile was still in front of them yet somehow no longer visible – like some location beyond the reach of satnav – had chosen to become lodgers in the fringe, renting the Barbican one-bedroom of some old friend from St Paul’s and on Friday evenings making the short but by now increasingly confusing train journey back to Sussex. They wouldn’t give up the working week.

After he passed the preliminaries, Balker was placed with a family – Jack and Jane, erstwhile investment bankers who, though they now ran a business organizing outdoor activity challenges for young adults, still hoped to return one day to the abandoned financial settlements between the river and the London Wall. Jack collected first editions of children’s books from the 1950s. Jane did triathlon. Their Georgian terrace had a garden, Fired Earth on the walls, the remains of quite a nice old staircase. They thought a lot of Balker.

During the day he took the more advanced tests. The point of these wasn’t clear, but they fell into two types.

The first type was held, like the preliminaries, in a dormitory furnished with hospital beds. It was a big room, Balker said: in the late afternoons, when the majority of the tests took place, the rows of beds would seem to stretch away forever into the shadows. They were firm, cool, always freshly made and clean. Balker was given pills to take, then connected up to a drip. The big idea, he told you later, was that the chemicals sent you somewhere: in reality or only in your head, he didn’t know. The medium was viscous and dark. Sometimes he seemed to be in the past. Sometimes he seemed to be thrown forward into futures even more confused than the present. They called it travel. The same word could be used, by extension, as a noun for the breadth or quality of the experience. Sometimes he heard a calm, insistent voice repeating, “Are you getting good travel?” If he agreed that he was, it told him to stay calm and look for astral jelly, or any other sign of the iGhetti; if he said no, they increased the dose. What he brought back from the journey, Balker had no idea. They debriefed him while he was still off his face and thinking was difficult. Meanwhile the chemicals made him increasingly ill. In the end the only images he remembered were meaningless in the context: a half-timbered village, thatched roofs, long rosy winter dawns and sunsets. Gorse, mud, sheep. “It was the olden times”, he told you later, trying to describe this Victorian idyll.

*

Adolescence. West London. You always believed a hidden war was being fought, a war nobody would ever admit to. You lay awake at night, listening to bursts of corporate fireworks that seemed too aggressive to be anything other than a small arms exchange; while by day, ground-attack helicopters clattered suddenly and purposively along the curve of the Thames towards Heathrow. You held your breath in moments of prolonged suspense, imagining the smoke trails of rockets launched from the bed of a builder’s pickup in Richmond or Kingston. These fantasy engagements, asymmetric and furtive, a kind of secret, personalized Middle East, left you as exhausted as masturbation. There was something narcissistic about them. A decade later, everyone was able to feel a similar confused excitement. With the coming of the iGhetti, everyone had a story to tell but no one could be sure what it was. Information was so hard to come by. Between anecdotal evidence and the spectacular misdirections of the news cycle lay gulfs of supposition, fear, and denial. People didn’t know how to act. One minute they heard the guns, the next they were assured that nothing was happening. One day they were panicking and leaving the city in numbers, the next they were returning but rumour had convinced them to throw their tablet computers in the river. The thing they feared most was contagion. They locked their doors. They severed their broadband connections and tanked their cellars. They avoided a growing list of foods. They clustered round a smartphone every summer evening after dark, eavesdropping on the comings and goings of the local militias as they scoured the railway banks and canalsides for telltale astral jelly. Were the iGhetti here or not? It was a difficult time for everyone.

When he wasn’t taking the tests Balker hung around in the coffee shops and cafés and, at night, ate with the family at a table in the garden. Jane and Jack talked about the art events they’d seen in galleries in Paris and Tokyo, while Balker entertained them by catching moths unharmed from around the table lights. They taught him to play chess. “Now he can beat us easily”, Jane often said with a laugh, “he wants to play all the time!” On Saturdays he learned to make breakfast for everyone, poached egg on rye with salmon, roast pepper and faux hollandaise. He loved that. It was the secure point of his week. He’d never known anything like it, just calm and middle class comfort, life lived simply for being life. That was where the two of you met, at a dinner party of Jane and Jack’s. He was standing in the garden with everyone else, staring out towards the shadowy zone beyond the Minories where something could be seen moving above the roofline and between the taller buildings. They had cornered one of the larger ones somewhere in the warren around Threadneedle Street and were pounding it with 155mm smart artillery. Airbursts lit it up in syncopated, carefully judged sequences, but you couldn’t tell any more than usual what it was. You watched Balker, and you could feel Jane watching you.

“Don’t you ever wonder what’s in there?” she said, and you said you didn’t. You shivered. You didn’t want to know, you said.

The pull of the Square Mile was still strong for people like Jane and Jack. Everyone knew someone who, unable to bear it any longer, had found their way in, to re-emerge weeks or even months later after wandering puzzledly about the empty towers, lost souls eyeing other lost souls in the deserted corridors and partner washrooms. With a good pair of binoculars you could see them, staring out of the Lloyds lifts – which still travelled in their stately way up and down the outside of the structure – in despair. In a way, the Lloyds building, designed to question the relationship between the inside and the outside, remained the great metaphor of the disaster. It was the centre of the zone in that sense, even though geographically it lay towards the western edge.

“And this is only the beginning”, Jack said. “They’ve been here less than a decade.” He stared at the towers for a moment longer, then added, “If ‘here’ means anything at all”.

“I wonder”, Balker said, emphasizing the pronoun to get Jane’s attention. “I want to know.”

His voice already seemed rueful.

Eventually, when he became too ill to continue with the first type of test, they moved him on to the second, which took place under different protocols. The test-site itself could only be reached by use of a modified GABAA agonist, a fungal preparation rubbed into the skin between the shoulder blades. It smelt, he said, a bit like Germolene.

After a few hallucinations of flying you arrived in what looked like the boxroom of a provincial house at night. Out of the window you could see the slope of a hill. Fireworks flickered intermittently across the darkness. The walls of the room were papered, in a faded primordial pattern of cabbage roses. Above the tiled fireplace a brown print of “The Light of the World”; on the mantelpiece a tin alarm clock, the nauseous, literalistic tick of which seemed to control rather than register the passing of time. There was always a thick warm smell of talcum powder as if some old aunt had just crossed the landing from the bathroom looking for a towel. Obsolete CRT monitors were set up on every flat surface, ten or twelve of them linked through a rat’s nest of cable. Everything was thick with dust.

When you arrived, Balker said, and sat in front of the keyboard, you could bet that four of the screens would be full of interference. Three would be blank. Until you looked at them closely, the rest seemed to be showing a blurry grayscale image of the room itself, from the point of view of a cheap webcam mounted high up in one corner. But things weren’t entirely right with the wallpaper; and the person sitting there wasn’t you. After a moment or two, someone else seemed to come into the room. Then everything vanished and those screens showed interference too. For a moment the air smelt only of dust recirculated by the system’s cooling fans, as if the drive towers had briefly cooked. In all the time he spent there, Balker found only one interesting item. This was a loose-leaf journal in a black leather cover – squared paper, handwritten in coloured inks, each entry carefully timed and dated – which always lay open in a different position in the dust and tangled wires between the monitors. He would leaf through it while he waited for the drug to wear off and snap his connection to that world.

“The future doesn’t make sense”, it began. “I know that because I’ve seen it. In some way, to some extent, I’ve seen the things that happen. They make no sense.” Then, a few evenings later: “The original figure always turns its head slowly and begins to stand up, perhaps in some kind of clumsy welcoming gesture”. Among these observations, queerly personal statements were interspersed. “I moved back into this house twenty years ago. By then both my parents were dead.” And: “When the work isn’t going well, sleep becomes tiring and I dream I am dead”. Balker could make nothing of this. When he reported it no one seemed interested. It was the screens that interested them, they said: he should concentrate on the screens.

He often thought of adding something to the journal himself, to see what would happen; but though he found fresh entries whenever he went there, he never found a pen.

In the end, it didn’t work out for him. He didn’t have quite the talent they were looking for. Sometimes, as the high came groaning and roaring along his upper spine and into the amygdala, he looked along the darkening rows of beds and counted fifty or a hundred people dreaming at the top of their game in the motionless gloom. They were arriving at the house, flowing through it like a gusty breath, a flock of bats: they were making sense of the things they saw, taking notes on what they found. Balker didn’t have that kind of travel. He knew he wasn’t up with the best. He suspected his friend Alan would have done better. By then he had understood that the test-destinations weren’t the issue anyway. All those travellers were being prepared to enter the Square Mile – not physically, but on the astral plane, the way the iGhetti themselves occupied it.

As far as you and Balker were concerned, that didn’t last either. You made a stab at it, moved into a flat in Shepherd’s Bush together, but he turned out to be seventeen not twenty-seven as he said, and after his staffie/mastiff cross, which he was looking after for a friend, bit two fingers off your ex’s left hand when he came back from an oil-exploration contract in one of the ’stans – you forget which one – he fitted all the lights in the house with blue bulbs while you were out then tried to commit suicide in your bath in an excess of adolescent self-disgust. It was a cry for help. That had to be the end of that. Balker went back to the street. Jane and Jack searched for him for a month or two, Jane especially has been cold towards you since. Later you heard he was with a grindcore musician in Peckham. You were glad, although you missed his smell, which was instantly exciting; and his dys­functionality, which you remembered as “character”. And the sex was tremendous, if a little full on and tiring.

That was it for perhaps two years, perhaps three. Although their influence spread from primary nodes in New York, Dubai and especially the great Chinese banking cities, in London the iGhetti seemed content to be contained by the Square Mile. You had the sense they were focused on other projects. New buildings began to appear, for instance – vast, not entirely stable parodies of Noughties vanity architecture which lasted a week or a month before toppling slowly away into a kind of dark blue air. For Londoners, things went downhill during that time. It was a different world. Life was patchy. Whether people could rescue anything from their individual circumstances depended very much on how determined they could be. It was a different kind of existence. You welcomed the challenge; it was the arrival, finally, of your teenage fantasy. Then one day you took two steps into a house by the river in Barnes, and there was a face, white, with skin like a layer of enamel paint, thrust in close to yours. It was breaking up with some emotion you didn’t recognize. A voice was saying, with a kind of meaningless urgency:

“It’s me! It’s me!”

He was shaking, whoever he was. You couldn’t process it: you had come expecting a party. You were thinking, “I must have had a stroke on the way here and not noticed, and this is what the world’s going to be like for me now”. Then the face was just a boy you once knew, wearing a cheap Paul Smith summer suit looted from some outlet in Twickenham.

“Jesus, Balker”, you said, shoving him away.

You didn’t want to be important to him any more. You didn’t want him in this part of your life. You wanted him tidily in the part labelled “the past”, where he had never had much time to be a player anyway. He bumped into a wall and slid down it slowly. No one was eating much, that summer. They all had estuary fever, but Balker felt like a bag of sticks. His condition was further along than yours, and that should have been a warning in itself. You pushed him out of the hallway and watched him stumble off along the street.

Music came from somewhere at the back of the house, dance hits from the mid-90s. It seemed distant, then someone opened a door onto the terrace. A hot evening, a wedding party. The river stank. Bright flashes in the sky, heavy, muted thuds off in the north around Camden Town. You leaned on the balustrade and stared down into the space between the house and the river, a dark strip of trampled turf – littered with discarded paper plates, beer cans and discarded condoms – where the bride, oblivious to everything but her own happiness, was dancing alone, skipping and spinning, dipping and bending, trailing her arms. It was, depending where you stood, a simple expression of joy or a complex expression of nostalgia for a time when all such moments were fuelled by money, aspiration, and a true, fully functional narcissism, a performative sense of self only hinted at by the Twentieth Century – days when it was still possible to see yourself as a great silent beautiful blossom opening up to the economic light.

An hour after you sat down, Balker came in again, wiping his mouth as if he’d only recently thrown up. By then the party had retreated indoors, folded itself into the warm reek of beer and smoke. Shadows, beats, weird coloured light. Everyone’s hyperactive kids like a billowing curtain around the dance floor. You could see what was going to happen. You made sure the two of you stayed at tables on opposite sides of the room. You kept the dancers between you. You made sure you were always talking to someone. But finally he came over anyway and tried to speak.

“For fuck’s sake not here”, you said. “On the terrace.”

“I only came to talk – ” he said.

“Talk? Jesus, Balker. You should have stayed where you were.” You meant, “in the past”. You meant, “forgotten”. You didn’t really mean anything else, but there was always more to Balker than that.

You took him by the elbow and half-led, half-pulled him out there. “Before you know it”, people used to say, “the worst has already happened.” We think of extreme events as abrupt in that way, but they’re always the result of more than one border being crossed. An action that feels instant and seamlessly impulsive is actually very graded. By the time you got Balker out onto the terrace you knew you were going to hurt him. In the end you didn’t need to square it with yourself: you were pushing him about, whispering, “For God’s sake, what do you think you’re doing here?” or something like that, when his coat fell open and you saw what had happened to him.

“What’s this?” you said. “What’s this?” You were frightened, but not, it turned out, for yourself.

“I don’t know”, he said. “I’m not in any pain.”

“There’s something coming out of your chest.”

He looked hard away from himself. The tendons in his neck stood out. He moaned. “Don’t tell me any more. I’m not in any pain.”

“It’s like a cauliflower, but bigger.”

He made pushing motions with his hands. “Please don’t tell me any more”, he said.

“I’m just trying to tell you how it looks. It’s like a wart.”

Whatever it was, it was grey and pink colours, very muted and toned. “A wart”, you said. “Or broccoli. Like pink broccoli.” Balker thrashed around for a moment then passed out. You dragged him first into one corner, then another. You didn’t know what to do. He woke up and screamed, “Pull it out!” You got a good grip of it in both hands and pulled. It seemed to come out easily, as if it was coming out of not muscle and bone but something soft and unstructured, but then stopped. There was no blood. You could see tight red runners, like wires, attached to it, radiating out into Balker’s chest. It was made out of damp, slick fibres. You wouldn’t say “woven”. It looked fibrous but not woven: it was nothing so organized as that. You were afraid if you pulled any harder, they might rip something else out of him, something he couldn’t do without.

“I’m sorry”, you said, “It won’t come any further.”

Balker shrieked. “Why is this happening to me?” he called. Then he whispered:

“I went in there. They sent me in on foot.”

You let his head fall back. “Oh god, you idiot, you idiot”, you said.

“They were losing all their good people”, Balker said. “In the end they were sending anyone who’d taken the tests.”

“Balker – ”

He looked confused, he wasn’t sure what was happening to him. Neither were you. You noticed a kind of shadow around him, cobalt blue, blue almost to black. Out of that, small white feathers seemed to be spilling, as if someone had burst a pillowcase.

“Nothing’s changed in there! Inside it’s still perfect. It’s only from our side of things that it’s a war. The iGhetti don’t see it like that. They just don’t notice. Inside, it might be six o’ clock on a Sunday morning in summer. I could hear the artillery and the bombers outside the zone, but nothing disturbs them in there. I never saw one. Only the ‘blue effects’ that told me one of them was near.” He groaned. “I’m still there”, he said, clutching at you. “In some way I’m still in there.” The air around him became syrupy and glutinous. That panicked you and you began to ask him questions, but it was too late. “Everything’s just such a nuisance”, he said conversationally. “You know? When all you want to do is go to sleep?” By then he was sitting on the floor with his legs out straight and his hands between them; his voice seemed both thick and distant. “I feel odd to be honest”, he said. “My eyes feel odd. My face feels odd. I feel odd.” He thought for a moment. “I feel tired.” After a pause he added: “I’m sorry, Alan”. A minute or two later you saw he was dead.

“Jesus”, you said.

So that was it as far as Balker went, and now you sit over the one-bar electric fire in your rented room. Perhaps you think about him, perhaps you don’t. As soon as you feel recovered from the commute you’ll boil some potatoes on the gas ring, then, three minutes before they’re done, drop an egg into the same water. You can hear the family downstairs laughing at something, some dressed-up cats or something, on the internet. It’s minus ten outside tonight and you have no idea what’s happening on the old housing estates by the river. “Welcome to London”, someone in the office said today. That got a laugh. “Welcome to the managerial classes.” All he really meant was that like everyone else he would do anything to look after himself, stay this side of the line and not have to make the kinds of choices Balker made.