A story, the second in the Disappearances Trilogy. The third should emerge in late October, a certain time is necessary. This is one of the few bits of writing I stand by. The rest is a locked house of noise. Yadder yadder yadder. Symphonies to Dorothea or St. John of God, who knows. More to come on all this, and on the real art of disappearances. Originally appeared in Nyx 5.
Learning how to disappear: My time in the Deptford Psychogeographical Association
Time in the late-age was bound by rules, necessities: for a little while I’d been working in a supermarket; before that, cleaning offices, bar-work, child-minding in the evenings. That was fine. Too tired to do anything else, hands raw and feet sore, my instincts quelled, I could pay the rent on my fifth floor Deptford bedsit and send a little money home. But when that kind of work dried up there was drink and little else. An archaic habit now, given how most citizens under the age of 40 were dependent on prescription drugs, but it did something else for me. It touched into a place I used to joke was freedom. The illegal stuff was too expensive or dangerous to take now that they’d closed up all the national borders, as well as the London security ring. When I’d been working as a party performer/escort I had approved ID access to get into the City, at least then you could move around London. But this group of rich finance clients got way too hands-on one evening, and when I refused one guy broke my nose. Luckily I managed to get away before he could force his way further, but I’d been blacklisted from performer work since. I was just the scrag end of pissed dockers and engineers passing through the south east district. I’m racing ahead though, and for once this ain’t about me. This is about Ehud, and his nocturnal wanderings. Dark places. Boredom. Full-moon nights.
Ehud was like me. He washed his hands obsessively, shaved and sprayed himself in fragrances at least twice a day. His shadow had twice the presence he did. Silent, lanky, hands fidgeting inside the pockets of his black Harrington jacket, short black hair, olive skin. Orderly. Almost normal. People thought we were sister and brother. He had CHRISTINE tattooed on the front of his neck above his Adam’s apple. Most of the people round this part of London had branded themselves in similar ways. Whether they enjoyed the pain of this self-modification or just the end of etching was a riddle to me. Yet why they chose Ehud as a specimen for the Department of Opportunity Social Refitting Programme wasn’t that mysterious. Remove the tattoos, delete the nervous data of his twenty-something years, reboot his biopsyche and install a new successful programmed-persona, he could almost be normal. His mum had brought him and his brothers and sisters over from Israel when he was still very small. He said little about his family, or anything else for that matter, but there was little trace of any Israeli heritage, and he had converted to Islam in his early teens. His brother might be paid compensation for the compulsory takeover of his body, and most people would forget he ever existed. People were too messed up to be bothered, and besides, refitting had apparently demonstrated itself as such a successful social model. Take physically excellent types, usually of high fertility and immunity, but living either proletarian or sick lives, and forcibly replace their biopsychical data, usually with that of very successful businessmen, politicians, scientists and so on. A recipe for success. With the declining generation of new bodies making education irrelevant, this rather crude technique was celebrated by a cynical age for bringing back its great minds. Perhaps once again they might return us to the prosperity, freedom and happiness that lay just around the corner, if we waited just a little longer.
– Hey you!
I’d been drinking heavily another night, again out of boredom, with the media unit flickering away in the background, feeling bad. There were guys trying to contact me all night to ‘have fun’ via the Network, but as much as I needed the money I wanted to stay on my own that night. I was thinking about cutting down my drugs again, but I had to see my Opportunity Worker in a couple of days and if I failed the regular urine test they’d cut off my account. There was nothing to swallow the pills down with so I shuffled out to the African grocers to get some more drink. After picking up vodka and beers I headed back up Deptford High Street where, just outside the old job centre, I saw this ratty bloke daubing these fly-posters over the windows. He had headphones in, and with no-one else around he didn’t spot me. The fly-posters were mostly black, though each one was different, with various photos of the butchers shops round the area, of the Department of Opportunity building, of Christopher Marlowe’s grave. On each poster there was a broad outline of an eye and a simple type logo that read DPA. The posters were obviously home-done, and the paper he’d used was of a peculiar material that prevented it from sticking to the window for more than a minute. I leaned back against the railway bridge and slugged down the 100ml bottle of vodka, before watching him with great interest. I don’t know what came over me, but I decided to throw the bottle at him. It shattered a meter or so behind him. Terrified, he ran.
New dawn. I skulked through the Deptford stink in search of breakfast and a place to pass some time. I saw him again later when I was queuing at the Department of Opportunity building in Catford. He was in the Medical Enquiries queue a few places ahead of me, still with those headphones in. Presumably like most people in the queue he was being tested for Form 52B ‘Personal Capacity’, with the obligatory 2 minute session on the DSM VII computerised diagnostic system. Afterwards followed the chat with your Opportunity Worker and the urine-test to make sure you’d taken all your anti-depressants, tranquillisers, behavioural management pills and the like. Later I spotted him again in the Jobseekers’ suite where the last few library books were stacked against a wall in a large windowless white room full of computers. The desks were peopled by middle-aged men and women scratching their heads, sneezing into the keyboards, slurping high-energy drinks and watching online music videos and porn whilst pretending to look for non-existent jobs on the Departmental website. He was rustling through a box of old history books stored in a fairly grubby medical waste crate. He was surprised that anyone even knew who he was.
“Every man is a toilet” he said later, in his slightly stilted and deep Thames estuary drawl, sighing and folding his thin body into the blue formica seat of the Favorite Chicken shop. I hated this place but he insisted he only ate chicken or chips, never both, and that Deptford had the best fried chicken in the south-east district. I asked him about the DPA.
– The Deptford Psychogeographical Association.
– Ah it’s a long story. I was on one of them flippin’ Opportunity Community Choice schemes, we was clearing out gutters and dead people’s flats and shit. Nasty stuff. Well this old guy was there and was tellin’ me all this business to do with Guy Debord and these French guys who used to just walk around innit. We used to bunk off, skin up and roll around the area while he told me all this stuff, about knowing and seeing the area. I know this area. I’m from these ends. But I never knew the secret impressions the buildings make on you, the old buildings you see and what they were used for. All kinds of secrets, you know. It’s about your emotions, and the spirits yeah. You see, I can’t sleep. I dunno if it’s these pills they give me for my concentration but I can’t sleep, so I just walk around and I feel the place innit. The ghosts. The angels. When the wind cools on Evelyn Road or the high street you hear this shit, all the voices and sadness of the dock-workers, or the Navy men with their scurvy-up teeth and missing legs of the girls who killed cows like 24/7 at the British Empire Cattle Market. Their lives were tough like ours, but they couldn’t escape it. In the end me and this guy thought we’d take it further – we’d try and record and save these peoples’ lives.
– I don’t get you.
– Well you don’t have to get it. There’s plenty of people doing it. There’s other people like me who can’t sleep. We go together innit. Loads of us. Only at night, after curfew, when the Justice men aren’t around and we can move around a bit more. We moved Christopher Marlowe’s grave to where it should be and no-one even noticed. We’ve renamed some of the streets as well, but the Police arrested Femi and Harris, the old guy I was telling you about, and Femi just disappeared, so we ain’t doing that for the time being.
– Ok, but what’s this psychogeography though? That just a nice word for walking around at night when you got nothing better to do?
– Ha, maybe. You should come though. What is your name?
– Meliha. It’s Turkish.
– I am Ehud, by the way.
Ehud was sick, like most people in the district. He couldn’t sleep and spent the nocturnal hours wandering through the area. Eventually through idling around in the Department of Opportunity we met other addicts and insomniacs compelled to walk and drink together, photograph locations as crime-scenes, take notes and recordings. It was essential that nothing was available online. For that purpose, on that first experiment I joined them on, we all got drunk (like eight of us in total) before breaking in to the old Job Centre to establish our first archive space. Later I realised he was a bit manic when I had first met him – for much of the time after he was subdued, mercurial.
After the first few experiments I kept my distance a little, joining in when Ehud told me there’d be some drinking or maybe some violence involved, like Ehud’s crazed idea of crashing a car full of radio equipment, binary-jammers and antennae into the entrance of the Department of Justice station on Amersham Vale in order to sabotage their psychic hold over Deptford. That was a laugh. After spending some time together, Ehud finally surrendered one of his childish obsessive prejudices and began to drink alcohol with me. From then on we drank together a lot. I taught him how to play othello and backgammon, old games my Nanna knew. I was bored and curious, and one night after quite a session we took things further. His entire body was covered in these self-etched tattoos, of binary code like 10101011 all across his arms and legs, and other weird symbols, some of which I recognised from the digital keyboard. He was surprised I didn’t have any, but I needed to keep clean for work. It was a standard for men to try and finish as quickly as possible with legalised sex-workers in order to save money on the hours system introduced by the state. But this was nice. Afterwards, as a kind of joke, I asked him if Christine minded, but he just stared straight through me.
Otherwise my own life was starting to get out of control. The DSM VII computer programme had put me on a stronger course of behavioural reassignment pills, but the problem was that prescription drugs themselves were becoming harder and harder to obtain. Since the closure of the borders and the London security ring around the M25, it was impossible to bring through any illegal drugs. The other fact was that no-one was interested in illegal drugs now that the prescription drugs available were so much more powerful. Anti-depressants were used to treat criminal behaviour, meaning that you never really saw violence except by those few people not on the drugs, but there was a growing black market for them. Organised gangs had been targeting the drug company convoys, and so this time round Deptford was near-dry, meaning people were having to get their painkillers in the betting shops and takeaways.
It was a summer afternoon, rich with that hazy and heavy luminescence that sticks sweat to skin and drives colour into fever. Feeling sick of it all, I was queuing at the pharmacy for whatever emergency supplies they had for my English Nanna. She needed her immunity meds and her Alzheimer’s pills. Auto-immune diseases were striking down a lot of the population, and aside from ‘personality disorders’ like mine and Ehud’s were the main cause of the high unemployment of the London outer districts. They began like allergies but just persisted. Painkillers and ointments could be used to treat them at least in the short term. But I didn’t want to end up like that. Greasy and fetid mattresses were piling up in the derelict car-parks.
On my way back to my Nanna’s, I passed the boarded up school, but this time I could smell smoke and hear shouting from inside. Any kind of human noise was pretty unusual compared to the consistent speech and projections of the multimedia advertisements stacked all over the district. Curious, I ventured inside the now unlocked school entrance, through an old dusty corridor, through to what must have been an inner courtyard where the shouting was coming from. I saw a group of girls and boys shouting and laughing. Two boys lifted up an old media unit and threw it onto the raging fire burning through the pyre of piled fridges, radiators, old books and media boxes. They couldn’t see me, so content were these strange children within themselves. I wandered home, feeling dizzy and feverish.
I was very sick for a long time after. I don’t think I left my bedsit for at least a couple of weeks. I had enough water and painkillers, and my sister came over after a week to look after me. Imprisoned by vicious labyrinthine dreams. I lost my eyesight for a little while.
The DPA was becoming more and more active, taking over some of the local shops, organising literacy sessions and community work. Rosa and Harris were largely leading it now and its original and more occult bent was disappearing. As had Ehud. I asked Rosa if she’d seen him at all recently, but there’d been no sign of him for weeks. From checking through his contact ID I knew where he lived, so that afternoon I brought over a couple of large bottles of drinking water after another local shortage. I dressed up. I was looking forward to seeing him now I felt healthy again. He lived on the third floor of a block round Prince Street. I had never been to his place before, and when he opened the door with a confused look on his face it reminded me how remote he was. He lived with his brother, who spoke (and spoke over us) for the most part.
– You his girlfriend yeah? Well you know he’s been selected by Opportunity to be refitted right?
– No I didn’t….
– Well it’s an honour. You’re a good specimen aren’t you bruv? Apparently he looks a bit like this first chairmen of one of the data companies, Apple or something. They shoulda picked me! But don’t worry, this money’s gonna help us out. And you’ll have a better life than just taking your pills round here. You’re going to be happy bruv. Just a small thing. You won’t notice when you’re going, and then you’re someone different. I think we’d all do it if we could, have a free life and be rich.
Ehud was silent the whole time, and though I’d brought some wine over he asked me not to stay. A few days later I called again but he was gone. Then I got a letter from him, posted from Harwich in Essex. It didn’t make much sense, but it seemed like he’d been refitted – it was largely brief, but written and then scribbled out was STEVE followed by his real name EHUD. There was so much sadness in that letter. I had to see what they’d done.
Morning, a time I’d hardly known in recent years. There were no coaches out of the city for those with limited access, but it was easy enough to jump over the walls at one the more obscure suburbs like at Brickkiln Wood in the east, as presumably Ehud had done. From there on I headed to Billericay, then avoiding the motorways I tracked through the fields and minor roads to Maldon, before heading onto Mersea Island in the evening, where I found some trees and a hedgerow in the north part of the island to sleep under for the night. I had a rough map and I aimed to get to Harwich where I figured he might still be. It was the first-time I’d seen or smelt life outside the city. The paths were muddy but not like ordinary city mud – this was golden soil, the air smelt of fresh, crisp and somehow invigorating shit, and smoke from the large tractor units that rolled the wheat around the late summer fields. I hadn’t expected anything from this journey, but my mind replayed endless conversations with him, things I should have said, even small silly things about my life, about my upbringing, whether he believed in anything at all.
Perhaps the first day of my life. Birdsong scattered in an infinity of directions, each call and response describing new moments of experience I had yet to discover. The breeze tickled my shoulders, and the sun flickered through the embrace of the hedge which was so comfortable, tricking my closed eyes with all types of shapes beneath my eyelids. I woke up and walked around the surprisingly small field in my bare feet, letting the slightly damp soil wriggle in between my toes.
I found a supermarket in Wivenhoe and bought some vodka and cheese rolls. I followed the coastline for the rest of the day, reaching Harwich in the late afternoon. I’d still been thinking of our reunion as I walked along – would he remember who he was? Refitted individuals were usually moved somewhere completely different in order to avoid the danger of “regression”, and the media channels rarely discussed the process except in criminological contexts to describe its social benefits. Maybe we were all in some way refitted. Ehud’s refitting had clearly gone wrong in some capacity. No data from his old biopsyche should have remained, but he was so bound to the poxy and grey part of the south-east district we both shared that rambling out of the city was entirely out of keeping with his obsessive behaviour. His letter was uncharacteristically lucid, compared to most of his words, which usually began with inscrutable observations and had little personal bearing on anything remotely tangential. He even personally addressed it to me. He spoke of techno-biological knowledge, that time had been used as a weapon against us and that this way of living was a daily death. While the media units projected a world of war and disaster there might be others out there who could help reclaim the technology that he had personally created, and which had fallen into the wrong hands.
No-one was told who he’d been refitted and replaced with, but the Department of Opportunity and their financial backers may have wanted to get him back and get a return their investment. They may have wanted to kill him, or maybe this was the punishment already inflicted: their motives were fathomless. I finally reached the small town outside of Harwich where his letter had been written. The town itself was nothing much to look at however. Several whitewashed and pebble-dashed bungalows jutted against the fatigued estuary, barnacled in satellite dishes and St. George’s flags, with piles of lager and meat curry cans scattered on the patios pierced through with scrawny weeds and dilapidated people. One arterial road sunk through this town twinned with nowhere, drive carefully, a boarded up school, absolute silence and the stale sweat of frustration.There was a closed newsagent with a postbox where Ehud may have posted the letter, a declining and archaic medium used generally by the state and advertisers. He had been here, but where was he now? In the distance, just by the road that exited the village, was a country pub that offered rooms for the night.
– Yeah there was a weird bloke who came in last night, coming to think of it. He looked a bit Arabic, you know. Well we would’ve, but it would’ve upset some of our customers.
– Where did he go after?
– No. I mean, yes. But I don’t know where he went.
– What else is round here?
– Just the beach and the old docks and fair. There’s Felixstowe across the bay.
– Do you want to leave your contact ID in case he calls back?
I found the path, but with no help from the gawping locals or that sweaty and pervy man who ran the pub. I didn’t even check for a room, I was so tired and getting angry. I had no money anyway. My Opportunity Worker would be wondering why I’d not shown up for my appointment today. The sun was already setting, burning through the heavy and languorous sky with rich burnished golden intensity, with a hum of peach and lavender emanating around it. The pewter sea extended to infinity. Somehow that concept gave me a little hope. I found the coastal path and reached the beach, following the pebbly coast northwards towards the bright lights of the docks. The sky was quickly transforming into a pale indigo cooled by the evening breeze and the distant cry of the gulls and the waves. After perhaps half an hour of this evening stroll there was still no sign of Ehud. The coastline began to snake round inward to the left, with the dock lights bearing brighter and bolder.
A shadow up by the rocks at the end of the beach caught my eye, and I ventured over. There were the remains of a fire, now cool, some empty beer cans and plastic sandwich packaging, his jacket, and folded inside his jeans and his shoes, and inside his right shoe his socks and pants, and inside the left a t-shirt and some money. The air was still now, and the night was rejoicing in a feast of stars.
The beach didn’t quite end there. On the other side of the rocks were some old fishing boats stacked up. I managed to wrest one and its oars from their dusty stupor and drag it down to the fastly-ebbing tide. THE BLUEBELL 314 FELIXSTOWE. After a minute of gently rocking while the seagulls clamoured on, the boat seemed seaworthy. I slung my belongings into the vessel, sinking the vodka before chucking the empty bottle back onto the shore. This time I did catch Ehud’s coat. Gently, against the heavy moon I embarked out North, angelically weaving between two Maersk super-container ships. The men shouted, but for once, perhaps, I was free, heading nowhere and everywhere. Maybe this nightmare of God had temporarily become something in a small way good. Maybe he had made it across, to the other side. There was only one way of knowing. Sick of spectatorship, I rowed with all my heart knowing there could not possibly be any way back.