196. Virtual Reality Check


I am calm.
There is a job on my desk but it sits there, untouched, as I stare out of the window.
It is early – just before seven – and the office is mostly empty.
I have the windows open and clean air drifts in, fresh from the previous night’s rain.
I can smell wet grass, bus diesel, flowers, soil, a hint of cow shit.
Rough with the smooth, I suppose.
The North was industrial but is no longer, and the farms that have always hidden beside the hammering mills have become more apparent now. The fumes and clamour have faded, allowing the bleat of lambs and the lowing of cattle to be heard and the earthy smells of rustic life add a tang to the air.
Bees drone amongst the tree blossom. The office is on the first floor and and the windows are level with whitebeam, rowan, silver birch. Thrush and blackbird warble from the higher boughs whilst sparrows tumble amongst the lower leaves, bickering over caterpillars.
The office is only a space, it is the people who make it what it is.
A shit hole.
Without the people it can be quite pleasant, without the small minded arseholes and their petty woes and their bitter grudges the office can actually be a place of quiet contemplation.
I sit, listen to the sounds of the day waking, smelling the earth, content.
The silence is shattered by Ford Focus the colour of Lucozade screaming into the car park. I can tell that it isn’t an ordinary Ford Focus because it is painted a fucking stupid colour and it is being driven as though it has just been nicked.
The orange Ford Focus parks up and a fat man gets out. He is grinning. He is wearing the factory uniform – dull blue work fatigues, a bit like a prison uniform.
He stands there for a moment, grinning at his orange Ford Focus with pride, seemingly oblivious of how it contrasts with the drab clothes he wears.
He buffs the car with the corner of his shirt then waddles into the factory, ready to start a 12 hour shift to keep up with the eye-watering monthly payments he has to make on the orange Ford Focus.
One by one they arrive, reverse parking cars that none of them own before looking at their phones until they are safely inside the dull hulk of the factory.
The office is filled with the smell of instant coffee and cheap aftershave, the sounds of bent spoons in teacups and monotone bitching.
I sigh, start working.
People greet each other.
They say things like, ‘Morning! How y’doin’?”
The stock answer is a grin, a relieved roll of the eyes, and a sighed, “Friday!”
Because it’s Friday.
For most of the week the stock answer is a similar grin, an ‘I’m-bearing-up’ shrug followed by, “Not bad for a (Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday – delete as appropriate)”
And that is the peak of their personal observations about the day, until they reach their computers, look at the headlines on Sky news or the Daily Mail and then spend the next half hour bleating the opinions of right wing journalists at each other.
The idea that Friday is better than any other day really grates on me.
It’s the worst myth of all. Why the fuck are people relieved that they can finally do the EXACT same amount of work that they do every other day? What magic fairy dust has been sprinkled over Friday to make it so fucking special? Is it the fact that they’re going to have a ‘few cheeky beers’ that evening? If that’s the only thing that makes them look forward to Friday, why don’t they just get shit faced every night of the week like I do?
Yay, it’s Tuesday. Glug glug glug.
Maybe it’s because it’s the end of the week.
But if that’s the case, what’s to celebrate?
You’ve spunked five days of your life away in a job you hate so much that you exhibit relief that it’s finally over.
Shouldn’t you be weeping?
I know I feel like weeping.
It’s another week of your life you’ll never get back, a week where you could have been something useful, something you love.
Fridays stick in my throat like sediment, a bitter resentment towards the system we blindly adhere to, The Cattle Class mooing ‘Friday’ over and over again until it’s our turn to get a gold watch and a handshake at the doors of the abattoir.
A fluttering catches my eye.
A blue tit has flown to the open window and perches, looking in. It moves in stop motion, the tilt of it’s head occurring instantaneously. It studies me with an eye like a small black pearl, measuring threat, before hopping to the corner of the windowsill. It deftly plucks a spider from it’s web, the silk stretching, snapping.
The blue tit is gone, the web thrums slightly, then it is still.
A big bunch of keys hits the desk, clattering and sliding over the Melamine surface with a noise like a car crash.
“Mornin’!” says Intense Ginger Bloke.
Recently he has started to walk with an invisible roll of carpet under each arm. This is because he is heavy, around seventeen stone, the weight you get from drinking too much beer, eating too many pies and parking your Audi as close to the supermarket door as possible.
Intense Ginger Bloke is six feet tall and he sees this as an achievement. It is alright to be heavy, because his grandma tells him it’s alright. ‘You can carry it’, his grandma tells him.
Because she tells him it’s alright, then it’s alright.
Until his heart packs in, anyway.
I imagine his full weight falling like a cut tree, thundering against the carpet tiles with a shuddering boom, big pale paw clutching his chest as his Judas heart finally betrays him, quitting it’s job too early, too soon, telling him a truth that he didn’t want to hear, that yes, he could carry the weight but that his ticker could not.
I look at him, I say, “Yes. Morning. How are you?”
He grins and says, “Friday!”
He takes off his ratty Berghaus fleece. He needs the fleece to brave the unpredictable elements that might assail him from house to car, from car to factory. Some fifty feet in total on this fine Summer morning. Who knows what might have happened had he not had his trusty fleece to protect him.
I glance outside. Sun glitters over the field where sheep sit chewing amidst the warm dew, steam rising from their bodies.
I say, “What’s the weather like?”
Intense Ginger Bloke checks his phone. “It says the weather is fine.”
I don’t respond.
He hurriedly goes to hang up his fleece, and with a brisk pace he heads for the door.
He’s going to take a shit.
My mate Tommy calls him The Man With The Clockwork Bottom.
Every day, the exact same time, without fail.
I intend to make some Out Of Order signs soon, and hang them on all the nearest office toilets, just to see if he’ll shit himself before he can find an available cubicle.
Dimples waddles by, glancing conspiratorially around before whispering, “Morning!”
She’s such a compulsive gossip that she now treats even the most trivial statement as a confidential disclosure.
I say, “Yes, morning. How are you?”
She grins with relief, looks around, then whispers, “Friday!”
I loudly say, “SORRY, DIMPLES, I CAN’T HEAR YOU. HOW ARE YOU?”
Dimples looks terrified. She whispers in the same tone with more exaggerated mouth movements, “Friday!”
I say, “WHY ARE YOU WHISPERING, DIMPLES?”
She looks panicked. She whispers, “I don’t know!” and flees to the kitchenette.
Inane Jane sidles past. She walks like a heron that has been downed with a rock. Her long, pale, blotchy legs are placed one ahead of the other as if probing silt, flowy pastel fabrics wafting around her, draining her skin of what colour it might have had. Close set eyes over a beaked nose peer through tiny glasses. She has the hairstyle of a much younger woman which she flicks around like she’s the star of a shampoo commercial, her crowning glory, because she’s worth it.
It probably costs her a hundred pounds a month.
It doesn’t suit her.
She sees me, says, “Good morning! How are you?”
She speaks slowly and with great care, as if reading from a teleprompter, or as if she’s going to hold up a sign that says, ‘Keep talking – the office is bugged!’
I wouldn’t dream of telling Inane Jane how I actually am, in response to her stock greeting. I wouldn’t tell her that I want to scream, that I wish the factory would burn down, that I harbour a deep, unnamed dread, that I fantasise about Godzilla-esque reptilians surging from beneath the earth to scour the planet of the human menace.
Instead I say, “Yes, morning. How are you?”
Now Inane Jane flicks her unnatural tresses, composes her bird features into a witty smirk, stifles a slight titter, rolls her eyes and says, “Friday!”
I stare at her, jaws clenching, wishing I was a Super Villain.
She tiptoes away, extremely pleased with her humorous retort.
Bogwanker hurries past. He says nothing, which is quite refreshing. He is wringing his hands with great pressure, the flesh of each hand turning white under the pressure of the other. He is grinning. He walks as if every third step requires him to avoid a landmine, a great stride added to his shuffling gait. As soon as he reaches the refuge of the now deserted kitchenette, as soon as he thinks he is unobserved, he begins to speak silently to himself, laughing and chattering without a noise. It’s the most disconcerting thing I think I’ve ever seen and I see it every day.
I look away.
I hear a door swing open and heavy footsteps plod nearer.
Intense Ginger Bloke looms into view.
He is visibly relieved by his immense turd, his bowels happily evacuated until tomorrow at 8.05am.
He seems more excited than usual.
He can barely contain himself.
He says, “It’s arrived!”
I instantly think of Godzilla striding across the Leeds skyline, lazer beam eyes disintegrating Brutalist concrete architecture and insipid modern office blocks alike. I imagine screams and pell mell fleeing, I imagine huge footprints crushing pedestrian precincts.
I smile and I say, “Has it?”
Intense Ginger Bloke is deliriously happy. “Yup! I have Oculus Rift!”
He thrusts both arms into the air in a weird victory salute. His shirt rides up to expose a large, pale belly, covered in wiry ginger hair.
I say, “Will antibiotics get rid of it?”
He blinks, mildly bewildered. “It’s VR! You know, a virtual reality headset! They’re supposed to be five hundred quid but this offer came online where you got the headset AND the hand controllers AND all the rest for less than four hundred!! I said to myself, I said, ‘I’m having THAT badger so I hit buy it now!”
He slams his finger into the desk with excessive force. He is breathing heavily. His face is very red. I watch with alarm and fascination, realising that this could be it, this could be the day his heart gives up.
I give Intense Ginger Bloke my full attention.
I say, “What did your girlfriend say? It’s still a lot of money to spend on toys without a green light from her.”
He scowls. “It’s not a toy. It’s the future.”
“Whatever. What did she say?”
He beams. “She said it was fine! I couldn’t believe it! Mind you, she’s off to Barcelona for five days soon and I expect she’ll want some spending money, so it’s all swings and roundabouts.”
I think about his girlfriend.
She had a bit of a tough start in life but she wanted something better. She got it. She used to be plumpish but now the photos Intense Ginger Bloke occasionally makes me look at show a slim young woman, very good looking. He looks lumpen next to her in the photos, a very mismatched couple. She is working on a cross trainer in the garage, toning up for her holiday. She takes the occasional sun bed. This is a holiday she really wants, not a week in a field in a caravan by the muddy North Sea, an Intense Ginger Holiday.
She wants something better, she is going to get it.
Intense Ginger Bloke wants to be careful.
Very careful.
Oblivious to the potential for catastrophe, he ploughs on.
“I got it all set up last night. It were amazing!!! It’s so… real! You got the headset on and these sensors all around you and these hand controllers where when you look down YOU CAN ACTUALLY SEE YOUR OWN HANDS!!! Can you believe it??”
I glance down at my own hand. Open and close it. I say, “Amazing.”
He is getting even more heated. Manic. He stands over me, looming, pushing against the desk that separates us. I lean back slightly.
He throws his arms around, loudly explaining the excitement that a virtual world has to offer. He describes driving, walking around, setting off fireworks, swimming. He describes how he blundered of furniture in his living room while he learned how to adapt to this strange new world, how he made mistakes, how he learned from them, how he mastered the tricky controllers.
“Then I went online,” he gasped, becoming tired through his exertions. “I thought the games were amazing, but online… there are other people there!!! People you can actually talk to!!”
I stare at him. “What… like you’re talking to me, right now?”
He looks ecstatic. “YES!!! Just like that!!”
He suddenly hammers the keys on his computer and brings up YouTube. He plays a recording of what it looks like to be in this new virtual world.
It is simple, the shapes are mainly blocks, lacking texture. People don’t have legs, their bodies are tubes, the head is a ball with a friendly face on the front.
“Isn’t it…cool?” whispers Intense Ginger Bloke.
I think it looks pretty shit, but I’m not going to start an argument, not while he’s this fired up.
But now he’s becoming more animated. “There’s this shooting game, a bit like Lazer Quest! Oh, it’s so incredible. You’re in this… place, and, and, you get this lazer gun and you’re all together, on a team, all the people, and you’re fighting robots that are controlled by the AI, the computer, but you can hide behind things, and fire round things, and… and…”
Intense Ginger Bloke suddenly disappears.
I think, at last! He’s died!
He has dropped out of sight behind his desk.
I wonder if he died immediately or if he’s writhing around down there, clinging to life.
I start to stand up when an arm pops up.
It is oddly clenched.
It is pointed at me.
I hear Intense Ginger Bloke make a loud rattling noise. “DADADADADADADADADADA!!!!”
I’m bewildered, alarmed and delighted.
But then Intense Ginger Bloke surges to his feet. His face is red and sweaty, he seems huge and terrifying. It is now obvious that he is holding an imaginary firearm of some description. He lunges over me, his face contorted with fury and bloodlust, and bellows that same rattling noise, “DADADADADADADADADA!!!”
I say, “Fucking Nora!”
He barges clumsily against the desk, knocking over a pot of pens, paperclips cascading like shell cases. He is wild eyed and snarling, spittle flying from his curled lips, speckling my face.
“DADADADADADADADA click.”
Still murderously eyeballing me he lifts his imaginary weapon. He clears the imaginary jam. “Kerclick.” He re-cocks the weapon. He points it at my face.
I close my eyes tightly.
“DADADADADADADADADADADADADADADADADA!!!!!”
I open my eyes.
Intense Ginger Bloke is panting heavily, blinking, his face sweating. He looks confused.
I glance around. Other people in the office are staring at us, open mouthed. Inane Jane has a hand to her face, appalled.
Intense Ginger Bloke drops to his chair. “It’s all so… real,” he mutters.
I clear my throat, I say, “Your girlfriend. Where was she when all this was going on?”
He blinks. “When I started playing, she was just sat on the couch. By the time I took my goggles of at three this morning, she’d gone.”
I say, “I’d remember that if I were you. Think of it as a metaphor.”
“What’s a metaphor?”
I don’t answer.
I look out of the window.
The green of the leaves on the ash tree have darkened from the bright tones of Spring to the deeper, flatter green of Summer. Some leaves are yellow. Soon they will all turn, and fall, and grow again, just as they have done for twenty five years, and I’ve watched it happen every year, seen it grow from being the same height as me to the tree it is today, thirty feet high.
I’ve watched it every year for a quarter of a century.
The people I work with haven’t seen it once.


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One Response to 196. Virtual Reality Check

  1. Michael Hutchings says:

    Yay! Luci’s back, and on as fine form as ever

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