‘Share Your Space Today’, David Towsey

Illustrations © 2008 Steve Cartwright

 [ Jesse: © 2008, Steve Cartwright ] The carriage creaks as we swing through another tunnel; the neon blue lighting flickering in time with my eyelids. Jesse doesn't notice. He's still talking, gesturing to emphasise something I should probably be listening to. Nodding, I lean my head against the window, trying not to look out onto the city. There's nothing else to see, which makes things difficult; like in the office, when you look up and see the foam tiled ceiling stretching across the world in neat geometric lines. I've spent too long following those lines.

The residual sun won't struggle over the horizon for another three hours, and change the black buildings to a streaky grey. By then I'll be trying to sleep.

"… and he'll be working from five, so you better have the cables." Jesse says, staring through me. He looks hollow, especially in this electrified light, his face like three pixels on an over-zoomed photo. He constantly runs his hand over his shaved head. "So when Simmons gets here we'll be ready to show him what we've got. I mean it: he needs to see everything."

Should be listening.

"Show him everything?" I say, without lifting my head from the window. "We haven't started recording yet. What's to show?"

If I could just slip between the panes, not be in here or out there. Find my own place to live. It's another idea that might flower in someone else's hands, so I toss it out onto a bed of street weeds. A group of kids are playing with their imagination on a street corner; one might pick it up, realise some profound truth, and move out of the city. There's enough decay here for anything to grow.

"Rick, wake up!" Jesse punctuates with his fist, an exclamation mark of force on the line-end that is my shoulder. "I mean show him the camera and stuff. He's very discreet; needs to be in his business. I've already told him to forget what this is about."

"And will he?" I reply, but I'm distracted. There's a woman on the seat opposite, half covered by Jesse's accusing chin. I can barely make her out, her black hair and formless face. I wonder if my eyes need treatment again.

"Of course. He's done worse than this before. No questions asked."

Leaving Jesse and the woman behind, I return to the window: a blind of urban sprawl pulled down. So many people here, moving along on a single track subsistence. A web of infinite coincidences and choices we used to associate with divinity. Now people have a name – Aether—for the social lubrication that enables us to co-exist; that stops most men from lashing out at their neighbour as we all struggle to put out our rubbish.

Swipe the card, punch the number, check if anyone's in the flat. The lights come on, chasing away the dark. No one is here, there never is when I get back. But someone has been; slept and lived in my space whilst I'm out. I know this, because now everyone knows this. Knowing doesn't stop the edges of my teeth grinding, or the hair on my arms and neck standing on guard as I come home.

"Where do we want the first one? Maybe the shower? She could be spicy, think about that." Jesse was grinning, grasping his head and looking about the place as if 'she' could still be here. Just like I was.

"She could be a he. Try and think about that."

"Lounge it is."

We spend the next few hours placing the cameras, talking crap and eating worse. I'm too tired to kick him out, and time spent with Jesse is time when I can let go. Not think.

"Can't believe someone else would actually want to live in this dump."

"They probably want to live here just as much as I do," I say, clearing the table of anything not burnt on.

"Fair. My flat is no better. Dunno who lives there too. Was thinking if this doesn't screw with us too much I might try it at mine, after you're done."

"Does it bug you too?" I try to keep my tone casual. It's becoming more and more forced. Soon, people will notice.

"What? Someone living in my place? Nah, not really."

Someone living in my place. Merging with me: sharing my mail screen; touching my light switch; pissing in my toilet. How could it not get to you? How could your skin not crawl every time it touches what should be yours and yours alone? The kitchen is cleaner than I left it; hiding the last meal cooked there. The scum around the shower: I try and identify it as a product of my own body. How could it not get to you?

Jesse leaves. He has nowhere to go, but he never likes to stay in one place for too long. That's him, and that's the people Jesse lives with, talks to, and leeches off.

It feels late, except it's early. These kind of words have lost their meaning when people started working in shifts around the clock, but I still cling to them as I lie staring up at the ceiling. She could be beautiful, or so could he. What difference it would make, I have no idea. We occupy the same space but not the same time. I could always move if I hated them. But it might start again, the itching need to know.

Things are kept in the same place, slotting together in my life and theirs in a sickening efficiency: a universal material jigsaw. It all makes sense; there would be no reason to do otherwise.

Aether made sure of it.

We are all linked by a shared consciousness. It allows us to work and play amongst each other, regardless of our circumstances or surroundings. Before moving to the city, we had no need to realise this, but now we can only survive by embracing it. Share your space today, so we can have a more expansive tomorrow. Aether.

I remember reading it for the first time, the words grainy and digital.

'Can't live in half the world these days, so there's double in ours,' said an old man stood next to me. His tone was bitter, but I was too young to understand why. Now I'm too old to care. Other people said things, then moved back down the street and disappeared.

The cities were the warm, rotten, centre of existence people crowded around in their hundreds of millions. In such numbers they had to adapt, as humans always have, and felt secure in calling the changes Aether. A mass consciousness that dances step by step through the motions of accommodating more than one life or family per room. It had been there before, whenever a group of people were thrown together by a situation; the fusion of atomic personalities that formed a new whole. We see the fledgling Aether in the people who survived the old wars and natural disasters. We have them to thank.

Today it organises everyone: me, her/him, everyone. I say 'it', but I really mean we. If I choose to get up right now, put on some clothes, or not, and walk out into the day and maybe go to work or maybe not, Aether would compensate. My co-habiter would decide to take the afternoon off to sleep, or they would win a competition, or get knocked down by a train, or doze in a gutter, or visit their family, or end it, or any of the myriad of possibilities.

I won't, so they won't, but that's probably Aether just making our lives easier.

"Um, J-Jesse, is this the right place?" Simmons asks. He looks nothing like I'd imagined. He is fat, with long dark hair tied back and a beard that looks like a handful of pencil lines.

"Yes, and could you stop with the stupid questions?" Jesse says, his hand etching italics of written stresses against his head.

"You know I- I- I don't have to be here. I've got other things to do."

The entrance display does neither of them any favours; distorting the reality into cartoon bulges and shapes stencilled imperfectly in black and white. No one looks quite right on a screen. It's not the true image, but a distancing representation – one that can change in the journey from source to viewer.

"Yeah, I know, and we both appreciate it. We'll just get the monitors set like you want them, and we're done. You can go back to whatever it was that put you in a shitty mood this morning."

"That would be, that would be you," Simmons replies.

Jesse either ignores that, or more likely, doesn't hear it. His attention has turned to the door. I hit the button.

"Hey, come on in," I say, in an attempt to sound accommodating. Neither Jesse or Simmons are the type of people to use or acknowledge pleasantries. To them conventions and conversations are alien, to be mistrusted and avoided.

"I figure, I, um, I figure, if it wasn't something we should be doing then Aether, Aether would kick in, and find us something else to do," Simmons says abruptly.

"Yeah, yeah, that's right." Jesse starts pacing around the room. "If it was bad to find out, then Aether would just do something, and we'd never know. Like, maybe kill us, or get me a job, that kind of thing." Either of those possibilities was extreme. "Or… maybe it will work retroactively and we'll just forget, replace the files with porn or an action movie or something."

"Does Aether even work that way?" I ask.

"Who knows? Who fucking knows what it can do?"

It can't do that. It works in our subconscious, like when I'm trying to get to sleep. It's not malevolent or benevolent. It, through the people by which it is generated, has no conception of right or wrong. The way I see it, having any form of motivation is a singular human mindset, and the mass of Aether is above that. Or perhaps below it.

They probably sleep like a baby in that bed. One of those crazy people who like solid beds, good for the back. And every night I'm pissing nails just to find out what they feel and see and taste in this place.

I poke my hand through the blind, sending a shaft of grey into the room which greets the glow of my monitor with open hostility. Dust jumps from my finger into the light; which body have these motes detached themselves from? I breathe in heavily, but can't taste anything that might be someone else. I notice a half bitten finger nail resting on the sill. Did I put it there? This nail is jagged, torn from an anxious finger. Did they stand here, like I am now, and wonder about me?

I'm looking, but not in here. Not this time. It's out there now. One shadow in the city. Impossible to touch.

I can feel the pull of my bed. For a moment I fight it, but it's a battle that I accept is useless. It feels hard beneath me.

Morning rolls around. I've spent another night wrestling with the bed sheet, trying to wring out answers. I'd accept them from anywhere now. I look across to the wardrobe, where I hide my disguises of a regular person with a job, with something worth dressing for.

There's one of Jesse's joints hanging precariously on the edge of my bedside table, deciding whether or not to jump; whether either me or the skin headed bag of nerves are worth living and then dying for. I dare it to take the leap. There would be a hypocrisy in trying to talk it down: I want to see what the plunge looks like before I take it myself.

I punch the code for my wardrobe setting, and my clothes rotate in from the storage unit. They've rubbed shoulders with my shadow's shirts and socks. I grab my synthetic suit, which itches in all the inaccessible places, and head out the door.

"So you see, Rick, we can't have any more of this. We're a small company here, a family, so if you don't pull your weight, we all feel it." My boss: shirt and tie, strangling himself with his own importance. What a fucking joke. A family that had taken a week to notice one of its 'sons' hadn't turned up. I nod along anyway, making the expected placating noises, as if I'm calming a small child or animal. A small mole in a shirt and tie.

He turns to his screen, probably looking up my notes. His secretary floats in and out of the room. Her suit makes her body shapeless; androgyny in pin-stripe. I barely register her, instead rolling my neck back, and stare up at those ceiling lines again. Great polystyrene leylines of bureaucracy. Blank white panels. My eyes reach the back of my head and keep going. I can gaze on myself here, an ugly mass of red pulsating…stuff. Jesus-fucking-Christ; I can barely describe my own thoughts these days. And I've resorted to swearing in them. I laugh out loud at this. My boss looks up.

I leave, not sure if I still have a job and even less sure if that's important. I'm on the wrong side of town to get home quickly. I feel an odd desire to be amongst people. I haven't slept in five days. Jesse lives three streets away. I begin to walk to his flat, assured by some indescribable feeling that he will be there. Of course he'll be there; he doesn't work or do anything remotely productive. I bark a laugh, causing the small shadows of people around me to jump. But that's just it. They all look the same on street level. All blackened and anonymous. But they don't live with me.

"You don't know my address!" I scream at one of the blank spaces. She looks frightened, and then slightly relieved as she realises I'm right.

I stride furiously through a park. Leaves have been thrown onto the path, browns and reds and some green. They stop me; a barrier of ordinary and natural occurrence, standing in between my manic energy and its destination. Anger floats away, as these leaves have floated from whatever had created them; flown the coop or left the homestead. They're making their own way, slowly to whatever end. One shadow; and I'll be able to stop the ramblings and walk slowly to an end.

"You look like crap." Jesse is smiling, taking pleasure in the realisation that someone finally looks worse than he does. Both of us suit the run-down 'diner' which seems designed to house rats and dregs like us, with its wipe-clean furniture that's never seen a cloth, and its tired lighting. "Shouldn't you be at work anyway?"

"Haven't been in for a week." This raises an eyebrow.

"The great straight arrow comes,"—head rub for emphasis—"astray. Welcome to the world of the liberated non-contributor. What is it?"

I laugh, a sound which has lost all its previous associations, and feels as adrift as I do. "It could be anything, though I don't remember taking or even buying it. I'm-" pausing to pick up the multi-sauce shaker as if it would let me in on my own secret, "-seeing things. I think."

"Ok, fairly standard hallucinatory effects, you must have taken this substance when you felt as bad as you look. No wonder, bad experiences multiply themselves. The effect has some kind of name, I forget," Jesse says, affecting a look of authority.

"No, it's not like that. Every now and again I see some kind of shadow, just on the edge, and when I turn it's gone."

"Paranoia. Listen, look at me. Look right in my eyes. Here." Jesse opens his eyes wide, and proceeds to pronounce every word excruciatingly slowly. "No one is after you. You've done nothing wrong."

"Stop it. Seriously, I'm seeing this shadow. I haven't slept for a week just in case I get to see it again."

"Wait. Let's just re-cap. You haven't been going to work. You haven't slept. And now you're seeing someone's shadow. Well it's pretty obvious what's going on. This shadow have any shapely curves?"


"Is it a wo-man?"

"I don't know. I can barely see it. It's like…" Jesse cuts me off with an upraised finger. He reaches into his bag, pulling out his CaL, and places it in his ear. A moment later the bust of Simmons appears on the table, a transparent green image that looks more three dimensional, although far lighter, than the real thing.

"What?" Simmons' attention was obviously elsewhere. The steady drum-like clicks of his input pad the only sound that carry through the link from his flat.

"Is it ready?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm, ah, just putting the f-finishing touches on it now."

Jesse hangs up.

"I'll just need, need to hook this up to the viewer. It has got a T, T, T. It has a T23 port, right?" Simmons says, walking straight to the equipment.

"Of course: it's not pre-historic," Jesse replies.


I let their banter disappear, just like everything else. I'd seen it earlier. I'd see it later. That was enough for now.

"Right, see, I've edited out all the junk, the junk with you in it, and the stuff where, err, no one's in the room. I think you'll be pleasantly, pleasantly surprised." Simmons nudges Jesse as he hits play.

The screen jumps to this room, just without the wastes of space.

 [ Darker than that: © 2008, Steve Cartwright ] "Ahhh man, I knew it, didn't I say? And a blonde too," Jesse says, grinning like a schoolboy.

"Are you crazy? She's a bru, bru, brunette."

"What? You've been staring at a screen too long Simmons. What do you think, Rick? She a blonde or a brunette?"

I can't remember how cheated or angry feels, or how I am supposed to behave in this type of situation, or what is appropriate to say. I feel the pull of a contented acceptance, like the fleeting moments before sleep takes control. No point fighting it.

"I'd say she was darker than that."

I couldn't look at anything else. Her image on the screen. She moves about our flat, a black hole sucking in everything in an un-remarkable universe. Featureless, a permanent shadow, a gap. She's exactly how I imagined her. Beautiful.

© 2008 David Towsey

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