Monday, 9 September 2013

The Millennium Cameraman - a short story

The Millennium Cameraman

by Richard Craven

Today being X-mas Eve in Shroud Town is mostly happy shoppers, what you expected. Harassed parents and their mechanical tiny tots. You keep your Argos Catalogue eyes on all six screens; more from habit than necessity; they've got the optical image recognition software up and running now, and the Home Office database. But you're a volunteer, they can't phase you out, you feel you still have to come in and do your bit. Today, policemen wearing short-sleeved white shirts and little moustaches and woolly red and white Santa hats bring you egg sarnies from the canteen, and styrofoam cups of instant. You mainly keep your eyes on the six screens. You scrutinise junkies and ratboys on cameras one, three and five, whilst six scans Wanker Street for feckless fathers and people who are black or young or wearing funny clothes. Two and four, being sited on the estate, are what you call your hobby cameras. Local residents are beginning to learn that bedroom curtains must always remain closed.

Later on you go for your freakishly obtained X-mas Eve late Friday doctor's appointment. You're his last patient before he pisses off on his week skiing in Jackson's Hole he won in the tombola, and he's excited and twitchy and anxious to be rid of you. Three sons and youngish second wife in tow, halfboard in a serviced chalet. You insist, again, on a full medical examination, again, you unclothe yourself slowly and deliberately, you want to get to the root of your complaint, you want to grasp the fundamentals, the doctor wilts visibly as you outline in depth your desire to undergo a rigorous regime of testing for allergies and stool testing and macrobiotic dieting and herbal remedy-discussions and referrals to specialists in your delicate little problem. As you drone mesmerisingly on, he in his perplexity and irritation with latexed fingers prods and kneads your slightly flabby abdomen.

-I can't find anything obviously wrong, he says peevishly, how much do you drink? I'm going to examine your rectum now.

Forty minutes later you emerge onto shiny wet medical asphalt. As in your thin anorak you gain the road, the doctor's Mondeo washes by, backlights glaring at you through the steepling rain, and accelerates off towards the bypass. Bastard said you weren't a priority, straight to the bottom of the waiting list. Usual bollox, less drinking, less coffee, get out more, plenty greens grilled chicken oily fish water. No mention, no mention whatsoever, of herbal remedies or macrobiotic dieting or stool testing or testing for allergies. Freighted with disappointment, home to your bedsit where you drink Horlicks and go downstairs and endure your landlady's monstrously vapid chatter and watch loungeroom TV and die a little before an early night.

Having retired, finally, at 6.45pm when you could no longer endure X-mas Eve, you are unable to maintain sleep or even a semblance of dozing much beyond 3.30am. You switch the bedside light on eventually, and sit up sweatily and try to read your magical realism novel you've been trying to read, but it's pathetic, it makes no appeal to the inner adult, it drives you fucking mad. Finally at 6.15, after an eternity of near silent despair and venal indulgence with your home enema kit and lengthy toilet trauma, you dress yourself and pad downstairs in your thinly socked feet.

You're out in the lane. It's still very dark and cold, you're wearing wellingtons, but your feet are numb. Your sample bottles clink in your anorak pocket. You take a footpath you've never been along in all these years. It leads steeply up the hillside, you think you're heading for the main road, but the path deviates left and hugs the contour round the hillside. After about an hour, it decants you into a hidden valley, and you find yourself wading through an extensive slurry pond. Matter forms an obstinate meniscus crust about the upper portions of your wellies. You stand rooted to the spot. The other side of the pond a small shed where in bleery dawn a hungover inbred farmer is castrating his prize bull. Why's he doing that, you wonder.

-Because the world's g'nna end in six days, he shouts back above the bull's roaring, now bugger off.

You retrace your steps, the hillside contours, the sharp right turn dumping you back down on the main road. You go home, you spend the rest of the morning cowering in your room, you try to lie down and sleep but it doesn't work. You drink your supermarket brandy, eventually you smuggle your kit into the bathroom and self-administer a goatsmilk and sodium bicarbonate enema whilst gagging on the stench wafting upstairs from the factoried gobbler even now being rendered into a biddable X-mas lunch.

During which, under your stolid gaze even your landlady is reduced to catatonic silence. You eat slowly, you pack away every last morsel, every glutagen and free radical, every scrap of retrieved eyelid. You wear your paper hat not with pride but with something approaching, what, indifference? The catflap squeaks on rusty hinges and your landlady's pudgy neutered Tom sidles into the kitchen. Your landlady spoons into his plastic bowl reconstituted blim and pinj. She does not wash the spoon before doling out the X-mas pud, but you eat heedlessly. The sweet white wine gives you a bad headache, and you retire early with your present from your landlady, another fucking magical realist novel.

Predictably, on Boxing Day you are up very early indeed. A swift horlicks, a lightning fast shredded wheat and pre-stressed concrete enema, followed by the usual briefly intense indisposition, and you're out of there. You spend the day down at the control center. Nothing to report on cameras two, three, five or six. On camera one there's a few people already got on the Star Trek suits we're all supposed to be wearing by the millennium. On four, New Labour morality squads are to be seen zerotolerating potentially insolent youths and black people, checking their compulsory spiritual counselling certificates. Everything seems bland to you, bleached of meaning. You call in at the Fighting Cocks on your way home. You stand alone, you drink snakebite and several Bacardis. You stumble home about 8.30 and drag yourself upstairs and fall into bed and sleep.

Monday 27th you wake up insanely alert at 9am. You spring from your warm bed with nary a backward glance at your enema kit. You have a raging thirst, you dress quickly and go down the corridor to the bathroom and suck water from the cold tap. 9.15, you're just perforating midships your second shredded wheat. Radio's on, England 240 odd for four against the Springboks, Nasser Hussain on 100, landlady bragging about her nephew in Jack Straw's Citizen's Paramilitary. He gets an all white dress uniform and his own Fiesta.

There's a phone call for you. It's the surgery. You're surprised they're open on a Bank Holiday, let alone they're taking the trouble to phone you at home. It's worrying, in fact, maybe you really are ill.
-Been a cancellation, says the woman from the surgery, y'w'n' it?
When is?
-This Thursday, 12 noon, private surgery in Wanker Street, six days from GP to specialist referal not bad, thought we might fit you in before the Millennium. So you want?

Later, you go for a walk. Cold and densely foggy. You retrace the route you took last time, the sharp left, hugging the contour. But the topography silhouetted against the mist banks seems to have changed. No hidden valley, no slurry pond or cow barn, no inbred farmer nor unballed bull. You find the path ascending through a meadow strewn with sacks from the pharmaceutical plant. Here and there in pits scooped out of the grass, large piles of anhydrous copper sulphate. As you reach a treeline that wasn't there before, two or three walkers come in the opposite direction. They are already wearing their Star Trek uniforms. They look cold. You catch them sneering at you.
-Yes it's not the Millennium yet, you know, you tell them.
They look at eachother, and walk quickly away. Somehow you make your way home through some bizarrely alien landscape. You totter upstairs and collapse onto your slightly damp mattress and spend the rest of the evening monitoring your racing heart.

A troubled night of fitful sleep alternating with increasingly fruitless attempts to glean a positive reading experience from either of the two magical realism novels now in your possession. At 8.30am Tuesday 28th, you arise and pull on your Star Trek uniform. Light blue with black epaulettes. The calf boots are PVC slipons with springy heels that raise you from 5'4" to 5'6". You examine yourself in the mirror. You look bloated and unwell, which of course you are. You stumble downstairs, noting with disgust that it is still not fully dawn. In the kitchen, meat factory bacon sizzles in the pan, there is fried bread, bull eunuch sausages, condensation on the window. Your landlady looks quizzically at you cavorting in your Star Trek uniform. You watch her brazenly wearing her official Home Office black paramilitary Strawmen uniform.
-Yes it's not the Millennium yet, you know, she tells you.

The hour following breakfast is spent in the bathroom. Just as you've nearly finished a particularly tricky self-administered hi-pressure enema of anhydrous copper sulphate crystals and farm slurry, your landlady starts hammering on the door.
-You been in there for hours, you alright? Wot you doing?
It's clear from the sound of her voice that she's trying to look through the keyhole. Purple with the effort of retention you manage to squeeze out through gritted teeth some suitable retort about the effects of her cooking.

The rest of that day and most of Wednesday 29th you spend monitoring CCTV. Actually, the optical image recognition software does the work, you're just there marking time before Thursday's endoscopy appointment. Anyway, there's no action, it's mostly happy shoppers huffily telling other happy shoppers who happen to be wearing Star Trek uniforms that yes it's not the Millennium yet, they know. Wednesday evening you're in the Fighting Cocks, drinking cider and pernod alone, watching BBC1: Blair Mandelson Robin Cook, all poncing about in their new Star Trek uniforms. Jack Straw in his Home Office Zerotolerator outfit, pink zouave with gold epaulettes.

Thursday morning: upon rising, a hearty breakfast of All Bran washed down with instant coffee, followed mid-morning by a discreet enema consisting of equal parts warm soapy water and depleted uranium. 11.45am finds you sitting in the endoscopologist's anteroom three floors up on Wanker Street. The person before you is called in. Your anticipation grows. You fidget, you rub your nipple where the nasty nylon material of your Star Trek uniform is chafing. You catch the receptionist's scornful eye.
-Yes, it's not the Millennium yet, you know, she tells you.

It's 12.20, you're sitting naked on a PVC and chrome medical stool whilst the endoscopologist reads through your notes.
-Uh, you saw your GP 20 times this year, 19 last.
-That what it says.
-And numerous, uh, freelance visits to different a&e departments with, uh, irritable bowels.
-Uh huh, yuright.
-Uh, and the ambulance had to come and pick you up from a, pub?
-Fighting Cocks.
-Mr Penistone, can you think of anything you do, say at home, which might help explain your symptoms?

You leave without being endoscopised, having been fobbed off with a barium session in nine months time. Outside it's sunnier than it has been, but it's still cold and you hunch in your anorak. You go and put in a couple of hours in the control room, but your heart's not in it. The ratboys, the feckless fathers, the people who before were in funny clothes, almost all wearing Star Trek uniforms now. They don't need you anymore. The policemen with moustaches have all got their fluorescent yellow tunics on today. Some of them come and look at the screen and mutter pointedly about it's not the bloody Millennium yet, actually. You go home.

Millennium eve for you harbingers a certain quality of tediousness. And so it comes about. 11.45pm You don't know what it is, but you haven't left your room all day. Your self-administered enema kit lies coiled and neglected on your duvet. On Radio 4 John Humphreys doesn't see why he has to wear his Star Trek uniform at all until next year, that's when it's really the Millennium. Anne Widdecombe is firmly of the opinion that shared values are the glue that holds society together. Moreover she's quite happy to discuss being strikingly ugly in her Star Trek uniform. William Hague chimes in with the apophthegm that it's common sense. John Humphreys says alright, what about the Kubrick film, ain't no 2000AD film.

You hear a noise and you turn the radio down. It's glass breaking. You hear your landlady screaming, then a man's voice saying it's alright love it's not you we've come for, where izzy. A pause, then hobnail boots on the stairs. You meet them on the landing.
-What is it you want, you say hotly, I've got my Star Trek uniform on already.
-Unauthorised Enema Squad, says the bossman handcuffing you, we've had an eye on you for a long time.
The scales fall from your eyes.
-The slurry pond. It's not there anymore. I checked. The farmer, was he one of yours?
-Yup, and the bull. Came out of the Unauthorised Enema Squad police bull budget. And we had to relandscape a lot of countryside.
-And the phone call and the...
-Consultant, yes.
-That's entrapment, you say, you wait till my brief gets hold of your knackers and starts squeezing. Your career just went down the toilet matey.
He smiles. The rest of the goonsquad stand around smirking. One of them puts your enema kit in an evidence bag.
-This is enough to convict you on its own, he says.

From outside there is the sound of people cheering, of fireworks.
-Happy New Millennium anyway, you say.
-Yeah, no 'ard feelings, says one of the squad, Happy New Millennium.
Everyone shakes hands. One or two of them hug you briefly. All the lights go out suddenly.

As you grope your way downstairs your landlady stands in the loungeroom doorway holding a kerosene lamp and brimming with verbiage. Somehow as you pass she manages to hold it back. Outside, the hot hairy blanket is thrown over your head. You rock slightly in the aftershock of the accidentally triggered ICBM that landed in Cheltenham a few minutes ago. A hand pulls you into the back of the Transit, the doors slam shut, and then the rest of your life starts.

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