George lived alone. His mouth was ulcerated and his retinas strained. His body was decaying and he treated this with ambivalence, for whom did he have to preserve his body for besides himself? He lived in self-imposed exile, beginning the day with an afternoon breakfast followed by a morning stroll under moonlight. He was promised a first step onto the housing ladder — he was renting an oubliette. “For rent: modest and humble accommodation for one. Furnishing included, but not limited to: A bed, a toilet, a crack in the ceiling, a wardrobe, a withered plant.” In his wardrobe three identical pinstripe suits hung above some underwear and a pair of modestly priced black brogues (no brown in the town). His fridge was even sparser than his wardrobe.
He could survive thirty six (or more) hour days; trading floors were more sedentary after the widespread adoption of computers. The cigar smoking neo-Darwinians jostling one another in the pits of Chicago and New York either adapted or died. Some opened their wrists in scolding baths, others married before hand, but a few were kicked upstairs onto computers. They complained about those “damn machines” and reminisced over the “good old days” amongst themselves. Most were unable to cope, not only with the new technology, but with the new evolution of trader: Thin framed bodies and thick framed glasses. The trader himself was now an endangered species. George had heard rumours of a company in Holland that replaced traders with machines. The algorithms were written to trade high frequencies of stock in nanoseconds, faster than he could shout an expletive, much faster than a Luddite could destroy a keyboard. He would watch the price of stocks squirm on his screen and imagine that somewhere a computer was chewing as much gum as himself. When the squawk called out the rolling news the markets danced — did they react to his voice?
George turned away from his computer.
“I’m lonely,” he announced to himself. The trader next to him, not looking up from his computer, laughed into his screen.
“What do you mean you’re lonely, George?” he began. “How can you be lonely when you’re surrounded by millions of people?” The trader squinted at his screen and grumbled under his breath. Slowly, George leant back in his chair and allowed the chaos of traders to wash over him.
He left the offices of J.M. Huntley and the murmur of commerce rippled through the trees. Commuters scurried about like ants on a garden table, chased by the cigarette of some malevolent god — a few escaping into alleyways and other hidden places. Bold cyclists weaved indiscriminately through bus lanes and bus passengers. The street inhaled deeply and the trees and parasols swayed. The stone banks of the river were littered with broken glass and cigarette ends. George was carried like a pooh stick until the river forked around an old beggar. His socks were blackened and he smelt like a wet animal. He had wandered as a leper drifting from alleyway to underpass, emerging now in a crowd from the unseen places of the city. The skin around his piercing blue eyes was dry and cracked. Gusts blew about his wisps of white hair. The beggar straightened his tattered corduroy jacket and tugged at his frayed sleeves, chattering to himself. The beggar was a drop of oil in a glass of water. Wherever he moved to, people would stream around him in repulsion. He groped the air with his eyes. Each face had melted into the other, the beggar was blind to the subtleties of each suit or shoe or nose.
The beggar’s helpless eyes met George’s. He limped toward George with pleading arms outstretched. George skirted around the beggar protected by the flow of people and his footsteps hurried. He was washed down the drain and into the circle line sewer pipes. The commuters were silent but for the pitter-patter of brogues on concrete floors.
Mind the gap. The tube rumbled into life. Hunched and weary bodies swayed in the carriages. He buried his nose into his Financial Times, using the words as a blindfold. Every sudden noise excited him from his lethargy and cold terror dripped down his back. The page moved in and out of focus and he drifted into sleep.
Thick sheets of rain lashed his body. He was alone, trapped waist deep in black rock. Around him only rock and beyond the rock a desolate plane. Hollow wind slashed his naked torso. The clouds brooded and dry thunder shuddered on the horizon. Contorted bodies were carved into the rock. Drowned faces fixed in eternal longing; to breath, to laugh, to embrace. He howled in agony and pleaded with the sky.
Lightning struck the ground and pieces of rock were hurled into the air. The rain paused and the wind held its breath. A pure light from behind the cloud soothed his tortured body. The Earth shook and the rock around the carved faces began to break away. One by one they were freed, gasping for air. The men crawled out of the rock naked and trembling. A few had gathered around George, who was still writhing in the rock. He held his arms outstretched and whimpered. A firm hand grasped his own and he was liberated from the rock, his legs trailing behind him. Two men held him upright and life returned to his legs. He stood beside the other men, gazing silently across the wasteland.
George jolted awake and realised that he had slept through the entirety of the circle line. His heart was a babbling spring. Drops of pure water leapt into the air and glistened in the sunlight. He bounded back onto the street though processing commuters. He rose above their sullen heads and saw the beggar stumbling around. The old man collapsed onto George and grasped his lapels. The crowd and buildings warped around the eternity of that moment. Old eyes of longing gazed up helplessly at George and he held the beggar’s head against his chest.
“My brother,” said George softly. The beggar trembled and then with a few spasms of relief, he wept. Tears of hot salt ran off his cheek and down George’s pinstripes.