What do we share in common with the people who flit in and out of our daily lives?
Cara’s finger traces a line in the scattering of sugar that’s spread across her half of the table where, fifteen minutes ago, the packet was uncooperative. She only half listens to her girlfriend as she chatters away on the chair opposite. It’s a smooth Formica table with fixed, moulded seats. They’re by a window, looking out on the high street of the seaside town she’s been coming to since she was a child. Grey skies are giving way to fingers of pale blue over the tops of the Georgian terraces. Coming to this café is a ritual she’s indulged in dozens of times, but this is the first time they’ve done it together. Some of the magic has worn off this relationship. Cara’s gaze lingers on the congealing grease on her plate, now empty except for a crust of toast and the white of her fried egg with a neat circle where she’d removed the yolk, the only part she can stomach.
“Hm?” She glances up and frowns for a second. She was miles away, back in her childhood, remembering rockpooling on the beach, splashing through rolling white surf on days that were always bright and sunny. She’s starting to wonder if bringing her girlfriend here was a mistake. “Yes, sorry,” she says, straightening in her chair and putting her hands around her mug of tea.
“Were you listening?”
“No,” she confesses with an apologetic smile. “Just planning things.”
The other woman tilts her head. Cara has a nagging feeling that they look too similar. More than once someone’s mistaken them for sisters. Their hair is a similar colour and style, and they could wear each other’s clothes easily enough. They don’t, because they’re not There yet. Living together, that is. As far as Cara’s concerned, that’s a long time in the future. She worries that feeling isn’t mutual. “I was talking about dreams,” her girlfriend says.
“Okay.” What could be more insufferable? Who cares about dreams? She’s a bit like this. Wishy-washy. New Age. She’d found it kooky at first. Now she finds it…not so kooky.
“I was reading this thing online the other day, about this man.”
“People dream about him.”
Cara takes a sip of her tea. It’s brewed too strong for her, and she’s had to sweeten it to within an inch of inducing a diabetic coma just to get it down. This isn’t the fantasy she had about this trip, and she’s starting to realise that. Shame it’s on the first morning of the holiday. “People dream about him?” she asks. “People dream about a lot of men, don’t they? Like…Johnny Depp and stuff…” It’s not exactly her area of expertise.
“No, not like that,” her girlfriend laughs, a little too loudly. Heads are turning in the little café and it makes Cara distinctly uncomfortable. She’s not embarrassed, but why invite the inevitable stares? “Thousands of people, all over the world, they have these dreams about this one guy.”
“What one guy?”
“Well…he doesn’t have name. But the same face.”
“What face?” Cara is only moderately interested in this conversation, but she doesn’t want to put a further dampener on the already disappointing day. The breakfast wasn’t nearly as good as she remembers.
“Sort of dark, bearded, smouldering eyes. You know.”
“Well no,” she says blandly, “I don’t know.” She never explains herself. “And so what? It sounds a pretty ordinary description to me.”
“Don’t you think it’s spooky though?”
Cara doesn’t believe in spooky. “No, I think it’s a coincidence.”
“What, thousands of people?” Her girlfriend is still smiling, still treating it like it’s a game to press her buttons like this.
Cara wants to tell her that there are billions of people on the planet – a few thousand is a fraction of a fraction of a percent. It doesn’t mean anything. Instead she says, “I guess.”
“I wonder what it means,” she muses, resting her chin on her hand and looking at her. As annoying as she can be, Cara has to admit she’s probably the prettiest girl she’s ever dated. Is that enough though?
“Well, if there is anything to it, there must be a logical explanation,” she allows.
“What possible connection could all those people have? And, you know, when I think about it, I think I’ve dreamed of that guy too.”
Cara smiles. She shouldn’t let a stupid conversation spoil her day. “I don’t know if I want you dreaming about guys…”
She smiles back and goes picks up an unused sugar packet, making to throw it at her, but just then a surly looking boy appears between them, collecting their dirty plates. They back out of his way and murmur thanks. He mumbles something Cara can’t make out so she just nods and smiles and then he’s on his way. The moment of levity is gone; the sugar packet returns to the saucer. “Thousands of people all over the world can’t have anything in common,” her girlfriend says.
“You might be surprised,” Cara shrugs. Her eyes wander across the café, and all the people huddled at their tables. A fat man with grey hair growing out of his ears is reading a copy of The Sun. A young straight couple with faces full of piercings, him with bad acne scars, her elfin and beautiful with thick eyeshadow, laugh and whisper with their heads very close together. A man who looks like a painter judging by his spattered overalls, shoulders through the door making the little bell ring. She looks towards the counter where the surly boy is stacking their plates to one side. She meets his eyes for a moment…
Lesbians. That’s what Paul thinks as he sees one of them staring at him. You can tell because of the hair. Dead giveaway. They could be sisters though. Lesbian sisters. He feels himself starting to get a stiffy and tries hard to think about something else. He turns back to the dirty dishes and takes them through to the kitchen. It doesn’t help though because she’s there. She’s so fit it’s hard to even look at her for too long. Right then she’s bent over the grill, turning rashers of bacon over. The fat spits and a glistening droplet lands on the top of one of her half-exposed breasts. She makes a little noise and bites the bottom of her lip. He stands there staring as she brushes at her skin with one perfectly-manicured hand. She has this tattoo that snakes up from her wrist onto the side of her hand. It’s the same one Cheryl Cole has. She glances up at him. Her eyes are too blue to be real and he looks away immediately, hoping she can’t see his blush.
“Paul? What the fuck are you doing?”
“S…sorry…” The owner is a big fat man with a red face and a bad temper. Paul hates him, but he needs the money and his dad says he’ll kick him out if he doesn’t have a job. He opens the dishwasher and squats down to load the plates. They only got the machine a month ago; before that he had to wash everything by hand. He’s glad those days are over, but there’s something in the back of his head that wonders if it’s going to put him out of a job. Didn’t factory works in the olden days used to get worried about that? Didn’t they destroy the machines? He looks at the dishwasher as he closes the door. He wouldn’t mind smashing it up actually. That’d be cool.
She crosses his eye line again, now going over to the fridge to get some butter. She’s wearing those leggings so he can see the exact shape of her arse. She bends over to reach something on the bottom shelf and he thinks about his favourite fantasy. Shoving her up against the wall and just really giving…
“Paul!” He stares up into the owner’s bright tomato face and nearly jumps up to his feet. “There’s a customer out there, you little prick!”
He only has time for one last lingering look at her as she turns. Her tits shake in her top and he can feel something stirring down there. He might need to go to the toilet in a bit, just to relieve the tension. Nothing wrong with that. He wishes he could talk to her better. She’s a few years older than him though and he thinks she’s going out with that guy who lives in Station Road. Paul slopes out of the kitchen, fantasising about being tall, dark and handsome, like that man who always seems to show up in his dreams. Then she’d fancy him. He’d probably get a blowjob and everything. Yeah. Imagine that. He’s got a vacant expression on his face as he comes back to the counter where a man in overalls is looking at him…
Little spotty prick. “About fucking time,” he snaps. “Just a black coffee, all right?” Alan hasn’t got time for this shit. He watches the kid fumble around with the machine. He’s clumsy and awkward. He’ll be here all fucking day. He just wants to grab the mug off him and do it himself. Where’s the fit bird they normally have here anyway? He tries to crane his neck as subtly as he can to look into the kitchen. Was that her there? Just his bloody look to get Spotty Herbert here instead. He raps his paper on the counter irritably. Finally his coffee shows up and he pays with exact change. He slurps the coffee down, because now he’s bloody late, isn’t he? He clocks the lesbians at the table on his way out. They’re fucking everywhere now, their sort. Can’t get away from them. Like the bloody Poles. Half the blokes he works with now barely seem to speak English. Disgusting, it is.
He climbs into his van and the suspension gives way beneath his bulk. All bought and paid for. Door slams shut – got to give it a good heft or it doesn’t close properly – and he drives off. This job gets on his nerves. It’s not the blokes, not exactly, the two he’s doing the place up for. They’re nice enough. Well, the little one is. He thinks of him as the little one, because he stays at home, like the woman. Is that how it works? Probably not PC to think of it like that. He hasn’t seen much of the other one, but he must be rich to own a place like that. It’s a big house out on the peninsula, the road they call Millionaire’s Row. Bit of a drive, especially with the ferry, but the money’s good.
Before too long he’s parked up and pulling out his ladder from the back of the van, looking up at the house. It isn’t much to his taste; just a big white block like a sugar cube, but rich people always like stuff like that, don’t they? His missus would love it, probably. She’s always watching those bloody telly programmes. The little one answers the door and lets him in. He walks like a woman. Maybe that helps his boyfriend get his engine going, eh? Nah, probably not.
“Are you doing the bathroom today?” he trills as he walks on ahead through the hall with its marble floors and tasteful décor.
“Yeah, thought I would,” Alan replies, instinctively deepening his voice for some reason. Don’t want this guy to think he’s some sort of poof too. Not much danger of that though. Poofs don’t look like him – they look like this one and his boyfriend, or The Man. Alan always feels a bit funny when he thinks about The Man. He’s just part of his life, but he remembers when he was a kid telling his mum about him. He’d thought everyone knew about The Man, because it seemed so normal to him. Ever since he was tiny, he’s dreamed about The Man. With his beard and his dark hair and those black, staring eyes. The Man. It’s a strange thought, when he considers it in the light of day, this complete stranger in his life. Just dreams though. Who gives a monkeys about dreams, eh?
He starts laying sheets in the bathroom. Don’t want to get paint all over their nice tiles. Though god knows what these two have gotten over the tiles themselves. Doesn’t bear thinking about. Bloody poofs. Still, think about the money, Alan, he tells himself. He sets his ladder up and watches the little queer out of the corner of his eye. Look at him, prancing around, watering flowers like that…
James cups the head of the lily in his hand and inspects it critically. Yes, coming along nicely. It’s his one small contribution to all of this. Sometimes, it grates a little. Sometimes, it’s too much. He’s like another trophy, like the car and the pool and the bowling alley. Something to show off to his business partners. But he can’t complain. After all, he hasn’t paid for a thing in three years. He has a life of leisure. He can grow his lilies and please himself. And it’s not as if the Man of the House – as James likes to think of him – even minds if he really does please himself, with others or not. As long as he gets what he wants from him the rest of the time, everybody was happy.
Is he happy? He walks down the curving stairs, trailing a hand along the exquisite mahogany bannister. Is that a fleck of paint? Probably from when that man was doing the ceiling. He scratches it off with a fingernail and looks back towards the guest bathroom. He’s whistling now. A big fat man, in his home, just doing his job. And the Man of the House hadn’t even told him about it. One day he’d just shown up in his horrible little van, like from Only Fools and Horses. He watches him for a moment through the open door. A dirty, smelly fat man. For a second the idea of seducing him occurs to him. What if the painter man is secretly gay? There is a certain thrill in the idea of being degraded by someone so repulsive. James is always up for a new adventure. But then he imagines the sweaty workman peeling off his dirty overalls, revealing a pasty white expanse of flesh, and his nascent arousal fades instantly. No, no that won’t do at all. He likes his men tall, lean, handsome with dark, smouldering eyes. Like the Man of the House, more or less, although no one has ever lived up to the fantasy in his mind, the perfect figure of his dreams. Literally. Every night the same face. James has long ago given up wondering who he is. It’s enough that he’s always there, unlike a certain someone.
He skips down the stairs, resolving to try to have a good day today. The weather isn’t so bad, he sees through the tall windows that look out onto the garden. He could have a lazy day by the pool. Or invite some friends round, assuming they haven’t all fled the country ahead of autumn. But then he remembers the fat man again and despairs. It’s not fair. He doesn’t even want the place painted – it makes everything smell, and he can’t even go in half the rooms for a day while everything dries, not to mention having some wobbling jelly of a man stomping around his supposed home – but would the Man of the House ever ask him about it? No, James might as well be furniture for all the attention he was paid sometimes. His phone rings as he moves through to the huge open plan kitchen thinking about his flowers again and, when he sees it’s his boyfriend he almost doesn’t answer, but…
Max gets off the phone and heads back into the meeting room. He just wanted to hear his boyfriend’s voice. It gives him a rush of confidence knowing he’s back at home, waiting for him, keeping the bed warm. He thinks of the gift he’s bringing back and how his eyes will light up when he sees it. He likes to make him happy. It’s why he’s here, with these people. He doesn’t want to be, but money doesn’t grow on trees now, does it?
“Welcome back,” the man with the crew cut and the blue suit, about two decades out of fashion, says with a sardonic curl of his lip as Max comes back into the airy conference room. Max doesn’t like him. His friend the General is no better. Americans. He doesn’t trust them, even if the sight of a man in uniform is always welcome. The General is a craggy silver fox with twinkling eyes and a lantern jaw. Like GI Joe post-retirement. He thinks about trying to fuck him, but decides that’s definitely not on the cards. They dislike him as much as he does them, but he’s the one with the parts they need. He’s the supplier, they’re the buyer. Best to remember that. He sits at the table and folds his hands in front of him. “Sorry about that, chaps. Just had to call the little lady.” They smile at that. No need for them to know the details. Let them think he was a good family man like them. What was it they said over here? As American as mom’s apple pie? Yeah. Like American’s don’t suck dick with the best of them. Don’t ask don’t tell though, right, boys? “Now where were we?”
“We were talking about shipments,” Blue Suit says, “you think you can meet the demand?”
“I’m confident we can satisfy all your needs.” Fuck, stop chatting them up, Max.
“And you really think your tech can do the job?” The General’s voice is like tumbling gravel.
“You’ve seen the specs, gentlemen.” He gestures to the printouts they have in front of them. “This is cutting edge software.”
“We don’t want any more failures,” Blue Suit says. “Our last suppliers could only guarantee forty percent accuracy.”
“Our tests have shown a fifty percent improvement over that.” Max is good at spinning figures. That’s why his house is so huge, and why he’s here now, across an ocean, dealing with men wearing uniforms like this. They think he means ninety percent overall accuracy, but that’s not actually what he said. Double-talk like that is useful here. He’s not trying to make the sale – he’s confident that’s in the bag already – just trying to cover his arse when things go wrong. And they will go wrong. Best not to think about that though. He spreads his hands and grins. “At the risk of hurrying you along, gentlemen, do you think we can do a deal here today?”
They exchange a look. The General looks like he was probably dark and sexy twenty years ago. A little like Max. So he was his own type – is that crime? He always loved men with dark hair. Tall, muscular, maybe with a beard. Sort of a Hugh Jackman type. Like the guy who was always flitting in and out of his dreams. A funny thing to think of just now, his old recurring dream about the dark-haired man. Blue Suit nods. “I think we can probably do business today.”
Max beams. “Won-derful.” He catches the General’s eye. Hm. He knew that look. Maybe there was something there after all…
General Pratchett zips up his flies as he ducks out of the bathroom stall. No need to look back and see the damage. First rule of soldiering. This kind of soldiering anyway. That pretty English boy is the furthest thing from his mind now. This might be the age of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’s repeal, but he has a wife and sons to think about. He composes himself and steps out into the corridor. Job done. He smirks at his own joke. Back in his office, everything is orderly. That’s part of the façade of war, he thinks to himself. Keep everything neat and tidy on the outside. Don’t let the men on the ground see that you shake as bad as they do when the bombs start falling. There’s a knock on his door and he looks up, surprised. It’s late at night. Hardly anyone even knows he’s in the building. “Come in,” he barks. A soldier walks in. Not exactly unusual, although he’s still surprised when he sees a woman in that uniform. She looks pale and scared. Of him? Hard to say. “Corporal?” he asks, clocking her stripes.
“Sir.” She salutes smartly.
“What can I do for you?”
“I…I wondered if I could talk to you, sir.”
“Talk to me? Where’s your CO?”
“Off duty, sir. And this…this is important.”
“All right.” He indulges her. He likes to think he’s an approachable commander. “At ease. Sit down.”
She takes the seat on the other side of his desk, a little nervously.
“Well. What is it?”
“I…” She starts and stops a few times. He waits patiently. “I have a question.”
“What about it?”
“I’m starting to feel…to feel a little bit…”
He knows where this is going. She isn’t the first one to come to him like this, stammering and scared, like she’s got shellshock. Easy to forget the war being fought in this building is actually being waged thousands of miles away. “You’re feeling uncomfortable, is that it?”
She looks relieved. “Yes, sir. It just feels so…callous…sometimes.”
“Well it’s war, corporal. Did you think it’d be sunshine and fucking lollipops?” He smiles to let her know he’s joking.
“No, but…it’s…impersonal…it feels sort of…”
“Sort of what?”
“I don’t know,” she says weakly.
“I do,” he tells her. He turns slightly in his chair and points to the two cavalry sabres crossed over the hearth. “See those swords?”
Her gaze follows where he’s pointing. “Yeah…”
“I was trained to fight with a sword like that. They’re not just for show. Long story.” He gives her a wink. “The fella who taught me, he told me something very strange the first day of lessons.”
“He said, ‘Private Pratchett,’ because I was still a wet-behind-the-ears rookie like you then, corporal, see. He said, ‘Private Pratchett, you’ve probably heard a lot of shit about being one with the blade. Well let me tell you that’s a pile of bullcrap. Don’t ever be one with the blade. The blade’s a killing tool. The blade is as heavy as your duty to your goddamn country is, and don’t you ever forget that for a second.” He turns to her and speaks gently. “This isn’t easy, corporal. But you’re defending something bigger than yourself. When they talk about service to the country, you think they just mean giving up your life? Getting your legs blown off in Iraq? That’s not the half of it, my dear. You’ll sacrifice the one thing you never thought you could lose doing this job: your soul. That’s the deal, you see. You’ve got this duty and it’s gonna press down on you until there’s nothing left of you but the uniform.”
She screws up her face, all confused. “How does that help me, sir?”
“It means what you’re feeling is normal, corporal,” he says softly, “it means this is what you’re supposed to go through doing this.”
“Oh. I…I suppose that helps…”
She leaves, maybe a little hesitantly, and he watches her go, until the door closes and he’s just staring at nothing. He thinks about the man back in the bathroom. He was a looker all right. Dark and steely. Literally the man of his dreams. Damndest thing, that. He looked just like the man he dreamt about so often. No wonder he’d taken such a shine to him back in that conference room. General Pratchett sits back in his chair, thinking of past glories, both on and off the battlefield…
This is Corporal Clarke’s battlefield. The screen of a computer. She never asked to do this. She’s supposed to be a soldier. She wanted to serve her country, and she always thought it would be in some desert somewhere, dodging bullets and stepping over IEDs. Not like this. She’s in a dark little room, with a complex interface in front of her. Perversely, the main control looks like a joystick. Some of the guys, they treat it like it’s a videogame too. They could be playing Call of Duty for how seriously they take it all. But those aren’t polygons and AI-controlled sprites out there. They’re people. At first she’d thought it was simple. Fly in, kill the bad guys, save America. That’s before the news got wise to what they were doing and started reporting on the effects of the remote strikes. She’d argued with her family about it. What did they know? They weren’t putting their lives in danger for their country. It wasn’t till later that it occurred to her that she wasn’t either.
She’s safe here. Safe, thousands of miles away from the explosions and the terrorists. They can’t retaliate. It’s like splatting bugs. That’s why they call it what they do. She blinks. She’s tired, but she’s on duty. The camera doesn’t show much. It’s just grainy radar images. Targets highlighted on the interface. Guide it in, let rip, fly back to base. She knows the numbers. She knows exactly how many terrorists she’s killed. Well. It’s all complicated by definitions, of course. No one quite knows what a ‘terrorist’ is after all. The Irish were terrorists, back in the Eighties. Her family in Boston, they actually fundraised for the IRA. Doesn’t seem so funny now, that. But she has the number in her head. Triple figures. Deaths she’s responsible for. They say these things have pinpoint accuracy, but she can’t tell a lot from the screen, not once the flashes start coming in and screw with all the sensor equipment. She has to trust her superiors, because without that the whole thing becomes meaningless. And the General’s words are still bouncing around her head. Not her life, not her body, but her soul. That’s what she’s choosing to give up. The danger is more real for her than anyone probably understood.
She knows that’s bullshit. She’s safe. At worst, she’s going to come out with a little PTSD. Down there, thousands of miles away, in some village in the mountains of a hot, dry country, there’s blood running down the streets. There’s craters she made, strewn with limbs and other body parts. There’s orphaned kids. What can she do though? She has orders. She has to believe she’s killing the bad guys, that this is all for the good of America. Death from the skies, in the name of freedom. She was in New York when the towers fell. She knows terror. She knows what she’s fighting for. And what did the General say anyway? It’s like a sword. A weapon. You gotta separate yourself from it. You gotta treat it like what it is: a burden. And the thing with burdens is, eventually you don’t have to carry them anymore. After this shift is over, she’ll go back to bed, she’ll dream about the Mystery Man, like always, and she’ll wake up safe and warm. That’s something to hold onto. She swoops the craft low over a hill and a target lights up ahead. She doesn’t even register the decision to press the button to fire; it’s instinct after all these months…
Zoha is very small for her age, but big enough to understand what’s going on. A drone. She’s heard people talking about them before, but never seen it with her own eyes. Well today that changed. Above her the sky is perfect and blue. The sun warms her skin and prickles at the hair on her arms. She’s keenly aware of everything that’s going on around her. People are crying and shouting. Someone has a gun and is firing it into the air. The sound barely makes her flinch now. In the ruins of the village square, some people are trying to gather the bodies, assemble them like bits of a jigsaw and give them a proper burial. Zoha doesn’t think about who was there. No one knows where her grandmother and grandfather are. They were going to the market and now the market is gone. Her mother is frantic and her little brother is crying in her arms. She just stares at the carnage, thinking nothing in particular. The warm breeze coming off the mountains sends the dust spiralling into the air. High in the sky there’s a little black speck – is it the American robot that killed them, or just a bird? Zoha didn’t see it happen, just heard the explosion. She fiddles with the hem of her dress. Her legs are brown and spindly. From where she stands near the edge of the crowd she can see the bloody remains of a leg just like hers. A friend’s? Impossible to know. She doesn’t understand why she doesn’t feel anything. Everyone else is weeping or screaming for revenge, or just searching desperately in the rubble for missing friends and family.
A man walks out of the dust. He’s carrying a black shape. Zoha doesn’t understand the significance immediately as her mother falls to her knees and begins to beat wretchedly at the ground. It’s her grandmother. She’s in one piece, but half of her body is covered in blood and she doesn’t move. Zoha doesn’t react. She just stares. This is the first time someone close to her has died. What remains of her grandmother is placed down before her crying mother and she watches as her family converges on the sorry scene. Everyone in the village is mourning someone it seems. Zoha doesn’t mourn. She feels angry, not sad.
On the edge of the square, a group of men are gathering. They’re the ones with the guns. They look angry too. They remind her of the Prophet. She sees him in her dreams at night, with his eyes like burning brands. Once she tried to draw him, to explain to her mother, but was told that was forbidden. Never mind: it was enough to have the dreams. She understands the meaning of that fury in his gaze now. Slowly, she walks over to the men, to find out what they plan to do about all this…
She blinks. “Huh? What?”
Her girlfriend is staring at her. “I’ve been speaking to you!”
“What? Oh. Sorry. I was just miles away then.”
“I could tell. Are you all right?” She looks concerned.
Cara nods. The man in the spattered overalls at the counter pays the spotty boy for his bacon sandwich and takes a seat. “Sorry. Can we go?”
“I finished my tea ages ago.”
Cara looks down at her own mug. As good as empty. She can see the unstirred sugar sitting soggily at the bottom as she tilts it. “Yeah, sure. We’ve got a holiday to enjoy!”
Her girlfriend beams. Cara feels a little sick. Sometime in the next two weeks, she just knows she’ll have to tell her she’s fallen out of love with her. It’s going to be a nightmare.