no longer an exclusively vicarious one.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Fractured Listless. Chapter 3

“Slowly I realised I was not really Donald Duck. But this realisation brought no change in my surroundings.”
- Rudy Rucker
Josephine trudged along the kerb, arms out and head down, concentrating on keeping her balance and trying hard not to topple over the side. Neighbours gave her odd, sidelong glances, but they kept to themselves. No one really talked to each other on the street, and even though she had grown up in the same squat, grey cement-rendered house all her life, she still didn’t know the names of some of the kids across the road. Her life was her house, her train, her school. Not much else happened and she had never really been anywhere else. Social lives were not something encouraged by Society. It was much more preferable to do well at school and never go outside, ever. Josephine swung her left arm out to keep her balance, looking up to see a car speed past. She looked back at her feet again and returned to her musings. But even home was just a house. There was no friendly atmosphere to return to, more like a carefully precise ambivalence. She jumped back as a big black beetle scuttled down past her right foot, glaring after it like it had done her a mortal injury. Like her day could get any worse.
Art had been horrible. Instead of doing what she had thought they would be doing, the class had been told to go to the library to research some dead artist and his “groundbreaking” new techniques in repetitive digital media as an improvement over the new-age conventions. Whatever. The substitute teacher hadn’t helped matters, what with staring over everybody’s shoulders and trying to suggest websites when it was quite obvious she had no idea what she was talking about. She had an odd name. Something like… Redhart? One of the other girls had said she came from the correctional school two blocks away, and that she taught philosophy there. Josephine had spent most of the lesson groaning about something or another, with her head resting on one hand and a stylus loosely twirling around her fingers. Even the substitute knew better than to tell her off.
So she had caught the train home in a semi-stupor, simply grunting or murmuring assent in response to anybody’s cautious enquiries. And now, walking down the hot street to her house right at the end of the no-through road, Josephine’s mind had jumped to other things. In fact, it was exploring another world altogether. A world that she thought she had handed in to her mad teacher that morning. A world created by her in a fit of self-enforced creativity that she thought she was rid of, but now was actively furnishing within her own mind. A world inhabited by one lost girl in one small room.
Blink.
Leshala draws a deep breath and flexes her fingers. Blinking away the afterimage burnt onto her retinas, she stares critically at the screen of the humming computer. It glares back at her, unfeeling, uncaring. She raises a challenging eyebrow, then quickly shakes her head, glancing about to check if anyone has seen her strange behaviour.
Not that anyone is watching, she thinks grimly. Not that anyone would care.
Another breath, then a brief frown and she pushes back the rickety chair, quickly striding to the window. It isn’t a real window, not one that you can see out of, but the fantastic painted image of a palace in the middle of a place she somehow knows is called Xanadu comforts her even though she knows it isn't real. She taps on the dusty glass, staring at the garish 2-D rendition of a row of fluorescent green palm trees on either side of a winding river.
Grinning ruefully at her careful self-delusion, she turns around, for the thousandth time, surveying her kingdom.
It is a small, square room, and with the lights on, she can see all the cracks in the paint on the walls, as well as a cluster of dead flies that someone has thoughtfully swept into a corner.
A padded white desk covers one wall (no sharp corners, she thinks darkly), and an old clunky computer that makes more noise than she would have given it credit sits obstinately atop it. Opposite her workstation, she looks over a low mattress, tangled in off-white sheets that smelled...
Like old nightmares, she murmurs as she lifts them to press against her face.
Deciding against wasting her time folding them, she flings them into a corner and wanders into the doorless adjoining bathroom.

Chrome toilet without a seat, tick.
Rusting metal sink without hot water, tick.
Yellowing shower stall without a curtain, tick.
Twice-used towel hanging off a cracked plastic rail, tick.

No mirror, they don't think she needs one, and they are right in that. Her appearance is just about the last thing on her mind, but they did provide a chunky plastic cup, with handles and edges painted with flowers, to serve as her toiletries cupboard - plastic comb, old toothbrush, half-empty toothpaste tube and a matching pump bottle of some brandless liquid soap she is meant to slather over her body to cleanse herself of the settling dust. She'd never touched the stuff.
Satisfied with the state of the amenities, she gravitates back towards the creaky wooden chair. One of its legs is too short, so it tends to rock backwards and forwards, the splintered leg tap-tapping at the linoleum whenever it reached the floor. She sits with a jerk, and scrapes the chair to the desk. The computer is still staring obnoxiously at her, so she makes a face at it and slowly swivels her head to the only door in the four-sided room. She still hasn’t been able to get used to the idea that it doesn’t have a doorknob. It looks …wrong somehow. Unfinished. The moment she had awakened in this room, Leshala knew the place had never been designed to let you out. If you ever found yourself inside, you could be sure that it was a one-way ticket system. There is no lock, no handle, no clasp on the inside. All power was given over to Them.
Yes, capital "T", she mutters.
But she has never found the stub of her ticket. She doesn't know if her entry had been voluntary, or not. It is one of the things she can't remember. No, that isn't fair. It is one of the things she chooses not to remember. She doesn't know why, and she doesn't particularly care, but she has the sinking feeling that ignorance really is bliss in this case. If she ever finds out why she is inside, she would probably spend the rest of her time trying, and failing, to claw her way out of her prison - and what for?
Since coming in, she has been comfortable, well-looked after and no one has tried to harm her. And if she hasn't seen a single soul for the duration, well, she can't honestly say that she minds all that much. People have always perplexed her anyway. Besides, she has her computer to talk to. All in all, she prefers this life over the old mystery that lay somewhere in the past. Why complain?
The computer starts its whirring, louder this time, as if to grab her attention.
She turns back to her recalcitrant instrument and sets her fingers on the keyboard. They go straight to their corresponding positions like fighter planes in attack formation. She grins, a fearless grimace more than a smile, and begins to type.
“Dawn on a dusty road. The sun slowly rising from the ashes of the previous day, here to give sustenance to a band of weary travellers. A convoy of what had once been gaily-coloured caravans, but which were now tattered and patched buckets of metal, creaking and shuddering as they made their dreary way through their dreary world.
Only shades of brown remained to show for all the years of travel and endless journey. All the joy and the pain, the excitement of a new place and the grief at leaving what could have possibly become their home. All of these emotions and events, and what was there to show for it? A broken line of broken men, encased in a shield from the world, a shield that was now cracking.”
Morbidly impressed with her own imagination, Leshala pauses and reads over her work. How depressing, she thinks. Were they never happy?
“Once, the drivers and their families had been full of hope for a new world they would help create. They spoke with passion and conviction for a future they had genuinely believed in. Their numbers had swelled, and their faith was strong. At every passing town, their vision found knew eyes, and their mission found new followers. People flocked to them like reflective metal objects to magnets. The miles between counted for nothing when they knew of the prize they would find at the end. There was a fascination that no one was immune to, and, all-unknowing, these men and women preyed on this for their own, selfless gain. Their innocence, their happiness and their fervour all combined to create an image of a group of people untouched by the ways of the real world. The cynical, new-age –”
New-age?
Leshala squints as an odd memory floats to the front of her mind. A webpage, filled with purple and yellow and every colour in between. Something about an artist, seemingly irrelevant, but here:
New Age: adj. Of or relating to a complex of spiritual and consciousness-raising movements originating in the 1980s and covering a range of themes.
She scratches her ear absently, as an impatient thought enters her mind. It’s not very new then, is it?
“- populace lined up to partake in this ignorance. And so, this nameless troupe of evangelistic believers had wound their way through the harsh countryside, never wanting for food, or water, or shelter. Anyone they met was more than happy to give them the clothes off their back or the water in their tanks. It was not charity they lived off, and yet, they weren’t exactly conning these people out of their possessions. They simply believed so faithfully in their cause, that they could not see a different way. There was no other life, any alternate way of living. They couldn’t understand the heartbreak, the raw emotional anguish of what everyone else called life.
Until now.
Now, they truly saw through the multicoloured lenses they had forced over their eyeballs for so long. Their way was broken. Nonexistent. Nothing.
It had begun when they had mistakenly ventured too close to the city on one of their journeys. The sun had shone at a different angle, and their listless feet had led them too close to the din and chaos hidden behind the obscurity of smoke. The smoke of a thousand fires, a thousand passions and a thousand voices raised in a silent cry for help. They had forgotten the pact made all those years ago, a pact that said that those in the cities were beyond their help, beyond even seeing their visions. All of this had been thrown to the wind in a moment of unthinking, and as the sun ascended and cleared their vision, they saw the terrible truth. Their eyes were forced open and they witnessed the true horror and despair of the world they had tried to escape.
There, in the ashes of what had once been ironically called the "New Utopia" by some melodramatic news reporter, lay the hordes of the wraithlike shadows called "people". Among the paper-thin silvery walls of the city the travellers could see the hundreds of thousands of little figures in pointed suits and grey toupees rushing around in neat rows, as though they were on some sort of conveyor belt. They saw the flashing lights and stop signs that surrounded the hardworking ants on their daily routine. They heard, even though they were too small to see with the naked eye from this distance, all the tinny beeps and whirrs of all the electronic gadgetry that each and every individual of the "New Utopia" simply could not live without. They were so connected, via cables and satellites, that they did not know true individuality. They had not a single original thought within their own minds. Separated from the harsh, hot desert of a world outside their shining domes that they seemed unable to see, these “people” didn’t seem to realise that they should be unhappy, that they were being blinded. But on their trips in the underground tunnels that connected all the plexi-glassed towns and cities, they never had time to think about how they felt. They were too busy.
And it was thus that the listless people’s vision lay broken. This was how their way of life, their intrinsic belief was fractured. How could they possibly survive outside this interwoven mesh of being? Their way was impossible - worse, it had never been possible. It was a mirage that they had created to explain away the thoughts they sometimes had in their heads. What were thoughts? They could not get a person job security or a partner to live with and share income with. A thought nowadays was a useless spark of electricity caught in the synapses of the brain. It could not put food on the table or a roof over your head. There was simply no time for thoughts now. Everyone was busy doing...something. Everyone was busy doing some little thing to keep the world going. Who could possibly compete with that kind of mindset?
The wanderers realised that they could never do this, so they had hung their collective head and turned tail, their listless feet fleeing back to the unforgiving desert that welcomed them with open arms. Here, they could at least try to forget all that they had seen. Or so they thought.
Slowly, one by one, their numbers had lessened. With every passing town, they lost another, and another, until only the original, the most faithful remained. But even they knew they had reached the end, even they were broken beyond redemption. Their cause was as much dust as that which covered the never-ending landscape stretching before them. Their futility was as tangible as the red rust that encrusted their giant mobile homes. The flocks of people that had once gathered around to hear them tell their amazing stories of hope and joy, now sat on their porches and watched with dark eyes as the caravans slowly inched their way past them. Eyes once brilliant with the sparkle of prophecy and expectation were now shielded and dim, clouded by disbelief and cynicism. The spark that was the last hope of salvation had been put out with unnecessary buckets of icy cold truth. And as those unfeeling watchers had labelled them so many years ago, they truly became the Fractured Listless."
Leshala smiled, sad and true, at the resonance of her story. She knew it was a figment of her complex and troubled mind, but there was something about it that she felt comfortable with. Somewhere, out in the world beyond her sealed door, her story might be true.
Josephine shuddered and stepped out of her nightmarish daydream, even as she heard echoes of gleeful laughter follow her out. What was this world that she had witnessed? Was it her creation? Or was it this Leshala’s? Shaking her head in frustration, Josephine stepped up to the front door of her grey house and walked in. She swore to herself that there was to be no more of this Leshala nonsense. She would get a decent night’s sleep and stop worrying about imaginary worlds and imaginary people.

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