Back in January we put the call out to our readers to send in a short story based on surveillance. After a mammoth number of submissions we're proud to publish the winning story, Twitch by Barry Lee Thompson. Check back here throughout the week to read the four runner-up tales too.
We do what we’re told. We keep our heads down and our noses clean. We go to work and we come home at night on crowded trains, barely able to keep our eyes from closing. Sometimes we attempt to join the dots and make sense of the way our lives are going, but it hurts. It hurts because it doesn’t make much sense, so we tune into the noise around us instead. It’s easier that way. With no time or energy left to attend to proper nourishment, we cram our weary faces with pasty white junk. We iron a shirt for the next day, and then we fall onto our beds, exhausted, into fitful anxiety-ridden sleep, and emerge the next morning to repeat the process. Except I resist. I grab freedom in the small hours, when others sleep, in random anonymous online interactions on adult chat sites. Cam-to-cam. C2C. I watch as men and boys touch and finger and wank and come. I take part, reciprocate, but I never show my face. And I keep my tattoo, my indelible identifier, hidden, angled away from the webcam. I cavort through this nether-world, and it swallows up my nights. But I take from it a steadying sense of control. Perhaps I’m kidding myself. Probably we’re all kidding ourselves.
In recent days I’ve felt even this small uncertain freedom coming under attack. Since the heatwave started, three days ago, I’ve been meeting Fournier out the front, late at night. Both of us seeking cool refuge from our stuffy boxes. When he sees me, he limps round to my side of the fence. Sits next to me on the step, and smokes those cheap tarry cigarettes that smell like garbage skips on fire. And I’m there in just my underwear, tight and white. Semi-hardness outlined darkly through the thin fabric. I look up at the stars, trying to lose myself in the scale of the galaxy. ‘Be careful,’ he said the second night, looking at my moonlit legs. ‘Online sex is turning risky. The laws have blurred.’ He said risky like he was hissing. His stammer, that’s all. But it helped put the wind up me. He told me about the television ad.
Then he sent me the link.
“He sees me chew the loose skin on my lower lip, and tells me that we can’t assume we’re not being watched.” – Barry Lee Thompson
It’s a short piece. A public information film. It begins in a house-lined night-time street, and ends with a man and his computer and peripherals being taken away by an official-looking group in an official-looking car. Seized. The camera pulls back to reveal neighbours coming to their windows and doors. Curtains twitching, faces pinching. Fournier says it’s been on every night for a week or more. Nationwide alarm has been activated. Millions of real curtains have begun to twitch in sedate suburban boxes. Eyes have started to shift sideways. We’re all watching each other now. But the ad is short, and non-specific. What’s the crime? There’s something missing. It bothers me. Fournier says that’s the point – it’s nebulous. A notion that he’s part of the campaign, or in the government’s employ, sidles up to me. I try to shove it away. But it keeps coming back, whispering in my ear, trying to dissolve my trust in him. But in my deep places, I know this is ridiculous. It’s a symptom of the times, of the fear that’s settling inside us all. Really, he’s just warning me. He likes me. So I probe a little. I ask him what he thinks we should be afraid of. He starts talking about metadata. He sees me chew the loose skin on my lower lip, and tells me that we can’t assume we’re not being watched.
I told him months ago that the same men keep recurring on the chat sites. Same faces or bodies or decor. Then, it was just a passing observation. Now he asks me how it can be like that. ‘If there really are so many online,’ he says, ‘why the same ones over and over again?’
He’s right. It’s mysterious. Over ten thousand people online most nights, it says, but sometimes I see the fat man from Malta with the tiny dick and the horse ornaments and the floral wallpaper ten times or more in the space of an hour.
Fournier has begun to conjure shadowy figures that creep through my nightscape. He says his wireless connection has slowed. There’s something there, he says, but it’s not declaring itself. There are oddities in the patterns. He’s learned the patterns, he says. That’s all he’s got time for these days – telly and computer. Sedentary pursuits. Since his knee. He straightens his leg and rubs it.
I look up, and wonder about a white blob in the sky. A planet or star, maybe, but it’s so big and bright. It doesn’t appear to move, but it’s difficult to tell. Fournier reads my mind. ‘Satellite,’ he says. Clicks his tongue and pats my leg with a calloused hand, and heaves himself up. ‘See you tomorrow night,’ he says. He goes back round the fence. ‘Unless the heat breaks,’ he calls.
Fournier’s full of shit, mostly. I’m pretty sure of it. But still, I weigh-up the modem, blinking at me from its corner of the living room. It seems, briefly, that it could be a conduit between this house and that white blob in the sky. An enormous bank of electronic panels opens up in my mind, staffed by uniformed men and women. Reams of metadata is spewing out for interpretation by the computers. They’re waiting for us to slip up. But what’s the offence? I don’t believe anyone knows for sure anymore. I slam my computer lid shut, masturbate quickly, clean up and then fall asleep. I dream of satellites that look like planets, and planets that look like satellites, and the whole galaxy careens and conflates, and I wake jangling and rattling, glazed in a cool sheen that smells of salty dread.