by Matthew Barker

Deep breath
Be aware
Cut out the pain at its source
Sink back into the soft sweet damp grass
Smile as silence and relief pulse steadily down your face
Delightfully deaf, deliciously devoid of sonic airwaves reception
See how their funny little mouths gape

Ray woke abruptly, his temples tingling with static. He removed his Walkman's headphones and stopped the tape. Again he had no recollection of the previous two hours. Always the same.

He reached for his cigarettes. Still got the craving. The tape had been a waste of money; hypnotic suggestion, guaranteed 100% success rate. He'd have given up on it by now if it hadn't cost so much. If he had a job, his time would be occupied, and his mind. Not that many people were employed. Self improvement was the fad. Some government scheme to occupy the restless unemployed.

Ray noticed the television flickering silently in the corner of the room. He must have forgotten to turn it off before he listened to the tape. It was a news bulletin, some tanned beauty waxing lyrical on the decay of the fashion scene in Bosnia. Cutaways of unfashionably garbed bodies lay in heaps in pits, punctuating her pleas for the affluent West to send more aid. He flicked the channels until he found one running infomercials and then turned the sound up. One of his favourites, 'RoncoRider', lots of bare flesh and pelvises pumping towards the camera in order to demonstrate 'The total tonal fitness apparatus'.

Kath in the flat next door had one. Ray had dreams about her inviting him in to watch her work out. Not that she ever would, much too aspirant to be even seen talking to him. He'd once gone round to borrow some milk. He'd seen it done in one of those classic commercials they reran on 'Bravo' every so often. She jumped out of her skin when she opened the door and saw him standing there leaning against the frame. Looked like she'd just got of the shower as well. He had been tempted to barge right in there and..... Rape they used to call that, now it was violation. They'd introduced much more evocative names for crimes recently. He'd demurred mainly because he was one of the few in the apartment block who was still classified as law abiding. There were days though when he yearned to be destructive.

Those were the days when he deviated from the norm anyway. The days when he ignored Council directives. Not today though. First thing, he'd had his milk supplement, cereal supplement, decaf supplement and the newly enforced docility supplement. Sometimes when he required the extra edge, if for example he planned to do some painting, he would save his supply and take a double or triple dose afterwards to celebrate. Then he would find a new edge, hanging far above the city bathing in the light pollution as it stretched towards him tracing webs around his clammy skin. Barbiturate exception rules seemed to cater for the bread margins.

No more than two
Sedition breeds in loquaciousness

Ray shook his head sure he was going off the rails. That was the only drawback with the docility supplement. He'd read that in some cases there were side effects. People hearing voices, being told to do things. Ray heard voices, it's just that most of the time he failed to understand them. It seemed that they were in a different language. Not that he told anybody about them. Bad things happened to people who admitted to having problems. Nothing had changed in that sense for years. He'd read books about prophets who'd claimed to have direct lines to higher beings. Quite deservedly they'd been persecuted for the madmen they were. Deities were a thing of the past.

He looked at his watch, almost noon. Not much time. At noon it was time to listen to his Self Confidence tape. All these tapes, and not one of them seemed to change a thing. A nation reliant on pocketbook psychology. If Ray left the building he lived in it was only to check his mail box. On the occasions he mustered up the courage to look out onto the street whilst doing this he wouldn't see a soul. Like one of those photographs of the nuclear test site in Trinity. A dead city. Families were split up because the members became too claustrophobic to live in the same rooms as each other. Ray found it difficult to think of anybody who shared their life with another person; but then Ray found it difficult to think at the best of times. Relationships were sexually or career motivated, to the best of his knowledge. Knowledge gleaned from the Mexican skinoperas that ran almost 24hrs a day on most channels.

Automatically at noon his hands slotted the confidence tape into his Walkman and pressed play. Ray raised the head phones over his ears and...

The planet is polluted
The ozone layer is depleted
Safer to stay indoors
The natural unit is one
No more than two
Television is safe
Contact allows disease to spread
Docility is desirable

Something was wrong. Ray snapped to with such a sense of loneliness that he could feel tears welling in his eyes. He wiped them away confused. The self confidence tape must have had an effect on him. For the first time ever he felt he wanted someone else's company. He felt different.

Kath Williams put the chain across the door and teased it open a fraction. "Who is it?" she said, the words sounding strange even to herself.

"It's me, Ray Trayse. You know, your next door neighbour." Kath thought he sounded tense, she'd heard stories about guys who just flipped out and started killing people indiscriminately. There was that man on the news last night who went crazy downtown and started slicing his neighbour's tongues out with a steak knife.

"What do you want?" Through the slit in the door frame she could see his eyes. The way they reflected her striplit apartment made them wild and over dilated. She didn't like the fact that they seemed to be searching for her eyes. As if once they made contact she too would be consumed with the same sickness.

"I don't know," he paused and then a little calmer, "I just want some company. I don't think I can cope on my own."

"I thought I had made myself clear about my feelings towards you sexually Ray." She tried to remain aloof. She'd seen the way he looked at her in the hallway. Always at her breasts or her crotch. Or she would feel his eyeballs slipping off her behind as she walked to the lift.

"What, "Ray almost choked," what the hell are you talking about you crazy bitch." He pushed on the door a little, if she could see him she would notice how upset he was.

Kath felt the chain giving and strained to push the door to, "Get away you pervert." Her voice hissed from between her lips as she struggled to keep him out of her apartment, "If you don't stop right now I'll scream." She felt Ray give up the fight and heard him slide down the wall outside.

He sat in the hallway cradling his head wondering what had come over him. He could be arrested for what he'd just done. Dragged away to who knows where, never to be heard of again. He became aware of movement further down the hall and looked up. All down the corridor heads were peering round door frames, frightened eyes regarding him like some madman. They're all scared of me, he thought, how can I scare them when I'm afraid to even look them in the face myself. We all look at each other like we were rabbits caught in the headlights of a lorry. He shouted down the corridor, "It's all over, go back to your tapes and TV I'm not going to slit your throats, not tonight anyway."

The doors all shut as one leaving Ray on his own again. A freakshow with no audience. Kath's door slammed, jolting him back into lucidity and he pulled himself to his feet. He could hear Kath breathing through the door. She still stood on the other side. Over and over he whispered to her, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

For what seemed hours he stood there in the hall, shaking like a leaf and whispering until he was hoarse. He finally composed himself and retired back to his flat to listen to his relaxation tapes.

The Government has your best interests at heart
Sex is solely for pleasure
And now sleep

The next morning, still feeling remorse about his behaviour the previous evening, Ray allowed himself a double dose of docility. He sank into his armchair and stared at the cathode ray images that lit up his flat. Mexican actors drifted from room to room in imaginary hotels rutting and sweating their way through each floor. I feel nothing, he thought. I feel nothing because I'm not allowed anything to feel. Is this all there is? Sterile sex and loneliness. He closed his eyes but could still see the Mexican's bulging eyes and contorted features as he struggled to reach his climax. Desperate to get it all over with, before the faceless breasts and legs beneath him began to shudder and moan. Ray heard him grunt and imagined him rolling out of her, pulling his trousers up and moving on to the next room. Yesterday he'd have been glued to the set but today it failed to arouse him.

At noon without thought he reached for his self confidence tape and fed it into his Walkman. He stopped. Perhaps it was the wrong tape. Perhaps it triggered something off in him yesterday. What if there had been a mix up at the governmental self help department and he'd been sent the wrong tape. If he hadn't have lost control he might never have known. It was too much to risk. He had to report the mistake to someone.

There was a Report Fone in the hall. Ray poked his head out into the hall to check if the coast was clear. He couldn't have dealt with confronting one of his neighbours after last night. He began to walk down the hall and realized just how quiet the building was. Two thousand people lived here and the only sound was that of the building. The air conditioning breathing in to feed all of its parts, the striplights buzzing softly and little knocks and scrapes echoing up from the machinery in the basement. Although it must always be this way, today it worried him. By the time he was at the Fone his hands were clammy and his vision slightly blurred.

Ray wiped his hands on his trousers and picked up the Fone.

"Giving yourself up?" He turned and saw Kath had come out of the lift.

"No I'm reporting a faulty self help tape, they must have sent me the wrong one."

"You listen to those things?" Kath sounded amazed.

Ray was confused, "Doesn't everybody, it's in your best interests to better yourself so that we can all live in harmony. What are you laughing at?"

"You sound like one of those adverts." He sneered and turned his attention back to the Fone. Kath reached across and pushed down the receiver, "No Ray, don't."

"Why not?"

"Because they will come and take you away. Do you think you're the first person to flip out because of the tapes? You've already shown signs of instability, they won't risk it happening again." She turned the key in her door and entered beckoning Ray in behind.

"What so different about me today that I'm allowed inside?"

"Nothing, I couldn't stand by and watch anybody hand themselves over to the government. Come on." She led the way into her flat. Inside it was almost bare. The RoncoRider was in one corner, her bed in the opposite; and nothing else.

"Where's your TV?"

She stood in front of him, unable to meet his eyes, "I don't have one Ray."

"Your Walkman?" She shook her head.

"We don't need those things Ray, they only stifle us, prevent us from functioning properly."

"No that's not true, they are why we do function properly. If we didn't have them society would be anarchic." He paused to compose his thoughts, "Is that what you are, an anarchist? That's why you didn't want me to use the Fone, they'd come round and ask you awkward questions. You'd be taken away, not me. Is that true?"

"Yes it's true Ray, but I'm no anarchist and you'd be in just as much danger as me. We just believe...."

"We.... is it some kind of group?" Ray was scared, he wondered if he was implicated already. The government must keep an eye on suspected dissidents. What if he was mistaken for being a member of Kath's group?

"Listen to me Ray, the way we live, cooped up, frightened of our own shadows. It's unnatural. Man used to work outdoors, gather in groups, have loving relationships with each other. We have proof that our ancestors didn't live like us. The tapes suppress us. People in our group have analyzed them. They send you into a trance so deep you can be conditioned to think differently, to comply without question. The government is able to be in control without anyone making a single complaint."

"No you're wrong, the government has our best interests at heart."

"Am I? Where did you hear that Ray? You're sounding like an advert again."

She was further gone than Ray had originally imagined. However he saw a way to win favour with the Council. He could be personally responsible for the capture of an anarchist group. If he could convince Kath that he believed her, he could infiltrate one of their meetings. They'd reward him well for that.

"Ray, are you okay?", she looked worried.

"I'm just scared Kath. Is this true?"

"Yes. I'm sorry Ray." She lifted his face and looked into his eyes, "come with me tonight and I'll prove it to you."

* * * * *

Ray shivered as a cold breeze blew up the alleyway. It had taken them two hours to reach the door they were now stood outside. Ray had been difficult to convince that it was perfectly safe outside in the open. Twice government patrol vehicles had passed by on their way here. Both times Kath had pulled them both into a puddle of shadow and held him tightly until they had gone by, and then when the coast was clear they'd broken cover and run to the next patch of darkness. And now they were here.

Kath rapped on the door with her knuckles. From the concentration on her face it was obviously as precise as a military tattoo. She stood back and waited in the open with Ray. "Are you nervous?"

"A little." That was a lie, he felt as if at any moment he might drop quivering to the floor. He started to say something else but the door opened and he was stunned into silence. Kath took his hand and led him into a darkened corridor. He was aware of the presence of someone else with them and it made him uneasy.

No more than two

They came to a velvet curtain draped across the corridor and Kath turned to him. "Close your eyes Ray, they won't be accustomed to the light. Only open them when I tell you to. Do you understand?" Ray nodded and closed his eyes.

Kath took him by the hand and led him through in to the room. He felt the velvet brush over his face and then......He didn't know what he felt. It was a completely alien sensation. He could hear a faint buzzing all around him, echoing as if in a cavern, and although he had his eyes scrunched tightly together pinpricks of white light were finding their way through, disorientating him. His stomach started to churn as it slowly dawned on him what the buzzing noise was. It was a sound that he had never heard before and it both excited and scared him. It was people talking. He just knew it. He could wait no longer, he opened his eyes.

And screamed dropping to the floor. There must have been almost two hundred people in one room. How did they cope. With sight came the full realization of sound. The noise was unbearable. It tore into his brain shredding it, pounding on his eardrums and raking its fingernails over his nerve endings. He had to stop it, had to do something.

Cut out the pain at its source

He wasn't the freak. They were. The human mind was never designed to cope with so much information. That's why the government advised them all that

The natural unit is one
Cut out the pain at its source

Ray Trayse pressed his forefingers in his ear canal, blocking the pain. Then automatically, as if programmed into his being he forced them further. A helicopter roared inside his head as the tips of his fingers touched his eardrums, and then a pop, and then nothing.

Silence pumped down his face and he fell on his back. Faces crowded over him silently mouthing questions and frantically calling out to each other. Ray laughed at how comical they all looked and something in his mind snapped.

Delightfully deaf, deliciously devoid
See how their funny little mouths gape

Story Page back to the Short Story Page.

Autosuggestion, 1 January 1997