Echoplex – Part One

Part One of my NaNoWriMo effort this year. It’s sci fi, in the cyberpunk tradition of Blade Runner, so advance apologies if sci fic makes you want to gouge you own eyes out. I promise it’s not too sci-fi, and it’s mostly exposition in this segment. Copyright Laura Mauro 2010, etc etc.

 

 

It was January, and accordingly, it was raining.

 

The woman stepped off the bus and into the damp Deptford street. Ankle-deep puddles glowed bright green with the distorted reflections of garish neon shop-signs. A soggy fried chicken box sailed cheerfully past, buoyed by a foamy stream of gutter water.

 

She walked quickly, head down, hair slicked to her face in long black tendrils. Two small children, far too young to be out alone at this time of night, huddled for warmth beneath the bus shelter and watched her with wary eyes as she passed.

 

She made her way up the iron staircase that led to her flat, above the dry cleaners that never opened, and noticed as she did that the house next door had a window smashed, a spider web of cracks radiating out from one neat central hole. Broken glass crackled beneath her feet like gravel. Nice, she thought, opening her own front door.

 

The house was not yet warm, but there was some respite from the cold wind. There was a certain comfort in the dry musty fug that hung in the air, rising up from the threadbare carpet. She fumbled in the dark for the central heating control and shrugged off her damp coat, hanging it over the banister as she went.

 

It wasn’t until she flipped the light switch that she noticed there was a man sitting at her kitchen table.

 

She drew in a sharp breath and he smiled apologetically, as if he was sorry for startling her.

“Held up, were you?” he asked. He spoke in a cut glass accent and held a half-smoked cigarette in one hand. A thin plume of smoke spiralled up toward the ceiling, dissipating as it went. He had commandeered an old saucer as an ashtray. She frowned.

 

“If you must smoke, Mr Maynard, please open the window.” Her tone was careful and measured. The man raised an eyebrow, but opened the window nonetheless, letting in a sharp blast of cold air. He rested his long fingers on the sill, the cigarette hanging loosely between his finger and thumb. He seemed nonplussed by the rain.

 

“Maynard is fine,” he said, amiable.

 

The woman said nothing. She emptied the contents of her pockets out onto the kitchen counter – bus pass, loose change, chapstick – watching from the corner of her eye as the man took a long, theatrical drag on his cigarette.

 

“I think we might have got off on the wrong foot the other night,” he said, stubbing the cigarette out on the window frame. That got her attention. She turned, fixing him with a cold unimpressed stare.

 

“Yes, and breaking into my flat is absolutely the right foot,” she replied.

 

Infuriatingly, Maynard smiled at her. It was the kind of smile that showed just a few too many teeth and erred on the wrong side of ‘cocky’. “It was a necessary evil,” he said, flicking the stub out of the window. “Since you barely gave me the opportunity to explain myself properly, I thought it was only fair you gave me a second chance.”

 

“You could have asked. Normal people do” she said . She was growing less impressed with him by the second, and he must have known it, because his smirk disappeared, and he straightened in his seat.

 

“You would have refused,” he replied. “And that’s my fault. I should have done my research properly; clearly you’re less receptive to flirting than I had been lead to believe.”

 

She sighed, folding her arms across her chest. “I would have refused, because I’m just not interested. Mr Maynard. I don’t think you realise this, but despite not having graduated yet, I have been approached by major corporations willing to offer me a six-figure salary. I turned each of them down. What could you possibly have to offer me?”

 

Maynard grinned, as if pleased with his own audacity. He paused to light a second cigarette while she tapped her fingers impatiently on the counter.

 

“My line of work is…unorthodox.” He offered her the packet, purely a formality. She declined, as he had known she would. “And this is the kind of opportunity a scientist of your calibre can’t refuse.”

 

“Mr Maynard. You have exactly two minutes…” She looked over to the wall clock hanging above the kitchen sink. Twenty to nine. “After which time I will not hesitate to call the police.”

 

“You really are quite tough to crack. But all right. I suppose you’ve heard of Parkview Life Sciences?”

 

She nodded, taking a seat at the other end of the table. The lingering smell of tobacco smoke was unpleasant, and she wondered how long he’d been here, smoking cigarettes in the dark. “They were one of the companies that approached me.”

 

“Good. That speeds things up somewhat.” He inclined his head towards the window, blowing a fine stream of smoke out into the night. Somewhere in the distance, the wail of police sirens sounded, reassuringly familiar. “My client is also familiar with Parkview, intimately so. And therein lies his problem. He is a man of some notoriety, and one of the first to be ‘rehabilitated’. Unfortunately, he has found his rehabilitation most disagreeable. And this is where you come in.”

 

She narrowed her eyes. “If I understand you correctly, then what you’re asking of me can be done by any good surgeon. And if your client is as well connected as he sounds, it should be fairly simple for him to secure their services.” As she spoke, Maynard studied her with practised neutrality, smoking quietly. Far too passive, she thought, and stopped talking.

 

“I need someone more skilled than the average.” He seemed impressed that she’d figured him out. “And, more importantly, someone who isn’t averse to…operations of dubious legality.”

 

“Or good old-fashioned illegality?”

 

He laughed, and did not even try to hide it. “I’ve seen your thesis,” he said, and despite his genial tone the admission seemed unbearably creepy. “You lack experience, but your talent is beyond question. And since I have approximately thirty seconds left to win you over…” Maynard reached one hand into his tweed jacket, producing a Polaroid from his inner pocket. He pushed it across the table towards her.

 

She turned it over. Her eyes widened. It was a picture of a man, but barely so; his face was a nightmarish mask of stretched pink flesh and where there ought to have been a mouth was nothing at all. Just a flat expanse of skin, and a thin white stripe of gnarled scar tissue running in a vertical line. A long plastic tube protruded from the left nostril. His eyes were wide, rheumy circles. They seemed to be silently begging for help.

 

She looked back up at Maynard, a little open-mouthed, and he slipped the photo back into his pocket as if it had never been there at all, his expression carefully ambiguous.

 

“Fancy a challenge?” he asked.

___________

 

“The trial of Nina Krková enters its fourth day, with violent scenes outside the Old Bailey as the defendant was led in. A small number of human rights protesters clashed with police in what chief of police David Metcalfe described as ‘an act of wilful civil disobedience’. Single mother Ms Krková stands accused of murdering her two month old daughter in December of last year.”

 

“There’s something really dodgy about this.”

 

Sid raised her head. Quale stood with his arms crossed, staring up at the TV. He looked disgusted, or weary, or perhaps both. It was not an expression Sid usually associated with Quale, who tended towards the apathetic, and preferred not to watch the news if he could help it.

 

“I mean it, Sid. I don’t like the way they’re spinning this.”

 

“Then why are you watching it?” she asked. Quale did not reply, but muttered some obscenity beneath his breath and switched the TV off, shoving his hands in his pockets.

 

“I don’t think you’re suited to current affairs,” Sid said, and retrieved the remote control from the arm of the sofa. “And while we’re at it, I would prefer it if you didn’t waltz on into my house and take possession of my television.”

 

“I don’t understand why you even have a television,” Quale replied, gesturing towards the wall. It was a reasonably expensive model, but Sid seemed content to let it gather dust. “You don’t watch the bloody thing. Sometimes I think you’d be happier living on a small island, somewhere off the coast of Scotland.”

 

“Perhaps I would.” She regarded him with impassive black eyes, watching with amusement as Quale attempted to figure out whether or not she was being serious. “But it would be cripplingly dull. I think the vagaries of modern life are a fair trade for a little excitement here and there.”

 

“Your idea of excitement, Sid, is probably not in line with the standard definition.” Quale picked up a tattered rucksack from next to the sofa. It was a faded navy blue, and perhaps the most colourful thing in Sid’s muted, magnolia-toned living room. “And on that note, I have another case for you.”

 

“Goody.” Sid swung her legs off the sofa to make space. Quale sat down, leaving enough room between them for the series of photocards he placed in careful order, each detailing the same human body from different perspectives. At first glance they seemed unremarkable, a fairly typical depiction of the average male torso. But closer inspection revealed a column of dark, lumpen protrusions along both biceps, like pearls beneath the skin. In one particularly abstract photo, it seemed as if the man had tiny steel ringlets embedded in each knuckle.

 

“Weird one, this,” Quale said, and digs a green cardboard folder out of the rucksack. “The little round bits here, on his upper arms, are sacs that can be filled with capsicum spray. You can’t see it, but running beneath the skin is a delivery tube. By moving the right muscle, he can effectively shoot pepper spray from his knuckles.”

 

Sid eyed him in disbelief. “Does it work?”

 

“In the most basic sense.” Quale passed her a ream of printed pages, which she immediately dismissed and set down upon the coffee table. “They haven’t quite figured out how to control the firing mechanism. If the subject makes a sudden movement, it triggers the spray.”

 

“Built-for-purpose riot police.” Sid mused. “I assume he has retinal protection?”

 

Quale nodded. “Protective lenses, and nasal filters. The subject wants to keep those. Christ knows why.”

 

“It’s a nice theory,” Sid said. She sounded genuinely impressed. She placed the pictures back down, picking up the files. She flipped cursorily through, stopping briefly on anything that looked interesting. Quale sat quietly. Interrupting Sid’s thought process, in his experience, was a sure fire way to invoke her wrath.

 

After a time, she placed the papers carefully down on the coffee table and nodded at Quale. “I can fix this,” she said. The sheer oddity of it intrigued her. Normally, Sid preferred the complex cases – the modified limbs, the reconfiguration of the retina, anything that might push her to her limit. And although she judged this to be an easy case to fix, the strangeness of the idea, and the ramshackle execution piqued her curiosity in a way the more comprehensive biomechanical cases often did not.

 

The “rehabilitation” of detainees, Quale once explained, ended in one of three ways. If the procedure was successful, the detainees were kept like exhibits, prototypes for projects that might never happen. If the procedure was unsuccessful, the detainee usually died. On the odd occasion that the detainee survived, they were released; permanently disfigured, they served both as a cautionary tale, and proof to the world that the government took punishment seriously.

 

“Piece of cake for you.” Quale said nonchalantly. “He’s released in two weeks. Should be plenty of time to let me know what you need.”

 

“For a case this simple? I have everything I need.” Sid’s office-cum-operating theatre, hidden away among the masses of empty warehouses down in Docklands, was stuffed to the gills with equipment. Some of it had been acquired through quite legal avenues, supplied by the various contacts she had accrued over the years. The rest was smuggled out, piece by piece, in Quale’s van, straight from Parkview Life Sciences. His job as a caretaker, and the somewhat misguided faith placed in him by his oblivious employers, gave him access to all areas of the facility, and when Sid needed something specific, he made sure it left the building with him at the end of his shift.

 

To the best of his knowledge, Quale had thus far raised absolutely no suspicions. He once told Sid that the careful maintenance of his quiet, unassuming work persona was instrumental in his success as a master thief. Sid didn’t think it was as much of an ‘assumed persona’ as he made out.

 

It wasn’t just theft Quale dabbled in. He scouted cases from the ready-for-release detainees, brought her the kind of bizarre cases she thrived on. It wasn’t out of altruism – he was quite apathetic towards the idea of ‘prisoner’s rights’, and didn’t care much for the assorted criminals and deadbeats that made up the bulk of Parkview’s subject matter. No, Sid suspected that it was a combination of sheer curiosity and the three hundred quid she gave him for each case.

 

“How’s Rie working out?” Quale asked, getting to his feet.

 

Sid rolled her eyes. Quale had brought Rie, a cutesy Anglo-Japanese waif, to her eight months ago. A promising biomechanical science student, she had previously been plucked out of obscurity by the brains at Parkview just weeks after graduating. According to Quale – and Sid did not quite trust his account – she had found Parkview’s whole ‘greater good’ routine hard to stomach, and the increasingly gratuitous experiments performed on detainees horrifying.

 

Rie was the sort of perpetually optimistic woman-child that Sid found difficult to cope with. At first, she had not quite believed Rie was real – she seemed too much of a parody, a living, breathing trope. But she was, and eight months later her irrepressible spirit and happy-go-lucky attitude led Sid to believe that perhaps Quale had done this on purpose.

 

“I don’t think I want to strangle her any more,” Sid replied. She heard him rummaging in the fridge. “But please don’t bring me any more ‘help’, Quale, I can just about deal with her.”

 

“You couldn’t cope.” Quale said, returning from the kitchen. He had two cans of grape soda and handed one to Sid. The can hissed violently as she snaps the ring pull. Sid did not keep much food in her house, but what food she had tended to be sweet, and not at all nutritious. “And let’s face it. Things are running much smoother with Rie.”

 

“Oh, don’t think that’s a testament to her efficiency.”

 

“But she is good at what she does.”

 

Quale let the statement hang in the air for a moment. Sid shot him an irritated look. She did not like being forced into giving praise. “Yes. I suppose she is.”

 

Quale grinned, and opened his drink. “Well, that’s a start.”

*

Quale was one of the select few people that knew the origins of Sid’s enterprise, and it was a testament to his unassuming nature that she had trusted him enough to tell him. Even moreso that she had actually felt inclined towards telling him anything about herself – she was intensely private. Given that Quale frequently engaged in illegal activity for Sid’s sake, though, it seemed only right that she should be honest.

 

She was in her final year of internship at the Greenwich Institute of Experimental Biology when a brash, well-dressed man one day interrupted her lunch. He introduced himself as Maynard – he didn’t have a first name, apparently, and Sid’s first thought was that he was one of those unbearably pretentious pricks who swan around the Institute in their expensive clothes, trying to impress people with their ‘outside the box thinking’.

 

He wasn’t, but he wasn’t much better. He must have thought he was charming, but he was actually repellently arrogant, so assured of his own presence that he completely neglected to get to the point. Sid stayed long enough to finish her sandwich and left while he was still talking.

 

But Maynard proved a persistent bastard, and he turned up in her kitchen one evening, a few days later. She threatened to call the police, but he piqued her interest. Her carefully maintained veneer of disinterest had been destroyed with a single polaroid. The man in the picture had his mouth surgically sealed. She struggled to reconcile the image with the supposed ethos of Parkview; scientific experimentation upon the worst kinds of convicted criminals, all for the greater good.

 

A week later, on Maynard’s bidding, she met with a man named Bruce. Sid assumed it wasn’t his real name. It didn’t bother her – Sid wasn’t her real name either. In the murky world in which Bruce operated, names are irrevocably linked to histories, and Sid had no intention of giving this strange man, residing in a beautifully refurbished railway arch, any access to who she really was.

 

Bruce explained, in a painfully roundabout way, that his brother was the man in the picture. Wilson (also not his real name) had spent the past year incarcerated at the recently opened Parkview Life Sciences, the biggest experimental laboratory in Britain. Wilson had been released to set an example, to prove how tough the government could be. It was what people wanted.

 

Not once did Bruce try to convince her that Wilson was innocent, that he was a poor benighted victim of a cruel system. He didn’t bother appealing to her humane side. Instead, he showed her a briefcase crammed with crisp £50 notes (just like in the movies, Sid told Quale, mildly amused) and told her that if she fixed his brother, he would see to it that she was looked after.

 

Sid didn’t need any more motivation. Truth be told, the bribe was largely unnecessary. She wanted the case. In her time at the Institute, training as a specialist in reconstructive surgery, she had attended to a seemingly never-ending stream of burn victims, acid attacks, traffic accidents. All interesting, in their own way, but standard fare. This case was like nothing she had ever seen before. It was equal parts grotesque and exciting. It was also illegal. That part hadn’t bothered her as much as she had expected it to.

 

Bruce set up a rudimentary operating theatre for her in Docklands. It was an area in neutral territory, sandwiched between the South Thameside and Three Bridges ganglands, and therefore one of the safest places to be. The operating theatre was a wonder; filled to the brim with sophisticated equipment of the kind even the Institute would covet. Sid found herself wondering, for the umpteenth time, what this strange man did to earn his millions, and why he hid out in railway arches like a rat in the sewers.

 

The process took weeks. She built Wilson a whole new mouth, a set of artificial teeth. She built lips from scratch, and manipulated his muscles into their old functions. It was not perfect, but he had a fully functional mouth to replace the one Parkview took away.

 

The whole thing required mathematical precision and headache-inducing levels of concentration. It was the hardest thing she had ever done, at that point in her career at least. She found it exhilarating in a way that nothing else had ever come close to. In the space of a week, she had discovered what she wanted to do with her life. It was almost too clichéd for her to bear.

 

Bruce was as good as his word. He let her keep the warehouse, and all of the gleaming equipment, in lieu of payment. And almost a year later, when a young man named Simon Quale brought her a horribly maimed man (“They wanted me to let him die,” he told her; the kid was barely twenty years old and was so out of his depth she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him) she realised how powerful an ally she had; her name had spread far and wide, and she was glad of her pseudonym.

The Gentle Art Of Forcing Oneself To Write

I had actually forgotten about this place until quite recently, when I set up a Tumblr for myself and, after three days, found myself wondering “why have I committed myself to yet another blogging/social networking tool?’

I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Livejournal (shush). I blog for a group of superb feminist writers. I comment on Comment is Free. I also have this place, which I had intended to be less about the mundane workings of my life (that’s for Livejournal) and more about pseudo-philosophical ramblings.

And I’ve missed it, truth be told. Twitter is wonderful but brevity is most emphatically not my strong suit. I need a place like this to expand upon my tweetrants, to organise my brainfarts in such a manner that barely anyone will read them.

So I shall endeavour to post here once in a while.

At the moment, I am slogging my way through NaNoWriMo. I am enjoying it…although I am not the best in the world at sticking to targets, and being easily distracted to the point of ADD at times is certainly not on my side. Much less so when my other project, the X Factor Rants page, is taking up so much time.

I may post excerpts here at some point.

Bah Humbug

I hate summer.

Well, maybe that’s a blanket statement. I don’t hate summer so much as I hate hot weather. I mean, temperatures in the upper twenties/low thirties (and yes, I know that on the grand scale of things that isn’t so hot, but this is England you know)

I have a several reasons for this:

1) I live in a relatively small flat. Heat gets trapped in here very easily, even with windows and doors open. This often results in ridiculous nighttime temperatures. And that means I can’t sleep.

2) I have skin like ricepaper. It is very thin and very white and gets burnt at the mere mention of ‘sun’. On top of this, I am stupidly photosensitive, so I suffer with sun rashes and prickly heat. Fun!

3) The lab I work in has no airconditioning. No aircon and coworkers with questionable hygiene.

4) The sun brings out the worst in English people. Suddenly, the pubs are filled with English men with their shirts off, showing off their lobster-red tans as if everyone really wants to see them, and English woman dressed like strippers, intentionally baking their skin in the sun, threats of melanoma (and looking like Judith Chalmers) all but forgotten in pursuit of the perfect orange hue. Then, tanked up on beer and heatstroke, they clog up the high streets, exuding body odour and urine. (I accept that this last bit may be exclusive to Essex)

5) Did I mention it’s just too bloody hot?

No. I like spring and I like summer, but I prefer it when the temperatures are pleasantly warm and not the kind of heat which is only appropriate if you have a swimming pool and a large margarita.

Evil Is Sexy

Inspired by Lily Alice’s blog post, which was in turn inspired by someone at Pajiba, I have decided to compile a list of inexplicably sexy villains. To be perfectly honest, most of them are pretty conventionally attractive and everyone knows that a little darkness only enhances the sexy. So without further ado, and in no particular order:

David Bowie – Jareth, Labyrinth

Gary Oldman – Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula

William Fichtner – Alexander Mahone, Prison Break

Cillian Murphy – Jackson Ripner, Red Eye

Alan Rickman – Hans Gruber, Die Hard

Al Pacino– Michael Corleone, The Godfather

Nicholas Lea– Alex Krycek, The X Files

Cillian Murphy – Jonathan Crane, Batman Begins

Yu Ji-Tae -Lee Woo-Jin, Oldboy

I’m sure there are many more and yes, I know it’s cheating to put Cillian Murphy twice but he’s so ridiculously hot (in my opinion) that it is warranted, okay? Maybe I’ll do a Part II post at some point, when I have more googling time. Maybe get some ladies in there too. There’re a whole lot of sexy villains out there.

The Daily Misogyny

I fucking hate the Daily Mail. In the sense that I would happily pulp all known copies and turn them into papier-mache sculptures of Germaine Greer and Emmeline Pankhurst sticking their middle fingers up at Piers Hernu (in fact, I might do that anyway)

But I fucking hate it. In this case, I think the swear word is justified; I know they say that profanity is the last resort of the barely literate (or something) but bollocks, sometimes a well-time f bomb is the most effective way of emphasising just how godawful something is.

There are many reasons I hate the Mail; it’s obsession with things that will give you/cure cancer, the way casual racism is portrayed as legitimate news, the proliferation of ‘non-stories’ usually involving celebrities appearing in various states of undress. There seems to be an increase recently in the number of these, and they are starting to take an unpleasantly body-fascist stance.

Skim across the Mail’s website today (I did it, so you don’t have to) and the following articles appear at various points on the Sidebar of Doom:

Sarah Jessica Parker has ‘sinewy, bony legs’

Elle McPherson ‘has lumpy foot’

Natalie Imbruglia ‘wears same dress twice’

Estelle ‘has new teeth, looks better’

It’s fairly standard dross and typifies the kind of judgemental non-story the Mail specialises in. There is no story in these articles; they are not in the least bit newsworthy. Just a couple of pictures of an invariably female celebrity not conforming to the rigorous aesthetic standards the paper sets. However small their deviation (and really, who gives a shiny shite whether Natalie Imbruglia wears a dress twice) it’s written as if the celeb has left the house in, say, full Nazi regalia, or perhaps with a strap-on and nipple clamps.

The really unpleasant thing about it all, though, is that it encourages us to pass judgement on anyone who is in any way different – be it because they dress in an unorthodox way (or perhaps dare to wear clothes they spent good money on more than once) or because parts of their body are ‘imperfect’. It is symptomatic of a society obsessed with criticising women who have not spent every hour of their life moulding themselves to fit the current image of perfection. So Sarah Jessica Parker has muscly legs and is a bit on the slender side. Who out there thinks this is significant?

It might be fluff, but it’s also becoming the norm; where once we might have brushed these things aside as just a symbol of the incredible diversity of the human body, or a celebration of freedom of choice, they are now held up as fodder for mockery. Not only is it extraordinarily rude, it’s pretty depressing too.

Surviving London Transport

Public transport in London is a uniquely miserable experience. There’s a certain etiquette to it all, an unspoken method which sets the London resident apart from the tourists. I don’t suppose they talk about it in the guidebooks, but the average London tube/bus journey is a Herculean ordeal, a strong dose of unhappiness and body odour.

You don’t talk on public transport. Unless you’re travelling with someone, but even then you should avoid talking to them excessively (and certainly, if you must talk, do it in a hushed tone) The whole point of it is to really focus on how mundane the experience is, preferably while meditating on the various failings of the system (i.e the correlation between increasing Oyster fares and time waiting for the next bus) If you’re not tutting to yourself, you’re not doing it properly.

You do not make eye contact. Ever. If you do, the other person(s) will think you are a) a mugger sizing them up b) a sexual predator sizing them up or c) an escaped mental patient. Never underestimate the paranoia of a Londoner. Best case scenario is you’ll be mistaken for a tourist, which is synonymous with “barely human” to many Londoners (not all; some Londoners, like me, are quite fond of tourists. But I’m something of an anomaly among Londoners, who can be viciously xenophobic outside of Designated Tourist Zones like Buckingham Palace) Worst case scenario is you’ll provoke the attention of one of our delightful Sun-reading, testosterone-exuding young men, who will assume you “Got A Problum” and attempt to engage you in combat.

You do not eat. Drinking is permitted, as long as it’s not alcohol; aside from the fact that it is now illegal to drink alcohol on public transport, you will be mistaken for a wino. And nobody wants that. You’ll sometimes see younger Londoners shoving greasy chicken in their fat little mouths, or chomping noisily on McDonald’s. Don’t be tempted to follow their example. Aside from the vast amounts of litter they produce, the nauseating stink of congealed fat and mutated chicken (some would question its chickeny credibility; popular alternatives include sparrow, squirrel and tourist) can be enough to make even the most stoic transport-goer tut and/or gag. If you do eat, please don’t wipe your hands on the seats; it’s unpleasant.

You do not expect a seat. On the buses, it’s more likely; the tube is usually crammed to the gills with business types, identifiable by their shiny briefcases, impracticle shoes and inflated senses of self-importance. Being businesspeople, they are of course superior specimens to the average miserable serf and will rush for seats as if their bonuses depend on it. Some business types will insist on securing a seat for their luggage, which they also consider to be superior to the average miserable serf. Requests to move their luggage will usually be met with stony silence.

Summertime on the tube is a particularly depressing experience; you will be forced to huddle among people with questionable bathing habits and exposed areas of clammy pink flesh, jostling for a prime position near a seat (watch for the struggle that ensues when a person vacates their seat on a crowded train; it’s pure entertainment) or near anything you can hang on to. Stifling heat and nasty smells can sometimes create an overwhelming combination and the less hardy traveller might faint. Don’t expect any sympathy if this happens to you. It causes delays and is extremely inconvenient. Nobody cares about your health or wellbeing. They just want to get to where they’re going without being held up by inconsiderate fainters.

If you do get a seat, you will be sized up by the other travellers, who will be assessing whether or not you deserve the seat. Unless you are disabled, pregnant or over 80 (and even if you are one or all of these) the likelihood is you will be met with grimaces of disapproval. I have been asked more than once to give up my seat for someone who did not appear to need it, but simply felt more deserving of it (and yes, they were businesspeople)

You do not sit next to someone unless there is no alternative; sometimes, standing is preferable. Sitting next to someone you don’t know on a half empty bus or tube is a deeply uncomfortable experience and will usually lead the other person to conclude that you are a) a mugger b) a sexual predator or c) a tourist. Or sometimes d) a terrorist, bent on blowing them up. If you are even the slightest bit dark-skinned (i.e you have a bit of a tan) and carry a rucksack, be prepared for people purposefully placing the greatest amount of distance they possibly can between you and them. This is a result of London paranoia and xenophobia, but it can be a great way of securing space during the hot summer months.

Lastly, do not smile. You are not supposed to like travelling in London; every effort has been made to ensure a thoroughly detestable experience, from the vastly overpriced tickets to the stained, old-lady-wallpaper patterned seat covers and the scary racist graffiti thoughtfully provided by the city’s trogs. London transport is best served with a glower, and a side of drunken hen partygoers spilling their Smirnoff Ices on the seats and flashing their knickers at passing taxis.

Why I’m No Hollywood Atheist

I am an atheist. On the surface, a simple enough statement; I reject the existence of god, the idea that he created the world and continues to watch over us. And that does helpfully sum up my feelings on the matter, although it feels a little too trite for my liking.

Let me explain. I was raised a casual Catholic. I was never baptised or confirmed, but attended Mass and prayed before bed. I accepted, without question, the existence of a benevolent (but capricious) Christian god; I believed he watched me and judged my actions. As a kid, it felt a little bit like God was Santa Claus, and that to be put on his Divine Naughty List was the worst thing that could happen to me. I didn’t question it; grownups told me it was so, and therefore it must be.

I had a minor epiphany aged 13. I asked my nan one day “Do you believe in God?” fully expecting her to say yes, of course, and perhaps launch into the virtues of being a good Catholic girl like my father’s mother. But she didn’t. She looked thoughtful for a minute. Then she said “I don’t believe in God the way you do. I believe in nature.”

My nan’s beliefs were, and continue to be, a beautiful (if quite unconscious) mishmash of Wicca, Taoism and Jainism. She is very much an atheist, preferring to attribute the wonders and disasters of the world to forces of nature, of chaos and chance. I was spellbound by her explanations in a way I had never been with Abrahamic theism. Although I had learned a little about other religions at school, this was the first time I had been explicitly told that it was okay not to believe in god.

I felt a little bit liberated, truth be told. God had never been a satisfying explanation of the world. An increasing amount of what I was taught at church had begun to strike me as nonsensical, or hypocritical, and I had been torn between my duty to my community as a good Catholic and my own budding scepticism.

So my nan opened my eyes to the possibility that not only might God not exist, but that might not actually be a bad thing. And as I’ve grown older atheism has made more and more sense to me; I feel no mourning for the loss of my religion, my god, my church. It’s not that I look down upon these things as symbolic of my impressionable youth, although I do wonder how much of my belief was taught and not formulated individually. I just don’t feel as if I’ve really lost anything.

In recent years, we have seen the emergence of atheism as a legitimate way of seeing the world (I reject the term ‘belief’ – atheism is not about belief, not about faith. It it precisely the opposite) and I’m truly pleased; it wasn’t very long ago that one could be severely punished for such a blasphemy as claiming god did not exist. But with freedom of (non) belief comes spokesmen. Men and women who feel qualified to speak on behalf of all atheists. Real-life atheists and those created for TV and film suddenly become representative of atheists as a whole.

Just as Sarah Palin does not represent all Christians, and Osama Bin Laden does not represent all Muslims, so Richard Dawkins and Dr. House do not represent all atheists. Now, both Dawkins and House put forward very legitimate points of view and I certainly can’t claim to disgree with a fair bit of what they say. When House says “Religion is not the opiate of the masses; religion is the placebo of the masses.” I find myself nodding, thinking back to my own childhood.

I think my problem with it all is partly that both Dawkins and House are deliberately acerbic. They’re not content with theorising and discussing the unlikelihood of theism. They are what I call ‘Hollywood Atheists’ – the kind of atheist who prefers to approach the issue of faith and religion with flamethrowers, miniguns, tanks and nukes, firing round after round until religion is reduced to a smouldering lump of conjecture.

Thing is, not all atheists are so damn aggressive. And not all of us are so egotistical about it all. I can accept the possibility (however slim I may perceive it to be) that I might be wrong. I don’t think I am; in fact, I’m really quite sure that there is no god. But I’m totally comfortable with admitting to the small margin of error left by my calculations. We can never be sure. It’s true that the burden of proof rests with the believer; they have to prove beyond doubt that their god exists in a real, physical sense before an atheist will concede (and I really don’t see why it ought to be any other way)

I’m not arrogant. I know why people believe; it’s quite a reasonable thing to do, when you think about it. And some aspects of faith are really quite beautiful; there are passages in the Qu’ran and Bible, in the Torah and Bhagvad Gita that inspire me as well as the ones which repel me utterly. I don’t reject all religious ideologies; just the idea that a divine being has anything to do with it.

I love Dr. House, by the way. I find him hilarious. I find the show extremely entertaining. But I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable with the idea that he is ostensibly representing pretty much all atheists. Sure, a lot of the things he says are, in my opinion, fairly accurate. But it’s the manner in which he says them. Not all atheists are so quick to offend.

So no, I am not a Hollywood Atheist. I’m sure there are quite a few atheists who are. I’m sure, like Christian fundies and Muslim jihadis, they inspire people to assume that the majority of atheists are angry foot-stompers who decry religion as the febrile sputterings of brainwashed fools in large numbers. But for the rest of us, Hollywood Atheism is a bit of a straw man used (frequently by the Daily Mail) to prove that we are all soulless nasties with no respect for our fellow man. And that’s not a badge I’m comfortable wearing.

Previous Older Entries