The world changed that day. Isolation became insulation; ruin became disrepair. At least in terms of Gertrude Tarrow’s understanding of it. Her world.
Inert but indulgent, she was conditioned by a vie quotidienne synonymous with grass growing — Gramineae roots growing down into the earth to collect nutrients, culms growing up from the base, narrow leaves extending out from the culms, etc.
Stare at left-hand wall, white. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
Switch to right-hand wall, sky blue. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
Switch to adjacent wall opposite her, beige. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
The asininity of Gertrude’s daily routine gave her no choice but to paint the walls of her shoebox Camden flat different colours. An iota of difference was vital, otherwise the maddening repetition might send her packing to an early grave. The cycles of reiteration. The duplicity. The inescapably familiar beats of a rhythm she’d been restricted to for weeks, months, years? Measurements of time simply bled into one another, so she had no idea how much had passed.
All she knew was the Programme, officially titled 2020 AD, in HD. An embarrassingly bad corporate label for the new abnormal: freelance VR software that allows subjects to take “assignments” in which they “become” another person. The platform is still in its trial phase, currently restricting participation to subjects and clients exclusively within London. The plan is that by 2021 it’ll be everywhere. The new normal.
The purpose of the project (as sold to clients) is for those moments when you need to split yourself in two, three, or four. Do you need an EXTRA pair of hands? Need somebody to drop your child off at SCHOOL? Need your SHOPPING LIST collecting? Does that rosebush STILL need watering?
The criteria were left strategically open to interpretation. In its early days, the Programme needed the most business and widest spread of word-of-mouth possible. The powers pulling its strings could hardly afford to be persnickety. Gertrude had no tangible evidence that anything of the sort even existed. As far as the eye could see, autonomy reigned.
Today, on this insufferably warm June morning, Gertrude opens her Assignment Portal on her flatscreen TV. It displays a pick ‘n’ mix of multivalent characters, scattered all over London:
HAPPY MONDAY, GERTRUDE :) :) :)
Twenty minutes later, Gertrude has consumed her day’s caffeine and had a bite to eat, so takes a seat on her ripped makeshift sofa, hooks herself up, selects “MARK” and begins.
The speed of the day’s decline was so fast you could blink and miss it. The situation nosedived and there wasn’t time for Gertrude to identify her own complicity in the problem. Her wilful negligence. Real-world characterological transformation was a recipe for disaster, yet she embraced it.
Until recently, freelance work had taken an entirely different form in her life, perhaps justifying this attraction to the narrative lives of others. Odd writing jobs here, spots of nonfiction there, a conveyor belt of fiction efforts that bounced back as “too stark” or “too dark,” “overcomplicated” or “underdeveloped,” “not a good fit” and “not what we were looking for.”
“So, not sure how many do this, but Mark isn’t my real name,” MARK opens, with outstretched hand.
Affable, prior to the cacophony of warning bells, Gertrude’s double shakes it.
“Do come in,” he returns, allowing rusty hinges to creak simultaneous to his revelation of a long, sparsely decorated hallway leading to a flickering kitchen light.
Beneath the kitchen light is a table. On this, selections from a toy food set: a fruit bowl, a stick of baguette, a platter of meats, a cheeseboard. Around the table are three chairs: a baby highchair, a regular wooden one, a duplicate of this with additional cushion. On these, two life-size cardboard cut-outs: a baby (complete with rattle toy and bib), a toddler whose plate is already full. A severed cardboard head is sellotaped to the kitchen sink, “MOTHER” scribbled across its forehead. A cardboard cocker spaniel is propped up against the door, an attached speaker alternates between pre-recorded barks and growls.
MARK follows Gertrude in and closes the door, knocking down the cocker spaniel. He tries to balance it upright; it falls. He tries again; it falls.
“Do take a seat.”
“I’d rather not.”
He places a Glock 19 between the fruit and cheese, within his reaching distance but not hers.
“It’s Gertrude, right?”
Three hours later, Gertrude is back in her own body, visibly perspiring as the temperature peaks in time for lunch. Sitting in her own silence, she has no intention of reacting to the flashing CLARICE decorating her flatscreen, nor the vibrating headgear to her left, despite its confluence of wires now glowing red.
Abstract and bored, she acknowledges the encounter with MARK, the necessary first step before being able to process it. A map of London conceals a section of wall left unpainted above the flatscreen; the simulacra of enlarged landmarks stare at her.
As the hum of the fan signals its rotary progress, Gertrude matches these individual stares. She scowls at Big Ben, flips a middle finger at the Tower of London, blows a raspberry across London Bridge. She smiles as she hatches a plan to remove a box of matches from a bedroom drawer and set the two-dimensional capital alight, hopefully bringing down the city proper in the process. She readies this internally, considering minutiae such as step count to bedroom, match selection, landmark burn priority. She leaves all this to set and harden before it can become an external reality.