“Is he the one?”
As usual, Dr Roe is pressing too close and wearing too little. Her sleeveless top, running shorts and obvious lack of underwear are not my idea of what a psychiatrist should wear to work and I don’t want to be able to feel the heat of her against my arm. Yet I know that I am the one out of step here. Roe is a woman of her times. Thirty years younger than me, she was born in this century and understands its norms and nuances in a way I am no longer capable of.
Keeping my voice level and my body uncomfortably close to hers, I answer her question.
“Yes, he’s the one.”
She stares at the old man on the screen with unashamed interest, studying him like a lab specimen, which, in a way, he is.
“But he looks so normal. Old of course, but normal.”
The man’s name in Francis Connor. He was born in 1957, which makes him, sixty-eight years old. I think about the changes that he’s seen and what they’ve meant to him.
“He was normal once,” I say, “Perhaps he still sees himself that way.”
“Despite his extraordinary behaviour? “ Roe snorts in disbelief.
She reaches behind her head with both hands to tie off her hair into a pony-tail. As she does so, she displays thick dark underarm hair that would have been completely unacceptable a couple of decades ago.
“How can he not see how deviant he is?” she asks.
“Deviance is in the eye of the beholder, which is why, today, we are going to hold up a mirror and ask him to look into it.”
Roe’s eyes flick almost imperceptibly to the cameras that monitor this work station.
“You make it sound as if his deviance is only real because we can see it.”
There is an edge to her voice that I can’t quite read: stress certainly but I’m not sure if the undertone is alarm or anger.
“Do I?” I make myself smile as I say it.
She leans across me, not making eye-contact, reaching for the tablet on the workstation behind me. I can feel her nipples against my chest. Her hair smells of lemongrass.
“You know that that is very dangerous thought to express,” she says quietly.
It is easy to forget that Roe is dangerous. She knows enough to dumb-down her intelligence and be seen to be a team player but I have never doubted her instinct for self-preservation.
“And yet,” I say at normal volume, “it is you, Dr Roe, not I, who has expressed this dangerous thought.”
Roe rakes me with her eyes and takes a step back, distancing herself from me in a way that carries more meaning in this crowded decade than it would have done when I was her age.
“Perhaps, Dr O’Rourke, you need to take a look in a mirror yourself before you conduct an interview that is predicted to have a Neilson Net Rating in excess of 21.2.”
That, of course, is her main concern. We are about to enter the arena. She’s making it clear that if any blood is shed, it will be mine, not hers.
I bow my head slightly and say, “Thank you for support, Dr Roe. I am, as ever, thrilled by the knowledge that so many of my fellow citizens are kind enough to take an interest in what we do here. Shall we begin?”
Roe takes the sofa, positioning herself beside Francis Connor, ensuring that she will be in shot almost all the time, while making herself look informal and approachable. It seems incidental that she’s also taken the dominant position.
I perch on a low stool, designed for someone younger and fitter than me, like Roe for example, where I will be looking up at both of them and will mostly have my back to the cameras.
“Do you understand why you are here, Francis?”
Roe’s tone is friendly, almost intimate and yet somehow still patronizing.
Connor looks down at his hands, which are folded calmly over his slight paunch.
“Do you mind summarizing the reasons for us?”
It takes Roe a moment to realize that that is all the reply she’s going to get.
“Yes what?” she asks, not quite able to sustain the friendly tone.
“Yes, I mind. If you don’t know why I’m here then you’re wasting my time. If you do know why I’m here than your wasting my time getting me to explain it to you.”
I’m glad that my back is to the cameras now. It means only Roe sees me smile.
Roe leans forward, displaying her cleavage to Francis and the cameras and places her hand on his knee.
“We just want everyone to be on the same page,” she says, reassuringly.
Connor places his wrinkled hand over Roe’s in a move that could be seen as fatherly. You have to know Roe well to see how repelled she is by his touch.
“Everyone?” Connor says, sounding old and bewildered.
“Everyone linking to this webcast.”
Roe takes the opportunity to slide her hand out from under Connor’s and gesture at the cameras.
Connor looks up at the cameras and waives.
“Ah, you invited the faceless, mindless, webmob. Well good luck in distracting them from their porn, gambling, blood games and infomercials for long enough for anything to register that isn’t accompanied by animated characters using monosyllables.”
This is not good. For the first time it occurs to me that Connor may really not know how this all works.
Roe feigns surprise.
“Don’t you want your fellow citizens to understand your point of view, Francis?”
“The only thing I want from my fellow citizens is to be left alone, Dr Roe.”
Behind Connor’s head, where only Roe and I can see it, is a screen showing a colour-coded graphic of the linked audience size. Connor’s webmob comment had pushed us up to dark green, showing above average participation. Now it turns to light red. We are becoming one of today’s webevents.
Roe smiles as she registers the colour change, looks at the cameras and then at Francis and says, “That, Francis, is exactly why you are here. My colleague and I will lead an assessment of your competence to participate in society. If you are found not to be competent you will be placed in Socialization Therapy until you are ready to return to normal life.”
Connor laughs. It is a deep rich laugh. The kind that makes everyone want to smile. Everyone except Roe. She decides that it’s time for a little outrage.
“You find this funny, Francis?”
Connor grins at Roe. “I do indeed, Dr Roe: hence the laughter.”
“Please, share the joke with us,” Roe says casting herself as school teacher and Connor as the naughty boy.
“It amuses me that you think I’m an idiot because I avoid interaction with morons.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“That’s why it amuses me.”
Now I know that Connor is clueless. It’s probably too late to save him but I find myself compelled to try.
“Mr Connor is a reader, Dr Roe.” I say, taking the attention away from Connor and preventing Roe from inflicting more damage. “The field-workers reported that his house contained over a thousand books. Actual, physical, printed books. Words are important to him. He owns five etymological dictionaries. He is laughing because the original meaning of idiot, as used by the Athenians, was someone who declined to take part in public life, whereas moron originally meant someone who was very dull.”
Roe raises an eyebrow but stays silent. Connor fills the gap by slapping his thigh and saying, “Well done, Dr O’Rourke, you know your words.”
I try to ask him a harmless question but he presses on before I can stop him.
“You forgot to explain to the webmob that morons were invented in America, Dr O’Rourke. American psychologists used the term to refer to anyone with an IQ measured between 50-69. Their measurement system was later shown to be fundamentally flawed of course. Do you suppose the number of morons in society was affected in any way by this?”
I know now that Connor is doomed. By the time they’ve finished with the ”Therapy” the man in front of me will have been drugged and shocked out of existence. What I don’t know is if I’ve said enough to be doomed with him.
“Francis,” Roe says taking back control, “We need to start our assessment.”
Connor slides sideways on the sofa until he is thigh to thigh with Roe. He puts his arm along the back of the sofa behind her. I can almost feel her skin crawl.
“I rather thought that your assessment was already complete, Dr Roe.” Connor says, looking deeply into her eyes. “It’s clear to me that you regard me as deviant who is a threat to the world you choose to inhabit.”
“That’s not the case, Francis.”
“So you don’t think I’m a deviant, Dr Roe?”
This catches Roe completely off-balance. It almost makes me want to cheer. On the screen the graph is dark red. We have never had so many people linked to an assessment.
Roe straightens her back and deepens her voice. “I mean, Francis, that the assessment still lies ahead of us. Dr O’Rourke and I will ensure that you are assessed only on your answers to our questions today.”
“Very good, Dr Roe. I’m sure the webmob believes you. Some of them may even care. Please, start your assessment.”
Of course it isn’t our assessment. This is what Connor doesn’t seem to know. Roe and I are psychologists, so getting us to ask the questions adds legitimacy to the process, but the final judgement will be left with the Great British Public, the “webmob” that Francis seems so intent on alienating.
“Francis,” Roe asks, “For the record, can you tell us which Social Networks you take part in?”
Roe lets the pause go to five seconds before she says, “Yes what?”
“Yes I can tell you that.”
Roe stays silent. We both know that Connor is digging his own grave with the webmob. I shake my head, trying to remind myself not to call them that.
“I’m sorry for being disingenuous, Dr Roe.” Connor says, apparently not realizing that most of the population won’t know what disingenuous means and will be insulted that he used the word.
“It is unkind of me I know, but it irritates me that a person with your education still does not know how to ask the question she wants the answer to. Why do you suppose that a privileged member of our beloved society would develop a habit of not asking direct questions?”
Even I can’t believe that Connor said that. As our leaders often tell us, Modern Britain is built on openness, consensus, and collaboration and the gods help anyone who says otherwise.
“Perhaps you would like to drive for a while, Dr O’Rourke?” Connor says, turning to me. “You and I are almost of the same generation, so I’m sure we can both remember a time before Humpty Dumpty took over the dictionary.”
My balls retract with fear. Connor could take me down with him if I’m not very careful. I can’t be seen to be his friend.
“Humpty Dumpty? What does he mean, Humpty Dumpty?”
Roe knows that if I answer the question she’s asked, I’ll make myself look more and more like Connor in the eyes of the webmob. I don’t know if she’s pushing me over the edge or giving me the opportunity to walk away.
Even though I know I shouldn’t, I answer the question truthfully.
“It’s a reference to Lewis Carol. Humpty Dumpty said, ‘When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less. It is simply a matter of who is the master, me or the word.’”
Connor looks at me for a second and then nods, as if deciding something. In a quiet voice he says, “You are a well-read man, Dr O’Rourke. I suspect you may even own some actual, physical, printed books. Maybe even a Ray Bradbury or two. If not I’d be happy to lend you my copy of ‘Fahrenheit 451.’”.
We don’t burn books in Modern Britain. Everything is available online. Including a complete record of every book anyone downloads. It would be a very brave or very foolish man who downloaded something as subversive as ‘Fahrenheit 451’.
“All my books are stored in the Cloud, Mr Connor and I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Bradbury.”
Connor pauses, and then says. “Perhaps it’s just as well. Books are for old people. If you had any you’d have to be careful or Dr Roe would be assessing you next.”
My mouth is dry but I still manage to make the only politically acceptable response, “In Modern Britain, Francis, a man with nothing to hide has no need to be careful.”
“I quite agree,” Connor says, then he turns back to Roe.
“Let’s return to the question you almost managed to ask me, Dr Roe. Then the mindless webmob can decide whether to vote me off the island.”
He knows. He’s known all along that his fate rests with the public linking in to this webcast. I have no idea why he is behaving like this.
“I am not a member of any social network, Dr Roe. I do not upload pictures or videos of myself to the Internet, nor do I devote years of my life pretending to be an axe-wielding dwarf in some massively multiplayer online game. I don’t even keep a blog. Contrary to popular belief, life doesn’t stop when you’re not online. “
“Of course your physical life doesn’t stop, Francis,” Roe replies, “But what about your social and emotional life? How do you stay connected to other people and what is important to them if you avoid online contact? How do you make a contribution to the well-being of others if you send out nothing of yourself? Wouldn’t you rather be in company of friends online?”
“I enjoy my solitude.”
“Are you sure you enjoy it, Francis? It sounds a lonely way to live.”
“I am not lonely. I choose to be alone. I am an old man. I have my books and my memories and my wife’s garden. That is enough.”
Although the words have a quiet dignity, there is something false about them. Roe seems to scent the falsity and sets off in pursuit of it.
“You’re sixty-eight, Francis. That is not so old anymore. You still have many productive years ahead of you. Why not reach out to other people online, make a connection, enrich your life.”
Connor lowers his head. “I already commune with enough ghosts. I don’t need to add to the cast of spectres with ‘online friends’.”
Roe’s eyes glitter. She knows something. What a fool I’ve been. Roe wouldn’t come to a meeting like this without doing her research. Her “Is that him?” question was for the cameras, not for me. Suddenly I feel very old.
“Ghosts haunt people, Francis,” Roe says, softly. “Who are you haunted by? Is it Hannah, your wife?”
Connor’s head snaps up and he glares at Roe. “Leave Hannah out of this.”
Roe casts a brief sad look into the cameras, letting the webmob know that it hurts her but she has to keep on asking the questions.
“You were married for what, forty years?”
“And she died last year?”
Connor doesn’t reply. For the first time he looks directly into the cameras. The studio lights make the tears in his eyes glitter.
I should have known this. Have I strayed so far from the idea that I have patients that I no longer even bother to look below the field-workers’ summary report?
“I think you may be grieving, Francis.” Roe sounds so sympathetic that I wonder for a moment if she is also trying to rescue this old man.
“May be grieving. May be grieving. The light has gone out of my world. The air has been ripped from my lungs. The better part of me is dust. Yes, I think I may be grieving.”
I can feel his loss like the heat from a fire. This is a man who has lived beyond the end of his world. I think I finally start to understand what he is doing here today. I glance at Roe, wondering where she will take this. Will she rescue him? Will she make me rescue him?
“Yet you haven’t reached out for help.” Roe’s sounds disapproving.
“What do you mean?”
“You haven’t expressed your grief online or joined a support group, or looked for another partner. You have done nothing to help yourself move on.”
Roe has gone for the kill. She has made Connor’s grief into an antisocial act. It is as brilliant as it is wicked.
“Grief is not something you should cling to, Francis. Grief makes you and the people around you unhappy.”
Connor pauses. His eyes are dry now. There is something about his manner that suggests that he has prepared himself for this moment; has perhaps even hoped for it, planned for it.
“Everyone is unhappy, Dr Roe. Even you, I suspect.”
He looks away from Roe and addresses the webmob directly.
“We just don’t feel free to say so. Why is that? Is it because we have been told that unhappiness is anti-social and we have been trained to fear being anti-social? What is anti-social about turning to those closest to us and saying ‘I am unhappy’? Why does our beloved government provide us all with never-ending digital bread and circuses? Is it to distract us from asking ourselves why we are unhappy?”
Connor turns to face the screen that shows an incredibly high number of people linked to the assessment. Then he turns back to the cameras.
“I ask each of you to step out of the webmob for a moment. To be just you. To switch off your computer and ask yourself, “What would make me happy?”
I am staring at Connor, open-mouthed, astonished at what he has done, at what he clearly came here to do. I just have time to see him smile when all the power in the studio dies and everything goes to hell.
I’ve been home for three of hours now. I’ve spent my time online in different forums, explaining to anyone who will listen, that we had a freak fire in the studio. That Dr Roe and I were lucky to make it out. That, sadly, Francis Connor, old and slow as he was, perished from smoke inhalation before help could reach him. I make it clear that I am in shock and can remember very little of the interview. When I’m asked why digital copies are not available, I explain that the fire started in the server room.
Finally I tell people that I need sleep and I log off.
Alone in my bed, with the lights out, I let myself remember the final moments in the studio: the noise, the violence, the wet warmth of Connor’s blood on my face after Security shot him. I spent the next twenty-four hours in a “hospital” being drilled on what had happened and what needed happen next if I was to survive the studio fire. In those hours, I confirmed what I already knew: I am not a brave man. Which is why they let me come home.
Of course, coming home doesn’t mean being free. Like everyone-else in Modern Britain, I am almost always in view of the cameras that have been installed for our safety.
The only safe place is in my head. At the moment my mind is replaying Connor’s words to me:You are a well-read man, Dr O’Rourke. I suspect you may even own some actual, physical, printed books. Maybe even a Ray Bradbury or two. If not I’d be happy to lend you my copy of ‘Fahrenheit 451’.
I wonder how he knew that that book, with its dystopian view of a future where all books are burned, would be one of my favourites?
I didn’t lie to him when I said I owned no physical books. They are far too dangerous. I did lie when I said I wasn’t familiar with Bradbury’s works. The truth is, I know most of them by heart.
To comfort myself and to honour Francis Connor, who’s bravery burned brightly for all of us to see, I reach into my memory, open ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and let myself start the book again at the familiar words: “It was a pleasure to burn.”