THE IMMACULATE SADNESS OF PETER J. BEECH
by Dan Micklethwaite
He misses it immediately, the soft glass of that screen. The sinking, only slightly, of his finger against it.
There is a pining at work within him for that formed plastic mass.
The minor desert of his palm looks back at him falsely without it; even more arid, now that the mirage is gone. The ways in which the sunlight, the tube-light, the streetlight had slipped across it, fussing with the things he was wanting to know—they’d nagged him as bad as the pleas of a lover, but he’d still opt for that above the warmth of that light on his bare open skin.
So used to it. So accustomed. So comfortable, knowing it was with him, on him. In his pocket, his jacket, his hand. So used to bringing it home and charging it before he went to sleep each night. So attuned to the vibrations it made upon message receipt. Checking its emails, its messages, its social networking notifications and proddings and feedouts of banter and digital chat.
Regular. Clockwork. Reliable.
Five-star product rating.
But more than a product. A pet, almost, at the constant beck and call of its master, always happy to help, constantly supplicant, the judder of a phonecall its little tail wagging. The ringtone its jovial bark.
This thought—this notion of smartphone as furry familiar—it gives him an idea. Bounces him back from where he was teetering, on the slick canyon-side of despair. Most people he knows, if they lose a device, they’ll announce it, sure enough—as soon as they can reach a computer, they’ll log into a network and fess up to their foolishness, or rage at the indiscriminate nature of petty street thieves. But they won’t try too hard to get it back.
This is, for Peter, too soon a leap from loss to abandonment. Too smooth a transition from one piece of kit to the next. He can’t do that, himself. Time and ownership are concepts that still hold too great a sway in his life.
No. There has to be a search before the search can be called off.
Peter Beech plans to make posters. The same way that dog owners/cat owners/gerbil/hamster/rabbit/tortoise owners do, if one of their menagerie guests happens to flee.
Intends to find the nearest library, log onto a computer, mock something up—something eye-catching, yet mournful—then print out twenty, thirty, fifty copies, go around sellotaping them firm onto lampposts and bankwalls and on the clear plexiglass behind benches at bus stops. Intends this and it firms up his shoulders, delivers a trim kick of adrenalin direct to his legs.
But then he gets lost.
Or, rather, realises he was lost already.
That is, looking ahead—at buildings, down shopping arcades, sidestreets and inner-city thoroughfares—he can’t quite work out where he is. It’s different if you have a map. It’s better. Better still if you’ve got a map that shows your real-time location, which tracks you, holds an arrow in place to signify in which direction you’re heading. Lets you know you’re in the clear, without doubt that you’re on the right track.
No map means no clue, and no clue means shitness. Means standing in the middle of one of those shopping streets gawking alternately at the sky or at the ground, too embarrassed to risk catching anyone’s eye. Even though he’s increasingly aware that that’s exactly what he’ll have to do, if he wants to be given directions.
Eyes drawn down level with most everyone else’s. Watching them. Tear ducts watering slightly in the cold and the bright of the day. Wiped away with the left sleeve of his thin woollen jumper—doesn’t want anyone to even begin to think he’s upset.
People all staring dead ahead, as eager to dodge contact as he is himself. People all lugging bags full of food and Christmas shopping around at their sides. Hobbling their own knees with the heavier ones. Reluctant as he is to reach out for help.
A woman, blonde, notes Peter looking, switches her own eyes away. A man mouths Fuck. Off. to him when he catches him staring at the stuffed toy monkey tipping out of a deep pocket in his coat. A pigeon shits on the ground just next to his foot, and he shifts, sets off walking against the grain of the traffic, trying as best as he can not to clatter shoulders or elbows with anyone else.
Breathing space and he stops still again, gives the whole searching for helpfulness thing another half-hopeful shot.
It works. Someone’s coming over. A girl, in her late teens. Brunette. Smiling. Certainly helpful. A little bit hot. Too late does he notice the clipboard in her hand.
She unravels onto him a spate of sorrow, sob stories related to him through a customer-service smile, same as a newsreader. She lets him in on the grim reality of a certain condition, and the harsher-still realities of the care, tells him all it’ll take is a few pounds a month, tells him again, and he can’t open his mouth to explain that he hasn’t really got any money to help her, even if he wanted to. Can’t open his mouth until she comes to close hers. And she doesn’t. Her voice has a curious lilt to it, from another county perhaps. Possibly from the Midlands, even, but then again possibly not. Eyes just on the blue side of green, he notices. Less and less aware of losing track of what she’s saying, though he’s doing so more and more fully.
When she does stop speaking, he simply stands there gazing dumbly at her for a few seconds before fumbling about with his tongue for something appropriate and proper to say.
His tongue doesn’t comply.
Instead, it cuts to the chase.
Excuse me, but do you happen to know where the library is?
Whoosh of the doors and already the itching that’s in him is slightly relieved. Something mechanical, robotic is almost essential. He gets a surge of comfort in the sensor’s semi-sentient presence. Steps through, watching the slickly sick green of the carpet, the vaulting height of the bare, spare ceiling.
Everyone here either with their face in a book or in front of a painting or in front of a screen. Ten computers and only three people currently using them. Fancies his chances of enacting his plan.
Dropping to eye level again, he searches for the helpdesk, finds it. Finds a sign taped to the front of the desk that reads, on laminated white card, Please use self-sevrice machines to check books out. Late fee queries only.
Thinking, calmly, Fuck it, he heads towards the machines. Doesn’t have time to waste attempting conversation with someone who clearly isn’t being paid to talk. Not the sort of person who talks much at all, probably, that librarian. Not the sort of person who’ll empathise or sympathise with Peter’s plight. His need to recover his phone. His old, current phone.
Logged on, he heads straight for the browser. Blanks, momentarily, on his purpose for coming here. Has his habitual cycle in action now. The pattern he follows each and every time he hits the internet.
Personal emails first.
Jobseeking emails next.
Social networking site A.
Social networking site B. (Separate tab)
Blog. (Checking if anybody has commented on his last entry. No new updates.)
Personal emails again.
Social networking sites A and B again.
Contemplates what he’ll write to enlighten people as to what’s been going on. Mulls over how best to broach the subject. How can he possibly deal with it without coming across too overwrought, or distraught, or ridiculous. How can he wring both pathos and a laugh from 148 characters. How can he enlist help and support from people without directly asking for it.
Can’t think of anything. Twigs back onto what he’s meant to be doing here —
Has hit a wall.
Realises he doesn’t have a photograph of his phone with which to make a HAVE YOU SEEN THIS? poster. His only camera had been part of the phone, so he’d neither been able to nor given thought to turning it back on itself.
Of course, he could just wheel around on the internet again, seek out a stock image of the model. He could. But, in Peter’s mind, that would be like a dog-owner using a picture of Lassie to help them retrieve their missing collie, Max. In Peter’s mind, using a stock-photo to find a specific, well-used, personalised phone sounds magnificently daft. Using a photograph of any old screen to help chase down the one he’s missing doesn’t make the slimmest bit of sense.
Besides, there is a scratch, nearly a chip, at the top left front corner of the casing that’s very distinctive, if you know where to look. And stock pictures certainly won’t include that.
Stares at the screen, around the screen. But not into the distance. Into the desk, into the hint of red laser-light that floods out beyond the ovaloid base of the mouse. Gears grinding and brain ticking round.
No solution. Nothing easy. Unless—
30 minutes up. Please wait 30 minutes before using IT facilities again.
The message puts him off whatever line of thinking he was on the verge of jumping into. He squashes his palms flat on his thighs. Shuts his eyes, takes a breath. Takes another breath, opens his eyes. Checks to his left and his right. Empty terminals in both directions. Empty all over now. The other three users must have logged off and left already. Glances back at the helpdesk. Librarian’s pencil-neck still craned over, obsessing over something that’s probably not work.
Librarian not looking, he shifts onto the next chair. Again it sags. A very quiet but undeniable pneumatic hiss.
Logs on. Goes through the whole cycle again. Responding to two emails. Responding to one comment on social networking site A. Laughing soundlessly. Laughlessly, almost. Jokes going completely when awareness returns of the space in his pocket. Whatever solution he’d nearly come up with wasn’t about to re-materialise now.
Lost my phone. Message me numbers please, he updates, then castigates himself for missing out your.
Sweet hushing sound of the breeze on the left side of his face, as he sits, bent forwards, on the bench. Analysing cracks he can see in the paving, grasses and weeds showing through in microcosmic pantomime of returning rural sprawl. A downtrodden dandelion pressed prone like a bridge between two flagstones.
Breathing in and out as feet scurry past him, eyes only looking up as high as knee-caps of children and the mid-shins of adults. Breathing in and out and his fingertips twitching and touching in patterns against his palms. Places them on his thighs, steadies himself.
His gaze sweeps the curved shopping plaza in front of him, pausing every few seconds to note the names on the separate storefronts, and the colours used to mark each name; to construct and then disseminate a brand identity, a logo, a thing redolent to him of icons on a screen.
Constant viewing of life through a frame about 5 x 3 inches. Sitting around and knowing stuff only according to the dictates of a device that’s little more than ghost to him just now. Knowing facts, gleaned and raided from the collective minds of millions, via a small search engine data entry box. Being able to find the answer to any question the world outside his smartphone threw his way.
This thing—that thing—that had given him exactly what he’d been told and now believes he wants. Black plastic perfection he’d trade for almost anyone he’d met. Honestly. Because it knew more, did more, spent more time alongside him. Kept him connected to as much as was out there to connect with. Never held back any secrets. Never left him completely alone. Never picked on him, or chatted shit behind his back. Never slept in someone else’s bedroom. Never held anybody else’s hand. Never said no. Asked only for electricity. A few pounds a month. A few pounds a month and it was his absolutely. Came with a warranty, on the off-chance it was ever less than reliable. On the off-chance that it suddenly started acting more human and making mistakes.
He barely moves. Except to fidget on the bench to stop his backside from numbing. Drops his eyes back down to mid-shin level. Pigeons skitter and strut with rock-star arrogance between the moving feet, and step over and around his own shoes, before winging it promptly for another spot as soon as those shoes shuffle.
Without his phone, and being, ever since he was seventeen, without a wristwatch, he isn’t certain of the time, or even of exactly how long it’s been since the losing occurred. From the placing of the sun in the sky, he figures it’s somewhere close to four o’clock. But he isn’t confident. He’d had an app that could do that for him, if he wanted.
He hadn’t given his parents notice this morning of when he might return home, but wants to be back for around six, so as he can eat with them, partake in a meal his mother has cooked. Something warming, he hopes. Comfort food. A stew, rich with beef stock and red wine. Comfort food and then bed, and perhaps just waiting it out until he can arrange for a replacement handset to be sent. Camping there beneath his covers. Going into hibernation. Sleep mode.
But then, he does have a laptop at home. And there is Wi-Fi there. So perhaps everything isn’t all the way bad.
Peter J. Beech takes solace in considering that.
In planning his evening in accordance with the websites that he’ll visit, the emails he’s likely to receive—mostly recommendations from online retailers—the Friends he might acquire or lay off because they don’t interest him anymore or simply haven’t expressed sufficient shock or sympathy at the major event of his day. Contemplating the old faces he might look up, and which events for whose birthdays he might be getting invited to—invites he can leave to stand for a few days, so as he doesn’t appear too keen, or which he can let lie indefinitely, if he so chooses. Musing on the news sites he can visit to get the lowdown on the outside world—the latest protest highlights, the latest unemployment figures, the latest who’s fucking who. And, after that, which chillout music he might hunt down and play in the background on repeat as he checks his social networks again for any information that might relate to the item he’s currently missing the most.
He’ll have to find the bus station first, though.
The thought of it keeps him seated a few moments longer. He’d let himself get carried away with a fantasy, and now reality is striking back, hard. Recollection rising that he has seven miles to travel before he can do any of that stuff.
Looks up again, beyond the pigeons, beyond the moving feet and shins and knees. Looks at button-like signs in shop windows, at buildings with Home icon silhouettes. But more closely he looks for faces. People standing still, almost photographic, frozen. People, just one person, who can tell him where he needs to go. Someone helpful, useful, capable of performing the simple task of pointing the way. He looks for more charity workers trudging about with practised grins and clipboards, looks for mothers taking a break on other benches with their children tucked in prams. Looks for police officers, and for businessmen who might need the bus to get back home.
Looks down at his palm, where the light plays.
Dan Micklethwaite lives and writes in Yorkshire, England. When he’s not writing, he’s usually reading, and when he’s not reading, he’s often trying to convince himself he can paint. His stories have featured or are forthcoming in BULL, NFTU, 3:AM, Emerge, and Eunoia, among others. A selection of poetry and prose and links to his other work can be found here.
Image Credit: Yellow Telephone by Billy Brown on Flickr