by Gareth D Jones
The counting never stops. I count when I’m in the shower, I count when I’m at work. I count when I’m brushing my teeth and eating breakfast and getting dressed and walking down the street. I go to bed at 315,360,019 and wake up at 315,387,245. It’s not me that’s counting, at least not consciously. It’s always going on in the back of my mind. I don’t recite the numbers – each number would take more than a second at this point in my life and I would be totally lost. It’s just there, in the background, marking time, keeping track, logging the events of my life.
It started when I was twenty-two. Not exactly twenty-two, but during my twenty-third year. One. There was no zero. I started counting one day and who starts counting with a zero? Two, three, four. I wasn’t doing anything at the time. Just sitting on a bench, waiting, watching the autumn leaves swirl across the pavement. I got to four-hundred-twenty-six before Sioned appeared, emerging from the council offices where she worked. Wrapped in a blue coat, hair fluttering freely about her face. My girlfriend. I carried on counting as she crossed the road. At four-hundred-thirty-one she smiled and waved at me. At four-hundred-thirty-five a moped ploughed into her and snatched her handbag. At four-hundred-thirty-seven I was on my feet and she was hitting the floor, hard. The ambulance arrived at seven-hundred-twelve.
The moped driver was convicted of manslaughter at 33,696,885. He smirked as he was taken down.
My office is on the fourteenth floor. It doesn’t matter what I do on my office, really. All offices are basically the same: phone calls, emails, reports, printing and scanning and budgets. Grey desks, beige walls, blue chairs and re-usable cups. I get in the lift at 315,387,590, wait for the door to close. Press the button for the fourteenth floor just so, and wait for the door to slide open again. Beige walls, grey desks, blue chairs. Someone who arrived accidentally would think nothing of it, save for the tinkling bells and alpine yodelling music, the smell of spicy Turkish salgam juice and the tall, thin man in dungarees and bare feet.
“Fletcher,” he acknowledges, nodding his head slightly as he passes.
“Emil,” I reply. I don’t know what he does but, as I said, all office jobs are the same so it hardly matters.
I amble along the corridor to what was an open-plan office in normal Chelmsford, regular Chelmsford, mundane Chelmsford as the inhabitants of this Chelmsford liked to call it. Here the open-plan office is strewn with armchairs, chez-longue and rugs in an eye-watering mishmash of styles. Retro-chic, renaissance and functional chairs. Rugs that claimed to be from Persia, Iran and the local big-name furniture store. People drinking tea of a dozen varieties: hot and sweet, fruity and flavourless, thick and syrupy, strong and buildery. Coffee, in all its glorious, poncy variegation. Spicy drinks far less well known in mundane Chelmsford. Clothing that could grace any marketplace or bazaar in the world, and equally could have been paraded down a busy street in central London. There is no theme to the room, no over-arching aesthetic. Just people, an eclectic, eccentric gathering of people who do not work in my office building in Chelmsford.
I make myself a cup of tea and slouch into a comfortable-looking, overly-cushioned armchair.
Better than a tea-break, better than a change of scene, this is a complete change of world. Things that matter in the mundane world don’t matter here. I’m sure people have worries and stress and pressures, but they’re not the same worries and pressures and stress. And I have none. I just sit and sip. Chat occasionally to the Swiss chalet owner in his impeccable English, or the Brazilian farmer in his broken English or the Mongolian yak herder in his non-existent English. I don’t know how any of them get here. The topology of this version of Chelmsford is far too complicated for me to understand. I only know that taking the stairwell down one floor leads to the ground floor and taking the stairwell up one floor leads to Epping Underground station. I’m happy to relax a while before returning to my mundane, indescribable office job.
I sat uncomfortably upright, perched on the edge of a large, black, leather chair, facing the psychologist who smiled reassuringly and yet expectantly at me from behind black-rimmed glasses. 40,174,442. She had explained my compulsive counting to be a consequence of trauma. She had expected it to stop after the conviction.
I licked my lips and wondered how soon I could get away without seeming like I didn’t want to be there.
She smoothed the folds of her skirt over her knee. A kind of forest-green, tie-die-but-respectable affair that swished somewhere down by her ankles. Crisp white blouse to emphasize the respectability.
“Do you feel like you want to stop counting?”
I shrugged minutely.
“Do you think he’s counting?” I asked. “Counting the days on his cell wall?” Counting did not make me think of the moped driver. In my mind the two were not connected. But she thought they must be. I liked to humour her. I think she knew I was humouring her.
“Do you want him to be counting?”
She always referred to him as ‘him’, or sometimes ‘the moped rider’. I think she was trying to depersonalise him.
The moped rider: Devin Brookes, age sixteen, known to police. No driver’s licence, no insurance. Moped ‘borrowed’ from a cousin. Previously arrested for shoplifting and public order offences but freed without charge. Cautioned for possession of cannabis. Associated with several other teenagers of similarly dubious credentials.
He was still personal to me.
“I don’t want him to be doing anything,” I said.
After work I take a detour via the retirement home where my grandmother now lives. 315,415,111 as I enter the building. Code to get through the main entrance. Another code to get into the corridor. Turn right, turn left. Up one floor via the stairwell. An extra twist of the stairs and through another door that the residents and staff will never see and I’m on another floor that does not look like an institution for the bored and isn’t decorated with WWII era posters. It looks, in fact, rather like the room where I like to go for tea. It looks nothing like that room in fact, only in that it contains such an eclectic mix of décor and furniture, people and artefacts, that it is impossible to define in terms of style.
“Darling!” says grandma, in her typically exuberant style as I enter the lounge. She moved out of the mundane world permanently after she retired and after the grandchildren left childhood behind. She rises from a huge armchair decorated in some kind of oriental, peacock-tail pattern. She bustles about, making tea in the grand style: tea leaves, strainer, china cups and saucers, silver tray, sugar cubes, little tongs for picking up the sugar cubes. Rich tea biscuits.
I settle down and tell her about the boring trivialities of my day in the council office.
I’ve thought about moving here permanently, but it’s too relaxed, nothing that needs to be done. I’m too restless, too much on my mind. I need to keep busy. I have my own responsibilities now. There’s no equivalent of Chelmsford town council. No equivalent of any government as far as I can tell. The non-existent borders and thoroughly mixed population mean that nobody has jurisdiction anywhere. There are no laws and very little opportunity to commit crime. Antisocial behaviour is dealt with by whomever is on hand. No police, no courts, nobody to appeal to or ‘rights’ to hide behind. Justice is swift and mostly just. Grandma loves it here. I say goodnight at 315,418,098 and head home.
They let him out after a quarter billion seconds. Only manslaughter; first conviction; good behaviour. I find the latter hard to believe. I think about revenge. Of course I do. Devin Brookes. Hooligan, reformed; apparently. He went on to a life of benefits and unprovable petty crime. Sioned went on to nothing.
What could revenge accomplish? What would it consist of? Mow him down with a moped? Taste of his own medicine. I’d end up in prison, he’d end up on even more benefits.
I chose something less direct.
Devin Brookes arrived at my office block and I got a call from reception at 255,441,882. I went downstairs to meet him. He had no idea who I was. I’d sent a letter on council headed paper: review of benefits, show up for the interview or all money will be cancelled, universal credit implementation, blah blah blah. Somewhat to my surprise, there he was.
I took him to the other fourteenth floor. If he was surprised by the trio of Buddhist monks, the yak grazing on potted plants and the moustachioed Mexican, he didn’t show it. Probably his first time in a council office building.
“Lift’s broken,” I explained as we took the stairs up another floor.
I offered no explanation as we emerged from a cleaning closet onto the platform at Epping Underground Station. I have no idea if he’d ever been there before, or knew that Epping Underground Station is actually overground. Across the tracks and through the ticket office, a pair of horses were tethered. A train pulled in from the Ongar direction, decorated in the livery of Indian Railways.
Devin Brookes was still drawing a breath when I bundled him onto the train. The carriage was empty save for an elderly woman with a spinning wheel.
“I don’t…” Devin looked out of the windows at the dense, snowy forest. “What the…”
“I know,” I said.
The train pulled into Antwerp Central. I tugged Devin Brookes after me and was relieved to see the stern visage of a large man known as Arkady.
“This him?” he asked.
I nodded and he rolled his shoulder, cricked his neck.
“Come,” he said, grabbing Devin Brooked by the arm.
“What? Where?” He struggled briefly, until Arkady pinned him to the wall by both arms.
“No argue. Just come.”
“Where are we going?” Devin appealed to me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t care.”
Arkady dragged him away down a corridor which I’d heard led to a chalet in the Swiss Alps. The Swiss man I’d met back in Chelmsford said he often popped over to Mongolia from there. After that, I had no idea what led to where.
Devin Brookes would not be coming back.
“How was your grandma?” I step through the door at 315,418,962. Home. Warmth. Normal, plain, décor. Smell of regular British food cooking. Whiff of perfume as I hug Cerys.
“Fine,” I say. She’s always fine.
“Ten years tomorrow.”
I know. Of course I know. Ten years since Sioned finally succumbed to her injuries. Cerys was there too. Sioned’s younger sister. People feel awkward when they find that out. It was a bit awkward, for a while.
“I wonder what happened to him?” Cerys says.
I’ve heard a couple of reports: begging in Nova Scotia, labouring on a farm in Bangalore. Never back in the mundane world. Unlikely to get a chance at a life of crime. It might not be justice, but what is?
“As long as he’s not here, I don’t care.”
Cerys looks up at me.
“As long as we’re both here,” she says.
I look out the window and wonder what my street looks like in that other world. I have no idea how to get to the rest of that other Chelmsford. Probably full of horse-drawn carriages, tuk-tuks and French street performers.
“I’ve nowhere I’d rather be,” I say. And it’s true.