I’ve never been entirely sure what to do with this story. It’s been bounced by half a dozen magazines, and I’m not really sure what sort of market it best suits. It’s a bit Ballardian, and very much about the current economic situation – yes, it’s science fiction about the real world. Some may find parts of this story uncomfortably familiar. I dedicate it to all the human resource managers of the world.
During the night, someone had removed the wall opposite Webb’s apartment. He stepped outside his front door to find himself looking out over a black void. Warning tape had been strung the length of the gap, but it was no protection. Webb paused, and squeezed the door handle he still held in an attempt to hold vertigo at bay. The corridor was some ten feet wide, but the lip of that enormous gulf seemed only inches from his feet. Once he felt steady, Webb stepped away from his door. The opening stretched the entire half-mile of the corridor. He looked out into the space, first up and then down. The far end of the void was out of sight, the roof appeared to be about a mile above him, and he could see nothing below except vague shapes in the blackness.
Nothing about this had been mentioned to him. There’d been no warning on the news. Webb had never known what was behind the wall opposite his front door; he’d always assumed it was apartments much like his own. This was, after all, a residential district.
Not wanting to be late for work, Webb walked away from the mystery. He strode faster than his usual pace, and managed to make it in time for his normal train. As the monorail zipped along the track embedded in the tunnel’s ceiling, Webb pulled a ream of printout from his briefcase and prepared for the day ahead. But his thoughts kept on circling back to that vast empty volume which had appeared on his doorstep.
He couldn’t concentrate. He put the printout away and settled back in his seat. About him he heard the rustle and scratches of the other commuters busy with their own paperwork. Webb scanned the swaying carriage, but saw only familiar faces. He did not know these people, though he had seen them every day for years. If anyone was missing, he could not tell. If there’d been apartments on the other side of the wall, their residents might well have travelled each day on this monorail.
He looked out of the window beside him, something he could not recall ever doing before. Possibly because there was nothing to see: only a blank concrete wall speeding past. If he looked down, he could just see the tunnel floor, fifteen feet below the monorail carriage. It was as featureless as the wall.
The monorail tunnel resembled a great drainpipe, square in cross-section. Every day for the past twenty years, Webb had been flushed from home to work, from apartment to office; and back again. He had sat hunched over his printouts, oblivious to his surroundings, ignoring his fellow passengers. He preferred to commute by monorail. The thought of sitting in a car, stuck in traffic in a tunnel, did not appeal to him. The tunnel’s air would be thick with fumes. Also, of course, he could not work while he was driving–and he needed these thirty minutes before he arrived at the office. Not, he reflected, that he was making good use of the half-hour today.
On arrival at the station, the door in the floor of the carriage let down, forming a stair, and Webb disembarked with the rest of the passengers. Together, they filed out of the tunnel, and into another square passage. Yet more corridors led from this, each one smaller than the last, like a giant lung cast in concrete. Webb traced his usual route along passageways through the business district until he arrived at the entrance to British Small Parts Limited. He pushed through the swing doors into the firm’s reception area, nodded companionably at the security guard behind his sliding window, and continued into the company’s facility, soon reaching his office. He opened the door and entered the small room in which he spent his working days. He slipped off his jacket and hung it on the hook on the back of the door, then sidled around the desk and seated himself. He took the printout from his briefcase and placed it neatly beside a sheaf of requisitions he needed to send to Data Processing. Lifting the first sheet of the printout, he gazed at the columns of figures, but he could not think what they were for, what they signified. He could no longer remember what he actually did, why he sat in this office for forty hours each week. Everything seemed supremely unimportant. There were no clues on the blank walls—he had never put up calendars or posters or work schedules.
The tele-printer in the corner set up a loud clatter, startling Webb. He turned to see a sheet of paper being extruded from the device. A message. He ripped the paper from the feed once the printing had completed. It was a request for an update on one of his schedules. It was enough to goad him into work.
Two hours later, Webb was disturbed by a knock at his door. He told whoever it was to enter and the door swung open. It was Chapman from Human Resources. “Important meeting at twelve,” he told Webb. “Everyone in the department. In the big conference room.”
“What about?” asked Webb.
But the door had already shut.
At the instructed time, Webb made his way to the big conference room. They called it that, although it was the only conference room to which they had access. There was a smaller one, deeper inside British Small Parts’ offices, but it was for the use of senior management only. Webb had heard it contained leather chairs, a wallscreen, even wood-panelling.
As Chapman had said, the entire department was there. Additionally, two members of senior management sat at the head of the long table. There weren’t enough chairs, so most of the people present stood against the wall. Webb could not decide which worried him most: the scared looks on the faces of some of his colleagues, or the grim expressions of the two managers. He wondered if he’d missed a message or a memo; or perhaps some gossip had avoided him entirely. It would not be the first time.
Chapman asked for everyone’s attention. At a nod from one of the senior managers, he continued:
“I’m sure you’ve all heard the rumours. I’m afraid they’re true. The department is down-sizing. Resource allocation is down, so we’re having to scale back on Manufacturing.” He gave a weak smile. “I don’t pretend to understand the technicalities. This is something that’s come down from on high. It’s across the board, so don’t think it’s just you… er, us. Anyway, the focus for the foreseeable future is on Maintenance, so I’m afraid there’s less work for Production Planning. Sacrifices will have to be made. We’ll do this as fairly as we can, of course. Mr Smith and Mr Jones here –” He indicated the two senior managers; not that Webb recalled ever seeing them in the department offices– “Well, Mr Smith and Mr Jones have volunteered their time to go through everyone’s personnel record and make recommendations.”
One of the senior managers raised a finger. Chapman gave him the floor: “Mr Jones would like to say a few words.”
“We’re all adults here, you know the situation,” Jones said, remaining seated. His voice was as bland as his appearance. “When HMS Great Britain began her historic voyage fifty years ago, we accepted that production was paramount. When we broke away from the Continent, we knew we couldn’t afford waste, we couldn’t afford idleness. But the economy is currently in recession, and everyone has to tighten their belts. These things happen. We’ll sail to a new market soon, demand will rise, and all hands will be needed once again. There’s fifty million of us aboard this great ship, and everyone has to pull their weight.”
A doom-laden silence followed Mr Jones’ speech, and Webb wondered whether it had been intended to lay their fears to rest, or to prepare them for their inevitable lay-off. It had not been confidence-boosting.
Someone put up their hand: Compton, one of the quantity surveyors. “What happens if our services are no longer required?”
“I’m sure there are plenty of other opportunities out there,” Chapman replied. “I’m sure you’ll find something.”
As they filed out of the big conference room, Webb was jostled by a colleague. He looked up and saw it was Roberts, one of the inventory schedulers. “‘Plenty of opportunities’, my arse,” Roberts hissed in disgust. “Everywhere’s feeling the pinch.”
“You think we’re for the chop?” Webb asked.
“We wouldn’t have been in that room if we weren’t, mate,” Roberts replied. “Best start getting your files in order.”
He stalked off down the corridor.
It came as no surprise to Webb to discover he was one of the “casualties”. Chapman broke the news to him in the HR man’s office. There was no sign of Smith or Jones. “I am sorry,” Chapman assured Webb, “but you know how it is.”
Webb didn’t. He’d been in employment for twenty-three years, ever since leaving university, twenty of those years at British Small Parts. He didn’t know anyone who had been unemployed.
“What am I supposed to do?” he asked Chapman. “Who’s going to give me a job? Without a salary, I can’t pay my rent, or buy food, or anything.”
“There’ll be something, of course there will. There’s plenty of work available.”
“I was good at my job,” Webb protested.
“It’s not a matter of good or bad.”
“Of course it bloody is, you damn fool,” snapped Webb. “By getting rid of me you’re implying I was no good at my job. Or were the selections made completely randomly?”
“Well, of course they weren’t random. We have to do what’s best for the company. You had excellent reports, and we’ll be happy to pass them on as references.”
“But not excellent enough,” said Webb bitterly.
He wondered if Roberts or Compton had also been let go. Roberts had seemed to think the entire department would be. Webb asked Chapman if this were the case.
“I’m afraid I can’t say.”
“You don’t know?”
“Of course I know. But that information’s confidential. Could be bad for morale, you know.”
“My morale is already bad, you stupid idiot.”
Webb rose to his feet and marched out of Chapman’s office. He halted, briefly at a loss, as the door shut behind him. Which way was his own office? All these grey concrete corridors looked the same. Left or right? Not that it would be “his” office for much longer.
Remembering the way, he marched along the deserted corridor. After collecting his coat, he went home. His briefcase he left on his desk. It belonged to the department; he had only ever used it to carry printouts to and from his flat.
The monorail carriage was two-thirds empty. Webb recognised none of those present. Some had carrier-bags on the seats beside them. He tried to remember if he had enough food in the apartment. He had visited the shopping precinct, he seemed to remember, three evenings ago, so he should be fine for another four or five days…
And then what?
It was halfway through the month. Most of last month’s wages had already been spent on bills and such. He had enough money to feed himself for another couple of weeks, perhaps longer if he economised. But all his bills–rent, utilities, entertainment, etc.; when they came due, he wouldn’t be able to pay them.
The monorail reached Webb’s station. He trotted down the stairs from the carriage and turned absently towards the tunnel leading to his residential district. His mind a blank, he traced the route home, taking the necessary turns without conscious thought. It was only when he stood before his front door that he realised where he was. He slotted his key into the lock and turned the handle. Before opening the door, however, he looked at the other side of the corridor.
The void had gone–or rather, it had been concealed. A temporary wall of wooden sheeting, which looked thin and insubstantial, now covered the full length of the gap. Whoever had fitted it had not even bothered to paint it. Webb stepped across to it and tapped the wood gently, producing a hollow knock. The void was still there on the other side. The wood felt flimsy and Webb suspected it would prove no barrier should someone fall against it. He shuddered at the thought of plumetting down into that black emptiness.
Turning back to his apartment, he pushed open the door and stepped inside. Tonight he would celebrate his misery—finish that bottle of wine in the fridge and watch something on the wallscreen–and relish his self-pity. There was plenty of time to look for another job.
There was no work. Not for anyone with Webb’s experience and skills. His age also told against him. He wandered the precinct, furious at the blatant insincerity of the man in the recruitment agency. Webb had sat before the agent’s desk, a smile fixed on his face, knowing the agent’s glib assurances and mealy-mouthed apologies meant as much to him as the tea he’d spilt when he picked up his cup at the start of the interview. No one, apparently, was recruiting. The manufacturing sector was undergoing shrinkage. Even opportunities for cross-training were limited.
Webb stood on the mezzanine and gazed down at the lower level of the precinct, a wide grey pedestrianised street. The only dabs of colour were the shoppers, shuttling from store to store, resting occasionally at concrete benches. From his vantage point, Webb could see that several of the shops were closed, their plate-glass frontages boarded over with wooden sheeting. He shoved his hand in his pocket and fingered the few coins there. He was down to his last pennies. The bank account was empty, the bills were due any day. He had no money, and no means of earning any. He had no future.
He yanked his tie from about his neck and shoved it angrily into his jacket pocket. Stepping back from the concrete balustrade, he turned and headed towards the nearest monorail station. There was nothing for him here. The grey ceiling with its huge banks of fluorescent lights oppressed him. The blank angular faces of the buildings lining the precinct mocked him with their disregard. Even the brightly-coloured coats of the shoppers were a direct affront to his black mood.
During the trip home in the swaying monorail carriage, Webb brooded. He pulled his monthly travel ticket from his pocket and gazed mournfully at it. Two more days and it would expire. If he wanted to go anywhere after that, he’d have to walk. And it was at least five miles from his apartment to the shopping precinct–not, of course, that he could afford to purchase anything in the shops.
At his stop, he descended the stair from the carriage and walked with a heavy tread to his home. He shut the door carefully behind him and scanned his living-room as if seeing it for the first time. The three-piece suite, with its wood-veneer finish and wool upholstery. The wallscreen, glowing nacreously. The striped wallpaper in muted shades of brown and orange. The bookshelves, lined with the colourful spines of paperbacks…
He crossed to the settee and dropped into it. He considered switching on the wallscreen, perhaps setting it to display a view of the countryside on a summer’s day, a snapshot of England’s lost green and pleasant land. But it would mean bending forward and scooping up the remote control from the coffee-table before him. He rose to his feet, wandered desultorily about his apartment for ten minutes, and then went to lie on his bed.
Someone hammering on his door dragged him from sleep. He glanced at the glowing red digits of the alarm clock on the bedside cabinet and saw that it was nine o’clock the following morning. He’d slept the entire evening and night. He was still fully dressed. Feeling groggy from too much sleep, Webb clambered from the bed and padded through the living-room to the front door. He unlatched it and swung it open.
Standing outside, fist raised to hammer the door once again, was Webb’s landlord. Behind him, a muscular man in a polo-neck jumper loomed menacingly.
“Got next month’s rent?” the landlord demanded.
Webb blinked. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. “What’s this for?” he asked. Normally, Webb paid his rent directly, bank account to bank account.
“Heard you got the chop. If you’re going to stay here, I need to know you’ve the money for the rent.”
Bad news, Webb reflected ruefully, travelled fast. He shrugged. “I’ll have it for you,” he lied.
“I don’t know; a week or so.”
“Not good enough. Pay up by the end of the week or get out.” The landlord jerked a thumb at the brute at his shoulder. “Or Mike here will chuck you out.”
Webb had never liked his landlord, but now he found himself hating him. The man’s reaction to Webb’s unemployment was not unexpected–in truth, everyone had reacted in the same way. No means of payment equals no services. And nothing was free.
“I’ll be out by then,” Webb said. “I need to figure out what to do with my stuff.”
“As long as you’re out.” The landlord turned away. Mike gave Webb a long, hard stare, and then followed his master.
Webb watched the two of them stride off, and knew there was no way back up. He had yet to reach bottom, but there was no escaping his inexorable slide downwards. There was no charity here, and the only fellow feeling offered was that which cost nothing. He closed the door slowly, and turned back to regard his living-room. His “stuff”: he could do nothing with it. He had no money to pay to store it; he did not have enough time to arrange to sell it. Even then, it was unlikely to raise enough money to pay for a month’s rent.
It was moot, anyway. As Webb discovered a few days later. He heard his front door splintering, and rushed out of the kitchen to see two uniformed men with axes chopping their way into his apartment. He recognised the uniforms–there was nothing he could do. Except:
“You could have just bloody knocked,” he said. But his heart wasn’t in the admonition.
“Sorry, mate,” said the first bailiff, shouldering his way through the hole he had made. “Standard procedure.”
The second bailiff squeezed through and explained, “We’re here to possess goods to the value of four hundred and twenty-seven pounds sterling and sixteen pence. In lieu of payment for one month’s subscription to Independent Syndicated Entertainment.”
“I don’t owe them any money,” Webb protested. “I paid for last month.”
“This is for next month.” The bailiff was big, with a battered face and hair shorn close to his scalp. His eyes, a curiously light blue, appeared more sympathetic than the set of his mouth. “Standard procedure, mate,” he said. “ISE always take money in advance. You got to give them one month’s notice if you want to cancel your subscription.”
They took away the bookcase, but not the books on it. The settee and matching armchair. And the colourful rug laid before the electric fire, which Webb had bought ten years ago in a curio shop.
The day worsened. While Webb was cobbling together lunch from what was left in the pantry, someone sneaked into the apartment through the ruined front door and stole his coffee-table. Later, he looked up from his jam sandwich and he saw a pair of faces at the door peering in. They shrugged guiltily and disappeared.
The landlord returned, with Mike in tow, and in a matter of minutes Webb found himself outside his apartment, a suitcase at his feet, while a carpenter repaired his front door and a locksmith fitted a new lock. Webb saw the flimsy wooden sheeting which formed the opposite wall of the corridor, and he thought about crashing through it, diving out into that great black space, and the long fall to oblivion. He thought about flying through darkness, downwards, ever downwards. He thought about the abrupt end–to his problems, to everything.
And he knew he could not do it.
Footsteps along the corridor drew his attention. Webb turned and watched a pair of policemen approach. They halted before him. “Move along,” one said.
“Where to?” asked Webb.
“You’ve nowhere to go?” asked the copper.
“A vagrant, then,” said the second policeman; and reached forward and clamped a hand about Webb’s upper arm. “This way, sir.” He stepped back, hauling Webb with him.
“What about my suitcase?” Webb demanded. He glanced back over his shoulder as he was dragged way.
“You won’t need a suitcase where you’re going, sir,” said the policeman.
The whole incident had unfolded with such practiced ease, with such inevitability, that Webb had fallen into the role of felon without thought.
After a night in jail, Webb was arraigned before a magistrate, who found him guilty of vagrancy and remanded him to a debtors’ camp. He was taken to the camp in a police bus with covered windows—not that there was anything to see, only the blank concrete walls of road tunnels. Webb was one of a dozen being transported to the camp. Each of the transportees deliberately avoided making eye contact, but they all wore the same expression of bewilderment. They were not violent criminals, so they were unchained; they were merely people without the means to support themselves.
The trip took two hours, during which Webb tried not to think about what lay ahead. For more than twenty years, he had been in employment, he had paid his taxes and his bills. He had been an average law-abiding citizen of HMS Great Britain, a vast ship six hundred miles long, one hundred and fifty miles wide. How quickly that had changed!
At length, the bus drew to a halt, a prison guard boarded, and the prisoners were herded off the vehicle. Webb found himself in a large and typically featureless chamber with grey concrete walls, ceiling and floor. A tunnel for vehicles led into it from one side. On the opposite wall was a large metal gate. As he watched, the gate slowly swung open. More prison guards appeared and began shooing the prisoners towards the gate.
Webb had not expected this. A prison, perhaps, not this hangar-like space, not this shanty town made from tin and cardboard and corrugated iron, made from rubbish. And all the people milling about between the shacks and hovels. There must have been over a thousand of them, perhaps more, dressed in a variety of styles, chiefly hand-me-downs and homemade. While he stood there, unsure what to do, the gate closed behind him with a terminal clang.
The group of new prisoners were immediately approached by a welcoming committee. The leader was a short woman wrapped in many layers of clothing, with long thick grey hair in braids. She was accompanied by four men who had plainly been chosen for their size and menacing aspects.
“Are you perms or temps?” the woman demanded.
Webb didn’t understand. He was not the only new prisoner to look puzzled.
“Your debts: do you have someone outside who can pay them off, or not?”
In short order, Webb’s group was organised into two sections. The “perms” was the smaller of the two, only three including Webb himself. Someone led away the “temps”. The woman turned to the remaining three. “There’s food and shelter, and plenty of work that needs doing to keep the camp liveable. If you don’t work, you get nothing.”
“This is it?” demanded Webb. He was expected to spend the rest of his life in here? The woman, who looked to be in her sixties, had plainly been here for many years.
“What did you expect? You know how the economy works–if you’re not a contributor, you’re a drain on resources.”
There was a way out, but few took it. It was a last resort. They showed it to Webb after he’d been in the debtors’ camp for a month. At the back of the great chamber was a small metal hatch. Sellings, who had lived in the camp for over six years, spun the wheel on the hatch, and hauled it open. Webb followed the man through it and found himself in a small metal room, no more than ten feet by ten feet by ten feet. There was another hatch on the opposite wall. A strange smell filled the room, and it was a moment before Webb identified it. The sea. A clang sounded behind Webb. He glanced back to see Sellings had shut the first hatch.
In the yellow light of a single lamp, Sellings undogged and opened the second hatch. Bright light spilled into the room. Webb put his arm across his eyes. He could hear a strange rippling noise. The air was still and flat, but strangely invigorating, His eyes had adjusted, so he stepped forward and peered out of the open hatch.
He saw a vast expanse of blue. The dark blue, almost grey, of the sea below, and the clear azure of the sky above. Ripples in the water lapped gently against the concrete some two or three feet below the hatch coaming.
“We’re not moving,” Webb said.
Why was HMS Great Britain not sailing the seven seas?
“This is an island, mate,” said Sellings. “It can’t bloody move, can it.”
“But…” Webb didn’t understand.
“Think about it: a ship six hundred miles long and one hundred and fifty miles wide? How’s that going to sail anywhere?”
“So we’re still– Where are we?”
Sellings pointed out to sea. “That’s the Continent over there. Europe. France. You can’t see it, it’s over the horizon. About twenty miles away. That’s your only way out.”
“Swim it. You have to swim across to France.”
But it was twenty miles. No one could swim that far, could they? Webb said as much.
“Of course they can. People have been doing it for nearly a century. You need to be careful, and take your time, but it can be done.”
It seemed to Webb a somewhat drastic exit, but then he thought back to life in the debtors’ camp, the makeshift nature of it all. He’d learned the camp was only one of many, all sited along the south coast, where the great engines of HMS Great Britain were allegedly located. The forgotten, and discarded, of British society. Europe, Sellings assured Webb, was a free society. Better still, the Europeans looked after their citizens, provided for them when they were no longer fit or able to work. The French and the Dutch and the Germans and the Belgians… all of them, they provided free healthcare, education, subsidised transport, unemployment benefit…
Or Webb could stay in Britain, eking out an existence in the debtor’s camp, surviving on what he could scrounge, or beg, or earn keeping the camp tidy and safe.
“Twenty miles, you said?” he asked Sellings.
I have no one to write to, no family or friends, but I’m going to write this letter anyway. Perhaps I’ll put it in a bottle and throw it into the sea. I can’t see Great Britain from here, it is over the horizon, the great concrete “ship”, still anchored to Europe, despite the lies told the British population. I can see the water of the Channel through the chainlink fence surrounding this refugee camp. Above me is the open sky. No more concrete ceilings, no more fluorescent lighting. I’ve become used to the open air, in fact I find I now prefer the sky above me. I never really felt free in Britain, and perhaps that was as much because of the roof permanently over my head as it was the ceaseless drive to contribute to the economy.
We’re not allowed out of the refugee camp, but we want for nothing. The French authorities provide food, shelter and medical care. It’s basic, but it’s free. There are perhaps fifty or sixty of us here. Some swam across the Channel, as I did, although many apparently perish making the attempt. Others constructed floats or boats and came that way. We’re welcomed when we reach the French shore, and temporarily housed in these camps.
Yes, “temporarily”. The French are finding homes for us throughout Europe. They even give us a choice. I’m expected to find a job once I settle down—wherever I settle down—but it’s not a crime to be unemployed. I’ve been learning Spanish as I fancy living somewhere warm and sunny. In fact, there’s an area on the south coast of Spain which is untouched and apparently very lovely. I think it was the name which drew me to it—the “Sun Coast”. Costa del Sol. Yes, I think I like that name very much.
I think I shall be happy there.