This is a story about someone called Alice. I gathered the images gradually, from years of looking at dank memes etc. This was originally printed on a long roll of paper and put into a clingfilm package. Reading it would mean pulling out a lot of paper. Luckily for you I've digitised this story, for your pleasure.
Okay, let me read it
Alice? Can she hear us? It's okay, just get in the lift. We won't let you die.
She's actually doing it. Are you sure she can't hear us?
Alice drove to work most days, but on the days where she didn't she took the bus and the smell of other people almost made her ill. She couldn't understand the smell. Did she smell like that? It's like they put the smell in on purpose. And she somehow always forgot about it which is why she continued to ride the bus.
When she drove herself to work she would listen to the radio. She liked talk radio. If she wanted music she would play her own MP3s. She didn't like the music that radio stations decided was good. Sometimes the radio said weird things and she'd forget all her presets.
Welcome to Shine radio. Soon the news. No new wars to report. Coming up: an interview with your head of state.
Although that did make sense. There are always wars, but none of them new.
Her office was large and open plan. She sat in the middle of a sweat shop for computers. All the computers were nearly the same. Or were they exactly the same? Sometimes she'd stop and look at it after coming out of the toilet. It would be easy to mistake an office like this one as one that does hot-desking. But everyone had an assigned desk. Alice always thought that if this office employed a hot desk system, it would implode on itself, as if it were a highly sensitive system, and the collective energy of a thousand employees circling each other trying to find somewhere to sit would over-load it.
The assigned desks were even numbered. Alice was 69. She liked that she was 69. It was easy to remember from day one. A co-worker who sat next to her would make the same joke about it every morning.
Don't you get tired of making that joke every day?
Not really. I guess I'm just programmed that way.
Interesting. And maybe Alice was programmed to hate hearing the same joke over and over again.
When Alice ate lunch she often felt lonely despite being surrounded by dozens of people. They were all perfectly nice but none of them were much like Alice in a foundational sort of way that Alice was never able to articulate, even to herself.
If you split this muffin with me I won't feel so bad about it.
Have you ever heard Eric's laugh? When Eric laughs, he sounds like he's puking basically.
Our boss is a twat. No, not the ginger one, the twatty one. Though the ginger one's a right twat as well.
Is that your lunch? I could never do that. I'd fall over at two-thirty. Once I ate five donuts in the space of ten minutes.
That guy, and that guy, and that person there. And the guy who always wears a hat. They're all spineless pricks.
They all seemed to hate each other. And themselves.
Alice's job was very simple to do but hard to explain. She was able to talk about work matters with her co-workers and nobody else. It was hard talking about work in the abstract. A lot of it was to do with the fact that most of the work related lingo was abbreviated, and after a couple of years Alice found that she'd forgotten what many of the abbreviations even stood for.
The MC on my first three LPs was dire. Nothing compared to the SC on this one though. But this isn't PQ, it's SXS so whatever. I'm putting this under ATSA.
Alice would also get thirsty a lot and rely heavily on the water cooler which they had in the office. There was only one, and every few days it seemed to move. She could never understand why. On Monday it might be next to the ladies toilet and by Thursday it could be near reception. Once it was right next to her desk. Nobody else seemed to notice this. It was like they were all in on it.
Going home it would either be getting dark or dark already, depending on what time she'd manage to leave. She couldn't tell if it always got dark at the same time, or whether it was just always getting dark exactly when she left for work. She had days where she couldn't shake the feeling that it got dark because she was going home. If she was on the bus she would get the smell again, but the evening version. If she was driving she'd listen to the news on the radio, specifically traffic updates.
At home Alice would relax by reading or watching television. There were times where she'd go out for dinner or drinks with co-workers or other friends and come home quite late. She lived alone in a large flat which overlooked the city. It had a terrace and a very spacious living room. Sometimes she'd find herself wondering how a job like hers could allow her to afford such a nice place. It was almost the most perfect situation. Her job was not demanding. She didn't have to think about it unless she was there.
Would anyone notice if I stopped turning up? Maybe I would notice the most. Maybe I need the monotony more than I thought. Maybe everyone will notice, and the whole thing falls apart without me. Maybe I am the centre of it all.
These thoughts came to Alice often, mostly when she was just falling asleep, and they felt very much outside of herself, as if someone was beaming them straight into her head.
When it came to reading, she favoured the classics. Once she had read all of her books she would either read the same thing again or buy another classic. She was definitely interested in new writing but she could hardly ever find any to buy and nor was she very often recommended it by a friend. She once read an article about the 'Proustian moment' and learned that Proust maintained that our deepest, most far away memories are very easily brought to the fore via smells. Alice tried to think of any smells that may trigger a memory for her but could only recall the smell on the bus.
Then one weekend she bought a new leather jacket, and the smell of it did indeed transport her to a summer when she was younger and her mother had taken her to a seaside town, and they visited a small leather shop. She remembered it very clearly after having not thought about it for so many years, and she really enjoyed that it all came from her new leather jacket.
It was comforting that she found a smell that made her think of more than just the bus.
When she watched TV she often flicked through channels until she found something she liked. Sometimes she'd stumble upon an interesting interview given by people who seemed like they were famous or important, but who she was not familiar with. They'd throw around abstract and complex ideas and once in a while say something which didn't fit in at all.
How long do you think we can keep bankrolling this reality?
What reality? Alice would always keep watching to try and understand instead of just changing the channel in frustration. Sometimes she would never catch up with what they were talking about and would accept that there were limits to what she could learn in one sitting, or ever.
She doesn’t know it but we’re looking right at her. And sometimes she’s looking right back at us.
As well as informative programming, Alice enjoyed finding good movies to watch. There were good new ones though those were never as good as old favourites which she hadn't seen since she was a child. She liked it best when she switched to a channel and found a movie by surprise. Once she managed to find one that had just started, and they were getting to the bit where the mother takes the daughter into a leather shop.
Wait, didn't this happen to me once? Or was I just remembering this movie?
When Alice struggled to remember things like that she would come to the conclusion that anything is possible. She could have been in the movie for all she knew, and what she was in fact remembering was a person pretending to be her mother, pretending to take her to a pretend leather shop. Just because it was pretend, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It’s not that she didn’t trust her own memory, but that she knew she, and anyone, could always remember things differently.
At work again she got to her desk and couldn't shake the feeling that her computer was different. The screen had more rounded corners and the plastic casing was more yellow-white than grey. She asked her neighbouring co-worker whether he too had noticed this.
This is how it's always been.
She also wondered about the numbers. The desks were no longer numbered.
No, the desks are numbered, but the numbers aren't displayed. You just know that this is 68 and yours is 69.
She then remembered that someone showed her to her desk on her first day, so that did make sense. The numbers don't have to be there. She just always thought they had been. She’d forgotten that she’d always remembered.
When it got to lunch she went to the lift and when the doors opened they revealed an empty shaft. She peered down the long drop.
A chance to die.
This was like the voice she’d hear when drifting off to sleep.
Are you going down?
A co-worker had appeared behind her and made her forget what she was thinking about. The co-worker got in the lift. She followed. She was amazed at how well she imagined a shaft. She even felt the draft on her face.
It felt so real.
She'd read about how people often imagine themselves doing dangerous things, just because they're curious about what it would be like. But their curiosity would never lead them to actually do it. That's what she read, anyway. She wanted to know what it might be like to jump down the elevator shaft, but she would never willingly take the jump.
She went to her favourite cafe for lunch and there was a queue right to the door, as usual. It was a popular lunch place because they had great sandwiches. This was like an unquestioned fact among people at the office, and Alice enjoyed that because she agreed that the sandwiches were great. The café was always loud with chatter and she’d over-hear fragments of conversation. Sometimes it sounded like people were talking about her. But they could be talking about anyone.
And you keep saying she doesn’t fit in.
The sandwiches are good because this is exactly how she likes her sandwiches to be.
This all seems so obvious that it's scary. I guess she's never known anything else.
She drove home and turned on the radio and everything was normal.
Welcome to Shine radio. All weather conditions are normal.
When she got home she thought about the lift. She was still impressed by how her own mind fabricated the shaft so convincingly. She decided that a person’s grasp on reality was much like their memory: somewhat unreliable. She could imagine anything she wanted and decide that it was real. It wouldn’t matter that it wasn’t. But she didn’t imagine the shaft; the shaft presented itself.
Before this train of thought went any further, a co-worker called and asked her out for drinks and she agreed.
Sometimes it feels like we know what she's thinking before she even thinks it. This is getting weird in a whole other way.
The next day at work the computers had gone back to normal but then she questioned what they ever looked like and if she’d just forgotten or not realised that they had been replaced with newer models. She thought to ask her neighbour at 68 about it again but decided that he too could be wrong. Then she thought about the numbers and wondered why they even needed numbers if everyone knew where they were supposed to sit and the numbers were never displayed anyway.
She took a water break. The cooler was by the window.
When she drove home she couldn’t get her pre-sets to work. The next day they were back to normal and she put her favourite talk radio station on as she drove in.
Good morning 69. That’s right, 69 tracks to start your day! Coming up later on the radio: traffic. Everything is normal.
They’d clearly switched DJs. At work she tapped her fingers on her desk as she concentrated. She felt the grain of the wood.
I never realised that this whole time the desks were made of wood.
No they changed them just last week. Don’t you remember?
She went for a water break and had trouble finding the cooler. It was in the anteroom next to the toilet. When she came back she could suddenly smell the wooden desks; as if they had been freshly oiled or waxed. It was odd that she only just noticed the smell. As time went on the smell got stronger and she found it difficult to focus.
Do you think you're about a 3 to 2?
I said, how did you find that PQ?
She soon found it difficult to really hear anything or anyone and so only really grasped the gist of what someone was saying and had to make up the rest herself.
Could you lend me a cup of bile?
I said, could you send me the beta file?
I read a book on sorrow.
I find it hard to swallow.
I'll have it done by tomorrow.
Would you like a biscuit and crunch?
Did you have a glass of punch?
Have you developed a hunch?
Shall we go out for lunch?
She decided to go out for lunch so she could get some fresh air, and hoped that things would make sense again afterwards. She went to her favourite café and it was totally empty. She went to the counter and no one was there. There were sandwiches laid out, freshly prepared. It was like everyone disappeared a second before she walked in. She reluctantly took a sandwich and left money on the counter.
She sat on a bench in the park opposite. Donna from the office spotted her and waved. She knew Donna would remark on her sandwich, because that’s what she always did. She also noted how busy the cafe was, which was strange, because it definitely wasn’t. It was like she couldn’t deviate from what she normally said, even when it didn’t make any sense.
This is so messed up. We should just pull the plug.
After lunch the water cooler was by the door. Then it was in reception again. Then it was where desk number 56 used to be.
Was this always here? Didn't someone used to sit here?
No. This is where the water cooler has always been.
She somehow wasn't thirsty anyway, so the water cooler no longer mattered. She sat down and typed words which instantly filled the screen. She looked over to her co-worker at number 68, and he was pressing the same key over and over again in focused and robotic manner. She studied him and almost asked what he was doing but decided she could no longer be bothered to deal with this weird day.
She drove home and the roads were bizarrely empty. She had the radio on as usual.
Welcome to the radio. And now, traffic news: there is always traffic somewhere.
When she got home she decided she'd relax by reading a good book. She went to her shelf and couldn't find what she was looking for. She opened one of her favourites and all the pages were blank, like it was a notebook that she hadn't written in yet. She flicked through and saw that she had in fact written something on the last page. It said 'try TV instead'. This was a great idea.
She turned on the set and it was on an unknown channel. There was some sort of chat show or panel discussion on and a woman was explaining something that Alice had never thought about before. It was a heavy concept that she was sure she'd better understand if she had been watching the show from the beginning.
And if you consider that in a dream, you are just as – if not more – conscious than when you're awake, a whole new realm of ideas starts of open up. What if what we perceive as real has no substance at all? And why does that matter anyway? It's all some kind of reality. In dreaming I could walk through a forest and, if this was a particularly vivid or even lucid dream, I would cheerfully note the colour of the leaves; the smell of bark; the feeling of twigs beneath my feet. In waking I take all this for granted and ignore it. But then why is waking given more validity than dreaming?
Alice watched the show to the end. The woman talking was definitely addressing others who were present in the talk show, but she was the only one on screen, and the shot was very close on her face. Her gaze was odd. It was hard to tell if she was looking into the camera or just at something right next to the camera. By the time the show finished it was fairly late. Alice nodded off on the sofa and the strange thoughts came to her again, as they often did when falling asleep. This time they felt even more outside of herself than usual and in the third person.
She was looking right at us again. That was cool. What the hell do we do now? How do we get her out of there? She's the centre of it all. Can it exist without her? Can she exist without it?
The next day she woke at her desk. She didn't feel groggy. Her work was right in front of her just as it always was at the beginning of the day. She was fully dressed. She didn't feel hungry or thirsty.
Oh... oh dear. Must have spaced out for a moment there.
It was easy to stop paying attention with such a boring non-demanding job. The office was quiet. Everyone was working and not talking. No one noticed her absent moment. She decided to step out for air to see if it would help her maintain concentration better for the day. As she walked to the lift she over-heard random conversations.
God, what have we done to her. She thinks this is normal.
She doesn't know anything else. She's never been anywhere else.
When the lift doors opened she half expected to see the shaft again, but it was the lift. There was nobody in the lift and no one else getting on with her. She stood for a moment and then lent forward without stepping in. She was sure she could feel the draft on her face again just as she did before.
Then she stepped in and fell straight down.
She calmly watched the very bottom of the shaft get closer and closer. This is exactly what the woman on the TV was talking about. Maybe nothing was real so it didn't matter. As if it would make any difference, she closed her eyes about a second before she expected to impact.
She did not.
She opened them again and found that she was suspended no more than a foot away from the bottom. She could reach out and touch it.
Don't worry, Alice. We just wanted to see if you would do it. We had to do something; the water cooler trick was getting boring. You're not going to die now. We've found a way to keep you alive. This whole thing will be gone very soon.
What will be gone? The lift? My office?
Yeah. Literally everything you've ever seen or touched. Don't worry, you'll be fine.
Alice didn't understand. The voices continued.
But how can we make her forget about this?
We can't. It's too late anyway. Not enough money to keep bankrolling her reality.