An excerpt from ‘Road’
- Skin Vision
John Lent could see his reflection in five CCTV screens. The large mole between his eyebrows stared out like a desiccated third eye. Lent had once been told that such a mole was a sure sign of a deep yet excitable thinker who needs to keep their ego in check. This was the sort of rubbish propagated by women’s magazines and obscure TV stations. It was also the sort of irrational idea he found himself thinking about in the middle of his long overnight shifts, that and his attempts to discern patterns in CCTV feeds. Last night Lent had caught himself trying to predict which make of vehicle would come into view next. His top ten forecasts were:
- Ford Focus
- Optare StarRiders based on Mercedes 811D chassis (bus)
- DAF DB250/Alexander ALX400 (bus)
- Ford Fiesta
- Vauxhall Corsa
- Ford Mondeo
- Generic white vans
- Audi A3 9 Pizza motorbikes (Honda 50 cc)
- BMW 3-Series Saloon
The first vehicle that appeared on screen 3 was indeed a second generation Ford Focus Mk 2 hatchback. Lent had been extensively trained in spotting patterns where other people only saw chaos. His next task was to work out the underlying significance of these discernible regularities. He was certain of a broad underlying organisation in the sequence of vehicles that drove into view, but suspected it might not be formally definable. Lent knew there were mysteries and conclusions that logic could not reach.
At 3:23 am his statistical day-dreams were disrupted. The energy in the sloping section of Streatham High Road, known to locals as the Dip, suddenly shifted. A midnight blue Mitsubishi Spacestar came into view on camera 3. The car was chased by a wildly swerving and woefully outdated red Ford Sierra XR4. The Spacestar was driven by a fifteen year old boy called Peter Salvidge, who was unfortunately about to hit a black 1999 Seat Arosa doing a u-turn in the middle of the Dip. Lent contacted emergency services. They were discouraged from doing this too often, but the situation looked serious enough to call both an ambulance and the police.
Lent’s judgement turned out to be entirely correct. The impact of the collision had broken Peter Salvidges’s leg in two places. It had also broken his nose and mandible, popping out most of his front teeth. The driver of the Seat Arosa was shocked and bruised and soon lost his voice from screaming at Peter. Lent felt his mind beginning to drain into blankness. As his mental content began to ebb away Lent knew the encroaching blankness really belonged to Peter Salvidge. The transmission of Peter’s neural vacuity was the outcome of a complex network model that also explained the transmission of infections, neural excitation and gossip. The emptiness soon cascaded through Lent. The physical impact of negative information was something like a diabetic hypo. It was once believed that even the most ignorant person could not know now less than nothing, but Lent was living proof that negative information existed and that a surfeit of entangled knowledge could be violently nullified into a negative state.
“What are you always looking for down there Lent?” asked Lent’s colleague Mo, still staring at his own screens while addressing him. “He’s looking for bad guys like you should be doing”. Sylvie, the supervisor, always defended Lent from the Observation Unit bullies and wide boys. “Maybe if you did your job properly like John the youth wouldn’t be getting cut-up down there“. There had been a fatal stabbing only two nights ago in their part of South London, and Sylvie had decided it was partly Mohammed’s fault for texting too much while on duty. “He’s looking for his mummy aren’t you John?” His oldest colleague, Millicent, meant this kindly but it was only an opening for further teasing from the male staff. “He’s looking for his balls” said Barry, who was seated behind Lent, fixated on a bank of screens while manoeuvring a greasy joy stick in tight circles. “He doesn’t look very well.’ Millicent wheeled her office chair towards Lent and put the palm of her big hand over his forehead. ‘He’s having one of his funny turns, feel his head, it’s all clammy’. “Lent’s having a ming mong attack” Barry snorted. “It’s called a ‘fugue’ Barry and you should be more kind and act your age”. Sylvie also wheeled over to Lent and felt his pallid skin. Lent meanwhile stared at the bank of TV screens flickering in front of him, completely still, as if he himself was trapped on a frozen screen.
For most of the day the road had been slow. To a trained observer like Lent this loss of velocity was noticeable even in CCTV images. The weight of recent violence had entered each and every molecule in the vicinity. Lent scanned the faces on the streets below for evidence of the exact geometry of emotion, but the surfaces slipped whenever he zoomed the cameras in. The Dip was looking particularly drizzly that morning. Lent had worked out that drizzle was its metier. Its best state. Did any of the others notice this?
There was one man hunched at the bus stop, trying to keep the damp out of his flimsy clothes. He looked like someone who had just got back from clubbing all night, a little dazed; still replaying the scenes from the night before. He hasn’t caught up with the present yet, Lent thought. Maybe the drizzle would snap him back into time? Back into the Dip time at least. Lent often observed that the Dip was trapped in a sort of temporal disjunction, created by his own knowledge of the wireless delay, a latency of less than 200 milliseconds between the road, the camera lenses and the screens. Lent could not trick his mind into ignoring it. So much for the persistence of vision he thought. It worried him that he might be missing something important in the delay. Something of significance could happen in those missing milliseconds. If you added them all up they comprised days and weeks of missing feed. It was a serious gap in his knowledge of the Dip.
“Oh good” Said Sylvie, “You’re coming back to us, I’m going to put you on tea break now John”. “That’s nor fair” Barry protested, “I was meant to go first”. “You’ll have yours at 4 Barry”. Sylvie’s tone always conveyed irritation when she addressed Barry, but with Lent there was a motherly warmth. All the women there liked Lent, perhaps because he seemed so lost but was always polite.
Three minutes into his break and Lent was already feeling suffocated by the so-called staff ‘rest-room’ (wasn’t that the American word for a lavatory?). It reminded Lent more of the sick-room at Farley then a resting area. When Lent was about six he had spent a whole day in the research institute sick-room. It had been his gold standard for absolute boredom ever since. He couldn’t remember much about what was wrong with him, just that the oppressive smell and encroaching grey walls were far worse than any physical illness he might have had. He wanted to get back to his screens. He didn’t like having breaks. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do in them. Pretend he had an appetite or liked drinking tea? Pretend he wasn’t missing his screens? All he wanted to do was look at and feel the images streamed from camera 3.
Lent’s statutory fifteen minute break was over at last. It was always a relief to get back to the Observation Room. The ‘Obo Room’, as most of the staff called it, was L-shaped creaky and cold, a windowless room with an oppressively low ceiling that held eight flickering strip lights and two broken smoke detectors. Instead of windows there were five small television screens. Each of the six walls contained a desk unit and a bank of five televisions. The staff in the Obo Room were required to scan their screens at all times, searching for signs of imminent violation or ‘volume crime’ – robberies, assaults, drunken disorder, casual random acts of rage and hate crimes. They saw all of this every day and a lot more. Lent in particular saw and felt a lot more than they were contractually obliged to.
At 4:50 am a brace of police horses ambled up the Dip. To Lent they seemed increasingly uncontrollable. One of the officers had quite a struggle outside Falash Haute Couture. The sweet looking dapple grey rocked its head back and forth violently, causing an amused stir of early morning onlookers, mostly office cleaners waiting for the 159 bus into central London. For all the police-woman’s efforts it struck Lent that it was the other horse, the colour of maple syrup, that had somehow exerted a controlling authority over its equine colleague. Lent was surprisingly moved by this observation.
At 5:00 am the Dip looked like it was soaked in blood, at least in the exaggerated colour values of screen 3. When Lent lived in Switzerland they called this effect Alpengluhen, the phenomena of red scattered light visible in the east just before dawn. It was the first red light in the terminator of the earth, the twilight zone between light and dark. The Dip was permanently situated in the terminator. Never completely dark yet never fully illuminated. Lent wondered if he should mention that in his shift report.
Each morning at 5.30 Lent and the other Observation Unit staff filled in shift report forms. They supplied observational notes where needed and ticked appropriate boxes indicative of various categories of street crime. Such small physical gestures had generated mountains of data over the years, reporting the largely hateful actions they had observed on CCTV. Whatever crimes had happened down there in the Dip were eventually translated into Big Data. Lickert scales of impulsive stabbings, beatings, extempore shankings and road outrages were inserted into the tuples of a vast server farm somewhere on the east coast of America. Lent was glad the data was properly organised. He knew he might need to hack into it at some point in the future.
It was the last day of British Summer time. For a moment Lent thought he saw his mother in the back of a car. At least he could see something suggestive of her inside an ink black Subaru Imprezza waiting outside the mini market in the middle of the Dip. Lent imagined a seventy year old woman siting patiently inside the Imprezza, thinking of him. He noted the car had been adapted to reach hyper-real speeds that it could never hope to achieve in the real world. What did this abstract and unreachable speed signify, the inversion of the unfolding of time? The car as a palindrome, a two way channel between different time frames? Now he could see the car was empty and that there was no elucidating signal. Lent imagined seeing his mother over and over again. Perhaps, he thought, you are inside that Lantra Saloon near the El Bled cafe? Or behind the wheel of the green Audi 4 disappearing into Gleneagle Road? He could feel something definite emanating from a Ford Contour which had just come into view at the top of the Dip, but it was not a signal from her.
A 38 year old man was driving the deep blue Ford sedan. In America Lent knew the car was nicknamed the ‘Mercury Mistake’ due to its numerous mechanical problems. On the backseat behind the driver of the Mistake there was an A4 envelope. The driver could think about nothing else. He was not aware of the single decker bus a few yards in front of him or the light drizzle now covering the Dip. It was the envelope alone that occupied his thoughts. Lent had little concrete sense of the content, only somehow that the driver’s life depended on it. Lent wondered if it was a test result, a letter finalising a transplant operation?
The driver (Lent still couldn’t pick up his name) parked his Mistake beside the Polish bakery. His mood lifted. The driver’s mother always used to say all sorrows are bearable if there is bread. These words resonated inside him as the woman behind the counter looked towards the opening door. The people in this shop were invariably kind. Such kindness and the platitudes inherited from his mother kept him going. Lent moved his joy stick fractionally forward, straining to pick up the driver’s affective flow, but the signal suddenly faded, this was not unusual. He panned back to a wide-angled shot of the Dip, put his hand on the screen but felt no further signals emanating from it.
Road is a book of inter-connected and inter-textual stories about a security guard called John Lent who works in a CCTV observation centre. John Lent has a condition known as ‘Bio-Introscopy’ (also called ‘skin vision’ or ‘dermo-optical perception’). It means he can feel other people’s emotions and hear their thoughts, in his case, via television signals. The stories are set in Streatham, South London, as well as a psychiatric clinic in Geneva, and a military research institute in Surrey. It would seem that John Lent is searching for his missing mother in the CCTV signals. The book includes short stories as well as CCTV images and real-life tweets and blog excerpts about Streatham and the area known as the Dip.