Sunday, November 23, 2014

in the zone

Just a couple of years ago there were fields and trees here. Now, after an overnight shower, a small village has sprung up, so complete – with a central square, a village hall, a playground, a jogging track, and a variety of building styles from faux-thatch to balconied apartment to terraced house – you’d think the whole thing was designed on a computer and printed out brick by beam in a giant warehouse. Even the street names sound google-generated. Middle Way; Church Close; Woodvale Mead; Upton Hill.  The name of the village is spelled out on the access road in a line of fibreglass standing stones. Aligned with the city, no doubt.
I always get lost here. SatNav gives up, dumping its arrow in the middle of an approximate grey, marked Erewhon. When I stop to ask a postman, even he looks round, scratching his chin.
Pine Tree Close actually has three Rowans, still with their labels attached, planted in a raised central bed in the middle of a courtyard. There are six bunaglows arranged round them in a C-shape, the whole thing railed off, with access by a ramp left and right or a series of shallow steps up the centre.
I’ve been called to number three. A cause for concern. Apparently someone rang 999 asking for help, but hung up when the call-taker started asking questions. They hadn’t answered when the call-taker rang back, so could I go and check out the address?
I knock on the door. A young woman answers, smiling, but obviously a little alarmed to see me.
‘Sorry to bother you. We took a treble nine call from this address about ten minutes ago. I’ve no idea what the problem was or who called. They hung up before we got any more information and didn’t answer when we tried to ring them back.’
‘Really? Well there’s just me and my husband here, and we haven’t made any calls.’
Her husband appears behind her, cuddling a baby in a stripy baby-grow.
‘Everything all right?’ he says. The baby wobbles its head round to look.
‘He says someone called 999 from this address.’
‘I don’t think so,’ says the man. ‘Why? What did they say was wrong?’
I shrug.
‘I don’t know any more than that. It was a landline...’ I read out the number.
‘Nope. Never heard of it. We haven’t even got a landline. We just use our mobiles.’
‘Okay. Definitely not here, then.’
‘Maybe it’s a hoax.’
‘Could be. It’s strange that the number tracked here though. I’ll get back to Control and let them know.’
‘Do you think it could be Janet, the old woman who lives next door? She’s had the ambulance out a few weeks ago.’
‘Really? I’ll nip next door and give her a knock. Sorry to disturb you.’
‘No, that’s okay. It’s all a bit mysterious, isn’t it?’
They stand under the porch and watch me go next door.
I knock and wait. Ring the bell. Knock again.
‘No answer!’ I say to the young couple.
They smile and shrug.
The elderly woman from number five comes outside.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ she says.
I tell her.
‘Well Janet’s not there. She’s been in hospital for the last six weeks with her hip. I don’t think it’s her. Unless she took her emergency button thingummy with her and pressed it by mistake.’
‘That wouldn’t account for the odd phone number, though.’
‘No. Well. I’m a bit stumped. And before you ask it definitely wasn’t me.’
‘Don’t worry. I think I’ve tried all the options.’
‘What about Mrs Duckworth? She’s not had the ambulance before, but I know she had a dose of the whatsits last week. Maybe she got into trouble. I’ll go and have a look.’
A man in one of the bungalows immediately opposite comes to his door.
‘What’s going on?’ he says. ‘Can I help?’
‘Someone’s had an emergency and we can’t find out who,’ says the elderly woman. She starts thumping on Mrs Duckworth’s door, then peering through the side window.
‘Is everything all right?’ says the man’s wife, appearing behind him with a vegetable peeler in one hand and a potato in the other.
I walk into the centre of the courtyard so I can talk to them all at once.
‘Someone rang 999 – don’t know why or what’s wrong – then hung up before we could find out anything else. The number apparently tracked to number three..’
‘It’s not us,’ says number three.
‘We’re fine,’ says the husband. ‘Aren’t we?’ (holding the baby up as proof).
‘I’ll give Roisin a call to see she’s okay’ says the man.
‘Oh, yes. You’d better. She had that thing not so long ago.’
He knocks on Roisin’s door.
‘She’s probably still at work’ says the man, knocking on the window. ‘Do you want me to go round the back and check there?’
‘If you like. I shouldn’t think it is her, though. I’m just waiting for Control to get back to me with more information. I expect it’s all just a technical glitch.
They all nod. It seems to be a popular explanation.
‘You don’t like to think of someone being in trouble like that,’ says the elderly woman at number five.
‘But they hung up. You wouldn’t hang up if you were really in trouble. Would you?’
‘Maybe the battery on their phone packed up?’ says the woman with the potato and peeler. ‘Our one’s pretty rubbish.’
My radio buzzes. I wave it in the air a little as if to say: Here we are. This’ll tell us.
I describe what I’ve found to Control, saying rather dramatically that I’ve knocked up everyone in the close but had no luck. The Dispatcher tells me that they’ll mark it as nothing found, and refer it to police to see if they’ve got anything to add. She stands me down. I clip the radio back on my belt.
‘Well! That’s it! Thanks for all your help!’
I pick up my bag and do a little turn in the middle of the courtyard, like I’m waving goodbye on a revolving stage.
‘Nice to meet you all.’
‘You too.’
‘Hope the rest of your shift is less eventful.’
‘I hope you find your next patient’
I walk down the central stairs, put my bag back in the ambulance car, and finish writing the paperwork.
Half-way through, the radio buzzes again.
‘The number definitely maps to that address’ says the Dispatcher. ‘Are you sure the patient wasn’t there?’
‘Positive. It’s a happy, healthy young family. They don’t even have a landline.’
‘Oh well. If you’re sure.’
‘Unless I’m in The Twilight Zone and everyone here’s an actor or something.’
‘Right’ says the Dispatcher. ‘Twilight Zone. I’ll make a note. Okay. Back to base.’
‘Wherever that is.’
And of course, even though I concentrate and try really hard to simply retrace my steps back out of the village, I end up getting lost.


Sabine said...

Never understimate the baby. My guess.

Spence Kennedy said...

I must admit it did look a bit like a convict in its stripy babygro. It's probably a criminal mastermind.

Mind you, still doesn't explain the fact they didn't have a landline. Or maybe the baby does... Maybe the police'll find the number traces back to a Fisher Price pull-along...

tpals said...

Well, there's a giant 3-D printer somewhere creating entire villages, so a virtual landline isn't that out there.

Spence Kennedy said...

I've never really got the whole 3D printer thing. I mean - what do you put in the printer? 3D paper? :/

jacksofbuxton said...

Perhaps it was someone ringing to tell you it's not too late to reclaim your PPI Spence...

Spence Kennedy said...

The only difference is they'd never hang up. That's your job.

Daniel Rutter said...

You were clearly in a town from a Charles Stross story and lucky to not be eaten by some technological shoggoth, or in a town from a J.G. Ballard story and lucky to not become so depressed you just gave up on breathing.

(And the usual kind of home 3D printer uses reels of plastic, like thick fishing line, to make things. It's melted and laid down layer by layer, building the object from the bottom up, like those simple pots that're made by winding a long sausage of clay around and around.)

Spence Kennedy said...

I must admit I've not heard of Charles Stross - must look him up (shoggoth? - is that like a goth who likes shows?) The whole thing was very much like being on a TV set. Even my uniform started to feel fake.

I like that description of 3D printers. Still can't see how it'd make anything that might actually work, but great idea. Didn't those pots give rise to a nominated class - the Beaker People? Although I bet they made loads of better stuff - a bit frustrating to be named after a crude kind of pot, but still - nice to get a mention.

Cheers for the comment, Daniel. Hope all's good with you.

Daniel Rutter said...

Shit, son! Y'all have clearly been spending too much time helping the sick and far too little reading awesome things!

A lot of sci-fi/fantasy writers have played around in the "Cthulhu Mythos", the horror/sci-fi/fantasy universe created by H.P. Lovecraft back in the Twenties. The original Lovecraft stories remain surprisingly readable today, and there are now zillions of others, ranging from excellent to execrable, set in the same or similar universes.

(In the Cthulhu Mythos, a shoggoth is a servitor to the Old Gods, an amorphous creature of fearsome power. As is usually the case for these creatures, just looking at a shoggoth can seriously test your sanity.)

Charles Stross has written a number of stories, mainly his "Laundry" series, that hybridise the Cthulhu Mythos with modern spy fiction. They are pretty god-damned great.

Here's a standalone story in the Laundry series you can read for free online:

It was made for a bet. The nature of the bet may become apparent to you.

(I recently read another story clearly made for a bet. That one was by China Miéville, and the bet was obviously, "Make the ball pit at Ikea creepy.")

Another great Stross short story online for free, not in the Laundry series this time:

Aaaaand back to the Mythos, with guest appearances from shoggoths:

(And while I'm at it, a thing I put up the other day has about a billion links to interesting things people have 3D-printed in it: )

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Daniel. I'll check out those links and read some Stross. I think I've definitely seen a shoggoth or two, even this past week. Feels like, anyway.

I wiki'd Lovecraft - what an interesting character. Such a shame someone so influential should've died so poor and uncelebrated.

I'm working my way through 'War and Peace' at the moment. I know. But it's not that bad - it's just like a costume/soap - plus the book's so heavy it's like doing bench-presses when you read in bed.

tpals said...

Aha! I read War and Peace about 25 years ago when I felt bored and aimless. After that I went to university and changed everything. Omen?

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey Tpals
So - did reading W&P influence you going to university, then? What did you study? (I'm guessing English...) It sounds like quite a threshold moment! I'd love to go back to university. I don't think I made enough of it last time (like THAT'S headline news!)

tpals said...

It was more of a confirmation that my brain was atrophying. I needed a real challenge so went for Electrical Engineering.

Two weeks after I started classes my husband had a fatal stroke so our parallel paths should stop now.

Spence Kennedy said...

Oh my god - that's dreadful. I'm so sorry, Tpals. And that was 25 years ago? How are things now? Hope everything's okay.

Did you ever finish the course? I studied marine radio telecomms when I was 17. Ducked out a year later - for one reason or another. I regret never having gone to sea, but I don't think I really had electrons in my blood. x