47 Random Fragments of Unauthorised Hope and Despair


JAKE hated walking home through the town centre.

He’d spent a blissful first three days at the new school using the route he’d worked out in the summer - sharp left out of the main gate, through to the back of the estate and then along the side of the railway as far as the flyover, where he’d pick up the authorised travel plan.

But they’d found out and there’d been big trouble.

He’d been called in at school and his mum had received a rather fierce letter from the police, stating that she’d broken the law by letting him walk that way.

Jake had tried to get her off the hook. He’d told the headmaster that she had in fact instructed him to follow the directions they’d been sent by the education company and it was purely his own initiative to deviate from that.

Then it had turned out she’d written to them before the term started, telling them how the town centre made him ill and asking if he could have a different plan agreed.

They’d said no, it was against regulations and not permitted by their insurance policies.

They’d obviously decided to keep a special eye on him as a result of this exchange. That’s why they’d spotted him and that’s why they didn’t believe his account of his mum’s innocence.

So it had to be the town centre - or mum went to jail - and for the last four weeks, Jake had been refining his method of passing through it as speedily as possible.

First trick was to take it nice and gently in the approach. No need to rush yet. It was important to conserve his energy for the big sprint ahead.

He was currently coming to the end of this run-in. Up ahead was the gaudy archway, bedecked with plastic foliage and madly blinking ‘emeralds’ that marked the beginning of the Green Zone.

Jake’s timing was the same each afternoon. He waited until he caught the remotest whiff of the Green Zone aroma, took a large gulp of reasonably fresh air and rushed under the gateway and on up the street.

All the shops here were supposed to be on a Green theme in some convoluted way that invariably had more to do with the window display than the products on offer.

A green hillside in the sunshine was the state of your mind after you bought your medication here. Lush mountain forests plunging into a spectacular ravine were where you might just end up if you booked your holiday there.

Giant images of the glorious unspoilt outdoors adorned every store from discount VR to chip enhancement, from Bio Regulators to garden furniture.

Jake managed to hold his breath right as far as the corner by the burger bar.

He was cutting across here into the Red Zone, which began on his left.

This was a kind of no-man’s land and if he stood on this spot he only got low dosage of the two zones’ aromas.

On the other side of the street, however, you were assaulted by a potent blend of both of them at full strength.

It was something to with where the ducts came out of the pavements.

The one time he’d made the mistake of passing through that point, he’d felt twice as sick as usual and his eyes had swelled up instantly to the painful point where he could barely see a thing.

It had brought back traumatic memories of the first time it had happened, when his mum had been dragging him around the shops looking for Democracy Day presents.

After pausing to take a few breaths - not too deep, though - Jake was off again, rucksack bouncing on his back and long blond hair flopping rhythmically with his stride.

He didn’t need to look at the Red Zone shops to know what they were. Volcanic shoe shops. Sunset-tinged fashion lines. Giant succulent tomatoes and red peppers towered over the thin grey slices of tired pizza they were pretending to represent.

Jake’s eyes were itching. He knew if he stopped to look at them in the glass of a shop window - not that there was any chance of him doing that! - he would see they were fitting in nicely with the zonal colour-coding.

He was also being sucked down into that strange unfocused state of mind that the aromas seemed to create.

He often wondered if it had affected the grown-up shoppers the same way, as they all seemed to amble so slowly, to drift so passively and uncritically in and out of every invitation to indulge in yet another credit deduction.

Jake had to concentrate. He had to steer his path just right now, to prevent the cameras spotting anything unusual.

He allowed himself to slide gradually over to the other side of the pedestrianised road, deftly dodging the occasional bag-laden consumer as he did so.

That way it would look accidental, casual. That way they wouldn’t see that he was heading across just so he could go in...

- here.

Jake realised he actually enjoyed this part of what was an otherwise tiring routine, as he pushed open the unmarked door and slipped inside into the dark.

It almost made up for the nausea and the expanding, scorching tissue around his eyes.

This really was the short cut to beat all short cuts.

The town centre proprietors didn’t want you to pass too quickly through what was, in reality, a fairly small area, so they’d made the streets twist and turn in a charmingly old-fashioned manner.

If he’d carried straight on he’d have had to pass through the edge of the Blue Zone before coming back round into the Yellow Zone and then out towards his home.

This trick, though, took you straight under the shops and out into the Yellow Zone on the other side. And the cameras wouldn’t spot it, unless they were extraordinarily attentive.

He’d never have discovered the possibility himself, of course, if it hadn’t been for the occasion on which he’d seen the man in the fluorescent jacket going in one door and then, after Jake had sprinted all the way round the block, emerging slowly out of the other in front of him.

Jake went carefully down the steps, his vision impaired by the sudden darkness as well as the swelling. He could already see the right-angled slits of daylight chinking through the door at the far end - it was only a short dive through this parallel universe of gloom and throbbing unseen machinery.

A slamming noise behind him and, as he turned in alarm, another ahead of him and a flash of white light on the periphery of his vision.

At the same time the mechanical thudding became a hammering and a smashing inside his skull and he span on his heels in complete confusion.

On his left he found something new - a yawning door to a blue-glowing room from which the industrial noise levels were pounding.

He realised in a second what had happened. A vicious draught had raced through the building, slamming the two outer doors and prodding open this inner one, whose existence he had not previously registered. Jake leant partly through the door and peered inside.

It was full of ducts, huge drums and a multitude of tubes and taps. Giant fans screeched behind iron meshes, while cylinders thrust and heaved all around.

Added to the usual effects of the aromas, the noise was loud and alien enough to confound Jake’s senses still further and he wandered into the heart of the oil-stinking monster, even at the same time as he wanted, more than anything, to escape this cacophony.

So when there appeared before him a large red handle bearing the sign ‘Emergency Stop’, he did not hesitate before pulling it firmly down.

The result was instant and dramatic. The clash of metal ended forthwith and the whirring of wheels slurred down the octaves to a halt.

As the fans gave up their work, the oily smell was overwhelmed by the familiar street aromas, more concentrated than ever now and all merged together.

Pine, paprika, blueberry, primrose - conflicting fake flavours were forced into one revolting ersatz concoction, one nightmarish chemical cocktail in which any individually identifiable pseudo-scents were buried by an overriding sensation of poisonous artifice.

Jake gagged and fled. He fled in the knowledge that he had discovered the place where they pumped the scents around the town.

And he’d switched it off.

When he burst out of the door into the Yellow Zone and headed across the street, he could already tell the difference.

By the end of the road, he was confident enough to stop running and take a gulp of air.

There were still traces of the lemony, floral atmosphere that normally stifled this street, but they were bearable and beginning to fade to nothing next to new smells emerging from under the ground.

These were the real smells they didn’t want you to notice - the antiquated and failing sewage system that the drains contractor had again left off the capital budget, the hidden piles of rotting rubbish that hadn’t been collected in months by the refuse firm - a general stink of filth and neglect and decay.

Jake took a long deep breath.

His eyes felt a lot better now and his head was beginning to clear.