My pocket vibrates. I could take a look, but checking my phone is all I’ve got for a social life, so I save it for the evenings. I got a lot of messages at first but now they’ve dropped off: there are only so many times you can say ‘good luck’, after all. So I leave the phone where it is.
Sometimes when I think of the past, I see it like a film; one long, uncut strip of celluloid, winding all the way from the opening credits right up to the scene I’m in now. And as I rewind and watch the film of my life I can’t help wishing I could edit out all the bad bits. I wish I was the director as well as the star; I wish I could yell Cut! and get rid of all the pain and the disappointment, leaving them coiled on the floor like the curls of hair when I used to get a haircut. I wish I could do the same with this queue, too: just snip out whole loops and cut to the chase: to my big scene when I’m in the studio and standing in front of the camera. Because right now, the closest I get to a camera is when some queue-tourist comes along to film us all: something to take home and show the family; to look at and tell themselves, maybe next year…
The queue-tourists are the only people sadder than we are: I guess that’s some consolation. Now a movement ripples through the line like food through the belly of a snake. I pick up my bag and wait for the movement to reach me: I wonder if it’s a real one this time. I can see the people ahead shuffling forward a few yards, but by the alchemy of queues, all the space gets gradually squeezed out; and when it reaches me, there’s only room to take one pace forward. One! I measure the step like a Roman soldier and put down my bag with a sigh.
There were Romans here once. Led by Claudius, they stammered their way up from Kent and smashed the local armies; then they built city walls and drains and a temple. There’s not much of it left now; it’s all broken up, just a few chunks left like teeth in a crone’s mouth. Now all we’ve got is a ragged town with the monorail running through the middle like a line through a careless piece of homework.
It must have been just after the war when they put up the first Screen. Just for a while, they said, to cheer people up. But they never took it down, and before we knew it, every town in the country had its own Screen; loud and bright, sweet-smelling and seductive. They slapped our first one on top of the Roman baths. Before long there was one on every street corner; and then they started to seep into our homes. The Screens were wired right into the walls, so there was no need to switch them on or boot them. You couldn’t switch them off either; but no-one told you that. All new homes had Screens fitted as standard and some dispensed with windows altogether. Why bother with grey skies when you can have Kilimanjaro? Who wants to see the street when you can have the Sea of Tranquillity?
But there were side-effects which no-one could have predicted. There was no longer any need for journalists, as the Street-Brothers recorded ‘life as it happened’. There were no longer any film-stars or musicians either; and no need for the unemployed to stand in line at the Job Satellite: for the two had been neatly fused into one and both problems solved by The Queue.
There were some refuseniks of course: there always are. Some people wouldn’t have a Screen in their home at all, like old Mrs Briggs who lived opposite us. But these people soon died and the rest eventually caved, because if you didn’t have a Screen nothing else worked: not the kettle or the fridge or the washing-machine or the central heating or the music centre. It was the latest unmissable deal: a holistic and totally compliant house.
We’ve shuffled forwards a few yards now and I’ve fetched up outside Deb-E-nams. There are a load of drones jiggling about in the window; one of them looks very smug in the latest smart-suit with built-in Screen. ‘A must-have for all executives,’ the label says.
I’m hungry now, so I open my ever-chill bag and take out a limp sandwich. I still have a few packs left, but once they’re gone I’ll have no option but to buy. It’s not finding food that’s the problem: there are burger stands, sweet booths and vendors who work the queues, and if you need anything else you can use a Q–runner. No, it’s the cost. I’ve tried to budget for everything I might need, but it’s impossible because you never know how much things are going to be. Prices go up all the time, and what can we do? We’re the ultimate captive market.
As I bite into my soggy sandwich, I realise we’ve hit a Blind Spot. There aren’t many left now of these spots where you can’t see the Screens and they can’t see you; so I make the most of it. These are the only few moments of quiet I get in the day: and it’s only now that you realise just how loud the adverts are. The ‘Q-people’ get more adverts than everyone else: ads for the booths, the burger-bars, the shops and the Q-runners. I feel sorry for the runners, though: they’re the only people here more desperate than we are.