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A minute or two later the lights stop flickering and stay on; and straight away the queue halts, the shouting begins and Q-runners charge up and down yelling ‘Who goes home?’ The rest of us find a spot to sleep and get out food, drinks, blankets; whatever we need. I find a patch on the steps of the arcade and lay out my sleeping-bag. I spin out my evening ritual for as long as I can; slowly getting out my sandwiches, my water-bottle, my reading-book, my diary and pillow, and when all that’s done I sit on the pillow, trying to get comfortable before I order my cocoa. The night-time negotiations are still going on around me, and will continue for a while. It’s hard to find a Q-runner you can trust: the best way is to pay something in advance and the rest in the morning, so that they don’t abscond. Q-runners are supposed to be monitored, but that’s a joke: prices are rising all the time and if a runner absconds there’s nothing you can do. But if one of us doesn’t pay up, we’re history.
When it’s all over I make a start on my sandwiches and pop across to the vendor to get my evening cocoa. Then I settle down and get out my phone.
During the first week or two, I actually had visitors; real flesh-and-blood people dropping by to wish me well, to bring me food or presents. But it’s been a while now; and each day it gets harder to stay on. You start to feel like everyone’s forgotten you – and so I look forward all the more to my messages. I settle as comfortably as I can, take a sip from the cocoa and swipe my inbox. As I thought, two of the three calls are junk, but the third is from Julie. Julie! My heart gives a little skip as I swipe the icon, and there she is, smiling and waving: I smile and wave too, even though I know she’s just a group of pixels. Underneath there’s a tiny captcha: it’s only two words but I play them over and over.
Julie was always crazy-optimistic.
The bars and restaurants are lighting up and people are moving: office workers going home after a drink, couples coming out for the night. In an hour or so the clubs will wake up and the muffled heart of dance-trance will beat under our feet. I can feel it when I lie down like the thump of an insane idea: boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom. Friday nights are the worst: we get kicked, pissed on and even vomited over. I send up a prayer of thanks that today is Monday.
The evening passes: people eat, drink, read, play games or watch the Screens. As I’m finishing my cocoa the siren goes off loud enough to pierce your ears. Ten o’clock. My sleeping-bag feels thinner every day, the closer it gets to winter.
I curl up as small as I can on the steps. There’s a heating-vent, so I shuffle closer to that; then I lay my head on my pillow and try to sleep. Maybe tomorrow we’ll catch a glimpse of the Studio. Maybe I could even get in! Just think – tomorrow night I could be sleeping in the corridor! I wriggle a little to stop the steps cutting into my ribs, and hope for a better night. The screens are softly crooning; trying to sell us Sweet Dreams as we go to sleep…