I’ve posted a version of this story a while ago, but now it’s going live! I’m uploading it to a fiction site where it may get taken up and published online. So when you’ve finished reading, go to https://www.reddit.com/r/fictioncircus and vote for it!
They Shoot Horses
Queue is a lame word but it’s better than line: I seem to think it’s French for tail. I wonder what sort of animal would have a tail like this queue – something mythical, probably. A dragon. Which makes us all knights, I suppose. I like that thought – it makes the queue a little more bearable if you can be a hero instead of an idiot.
They say queuing in Britain started during the war – not the Satellite War; the one before that – because of the rationing. Everyone had to queue for their food – and now it’s ingrained like democracy in our character. Like the mantra of equal opportunities: that’s what this queue is all about. You take your turn and you wait. Then you get your fifteen minutes.
I wonder how much of my life I’ve spent in queues? Days, maybe – even weeks? How many hours at the airport? How many at the supermarket, the dole office, the bus-stop – the food-bank? When I look back, my life seems like one long queue. One long line for admission to the human race.
Sure, I could leave, but I’d just end up coming back again – because the Queue is the only game in town. I’m not rich enough to afford a stand-in – not at today’s prices – and for every one of us here there’s a dozen more waiting to join on. It’s crazy – but what can you do?
This Queue is a whole other dimension; you’ve got time and space, you’ve got vertical and horizontal – and you’ve got the Queue, winding in and out of it all like a giant snake. Which city is it where they say a great serpent sleeps under the streets? Edinburgh?
I don’t remember.
It’s disorientating. I can’t afford the Q-app, and without it you can’t get any perspective – unless you can find a drone, and there’s not many of those left now. Sometimes you think you’re closing in and then you turn a corner and all you can see is that damned serpent winding off into the distance. You’ve got no perspective. It reminds me of India: you can sit on a train for days, but according to the map you’ve only travelled half an inch. So you learn to wait. You wait without hope or expectation; because life is waiting and waiting is life.
You soon stop trying to talk to anyone. You’re not a human being to them, you’re the competition – and after a while you start to think the same way. If someone gives you a smile, you wonder what they’re after. It’s terrible, but what can you do?
What gets me is, there’s no need for the guards; yet there they stand shouldering their stun-rays like extras in a war-movie. It winds me up. What do they think we’re going to do? We’ve sacrificed everything to be here: why would we screw it up? Yet on every corner there’s another glaring numpty, like a bouncer on the stairway to heaven.
The thing is, the queue polices itself. Anyone gets out of line, they’re thrown off by the others: then they either go right to the back or they leave. I’ve only seen it happen once, and once was enough.
But boredom’s your main enemy. I guess that’s what pushes people over the edge; just not being able to occupy yourself. You get tired of the screens pretty quick, and the further in you get, the more adverts there are. They’re all targeted, advertising stuff from the booths or the Q-runners; and in between adverts they run the Show. Every so often they replay the big winners, just so you don’t forget.
You try not to, but in the end you all watch the screens. There are only so many hours a day when you can practise and after that you get bored. It’s out of kilter; all this waiting compared with the few seconds of your audition. But then you’d better be ready to do the whole act. You have to be prepared for anything, at the drop of a hat. Anything, up to and including the sad old Loser’s Handicap. But I’d take that – if it was the only thing left. Hell, I’d even take an internship, and at my age that’s a very long shot. So I leave nothing to chance: I spend several hours a day going over my first lines and then honing the main act. I wish I could afford some coaching as it really gives you an edge. These days you can even take a degree in Showmanship; but nothing’s guaranteed.
First few days, you’re going to get antsy. No-one tells you how long it takes, so you think you’re going to get In pretty soon – and when you don’t, you fret. People jiggle their feet or jump up and down; they start swearing and looking at their watches. Scuffles break out. Words are exchanged. And I get that, I really do – because it’s hard. Patience is hard, especially when supplies are low. But impatience is like foreign currency here: there’s nothing to spend it on. So hour by hour you calm yourself: you train yourself to wait. I learned that in India, too.
The great thing is to keep busy. First thing in the morning, I do my twenty minutes. Doesn’t matter what it is: jogging on the spot, stretching, jumping, touching my toes. Everyone has their own routine and sometimes you get into little contests. Of course, before that you have to pee. Your toilet buddy is the most important person in the Queue, because you don’t want to be paying a Q-runner every time you have to go; and you have to resist the temptation to – pardon the pun – take the piss. If you spend hours out of line you can lose your toilet buddy and it’s hard to find another. Mine’s called Cormac and he seems to go about twice as often as I do. Weak bladder, he says. So after our usual pee-exchange, it’s time for breakfast. It won’t be much, just a bar or some fruit, but I make it last like the full English with extra toast. Sometimes I pretend I’m eating a huge platter with eggs and bacon, sausage, fried bread (fried bread!) tomato, even baked beans. I imagine the colours, the flavours, the textures. Sees me through half an hour, if I’m thorough. At the end of it I almost feel full.
You’ve got to pace yourself: after breakfast I can spend ten minutes just brushing my teeth. Because all those hours when the queue hardly moves, if you can’t occupy yourself, you’ll start thinking – and that’s when it all kicks off.
When someone’s kicking off, you can feel it. There’s a restlessness goes through the queue like a ripple through the body of a snake; and everyone’s thinking, uh-oh! – a jumper. We’ve all been there. The trick is to wait it out: sooner or later the feeling passes. You have to keep two things in mind: the life you left behind, and that long snake of zeroes in your future. One hundred pounds for every man, woman and child in the queue – you just think about that. Your island off the coast, your helicopter, your farm. Your ticket out.
Even so it can get to you. Maybe you’ve been here too long; maybe you’re out of money. Maybe you’ve lost faith in your Act. But if you jump ship you’ve only got one life left – as a Q-runner – and everyone knows a Q-runner’s life is not worth living. So when someone’s kicking off a ripple goes through the queue; and your senses are on high alert, listening for a cry, a bang; a siren.
I feel a thrilling vibration close to my heart. I jump; then I realise it’s my phone. I’m tempted to look, but texts are my only entertainment in the evening, so it stays in my breast pocket.
Sometimes I get to reminiscing. I can see the whole of my life laid out before me like a film winding from the opening credits all the way up to this scene. I want to be the director instead of an extra: I’d like to cut all the bad scenes; the bits where I acted badly or forgot my lines. And then I think I want to cut the future; edit out all the swirls and loops of the queue which stand between me and the Studio. Cut to the chase: to my big scene. Because I’m ready. God knows I’m ready – but right now the only camera I can see belongs to some bloody queue-tourist. I wouldn’t give those bastards the snot from my nose: poverty-porn merchants is what they are.
I don’t blame the refugees. I don’t blame the unemployed; I don’t blame the dispossessed. I blame the government. Two million homeless after the last floods and what do they do? Build more houses? Deal with climate change? Nope. They make us stand in a queue. Of course, they all live on the high ground, so they can afford to ignore it.
Again a movement ripples through the line: I pick up my bag and wait, but by some weird queuing alchemy, by the time it’s my turn all the space has gotten squeezed out. I’ve seen it happen loads. When I used to wait for the bus the people at the front would take up so much space that the rest of us were left standing in the rain. Sometimes I’d shout: Hey guys, can you move up so we can get under? Mostly they’d look sheepish and start shuffling. But this ain’t no bus queue and by the time the movement reaches me I’ve got room to take one pace forward. I measure the step like a Roman. Pes, pedis.
There were Romans here, once upon a time. Led by old Claudius, they stuttered up from Kent, threw up a city wall and dug in some baths and sewers. I used to live on the old Roman road; it went straight as a die from here to Chester. But there’s not much of it left now. The modern town’s a ragged conurbation, with the monorail slashing across like a line through a careless essay.
And then the Screens appeared; right after the war. It’ll cheer people up, they said. They slapped ours right on top of the old Roman baths, and before long you had a Screen on every corner. Then they seeped into the houses. The small screen is dead: long live the Big Screen! They were wired right into the wall. There was no off-switch and no plug: once they were in, they were on. Some people took out their windows and put Screens up instead. Herds of wildebeest; much nicer than the back yard.
The old style of news reporting was dead, since the advent of the Street Brothers and video-drones, so a fair number of journalists had joined the Queue. And of course The Show had thrown most actors and musicians out of work. Talented or not, we were all equal now. You had to admit, the idea was genius: to solve unemployment, inflation and the housing crisis all in one fell swoop – you’ve got to take your hat off to whoever came up with that one. But I heard he joined the Queue too, in the end.
At first there were folk who wouldn’t have a Screen in their house. But they all caved in eventually, because if you didn’t have a Screen nothing else worked. You’d have no kettle or fridge or washing-machine; no heating or hot water. No computer. It was the latest thing: a holistic and totally compliant home.
An hour later we’re outside the shopping mall. A group of droids are in a window showing off the latest smart-suit: ‘a must-have for all executives.’ What does it do, I wonder? Answer emails? Field phone-calls? Be your avatar at a meeting? I’m out of touch these days, but it’s probably not much more than a wearable laptop.
Time for lunch: I take a couple of soggy sandwiches from my chill-bag. Only a few left now, and once they’re gone I’ll have to buy in. There’s plenty of food available: you’ve got burger stands, fried chicken booths, chip bars, ice-cream stalls, donut diners, you name it – and for anything further afield you can use a Q–runner. Finding food is not the problem: the problem is paying for it. We’re a captive market; so they can charge whatever they like.
Another shuffle – and now we’ve hit a Blind Spot, out of sight of a Screen. There aren’t many blind spots left now – they’re working to cover them all – but here’s where I get the only few moments of quiet in my day. I close my eyes and bathe in the silence.
A shout wakes me like icy water: with a sigh I pace out the space that’s opened in front. We’re in Sight again now: wearily I put down my case and lob my sandwich-wrapper at the nearest rubbish-chute. It’s only 12.30 and I’m bone-tired. Some days sleep can seem like a distant memory.
But at least during the day you can tell yourself you’re headed somewhere. The evenings are when I miss home the most: I miss my tiny kitchen and my fireplace; I miss Patchouli, my fierce feral cat. I wonder if she’s still alive? Cats are vermin now: if they catch you feeding one, they’ll shoot the poor thing right in front of you. And then you’re out.
Mid-afternoon, I take a peek at my phone: it says 3 new messages. My heart skips a beat but I save them for later. Late afternoons are hard: hour after hour you glance up at the sky, trying to discern a tinge of dusk. When it comes, the sky is lined with orange. If I could climb up just once and watch the sunset, I’d go to bed happy.
As the orange spreads across the sky we shuffle forward again. I might have come a hundred yards today.
Everyone’s flicking glances at the street-lights: when they come on we’ll halt for the night. Then the Q-runners start swarming, yelling, place your bets! You get odds according to your place in the Queue: then when you’ve paid, you can go home and sleep. It’s not enough for them to have us queuing all day, they have to have a race at night for us to bet on. Since horses are mostly farmed now, they race Q-runners instead.
I watched it once, and once was enough.
But even if I could afford to bet, I can’t go home – because my home isn’t there any more. When I came here the Screen was disconnected and the house condemned. No Q-deposit, no house. You’re here for the duration. It’s terrible, but what are you going to do?
The lights come on; runners and homers start shouting the odds and the rest of us stake out our sleeping-pitch. The best places are by air-vents – you can sleep there till dawn, with any luck – but tonight all I get is a step outside the arcade. I spread my sleeping-bag and sit on it, marking out my territory before it’s time for cocoa. I keep my head down: the homer deals are still going on and tempers can run high. The odds change all the time and if your runner gets a better deal, you can’t blame them for switching.
When everyone’s gone to watch the race I pop across to the vendor for cocoa. Now comes the best time of day, when I sit and look at my phone and enjoy a hot drink.
The first few days, I had visitors dropping by. But no-one’s been for a while, so I look forward all the more to my texts. I take a mouthful of cocoa and swipe my inbox. Still just the three messages. True to form, two of them are junk; but the third is from Julie. My heart gives a little skip as I thumb the icon, and see her smiling and waving. I smile and wave back, even though I know she’s just a collection of pixels. Then I open the message.
Julie’s always so up-beat.
The bars are lighting up and drinkers start to shove their way through; stepping over us like garbage. I can’t remember the last time I had a night out. I remember Carol and I were together. I don’t want to think about it so I get out my diary and write a few lines about the day; then at ten o’clock Cormac and I do one last pee-exchange before the siren. You should get to sleep as quickly as you can, before the clubs open; before the muffled trance-beat makes your ribs start to vibrate like a wild heart. Friday nights are the worst: you get pissed on and beer-bottles thrown at you. We are the vermin now.
I curl up small on the steps and lay my head on the pillow. Maybe tomorrow we’ll be in sight of the Studio. Maybe we’ll even get in! Imagine – this time tomorrow, I could be sleeping indoors! I try to picture it; all the bodies lining the corridors and stairs, all the way to the top floor where the Audition room is. As I fall asleep the Screen is crooning a jingle about the new Sweet-Dreams App…