Two frightened men sat facing each other in a cold, dimly lit room. There was no window, and nothing on the walls except the ventilation grills. The thin young man’s chair was low and hard and uncomfortable, the metal back digging into his spine. The older man’s chair, behind the vast steel desk cluttered with bulging files and trays of computer discs and racks of memory sticks, was higher and upholstered in luxurious black leather.
‘Mr Smith, we already know everything about you’ growled the older man; not unkindly – more like a patronizing uncle. ‘so why not stop this charade of protest hmm?’
‘Mr Leblanc,’ Smith replied, ‘it’s not a charade, and I’m not protesting, and what’s more, I am not Mr Smith.
That was a lie. He knew he was Mr Smith, but he was pretty sure Leblanc didn’t. And in any case, which Mr Smith? There were so many!
‘We have thousands of photos, hours and hours of CCTV, web pics, driving licence – a mountain of proof – look!’ On the wall to his right the grid of screens were filled with pictures of a man’s day to day life, some moving and some still.
‘No you don’t’, said Smith, laughing. ‘You’ve shown me all that, but all we see is a blond man with a straight nose. Not me. Look at me.’ He slapped his shiny bald head with one hand and pointed at his broken nose with the other. He knew Leblanc could not prove it was really him in those pictures. Losing the hair was easy – he bought the right chemicals. Breaking his nose was traumatic, partly because he got his girlfriend Lisa to do it, before she left him, and partly because she used far too much force. Hell, she was angry, and if his face had been a cricket ball she would have hit a six for sure. Neither of them had seen so much blood before nor since.
Ah Lisa, poor, beautiful Lisa, what had he turned her into? Why had he sent her away?
‘You have no proof at all. You have no idea who I am.’ he continued. ‘You do not have my fingerprints on record.’
‘A federal offence.’
‘And I have not let my DNA be taken.’
‘Another offence. Look Mr Smith, you carry no ID, and that is a crime that cannot go unpunished. The only reason people like you aren’t imprisoned is because we haven’t built enough prisons.’
‘Who do you think you are trying to kid here?’ Smith answered with what sounded like a contemptuous laugh. In fact it was contemptuous. He despised these pathetic interrogators, with their feeble lies and tired old threats. So many people lost their ID fobs and cards it was impractical to jail the ‘offenders’. And the government didn’t want to, because they knew they were no threat. Jailing them would only cost the state money. What they wanted to do was make money!
‘So we have fined you, ‘ Leblanc continued, almost cheerfully, ‘in accordance with the provisions of the Act, and you have willfully refused to pay, which is why you are here.’
‘How do you know I haven’t paid, as you don’t know who I am?’
‘Because you do not have a receipt!’
‘Maybe I lost it.’
‘That is your problem. The Act states…’
‘Shut up about the Act’ Smith snapped, ‘I have no receipt, and you say I owe you a fine. What are you going to do about it?’
Leblanc leant forward suddenly, his face contorted with anger and frustration, so that his big roman nose almost touched Smith’s face. ‘We will take away your possessions!’
‘I don’t have any.’
‘We will confiscate your property!’
‘I have no property.’
‘We will blacklist your name so you can get no lodgings, no employment, no charity.’
‘Yes, true enough’ Smith said, ‘you can do that. It is an offence to give lodgings or employment or charity to anyone who does not produce a valid ID. You said that before.’
‘So, Mr Smith, or whatever you want to call yourself, how will you live? How can you live?’
‘Perhaps, Mr Leblanc, or whatever they call you, I won’t. Perhaps I will die of thirst, naked and alone, under some filthy blanket in a quiet corner of this wasteland you call Europe.’
Leblanc smiled at this, presumably happy with the young man’s fate.
‘Or perhaps’ Smith continued, ‘I will move around secretly from one squat to another, from one outlaw hideaway to another, like thousands of others with nothing but the clothes on our nameless bodies. I will live in a parallel universe, invisible to you and harming no-one.’
‘No’ said Leblanc, coldly, ‘that will not happen. We cannot allow it. If we did, our whole defence against the terrorists, the enemies of freedom and democracy, would crumble. That must not happen. I have to support the system, even at the expense of people like you. For the good of all.’
‘But, Mr Leblanc’ Smith said, looking him in the eye, ‘what can you do? You can’t jail me, and I have nothing for you to take away.’
Leblanc’s face took on a grim mask of zealousness, those watery green eyes unblinking, his thin old lips trembling with the emotion of his totalitarian fervour, as he opened a desk drawer and pulled out a revolver.
‘Oh but you do.’ he said, in the kind of sing-song voice intended to mask terror. ‘You see, no-one will be able to prove anything, as officially you don’t even exist.’
Pointing the gun at Smith’s head, Leblanc said ‘You attacked me and I defended myself. It happens all the time, although for me personally this is only the second time. There are not as many of you as you seem to think by the way.’
‘You’re crazy’ scoffed Smith, but feeling his own real fear. There was little he could do. He wanted to attack the old man at this point, having a natural aversion to dying, especially in this evil place. But as his hands and feet were tied to the chair, and the chair was bolted to the floor, he couldn’t. He knew this was the end.
Still keeping the gun leveled at Smith, from where he sat behind the desk, Leblanc swept his free hand across it, scattering the papers and clutter all over the desk and onto the floor. Then he gripped his own shirt collar and ripped it, one button pinging across the room.
Smith began to sweat. The old man’s lost his mind, he thought.
Leblanc smiled, a cruel looking smile of victory. ‘Goodbye.’ he said, and Smith heard the single shot reverberate deafeningly around the room.
That actually came as a pleasant surprise to him. After all, if he could hear it, surely it meant he must still be alive. Before he could think anything more than that Leblanc stood up and said ‘You’re dead.’
Five minutes later Smith was lying in a wooden box, gagged and tied up, and being carried along. It was not a comfortable ride. He heard the footsteps of at least four people, but no voices. After being transported like this for a minute or so, he felt that he was thrown onto a hard surface, his head and lower back crashing against the bottom of the box, and he heard a diesel engine start up.
Most of his bruises were created during the subsequent journey, which he endured in total darkness, with no sounds but the engine, the rattle of the box on the metal floor, and his head and elbows and feet being bashed black and blue.
The journey was very long, and he lost track of time. Mentally, he gave up wondering if he would survive it, and looked forward to losing consciousness. Depression slowly engulfed him as if it had been seeping into the box, and he thought he must be losing the will to live. Perhaps Leblanc had been right.
Perhaps he was indeed dead, and this was the road to hell. With nothing to see, no idea where he was going, who was taking him there, or why, nothing but the perpetual buffeting and the smell of his own unwashed body and stale breath, and no prospect of this torture ending at any particular time, he wanted to be released from living.
He had already given everything else up. He had no family now. After Lisa broke his nose and he lost all his hair, he sold his house and furniture and possessions, giving the cash away to those he thought would need it. He presumed upon the kindness and hospitality of friends and acquaintances. Doing odd jobs in return for favours, he borrowed the few things he needed like clothes and shoes. Making contact with a few others who had slipped off the grid, he felt they were in a real sense free. He lost touch with Lisa and reconciled himself to never again seeing the woman he had loved.
Now he was regretting all that. How was he free? Wouldn’t he have been happier being a pawn in the game, enjoying the easy pleasures of conformity? Worshipping mammon and entertainment, denying the mind and the soul.
Perhaps. But probably not. It didn’t matter – this was the way he had chosen, and there was no going back. The truck rumbled on, hurling him from side to side, bouncing him along on the vicious wooden floor of the rustic coffin. And there did come a point when he could honestly say that there was no longer any will to live left in him. He gave up.
He didn’t even notice when it stopped, conscious now of nothing at all.
My first perception of being awake was hearing the sound of locks being loudly and violently broken and the wooden lid lifted away, sunlight smashing into my eyes like a bomb exploding. Many hands took hold of my body and lifted me out of my coffin and set me down on something exquisitely, impossibly soft, and I heard gentle voices, in a language I couldn’t understand. They might have been talking to me or each other, I had no idea, but then I felt the breath of one of them on my face, and made out the fuzzy outline of a head, vaguely the features of a female face, tousled blonde hair, full lips and a cute little aquiline nose.
‘No,’ said the woman, in English ‘you’re not in heaven.’
Pulling myself up onto my elbows I looked around. My eyes saw people of non-standard shapes and sizes, adults and children, milling about, amongst brown tents and green cabins. There was the smell of roasting pork and the snapping sound of fire.
‘Welcome’ she said to me, holding my face in her hands, ‘to the village of the dead.’
Her big green eyes were the most beautiful I had ever seen.
‘Hello Lisa’ I said.