It didn’t snow during Nevers winters, but there were always a few romantic days when the city was blanketed in thick, snowlike smog. It erased the mountain range and made the towering city buildings seem as meek and peaceful as hibernating animals, huddling sleepily together while cars blundered around at their feet. Every year, the smog grew thicker. You could tell by simply extending a hand, with no need for any official government report, but this was an age in which you couldn’t trust what was right in front of you. Newspapers and televisions maintained there was no smog in Nevers, or else that there had always been smog in Nevers, and that these were two sides of the same truth. And no matter which side a person chose to believe, the important thing was that the pollution could not possibly have blown in from inland Ksana; the important thing was that the construction of the high-speed rail connection and the cross-harbour bridge could not possibly have resulted in any kind of negative impact on the Nevers ecology.
Consider Maria, at work inside a 101-storey government office block in Lion Slope. The building was less than two years old and, on the day under consideration, it had been consumed by smog. Maria was in her office on the eighty-first floor, the curtains wide open, the city outside vanished into a vast blankness that, despite what you might think, she actually found soothing.
Her department had originally been housed in a colonial building in the western part of Valeria Island. At just over ten storeys high, that building had not been tall, but it had been situated on top of a mountain, with a clear view to the cars and pedestrians on the road winding up to it. When the department moved into its custom-built skyscraper, the first thing Maria noticed was the change in view. From that great height she could no longer make out people or traffic on the streets below, because the streets now blended into an untouchable dark morass from which all sound was extinguished. Any time she approached the window, she was seized by a terror of stepping out onto thin air.
While the building was still under construction, Maria had heard more than one rumour of a worker falling off it.
Happened right here.
Here one minute, gone the next.
At least two of them, apparently.
A crane broke down and the guy inside tried to climb out onto the building, but he slipped.
Soon after the move in, Maria noticed two of the cleaning staff gesticulating towards her office window. She went over, intending to ask what was going on, but they started and rushed off, nodding and smiling weakly.
On the advice of Professor Q, she had decorated her new office with a succulent plant and a goldfish in a small tank, which she kept on her desk. Despite these efforts, the room still felt empty. The goldfish would flick its tail and she would sense something ghostly and unsettling out of the corner of her eye.
She started to realize that colleagues had disappeared in the move, and that the faces and uniforms of security guards and cleaning staff had changed. Miss M the accountant had vanished, along with several clerks. It was as if they had never been there at all. At the first interdepartmental meeting in the new location, Maria was shocked to discover that even department heads had been replaced. Among the new appointees was a transfer from inland Ksana, who was chairing the meeting. Affairs proceeded more or less as usual, although Maria felt that everybody present was quieter than before, seemingly without any queries about the latest proposals. Even more concerning was that several items on the meeting agenda were not proposals at all but announcements, made without any prior discussion. With each new statement from the chair, the room erupted into applause, and Maria felt she had no choice but to join in, smiling and clapping fervently along with everyone else.
If she could have spoken about these private doubts of hers with a trusted colleague or two, perhaps that would have helped her to understand what was going on. The problem was, the department had transformed into a foreign land overnight. She couldn’t risk talking about sensitive department policy with newer members of staff, especially as they were unlikely to know any more about it than she did. Instead, she decided to focus on winning their trust and support. Now, more than at any other point in her life, Maria began to pay careful attention to how she behaved in the office.
One day, out of the blue, she received an email that seemed to have been sent in error: neither the subject line nor the contents had anything to do with her work. It contained a city-planning map of Nevers, providing an urban planner’s projection of the city in twenty years’ time. Nevers was simply sketched out and filled with brightly coloured blocks, like a child’s jigsaw puzzle. This version of Nevers looked unfamiliar, not only because more land reclamation projects had altered the coastline and new islands had appeared in the sea, but also because the city districts themselves had been redrawn. Several districts had vanished entirely. The neighbourhood where she and Professor Q had bought their flat remained, but many of the poorest areas and those with high concentrations of retirement homes had been cleanly excised (where had they put all those people?). And all those lotus ponds, mountain trails and mangrove swamps that she planned to spend her retirement exploring with her husband had been replaced by business hubs and high-end residential estates. In Green Moss district, the land currently occupied by Lone Boat University had become a scientific research centre!
Maria had not heard any news of Lone Boat closing down. If the map was actually representative of city plans to be carried out within the next twenty years, surely many of those projects would be about to start? Or, in fact, would need to have done so already. And how could the government start without having made the plans public? The prospective Nevers outlined on the map filled Maria with dread; refusing to look at it any longer, she deleted the whole email. The map had been marked as confidential and was clearly sent to her in error, thus she would stick to the office code of conduct and get rid of it. What a relief to have this code! It made it easy for her to reach a decision, because the decision was not hers to make. To discuss this kind of matter with a colleague, or even an uninitiated husband or friend, could lead to consequences beyond her control. If she could have pushed a button to delete the map from her own memory, she would have done so without a moment’s hesitation. That way, at least her meticulously planned retirement years would not be overshadowed by the spectre of what she had seen on the map.
Maria picked up her thermos and left her desk. To reach the staff tea room, she had to pass through an open-plan work area. The desks were screened off, but with partitions low enough that she could still see clearly what each employee was up to. Today, they were either focused on their computer screens or holding work discussions on their phones. When they saw Maria, they all sat up straight and nodded deferentially. She hoped they didn’t think she was policing them. Usually she had her secretary bring tea or coffee directly to her office, specifically to avoid going out there and making everyone nervous. But now she was making the trip to the tea room herself – except, of course, that the thermos was just a pretext, and when she reached the tea room she walked straight past it without going inside.
She quietly opened the main door to the department and stepped out into the corridor. A cleaner was there with her trolley, waiting for the lift to arrive. She glanced at Maria but made no attempt to greet her. Maria didn’t recognize the cleaner and assumed this meant the cleaner wouldn’t recognize her, either. She felt herself relax.
She let the cleaner enter the lift first, then shrank in after, keeping her eyes on the transparent plastic bottles filled with blue cleaning fluid in the trolley. When the lift was about halfway down it shuddered strangely, making the blue fluid slosh inside the bottles, and in that moment of weightlessness Maria cried out in alarm.
‘We’re too high up,’ said the cleaner. The lift doors had not yet opened, and she spoke as though talking to herself.
‘You’re right, much too high up,’ whispered Maria. She wished the cleaner would say something else, but for the rest of the journey down all she heard was the buzzing in her own ears.
Image © kallu