In the council chamber, every room looked like a waiting room, lined by low oblong benches and school chairs, one strip light flickering. It was hard to get up from the deep spongy bench when their mentors came through the double doors of 151.
Karl’s first thought was that they didn’t look any older than he or Genevieve, but then maybe there was only a decade or so in it. He had expected an aura of age and experience: authority figures, the way teachers looked when he was a pupil. Janna was angular and pretty, a white blouse tucked into a black leather pencil skirt. Her mouth was very small, like a china doll’s. Stu at least looked weathered. He was wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with a lightning bolt on it. He had a black-and-purple Mohawk, four inches tall, five spikes.
‘God, this place is depressing,’ said Stu. ‘Sorry they made you come here.’
‘Don’t get up,’ said Janna, once they were up. They exchanged air-kisses.
‘You probably weren’t expecting us to look like this,’ said Stu.
‘Oh, what, the Mohawk?’ said Karl.
‘The Mohawk actually wore a patch at the base of the skull and a patch at the forehead,’ said Stu. ‘This is closer to an Iro.’
‘Do you have any . . .’ said Genevieve. ‘Indian blood, I mean?’
‘Genevieve,’ said Stu, ‘I am merely an enthusiast.’
Stu busied himself collecting four flimsy cups of coffee from the machine in the corner. The two couples sat opposite one another over a pine-and-clapboard table too low for the seats.
‘Drink,’ he said. ‘It’s terrible, but, you know, ritual. Everything feels better when you’re holding something warm. You’re a primary-school teacher, I’m told?’
‘That’s right,’ said Genevieve.
‘That’s brilliant,’ said Stu. ‘You’re one of the most important people in the country. And Karl?’
‘You know those flyers you see stuck to lamp posts that say make £1,000 a week online without leaving your house?’ said Karl.
‘You stick those up?’ said Stu.
‘No,’ said Karl. ‘I make a thousand pounds a week online without leaving my house. Except it’s not really a thousand pounds a week.
I suppose it could be if you never went to sleep.’
‘So you’re self-employed,’ said Janna. ‘But what’s the work?’
‘Search engine evaluation, product reviews,’ said Karl. ‘Literature essays for rich students. It’s actually duller than it sounds.’
‘A fellow middle-class underachiever,’ said Stu.
‘You know the type.’
‘I was the type. Look, you don’t need to rush into anything, but this is a chance to do something with your life. The Transition isn’t
a punishment, it’s an opportunity.’
He took two thick, stapled forms out of his shoulder bag and
a blue pen.
‘You’ll be living with us as equals – we eat together, talk together, leave the house for work together. Or, well, Karl, in your case you’ll be staying in the house to work, but you get the point.’
Genevieve and Karl, who had never read a contract in their lives, both turned to the final page of their forms, wrote their names in block capitals, signed.
‘The thing is, with the hair, it’s a lightning conductor,’ said Stu. ‘People think, Oh, the guy with the hair. Or they think, In spite of the hair, he’s quite a nice guy. Any opinion that anyone ever holds about me is in the context of my hair. It’s the equivalent of being a beautiful woman.’
‘To be fair it is the most interesting thing about him,’ said Janna, giving Stu a friendly but very hard punch on the shoulder, which he rubbed, pouting. ‘The removal team are picking up your stuff now, so that’s taken care of. We’ll see you for the general meeting in the morning, okay?’
Stu folded up their contracts and slipped them back into his shoulder bag.
‘Tomorrow then,’ he said. ‘The Transition will send a car. Eight thirty.’
‘We want you to know that we don’t judge you,’ said Janna.
‘Oh,’ said Genevieve. ‘Thanks.’
‘What she means,’ said Stu, ‘is that we don’t expect you to be grateful for this . . . situation. But we hope you’ll be nicely surprised by the set-up tomorrow. We hope you have as brief, as useful and as mutually pleasant an experience as possible.’
‘Okay,’ said Genevieve. ‘Thank you for . . . Thanks.’
‘What made you sign up to this as mentors?’ said Karl. ‘If you don’t mind my asking. What’s in it for you?’
‘We love this company,’ said Janna. ‘We’re proud to work for the Transition.’
‘A few years ago my generation kicked the ladder away behind us,’ said Stu. ‘This is our chance to teach you to free-climb.’
‘Oh, God, always with the analogies,’ said Janna. ‘It’s so embarrassing.’
‘Besides which, and I’m going to be honest with you,’ said Stu, ‘only crazy people lie; we never wanted children –’
‘We never wanted babies,’ said Janna.
‘Right, babies,’ said Stu. ‘Or children, really. Or teenagers. Plenty of our friends did and I can’t say it appealed.’
‘But sometimes we’d be talking and Stu would say, “What if we’d had kids?” ’
‘What if we’d met each other at, say, twenty, and had kids?’
‘What would they be doing now? And it just got me thinking, What would my grown-up kids be doing now?’
‘What kind of advice would we give them?’ said Stu.
‘But you can’t adopt a 30-year-old,’ said Janna.
‘Until now,’ said Genevieve. ‘Well, if it’s the only way out of the fine mess my husband’s landed us in, consider yourselves in loco parentis.’
And Karl was surprised to see his wife put her arms around Janna who, a little disconcerted, patted her on the back, light and rapid as if tapping out a code.
They spent the night painting over Blu-Tack stains with Tipp-Ex. Then Genevieve scrubbed the floors with a hard brush and a cartoonish bucket of soap suds and Karl asked her why she was bothering.
The next morning a black 4×4 was waiting for them outside their eviscerated flat.
The driver leaned out.
‘Transition?’ he said.
It felt like they were gliding over the potholed roads. It was an auto-drive, so for the most part the driver sat with his hands behind his head, watching the blue orb move up the map. Now and then he took the little steering column to fine-tune the car’s decisions, or put his foot down to override its obedience so that a stern female voice said, Speed limit exceeded. They were driven through urban clearways and bypasses, across double roundabouts and out-of-town shopping centres which had been absorbed into the town, past the football ground.
They were entering a rougher part of town, but the high-rises had been freshly painted porcelain white. You looked at them and thought of a tropical island hotel rather than Findus Crispy Pancakes and canned cider; although Karl disliked neither, now that he thought of it. A building site promised a forthcoming swimming pool and multi-gym.
‘All that,’ said the driver, ‘that renovation – paid for by the Transition. I grew up around here.’
The car turned before a railway bridge and crunched over a gravel drive before entering an industrial estate. Corrugated-metal warehouses with big numbers and little signs. They passed a car mechanic, a boxing gym, a company called Rubberplasp whose name bounced around Karl’s auditory centre. Further in, the lots turned hipster: a craft brewery, a Japanese pottery, a vanity recording studio. Karl expected the Transition’s headquarters to be another identical shack, but when they rounded the last corner they were at the foot of a hill from which emerged four shiny black obelisks connected by footbridges, a letter H at every rotation. Each obelisk was roughly as tall as an electricity pylon, but only broad enough to contain a couple of rooms.
As they stepped out of the taxi the shiny black surface of the four towers turned blue and brightened until it almost matched the sky. A film of a flock of birds flew across it, disappearing between the towers, which faded to black again.
‘This is . . .’ said Karl. ‘Wow.’
‘Hmm,’ said Genevieve.
A young woman was standing at the door of the first tower they came to. She had an earpiece which stood out against her short, fair hair. They gave their names.
‘You’re married – that’s so sweet!’ she said. ‘Everyone is on the mezzanine. Floor 8. Here are your tablets.’
She gave them each what looked like a giant After Eight mint: a very thin square touch-screen computer in a protective sleeve.
‘Pretty,’ said Genevieve.
‘I was told this was a pilot scheme,’ said Karl. ‘It looks . . .’
The towers went through the sky sequence again.
‘Fairly well established. We’ve been going for eleven years,’ said the woman with the earpiece. ‘We try to stay under the radar.’
The lift opened on a wide balcony full of couples. Instantly shy, Karl stood to admire a giant hyperrealist painting of a pinball table, Vegas neons and chrome. He stared at the electric-pink 1oo points bumpers and the matte plastic of a single raised flipper. He felt Genevieve take his hand. She did this rarely.
‘What a waste of a wall,’ she said.
‘I like it.’
‘You like pinball? You like bright colours?’
‘I like the painting.’
‘You’re such a boy. Boys love bright colours. Like bulls,’ said Genevieve. ‘That’s why underwear is brightly coloured. Do you remember that bag I had, the one with the Tunisian tea advert with the sequins? Grown men stopped me on the street to say they liked my bag. I told Amy and she was like, what they mean is I like your vagina.’
Karl paused to make sure Genevieve had finished her train of thought. She had barely said a word for the last two weeks, but today she had opinions, theories; she even had analogies. It was like she had been recast. It had taken him three years of marriage to learn that it was best to let her recalibrate without too much comment. Get a little depressed, then a little high in inverse proportion. Balance the ship.
He looked at the reflection of the garish surface in the painting of the large ball bearing. It dominated the right-hand side of the canvas. It was so convincing he expected to see a reflection of his face peering into it. As you got closer you could almost make out the fine brushstrokes.
‘I just think it’s incredible anyone can paint something that looks so much like a photograph,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ said Genevieve, ‘but on the other hand so fucking what, you know?’
A brushed-silver bar served free cappuccinos and muffins in three flavours: banoffee, apple and cinnamon or quadruple chocolate.
‘Quadruple? I can’t choose!’ said Genevieve.
‘Have one of each,’ said the barista.
Handsome boy, thought Karl. Slightly wounded expression. An RSC bit-player face.
‘Three muffins, Genevieve?’ said Karl.
‘Don’t listen to him,’ said the barista.
‘I never do.’
She sounded too grateful. But then everyone Karl could see wore the glazed, winsome expression of the all clear, the last-minute reprieve. The hundred or so young couples, the other losers who had accepted the Transition in lieu of some unpayable fine or term of incarceration, looked up from checking the impressive spec of the free mint-thin laptops they’d been handed at the door to admire the sun-dappled view over the city from the 360-degree window: Really? And they looked at each other, too. A preponderance of attractive, well-adjusted young people of every creed and orientation. They were athletic or willowy, at worst a kind of doughy, puppy-jowled fat which spoke of donnish indolence rather than profligacy. Inconspicuously smart or very casual – torn jeans, neon T-shirts – because they were good-looking and could get away with it. The couples were casing the joint, talking to each another, making one another laugh. You wanted them as trophy friends. Thirty-somethings who could pass for teenagers.
The lights dipped gradually.
‘It’s getting dark,’ said Genevieve.
The stage held a glossy black podium with a bar for supporting papers, a large glass screen. There were rows of designer chairs. The chairs were improbably supporting spindles of orange flesh which, when you pressed them, took a while to reshape, like a stress toy.
Karl sat down expecting to perch on an implement of torture, but it was more like a hug. As the orange pads cupped his buttocks, moulded to the small of his back and pressed his shoulder blades, he realised he was sitting in a modern classic: Eames meets brutalism in contemporary Norway, an alien catcher’s mitt. He drafted five-star reviews in his head; it was unusual to actually experience the product first.
Genevieve sipped her coffee.
The rows filled in around them. A man sat on the corner of Karl’s anorak and didn’t notice, pulling Karl slightly to the right. Karl leaned towards him, then back. His coat was still trapped. He cleared his throat. He tried to make eye contact with Genevieve, who was eating her apple-and-cinnamon muffin. He leaned in again. He couldn’t look at the man’s face without putting himself uncomfortably close to it. He stared at the man’s shoes. Brogues, a slight residue of shoe polish. He stared ahead at the empty stage. Now he had left it too long to do anything about it. If he pulled the corner of his anorak out, the man would wonder why he hadn’t done so immediately. You actually sat there for two minutes without telling me I was sitting on your coat? What’s wrong with you? Karl tensed his right shoulder and cricked his neck so that he appeared to be sitting more or less straight.
‘It’s Stu,’ said Genevieve. ‘Karl, it’s Stu.’
‘Yep,’ said Karl, looking up to see a tall man with a Mohawk approaching the podium.
‘Why is it Stu?’
‘Is he the boss or something?’
Stu put his hands on the lectern, cleared his throat and looked at the big glass screen which was hanging to his right, seemingly without support. It flickered and a white oblong appeared, off-centre and barely a quarter of the size of the overall screen. It was a clip-art image of a man with a briefcase taking a big step. Stu looked at the screen. Slowly the words what’s standing between you and success? appeared in Comic Sans by the side of the clip-art businessman. He had a perky smile, a briefcase and a wonky blue parallelogram behind him.
‘what’s standing between you and success?’ said Stu.
Karl, to his surprise, felt disappointed. Enough that he yanked the corner of his anorak free from his neighbour, who startled. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up and how good the free coffee is; the medium is the message and the medium is fucking PowerPoint. It was a dismal feeling, like the moment a delayed train is finally cancelled altogether.
But then the lights went out completely and the clip-art businessman smeared and flickered into a dance of glitches up the glass screen. Karl’s knee-jerk delight at something boring going wrong was hijacked by an orchestral start via invisible speakers, and a long, low cello improvisation. As the soundtrack dissolved into electronic pops and gurgles, the image left the screen, a jagged mess of pixels, and bounced over the panoptic window, bursting into smaller copies of itself, a screensaver taking over the world; it covered the whole room, morphing into clip-art houses, clip-art office cubicles, cups of coffee, ties and cufflinks, clip-art strong, independent women, clip-art harried-looking commuters. The seats by this point were vibrating and Karl’s laughter was distorted, like a child in a play-fight. The images seemed to peel off the glass and float along the rows. The room was swimming in obsolete icons and logos, slogans and mangled business speak – push the change, be the envelope – clip-art Filofaxes and aeroplanes, shoes and computers duplicating, fanning out like cards, whirling and distending, breaking into fragments. The cello piece was melodic, abrasive, fearfully attractive, and the windows resolved into operating systems and programmes Karl remembered from childhood, a museum of dead technology, single ribbons of green text, and then the music stopped, the darkness was complete until a spotlight picked out Stu, adjusting the point of the second spike of his Mohawk.
‘Sorry about that,’ he said. ‘Bit gimmicky.’
Karl was one of the first to start clapping.
‘All right, all right,’ said Stu. ‘There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a lecture, and I know there’s not a single couple in the room who’s chosen to be here so you can’t blame me for falling back on special effects. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to talk to anyone else yet?’
Silence. Aside from discussing the scene with their partner, none of the couples had exchanged more than a resigned nod, a hello which could have been a hiccup.
‘You all have something in common,’ Stu smirked. ‘I’m kidding. It’s true, though. You’re all feeling a little bruised, I’m assuming. You’re all here under duress, expecting to count out the minutes, endure the insult to your intelligence. You were probably expecting . . .’ He rubbed his right eye. ‘You were probably expecting something like a speed-awareness course, right? I know what they’re like – I’ve been on three.’ He looked at the floor in mock contrition then glanced up. A ripple of laughter. ‘Well, I’m biased because I love this company, but it’s more like being given a new car. Take out your tablets.’
A mass shifting in the orange chairs. Karl slipped the computer out of its fur-lined pouch. It was a sheet of black glass, eight inches square. The words hello, karl! in the middle. He looked at Genevieve, who was already moving a glowing white orb around hers with her index finger.
‘Your copy of the Transition handbook is on there,’ said Stu. ‘It has everything from the FAQs – constantly updated – and the history of the scheme to the complaints procedure, which we hope you won’t be needing. But aside from that, you just write on them like a slate. Try it. Write Hello, Stu.’
Clusters of hello stu!s appeared on the screen behind him.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘We’re going to look at three articles. Use your tablets and just write down your reactions. Whatever comes into your head. Be completely honest.’
The screen faded into a photograph and a long headline. A young woman in an old-fashioned floral-print dress posed by a spiral staircase. The headline: when this designer’s family grew she bought the apartment downstairs and made their home a duplex. After ten seconds she was replaced by a man with a beard stirring an orange crockpot: how greg’s pop-up restaurants became a permanent chain and made him a property magnate. Next a shiny man who looked about twelve adjusting his tie in the mirror: while playing with his two-year-old daughter, this 26-year-old happened upon an idea which revolutionised the way we see public relations overnight. All three appeared together with their headlines.
‘I remind you that this is a completely anonymous process,’ said Stu. ‘We’re interested in your frank, knee-jerk opinions. You have ten seconds.’
Gradually the magazine clippings disappeared from the screen and a selection of comments scrolled across the glass and around the windows:
I want to kill them all
how a private income and massive inheritance made all these assholes’ dreams come true!
oh fuck off just fuck off fuck off fuck off
seriously a designer who can make enough to buy TWO FLATS fuck you what does she design nuclear weapons?
‘Good,’ said Stu. ‘This is all good.’
Karl watched as his own comment – What kind of a monster would bring a child into this world? – performed a loop-the-loop off the screen and landed on the window facing east.
‘Okay,’ said Stu, as the last of the two hundred comments disappeared into a spiral behind him, as if going down a plughole. ‘I’d like to welcome to the stage Susannah, Greg and Paul.’
The trio walked onstage in unison, dressed exactly as they had been in the projected magazine articles. Susannah’s dress, Karl noticed, actually had a Russian doll motif. They stopped in the middle of the stage and turned to face the audience, who were quiet. Karl shook his head. Genevieve had put her hand on his knee. The bearded chef folded his arms and looked up, bashfully. The designer and the PR man smiled with a hint of defiance. Karl’s temples pulsed. A lone voice yelled ‘BOOOO!’ which caused some brief, relieved laughter, shared by those onstage.
‘Susannah, out of interest, what do you design?’ said Stu.
‘Patterns for mugs and tableware,’ said Susannah.
‘And maybe you could tell the ladies and gentlemen of the audience what exactly you were doing two years ago today?’
‘This time two years ago,’ said Susannah, pointing into the crowd, ‘I was sitting in that chair, that one, fourth row. I was sitting in that chair writing shitty comments about the three people onstage because they were more successful than me.’
‘We know what it’s like out there,’ said Stu, taking the stage. ‘The landlord puts the rent up every six months. We know. Let alone saving, it’s hard to meet the bills and pay down your debts once you’ve stumped up the rent. We know. You never expected to be earning the salary you’re earning, but on the other hand you never expected to have to think twice about whether you could afford a new pair of socks this month. You’re trapped. The debts keep growing. We know. You’re overqualified for everything except a job that doesn’t actually exist – a historian or something. We know. This is the most expensive house in London.’
A moving image of a hallway covered in dust and rat droppings appeared behind Stu. The point of view moved inwards towards a grand, sweeping staircase with moss growing on it.
‘Uninhabited for twelve years. A giant, house-shaped gambling chip. None of this is fair. We know it’s not fair. There’s no changing that. So what can you do? You can throw in the towel, eat cereal straight from the box, watch Internet porn and wait for death, if that’s what you want. Or you can be part of the solution. You can get into a position of power and wield it with a little more responsibility. That’s what this is about.
Photograph © Pierre Olivier Deschamps / Agence Vu