Fiction | Rendered, blank in pages

If I am to survive in the new Commonwealth, I must convince the AI that I exist. Last time I got a letter which just said ‘Not enough information’. A growing invisibility has been creeping over me. I have passed beyond the Test Pattern to that small white dot at the end of transmission, where there is a noise only dogs can hear.

We gathered before the office opened; those old enough to rise between four and six in the morning, in the indefatigable hours. Inside, the staff are having trouble with the code; it is Tuesday, Refresh day. Everyone is jolly, here is the chance for action, the unseen lever to be pulled, a scientific proof of exhalation.

The queue moves slowly. I stand at the blue marker line, nervous, willing to show who I am. A voice says, ‘Recite your number please’. Panic is rising in me, an ache that would spin if let loose. I try to explain I don’t have a number; the voice says ‘That’s not what I’m asking you’.

I am sent to the only seat in an alcove. My mind is telling me it’s the naughty seat, the chair of the unbidden, a place of last recourse. Posters explain how to apply for various things, none mention a number. I am trying to remember if I ever had one, some digital transcription in evidence of being.

A young woman calls out my name and gestures to me to follow her. She is polite. ‘Every customer has a number.’ This is my opening, a redemptive chance. ‘I’ve never been a customer.’ To me, this seems a compelling response. She enters my name into the computer. I cannot see the screen and I assume it is futile to ask to.

‘Did you bring a passport this time?’ She is harder, flinted granite, occurring between flashes of resetting fluorescents. There seems little point saying I brought it the first time too; I’m going with the flow. ‘Can you tell me the last five addresses you have lived at?’ I explain the current and last home addresses, the houses I owned, comprising forty years of residence.

It is not enough. ‘You don’t have a credit rating or a number. If I am to assign you a customer reference, I must create a number.’ I try again and remember the street name in Thornbury I lived in while doing a postgraduate Library and Information degree. I’m a little distracted, thinking of the grapevine-covered back porch where we ate Quiche Lorraine with cold beer, waiting for the cool change. In those days, they came.

I bring into focus another street name in Northcote and a definite street name and number in East Brunswick from my early student days. I paid tax there, working at the Central Institute of Technology. It had one of the first automated library systems in the world, bar codes, exits that locked with a screeching yelp for things unborrowed. I’m over-extended, five decades in reverse now.

She is almost smiling; we’re getting something done. The system confirms the fifth address as a place I have inhabited, and connects this with my tax record, and from there the later abodes as well. It occurs to me that if the information is already linked and available, why do I need to provide the answers? Isn’t that the point of the seamless economy, now the old Commonwealth has foundered?

The card is green, yellow, and teal, some black-on-white printing of contact numbers. My Customer Number is handwritten in ten sequenced rectangular identifiers. Now that my identify is proved I can progress to the online application system, through the Government portal, from home. The portal, however, insists that my information, which is incorrect, cannot be updated, and I must return to a regional office, and speak to a Customer Service Officer.

I cannot go back until Refresh Tuesday next week.

On Friday this week I receive a letter.

Not Enough Information.

The blue marker line feels like a precipice. My vertigo wraps itself in anxiety, a white pointer about to clasp my head and torso. It would be easy to go head first into the chasm, bungee through the reconstituted fibre, take the flying fox to the exit, lose my place in slow standing reminiscence, ‘Recite your number please’.  

I start giving the details for my attendance but I am interrupted. ‘That is not what I am asking you. Is your email and your phone number correct?’ I explain yes, those two details are, but all the rest is wrong, my address, and the fact that the system insists I live in another place, and that I own property, which doesn’t exist. ‘Recite your number please.’

We leave gaps in the seating, smile at each other. A toddler leans on my knee, ‘Dada, Dada’. We share a quip about modern creches, this catch of the day, hung out as we are, the baited line dragging. Names are spelt out; anxious people wander to stations set up behind half screens as they are called. Some discussions are getting louder.

I was thinking about the fifth proof of my existence. The shabby weatherboard 1950s house in East Brunswick. After I moved in, I met the landlord as he clambered through the dining room window; taken aback, he announced ‘I am Ilyas’. I told him I was one of the new tenants. He had come about the blocked pipes. The kitchen sink and the bath were filling when the toilet was flushed or the shower was used. He wanted me to tell the others he was coming on Saturday morning to fix the external pipes. Just after a dawn as cold as a Balkan ceasefire, a cohort of Macedonians started digging all around the foundations, put chickens in the oven, sang old love songs, spoke several languages, swore and crossed themselves, men, women, children….

‘Is that you?’ I am prodded by a fellow customer as a guy, mid-thirties, white shirt, black tie, leather shoes, tailored beard, calls out my name for the third time. He is unfazed, civil as is required, proper. He takes me to a standing module and brings up my record, as I tell him about the problem. ‘There is a field for your details being the same as where you live, the other stuff is unnecessary.’ He turns the screen tripod so we can look at it together. We scroll down the form. There is no field that can be amended. He is puzzled. ‘It won’t let me fix it from here. Go home and delete the application and start a new one.’

It is a slow fifteen-minute walk to the other side of town, to my house. All the way the name of Waterloo Street, my fourth proof, an equation that cannot be denied, is bobbing along, there, where I lived below Northcote Rise, at the bottom of Rucker’s Hill. The house had a renovated lean-to kitchen that hung over the steep back, like a galleon moored in air. A Liquid Amber grew massive there, a haven where thrushes cleaned their beaks, thrashing the mace and chain pods. Out of the crenellated bifold bark, cicadas droned their longing to be fish, screeched vibrating abdominal drums. The pond frogs leapt, swallowing their dreaming, like a snarling dog at its bowl. In the front room, the music scholar with his ears muffled practised Chopin defying Napoleon, his polonaise overcome by scarab shrill, the incessant chorus of membranous wings in a swarm of barley sugar effigies. One street over, Christmas beetles rose in a dust storm from the tram inlays.

‘Are you sure you want to delete this file? This claim will cease.’ I take the plunge and start again. When I reach the housing question, it prefills properties I have never heard of. I delete and begin again. I have a new property in another state, apparently. I am sure I want to delete. Or is it me? Something changes and this time I am accepted at the residence I occupy.

My son was born at my third proof. We drove the ten minutes to the hospital at one am. It was the year of the Nurses Strike. The picket line let us through to the Birth Centre. After climbing the stairs, I turned the lights on. Jane had nearly given birth in the stairwell and we crawled the last steps together. After pressing the emergency button, an attendant ran to us from the main hospital and a doctor arrived not long after. Six hours later we went home with our baby. Jane wanted to get out of there; we felt bad over crossing the picket.

Our house was opposite an old park Reserve, a First World War horse resting station, the mounted corps stopping there on the way to the docks for embarkation. Desert Ash trees spread out over most of the space, like a set of gloves specially cast by a European artisan, a memorial planted after the Light Horse left. One Christmas we had a Norfolk Pine in a pot for our tree. I planted it in the park. It grew a metre each year, as though it sought to main mast its way to the brethren of uncharted seas.

‘Your claim has been successfully submitted. It is expected your claim will be processed at a date 12 weeks from now, if the material you have supplied is correct and subject to its complexity, and workload.’ I had trouble with the forever circle, that spinning merchant of ‘loading’. I realise afterwards that under income I did not include cash in my wallet or loose change on the dressing table. Cash in hand was listed as an example of an asset, as was funeral insurance.

On Refresh Tuesday I receive a text message.

‘We are working on your claim. You don’t need to do anything. Use your online account to track the progress. Do not Reply.’ My online account has the same message. There is nothing to track. The uploaded documents cannot be opened. In the application final questions there are two statements: Once you accept the terms this application cannot be changed/Don’t worry. You can make changes to your claim at any time.  

We shifted to Proof Four on a forty-two-degree New Year’s Eve, to a small farm in the evergreen hills of South Gippsland. The house had been moved by the previous owners from the town of Yallourn, which was tipping into the open cut mine. The house wasn’t quite where it was supposed to be, the two-stage truck churning dirt, slipping back over the road down to the river five hundred metres below. Four tractors pulled it back to the spot and there it stayed. A dusty change struck as we unloaded, a few spits of rain, moments of cooler air, a fridge door opening, then closing.

An edge of my life had always been verdigris. I was rooted into that country, cleft by sky. On the near vertical hills, I pinched out ragwort and thistles with a crowbar, piled them to rot to a gunmetal sludge that disappeared beneath a magician’s cloak; underneath clover grew. I fell in love with the burlap of cattle, the sweet smell of thyme that comes from the rub of their hide, the return in the rasp of tongue. Our daughter was born in the local hospital one mid-Winter. She slept on the old couch by the wood heater until November.

Each Sunday for several weeks I receive a text message.

‘We are still working on your claim. You don’t need to do anything at this stage. We will contact you when the decision is made. Do not Reply.’ My online account repeats the messages.

I could always hear my family breathing, dreaming, turning. I am a light sleeper, the night a familiar tone, where things cannot settle. Sidecar ideas clip each other in a dead-end alley, suck the dough off a pudding sixpence.

Watching the moon, how it inks the night, an arabica x-ray. Bogong moths knock away from rain, pull back their own curtains. Lying there counting quarters to fullness, waxing, waning, gibbous, searching those latitudes of anchorage within this safe harbour, delaying hours to hold fast. On an occasional Christmas, we would try to count snow falling deftly about the house, on our porch, gazing through the trees, a softest trespass. A silence our fingers could touch, in such tactile peace.

Some weeks in, the AI changes pattern and starts texting me on Refresh Tuesday. Do not Reply. I hover. What happens if I do reply? Back to the end of the list, a little shock to my misbehaving digit, a vortex of the damned, three blind mice, beam me up Scotty? Next door’s rooster crows.

Within the fifth and final proof, I have lived for less than a year. There are five fireplaces, two of which I know function. At the end of the street, six wind turbines turn twelve megawatts into households. Wild ducks sit on the roof, clamber, make their sounds of decompression, beak around chimney pots, sometimes fly a few hundred metres to the wetland reserve.

The roofer tells me he can’t do the repairs, his knees have turned in, the sky sits too low here, and the angle would need scaffolding. The side entrance door has an original Edwardian leadlight window. I used clear packaging tape to bind it against the northerly. It has to be removed and replaced with safety glass. I am told it can then be a ‘decorative’ item elsewhere. It wallows in the light, glass and metal reforged by see-through lacquer, streams psychedelic resistance over Huon pine flooring.

It is the waves, in the handshake at night becoming dawn. On the reef, where they meet again, the parched iron of wrecks, soldered by salt into rock, Tithonus and Eos, so lost, betrayed, wanton. My heartbeat is matched to the breaking shore, glimpsed through an incessant rhetoric, this throbbing behind my ear, life’s whisper to rise.

Twelve weeks have passed. My entitlement date is two weeks away. I am losing shape, waiting for my unlover’s message, but there is an assurance about late Autumn, rain falls, the Manchurian Pear is mottled for hibernation, the Tree Magnolia throws down those ridiculous seed pods that pretend pomegranate, the Irish Strawberry Tree litters the lawn with inedible fruit. The natives hug moisture, finally revived, persistent as an era.

Late in the afternoon, the phone blurs, goes crab sideways. The same text from twelve weeks ago, coupled with the second message which became all those since the first. They’re working on it, delayed due to complexity and/or workload. Do not Reply.

‘Why are you here?’ The cardiologist turns from the live coverage of my heart, a gong on a screen, all spinnakers and squelch. I explain the trip to emergency, my BP of 200/100, 24 hours with the mini reader strapped to my chest, the tightness, the load of bricks sitting on me. ‘Your ECG is beautiful, there’s nothing wrong, see?’

Days pass like birthday greetings, as a false warmth leads into the Solstice. Through the wetlands, to the north hide is a slow half hour walk. Panting, I get there in twenty minutes, the water azure from recent rains, a swat of white herons comes in too fast, fumbles their way to the reeds, shakes loose nesting black swans, marsh harriers screeching out education to fledglings.

My earphones are doing ‘Classic Road Trip Songs’, mostly ballads from the 70s. The bevy parts into pairs. There is no such thing as an ending swansong, all life they chatter, preen sounds to each other, low frequency gobbles of affection, anger, a sweep of contact wing. Their long necks taut in farewell, sometimes they die of heartbreak, sometimes find a new partner.

The earth base is hard on my doubled over ear when I wake. The sting too febrile for touch. Across the lea, a swathe of kangaroos watches me clamber to the access road. Collapsed warning signs ‘Beware of shafts’ rot into the sedge. At midday, precisely, the old mine horn blasts, as it does every day, crying its industry, full horn in regret.

I slide down the last big dune, the tide at nadir, the beach all reef and foreboding. The ocean used to flood the mine, bring in take out, swapping lives, breaching households, vending shifts in short change. Some people fish here, watch the sun closing down on the big Island, a bridge carries tourists from the mainland. One lane in, one lane out.

Best Before and Use By have gone. I break a tooth eating toast, the water pipe has burst somewhere, the bill is fifty times the norm, car registration and insurance arrive together, the daylight is tepid, ravens bead me hopefully as I dig a trench to find the leak. A cure fixes in my evaporation as I labour; I have outlived most humans and animals ever born.

The pattern is broken.

I am a broadcast in a language underneath scrimshaw, overwritten with the unforgetfulness of plainsong.

An SMS hiccups arrival.

‘We are still working on your claim. Claims can take longer to process if they are complex or submitted during busy times. Do not reply by SMS’.

Offshore treading water, beyond the buoy of my entitlement date, months now, adrift from the continent, years wander without chronology. Events swap places, persist by shuffled pages, everything is as real and as present as now. The smell of leather and coriander, sea salt, electricity and carbon, five proofs of the living, the tangle that it is to be human.

I join the throng on Refresh Tuesday. It is a cold Spring morning, frost on the ground at 8.30. We nod to one another; you can hear the king tide breaking at Cutter’s beach. The office staff still struggle with the code. The air a white breath of expectation. A busker at the supermarket next door is singing ‘California Dreaming’. A reversing delivery van beeps. A queue has its own comfort zone, a cheeriness of confederacy, gradually dissipating as the blue marker line nears. I give my number when requested. ‘State the reason for your visit.’

I am a reticent person, but life is entwined with so many factors, and I can only answer, ‘I have come to reply.’


James Walton

James Walton was a librarian, a farm labourer, and mostly a public sector union official. He is published in many anthologies, journals, and newspapers. He has been shortlisted for the ACU National Literature Prize, the MPU International Prize, The William Wantling Prize, the James Tate Prize, and is a winner of the Raw Art Review Chapbook Competition. His poetry collections include The Leviathan’s Apprentice (2015), Walking Through Fences (2018), Unstill Mosaics 2019, and Abandoned Soliloquies (2019).

More by James Walton ›

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  1. Oh James, what a dystopia, and so convincing! It’s like the computer i guess, bureaucracy. Well there isn’t a button marked ‘Start’ or ‘how can i verify the phone number when it’s not mine – i’ve never seen it before?’ And on it goes. Only with the computer it’s only an irritation, not a matter of life and death. But the story is very well done. Warm regards, Virginia

  2. Love how you’ve switched between the personal and particular to the obliteration of agency and identity.
    Futuristic and familiar!

  3. ‘Sidecar ideas clip each other in a dead end alley, suck the dough off a pudding sixpence.”
    Just beautiful!

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