This week I read a book suggested by Lou, my wife. It’s called “The Circle” by Dave Eggers. It was an unusual choice for her as it can be classed as science-fiction; not space-opera, it is an extrapolation of present day trends. In some respects it resembles some of J G Ballard’s later work, High Rise, Cocaine Nights etc where a situation that starts out somewhat utopic ends up anything but. In The Circle the decision about whether it is a utopia or dystopia is the readers’ own although I am sure the author tends to the latter opinion.
It concerns a business that is an all powerful combination of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook etc. Its declared aim is to link everybody and everywhere providing on-line services that look after their personal contacts, entertainment, employment, health, welfare, safety, and ultimately their taxes and voting intentions. For the participants, including the protagonist, a new employee of the Circle, the aim is to increase the number of friends, followers, smiles (likes), comments, etc. by responding and commenting on other people’s posts and everything else and so boosting their rating and ranking. People choose to become “transparent” i.e. continuously broadcasting video and audio of their lives while new Circle initiatives remove the possibility of secrets and privacy, revealing not only everyone’s whereabouts but also their past (criminal records) likes and dislikes and even standardising actions in order to prevent crime or violence. Remind you of anything?
The Circle does extrapolate the present preoccupation with social media – frequent comment and messages, photos, blogs, vlogs, followers and “likes” – to an horrific, dystopic level (here I am encouraging it!). But I wonder. Some people reading the book (if they can concentrate long enough and don’t go flitting off to snatch a glimpse at some other bit of “news”) may think it’s a world they aspire to. Nevertheless, I don’t think the novel is an accurate prediction of our future. It makes only passing reference to the monetarisation of social media through endless advertisements, competition and algorithms that tell you what you should like. There is no mention of cybercrime, cyberterrorism and cyberwarfare. I think these three modern horses of the apocalypse, together with good old-fashioned greed, are what will eventually undermine what trust is left in the social media and internet behemoths. Where that leaves us I have no idea.
One specific aspect of the novel that attracted my interest was the need to achieve a top rating for everything we do. Only 5 stars or 100% will do. I rarely award the top grade or mark for any subjective judgement. I work on the principle that in the future I might find something that is even better so I must have something in reserve. If that disappoints people or causes them to lose kudos then tough.
And so to my writing. First of all – newsflash. I have a cover for Trained by Murder: A Jasmine Frame Collection – an anthology of four longish short stories which will be available on Kindle in March. All will be revealed soon. For now, here is the fourth episode of the latest Jasmine Frame story, Pose.
Pose: Part 4
They headed south and then Samantha directed Jasmine onto what was once a council estate. There were rows after rows of 1960s terraced houses and low-rise blocks of flats. They turned left and right more than once, until they were well into the estate.
‘There,’ Samantha said pointing to the end of a terrace. Jasmine pulled up, not directly outside, and they got out. There was no gate on the path leading to the front door and the garden was largely a bare patch of mud with a few tufts of grass, littered with household rubbish. Samantha strode up to the door and tapped with her fist. There was a delay before the door was opened. Jasmine saw a young woman with dark hair tied in a pony tail. She was thin and dark-eyed. The look she gave the two of them was a mixture of bemusement and uncertainty.
‘Yes?’ She said. The word was drawn out as if to stand in for several other words.
‘We’re here to see Terry,’ Samantha said, her voice obviously masculine.
‘Terry?’ the woman repeated as if the word was strange to her.
‘He lives here. He’s English,’ Samantha explained.
The woman’s face brightened. ‘Ah, the Inglis man.’ She shrugged. ‘I have not seen him. He is not here.’
Samantha nodded. ‘I was here earlier today. That’s what I was told then.’
‘It was not me you speak to,’ the woman said.
‘I know. I spoke to one of the men. He said there had been some trouble.’
The woman frowned, ‘Trouble, yes. Men throw stones and shout.’
Jasmine spoke, striving for her feminine voice, ‘Were they shouting at you and your friends?’ She wanted to check on what Samantha had told her earlier.
The woman looked at her as if she was cast into doubt. ‘We think that first. Inglis people not like Romanians. But they call Terry’s name and shout other words.’
‘What other words?’ Jasmine asked.
‘Rude words and words I not understand. Pee-do.’
‘Paedo?’ Jasmine was puzzled. ‘Where did they get that from? Not “tranny” or “pervert”?’
The woman shrugged, ‘”Pee-do” they shout again and again. Then they throw stone and break window.’
‘When was that?’ Jasmine asked.
‘When Tina was supposed to be meeting me,’ Samantha said.
‘When did she, er, he, Terry, leave?’ Jasmine asked.
The woman shook her head and raised her hands.
‘Can we see Terry’s room please?’ Jasmine asked. The woman looked uncertain.
‘We’re friends,’ Samantha said, ‘We’re worried about him.’
‘He is a travestie, like you,’ she said pointing at Samantha.
‘Travesty?’ Samantha looked blank.
‘She means are we transvestites like Terry?’ Jasmine said, then to the woman. ‘Yes, that’s how we know him. Did you see him dressed as a woman?’
She frowned. ‘Not as woman. As girl. He have no….’ she raised her hands to her chest cupping her breasts.’
Samantha chuckled. ‘That’s right. Tina never wore breastforms or a bra.’
‘It was her pose,’ Jasmine said, ‘A young girl. Can we come in.’
The woman shrugged and stood back to let them in. They entered a small square hallway. There was a closed door on each side. A stairway was in front of them beside a narrow corridor to a kitchen. A couple of men peered at them from the kitchen from where sounds of cooking emerged. The woman led them up the stairs. There were five doors on the landing. She pushed one door. It opened on what should have been one of the front bedrooms. Jasmine saw that it was divided in two by a partition made of thin board. The partition didn’t reach the ceiling. She pointed to the left. Samantha and Jasmine squeezed into a space that was filled by a single bed, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe rail. The window was covered in cardboard from a supermarket box. The bed was unmade and covered with a grey sheet and grubby duvet.
‘Did she sleep here last night?’ Jasmine wondered aloud.
‘Difficult to tell,’ Samantha said.
Jasmine took a step towards the wardrobe rail and fingered through the clothes. There was a pair of jeans on a thin metal hanger and three dresses in various shades of pink. She moved to the chest and pulled out drawers. There were items of clothing in each, some male some female. An electric razor and cosmetics on the top of the chest. She looked for personal belongings – phone, wallet, anything that might identify the occupant of the room as Terry/Tina.
‘Well, he hasn’t packed and left,’ Jasmine said.
‘If he doesn’t come back tonight, one of the men will move in here,’ the woman said.
‘The house is overcrowded,’ Jasmine said.
The woman screwed her face up, ‘Yes, but we can only pay if there are many of us.’
‘Why did Tina come here?’ Jasmine said looking around at the squalor.
Samantha shrugged, ‘Finding accommodation in Reading is difficult and this is close to where she lived with her wife and daughter.’
‘Where do they live?’ Jasmine said.
Samantha pointed out of the blocked window. ‘A couple of streets away.’
‘Let’s go and have a look.’ Jasmine backed out of the room. They returned downstairs and were leaving the building when Jasmine paused and turned to the woman.
‘Thanks for your help. Can you tell me your name?’
She shook her head and kept her lips clamped closed.
‘It’s alright, we won’t tell anyone. Just, if we find Terry we can tell him that you helped us.’
The woman managed a half smile. ‘OK. It is Cristina Antonescu. My brother Dumitru is here too.’
Jasmine took the last as a warning not to take advantage of her. Nevertheless, she smiled and thanked the woman. They returned to the Fiesta.
‘What do you think has happened to Tina?’ Samantha said.
‘I’ve no idea,’ Jasmine replied, ‘but it looks like she went out expecting to come back. She didn’t hide her femme side did she.’
‘I don’t think she saw any reason to; not now she didn’t have her wife and kid to tell her what to do.’
‘She wasn’t afraid of transphobes?’
‘Doesn’t look like it. Perhaps she thought that if the Romans accepted her then she was safe.’
‘Except that she wasn’t. Not if that gang were after her. And they didn’t think she was just a tranny.’
‘Yeah,’ Samantha looked mystified, ‘Where did they get that paedophile thing from? Tina dressed like a girl, she didn’t go after them.’
‘Are you sure?’
Samantha turned white. ‘I never got any idea of that when we were out together. Tina just liked the princess look. Like that Grayson Perry.’
‘I don’t think there’s much similarity,’ Jasmine said. ‘Perry’s style is juvenile, but his outfits are sculptured affairs, costumes. Tina’s look was pre-pubertal girl.’
‘I don’t know,’ Samantha said. ‘I thought we were having fun.’
‘You and Tina perhaps,’ Jasmine said, ‘Tina’s wife didn’t see it as simple fun or she wouldn’t have chucked her out. I think we need to have a chat with her.’
A scared look came over Samantha. ‘Are you sure?’
‘She’s the only other person we know who might be able to tell us where Tina is.’
‘OK, but I’m not going near her.’
‘Just take me to their house.’ Jasmine started the engine.
……………………….to be continued