In the middle of the night the telephone rang. Lior Tirosh picked up the phone and a voice said, “Run.”
Tirosh stared blearily at the ceiling. A black cloud of mould had spread gradually over one corner of the room. It had began as a mere speck of dirt, some long while back, but now it had extruded aggressively outwards, had colonised and settled and stayed. The last time he’d spoken to his landlord, Yossi, the man had told him to use hot soapy water to gently wash off the mould. But Tirosh never did. In many ways he was a lazy man, not given to undue intervention in the little injustices of life. It was easier to let the mould grow than to try and combat its spread, knowing that anyway it would just come back, that one day, whatever he did, the mould would grow to cover the entire flat and, later, extrude farther, until first the city and then the entire Syrian-African Rift Valley would come under its sway. In such a world, Tirosh thought, still, perhaps, in that uncanny valley between wakefulness and dream (for he was usually a deep, if late, sleeper), the mould would eventually develop intelligence, and with it a sort of symbiotic relationship with the humans, whom it would enslave. In such a world (now so vivid in Tirosh’s mind that, for a moment, he all but forgot the strange telephone call he was in the midst of), a person would be marked from birth with the Black Sign of the fungus, perhaps on the forehead or – like the small round scar of a smallpox vaccine – on the arm, close to the shoulder. The Pax Fungi would then herald a never-before-seen era of peace and prosperity across the Middle East and beyond, until it extended across the entire planet. It would be a golden age never before seen in human history, and would – “Are you listening to me, Tirosh?” the voice demanded.
Outside, Tirosh could hear the creaking, halting sounds of a street sweeper as it crept along Hatkuma Street, which is to say, the Resurrection, right up to the intersection with Hatchiya, which is to say, Rebirth Street.
This was not out of the ordinary. Tirosh had first moved to Tel Aviv from the periphery. He had grown up on a kibbutz up north, a lonely child immersed in books for too long a time for his own benefit, like a Catholic child baptised forever in cold, if holy, water. Back then, he lived for a time in an apartment which sat on a confluence of streets all named for ancient pogroms. Blood libels and dead Jews haunted him on trips to the greengrocers and the local kiosk until, at last, he’d fled, past countless peeling Bauhaus contraptions that littered the sandy grounds of Tel Aviv like candy wrappers or empty, discarded packs of cigarettes, south to Jaffa.
“Who is this?” he said, sleepily.
“You have to leave,” the voice said. “They’re coming for you now.”
Graeme has a place waiting in the recently requisitioned Walpole Bay Hotel and Nick puts him in a USG minivan with a few other recent arrivals. The rooms are all full and so a series of bunk beds and spaces for sleeping bags have been set up in the downstairs lounge. He sits in the corner feeling vulnerable, his bag held tight, wishing he hadn’t flushed that spliff away; he could do with a smoke, calm his nerves.
How much will his records get sold for? They must be worth six, seven grand if he could get full price for them, probably they will go up for auction on one of the Government’s Clawback sites and be sold for whatever anyone bids for them, anything that isn’t sold after a certain point goes to charity shops for free. He thinks maybe he can sell the records he has in the bag to pay off his debts and buy back his own stock.
The room is filling up now. A dazed looking group in black hoodies is being processed at the doorway and let into the room one by one, activists, he thinks he recognises a few. He doesn’t want to hug the bag of records too close for fear of alerting someone to their value or loosen his hold on them for fear they might be taken. If he loses this he loses everything. He can’t seem to get any kind of signal on his phone down here and needs to get online, to contact his buyer and arrange something. Money no object, they said. He’s seen tape collections go for ten, twelve grand, getting bid up on ExecutiveCollector. This is all a mistake he can rectify if he can just get online.
On the other side of the room he spots another couple of familiar faces, Giveback Partners from one of the refit jobs they did in Elephant and Castle six months ago, a horrible experience that got Graeme ever more frantically pursuing his record trading afterwards in order to stave off ever having to do it again. A group of ten of them in Giveback Boilersuits jogging in lockstep from the branded Giveback van, the team leader, ex-Army, barking instructions at them, the public spectacle of it as much a part of the exercise as anything, letting the poor know, this is what’s waiting, allowing the rich to savour the discipline.
He approaches tentatively, knows faces but not names, they all seemed alright even though they hadn’t communicated much, each one locked away in a pocket of anger and shame that seems here in the light and space of the temporary encampment to have been broken open.#
Alright boss, Graeme says. I know you mate, from Giveback up in Elephant. We did that housing estate, ripping all the old carpets up and that. For a second they look blankly at him then one of them nods, yeah, yeah, bruv. Yeah that’s right. They got you too.
What’s going on? I need to get back up to London. He’s here coincidentally, accidentally he explains, came down on some business and can’t get back up there now, hasn’t had time to sell or stash his stuff, nothing more than the shirt on his back and the phone in his hand. Can anyone get a signal? He needs to ring Matty, he’ll come and get him, ring his contact, let him know he’s got stuff, start negotiating a price. Ring Joolzy, ring the OkupaUK crew, anyone, just to let them know he’s here, that there’s been some mistake. They all shake their heads. Signal’s been jammed, something’s going on. You could try the internet café down on the front but you are not supposed to go more than quarter of a mile from your centre. How can there be no wireless, he asks, no phone signal? They’ve turned it all off. Simple as that. Plus, one of them says we know you yeah, but don’t talk to anyone you don’t know. Lot of undercover narcs about.
One of the group is telling them a story about how he had to go and work for Pret A Manger making sandwiches on a Giveback placement in a big, cold warehouse up the river, standing at a long line of other workers in white coats and hairnets at scratched silver trestle tables. He is tall, six foot three and the bench was little too low. He asked the supervisor if there was any way they could raise the table but he looked at him blankly. That’s the table we use here, he said. Then could he have a chair to sit on? We don’t have chairs, they told him. No one else is sitting down. Yeah, but I am taller than they are. The supervisor smiled. Find a solution, he said. Don’t mention it to me again.
An older guy, maybe early fifties, with a beer belly and glasses has drifted over to join them. Find a solution to being tall? Every day the pain in his back started a little earlier in the shift, until even after a weekend of lying in bed just trying to recover, using the muscles as little as possible, on the following Monday morning the pain was instantaneous, adjusting his posture slightly to pull the first two slices of bread out of the box a strap of raw muscle started heating up until after thirty minutes it was burning and making him nauseous. Every time he finished a sandwich it was pulled across the table cut and boxed then sealed. He began to slow down dramatically, shifting his weight from side to side bending and stretching, pausing as his teammate scowled impatiently at him from across the other side of the table. Each pair was assessed for productivity, each team competing with other teams, each section with others and each individual performance logged, someone would lose out, the least productive pair in each team put the whole table in danger of being deemed to be showing insufficient enthusiasm, efficiency, motivation and penalised, benefits cut, more Giveback hours extended, or worse, both. You could find yourself working more hours for free, racking up Giveback hours for a bare subsistence in terms of on-the-job food allocations. He tried to keep going he said but by the afternoon the pain was unbearable and in the half hour break he sat and wept in the company toilet wondering what the fuck he was going to do, whether they would even let him leave and dreading the sanctions they would apply, the medical tests he would have to go through, which would find him fit to work and give him pain-killers, a privilege he would have to pay for with more Giveback hours. In the end he couldn’t take it any more. And so.
Yeah. Yeah. Everyone nods.
How come you are down here? They ask a guy in his early thirties. Hi alright, he says, I am Charlie. Charlie sounds a little bit posh. He said had been stopped at the turnstile at Charing Cross by some private security guards asking him why he wanted to come into Zone 1, what the purpose of his visit was, asking why a Claimant would have any need to leave his particular, they used the word designated, Zone to come down here. I want to go to the library. You are not a student though, are you? You can do all that online. I want to go to the library, the museum, a gallery, window shopping whatever, what’s the problem with that? Loitering with no clear purpose then. Looking at your Viability Index you have got no money to spend and I am refusing you entry on reasonable suspicion of attempted non-authorised financial solicitation. ITB. Intent to Beg. After some protesting and refusal in which he was very careful not to lose his temper he was eventually escorted into a side office while his details were checked, then he was taken away and kept in police custody for 24 hours as they went round and trashed his flat looking for suspicious or subversive material. Lucky for you we didn’t find anything, they said, though we could have done if we had wanted to. Two days later he received notice that the Giveback hours incurred through the time being held in the police cell had pushed him over some preprescribed limit and that he was to report to the office down here.
They are getting serious; they are cracking the fuck down. Another guy on one of the camp beds at the back chipped in that he had been refused entry to a pub in Blackheath after his Claimant Card set off some kind of alarm behind the bar. He refused to leave and a group of big guys in rugby shirts made the fact that he was not welcome clear to him: fuck off out of here or you’ll be claiming disability from now on, one told him, to raucous laughter.
Well, she said, I was coming back home on the bus one day and I just decided, fuck it, I am going to go full default. I was working in Rootz making £6.37 an hour and I had debts, you know? There was no way I could pay it back, no way, and the interest was accumulating all the time so, I mean it was scary to do it but I’d just got paid and I knew I was going to see all of that money disappear, go to the landlord, on transport, to pay back student loans, to cover credit card bills. Already I was living in a shared house, right, in the cheapest room and every month I am just digging myself in deeper paying bills and expenses. So I ended up looking around for a cheaper place to live but they were all even further away from work so then there was extra transport costs. What can I do, right? I’m not going into one of the Beehives. I can’t live. I am working all week and I can’t live. Do more hours, work two jobs maybe but I am already doing an extra ten to twenty hours a week overtime just to show willing and keep my job at Root and Branch, so about two months ago I thought, well, I can either go back and live with my Mum and Dad or I can go full default, in which case I have got about a two week head start before the bailiffs are on to me. So that means no phone, nothing, you’re looking at five years for some of the debts to be cancelled, some of them never, always trying to stay ahead of the bailiffs, always having to find work from someone who won’t ask questions, no benefits, people always ready to grass you up, you know? The only thing worse than being a Claimant is being a defaulter as far as some people are concerned, but me, I had no choice. I couldn’t see any way out. My Mum and Dad don’t have any money to give me a leg up, you know. I worked through University, I got a good grade, I wanted to keep studying but then the prices went up, the credit dried up, the only jobs I could get were minimum wage, I didn’t know if I would be working from one week to the next. And nearly everyone I knew was the same, some of them had help but I didn’t have any lifelines, you know. So I just had to leave.
How long did you manage?
Six weeks. Immigration raided this meat packing plant I was working in up near York. There were three Brits in there; everyone else was foreign, y’know, from all over. I got shipped back down here.
How much have they got you for?
Giveback? She swallows.
Fucking years and years and years.
….the shabby houses of La Villette and Bercy, where famous poets spilled wine across their tattered and eternally unfinished manuscripts while dashing to the floor the inmates’ tiaras and robes de chambre in acts of romantic debauchery that, when publicized, bred ratlike sycophants, who, in seeking to nest in the shadows of the poets’ fame, infested these humble brothels and brought such demand for their women and the taste of the authentic poetic life they bestowed that the poets could no longer afford to frequent them and left behind nothing more than illicit tourist traps with re-creations of famous liaisons that had supposedly taken place there, to be viewed for ten sous through peepholes beneath bronze plaques from the Historical Society on the walls reminding visitors of whatever had taken place there during the Revolution as the proprietor shoved at them oversized coffee mugs printed with crude snapshots of their women as souvenirs, keychains with the professionally-designed logo of the brothel and its slogan in English, and oversized fanny-packs that were made in China with a secret compartment for coins, the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower stitched to the front, and an X-tra Fit elastic waistband that could stretch around the tourists to secure this distended artificial gut to the tourists’ cargo shorts, stained with McDonald’s condiments and sweat, on which they wiped their fingers after shoving a cheeseburger into their cola-scented mouths and, while chewing, bellowed their disdain for whatever painting they had, out of a sense of duty, left their Holiday Inn to see as their slimy tongues flicked little specks of mashed-up meat and bread onto the work in question to, when the accumulated cheeseburger residue came to obscure a certain percentage of the painting’s surface, be cleaned by professional art restorers, lamenting, as they delicately applied their vacuums and steam-brushes, the disrespect for the museum exhibited by the tourists, of whom few were half as destructive as one notorious visitor to France named Baruch Khazâd, future Lord Minimus, of the Isle of Minimus, a dwarf no elderly restorationist or museum owner could mention without a shudder as they warned their younger colleagues to beware tourists from the Isle, especially the male dwarfs on their plastronnage, as had been Lord Khazâd when, in 1934, having learned of the tradition when he immigrated to the Isle several months earlier from Ukraine, he rampaged through Paris in a drunken frenzy, attacking with a hammer ancient sculptures from Egypt and Greece, setting fire to paintings by Titian and Manet, and committing a lewd act upon the Arc de Triomphe, by which he claimed to be symbolically defiling all of French history as the police dragged him to the commissariat, where, as he peeked over the sill of the barred window at the city, chalk-colored under the lightly-clouded afternoon sun, they threatened him with all manner of brutality should he ever return to France, then beat him with their well-worn truncheons for a few minutes before shackling him naked to the roof of a prisoner train bound for Le Havre, as was the standard punishment in France for defacing artwork, with a ticket for a cargo ship back to the Isle, to be used should he survive the inclement weather, the storm that blew in that evening and drenched him while lightning crashed all around and filled the midnight countryside with a constant, flickering illumination that gave these fields and villages the look of the land of the dead and the two other art defacers shackled to the roof with him the look of crazed skeletons that had somehow come to life and sat themselves down on a train to terrify the clochards riding the rails in the other direction, inspiring tales of the “Vagabond-Fantôme”, who, after his myth reached the locomotive vagrants of the United States, slowly acquired the accoutrements by which this sinister figure is known today, including the tall, red top hat, the shredded tuxedo, stained with the blood of his victims, the monocle that reveals to him the sins of those he sees, the black velvet gloves over his six-fingered hands, the pair of neutered jackals named Dimnah and Kalilah on silver leashes named Rhaff and Rheffyn (fashioned by the finest craftsman of Surat and a nimble-fingered prophetess of Benares), the unspayed Tasmanian she-wolf named Amazon (left to wander freely and sniff out those guilty of committing any injustice against a vagrant or other downtrodden unfortunate), and the ivory cane, shaped into a tight spiral by the bonsai-master Prysgliach Gwrachell through binding, with a modified bonsai harness for twenty years, the living tusk of an enraged bull elephant in perpetual musth out there on the rainy northwestern peninsula of the Isle of Minimus, where, after the removal of this tusk late in its life by the Isle’s sole Nazi occupier for his own collection in 1940, the elephant ceased to patrol the peninsula as its territory and disappeared into the highlands to trample sheep, terrorize milkmaids, and evade the traps of Baruch Khazâd, still as stooped as a Béraud woman from his forced train ride six years earlier but determined to capture the legendary rogue elephant and thereby impress the young women of the Isle, who were ignoring him in favor of those dashing Resistance men fighting the Occupation from the seaside caves of the west coast and the forests of the central plateau, raiding the cities with their guns and homemade bombs to blow up a statue of Adolf Hitler in Dverberg or steal a jeep and drive it into the ocean, much to the delight of the women staring at them from the windows as they marched into town and occasionally running off to join them in their camps and cook for them or even accompany them on their attacks, as most of the Isle’s women despised the Isle’s Nazi for helping himself to food from their kitchens and groping them and their sisters or daughters in front of their subservient husbands and fathers, though not all these women shied away from his advances, and some actually made a great deal of money entertaining the Nazi in his private villa atop Bach Hill, overlooking the derelict Nouvelle-Chomedey harbor, sent there each night through the intervention of Khazâd, who used his familiarity with the Isle’s major brothel in Dverberg to secretly act as the Nazi’s “intermediary” in these matters in exchange for permission to hunt the rogue elephant, which he knew would give him the prestige to turn a few admiring eyes away from the Resistance godelureaux and toward himself, securing, through his marriage to one of the wealthier girls of the capital city, the necessary support to be named the next Lord Minimus once the Nazis, having completed their invasion of Britain and, succeeding in delivering peace to all Europe, sufficiently confident in their authority to allow the return of certain local customs they had felt it necessary to suppress during the conflict, reinstated that ancient title, which had languished, dormant, ever since the previous Lord Minimus, Carolino Gogoni, died under mysterious circumstances the day after the Nazi parachuted onto the Isle and received, despite the protestations of the Seneschal and part of the Minimal Council, Lord Gogoni’s immediate surrender, shocking this rookie paratrooper, who had undergone six months of training in anti-dwarf combat techniques in preparation for this invasion, expecting to meet heavy resistance from the famously nationalistic inhabitants, many of whom, instead, flocked to greet him and carry his luggage to the Bach Hill estate, where, after tea and boules infestées with the friendlier elders of the Council, he was led down to Lord Gogoni’s barely-seaworthy houseboat, moored in the harbor, and was formally presented, at high tide, with the Instrument of Surrender, signed by Lord Gogoni with one hundred different pens at a table set up on the houseboat’s roof, sheltered from the dismal weather by two menservants holding vast umbrella-lamps, which were printed in elaborate floral designs that threw spidery shadows across the Nazi’s face and made him appear far older when he stuck his pen in the mouth of one of the potted Venus flytraps that lined the roof and leaned back in his chair to brood on the sound of the foghorns guiding out of the harbor the boat evacuating to England a handful of families who had decided against the exercise of their patriotic duty to remain on the Isle during the Occupation while Lord Gogoni continued to pick out his name one penstroke at a time and hand off each pen as it was used to one of the many supporters filling the lower decks and spilling up the stairs, reaching out their hands as Lord Gogoni distractedly held out to them each used pen, each piece of history that would find an honored place in the home of every lucky recipient, who, years later, would, presumably, gesture to the pen on its marble dais in each of their heirloom salons and tell their grandchildren about that beautiful, sunny day they were there on Lord Gogoni’s houseboat to witness the Isle become one of the first members of the glorious Nazi empire that had now raised the swastika over every country and struck Communism, Jewery, and all other depravities from the face of the Earth, clearing the way for the Isle of Minimus to take its place at the head of human achievement, first among all nations in the eternal Reich promised by this Nazi, who sighed with boredom as he provoked the aloof flytraps and shifted uncomfortably in his tiny chair, shivering in the cold mist that blew up off the water and slowly soaked everyone on the roof, including the menservants with their umbrella-lamps, which had begun to leak water into their light bulbs and flicker ominously overhead, the dwarf octet that had, in lieu of their traditional Minimal instruments, taken up, out of respect for their German visitor, gigantic sousaphones, from which they struggled to force some semblance of Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, and the excited crowd on the stairs, who jostled and tittered with looks of dumb joy on faces dripping with rain and seawater, then gave a raucous cheer as the Nazi was at last handed the document and welcomed by Lord Gogoni to accompany him to a celebration that night in the ancient Roman fortifications overlooking the heavily polluted Dormitory Fjord on the north end of the Isle, where, in the first century AD, the Roman tactician Flavius Phallosius Maximus had drowned after his banishment from Rome for his shocking habit of wearing embroidered sleeves and a primitive wool cravat known as a polemical, which, according to dwarf legend, when it washed ashore some time later near the dwarf settlement now known as Hudson-sur-la-Manche, was interpreted to be a message from the Gods, its ornate floral pattern a strange foreign language that only the mad shaman who then ruled over the western coast of the Isle claimed to be able to decipher, the same mad shaman many dwarf historians believe to be the basis for the myth of the Nain Rouge, but who is, otherwise, poorly remembered (since he almost certainly did not exist), known mainly for sequestering himself for one month in an unidentified cave in the central hills to translate this mysterious text, which, when he at last read it aloud in translation to an assembly of dwarfs from all over the Isle, was found to be a hymn to this shaman’s greatness, a prophecy revealing that, once he, in all his magnificence, had impregnated every woman on the Isle, giants would be forever barred from approaching its shores, and the dwarfs would at last have a homeland free of foreign domination, fulfilling the dream they all shared, even on the northeast coast, among the pirate dwarfs who had supposedly rejected the culture of the western half of the Isle, though few, according to the legend, even in the shaman’s own village of Dverberg, went so far as to allow him to impregnate their wives and daughters, adopting the view, instead, that this mysterious text should be read as an allegory expressing the gods’ wish that the Isle be united under a single ruler, that dwarfs should procreate as often as possible in order to give the Isle a greater number of soldiers to defend its shores, and that giants defiled the land with their presence, brought to it a curse through the stamping of their heavy feet and the bellowing of their brutish voices, the establishment of alien customs unsuited to dwarf life, and the worship of tall gods that held dwarfs in contempt and would never answer their prayers, never accept their sacrificed goats and lambs, and never cease to help giants oppress dwarfs everywhere, which constituted a worldview that served to guide the Resistance in their five years of struggle against the Nazis, to support them in their darkest hours, forming the infrastructure of their faith that to expel this invader would bring the Isle peace, comforting them there in those frigid little rooms somewhere up in the hills as, each evening, the setting sun seemed to drag down with it all their hopes for the future, as the earth cast skyward its limitless shadow and vague shouts from the Marcellaville concentration camp echoed over the land to mix with the sound of the bombs exploding in the cafés and the wail of emergency sirens of ambulances carrying the collaborators and other victims off to the hospital where, when the Isle was at last liberated in October of 1945, the procuretrix of the Dverberg brothel, the only person, besides the Nazi, who could identify Baruch Khazâd as the one arranging the Nazi’s entertainments, as Khazâd never spoke directly to the inmates themselves face-to-face when dealing with these matters, was brought with a gunshot wound to the head and expired immediately upon arrival, prompting the Nazi, as he shared one last dinner on the veranda of his Bach Hill estate alone with young Khazâd, to joke coarsely about the “skilled aim” of this future Lord Minimus, a joke Khazâd seemed to find in poor taste, surprising the Nazi, as he had never found Khazâd to take exception to any joke, no matter how vile, no matter how scatological, racist, misogynistic, blasphemous, or antinanoidic, not even the one about the young female dwarf whose nymphomania leads her to embark on an expedition into the heart of darkest Africa, where she meets a dissolute priest whose priapismic escapades have convinced the local populace of his godhood, a witticism with a punchline so revolting that it caused Serge Gainsbourg to double over in helpless laughter when Lord Khazâd shared it with him between takes during the filming of the scene in which Anna Karina hops from petal to petal on a giant cannabis leaf painted across an empty concrete lot with Gainsbourg in the center while chanting “il m’aime, un peu, beaucoup, à la folie, pas du tout”, changing her expression drastically on each petal representing each bit of amatory prognostication from the universe, cheering on the “beaucoup” petal, waving her arms and shouting with joy on the “à la folie” petal, and finally collapsing with despair on the “pas du tout” petal, causing Karina to narrowly escape the assassin’s bullet, which zips past harmlessly into the ground, and Gainsbourg to look up from his copy of Prophetic Dreams of Abraham Lincoln 1850–1860, part of a one-hundred-volume series entitled Prophetic Dreams of the American Presidents by Sigmund Freud, and shout with annoyance at Alec Guinness, revealed (with a gong sound) as the camera pans to the right to be standing nearby with, in his leather-gloved hands, an enormous gun Gainsbourg takes from him in a choppily-edited martial arts sequence, followed by a scene in which Gainsbourg ties this inscrutable Japanese agent to the statue of the Coq Gaulois standing in front of the French pavilion and pummels him in the rain in the foreground, out of focus on the left half of the frame while, in focus on the right, Karina and Bardot dance beneath their parapluies in their cuissardes à talons hauts to the rhythm of Gainsbourg’s hit song “Bondage spécial” (he also composed the film’s main theme, “Soixante-Neuf, agent provocatif”, which he famously sang with Bardot in what some called an “obscene spectacle” at the 1968 Venice Film Festival, where the film tied for the Leone d’oro) until Guinness admits that he is in league with a sinister alliance consisting of Anglophone Canadian Peter Sellers, Soviet Commissar Marcello Mastroianni, CIA spy Lee Hazlewood, MI6 agent Michael Caine, turncoat agent of the Office québécois de la langue française Steve McQueen, and the evil supercomputer voiced by Marlon Brando, assembled together by an unknown puppet master for the purpose of exterminating the French language, a revelation that so outrages Gainsbourg that, when, in the next scene, he makes his videophone report to le général de Gaulle from his place in Habitat 67, he implores le Général to grant him authorization for Method Extreme Hostility, authorization to openly wage a campaign of total obliteration with a maximum of violence against any and every opponent of the French language encountered by the agent without making the slightest effort to disguise his actions and without any concern for the diplomatic repercussions, something, le Général tells him, a regretful look on his face on the black-and-white telescreen, he could never do, since approval for Method Extreme Hostility could only come from a unanimous vote of the Académie française, and they had not granted such approval since the conflict in Algérie ended five years earlier…