Oyster cards were first issued to members of the British public in July 2003; by June 2015 they will have been replaced by a contactless card payment system. As we grow old these rectangles of blue plastic will fade into memory; they will become historical curiosities, representing little more than a transitional phase in the history of payment systems, weekend engineering works on our noble journey from the physical to the digital, from the actual to the virtual. But let’s not allow the Oyster card to disappear from public consciousness unremarked upon; let’s take some time out from our hectic schedules and look up into the dim light; let’s take stock for just a moment, gulp in the close cold air, feel the dank wind of history on our faces, and contemplate the significant role this stored-value contactless smartcard has played in our everyday lives over the last decade or so.
Consider an example. Let’s say you’re not a Londoner. You don’t live here; you’re an alien. We’ll sculpt you a bit more as we go along but, to begin with, let’s just say you’re an alien in London and see how that sits. You won’t, don’t worry, remain undeveloped. But everything in its time. For now, enjoy the not-knowing, enjoy the formlessness, the weightlessness. You could become anyone. Think of the possibilities, the opportunities. All we know, for now, for certain, is that you are, let’s say, an alien in London.
You arrived, by plane, on a one-way ticket, say, your purpose, at the moment, dark to us. You think nothing, once reunited with your suitcases at London Gatwick, having trudged with them through arrivals (and after everything that happened on the flight you might have appreciated some help), of taking a taxi to your hotel in Acton. An indulgence, perhaps, but you are happy to spend money at times like these. You’re not rich, you’re not profligate, but money is there to be spent. You can’t understand people who hoard – people who save and save and save, knowing they will die with their accumulated wealth unspent, inactive, a pile of wasted opportunities. Why bother? That’s not your style; it’s not an approach to the business of living you have ever understood. Which is not to say you’re a fool – you’re no fool, clearly – you know when to be careful. But by and large, at times like these, in situations like the present one, on days like today, you are happy to spend money. And you spend money when you are happy; you spend money when the sun is out. Because otherwise why bother? And the sun, today, is out.
So we’re sculpting you already. A little more definition in your clay, a little more shape, the broad curved outlines of a figure emerging: a rounded hip, a light bosom, a bowed back. Not much indication, yet, what the final form will look like – if a final form will even be possible; still some room for suspense. Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be… Embrace the not-knowing.
The Oyster card did not, of course, appear in our sweaty palms out of the blue; a long process of trial and error led up to that day back in July 2003 when the first blue plastic slips were tucked into our collective back pocket. This costly and somewhat frustrating process began in 1998, with the creation of a Private Finance Initiative, or PFI, between TfL (Transport for London) and a consortium called TranSys. The £100 million PFI contract, known as ‘Prestige’, was put in place for a term of 17 years, at a cost of £1.1 billion. In other words, the Oyster card – whose obsolescence we might otherwise have attributed to the unstoppable momentum of technological development – was always going to disappear in 2015.
Briefly, TranSys requires further attention. This consortium of suppliers was established specifically for the Oyster card operation, and was made up of the following four companies, a short description of whose other activities will prove instructive. Cubic Transportation Systems (37.5 per cent): an American company, based in California, which provides automated fare equipment and services to the mass transit industry. Cubic Transportation Systems is a division of Cubic Corporation, a public military defence equipment company whose chief purpose is the provision of logistics support and ground combat training systems to the US military. HP Enterprise Services (37.5 per cent): the global business and technology services division of Hewlett Packard’s strategic business unit, HP Enterprise Business. Hewlett Packard provides hardware and information technology support to, among other similar clients, the Israeli military, enabling their occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and everything it entails. Fujitsu (20 per cent): a Japanese multinational information technology equipment and services company headquartered in Tokyo. The UK branch – Fujitsu’s Global Defence Centre of Excellence – provides such great support to the Ministry of Defence that, of its military presence, its website boldly proclaims, ‘Fujitsu support is unfailing and everywhere.’ WS Atkins (5 per cent): a British multinational engineering, design, planning, project management and consulting services company headquartered in Epsom. Among their many worldwide projects is The Future Rapid Effect System, a Ministry of Defence initiative to deliver a fleet of more than 4,000 armoured fighting vehicles to the British Army.
Unfailing and everywhere: the religious inflection, the flavour of divinity in Fujitsu’s boast, is surely not unintentional. The tautly knotted military involvement of this consortium of suppliers is part of a wider structure that holds our sense of ourselves securely in place. Without it, we are nothing. An invisible mesh, a latticed god of silent complicity, engrids our everyday lives, providing us with the security within whose bounds we can be free to self-construct.
You arrive at the hotel. The Regent: a slither of a door on a high street, valiantly holding apart the walls of a betting shop and a tanning salon. A staircase is just visible behind the door’s dusty glass, leading to darkness. On the pavement in front of it, scattered cigarette butts, empty crisp packets, a yellow polystyrene container holding long strips of speckled grey meat and congealed, rubbery fat. Is this it? You check a printout of the booking confirmation email, the one you showed the taxi driver when you got into his car, embarrassed, as he snatched it from your hand, by its filthy state, so fingered and folded that it is splotched with greasy translucence, its text all but illegible. Of course this is it. Why bother checking?
A family of four is walking along the pavement; you are in their way but don’t have the energy to move your suitcases from their path. When they reach you, their unit splits in two, passes divided either side of you, re-establishes its indifferent unity and continues down the road, without acknowledging, without, apparently, even registering you. There is something about you, you think, that makes you incapable of interrupting the flow of others; you are not a surface in the habit of coming into contact with other surfaces. Well. Perhaps, you think, you hope, this is about to change. Above you is a beautiful, clear blue London sky.
In the jumble of posters and stickers on the door, almost religious in their credulous and devoted invocation of unseen authority, you can make out a three-star award from the AA and a Trip Advisor certificate with writing too small to read without your glasses. You press a buzzer mounted on the wall to the side of the door; the door clicks open; you push it. A brief hesitation. The reviews were fine, weren’t they? Otherwise why would you have chosen this place? And you did read them, didn’t have too much trouble with them, but perhaps you were a little overoptimistic with your translations? You’re a good judge usually. But perhaps now, now that your taxi has gone and left you alone in the middle of the street, and you are faced with the immediate practical problem of the many steps in front of you and no-one to help with your bags (and you’re no weak little woman, but it was a difficult flight and you haven’t slept well for days), and the less immediate, less practical issue of facing the reality of what you’re here to do; perhaps now memories of a couple of negative, even damning, reviews – which had, at the time of booking, been submerged in the general flood of mild positivity and qualified generosity, and therefore escaped conscious attention – start tugging at the back of your consciousness; perhaps you are now recognising some of your mistranslations. Didn’t someone complain about street noise? Was there a problem with the smell from the kitchen? Rude staff? Unwashed sheets? Or is it that now, faced with an external reality that does not conform to your expectations, does not converge with your internal construction of it, your memory is rebuilding itself to effect a narrative continuity between past and present? It’s hard to say, and the effort of trying to work out what’s real is too much for you. You close your eyes, breath in slowly and, during the intake, which starts as a ceremonial girding of your loins, you remind yourself that this is London air you’re breathing, that here you are – you! – in London – London! – and by the time your lungs are full you are remembering the ticket for Mamma Mia! you booked as a birthday present to yourself approximately eight months ago, the many retail opportunities available to you, the message you hope, pray, you will have received during the journey (The Regent has Wi-Fi access; you made sure of that), and you have forgotten all about the flight and you smile and with new strength you drag your two heavy suitcases up the stairs and, after the briefest of pauses – you! in London! – you try the door at the top.
It opens onto a narrow, empty entrance hall with a regal design on the carpet. It is not what you expected; it is acutely sanitary. Blank white walls; the sharp scent of combined cleaning products; the muffled animal moan of a vacuum cleaner from – the next room? Or is it upstairs? Somewhere unplaceable. Disinfectant: the process of erasure, renewal. Your room will be ready by now, wiped clean of whoever was there last night. Whatever drama was enacted within those walls – you dread to think – will be swept and polished away; it is an empty stage, yours to strut and fret on, until it is wiped clean again, disinfected of your presence.
Inside, your environment will dictate your processes. A room full of prompts. Little soaps, little bottles of cleanliness; a white bathrobe; crisp white bedsheets; a mini-bar; a wall-mounted television: you’ll have a shower and you’ll lie on your bed loosely in your bathrobe – why bother tying it? – and you’ll pour yourself a small gin and tonic and you’ll turn on the TV, and you’ll open up your laptop and you’ll hook onto the Wi-Fi and you’ll read his message. It will, surely, have arrived by now.
Smiling, you walk up to the reception desk and you hit the polished brass bell with the palm of your hand. Its ring slices the air with an unexpected clarity, a strange resonance. It sounds like a warning bell and you remember the sensation of falling.
The hint of a complicated – perhaps even tragic – backstory: did you pick up on it? Don’t be scared, we’re not here to take pleasure from your pain, we’re not creating you in order to torture you. You’ll have had your fair share of sadnesses, but your happiness here, now, is genuine and will remain so. No proleptic irony, no patronising mockery. We can’t promise a happy ending – we can’t promise much at this stage – but what we can promise is that we will take your feelings seriously at every moment. That’s what we’re here for; we’re in the compassion business. So don’t be frightened and enjoy feeling yourself coming into being. It’s true you no longer have the unbounded joy of limitless possibility available to you but you have access now to the singular pleasure of solidification, crystalisation: of ossification and coagulation, to use more corporeal language. Enjoy the feeling of getting to know yourself, of finding your shape and your mass, your limits and your structures, before you dissolve out of being once more.
And nor were they always Oyster cards. Branding consultant Andrew McCrum recalls being brought in late in the day by Saatchi and Saatchi Design (who had been contracted by TranSys as a final, desperate measure) to help land on the right image for the product. After much to-ing and fro-ing with TranSys, McCrum settled on the name. ‘I knew it was right as soon as I uttered the word aloud’, he tells me in a busy South London café. ‘Oyster.’ His tongue curls deliciously around the word. Why? I ask. ‘Well, simply put, I appreciated the metaphorical implications of security and value.’ He sits forward in his chair and clasps his large hands together over the table, excited as he recalls his eureka moment. ‘I mean, consider our oyster sitting at the bottom of the ocean, its hard bivalve shell protecting its concealed pearl from all manner of harm: such value, so secure.’ He fixes his piercing blue eyes on me. It’s a nice image, I say, but what’s it got to do with tube travel? ‘Oh, well, let’s be clear, that wasn’t all that appealed to me about the name. No, I appreciated, too, and perhaps more pertinently, the echo of the well-known travel-related idiom, “The world is your oyster.” You see, I really believe that there is nothing you can’t do in this world. You are free to go where you want to go, to be who you want to be. I think the Oyster card really embodies these profound truths. Simply put, the Oyster card is a symbol of our freedom.’ He sips his cappuccino, made from the new Colombian blend of coffee that the chain is offering at a discounted price, and sits back triumphantly in his chair, frothy milk and chocolate staining his immaculate moustache. ‘Security. Value. Freedom. Job done. Who could resist?’
‘I am.’ No. ‘I am want.’ No. ‘I… want.’ You must look so stupid. ‘I want to… ride.’ Come on. ‘I want to ride your tubes.’ You know that’s wrong.
He raises an eyebrow, more amused than repelled. ‘Ain’t got no chance, honey.’ He returns his gaze to the computer screen and, for a panicky moment, it looks as if he will end the exchange with this wilful miscomprehension. But just in time to rescue you from your freefall, like some superman swooping low to scoop up Lois Lane, he looks up and a deeply buried bulb of fellowfeeling seems to bloom into sudden being, he seems to take pity on you, and, careful to hide his surprise at his own compassion, he says, as if he’s granting you a real favour, ‘You’ll be wanting a map, lady. Wait here.’ A low drone purring thus far under the threshold of perception is instantly present in the room when he opens the door behind reception; an abrupt diminuendo to its previous but no longer unnoticeable level when it slams shut. The vacuum cleaners never seem to stop sucking up matter in this place. It’s your second morning here; yesterday you did little but sleep.
You’re really not that bad at English. You can understand it almost perfectly; you got pretty much everything he just said. You didn’t need him to mime the word ‘map’ by pretending to unfold a large sheet of paper; if you were feeling ungenerous you might say he was being a little bit patronising, actually. But it’s good of him to take the time out to help you. And you must have come across pretty stupid. I want to ride your tubes. Jesus. Well, Mr Receptionist Man, you’re welcome to ride my tubes any day of the week, weekends included. You smile a smile of imaginative indulgence. It’s nice to consider but, no, not really your type. Not even to practice your English. Why do you always get so nervous with it anyway? You know it’s fine. You’re pretty fluent when you’re alone in your bedroom – you can even get the accent right. You know that’s true because you’ve recorded yourself to check. But put another human being in front of you and you just can’t, you just can’t get it right, can’t bridge the gap, can’t make the contact, can’t touch skin on skin. Skin smacking flappy skin. I want to ride your tubes all night. Stop thinking about sex. He’s not even your type. Why are you thinking about sex? It’s not why you’re here. Seriously. Stop thinking about sex all the fucking time.
He comes back with a map. ‘South Acton,’ he says. ‘This is where we are and’ – he draws a line on the paper, the muscles in his forearm flexing, stop thinking about sex – ‘this is South Acton.’ With effortless strength he brings his pen down hard for emphasis. You wish you could say something in fluent English, something like ‘Why don’t you take me there yourself, strong man?’ but you know you’ll get flustered and look even stupider. He’s already looking at you as if he’s just seen your photo, on the TV on the reception desk, above a caption saying, ‘This woman is believed to be dangerous.’ Would that excite you, Mr Sexy Muscly Receptionist Man? Would that get the blood pumping? Give it time. If only you knew why I was here.
‘You’ll need an Oyster card, too,’ he says. He reaches into his pocket and takes out his wallet, produces a small credit-card-sized strip of blue plastic, flicks it proudly, as if to say: see how advanced, how efficient, how elegant our culture is; be impressed, be envious, be awestruck; feel free to enjoy it, to take advantage of it while you’re here, to gorge on our sophistication; but don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of thinking you can be a part of it. ‘One of these babies,’ he says.
You thank him coyly and you are about to leave the building. But you think – a last minute impulse – that it can’t hurt to go back up to your room one last time, just in case, and check for new messages one last time, just in case, before leaving the hotel. It can’t hurt.
The issue, here, of course, is that we’re employing a pretty crude (and crude it must be at this early stage in your development; we layer ourselves over you bit by bit, we slip slowly into you, we don’t puncture your skin and jump in – imagine the rupture, the mess, the unstemmable outpouring of interiority – so there are bound to be some resistances, some frictions) the issue here is that we are employing a pretty crude form of free indirect discourse (or style indirect libre if we want to better sound like we know what we’re doing), almost an interior monologue, to verbalise your thought processes, while in the narrative drawing attention to your difficulty with the very language we are implicitly attributing to you. Do you see the problem? Let’s not say this is wholly intentional, but let’s not label it unintentional either. It’s just what’s happening. It’s how things are falling. Let’s go with it.
Perhaps now is the moment – x marks the spot – to be a little more candid about some of the things I’m trying to grope my way towards an understanding of in this short piece. Lots of things going on; lots of different voices; where do they coalesce. Do they coalesce?
It might be that I’m trying to think about what money is. I know what money isn’t. I know that money is neither the metal and paper we pass from hand to hand nor the series of noughts and ones that shriek and whistle noiselessly through the air as digital transaction after digital transaction is carried out. Money transcends the physical/digital binary; does it follow that money transcends the actual/virtual binary? Are we to understand that money is neither actual nor virtual? Or that money is both actual and virtual? That money is not of this world, but that nor is it apart from it? Perhaps the real question is not ‘Money is what?’ but ‘Money is where?’
I had an argument with a friend once. He said something to me one day along the lines of, ‘Isn’t it frustrating that money does so much damage and it isn’t even real?’ or maybe he said, ‘and it’s all made up?’ or, ‘and it’s just a story we tell one another?’ or something else entirely (I’m not going to pretend to remember what he said). There’s no doubt, I said, that, as a system of social organisation, as a way of deciding who gets what, money is not something one finds in nature; is not innate; is a story that, like the stories of myth, has come to define, but needn’t have, who a particular people is and who a particular people aspires to be; there’s no doubt.
And then I said something along the lines (I’m not going to pretend to remember what I said) of, ‘But could you look a homeless woman in the eyes – a homeless woman, say, who’s on her period and is begging for enough money to buy a box of sanitary towels – and tell her that money isn’t real? Could you look the father of three starving Sudanese children in the eyes – a father who, through no fault of his own, say, has been unable to provide a secure home for his family – and tell him that money is all made up? Could you look a banker in the eyes – a banker at the time of the Great Depression, say, a man who has recently lost everything and sees no way out but to jump from the window of his office on the 37th floor onto the street below – could you look him in the eyes as he is falling and tell him as he is falling that money is just a story we tell each other?’ I’m not sure I got my point across very successfully; he said these particular examples, which were intended to particularize the general, seemed a little manipulative and distasteful; a little compassionless and opportunistic (although, given that I can’t remember what I said, I’m almost certain that I didn’t use them so I find his evaluation hard to justify). But do you see the problem? Money is unfailing and everywhere, I said. If money is just a story we tell ourselves, so is everything else.
It seems a miracle to you. This little blue card the man behind the glass has just handed over: this will pay for your travel around London, he told you, matter-of-fact, bored even.
‘Like… money?’ you asked.
‘I guess,’ he shrugged.
And then he asked you something very strange. Your English must have been worse than you thought because it sounded like he asked you how much you wanted it to be worth.
‘Excuse me,’ you said, ‘my language is abysmal.’ Good word; apt. ‘Would you please repeat it?’
‘How much money would you like me to put on the card?’ He spoke slower, louder, without humour, without generosity. Then, in response to your searching expression, your struggle to find the next words, he said, slower, louder, ‘Money.’ Marr-knee. ‘How much money?’ Marr-knee. And with unhidden hostility he waved the card in front of your face.
So is this what happens in London? Is this how they do things here? You feel as if the ground has fallen away beneath you. Let’s have a go at explaining why.
As you’ve always understood it, the cold, physical fact of money is only representative, a symbol of a value, a value that exists in some inaccessible realm beyond the one you know, a realm you trust exists but have never seen even a glimpse of. It’s like a word. A word is not a thing; a word symbolises a thing. Or is it that a word symbolises the idea of a thing? Your son tried to explain it to you, excitedly, when he came home from school one weekend (you’d sent him to study in the nearest big town and he’d stayed with your brother during the weeks). Linguistics. An unexpected academic, your son. It’s not that you weren’t interested, not that you didn’t care, just that if you’re honest you were a little intimidated by the amount he was learning on a daily basis, and a little embarrassed by the amount you didn’t know. No one in your family had ever done well at school before; no-one in the village had ever considered going to university. It was if you’re honest – you try to find the right word – it was humbling to realise, at that moment, that your child knew more about how the world works than you do. Not that you’re a fool; clearly you’re no fool. Your knowledge is of a different order, you told yourself, a more valuable kind; an earthy, folk knowledge, the knowledge of lived experience, of practice, handed down from generation to generation: an embodied knowledge. A knowledge that comes from within, not a knowledge imposed from without, like a scaffold. Kick the scaffold away and what’s left? But still, if you’re honest you felt a little – you try to find the right word – a little discomfited by his unprecedentedly enthusiastic intellect, and perhaps in a spirit of self-preservation, or even defensiveness, you decided that what he had learnt that day at school was child’s play, of no value, that you didn’t need to know it – what could a child teach you? – and you closed your ears. (It seems to have stuck, though, doesn’t it?) You wish, now, that you’d paid him more attention, that you’d honoured his enthusiasm, celebrated him. He could have gone to university.
But, whatever. Not to get bogged down in all this stuff. That’s not why you’re here. Where were you? Oh yes. Money is like a word: it symbolises a thing, or it symbolises the idea of a thing. One or the other, it doesn’t matter. But in London, it seems, miracle city, with these Oyster cards you get to choose what you want money to symbolise. The card itself is uniform: its shape, its colour is the same for everyone, for millions. And yet, you have just learnt, every card has a unique value, decided by its user. Imagine if this was true of language? Imagine if words were issued to you and you had the freedom to decide to what they referred, which words referred to which things or which words referred to which ideas of which things, one or the other, it doesn’t matter. Imagine the opportunities. Unbidden, the well-known travel-related idiom ‘The world is your oyster’ materialises in your now well-established consciousness. Truly, the world is your Oyster. What a miracle; and what a priest, this small bearded man with a sleeveless jumper and tiny, mole-like darting eyes, sitting in his little church behind a panel of glass, this man who has not been able to hide – or even apparently wanted to hide – his hostility towards you. What a profit! (Good word; apt.)
It’s not over. You arrive at the ticket barrier and, once again, you have cause to wonder. For, as the helpful man in the blue uniform tells you, you do not even need to touch your Oyster card onto the machine. It’s contactless, he says; the transaction can occur without contact. Again, you can’t believe your ears and again he repeats it. It seems that not only can you chose what you want the signifier to signify in this country but you can communicate its meaning without evening having to make contact. Truly, this is the ideal language. Truly, this is the land of freedom.
(These, of course, are not your words, not even your thoughts, but an attempt to convey in our words, our thoughts, some of the pre-linguistic processes currently unfolding in your mind. We might be getting carried away. The invention of your son, in particular, was perhaps a little unconvincing. Hopefully, however, you are now solid enough for the reality beneath the surface of our verbal lattice, and thus the inadequacy of our linguistic structures to hold that reality in place, to be apparent. This moment of literary deficiency may even be your solidest moment; it may be that you are the most real when you are the least represented. You escape; that is your definition. So enjoy your presentness, your being in the world, before you start to melt back into an easily representable formlessness.)
It’s another beautiful day. You are hyper-aware of its luminous coldness as you exit the station at Leicester Square. A high, cold sun palely echoes itself; its warmth falls soft and shawl-like across your shoulders and, having made contact, decays. Cold cloak of constant entropy. Buildings stand in two dimensions; your bones are cold. You are brimming over with happiness. You are spilling into the day. Thank God you checked that final time, imagine if you hadn’t: he messaged you, and he gave you a time and a place to meet. You are sick with excitement.
As you walk across Leicester Square you are pushed about by the crowd, solicited indiscriminately by leafleters, flierers, vendors. Children run into your legs and do not notice you. But none of it bothers you because you are buoyed and determined and because you are thinking of what awaits you in – you look at your watch – oh God, in six minutes! You break into a run, push past people, ignore their abuse, and get to the theatre just as the bell is ringing and the ushers are beginning to urge people into the auditorium. Is there time to go to the loo? No, no time. Except you need it and you know you’ll have to leave the auditorium once it’s started, so really you should. But there’s no time. And there’s a queue. But if there’s a queue then there’s time, surely? Otherwise people wouldn’t be queuing because there’s no time. And you know you’ll never be able to enjoy it with a full bladder. And you spent so much money on this. And it’s got to be perfect. Your breathing is shallow and quick. You are sitting in the plane again, feeling it fall through the air, gripping the hand rests, murmuring to yourself; the flight attendant is telling you, with no conviction, that it’s ok. It’s ok. Take a deep breath. It’s ok. Ok, you can go to the loo; you have to. Just be quick. Don’t indulge. Drop your trousers, your knickers, bum on seat, a quick short jet of wee, knickers up (you can forego mopping up on this occasion), trousers up, quick hand wash, nominal dry, out. Done. Good. Into the auditorium; bum on seat; Mamma Mia.
You leave the theatre walking on air. And just in time for your meeting – which, conveniently, you realise, as if he knew, is right across the road. You half-walk, half-run so as not to be late, and you keep having to change your trajectory, like a fly, to avoid stepping into other peoples’ photographs, figuring yourself inerasably in other people’s narratives, and as you walk into a large building with the words ‘M&M’s World’ hung over its door (this is the place, isn’t it? odd choice) a bald man pushes you out of the way and says, ‘Do you fucking mind?’ and when you find no words to respond with he continues, ‘Are you in my fucking family? Get out my fucking family photograph,’ and when you find no words to respond with and let out only an indistinct whisper he continues, ‘Find your own fucking family, fat fuck.’
Inside the shop – but this is so much more than a shop – the scale of what you are seeing just takes your breath away. The care that has gone into every detail. Inside the entrance is a full-scale model – is it even a model? it looks so real – of a red London bus, hollowed out so that it forms an arch under which you must pass in order to gain access to the teaming Eden beyond. Once in heraldic stomping music guides your passage through block-coloured merchandising of all varieties: pillows, umbrellas, ties, mugs, all varieties, all groaning with the weight of saleability, bending downwards the lofty branch of commerce, low-hanging and mass-produced fruit. Everywhere you look some new marvel. Person-sized M&Ms with the arms and legs and faces and desires and anxieties of human beings adopt the costume and attitude of mythical English figures: Robin Hood, Arthur, Merlin, the Green Man, John Barleycorn, they’re all here, peopling a plastic pastoral of palaces, castles, forests, gardens. Pervasive is the soapy scent of milk chocolate, lotus flower in confectionary form. You are dizzy and drowsy as you walk through this demi-paradise, this monetised realm of prelapsarian unity. How can one woman take it all in? This is too much pleasure for a single organism to bear; you are pushed to the limits of what you call your self. And just look at
hang on, how did you get in here? This can’t be right. This is an empty room. Where are all the? It must be a basement or something. There must be some kind of mistake. Surely some kind of? There were. You were just. It must be a basement or something. Everywhere there were. But all the? Some kind of mistake. Blank white walls. The walls were covered with, teaming with. But blank white walls? Except. You turn around – you seem wary of something behind you, as if a deep evolutionary instinct is kicking in, as if you’ve heard the call of some distant predator, but really you have nothing to worry about, we’re not here to hurt you – and you see, written in huge letters across the wall behind you, the words, ‘You are having a moment of total clarity.’
You are having a moment of total clarity.
Perhaps really what I’m trying to think about, what I’m trying to write about, is the human soul. Perhaps the question I’m trying to ask is: what is the human soul? Or: where is the human soul? The question is not so different to the one about money.
A door opens. A white light streams from behind it, a light of such intensity that you have to turn away, turn around, in fact, and face the white wall, its text now erased. On it you see the shadow of a man placing the shadow of a chair in front of the glare.
‘You got my message, then,’ the shadow says. He speaks your language. ‘It’s all getting a bit much, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ you say.
‘A bit of fun,’ he says. ‘I thought this would be a good place to meet.’
‘Yes’, you say.
‘I thought it might provide a common ground, a flattening out, an unmarked surface upon which we can commune and commence?’
‘Yes,’ you say.
‘A disinfected vessel into which we can pour and mix ourselves?’
‘Yes,’ you say.
‘Mixology; who is the mixer and who the spirit?’ He chuckles. ‘A bit of fun,’ he says.
‘Yes,’ you say.
The shadow of the man sits on the shadow of the chair. ‘Please,’ he says. You feel another chair being placed behind you, you see its shadow appear on the wall, and you sit, still facing the wall, facing your, and his, shadows. The two shadows are slightly overlapping, so that it might be more accurate to write, ‘your, and his, shadow’.
‘This shadow play,’ he says. ‘It’s good, no?’
‘Yes,’ you say.
‘A bit of fun,’ he says.
He stops talking and the silence fills the room like expanding foam. You must, you realise, be the one to speak.
‘It’s nearly over?’ you ask.
‘Yes,’ he says.
Silence, again. You can hear music still playing somewhere in the distance.
‘You have an Oyster card, I understand?’ he says, after a while. ‘Our man in the hotel? He was helpful?’
‘Yes,’ you say.
‘And why is the Oyster card significant?’
‘Don’t be shy. Tell me why.’
You hesitate, nervous about the conclusion you’ve come to.
‘Poet and he isn’t aware of it,’ he says. ‘Tell me what you’ve learnt.’
You close your eyes tightly – he can’t see such details in your shadow – and you bunch your fists and you are about to speak but you lose your nerve and say, ‘I don’t know.’
You think you’ve said the wrong thing. You don’t breathe. He doesn’t speak. Finally: ‘Some would say that we human beings are rather like these Oyster cards.’ He speaks with a new intensity. ‘I would go further. I would say we are stored-value contactless smartcards. Uniform in our physicality, our biology, but each one of us has our own value, which – working within the grids and meshes and lattices, created by systems of power, which structure our everyday lives – is decided by its user.’ His voice rises as he speaks. ‘We tell our stories in collaboration with big business, with the military industrial complex, with networks of propaganda, with all manner of ideology – we are half structured from within, half from without – and we load them onto our uniform physicalities just as we load our chosen sum onto our Oyster cards, a sum which refers to a value, or the idea of a value, it doesn’t matter, which resides in an inaccessible realm of prelinguistic unity. And just as that sum changes as we go about our business, carrying out monetary transactions, so do our stories change as we carry out interpersonal transactions. Our unique stories are our souls, always changing, always being revised, now solid, now formless.’ He is standing up now, buoyed by the self-conscious absurdity of his proclamation. A rhetorical trick, you realise. ‘And, like money, however unnatural, created, fictional these stories are, they are real because they act on the world as if they are real; because they have the agency, if not the status, of truth.’ He raises his arms and it is as if he is commanding the light. ‘Money and the human soul: concealed pearls spun out of thin air, protected by the hard bivalve shell of the discourse of power.’ He flops back down onto his seat like a slack puppet. His voice, when he speaks again, is quiet. ‘Or so some would have you believe.’
Another long pause.
‘A bit of fun,’ he says, drained.
‘Yes,’ you say.
‘So this, finally, is why you are here.’ His words, now, are measured and slow. ‘Because we here believe that the human body is our jail, not our freedom. The human body serves the purposes of power, keeping us apart from one another. We are trying to rid the world of its dangerous belief that people are separable. You know this?’
‘Yes,’ you say.
‘And that is why you are here? Because there are no individuals?’
‘Yes,’ you say.
We believe the world must be disembodied, desolidified, dissolved. And if this this can be achieved only by means of force, he says, then so be it?
Then you must give us your Oyster card – because, of course, you can be tracked on it. We will continue to use it as you would, were you still in the country, were you a mere tourist in London; we will take it to Hampton Court to see the Tudor kitchens, to Madame Tussauds to see the waxworks. As far as they are concerned, you will live on in your Oyster card. That is why it is significant. And, meanwhile, you will take this passport, this plane ticket, and – you know the rest?
And you will not look back?
Because there are no individuals and the world must be enlightened?
And we are ready?
And that’s it. This is how things have fallen. We sucked you into being, pulled matter into a vacuum; we gave you body and mass, listened to you, gave you our love. And now it is time for us to administer the anticoagulant, for you to melt out of being. We hope it’s been fun. We hope it doesn’t hurt. If it does, then at least you have our sympathy. It shouldn’t do. If it does, then it’s just how things have fallen. No matter. Embrace the weightlessness.