The last installment of the Hiraeth collection.
Stevie started and finished every day with music, but, like most people, she struggled when asked to pick her all-time favourite top ten. Top ten anything: artists, albums, songs, lyrics. Too many memories were attached, too many allowances desperate to be made.
She couldn’t do it with films, television shows or paintings either, but music was the hardest.
It was as much a part of her as anything else and had been since before she could walk. That’s what her mother had always told her.
Baby Stevie in her highchair, smiling and laughing whenever her mother turned the radio on, especially the jazz station, especially Ray Charles. When nothing else calmed her down, her mother pressed play on Ray and soothed whatever baby crisis Stevie was gripped in. Her whole life, Ray had always been always there for her, even when no one else was.
In primary school, Stevie’s music teacher said she had a voice that made her forget what room she was in, and twenty-five years later, with a semi-dedicated internet following and an album placed in the Top Hundred Releases of the Year by three music blogs, it was amongst the most meaningful reviews Stevie had ever got. When she had nothing else to fall back on, Stevie always had her voice, her music. She always had Ray.
The only thing she could easily select a top ten with: people. Of the faces in her social circle, she could count exactly two real friends. Two friends, whom she trusted, whose company she enjoyed, whose troubles she shared. The rest, the other shiny wet faces of the digital music scene, they considered themselves real friends of Stevie’s too, and referred to themselves as such in as many conversations as would help elevate their own statuses, but if Stevie was made to select ten, or even just ten per cent, of the people in her overpopulated social circle and have the rest killed, it would take no effort from her to purge the noisy self-servers from her life.
So, though she would never admit it in public as she would rather avoid the backlash, she could almost understand the reasoning behind The Great Purge. This is what some newspapers had termed the whole thing, though Stevie suspected those journalists to be opportunists looking for neologism fame and thus more reason for selection in the next world, and it only made her depressed.
She preferred to avoid discussions over the whole thing, as it was too ugly, but that wasn’t easy. The outrage had sunk itself into everyday life, not just in Cardiff, all over the country, the world. All were defined by their views. All were either for the GP or against it, everyone reduced to a one dimensional dichotomous blank face, a side of a coin, and these polarised categorisations were defended as fiercely and with the same all-consuming, immovable dedication as with the deeply religious, the obsessed tribalistic sports fans, the radical extremists.
Stevie tried to just stay out of it as much as possible. Her friends were a group of leftist hipsters whose societal value was based on their perceived altruism, on their perceived open and fair and loving minded world view of race and gender and sexuality, on their perceived level of emotional intelligence and tolerance as a whole, and to be publicly seen as vocalising support for the global governmental decision to cleanse the population in order to save the population – not to mention the planet – would be to invoke the wrath of her friends and the millions of others like them who stalked the internet like cultural scavengers looking for shamed prey.
So, Stevie tried to just say nothing when asked her thoughts about it. She quietly held back the truth most were so afraid to admit: the GP was scary, but it didn’t just make sense, it was in fact the only way to save the planet and the things living on it. She sometimes wanted to slap her skinny, neckbearded, bespectacled friends in the face, slap them mid-pontification and scream – Come on! Let’s stop dancing around it! There are too many goddamned people! Way too many! Fuck! We all tiptoe around it, keep acting like there’s some perfect way for us all to coexist, pretending one day we’ll get it right and all hold hands and sing songs, but we’re all ignoring the simple fact that we are a grossly overmultiplied bacteria on a giant overheating rock hurtling its way through an infinite blackness we know less than absolutely nothing about.
But, of course, Stevie held it back, and smiled while she listened to sweeping descriptions of human rights atrocities and “playing god”, hearing only the anger, the anger and fear, which had taken a hold of everyone since the announcement that only the selected best ten per cent of the population would live to see the next world.
In her alone, sober moments, Stevie could see through the anger and the fear, to the stoic, serene logic of the whole thing. There was even a quiet beauty to it.
For this to work, most of us have got to go, now. That’s all there is to it. Let’s not be selfish.
But when she woke on the morning of her selection interview, she’d lost her pragmatism. She didn’t start that day with music. She silently ate porridge and stared at the floor. Before she left her house, she looked in the mirror, at herself and her mother and her grandmother and her daughters and all the other children she’d never have, then she swallowed some paracetamol, took a sudden and nervous shit, and went out the door.
At the bus stop she reread the letter while an old man wept in the corner.
Dear Miss R Wilbur*
We are writing to inform you of the confirmation of your Selection Interview date and time. Please arrive fifteen minutes early for your interview, equipped with the five identification documents and seven questionnaire forms specified in our previous correspondence. Your interview will be conducted by Mr. Tristan Perry. Please do not try to find his address on the internet and send him any cheques, cash or anything else that could be considered a bribe in the post prior to the interview. Any packages received will be opened, emptied and/or pocket/ disposed of, and will result in automatic non-selection for the candidate.
In addition, please do not try to defer your appointment in any way. Missed appointments can be rescheduled ONCE (with good verifiable cause); a second missed appointment will automatically result in non-selection. After completing your interview, you will be informed of the decision regarding your mortal fate in the post in two to three weeks, but response times may be lengthier during busy periods. Requests to prioritise verdicts over others will be sternly rejected and will automatically result in non-selection; as will late payment of the interview registration fees (or the photocopying process fees); as will any and all mis-abbreviated counties/states/provinces on the address section of each form; as will block capitals when used when inappropriate and vice versa; as will any submission made by a candidate with a triple barrel surname. Unfortunately, due to the high volume of submissions we receive, we are unable to provide individual feedback on decisions. Entrust we have made the right decision, and know that by giving your life, you are allowing others to live theirs.
Die and Let Live.
*They’d even used her old name, her real name, as if only to mess with her, to send her a message, to let her know she couldn’t hide, to let her know nothing had changed, even if she had reinvented herself and left all the shit in her hometown behind, changed her name and made her new name a bit famous by singing smoky jazz songs on the internet, made a bit of money, got played on the radio, got interviewed by people more famous than her, occasionally got recognised. This letter in her hand, it arranged the date of her interview, but there was a subtext, which said, “Yeah, ROBERTA, I bet you thought you were doing just great, but just you know, we remember. We remember exactly who the fuck you are. And don’t you fucking forget it either. And by the way, what the fuck kind of name is Stevie anyway?”
That’s what this letter said.
Stevie put the letter away.
She’d heard rumours, from her elitist yet insecure circle of acquaintances, that the arts were going to be cut altogether. There was no utility for it, no evolutionary benefit. Telling stories and singing songs and painting pictures: all a frivolous indulgence. Species who thrived had no time for such things. She didn’t even know what kind of interview she was walking into. If the arts were cut, then so was she. No selection process, no ten per cent, just gone, dead, her and all the others, every singer, actor, director, writer, pianist, photographer, illustrator and cartoonist in the world.
What kind of world would that be to thrive in?
The bus arrived.
The old man had stopped crying. Stevie looked to his hand; she saw a letter. The same letter as hers. He was old, crooked, weak, slow. She knew he had no chance of making it.
Stevie and the old man got on the bus. She bought her ticket. The bus driver smiled, thanked her profusely, complimented her on her hair and told her to have a nice day. Stevie guessed he was desperate to get his approval rating up, boost his chances of selection. They’d probably still need bus drivers in the next world, she reasoned, and he wanted to make damn sure he was one of them. As they drove, he sang songs and asked passengers for any requests or anything he could do in general to improve their experience on this journey on this public bus afforded to them by the brave and noble government who built these roads.
Stevie plugged herself into her music. It was the only thing that would calm her.
Walking from the bus stop, Stevie saw a woman carrying a baby. She couldn’t help but wonder about their fate, especially the baby’s. She wondered how babies were selected, how those interviews were carried out. And what if one of them got in to the ten per cent but the other one didn’t? What then?
She’d spent a lot of time pondering the logistics of such an operation. It was hard enough for governments to achieve things even when the public were on board with it. To successfully complete the GP, they needed strict organisation, efficiency, cooperation, vast sums of money. The size and complexity of the whole thing was mind boggling to her, and she tried not to think about it, but the quiet moments at the end of her days was when her mind got its most excited, when it started asking the largest and scariest questions, and she’d begun finding herself wide awake long into the nights, conducting solo discussions with no possible satisfactory conclusions.
She’d sought concrete information online, hoping knowledge would calm her, but the whole thing was shrouded in vagueness, in rumour and speculation and stories shared with an agenda to deliberately mislead the impressionable masses. Information in the information age was like a glass of milk with a clump of mud dropped in it.
The governments didn’t want the people to know how the tests and interviews worked; they’d only try to cheat. Distorting the truth and the very meaning of truth was a necessary public service during these strange times. If the public knew too much, it would all collapse.
As she neared the first left turning, she received a text message on her mobile phone. She opened the text message and read it.
Huw – Good luck today lovely, you’re def in my 10%.
She forgot she told him about her selection interview date the last time they met for casual yet fierce and faintly acrimonious sexual intercourse and post-coital marijuana cigarette to ambient music. He’d already had his interview, a few months prior, and he’d already received his response in the post.
Dear Mr. H Kimberly
Thank you* for taking the time to meet with us regarding your selection for the next world. We regret to inform you that you were not selected for the final ten per cent of humanity, but would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your cooperation and understanding during this time. We wish you all the best for the short remainder of your life. Please complete and return the acknowledgement of fate assessment sheet and pay the acknowledgement of fate registration fee specified on the document enclosed.
Die and Let Live
*He already knew it was a rejection from those two opening words; he was a failing writer.
She knew now what it looked like when it came: non-selection. Death. It had been the nightmare on the forefront of hers and just about everyone else’s minds since all the major world governments came together and finally agreed on something. How would they know what it looked like when their time came? Now, Stevie knew. It looked like that letter.
Huw was given a six-week time frame in which to choose his DVAM: the date, venue, audience and method of his execution. He’d chosen his birthday, which happened to land right up at the six-week mark, stretching out the time to do his “Real Bucket List” (#RBL was a surging trend at the time, mostly with terrified millennials cramming in as many of the grand things they were hoping to do with the long lives they thought they had left). Huw’s Real Bucket List was short. He wanted to smoke weed every day. He wanted to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. He wanted to eat ice cream every day because who the fuck cares about calories anymore? He wanted to ride a horse on the beach. He wanted to finally have the talk with his dad.
He chose his childhood school hall as the venue and firing squad as his method. He’d invited as many people as he could, all his family, friends, colleagues, former colleagues, old schoolmates, neighbours, but only six had confirmed their attendance, and none of them was Stevie.
She wasn’t ready for any of it yet. Making those choices, writing lists, waiting for the end.
She still felt like a little girl, like baby Stevie in her highchair, waiting for Ray.
After two more turnings, she found the correct street and walked along it, counting the numbers. It was a broad, treed street, on the edges of urban Cardiff, with two lanes of noisy traffic, cyclists and pedestrians. Shops of various kinds lined the pavements: corner, kebab, barber, book, charity.
She’d expected the offices where they held these interviews to be some vast headquarters full of men in suits and sunglasses talking into earpieces and looking askance at everybody, but she found the right number and it was a humble white wooden door on the side of a fried chicken shop. A note on the door.
Selection interviewees, please press the buzzer and wait patiently, please.
She did as she was told. After a few minutes, the door beeped and opened. She walked in, up a narrow stairwell, leading to a small, cramped waiting room with a reception desk.
She walked past the six or seven other hopeful interviewees squashed onto small chairs, to the reception desk and smiled at the permed woman seated with a phone and a computer. The permed woman did not smile back.
– I have an appointment.
– Uh . . . My name is Roberta Wilbur.
– Sit down.
Stevie nodded and took her seat next to an exhausted looking woman with long brown hair and her teenage son. The son clocked Stevie and his eyes widened.
– But you’re Stevie Cooper.
The usual affect this had on her was for her to wince and recoil in genuine physical shock, not because she was disgusted by fame or disturbed by the intrusion of strangers, but because it still sent a jolt through her to think that something which first existed only in her head had become a real living thing, a piece of music, which someone she never met listened to and remembered her for. It was a continuous revelation she hadn’t yet come to terms with.
The teenage boy gazed at her, and it filled her with a rich and not entirely welcome feeling of hope. This boy knew her. She was famous. Maybe she could make it in to the ten per cent. Maybe she didn’t need to be afraid because after all she was talented, gifted, and those unkind comments on her YouTube channel and those harsh, personal reviews from bloggers were nothing to worry about; she had a fan, she was going to make it.
She smiled, and looked to the boy’s mother. She was frowning, looking as if she was trying to place Stevie but failing and blaming Stevie for the shortcoming.
– Were you that one what done Strictly?
– . . . No.
Stevie’s heart sat down right in its mediocre place where it belonged.
She was doomed.
A man opposite her, a stern looking bald man in a sweater and jeans, was reading a newspaper. The front-page headline reported on the numbers of people given non-selection verdicts attempting to hide or flee. Most had been caught quickly. In basements, attics. There had also been the discoveries of hidden camps, detected by helicopters, in the forests or the mountains. In some cases, up to sixty people, hiding out, looking to grow crops and live self-sustainably away from the rest of humanity in secret for as long as possible. The government claimed to have found all the runaway tribes, but many believed that there were still some out there in existence.
Strict travel restrictions had been put in place. Only those with a special doubly notarised and stamped exit visa could leave their country via air, land or sea. A few had been caught with counterfeited authorisation documentation – the governments kept changing the layout and criteria every week to keep forgers on their toes – and subsequently arrested and given automatic non selection, had their DVAM chosen for them, and in these cases it was invariably the following day, on a boat out at sea, and drowning while tied up in a sack of bricks.
Many had decided that if there was a choice made on their lives, they’d rather be the ones who made it, but the official statistics on suicide were unreliable. The numbers were believed to be much higher than documented. The governmental and news bodies did not need to waste energy in following and registering the movements of every failed selection candidate. If some did not turn up for their interview because they’d taken their fate into their own hands, the process had been streamlined, the government’s work made that much easier.
Stevie’s circle of caricature-like friends always claimed to be the most in-the-know, the most able to see through the media bullshit. Whenever they met, they each smugly gave their own unique and all-powerful verdict on the situation, announcing like newsmen the rumours they’d heard, like those of the authorities carrying out their execution tasks a little too leisurely, or those of officers ignoring the wishes of the non-selected entirely and carrying out their own, private, sadistic fantasies. Power-tripping, lustfully violent officers given a room and a non-selected body, an officially certified-as-worthless- hunk of living human meat, to do with as they wish.
Crimes no one would come to investigate.
Others brought rumours of the mega wealthy making timely donations to governments to ensure their status, and the statuses of those connected to them, in the final ten per cent. Humanity two point oh, with all the best spots snapped up by those with the bankroll. If this was true, then the interviews, the questionnaires, the anxiety and the hope: it was all pointless. Stevie and everyone else like her, the moribund billions, may as well have already given up.
Stevie recalled all this information as she read the newspaper headline, felt those familiar twitches of panic, so then looked to the floor and found that white shapeless void to be no more comforting, so then looked to the faces of the other people in the waiting room. The scared, impatient faces. Though one of them, a young man, she guessed around twenty-one; he looked calm, assured. A faint smile on his face. He must have known something the others didn’t. Whatever it was he did: apprentice, student, influencer, he must have been confident he was going to make the top ten per cent of his trade, make it to the next world. Good for him, Stevie thought. She wished she had his confidence. This boy may have been sure of his survival, but he likely wasn’t as sceptical of the people in charge of his life and everyone else’s. For that, for his blissful ignorance, Stevie truly was envious.
From behind the door came a heavyset middle-aged man in a suit, holding a clipboard, reading it like it was just handed it to him. It was obviously Tristan Perry.
He called out.
– Martin Phillips.
The bald man closed his paper, took a deep breath, and stood up. He began to walk over, but he was stopped by Tristan Perry’s palm.
– Uh, that’s alright, Mr. Phillips. Just to let you know, the decision has been made on your selection already. Please await the verdict in the post in two to three weeks, or longer during busy periods. Due to the high volume of –
– You what? The decision’s been made?
– That is correct Mr. Phillips, and we would like to thank you for your –
– How can it have been made? You never interviewed me!
– We understand your confusion here Mr. Phillips, and would just like to take a moment to thank you for taking the time to visit us here today. As a token of our thanks, please accept this gift of a Schaeffer pen inscribed with our official slogan.
He handed Martin Phillips a black box. He opened it and looked inside. There was a pen. The words Die and Let Live were inscribed on it.
Perry went on.
– As we have explained sir, your selection decision has been pre-made, based on information you’ve already kindly provided us, and in respect of the need for urgency in completing the selection process on the global scale. Is this any way clearer to you, Mr. Phillips?
– . . . No, no it’s not. What are you saying?
Perry took a breath before responding.
– In the interest of completing the worldwide selection process, which I’m sure you’ll agree, is better for everyone if it’s over sooner, some decisions, some of the more, straightforward decisions, shall we say, will be made without the formality of an interview. Health, age, occupation, all of these things, they all add up to form the whole picture of a selection candidate. And it’s from these things that we can build the foundation of our decision, and if we feel we have enough to make a decision without the need of putting someone through the gruelling experience of an interview, wouldn’t you agree that’s more of an act of kindness than anything else?
– . . . It’s because of my diabetes, isn’t it?
– Once again, Mr. Phillips, we’d just like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking the time to visit us here today, and we wish you the very best of luck for the –
– You bastards!
Perry looked down at his clipboard, again, as if this was someone else’s job.
– Roberta Wilbur, you’re next.
Stevie nearly vomited.
Martin Phillips threw his newspaper on the floor, then stormed out. Stevie slowly rose to her feet. Perry spoke again.
– If you haven’t guessed, I might as well tell the rest of you now, in the interest of saving time, uh, Alice Girle, Kenneth Graham, Jamie Clarke . . . Your decisions have also been made. Please await the verdict in the mail in two to three weeks or longer during especially busy periods. Due to the high volume of submissions we receive, we are unable –
They left before he finished.
Tristan Perry put himself down in his leather chair and invited Stevie to sit on the wooden one opposite him. He perfunctorily asked her to provide the identification documentation and questionnaire forms. She pulled them out from her handbag: passport, driving licence, birth certificate, utility bill within the last one to two month(s) and tenancy agreement, all seven questionnaires, paperclipped together in the correct order.
Failure to provide ALL the above documentation in the correct colour ink when prompted will result in automatic non-selection.
If Stevie hadn’t been such a compulsive organiser of all things domestic her whole adult life, she’d have been chosen for the mass graves already. Though she couldn’t help but think that she already had, been chosen that is, and this whole interview process was an act no different than taking a dog for a walk before shooting it in the skull.
On the subject of mass graves, a world leader had proposed the idea of turning the sites into forests, by planting seeds in with the corpses, giving one life to another, giving back to the world. A thoughtful gesture, most thought, but there were plenty of critics too, who claimed the diplomat was looking only to boost his own status of virtue amongst the people he was slaughtering.
As Tristan Perry cleared his throat before speaking, Stevie felt sick.
– So, as I’m sure you read in our correspondence, you will now have one and one half minutes to briefly state and explain up to three reasons you believe are compelling enough to justify your inclusion in the final ten per cent of humanity. If you do go over your time, there will be a penalty, with a fee incurred, failure to clear the penalty fee in timely fashion will result in automatic non–
– Shall we just not?
– . . . Excuse me?
– I mean, you said it out there, it’s all a formality, right? You’ve made up your mind. When I walk out of here, you’ll stamp your form, and I’ll get a letter in two to three weeks or possibly longer during busy periods, asking me to select my DVAM, won’t I?
– . . . First of all, we’d just like to thank you for taking the time to –
– There’s other things I could be doing, you know. Just let me go and do the things I want to do with what time I’ve got left. Can you just do that?
– I feel, Miss Wilbur, it’s best, at this juncture, to remind you that failure to comply or engage with the interview questions will incur a penalty fee, and failure to clear that fee in a timely fashion will result in automatic non-selection.
– Alright, fine. Why should I be in the ten per cent? Uh . . . Because I’m good. I’m a singer and I’m good. I know I’m good. I don’t know how I know it, exactly, I just do, and I always have. If I didn’t have recognition from others that I’m good, I would still know that I’m fucking good because I just know, I’m good. But, luckily, I do have recognition from others, which is good because I totally do need it, I’m insecure as a bitch. But the point is: I know I’m good because of how I feel when I do what I do. And how others feel when I do it too. I may not have the highest YouTube views or the biggest album sales. But is that the metric you’re using here? Commercial revenue? Is not the impact on the soul the true value of art? And how can you measure that?
Tristan Perry allowed a little smile, and leaned back in his chair.
– You raise an interesting point, Miss Wilbur. Those who must objectify the subjective, quantify the qualitative. Those are the real artists if you ask me.
Stevie was loosened now, emboldened by her perceived futility in this interview process. If she was already dead, like Martin Phillips, like everyone, she may as well get some straight answers.
– Is it true you’re cutting the arts altogether? That’s all I really need to know.
– . . . I hardly think –
– There’s rumours. Arts are surplus to requirements.
– I’m afraid that’s hardly pertinent to your submission –
– It totally is. If you’re cutting the arts. I’m an artist. I’ll be cut.
– . . . The selection policy on the broad scale is not in my jurisdiction. Now, I’m very busy, and if all you’re interested in doing is derailing your interview, we can just –
– Is it also true that some officers are ignoring DVAM wishes and acting out rape fantasies?
Now Tristan Perry was deeply disturbed, his cheeks crimsoned in, his lower lip quivering, frantically trying to form the correct shape.
– Miss Wilbur, you’re making a fool out of yourself. If you can’t respect the selection process, then –
– Yeah, I know what you’ll do, you’ll charge me a penalty fee, for some shit, noncompliance with official murder procedure. It’s all about money, right?
– I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave now, Miss Wilbur.
She sat up and looked him square in the eye.
– I bet you masturbate in your chair in between every interview, don’t you?
– Now, Miss Wilbur.
– Okay, I’ll leave, but can you do one thing for me before I do? Just fucking tell me? Don’t make me wait three weeks to find out I’m going to die?
Tristan Perry took a deep restorative breath, some of the zen returning to his countenance. He looked Stevie back in the eye, and let his lips slide into his slimiest smile.
– We’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for attending your interview today, Miss Wilbur. Please await the verdict regarding your mortal fate in the post in two to three weeks, or longer during especially busy periods. Due to the high volume of submissions we receive, we are unable to provide feedback on –
The slam of the door caused him to stop and laugh.
Her gig that night was what she and her circle would describe as “intimate” or “exclusive” or even “secret” but that was just a coded way of saying not many people would be there. This was cool, another status symbol. Only the terrible musicians had lots of people come to their shows.
Stevie felt like missing it. The idea of performing her songs, which had been described as “hauntingly beautiful” by at least three digital content reviewers, seemed greyed, cast in a new meaninglessness. Thank you all for coming tonight and in less than three months I’ll be dead and soon enough so will all of you, give it up for yourselves!
She called the promoter. She told him she was feeling sick and would have to cancel and was sorry for the short notice. The promoter told her don’t worry about it, told her fuck it, fuck it all, the gig didn’t matter anyway. He’d received his verdict in the mail. Non-selection. He’d chosen lethal injection during sleep. He’d wanted to request an ASAP* call, but the extra charge was too much, so he had to sit around for a few days, maybe even weeks, waiting for someone to come to his house and murder him.
(*ASAP calls were a premium and had been reported as incredibly swift and efficient. In some cases, the time elapsing from the non-selected submitting the ASAP call to the executioners arriving at their home was less than one full minute.)
Stevie walked around Roath park for an hour, wondering if perhaps the best way for her to get her results faster was to run back, knock on Perry’s door, apologise to him and request to redo the interview in a more sincere and respectful manner, and that, if when the interview was finished, should Mr. Perry require anything “extra” from the candidate, something below the table, well, it was not unforeseeable that such a thing could be arranged.
But she knew she was never going to do it because there was only one thing for her to do. She walked into the Cardiff town centre, to one of her regular bars. It was a bar/plant store and also vegan food market and expressionist art exhibit on weekends. She ordered a glass of her favourite berry infused IPA, Uncle’s Touch, and sat on a stool at the bar, which at this time of day was empty except Stevie and the bartender whose name she always promised to remember then never did, and two other men who to Stevie were invisible anyway because she was lost in her own melancholy.
She drank, swallowed and wallowed.
– What’s cracking Stevie? Got a gig tonight?
Stevie looked up from the infinite void she’d gotten lost staring into, at the face of the bartender whose name she was sure began with an L, if not then definitely an S, or a C.
– You look down.
– Shouldn’t we all be?
– . . . I suppose.
– Sorry. I had my interview today. It didn’t go well.
– Shit, sorry, Stevie. If it helps, I had mine last week and it definitely didn’t go well.
– Yeah, me too.
The voice of a middle-aged man whose little remaining hair had been gelled and swept over. Stevie and the bartender whose name she was now almost certain wasn’t Dave, almost certainly she had Dave ruled out and that was a start, (but wait, what if it was Dave?) looked over to the man, sat alone at the other end of the bar. He continued:
– I bet yours didn’t go as bad as mine.
The bartender said – Oh yeah?
– I bet.
– Go on.
– They gave me the forms to fill out. I put my name in the wrong box. That was that.
– . . . That’s not so bad.
– What are you on about? What could be a more instant fail than that? Name in the wrong box? What can I do?
– Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.
– I just left right then, told them to send me my non-selection letter and get it over with.
That’s what Stevie was thinking about doing. Getting it over with. No point waiting to be sentenced to death. She had the freedom to bow out on her terms, that was the only true freedom she had. They’d given her, and every other candidate like her, the illusion of freedom in allowing her to choose her DVAM, but the date was in a six week time period, the venues were restricted to homes or public indoor buildings with adequate ventilation and space, audience numbers were capped at one hundred and most invitations were lost in the post, and the methods were limited to just five: firing squad, hanging (public/private), lethal injection (available to be administered during sleep for a limited time only and at extra cost order now while available), the electric chair (one of the top engineers, desperate to prove he was at the top of his field and assure his place in the selected, had offered to design and manufacture an electric bench, an elongated and more spacious execution device, to seat and secure up to and including twelve non-selected candidates in one sitting, that’s twelve for the price of one) or guillotine, (this was eventually the substitute for the world government’s first planned option of gas chamber, which was voted out due to its greater costliness over time).
She’d thought about running away; she’d reinvented herself once before, she could do it again, but she knew she wouldn’t get far before she was caught and killed anyway. The only way to take her freedom back was to take herself out of the picture, in her own way. Make their “decision” for them. I hereby officially select myself to be non-selected and in doing so therefore become selected and not, in some strange paradoxical way, now let’s get this over with, boom, gun in my mouth, after taking out a whole street full of innocent people because I’ve always secretly wanted to know how it feels to hear someone scream as they die.
– It’s all bullshit.
She said this out loud, to the surprise of the balding man whose lapse of concentration had ensured his fate at the bottom of humanity. – They make it look like they’re giving you a chance, but there’s no chance. It’s all decided. It’s about the wealthy, the most connected. That’s the only percentile you need to be in. People pretend life is about other things but that’s all that counts. Even if you’d put your name in the right box, you’d still be fucked.
She finished her beer, hopped down from her stool and walked to the door. The bartender whose name she decided she didn’t fucking care about anyway bade her farewell, and the balding man went back to sitting alone, waiting for his date to be called.
After Huw handed her some tissue to wipe his ejaculate from her belly, he started rolling their customary joint. He lit it and passed it and they stretched out.
– I bet your interview went better than you think today.
– Can we not talk about it?
– Alright, but don’t be so pessimistic, is all I’m saying. My cousin got her letter through a few days ago. Selected.
Stevie turned to look at him, incredulous. She blew smoke in the air.
– No way.
Huw turned to the bedside floor where he’d tossed his jeans during their foreplay and fetched his phone from the pocket. He unlocked the screen, found the photo and held it up.
A woman holding a letter and smiling. “Congratulations” was the only word Stevie could make out; the rest of the text was blurred.
– That could be fake.
– It’s not. She got selected.
– What does she do?
– She’s a professional wine taster.
– Oh. Sure, they’ll need plenty of those.
Stevie stayed for a while, in Huw’s bed, while they drifted between silence and chat, until the sun went down. She’d got what she came here for; a couple hours of forgetting, but these visits were diminishing in their returns, and she was sure they both felt it. She got up and began to gather her clothes which was the non-verbal way of announcing her departure. Huw sat upright and asked her to stay. He promised he’d roll them another joint if she did.
– Oh . . . Now I’m torn. I do want to smoke another one. But I also want to be in my home right now.
– Make the right choice.
Here was a choice that was truly hers to make.
– Can’t I have both?
– Easy. You give me some weed. I go home with it.
Huw smiled, shook his head in a show of admiration, then put a little nugget in a bag and handed it over. Stevie got dressed, thanked him, told him she’d definitely be around to see him again, at least once, before his date arrived, and then she left.
Her record player sat against the wall in her living room, next to her leather sofa. There was always a record in it, one from her collection. When she got home and threw herself on her sofa, she pressed play.
She was miles away from sleep. The pillow was too empty and quiet a place for her head to be. If she only had a few weeks left, and she was resigned to the fact that she most certainly did, she wondered how much of it would be taken away by sleep. At least a third, maybe more. She wondered how much of all life is snatched by sleep, how precious and worthless and fleeting and unconquerable every second of life is, and it was a good thing that Ray Charles had just started singing about careless love and what he had done for someone to hurt him all in fun, because if he hadn’t, if Ray Charles wasn’t there, Stevie might have got lost and drowned in those unsettling, unanswerable questions again, might have backed herself into a mental corner few can fight out of, might have broken down and cried.
But luckily for Stevie, Ray was there for her, always.