He recalled glancing over the handbook. If you pay attention, it said, you will know the course of events that are yet to occur.
Ray had been listening in for some time now. It was fair to say that not much happened. He was paid regularly and managed to make ends meet, sure. Most of the time that was all he cared about. Days hardly sprung by like joyous deer but neither were they an impossible device to struggle against. Rent got paid, cupboards got filled and he sometimes treated himself to a cinema ticket at the nearby complex. Solid paid work was scarce though and he made sure he turned up daily at nine in his suit and tie, draping his jacket on a hook behind the door, sitting at his computer, and donning a pair of headphones. He could not risk losing the job he had landed by fluke with the looming void of unemployed inconsequentiality still a fresh dent on his mind.
In the first month he wondered if he was part of an elaborate hoax. He wasn’t even sure if he was going to get paid or not and sat there in his private office following the instructions that he had been given by the managers in his first meeting. The woman had described his duties as the man had stood by and nodded. They were there for a matter of minutes. After that he was on his own. He sat, he listened. Ray stuck out what was a bizarre induction and sure enough a payslip arrived at the end of the month.
He recalled his first days in the room that he was now so used to. Familiarising himself with his surroundings, he touched the computer screen, the keyboard, the desk, and ran his fingers down the cord that ran from his headset to the hard drive. He smiled affectionately. By now, of course, everything around him was second nature. He practically slotted into his seat in the morning and could move between his desk and the filing cabinets with his eyes closed.
He remembered precisely the day that he encountered his first sounds. They had begun in the mid-afternoon. A kind of low grunting. At first he wasn’t sure if it was interference or whether he needed a new set of headphones, so he sat and listened intently, focused. Undoubtedly, the sound recurred. At unmechanised intervals he heard sounds of heavy breathing as though lovemaking was taking place. Ray noted it down in a short description, with the time and the date, and informed his supervisors immediately. He had been instructed to report efficiently and was sure the activity was important.
It took a few days but he heard back from his manager before the week was out. An envelope had been slipped under the door when he arrived at the office on Friday morning. He opened it carefully and unfolded the letter. ‘Excellent work Ray’, it read, ‘it was very important information’. It went on to make some statements about the importance of his role and the crucial time the company was going through. It was signed off ‘be sure to keep up the good work’. It gave him a boost to know he was doing a good job and he continued with verve, listening harder and more intently than ever.
He was not entirely sure of the location that he was listening in on, nor was he certain of the reasons that he was monitoring the people that he sat and listened for each day. What he did know was that it was a highly secretive project and he was only allowed access to certain elements of the situation. ‘Don’t ask too many questions’, he was told at interview, ‘and you’ll go far’. The man and the woman, both suited in dark blue, made eye contact with him to assure him of their sincerity. Ray nodded, wide eyed, keen to secure a job in what was a competitive climate across the country.
More weeks passed. More crackling audio and electronic hissing drifted through Ray’s cranium. The endless sludge of time was interrupted by a rare emergence of crisp audio. Deep voices in theatrical tones. They recited lines from what sounded like a 16th Century play. Ray wracked his brain back to his literature studies at school as to whether it was Christopher Marlowe or John Webster. The melodrama and ostentation came as something of a shock given the usual course of events. They spoke loud and clear, a man and a woman, about their love for one another, before descending into hysterical laughter.
Ray deemed it sinister, as well as idiosyncratic. He scribbled notes as they spoke, considering the accents and the poise involved. He wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or alarmed. Such a display of peacock feathers after weeks of dead wind. He said as much in his report. It was erratic and unexpected, he said, it was uncanny and out of the ordinary.
After sealing and sending the envelope he ran over the incident in his mind many times. Thought endlessly about the voices and the words that they had used. He became frantic and listened harder and harder, determined to be more decisive the next time it happened. He could recall word for word the recital that they had gone through. He searched for fragments of it on the internet without any luck. He blinked away the pages that his searches brought up. Nothing. And yet he was certain that he had recognised quotes and phrases at the time.
His anticipation and anxiety around the last occurrence made the following period difficult to endure. He sat in his usual spot, in his usual pose with elbows pressed to the desk. Every day felt like a month. A lesson he had been taught when he was young was that chances, when they come, have to be taken. Every minute that passed without the arrival of the voices of the man and the woman made him feel like a let down. What could he do but nothing? He waited in a state of perpetual expectation.
What if it never happened again?
It happened again. On a Wednesday. Perfect, thought Ray, to break up the tedium of the week. It was the same voices, the same tones. This time they were playing different parts. Less antiquated language, less inherent verve.
Good to be home, said the woman.
Never felt better, said the man sighing.
They sounded casual and spontaneous, more fluid than before.
Put the kettle on.
Sure, he said.
Do you want sugar?
Everything was moving along in a very familiar way. Nothing to differentiate from any couple that had just returned from an evening out. After a few more minutes of conversation they took an abrupt turn in their words.
Is this too mundane? Do we need something more? Something to spark it into life?
Ray’s eyes widened at the self conscious remark.
We need to build suspense, said the woman. Come on, it’s fine. It can’t be non stop action all of the way.
After this they returned to regular speech patterns.
I’m exhausted, he said
Lovely evening though.
They continued draining their drinks and bid each other good night before dissolving into the familiar hiss of technology.
Ray, after scribbling down the essentials about the couple’s encounter, sat and looked out of his window at the gathering sky of night time. Dark blues and blacks layered on top of one another in deep washes, punctured by the occasional piercing light of stars.
He posted off the description of the happenings the very next morning. Keen to glean some kind of response from his employers.
More time passed.
This time he started to question himself. The absurdity of his situation surfaced and diminished as though he were a trauma patient trying to quell his memories of the war. There was no one else to talk to in the office, to discuss the events when they occurred. He had to make sense of them himself and wait for the critique of his managers. He could go mad like this, thought Ray as he barraged himself with questions ranging from ‘Was this legal?’ And ‘Where on earth was he working?’ To more far flung concepts like ‘Had he tapped into the past?’ and ‘Was he part of an experiment?’ Such things were enough to make him feel like he was stuck in a nonsensical conceptual film, or a surrealist painting from the 1920’s.
He kept getting paid. So he kept going to work.
Months accrued into years.
Beyond the window a river rolled past abandoned industrial buildings in murky blues and browns. The seasons, he thought, barely seemed to matter when he was in the office. He was so attuned to sounds that visuals just scrolled by most of the time.
Ray became rote in his existence. He witnessed a conversation or debate, without thinking he sent off his report.
An envelope arrived on his desk. Another update from his bosses. He opened it casually and read over the information inside. Excellent to hear from you again, it read, thanks for the last update. The information has been passed onto the C.E.O. who will potentially be in touch with you regarding some of the finer details. Be ready for a visit, just in case he should be in the area. Ray felt his back instinctively straighten. Perhaps promotion was on the cards. A word of warning, it continued, remember how sensitive the information that you are dealing with is. Remain cautious and implement discretion at all times. Always best to refer back to the handbook if you have any queries, refamiliarise yourself with protocol every few weeks.
Ray had thrown the handbook in the recycling ages ago when he was cleaning the office.
Oh well, he said to himself.
He waited. Sometimes he liked waiting. Hours of being paid for what must surely be minimal effort. Other times he despised himself for not getting a job that challenged him. Why had he gone to university? Had he written an in depth thesis on the migration patterns of Humming Birds for this? Either way, this was where he spent the majority of his waking hours. The headphones had come to feel like an extension of his body. When he removed them he had to adjust to the removal of the sea like sound and felt like an astronaut for several minutes before blinking away his connection to the space inhabited by the couple. Sometimes he imagined them in town, in supermarkets and bars, acting out scenarios and slipping in and out of character. He grinned to himself as he caught his reflection in the glass of his computer screen.
The next time it happened Ray was braced.
A door slammed and the echo came ferociously through his earpiece and reverberated around his skull. The same two voices, very familiar now, began in their furious exchange.
What the hell did you think you were doing?
Shut up! He yelled, just shut up.
There was a moment of rustling where coats were hung and a set of keys were placed down on the table.
I can’t believe you. Do you even have an iota of self awareness? Her voice was still raised, firm and confrontational.
Ray was listening unerringly, fascinated by the latest instalment of the pair and their actions.
Oh please, he said, slurring a little. It was possible that he was drunk. His voice was equally loud as hers.
You were all over her. Everyone was watching, everyone could see. It was fucking embarrassing.
The argument went back and forth for several minutes. It was more heated than Ray had ever known.
There was another slam as something struck a surface with force.
Ray stood up.
She screamed in a guttural, piercing release that shook the nerves in Rays spine. His skin crawled, his pupils dilated. Silence followed. He shut his eyes and pressed the earpieces firm against his head. He did not hear much. There was a sound that could have been interference but could have been a dragging. Ray was certain it was the latter and visualised the man towing her body into another room. More silence. Nothing happened for the rest of the day.
He didn’t know what to do. Should he report the incident? He asked himself. What if it was a murder? He found the question lodged in his mind. They could be thespians. He could still be being tested by the management. He grasped for logical solutions to the situation that he had witnessed, hopeful in his mind that it had not been the violence that was so unambiguous at the time. He paced back and forth across the cramped office floor. One moment his mind distorted it into raw aggression, other times he thought it must be playful.
Days passed and nothing happened. No sounds, no voices, nothing. Ray blinked away the hours disabled with guilt and remorse. He was the sole witness and he had failed to report it. He knew it had not been a test when he still received his payslip at the end of the month.
It was the worst remuneration he ever received. As his rent went in his flat felt like a criminal den. He started to stay late at the office, listening to more hiss to try and balance things out. He didn’t charge overtime.
Is everything okay?
One of Ray’s bosses turned up. He was steely as ever as he scoured his superior for clues, any evidence that the incident had been a test and that he had failed in his duty. He sat and waited to be sacked, looked up into the unflinching grey eyes of his manager who stood there in a long beige overcoat.
Fine, he said after some time.
His boss did not respond. They looked at one another.
Not knowing what else to do Ray put his headphones on and got on with his work. The man stood there and watched him. Invigilation felt strange. He was normally free to do as he wished. It was he who was the watchman. He listened harder and feigned a look of deliberation for his new observer as though he had become a professional at his role. After a while his boss moved to the filing cabinet and went through some files and documents that he rarely gave much time of day. Ray retained an awareness of his presence. Some time later the man returned to his position just behind Ray.
I got what I needed, he said.
Glad to hear it, replied Ray.
I’ll be on my way.
You’ll be hearing from me soon.
He closed the door behind him.
Ray sat and thought over the visit in a heightened state, panic setting in. He had not been expecting the man, had not been forewarned in detail. Did he know about the death of the woman? He didn’t make any reference to it. He felt unsettled. He knew deep down that his efforts were insufficient to the cause. He put down his headphones on his desk and paced in his familiar way. Running over the sequence of events in his mind Ray got himself agitated into a state of mild frenzy. He prayed for some action from the headphones, pleaded with the gods of sound for some indication that the woman was okay, that they had merely been acting out another scene, rehearsing a horror film perhaps.
Something dawned in the back of his mind. A burning light that had been previously eclipsed.
Ray stopped breathing as he processed the information.
His manager had come alone the last time. Shortly after he had witnessed the screaming and violence through the headset. They were one and the same, he thought. He was working for a criminal; a ruthless murderer intent on manipulating power hierarchies of observance. Making a spectacle of his own contact with death. He was caught in an immoral labyrinth, reliant and uncertain. Was it all preordained? Had he been knowingly introduced to the victim when he first started the role? He couldn’t figure it out.
Ray sat down and began to cry.
He had been lured into an exploitative job of psychological violence where he got paid to listen out for death. Not only had he failed in his duty to report the crime but he was now largely dependent on the practice of listening. Hooked to the cause, listening for a living, his body was shaking in bursts of emotional release when the door opened. Ray turned, bleary eyed and alert.
His boss stood in the doorway wearing a suit; framed in professional rationale.
I’m sorry, stuttered Ray.
The man did not blink.
I know I’ve made mistakes.
Nowhere to run with the door blocked by the man, he dropped down to his knees and closed his eyes.
Life is a long queue of days waiting for transcendence. We cross our fingers and hope deliverance will be kind.
He felt the blow to the side of his head. The world collapsed in on itself.
As his life drained slowly from him, he heard emitting from the headphones on his desk, a gasping and troubled breathing.
Crucial information, it said.
He took it in, dedicated to the cause. Deep red blood trickled from his mouth onto the office floor as he realised that the voice, filtered through wires and impassive technology, was his own.
He looked down at the sheet of paper. He had a pen somewhere, lost it at some point in his journey. It had probably become another abandoned relic in the accumulative mass of the city. He visualised it lay on a pavement or in a gutter somewhere. The sheet exhibited its textures in the fading light, the sun dipping lazily behind sky scraping monoliths. He held it up, the sheet, at arms length and scrutinised it. It had become his map, his personal device for navigating the desecrated streets of the city. He breathed deeply as the light floated across the surface of the roughly textured sheet. A swans wing, a bleached winter, Back in the U.S.S.R. He looked and he saw shadows escape desperately from sight before he could trace their meanings. The pulpy material pressed into a strict four sided shape until its contents were made invisible.
He saw raw potential in the thing, unquantifiable futures for it. Imprint yourself here, it said, leave a trace for others to find. They have to know your experiences to understand their own.
Chinese dynasties developed pulp paper making processes in the second century BC. One of the four great inventions, along with gunpowder, printing, and the compass. Paper spread through the Islamic world and into Europe in the thirteenth century and when the Gutenberg Press was built and put into use in the 1430’s, making 240 impressions per hour possible. History, printing, and distribution instantly transformed the world and the age of enlightenment ensued.
He held the piece at arms length and angled it into a diamond and then a rhombus of shimmering white until the city grew and flourished from its surface. Architecture, roads, alleys, rivers, trees, houses and people, all issuing at a pace from the flat plain of the map.