Do you mind if we tape this?

Michel Faber

      This Friday night, like every other Friday night, Jimmy, Colin, Michelle and Pet meet each other at the usual street corner. They like this corner because it has a bus shelter with windows that haven’t been broken yet. This is a big plus when you need to get out of the cold wind to light a cigarette or give your goose-pimpled cleavage a chance to warm up.

      Jimmy, Colin, Michelle and Pet are all eighteen years old, except Colin who is sixteen, Michelle who is seventeen and Pet who is fourteen. Already this evening they have broken a number of small laws, all to do with alcohol and tobacco; they are hoping that before the night is out, they’ll get the chance to break a few more. Perhaps this is why (as Michelle is the first to notice) a police surveillance camera has been installed on a pole near the bus shelter.

     “Fuck me, it’s a CCTV,” she says, squinting through a haze of her own cigarette smoke.

     Do you want to know what Michelle looks like?  The image on the digital footage isn’t very clear; in fact, it’s so degraded that she could be anybody. But then, Michelle could be anybody. She looks like an underage prostitute, even though she’s never been paid for anything in her life yet.

     “That wasn’t there last week,” says Jimmy, frowning hard and authoritative. He is wearing a white shirt and black tie under a leather airman’s jacket, and grey trousers rather than jeans, as if he has a job to go to. In the digital image, his mousy brown hair is green. Most of his acne is invisible, lost among the random sprinkling of red pixels.

    “Just goes to show how fuckin’ stupid the police are,” sneers Pet nonchalantly, to demonstrate that she is cynical beyond her years. “Nobody speeds in this fuckin’ graveyard of a town.”

     Jimmy snorts. “It’s not for cars, Pet,” he points out. “It’s for us.”

     “That’s a high-tech one up there, the latest model, like,” says Colin. “They can turn around, up and down, do close-ups, look in people’s windows – the lot.”  He’s a skinny lad, wearing a nondescript sweater and jeans from the local department store, hidden beneath a voluminous parka (not a fuckin’ anorak, O.K.?)

     “It’s pointed straight at us,” complains Michelle, folding her arms across her breasts, as if to deny the police access to what she hopes to show off to more deserving contenders later.

     “Invasion of privacy, that is,” says Colin.

     “It’s fuckin’ Big Brother watchin’ us,” says Jimmy.

      Pet blinks at the mention of something she understands. “Don’t they tape that in, like, a big house?’

     “Not the fuckin’ TV show, Pet: the book.”  He squares his shoulders, narrows his eyes, gazes into the enigmatic mists of his own adulthood. “Big Brother, by Orwell, Joseph Orwell. It’s all about how the government is spying on everyone, like twenty-four hours a day, and if you step out of line, these, like, terminators come and sort you out. It’s a fuckin’ classic book.’

     “Oh,” says Pet, humbled. The only books she reads are picture specials of pop groups with tanned sweaty bodies.

     “This is turning into a fuckin’ police state,” Jimmy says. “Those bastards are sitting in their fuckin’ control centre, watching every move we make. We’re like prisoners before we even fuckin’ do anything to get sent to gaol for! Fuckin’ wonderful, eh?  Smile, you’re on fuckin’ You’ve Been Framed!”  And he gives the camera the finger. The camera does nothing back.

     After a moment, Pet says, “What I want to know is… Is it just a machine recording, or is there, you know… somebody? Somebody there.”

     They stare at the camera. It looks grey and dead and old, as if it’s been on this street corner forever, and they just never noticed it before.

 

    At the police station, a bored and weary officer called Frank cannot believe his luck. He has been sitting alone in the surveillance room for hours, switching from one street corner to another, one debris-littered shopfront to another, one huddle of teenaged sluts and anoraks to another, when suddenly the screen lights up with something worth watching.

    A beautiful young woman has come right up close to the camera, and is dancing in slow-motion underneath it. She’s in her twenties or early thirties, dressed as if for a night out to a restaurant or a posh party, and although she’s tipsy, she’s not so drunk she can’t move with grace.

    Officer Frank fumbles for the toggle and turns the camera on its faraway swivel, filling the screen with the woman. She notices this, halts in mid-dance, and appears delighted: an audience!  Her eyes half-shut in exaggerated sensuality, she leans forward, squeezes her breasts between her downstretched arms, her hands clasped between her thighs, her long black hair falling away from her luminous face and throat. She’s mocking him, he knows that. Most probably there’s a pal standing out of camera range, or several, laughing and egging her on. But God, she’s beautiful. Her lips pout to blow him a dozen red kisses, rapid-fire, a parody of overflowing affection such as a mother might shower on a child.

    For a moment her head jerks down in helpless laughter, then she resumes her dance, swinging in one of her hands a banana that someone’s just handed to her. She winks over her shoulder at the camera as it follows her, back and forth across the lamplit footpath. Then she stops, looks straight up at the lens while it focuses, and lifts the banana lazily to her breast. She strokes its dark-tipped head momentarily against her cleavage, seems about to push it inside her dress, but doubles over with laughter again. She makes pushing-away motions towards her companions, as if to say, Shut up, you’re putting me off.

    Officer Frank wonders if he should switch to another channel now: he’s not supposed to watch any one scene for longer than a certain time, in case a crime is occurring somewhere else. The thing is, this scene he’s watching now may turn into a crime soon, if he’s lucky: indecent exposure, gross lewdness in a public place.

 

     Meanwhile, Jimmy, Colin, Michelle and Pet are dying of boredom.  Nobody has driven past offering to take them to a party or a gig. Nobody has walked up to them and offered to sell them drugs. Nobody has tried to pick a fight with them, or even started a fight nearby that they could watch. In fact, nobody has come by at all.

    “Mum and Dad are fuckin’ mad if they think I’m gonna stay in this fuckin’ place just because of fuckin’ school,” spits Pet. She is going to be a fashion model in a big city down south as soon as she finally has her growth spurt.

    “I’ve got an idea,” says Colin. “If youse are up for it.”

    “Anything, Col,” says Michelle. She’s so bored she’s even considering going home.

    “Let’s find out if anyone’s watching us for real. Let’s see if the cops are on the case. Jimmy and me pretend to have an argument with youse girls, OK?  Like, a real, bad argument. It gets nasty, gets rough, then we pretend to attack you. One of you falls down on the ground and pretends to be dead. The others try to wake you up, but you don’t wake up, see? Then it’s like, fucking panic. We drag the corpse away out of the range of the camera. Then we hide behind the public toilets and wait. See if the cops are really watching. See if they send a car.”

    “What if they search the whole area?”

    “Yeah, what if they find us?”

     Colin shrugs. “What could they fucking do?  We’re all alive and friendly then, aren’t we?  No corpses here. They must’ve been seeing things, mustn’t they?” And he sniggers at the punning irony of it.

    “What if they put the film on Youtube?” says Pet. Her parents spend all their spare time watching clips of dogs falling off furniture, humungous pimples being squeezed, TV presenters accidentally swearing, fat people miming to Abba songs and stuff like that. She wouldn’t want to pop up there.

    “They destroy the footage,” says Colin. “It’s the law. They can only keep it for, like, 24 hours. Or 24 days, I forget which. But then they wipe it.”

     Pet nods, unconvinced. Still, the four of them agree in principle to try out the plan. As Colin puts it, they need to find out once and for all. It’s the principle, right? So let’s put on that fight, OK?  OK. But Jimmy is too shy to lay a convincing hand on the girls, and Pet is scared there may be some sort of law against being attacked while underage, and she’ll get arrested and be in trouble at school.

    So, Colin and Michelle start waving their arms at each other, pretending to yell insults, and Michelle swings her handbag at Colin, whacking him on the ear.

    “Ya fuckin’ cow: that fuckin’ ‘urt !” he shouts, shoving her to the ground and clasping his hands around her neck.

 

    Officer Frank’s eyes are bulging. The woman has peeled the banana, exposing its white shaft, and is licking it up and down. Her tongue is pointy when it flicks clear of the tip, flat and moist when it begins the next lick near her clenched fist; her eyes are slits. Finally she lets her lips fall open and slides the banana into her mouth. Officer Frank cannot believe how much of it goes in. Despite the poor image resolution, he fancies he can see even the tiny twitches of her lips as she sucks and, when she slowly slides the banana out again, the sheen of her saliva twinkling in the lamplight. She opens her eyes wide as if seeking permission, then starts again.

    Time passes.

 

    The street corner where Jimmy, Colin, Michelle and Pet were standing is still deserted. The four of them have been hiding behind the public toilets for ages. It’s freezing. If Michelle had really been lying on the footpath all this time, she would’ve been stiff as a corpse by now. Nothing resembling a police car has cruised by. For a while, the girls played the game of getting excited at the approach of every vehicle, whispering “It’s them! It’s them! Fuck!”  But the game has wound down like a cheap battery toy.

    Michelle steps out of the shadows, back under the light of the streetlamp, back under the eye of the surveillance camera. She buffs a spot of mud off the seat of her jeans, wetting her fingers sulkily. Colin borrows Michelle’s compact mirror and tries to examine his swollen ear, swivelling his head and the pink-rimmed looking glass to catch the right light. Jimmy keeps watch for the police car which might still come, with him the first to spot it. But time is getting on and Pet is fidgeting, straining not to open her mouth and blurt out the news that she’s going home.

   “Just goes to show ya, eh?” sneers Colin bitterly. “Nobody fuckin’ cares.”

 

    Meanwhile, behind the closed doors of a heavily curtained bedroom not far away, a father rapes his nine-year-old daughter for the hundredth time, unobserved.

    Freeze frame.

     No, not on the father raping his daughter, because no police camera is installed there. Our choice of channels is limited. The exhibitionistic woman has had her fun and gone home. Freeze frame on the four young people at the bus shelter. They can be immobilised, enlarged, identified with computerized labels. Any one of these pixellated youngsters may commit a crime any minute now.

    But must we wait?

    Fast forward ten years, and let’s see how it all ends.

 

    Officer Frank is retired from the police force. He’s a nice guy with a big paunch and thick glasses. Scarcely a week goes by when he doesn’t think wistfully of the night he was at the surveillance monitors and a strange, beautiful woman put on a show for him.

    That woman is now a divorced mother of three, living in a cosy suburb where neighbours keep a look out for you, or at least say they do. Her views on sex have changed since she did her dance with the banana. There’s nothing funny about pornography anymore and she feels strongly that there’s too much sex on TV. In fact, she feels it so strongly that she wishes one of those opinion poll people would knock on her door and ask her opinion about it. She wonders how people such as herself, ordinary youngish people who feel there’s too much sex on TV, ever get to let anyone important know how they feel.

    Jimmy is running a removals service; fridges over a certain size are out, and pianos obviously, but he can handle most things with his trusty trolley and a bit of ingenuity. He’s married to a woman who can’t have kids. They’re thinking of adopting, but the paperwork is so daunting they’re wondering if it might be easier to get one illegally from some underprivileged country overseas. Jimmy’s read somewhere that you can arrange these things over the internet, but he hasn’t figured out how yet. And in any case, he and his wife are deep enough in debt as it is.

    Colin is working as a shop assistant in a menswear store. He’s pretty sure he’s gay, which only five people in his life know so far. Recently he shaved his head, hoping to give the right people the right signal, but he’s noticed no difference yet. In the shop where he works, surveillance cameras are not needed. All the clothes have metal tags that start to scream if they’re taken out the door.

    Michelle is a tour guide in Greece. It’s a good job with good pay, she says. You wouldn’t recognise her in the photographs. She’s happy.

    Pet has been dead for seven years already, killed by a bus while drunk.

 

    And the girl who was raped by her father?  She is nineteen now, and considered a danger to herself and others. Having spent ten years hiding a secret that nobody wanted to know, she finally worked up the courage to beg for help. She is in psychiatric care, meeting her doctor every fortnight, on Friday mornings. She is not making progress. She has an attitude problem. She is exhausting the patience of health professionals.

   On this particular Friday morning, she finds that an additional piece of machinery has been installed in the room where the questions are asked. The kind of therapy being offered here is under review. Experts must determine how it can be fine-tuned to achieve more success in troublesome cases like this one. The girl is not a paying patient, but still her doctor feels he should ask her permission.

   “Do you mind if we tape this?”

 

Michel Faber's books include The Crimson Petal And The White, Under The Skin, The Fire Gospel and (soon!) The Book Of Strange New Things.

 

While government watches you, who watches the government?