Short Fiction by Anna Orridge
The administrator’s eyes remained fixed on her screen. It was one of those new ones that ran on the body heat and of the user. Considering the administrator’s personal warmth towards her so far, Karen was amazed the thing hadn’t crashed.
“I’m sorry. Your previous Backdrop has either been deleted or sold on. There is no error.”
“But why?” Karen asked.
“It could be one of a number of reasons. The existence of inappropriate content – violent or obscene.”
The woman standing behind Karen shifted and stifled a giggle.
Karen put a hand on the desk. “Do I look like the type of person who uses her Backdrop for porn?”
The administrator raised an eyebrow. “There’s no such thing as types when it comes to this job.” She shook her head a few times and sighed. “Sorry, that came out rather abrupt. Look, because your memory of the Backdrop has now gone, I can’t really give you any guidance.”
“I sent it off too quickly. That’s all. I want to see it one more time.”
“Not possible. If I were you, I’d get started on your next one.” She gave a pointed look over Karen’s shoulder.
Karen put a finger on the paper slip with her new log-in and slid it off the desk. She did not thank the administrator, who returned to her ballet dancer’s repertoire of elegant, fixed expressions.
Karen had been elated that first day at Backdrop. Well, ‘elated’ was pushing it a little. But she was certainly relieved. Since the Withering, most jobs were pretty shitty. You could count yourself lucky if you found yourself labouring on one of the dismal living walls that now occupied the sides of old skyscrapers. Most of those walls were dying more than living, great patches of yellowed leaves in summer, and rotting mulch in winter. She could only pity the poor souls hauled up in harnesses to pluck wilted spinach leaves and nettles.
“Do you think you’re a good saleswoman, Karen?” Marvin, her new supervisor leaned back on the bench of the roof garden. “Because I’m a fucking excellent salesman.”
Karen did an internal eye roll. Great. A manager who thought it was Oh So Edgy to swear to a new recruit.
He adjusted his sunglasses which had visors over the lenses. It was to give extra protection from the sun. Karen knew that, of course. Eye cancer had gone through the roof in recent years. But it somehow made him look even more of a wanker. And why on earth was he wearing what looked like a wetsuit? A lot of people canoed into work from their boathouses, of course, but it was still customary to change into normal clothes afterwards. Apart from anything else, it must have been sweltering. This summer had, once again, been hotter than the last, and the one before that.
“Smashed all records”, the headlines would once have screamed. The sporting triumphalism had long since been replaced by a weary dread, in the media as everywhere else.
“The reason I ask,” he continued, “is that everybody in Backdrop needs to be a salesperson. Being employed here brings a whole new meaning to ‘dream job’. We are literally making and selling dreams.”
Karen raised an eyebrow. “That’s all there is to it, then – sit and dream?”
“It’s a bit more active than that. Let me show you.”
Karen blinked at the second-floor office Marvin had taken her to.
Rows and rows of people, all wearing the same wetsuits as Marvin, reclined on couches, as if they were about to get a facial. Their eyes were covered with velveteen eye patches.
“These suits are fitted out with sensors – delivering touch, taste, smell, sound,” he explained, plucking at the fabric of the suit, and opening his mouth to reveal a web of thread-like cables. “We’re creating a library of landscapes, experiences, you name it – captured before they all disappear. A sort of seed bank of the soul, I suppose. It will be invaluable to future generations.”
He led her to the changing rooms. “You’ll find your suit, named and labelled, third on the right. I’ll wait out here.”
“Thanks.” Karen put her hand on the handle and paused. “Marvin, I know this is a bit out of order. But I want to know, why did I get this job? A lot of people would kill for a position like this. It’s not as if I’m qualified up to the eyeballs. ”
He shrugged. “Backdrop favours people around your age. Those born in the 80s have clear memories of the world before the Withering. You’re the lucky ones. Or unlucky, I suppose, since you remember the way things used to be. You are aware, of course, that creating the Backdrop tends to wipe its creator’s personal memory of the landscape and the people?”
“It’s surprising,” he said, frowning, “how many peoplewant to lose those memories.”
Karen opened the door to the changing room. The suits were all hanging on pegs on the left. She found hers, a little name tag on the inside. She held it up, frowning.
She remembered seeing a cartoon online once, showing what the human body would look like if size related to the intensity of sensation. The lips and genitals were grossly inflated, of course. But what she remembered most were the hands, huge and bulbous, hanging from dwindling twigs of arms.
She took her own clothes off and hung them up neatly. Then she unzipped the suit and stepped into it, stretching it over her skin. It was tight as latex. Once on, though, it felt disconcertingly like being naked. The little mouth sensor was housed in a glass jar sealed with rubber on the bench. It looked like a crouched spider.
Karen lifted it out gingerly and placed it on her tongue, almost yelping when the sensors stretched round the inside of her mouth. She gagged. But then, just like the suit, it was as though it was not there at all.
She stepped back out into the office. Marvin nodded his approval. “Like being dressed in loose robes, right?”
He led her to an empty coach. “So, what do you want to work on first?”
She blinked at him. “I get to choose?”
“Yes, sure. It’s best for you to go with your own desires at first, so you feel comfortable. To get you used to it, I’ll show you my current backdrop,”
He sat down on the coach next to hers and handed her a pair of eye pads. She put them on.
“Backdrop,” Marvin said. “Take us to the casino!”
A brief flash of white. Karen blinked and gasped. She was outside and it was evening. Neon lights flashed in a way she had only ever seen in old photographs. People bustled past, mostly in groups or couples. A dry evening breeze brushed her skin.
“Stag trip to Las Vegas.” Marvin was standing in front of her, his wetsuit replaced with a suit and a gaudy silk waistcoat. He grinned and flicked an imaginary speck of dust from the lapel. “Thirty years ago. I’m stunned I still remember any of it, let alone this kind of detail. It’s not just made up of my memories, of course. That’s the great thing about Backdrop. It uses old footage and internet records.”
He gestured at the revolving glass doors of the building opposite. They went up the stairs and stood in the lobby. Karen stared down at the marble floor.
“Go ahead,” Marvin winked. “Touch it.”
Karen crouched down and put a hand on the floor. The coolness sent a frisson through her palm and wrist.
“Better than a draught of lemonade, huh?” He licked his lips. “It’s that chill the air conditioners can’t give us any longer.”
They walked into a great hall full of slinky low back dresses and the glittering necklaces. Roulette wheels spun with the ease of Victorian dancers beneath glittering chandeliers.
“This is next level Backdrop,” Marvin explained. “Integrated tasks.”
Karen shook her head in confusion. “Tasks? But I thought the idea was just to create nice scenery for people. Like they used to have before the Withering.”
Marvin held up a finger. “Ah! Now that’s where you’re wrong.” He led her to one of the tables by the elbow. “Okay, think about it. You’re a labourer on one of the vertical farms, sweating in your harness on the side of an old skyscraper. Not that such a humble position lowers you in the esteem of Backdrop… but still, it’s a bit of a downer, right? Now, if you’re doing that sort of work in a casino backdrop, with the clicking glasses and the mirrors and all this laughter going on around you, it’s not going to improve the experience much. But what if each one of the wilted leaves you plucked from the wall was, instead, one of these beauties?” He picked up one of the black chips from a pile on the table and placed it in its slot on the wheel. “Or it could be a winning Ace flipped on the table at Poker? No longer is our little labourer a labourer, but card sharp extraordinaire, scourge of the casino! And, of course, it’s not just casinos – we have spas, beaches, mountaintops. Best of all, the sensor suits create the illusion of a pleasant, ambient temperature. Backdrop can improve productivity by up to 60%.”
He looked down at his watch. “Oh God. Sorry. Didn’t realise the time. I’ve got to go now. Another new recruit. You can hang around here for a bit, if you fancy. I’ll show you what to do once you’ve finished your Backdrop, though. This is quite neat…”
He kneeled, and Karen noticed a bit of the wallpaper was loose. He took it and tore it. The whole casino scene began to fold in on itself like a piece of paper.
In a matter of seconds, the casino had gone, replaced with a great white shell of a dome that loomed cathedral-like above their heads. Marvin picked up the piece of paper and swiftly made an aeroplane out of it.
“Complete” he cried, and aimed the aeroplane at the wall. It was swallowed instantly.
Marvin winked at Karen. “You can do little origami animals instead, if you like, and they’ll crawl to the wall instead. It’s a nice little touch, don’t you think?”
Karen laid her hand against the wall.
Tiny paper animals, all lined up on a mantelpiece. The sneer on her father’s face as she picked up her favourite one, the dragonfly, and slowly ripped its tiny head off.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Nice touch.”
Back on the couch, Karen blinked as she removed her eye pads.
Marvin was already levering himself off his own seat. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to do anything as complex as that for your first backdrop. Start with something simple and familiar. The kind of place you knew well, that had a special place in your heart, but has now been flooded or burnt to a cinder or whatever.”
“Can you include people too?” she asked.
Marvin grimaced.“Ye-es. I suppose so. But we prefer you to focus on the place and the sensations. You’ll need to bring some photographs in, though. And recordings preferably. Footage is the best of all. Good luck with those magic firing neurones, Karen.”
He fired imaginary pistols at her from an imaginary holster and walked backwards with a wink.
Marvin, as she had suspected, was a complete and utter tool.
A skyscape of hot air balloons stretched before Karen, long streaks of pinkish cloud behind them.
“Welcome to Backdrop, Karen.” The voice was female, lulling and just slightly nasal. The clouds turned to cursor arrows. “Please reach out and touch a balloon when you are ready.”
Karen reached out and tapped on the one with rainbows streaks.
“Terrific,” the voice intoned with an utter lack of enthusiasm. “Let’s get started.”
The skyscape disappeared. Karen stood in the middle of the same vast, white dome that had replaced the casino.
“Please choose your time and location,” Backdrop continued.
“Beddingfield campsite,” she said softly.
“I do not recognise that location. Can you point it out on this globe?”
A large sphere came out of the wall and hovered before her. It was a perfect globe, Earth as seen from space. Only it was the planet of fifty years ago, before the inundations that had gobbled up huge stretches of coast and burnt great scorch holes of deserts in the centre of Asia and Africa.
Karen had often been struck by how incidental the encroachments looked on maps. No clues, from so high up, of the billions of lives destroyed or displaced by those worming roots of blue.
She put a finger on the globe and swiped, so it rotated like a spinning top. When it had slowed down, she laid the tip of her little finger on what had once been part of the Cornish coast, long since swallowed up by the rising tides.
The globe popped like a bubble and a whole series of photographs appeared. Some shots from the brochures, of the site shops and tennis courts, all far more gleaming and tidier than she remembered.
“Do you want to recreate the entire site?” Backdrop inquired silkily.
“It’s the stream I was looking for, the one in the nature reserve.”
The stream rolled across the floor of the white room, like a long yoga mat being unfurled.
Karen kneeled. She curled a finger and dipped it into the stream. Cool water splashed her hand. Her face was caressed by the a breeze you never felt now, apart from maybe at the top of a mountain.
“This is perfect,” she whispered.
“Would you like to add flora, fauna, other features?” asked Backdrop.
Karen’s memories of the little clearing by the stream were pin sharp, but her knowledge of plant names was limited. She spent a good hour picking out varieties of grasses and wildflowers from a selection projected on the white wall. By mid-afternoon, the banks of the stream quivered with white burrs, messy explosions of yellow, pink and blue, pale fireworks against the deep green of the reeds. Karen knelt to watch a flower creep up from the white floor, stop motion style.
“How about insects?” Backdrop asked.
“Dragonflies, please!” As a child, she’d been terrified by the dragonflies that hovered over the stream. Nowadays, though, insects were precious. ‘Flying currency’, they were called on the news. The rarer ones could bring you a month’s food supply if you caught them alive and brought them to one of the huge bug hotels, great pyramids of logs under glass roofs where crops awaited their pollination.
The dragonflies appeared, iridescent bodies flashing in the sun. Karen sat down and took a few moments just to bask in the camomile tea glow of a later summer, the broken jigsaw of light beneath the trees that covered the old picnic benches.
“Is this landscape completed to your satisfaction?” Backdrop inquired.
Karen put her hands on her knees and pressed the palms down hard. She swallowed. “Actually, I’d like to add a person, too.”
“If you have footage, that should be possible. Thank you for working with me today.”
That evening, Karen treated herself to a meal out on the balcony, a few pancakes with some blackberry sauce. The batter was mushed up grubs, for the most part, but Karen had long since stopped thinking too hard about that. It was unwise, these days, to think too hard about the provenance of one’s food.
She looked out at the sunset, one of the few things that had become more glorious since the Withering. It was, of course, largely a result of chemicals in the air, one of the many abortive attempts of recent decades to delay that upward swing in temperatures. Still, one had to grasp at what beauty one could find.
Even the hulks of buildings breaking out of the swollen Thames had a certain grace in that orange and red swirl of light. She especially liked the curves of those riverside skyscrapers that had been built in the early part of the century, their strange contours like sails puffed out by the wind. They now acted as massive pilings strung with cables and ropes attached to hundreds of houseboats. They looked rather like drowned fairground rides.
When the evening had started to acquire a calming blue tinge, Karen went back indoors. The family photo albums were in the storage space under her mattress.
She found the holiday snaps. Everything back then was so bright in her memory – the white glare of summer shorts and the gleam of cars under layers of fallen blossom. But in the photographs, everything had a washed-out look. Dun tree trunks and pasty skin everywhere. Half the photographs were obscured by the fuzzy pink halo of her mother’s thumb. Mum could never hold the camera steady or keep the lens clear. It was one of those many peculiarities that would reliably send Dad into one of his rages.
It was quite a while before Karen could find a decent photograph of him. In most of the snaps, all you could see were truncated limbs, or glimpses of his face from one angle.
“It’s the scenery we want to remember, Dear. Not me,” he’d say to Mum, in that plummy, pin cushion voice of his, pierced with sharp little consonants.
Mum had managed to get one good shot of him, though. He and Karen were sitting at the breakfast bar. She had her chin cupped in her hand. He regarded her with his eyebrows raised, both amused and bemused.
“It captures your relationship beautifully,” Mum had sighed.
In fact, what it captured was a precious lull in the steady onslaught of hostility. A rare moment when Dad could find nothing to fault in her dress, her behaviour, the way she nibbled her lip when she was bored or nervous, or the downward direction of her eyes when he yelled at her.
Karen took the photograph out of its sleeve and laid it in a hardback book, to keep it flat. She also selected a few DVDs, burned from their old family video collection. Those, hopefully, would help Backdrop recreate his voice and his gestures.
She went back to the photo album and flipped the page over. And there they were, her paper animals, all neatly lined up on the mantelpiece. The origami kit had been a gift from Dad’s brother, who knew she loved craft and animals.
Shark, squirrel, butterfly, swan – all beautifully folded, not a single faulty angle or erroneous crease anywhere. She excelled at origami in a way she had never excelled at any subject at school, or any task in the house.
One evening, Dad was at home with her while Mum was at her office party. He asked her whether she’d like to get a fire going. They very rarely lit a fire, even in winter, so she was quite excited. She helped select good, dry logs from the shed outside. And she encouraged the flames with kindling. Once they had reached a good height, she sat back on the sofa. Dad approached the mantelpiece, and that’s when he picked the dragonfly up and tore off its head.
He then dropped each one of her origami animals into the fire, one by one.
He smiled at her afterwards. “Now you know how I feel when I look at you. The frustration. The exasperation.”
Karen stared at the crinkling folds of paper in the flames.
But all she could think was,Why frustration?
What was it he was not able to do when he looked at her with those flame blue eyes, the ones that people said were just like Paul Newman’s?
Backdrop Dad was a good copy of Real Dad. Same head of thick glossy hair, same slow, curling smile.
He stood by the stream, hands in pockets. An afternoon moon scuffed the anaemic sky above them. She had written the script earlier and fed it to Backdrop. So why the nerves, the sweat?
Backdrop Dad coughed. “Mum tells me you had an accident.”
Karen looked down. “Yes.” Her voice wasn’t right. Obviously, she couldn’t sound like she was ten years old any longer. But she felt that same heat at the crown of her head and the squirming worms of fear in her stomach.
She turned her back to him, poked a stick in the water. Dad’s voice rose quickly. He went almost falsetto when he was really angry. “Well, are you going to let me see it then?”
“It’s fine. It’s nothing.” Again, she should have been tearful by this point. But her voice was hard as the pebbles at the bottom of the stream.
“How did you do it?” he demanded.
“I was cycling down the hill and the handle came off the bike. I lost control and it veered into the ditch. But I’m fine.”
Dad’s cheeks went red. “But this is unacceptable. We paid to hire those ruddy bikes. They should be checking and maintaining them.”
“It’s just a bruise Dad. It doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“That’s not the point.”
He grabbed her elbow. That pressure on her skin and the roughness of the jolt shocked her. But Karen was not expecting her own resistance. “You’re hurting me.”
He spied the bruise peeking out beneath her shorts. Quickly, before Karen could pull away, he lifted it. “Christ, Karen. That’s awful. This is a doctor job, this.”
The bruise had, indeed, been a firework explosion of ugly plum and red port, covering the upper part of Karen’s thigh.
He frowned. “I told you to check all the parts of that bloody bike before you got on it. We’re going to that bike hire shop. And we’re going to show them that bruise.”
He smacked his hand down on the bruise, the thumb just skirting the crease of her thighs. The fingers were rougher than she remembered. “Do you know what’s wrong with you, Karen? You have no oomph. God knows how you are going to survive in the real world.”
“Backdrop – PAUSE!” Karen whispered.
And that was it. Freeze frame.
The verbal assaults seemed so hackneyed now. You could play emotional abuse bingo with them.
You have no oomph. You need to be more gripful.
People in the real world aren’t going to take this shit from you, you know.
Just wait until you’re in the real world. The harsh world.
After Mum died, Karen had found a box of puzzle books under her bed. They were full of word searches and crosswords, always with the face of a blandly made-up woman on the front, that half-hearted marketing ploy. You know, you’re the kind of woman who likes this stuff.
So harmless, yet Mum had wrapped them up in layers of bubble wrap and newspaper, like she was concealing her porn collection. And she might as well have been, as far as Dad was concerned. Karen remembered the look of contempt if he ever caught her doing any of those puzzles. “Doing a little mental crocheting, Dear?”
He’d been dead for ten years, yet Mum was still trying to squirrel away the things he disapproved of. Karen felt a burning anger on her behalf that exceeded even the temperature of the scalding pavements of London in late summer. Hot enough to fry eggs on. Hot enough to grill flesh and char bone.
Karen cleared her throat and talked at her father’s handsome, motionless face. “I did survive, Dad. The oceans boiled. They stink now, you know. And not the old smells of salt and fried food. It’s a stench of sulphur. I know because I went there once, to that old campsite near the beach in Cornwall. No beaches these days, though, just gnawed land and eroded cliffs. The poles melted and most of the great beasts died out. The world’s harsher and realer than the one you lived and died in. And yet here I am. And I’m old enough to know what you wanted from me for all those years. And I can delete those memories now. Every last smear of them, wiped from my brain.”
Karen found that bit of the Backdrop that lifted like a loose strip of wallpaper. She pulled it up. Trees and plants folded into one another like the contents of an intricate pop-up book. Soon it was just a piece of paper at her feet. She picked it up.
She could still remember those origami patterns.
The dragonfly. Fearsome name, ferocious colours. A dart of fire, now extinguished by Earth’s fever. It seemed as appropriate as anything. She started to fold, taking particular care over the double spikes of its wings and its long, tapering body.
“Complete,” she whispered, laying it on the floor.
The tiny paper creature flicked its wings and darted towards the white void of the dome.
This piece was shortlisted for The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 16 – The Climate Issue