Counsellor Percy Young lives in Second City in the autocratic State of Union, where ruthless laws confine him to his apartment. Watchtowers and the Listeners survey and archive all citizens; even Percy must authorise this for his clients. Due to increasing paranoia and anxiety, Percy’s work performance and mental health decline. An untimely affair with deliveryman Matthew feeds Percy’s fear of imprisonment, but fuels his desire for physical and personal freedoms. As a rebel movement gains momentum, Percy and Matthew attempt escape, with disastrous results. Once captured, Percy discovers that his reality is not quite as it seemed to be.
* This is an updated version of what first appeared in the Writing a Novel Anthology 2016.
He regarded the morning rush with vigilance from his second-storey window. Men in suits darted across the drenched pavement of a cracked four-lane road, clutching their shoulder bags and jostling as white delivery trucks drifted by in unending succession. Sometimes taxis and armoured vans passed. Cars were a rarer sight; he’d counted just fifteen for the whole week, and none so far today, but it was still early. Lifting his gaze he found himself eye-to-eye with Henrietta Green, or, at least, her imposing billboard. The people come first in Second City said the slogan beneath her face. Her portrait was firm, like wax, with not one hair in her immaculate caramel bob out of place. Her smile was creamy and her eyes were blue and unblinking as a doll’s. Beyond her, an express train zipped between the drab buildings on the winding high-rise tracks. He pressed his ear to the glass and caught the flat wail of its horn, fading out. Three skyscrapers loomed over the hazy metropolis: the Surveyors, opaque and glistening white. Each one stretched high into the swollen, silver clouds beyond the view his window provided. Since he could see them, he knew the occupants could see him too.
He gripped his glass of Scotch, its dark-honey aroma diffusing around him. He sipped and savoured it as it washed through his mouth; the last bottle was always the sweetest. Soon enough he’d be back to drinking Cerulean, the dreadful, watery liquor of Union, ‘the lifeblood of the State.’ Either way he hadn’t learned to pace himself.
The door alarm tolled and he jerked back, bumping the coffee table with his leg. He gulped the remaining Scotch and, passing his desk and the crimson sofa, set the glass on top of his bookcase. Before opening the door, he plastered on a fraudulent smile, the type he had perfected. He checked the mirror near the door. Both rows of teeth showing, lips stretched out, cheeks dimpled, light in eyes shining; nothing to see here.
He opened the door and saw Diana puffing from climbing the stairs. She clutched her pregnant belly with one hand while the other braced the doorframe.
‘Hi Percy,’ she said.
‘Please, come in,’ said Percy.
She slipped into the room and sat on the sofa, fidgeting with her clothes; a black skirt tucked beneath her baby bump and a grey blouse with buttons that seemed as if they would burst.
‘How far along are we now?’ he asked.
Diana’s dirty hair fell over her narrow face, sticking like wet straw. Percy took his seat opposite her.
‘Seven months.’ Diana brushed the hair away from her eyes.
Percy exaggerated a search for her file, creeping his fingers along the smooth lacquered wood under the desk to where the button jutted out. He pressed down. Heat rose in his cheeks.
‘How was your week?’
Diana cleared her throat, though her voice remained frail. ‘Not good.’ She regarded the ground blankly.
‘What about John? Has he become violent toward you again?’
‘No. Not this -.’
From outside an anguished scream interrupted her, brutish in tone. Blue and red lights flashed in through the window, at which Percy cocked his head. He excused himself and went to the window. Four Protectors, in teal suits with peaked caps, peeled out from a car and enclosed a man across the street directly in front of his apartment. Even from Percy’s distance, the man had a look of defeat about him. His hands were raised in surrender. One Protector snatched the man’s briefcase and rifled through it on the ground, while two more seized him by his arms and pinned him to the wall.
‘What’s going on?’ said Diana.
‘Nothing.’ Percy didn’t look at her.
A third Protector pulled out a truncheon and forced it to the man’s throat, allowing his jacket to be swiftly removed by his comrade. He was then frisked head to toe, his belt ripped away, shoes plucked from his feet. A siren started up as an unmarked van parked beside the car. A fifth Protector charged over and gathered all the evidence. The remaining Protectors, one for each limb, carried the man to the van, slamming him against its rigid body before shoving him inside. It was an effortless task. A bearded man wearing a woollen scarf neared the scene, but crossed the street and carried on his way. Percy stared on, flushed, sweating and short of breath.
‘Is everything all right?’ Diana said.
He returned to his chair and seized the pen, flipping it round and round between his fingers.
‘It was just some hoodlum making a scene, but they got to him quick.’
‘Oh, good.’ Diana, shifted back into the sofa. ‘We’re very lucky, you know.’
‘Of course. We live in the safest city of Union in fact,’ said Percy. ‘Our Protectors are second to none: quick in their response and quicker in crushing any threat to the State. I’ve no doubt we’re the safest place in the whole Alliance.’
The Listeners will be eating this up, Percy thought. I’m on fire today.
‘My cousin in Fifth city tells me it’s like living in a warzone.’ Diana offered him a meek smile. ‘Says the place is teeming with rebels and lunatics, you know, that sort of thing.’
‘Where were we?’ He tugged on the knot of his tie, as if a truncheon was pressing into his neck.
‘You asked about John.’
‘Yes. And has he tried anything?’
Diana exhaled, gazing at the ceiling.
Her reluctance to elaborate was typical. Percy suspected she was a spy or a test conducted by the government; there was no way for him to prove otherwise. Even so, he would labour to pass.
‘How about sex?’ Percy said.
‘I’ve told you he won't do it while I'm pregnant. Nothing I say will change his mind.’
Percy clicked his tongue in time with the clock until an idea came to him. ‘Have you ever thought about an escort, Diana? I've had many clients, like you, who have found happiness through escorts and other such companions.’
He heard his own contempt for her as he spoke. Diana’s face soured and the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth deepened. She folded her arms.
‘Look, we've tried patience and reasoning and compromising, even seducing. Nothing is working.’ explained Percy. ‘It’s an outlet that’s perhaps being under-utilised.’
‘I don’t think I could have an escort again. I’m older now and I can’t risk John finding out.’
‘You have to think about yourself here. There are specialists to ensure he’ll never find out. Honestly, it’s a great option for you to relieve some of that anxiety. Especially if the meds aren’t doing the job.’
‘I’m not sure I could follow through with it.’
Diana wiped her hair back from her face. ‘I just want to know what I’m doing wrong, to make John act the way he acts.’
‘You’re doing nothing wrong,’ said Percy. ‘He’s just under a lot of pressure. Being CEO of a company that size isn’t easy. Besides, you’re busy at the retirement centre and preparing for the baby. Things are changing and it’s very stressful for you both.’
‘I suppose you’re right. But an escort is something I’d have to think about.’
Percy skimmed over Diana’s file, scribbling down some thoughts with the pen. The traffic outside screeched. Inside, the silence stretched between them.
‘Let me read something you said back in February,’ he said. ‘You told me that it was, “out of character” and “not like John” to become “angry, violent and detached.” It’s my duty of care to remind you to call the Savers if another incident ever occurs.’
‘I would never call the Savers. As if they’d arrest someone like John.’ Holding the bump of her stomach, Diana stood, leaning backwards to balance herself. The bruises on her forearms were like smears of brown paint.
Percy gave an assenting nod and, at the sound of the door closing, sprang to the kitchen and emptied the last of the Scotch into a fresh glass. In one gulp it was gone. He pressed his hands flat down on the bench and exhaled slowly. When he heard the toilet flush, he dashed back to his desk chair. Diana slumped back into the sofa’s cushions and folded her arms. Percy waited for her to speak.
‘I’d prefer an escort over the authorities,’ she said.
‘I believe you, but for your safety and your child’s safety,’ Percy sat forward and motioned at her stomach, ‘I advise you to call them if John ever mismanages his stress again.’
Diana glanced over her fingernails with a surly expression on her face.
‘Alternatively, I have some numbers you can call,’ said Percy in his gentle voice. ‘For external help.’
Diana’s gaze shot up.
‘There are plenty of services for women and soon-to-be mothers. You could be transferred to a temporary help centre. There are long-term options as well. You’d be staying with other women just like you, probably even make a friend. There are programs there, and seminars and classes. It might just be the safest option for you right now,’ he said. ‘I have a pamphlet somewhere.’
Percy reached for the piles of leaflets on the opposite side of his desk and found the one for Serverion House. Diana stood and took it from his hand.
‘Serverion House,’ she read, as if the phrase were a pip stuck in her teeth.
She studied the pamphlet. Her thin, roseate lips were pressed tight and she was frowning. This is too easy, Percy thought, watching her massage her neck with her free hand. It was clear she had not heard of Serverion House before.
‘What do you think?’
Percy nibbled his pen to hide his enthusiasm. The praise he’d receive if he administered her there – he needed it. Emails from his peers at Felema and sister-companies, maybe even a phone call from Pat, his boss.
‘It actually sounds lovely,’ said Diana. ‘I’m just not sure what John will think, though.’
‘Think of it as a holiday. A long, overdue holiday. Don’t worry about John. This is about you and the baby.’
‘Why can’t all men be as sensitive as you, Percy?’ Diana forced out a laugh, shaking her thin hair in front of her face only to brush it aside again.
Percy laughed too. He’d won. But fine as this case would look on his résumé, it wasn’t all about the prestige. Come the time for his annual review, it would demonstrate his value and his capacity to comply, buying him more time under the radar.
‘They take new applicants every week. Monday is the soonest they’d be able to have you, so you’d only have to wait three days.’
She opened her mouth, but said nothing.
‘Remember, this is your decision, not mine.’ Percy counted to ten in his head.
‘Let’s do it.’ She straightened her skirt. ‘You always know what’s best for me, Percy.’
After a short phone call, Diana was registered into the Serverion House database. A room was reserved for her with a check-in date for Monday.
‘I’m so grateful, Percy. Really.’
‘I’m just doing my job,’ Percy said. ‘It’s clear you need some time away from your husband to figure out what’s best for you. When you’re back from Serverion, we’ll reassess your situation.’
Seeing Diana calmer somehow made Percy tense. He reminded himself she was just another statistic. There was no need to feel guilty. He’d made great progress in smothering any existing weaknesses towards his clients – he couldn’t afford to slip back now.
‘Maybe they’ll have an escort service there.’ Diana smiled and leant forward in her seat.
Percy watched a strange expression come over her, a sharp look of impurity that encircled him like smoke. He flicked through Diana’s file and scrawled on a loose leaf of paper to appear uninterruptible. As far as he was concerned, his work with her was complete.
Shay Ffewkes is a writer, musician and artist who lives in Melbourne. Idealistic as he is anxious, he envisions infinite dystopias before the slightest glimpse of Utopia. Existential crises aside, he observes the occurrences of the world in astonishment (and despair), which gives him plenty to work with.
* If you are interested in contacting the author please email firstname.lastname@example.org.