By Chris Murray
Simon realises he has been sentenced as soon as his limbs lock up. He is out buying milk and it happens in the dairy aisle, his head snapping forward as his arms and legs are halted. His fingers open, the milk carton falls to the floor and bursts. For a few moments nothing happens except the glugging of milk onto the linoleum and under the fridges. He had imagined the voice would sound like it was deep inside him, like an evil spirit possessing him and telling him what to do, but it is faint and crackly, like a bad phone line.
'Simon? Simon, can you hear me?'
'Yes! Yes, I can hear you,' he hisses, aware that the people turning to look at him think he's talking to himself. The voice speaks again, more composed now. Simon can tell the guy is reading from a script.
'This is Greater London Crown Court. You have been found guilty of dangerous driving. We are directing you home by Remote Access to explain details of your sentence. Please do not cause disruption, as you may incur further penalties, including the removal of speech privileges on an ongoing or temporary basis...'
He curses anyway. Simon's legs begin to move, taking him towards the exit in milky footprints, and there's nothing he can do to stop.
'Please remain calm at this difficult time.'
The walk home is perilous – they have trouble configuring Remote Access for new prisoners, and Simon is steered into two lampposts, and one dog-walker – but now he is sitting on his couch being told about his trial and his punishment. To the overall annoyance of being manipulated like a remote-control car is added the provocation of an unseen court-official who feels compelled to begin his sentences with the word 'basically'.
'Basically, when the charge was made last year we downloaded your brain, yeah? The simulated-trial system estimated what you were likely to have said in your defence, running with an average of 86% accuracy among test subjects. Using that transcript, you were convicted.'
Since he is not deemed especially violent or troubled, Simon has been sentenced to twelve months on the Distance Imprisonment Programme, during which time his movements will be directed by the Court's Remote Officers. Under their control he'll go to work, and live at home, and he'll see a counsellor whose fees will be deducted from Simon's wages. From a list of exercise options, Simon chooses Enforced Jogging. Does he have any questions?
'Isn't twelve months a bit much for dangerous driving? I mean, he didn't even have any serious injuries, and I've no prior convictions.' The voice does not agree.
'Well, we'll send you the transcript of the trial, but, basically, you attempted to deny responsibility for the incident at the time of the arrest, which the Court takes very seriously.' The voice clucks with disapproval. 'Very seriously indeed.'
What about the Puppeteers? Don't they have something of a bad reputation – making prisoners dance for their amusement, getting them to molest each other, the story of the woman who lost an eye eating pasta, the risk of neural atrophy? The voice chuckles.
'Urban myths, Simon, mere urban myths. Don't you worry about a thing.'
Any misconceptions Simon entertains about sympathetic treatment at home evaporate that night when, having waited for him to clunk into bed, Amanda lowers her magazine with a rehearsed scowl.
'Dangerous driving. What were you thinking? What will my parents think? Not to mention the neighbours.'
'You think I wanted this?' Simon attempts to gesticulate but, forgetting he can't move his arms, is restricted to darting his eyes around the room suggestively. 'Or that I deserve this ridiculous punishment? And don't tell me I brought this nonsense on myself by voting Conservative, because "I told you so" is not what I need to hear right now.' Amanda sighs.
'Things were going so well. We should be starting a family.'
'We can still start a family. I'll still be working, I'll still have my salary.' She dismisses this with a wave.
'And what would children think of a robot father? They'd be terrified of you; you'd warp them.'
'It's only for twelve months! And there'll be – you know – time off…'
'Ha! You think I'm going anywhere near you in those conjugal visits? Everyone knows they don't turn off their monitors.'
'You're being ridiculous,' he thunders, 'they have to turn them off-'
'It's not happening, Simon. I'm not taking part in some sordid sex-show for your mistakes.'
She takes up the magazine again and pretends to read, to signal the end of the discussion. Simon's face rages on a rigid body, a strapped-in Hannibal Lecter. Fuming as he waits for sleep, Simon decides that it is all Amanda's fault somehow. For the first time all evening, he feels a little better.
Getting through the working day is an ordeal. His erratic, jerking movements are a giveaway, and he suspects the other commuters are wondering whether he robs grannies or beats his wife. He feels like blurting that he only ran over some bratty kid. On some journeys Simon encounters other people who are under arrest. You can spot them a mile off; their limbs are poker-straight when they move, their faces are uniform combinations of self-consciousness and despair. He trades sympathetic glances when he sees them. Occasionally, strangers ask Simon what he has done, tending to react either with relief or disappointment that he's not a worse criminal. But mostly he talks to no one, sitting in silence on the bus and looking very much like a man who on top of everything else has been sentenced to twelve months without sex. He wonders whether he might have been happier in a traditional prison, wearing a stripy suit and getting buggered a lot.
Simon's fingers are freed up to type at work, and his job is not really any more boring or frustrating than is was before, although he does have to say 'Toilet!' fairly loud for the Puppeteers to hear him. Itches go unscratched, and an inability to go to the coffee machine is considered part of being in prison. His colleagues aren't allowed to bring him drinks, and at the end of the week he watches them go off to the pub together after work, while he is steered in the opposite direction. Some feel sorry for him, others are convinced he must be some kind of terrible person to have any conviction at all, but the novelty of Simon's sentence wears thin quickly. He gets the impression people stop gossiping about him after a couple of weeks, primarily because, in his present routine, he's not capable of doing much that can generate gossip.
Every Wednesday Simon gets the afternoon off work to see his Rehabilitation Officer. Visiting the clinic is his favourite time, not just because he gets to move freely for the whole hour, but because he sees Gwen Turner as a kind of sacrificial scapegoat onto whom he can channel all his worldly hatred, which has become a considerable volume of hatred over the last few months. Gwen Turner is fair game for this treatment, in Simon's view, for her apparent lack of qualifications, and general uselessness at her job, which manifests in a strategy of tiresome, pop-psychological guesswork. Recently they have been discussing Simon's childhood, his marriage, his religious beliefs, and any other number of metaphysical donkeys onto which Gwen Turner can pin Simon's unconscious urge to crush small children. He used to make stuff up, based loosely around Dickens adaptations he had been watching during Recreation, until Gwen Turner recognised the character of Micawber and asked him to stop.
'How are you feeling today, Simon?'
He is staring at his arms: flexing them, running one palm over his forearm, splaying his fingers. He grunts. She continues looking at her notes, deciding what her opening gambit will be. She asks what his week has been like. The same as usual, except the Puppeteers had a connection failure on Friday evening, which gave him an unexpected hour of freedom, but before he could persuade Amanda to put the time to good use, a sheepish voice came on and said they could still see everything.
'Have you been reading any more Dickens?'
'Reading? I gave up on reading two months ago. Their attention wavers when you read. You have to shout "turn page" about five times for them to do it.' Gwen Turner's voice is warm.
'Who can blame them? It's a crappy, boring job.'
'I thought Remote Court Officer was meant to be a fairly good job.'
'One of them talks to me sometimes when the rest of her team is on break, though she's not meant to. She seems a bit lonely. She said her last job was in a call centre, and she preferred the call centre.'
Gwen Turner does get wound up by criticism of the Distance Imprisonment Programme, and embarks on a textbook defence of its merits. Remote Officers are assigned in groups of three to monitor three prisoners, which is a good means of creating employment, isn't it? And it's still much cheaper than keeping the offenders in actual prisons which, as you know, were badly overcrowded before the inception of the Programme. If that wasn't good enough, the prisoner gets to live with his family and friends as normal. It's hardly like punishment at all, is it?
'You've made it too easy to punish people for minor offences. Meanwhile you're sending me to work so I can pay for this Programme out of my wages.'
Simon sees Gwen Turner's face tighten.
'Don't you like spending time with your wife, Simon?'
'Doing time with my wife. Do you have any idea how much strain it's put on our marriage, having me in the house every evening, rooted to the couch? You must do; everyone knows how many marriages are ended by Puppet. And you have the nerve to tell me I'm lucky, stomping through this mockery, this nightmare that's almost like my life.' He covers his eyes and mutters.
'I've asked about your marriage, Simon. Why didn't you tell me any of this?'
Simon drops his palms onto his thighs.
'Because you're an idiot.'
Gwen Turner scribbles on her pad. She puts down her pen, uncrosses and re-crosses her legs, business-like, black slacks terminating in aggressive, pointed shoes. Sometimes when they reach this kind of impasse, Gwen Turner will walk over to the window and separate the blinds with her fingers, and squint outside, a manoeuvre Simon reckons one acquires from a childhood spent being raised predominantly by television. This time she remains seated, and gazes absently at the wall.
'I've told you, Simon, this is your time. We can only use these sessions as well as you allow us to.'
'No matter what I say in here, I'm free at the end of twelve months. We're paying lip-service to rehabilitation, sitting here every week and accomplishing nothing.'
'So help me to help you. I want to find out what matters to you, what kind of conscience you have.'
'What does my imprisonment actually achieve, how does it shape my conscience? That's what I want to know. I think the real answer is it achieves nothing.'
'You are a criminal, Simon. Society needs to protect itself from you.'
'You don't know me.'
'On the contrary, Simon,' Gwen Turner rises, marches to a filing cabinet, and returns with an official-looking pile of paperwork that Simon realises is the court transcript from his simulated trial, 'I know you at your very worst. I know what you are capable of doing to another person. And worst of all,' she points at him now with her pen, jabbing it in his direction accusatively, 'Worst of all, I know that you lack empathy for other human beings.'
'I have empathy.'
Gwen Turner flicks though the pages in her hands, and stops on a page that is highlighted.
'"I abnegate responsibility for this accident, and deny that I would act with such a lack of compassion as is alleged".' She looks up triumphantly.
'I never said that. I don't talk like that.'
'You would have said that.' He clenches his fists.
'I have never used the word "abnegate" in my life.'
'You seem to know it.'
Simon rises and paces the room.
'I don't know what it means. I assume it makes me a liar. Hypothetically?'
'This isn't hypothetical, Simon, it is tried and tested.'
'Tried and tested, with a 14% margin for inaccuracy of some kind, inaccuracy that puts new words in my vocabulary. Damning words. It's unethical.'
'It's not unethical, Simon, or the government would never have introduced it.'
'You say you've read my mind. Literally. My first reaction was that I hoped the boy wasn't hurt.'
'I think you were expressing your fear of the consequences.'
He leans with his back against the door and puts his hands in his pockets.
'I can see I'm not needed in this conversation.'
'Be honest with me, Simon. Be honest with yourself.'
It's no surprise when Amanda announces she needs some space, and is moving back home with her parents, although Simon is taken aback by the counter-intuitive argument that it will help their marriage. Was there no clause in their vows to the tune of in sickness and in health, in free agency or under wizardry of sinister, dystopian government?
'Can't you see this is changing you? You're becoming so bitter.'
'I don't see how leaving me is the answer.'
'But it's not forever. I know I can have you back afterwards.'
This sounds quite ignoble to Simon, who is sure being a foul-weather friend falls under elementary wife duties. Amanda gathers her keys and phone from the counter and kisses his cheek.
'I'm not saying it's right, Simon. I'm saying it's the best I can do.'
But Amanda is right. When they're meeting he looks forward to seeing her, and she no longer takes being with him for granted. She calls over for some of his Recreation evenings, and they cook for each other. He buys her flowers, and although the presentation the Puppeteers impel looks like a kind of overhand dagger-attack, she is touched.
'Do something!' he implores. 'Do something!'
The intruders, while puzzled, decide Simon's performance augurs well for there being prescription drugs in the house.
'Who is he talking to?'
'Why's he just sitting there?'
'I can't move, you clowns!'
Shrugging, the burglars move through the living room with reckless abandon for five minutes or so until Simon stands bolt upright.
'Simon? Everything is under control. A police car is on the way, and we are moving you to a position of safety.'
He tries to tell the unseen Officer there are some wieldy golf clubs in the hall, but is exited from the room and momentarily finds himself standing in the bath tub. The robbers have some inkling that Simon is under arrest, and have given up the search for mind-bending drugs, but he passes a miserable fifteen minutes in which he hears a variety of sounds he associates with the verb 'to ransack'. Then the noises stop.
Presumably having fixed its settings for the day to Merciless Irony, fate ordains that one of the police officers who attends is Constable Adams, who was present when Simon was involved in the accident. When the routine details of the burglary are noted, he tells the other officer to go on ahead, they are nearly finished their shift anyway. Adams puts the kettle on. Restored to the Simon-shaped groove in the couch, Simon learns that Adams isn't interested in talking about the late robbery.
'You didn't deserve that; being made an example of.'
'I know. Thank you.'
Adams pours the tea. He watches in fascination as Simon's arm, responding to the order 'Drink', twitches the mug to his mouth. It is a sequence of movements rather than a fluid process; the fingers close around the mug, the arm bends, finally the wrist rotates, titling the liquid towards the lips.
'How are things?'
'I'm losing my mind. Possibly my wife.'
Adams is looking beyond Simon's eyes, to the depths of wherever the Court has its monitors and Officers and Remote Access stations.
'This isn't justice,' he says. To Simon, 'That's not much use, I suppose.'
But Simon relaxes a bit. They talk about sports, and Constable Adams's holiday.
'Thought about any time away yourself, when you get out?'
'No. Most of what they classify as Disposable Income is deducted to pay for the Programme.'
'Do it. Take a loan if you have to.'
'You know, I was forgetting this would ever end?'
'It will. But you need some light at the end of the tunnel, to remind yourself you've things to look forward to. Or you become…'
'Institutionalised? Unsuitable for society. Fit only for imprisonment. And, of course, without a wife to worry about.'
There is a silence, and Constable Adams looks at Simon as though his life hangs in the balance.
'What are you doing?'
Gwen Turner was confident that news of Constable Adams being cautioned for criticising the Programme was a strong card to play, and is disappointed by the indifference it is met with. Her question is rhetorical, because it's obvious Simon has given up entirely on the consultative dimension of the sessions, and has instead devised a stretching routine, which he is five dips and several lunges into.
'Simon, some day I want to say I have done my best to help you. You're making it very difficult for me to do that.' He chuckles.
'Your best, you say?'
She makes a note, leaning hard on the pen, and underlines what she written.
'It's obvious you have hostility for authority figures.'
'I have nothing of the sort.' He clasps his hands over his head and leans to one side. 'You're just terrible at your job.'
'This is a rehabilitating process. I'm alarmed by your lack of respect for this process, and for the law.'
'I respect the law. How many crimes was I convicted of before this ridiculous Programme came in? None, that's how many.'
'I have a transcript here that suggests you are a probable repeat-offender.'
He leans to the other side.
'Will it all be traffic-related, or will I graduate to bigger crimes?'
'They'll get those men who robbed your house, Simon. And because of the Programme, there's room to put these people away now, who a few years ago would have only got a slap on the wrist.'
'And they get to go to real prison, while I go to robot prison?'
'Ah yes, you did think you'd rather be in an old-fashioned prison.' She consults her notes. '"Wearing a stripy suit and getting buggered a lot."'
'I just don't understand how you think this is relative freedom, but that being in prison, in control of your body, isn't.'
Gwen Turner removes her glasses.
'I don't understand your difficulty with this. Violent offenders go to a prison. You do not. You only experience certain restrictions.'
'Certain restrictions? I'm running on a track, while murderers are free to shank each other in the canteen.'
'I pity you, Simon.' Gwen Turner puts her glass on again and straightens in her seat. 'In a way, I think the things you're saying show how badly you need this therapy.'
'Jesus Christ. Is it three o' clock yet?'
It ends unexpectedly after four months and seventeen days. Simon is out Enforced Jogging in the park. He is following the same route they always take him on, and expects to turn past the playground when his legs become loose. He is slow to realise he is back in control, and totters into some bushes. He emerges, slightly scratched, and waits for a voice to announce a connection failure, but it isn't a connection failure at all.
'Basically, the kid – bit of a bad seed, yeah? We caught him vandalising a car. Downloaded his brain, then your case went into Auto-Appeal and, based on what we found, you were cleared of all charges.'
'Downloaded his brain…?'
'Yeah, turns out he liked to play chicken in the traffic, wind people up.'
'Why didn't you do all this in the first place?' The Officer tuts.
'Can't go downloading people's brains willy-nilly, Simon, it's unconstitutional. Just be glad it all worked out in the end. Apologies for any inconvenience caused.'
'Apologies for any inconvenience caused? Apologies for any inconvenience caused!'
But the voice has gone. The connection has been closed, and Simon is left to walk home from the park and make breakfast. It is Friday. He calls Amanda, and they both pull sickies from work.
The unexpected meeting with Gwen Turner occurs a couple of months afterwards, in a queue for an ATM. Simon arrives two people after her. It looks like Gwen Turner is trying to sneak ahead of the person in front of her. The woman glares at Gwen Turner, who shrinks back. Simon enjoys the scene, and wonders whether he should say anything. As it happens, Gwen Turner notices him when she has taken out her money and turned away from the machine. She makes small talk, which Simon answers, although he is distracted by her over-sized, burgundy handbag. A holiday, he says? That is good news. With his wife? Why, that is better news still. As this show of manners proceeds, Simon decides he will regret it if he doesn't say something worthwhile when he has the chance.
'You know it's wrong, what you're doing.'
'You had a bad experience Simon. We do good work, I'm sorry you couldn't see that. I wish there was more I could do than apologise.'
'It should never have got that far. An actual jury of actual people would never have convicted me.'
'Look,' she rummages through her bag at length and produces a business card. 'In case you've lost my number,' she explains, as Simon frowns at the card, 'If you want to talk at all, if there's anything that ill help you get past this.'
He shakes his head.
'No, I don't think there's anything that will help me get past this.' He makes to leave, but something occurs to him, and he pauses.
'Mind you, I could really hurt some little bastard.'QLRS Vol. 11 No. 1 Jan 2012