Short Story #14: The Janitor

At four thirty in the morning, Drake’s tiny, fitted earphones start playing a fugue by Bach and a large rectangular section of the wall that butts up against the end of his bed slowly fills the room with a soft orange light, gently waking him up.

After a quick shower, he puts on a black suit, white shirt and black tie and sits back down on his bed to eat his breakfast. His windowless studio on the 37th floor of the apartment complex is small. The bed takes up one corner and a kitchenette occupies another. An old, beaten armchair sits in a third and his bathroom—a wet room no bigger than a decent sized closet—takes the fourth. He has been living here for three and a half years.

Leaning up against his pillows on the unmade bed, he makes an upward swiping gesture in the air as he eats his plain toast and drinks his instant coffee.

The WallScreen switches from the orange glow to an advertisement that pompously invites him to join the Outer Communities Constabulary.

“Weather,” he says when the ad finishes and he has control again.

“Today’s high will be thirty two degrees,” responds a calm female voice in his ear, the display instantly showing a detailed 3D map of New Central London. “Thunderstorms and heavy showers are expected at fourteen hundred hours. A flood warning has been issued throughout the Farm Regions.”

“Local Apartment Listings,” he says, the WallScreen responding with a soft beep.

He points with his finger at the filters and swipes, setting them to “Outer Communities: North West” and “1+ windows”. There’s a chirp as the list loads and he swipes in the air to browse through the newly added apartments.

He scrolls down through dozens of listings—many of them disappearing from the list even as he’s reading the summary, the result of someone else reserving it—eventually finding one in his current block. It’s on the 18th floor and only a little beyond his price range. It’s location on the outer wall means that it has a window. He reads further and finds that the window faces east and he imagines himself waking to a real sunrise: that varying, irreproducible glow of natural light stroking his sleeping body, gently inviting him to rejoin the world.

Instantly he’s taken back to the last holiday he had with his ex-wife—a villa by the sea in Spain—and how much he enjoyed waking up to that light and the gentle sound of the waves. He remembers the cool breeze coming in through the open wood-framed balcony doors, upsetting the thin white curtains. Heading downstairs in their underwear, they’d find freshly baked bread and the cafetière of fresh coffee waiting for them in the rustic green kitchen, left for them by the discreet villa staff.

He waves his finger in the air, moving the pointer on the wall panel towards the large green “Rent This Flat!” Button but hesitates. He would have to dip into his savings to pay for the deposit. However, it’s only been a few years since the last crash, so he should be able to replenish them again in time. On the other hand, the cycle does seem to be speeding up.

While he’s thinking, the button turns red, indicating that someone else has reserved it. He sighs and clenches his fist at the wall to switch off the screen. He dumps his plate and mug into the small sink on his way out the door.

Two elevators are out of commission, causing the remaining six to be slower and busier than usual and he squeezes himself in to an already over-capacity car. Reaching subbasement four, he steps out into a long, narrow atrium and joins a long line of people facing forward, all wearing the same expressionless mask as he is.

The line moves quickly and eventually it’s his turn to pass through the apartment security gate where a Constable, decked out in a black jumpsuit with body armour, full face gas mask, and carrying an assault rifle, stands passively by. The gate scans his BioID chip and lights up green, clearing him for hall passage. He passes under two ceiling mounted machine guns trained at the gate. Like every other day, he glances up at the cold, menacing black holes of their barrels and briefly wonders if he’ll ever see them firing.

The way things are going, he thinks, it wouldn’t take much to provoke their use.

A few feet beyond the scanner the corridor opens up and joins at a T-junction, where he turns left and hops carefully in to the fast moving river of people heading to the nearest train station on the New Central London line.

Small, spherical security drones buzz overhead, travelling up and down the corridors like giant steel flies. An advertisement, synced to the speed of the endless line of people marching through the corridors, follows him down a long WallScreen panel. He taps his iFlex wrist band a few times, turning up the volume of his earphones to try and drown out the noise, but the gentle violin passage of the Beethoven Quartet is no match for the bombastic young woman in a tight black tank top extolling the virtues of joining the Constabulary to him and his fellow workers as they walk.

At the Train Station there’s another queue, this time for the X-ray scanner at the entrance of the platform. Two more black-clad, faceless policemen stand by, clutching their automatic weapons and watching the streaming crowd pouring through the machine like grains of sand through an hourglass.

His iFlex beeps as he walks through and he’s relieved to see that British Trains have not raised prices again this week, meaning that he can put a few more dollars in one of his many savings accounts. He wishes briefly that he’d secured that flat—affordable windowed accommodation doesn’t come up very often. There are more advertisements playing from the wide concrete columns in the centre of the platform but it’s not as loud in here as the corridor and he’s able to hear more of the piano concerto that has started playing.

Drake looks down the platform and joins one of the emptier lines, farthest away from the flashing images and incessant marketing of the WallScreen. He does a quick head count of those standing in front of him in order to estimate how many trains he’ll have to wait for. He’ll be lucky if he gets on the fourth, which will make him late.

The first train arrives and the doors open and a waft of cool air comes from the packed carriage. There are some groans from the passengers in front of him: Only one in fifty carriages have working air conditioning, so now the odds of it working on the next few trains is low. A few of the lucky people from the very front of the queue squeeze on and he shuffles forward with the remaining group.

Eventually it’s his turn (in the end it was the fifth train) and he gently shoulders himself into the packed carriage which, as expected, is without air conditioning today. Between this, his lateness, and the failure to get the flat, it’s already turning out to be a bad day. The doors close and he instantly feels the temperature increase. The man whose shoulder he’s pressed up against is already sweating. Drake closes his eyes and tries to focus on the gentle music, his link to the past.

The heat quickly becomes intolerable and the only relief is the small blast of cool air that comes in off the platforms every time they stop. As the doors open in front of him, he sees the waiting passengers roll their eyes, their faces expressing disgust as they see how little space is available for them, as if today was somehow meant to be different than every other day.

There are more video advertisements playing along the carriage walls above the windows. As they get closer to Central New London, inside the Hyperway loop, he watches absently as the ads reflect the changing social makeup of his fellow passengers. Where there were recruitment and payday loan ads, now there are adverts for new SmartWrist devices and contact lens HUDs, although he knows from his work at the mall that these are the cheaper, older devices, the companies trying to attract people who could never afford the newer models but who don’t want to be left behind by the endless march of technology.

People like him.

He thinks about the newer, most exciting devices. He thinks about the discreet ads on the pristine Elite Trains in-seat personal entertainment systems. He closes his eyes and lets the swell of the music take him back to their air conditioned, comfortable interiors. He remembers the warm, comforting smell of baking that wafted up and down the carriage as the BT Concierge passed out free coffee and fresh pastries (gluten free and vegan options available!), all of them baked on board by the train’s baker. He would pull off his SmartWrist band (always the current model) and stretch it out to tablet size, reading through the day’s news or enjoying some David Foster Wallace while Bach and Mozart played in his earphones.

The last station was Hampstead, which means that he would probably be on the his third croissant by now. This thought brings back his ex-wife, the warm smile framed by her short blonde hair; her laughter as she pats his slight bulge and suggests that he might like to try the free fruit instead as she kisses him goodbye outside their New Central London house (oh, the house!) before they headed their separate ways to work.

He opens his eyes as the train slows as it reaches the next station and he finds himself back in the hot, cramped carriage filled. He gets a whiff of body odour from the passengers who didn’t wear deodorant or perhaps couldn’t afford it. He considers calling up the Elite Trains site to find out how much a season ticket would cost but his arms are pinned to his side by the people around him and he doesn’t want to speak the request as it might cause trouble.

Besides, there’s a waiting list and he’s heard many rumours that they now do a background scan and decide whether or not you’re suitable. He realises that, in his current position, he wouldn’t be.

Not now.

Not like before.