This week as part of my quarantine self-improvement plan, I got a subscription to Masterclass and have committed to sharpening my craft as a writer. I am in the midst of Neil Gaiman’s class (it’s marvelous), so I decided to take my favorite song and write a short story based on the lyrics.
For me, the most beautiful and emotive song ever written is “Here Comes the Flood,” by Peter Gabriel. The story hinted at in the lyrics has always intrigued me and I knew that someday, I would try to write my interpretation of this haunting world.
Here is what I found through the tears…
It happened again today. After four or five days, I dared to be just a little bit hopeful. But then I find I’ve missed my stop and the conductor is standing over me with that look in his eyes. I scramble to gather my bag and slide past him, whispering an apology as I step onto the grey platform, the rain pelting my jacket, the damp air jerking me back into myself.
I notice the station sign. Damn it! District twenty-three. The end of the line. I’ll never get back in time. Shit!
After walking several blocks, I see the dimly lit window of a pub. I step inside, welcomed by the familiar aroma of the floorboards wafting up decades of spilt beer and mashed crisps. A quick look around the dreary room reveals three disheveled blokes at the bar, the bartender, and a sleeping sponge, his head laying oddly to one side on the table covered in well-worn carvings of vulgar words, professed loves, and phallic iconography.
Plenty of empty tables. I order a pint and steal away to a dark corner to wait for the next train. As I sip the crisp Boddington draught, my mind sifts through the images of last night’s Flood. Broken bodies were strewn in the streets of some sub-Saharan village. Bloodied faces and hands were grappling for rescue in the cloud of dust from an explosion. Then in a flash, I saw a couple making love in the rosy light of a motel sign; their bodies writhing in rhythm as they lose themselves to the act. Another flash and I witnessed a man waiting in a dark alley, his face hidden in the shadows, and his mind twitching in anticipation of the violence he will unleash when the woman passes by.
Unlike the telly, we cannot choose what to watch. At first, you quietly float along as we did as children in the lazy river at Nana’s farm. But soon, you hear the rapids and find yourself seized by the current. The only choice is to surrender to it and let it take you where it chooses; if there is any choice at all.
Some people can navigate the Flood and have learned to ‘swim’ in the vast clamor of voices, images, and emotions. Some Swimmers are harmless, but most are predators, satiating their dark appetites with the most private parts of the multitude. The Source refutes such things as nonsense. We’re merely lending our minds as processors, they tell us. The climate generators require both man and machine to power the complex algorithms that shape the weather and keep cities from flooding and forests from burning. We are happy to be used for such a noble purpose. It is a privilege. ‘One Mind and One Will to Survive,’ as the motto goes.
I am an Island. That’s what the Swimmers call us. People like me do not want to see, hear, and feel the innermost places of our neighbors, or the suffering of strangers in filthy cities far from our homeland. I use all of my energy to keep the walls intact and retain at least a tiny fragment of myself tucked away, hidden, and safe.
Three hours later, I am sitting alone in my room, waiting for the eventide broadcast to begin. Like many, I must tune in if I want to keep a roof over my head and food in the pantry. I have a decent job, for which I am very grateful. I know others with far less comfortable situations. Tuning in gives me that little extra each month to spend on a trip to the city, or an occasional new shirt, or a second-hand book from my favorite shop on the High Street. But still, I want more. Not a lot more. Just…more.
Not everyone believes the broadcast is safe. Some protestors refuse to tune in. If one listens to the rumors—which I do not—it is said there are thousands of people who never tune in at all. Others say it doesn’t matter if we tune in. The Source does not need our permission or even our awareness to harness our minds for the critical work it does. But it is better to comply. I strive to be a good citizen, after all.
When the broadcast begins, it is like being awoken by a terrifying klaxon only to find yourself in a football arena, your mind assaulted by 100,000 voices murmuring, chanting, and screaming all at once. You try to grab onto a single thread to anchor yourself in the Flood, but the rushing current of thoughts takes hold and sweeps you away. The unbridled dreams and desires of millions of minds all joined in a marvelous and terrifying dissonant symphony is something humans were never meant to experience. I imagine it is akin to being an ant in a colony or a drone in a hive. A swarm of individuals joined in service to a common goal, your decisions directed by invisible trails of pheromones and subtle vibrations in the walls. I am one, but also many.
After the initial onslaught, I seek my safe harbor. I need something to focus on while the Swimmers probe my defenses looking for a crack to exploit. The most challenging part is keeping my mind focused on ordinary things. Swimmers look for beacons in the ocean of thoughts, like radio towers crackling with hidden lust, greed, envy, pain, and despair. But I find my little burrow high on the chalky cliffs of Dover and tuck myself away from the Flood like a tiny summer chiffchaff.
I do not know her name. She sometimes shops at the market near my flat. I can’t help but follow her every move. She is captivating in every way. The swirl of her skirt or the soft blonde curls draped across her shoulder is enough to arrest me.
I do my best to be mindful of the glances I steal. It would be mortifying if others thought I was leering or worse. But no matter how careful I am, her eye will occasionally catch mine and electrify my soul. I wish I could remain in those moments forever. But I would settle for just being able to muster the courage to say “good day” or even manage a wan smile.
Shuffling through my catalogue of memories of her keeps me safe from the probing and prodding. Tonight’s broadcast is more intense than usual. I have difficulty maintaining my control and decide to break and let myself flow with the current of emotions and shifting scenes racing like a torrent through my mind. Suddenly I crash into an unusually vivid moment, and I realize I am witnessing a réalité—something happening in real-time in the real world. Such a thing is rare and almost always horrific. Some Swimmers have learned to be present in the Flood while partially lucid in the real world. They are akin to grotesque performance artists providing live entertainment for the masses who ride the Flood like tourists in water wings on holiday.
I see a woman. I feel the Swimmer breathing, almost grunting with animalistic desire. His whiskey-laden breath sickens me. His prey is utterly unaware that she is being stalked and that hundreds, perhaps thousands, are living this moment in anticipation of the kill.
She pauses at a shop window, then turns and disappears inside. The Swimmer curses, and I am overwhelmed by his rage as he nearly gallops toward the shop window. As he peers through the glass, the hunter’s eye scans the interior for his mark. There! She is casually surveying a rack of blouses when she suddenly turns, and I see her.
Her soft blonde curls frame her face. My heart leaps, and then my mind screams! It’s her! My God, it’s her!
She nods to the disappointed clerk and heads for the door. Through the Swimmer’s eyes, I see him shift away toward the curb to gesture as if hailing a taxi. He glances over his shoulder as she continues down the street and then silently resumes his pursuit. I recognize the place and instantly know where he will strike.
With great effort, I dislodge my mind from his and force myself up and away from the stream of thoughts. It is exceedingly difficult to extract yourself from the Flood while the broadcast is on. But I am determined to save her.
As my mind breaks free, I let loose with a shout, frightening myself. I stumble to the door, throw it open, and shamble down the long, silent corridor. In the lift, my mind begins to clear, the fog quickly replaced by sharpness and clarity of purpose.
By the time I reach the street, I have a plan. I am running, being carried along by adrenaline and fear. Just one more block, then down the alley next to the bakery, and I should be there. My heart is pounding like a drum in my ears; my lungs are burning hot as coals.
As I come round the corner into the alley, I can see the silhouette of the Swimmer. As if guided by an invisible hand, I reach into the rubbish pile to my right and rummage around until my hand closes on something solid and heavy. A length of scrap pipe with a crimped and twisted end comes forth like Excalibur from the stone.
I make my way down the alley, keeping to the deepest shadows. As I approach, I can smell him. The musk of his raging lust is feral and obscene. At that moment, my plan began to crumble under the weight of my cowardice and fear. But then I heard the staccato footsteps of her heels striking the pavement—her cadence like a soldier on parade, steady and precise. My courage growing as each step drew closer and closer.
I raised my arm, crept close behind him, and brought the mangled pipe down with a force that shocked me. The sound of a skull cracking is something one never forgets. The Swimmer’s body crumbled forward, spilling into the light of the street lamp.
She does not scream. This fact snaps me out of my horrified daze, and I find myself standing there in the cold white glow shivering as our eyes meet.
She glances down at the bleeding man and says, “Thank you. I have been after this one for some time. He was a particularly nasty one.”
I am speechless.
She moves closer and casually offers, “Let me buy you a drink. You look like you could use one.”
We walk in silence the two blocks to the pub. As we cross a street, my eye lands on a large hoarding for a cheap whiskey. The glowing letters urge, ‘Drink up, Dreamer. You’re running dry.’