“Ain’t no job for a lady, that.” The man who spoke typifies the kind of south of the river sleaze-on-the-make that I spend the best part of my days trying to avoid. I stand beside the little red and white tent, hands on hips, eyebrow arched with dangerous intent. He wavers on the edge of the pavement, wondering whether to continue with this conversation or to quit while he is ahead.
I don’t try to deny what I do for a living, though it may be a little difficult to hide sometimes; the thigh length waders and heavy-duty gloves are a dead giveaway. But sometimes I think there is more shit on the surface of this great city than there is under the ground.
I shake my head. He is just a little boy, really. He raises his hands as if to say, ‘Okay, no harm meant,’ then turns his back. Tight jeans squeeze that lean backside and the smallest T-shirt imaginable is barely able to contain the ripples of muscle across his back and shoulders. No prizes for guessing where he spends most of his days. I whistle with appreciation and he snaps his head around to stare at me, doe-eyed and wary.
“Nice bum.” I whistle again, just for effect and the colour rises to his cheeks before he scampers off down the road.
“When you’re ready, girl,” my colleague, Dawn, says with a guffaw as she spies my prey disappearing into the rippling heat wave of the city summer. The automated street sweeper trundles on by, giving us a wide berth and a small child carrying a bag brimming with discarded bits of hardware hops onto its back to hitch a ride. The sweeper slows its pace, but is not yet equipped with the ability to deal with this miniature attack to its system.
Kids are far too smart these days. Chips are so cheap, they are building computers out of their own toys. Every kid is a computer scientist, searching for the secret of artificial intelligence, hoping that one day they might wake up and be able to have a conversation with Action Man.
“Ready as ever,” I say over my shoulder. As ever I am, to face the steady tide of London’s weekend waste. Should the chips in our robotic flushers go haywire over the two-day break, then I am more than likely to find myself swimming in crap. Not much use wearing waders then.
The entrance to my section is via a manhole cover, near Clapham North underground station. I hook the safety line onto my belt, enter the tent and swing my legs over the open hole. There, I begin my descent into the bowels of London. My torch and hat are fixed in place, spare battery clipped to my belt. I slide my mask into place, covering my nose and mouth then shuffle down a small circular shaft with iron rings driven into its sides.
Not much has changed in the sewers since they were built in the nineteenth century, the basic layout is much the same, only now we have much more sophisticated systems to flush out the muck, renovate and rebuild what has been in place for nearly two hundred years.
Twenty or so feet down, I reach a concrete landing which takes me to another shaft leading to a small crypt, sloping gently down into the sewer itself. I pause for a moment to let my eyes become accustomed to the gloom and my body and mind prepare itself for the underground experience. I can sense the activity going on below by the vibrations in the damp floor beneath my feet. Comforted as I am that the flushers are going about their duty as intended, I stifle a shiver of anticipation; my first thought as always, is that this journey into the nether regions could well be my last on earth.
It is this fear that keeps me going; fuels my reason for being here. I could have taken a job in the service industry or learnt a different trade, such as my meagre qualifications allow. As a child I was prone to having nightmares, afraid of the dark and suffered horribly from feelings of claustrophobia. This job is the most challenging I could ever have inflicted upon myself; it is only in the act of facing our fears that we are able to conquer them.
Yes, the feelings are still there, induced by my immediate surroundings; the slick and sweaty brickwork, cold puddles of water all around. An unearthly darkness is distilled only by the shafts of torchlight, which creates distorted shadows dancing across the geometrical lines of brick. My heart leaps with those shadows. Out of the corner of my eye, I sense them moving of their own volition, mocking my grasp on reality. Little cavorting demons brimming with mischief. But when I turn my head to look, they are just regular shadows that move when I move.
And yes, it is still there; the feeling of impending dread as I part the mist screen and sludge through the soft sediment that lines the base of this egg-shaped tunnel. It never entirely goes away. This savage sickness that wells up from time to time, trying to catch me unawares, trying to convince me that the tunnel is folding in on itself, crowding me out, squeezing the very life out of me.
But every day, it gets a little easier. Every day, I push the fear from the front of my mind into the far reaches of my subconscious. And I have learnt to love this place, for like I said before, we often find that there is more shit to face on the surface than down here, squelching in amongst the debris of human existence.
I reach the foot of the slope and enter the sewer itself. Quick check on the levels of water and muck to make sure the flushers are doing their job, then I move slowly down towards the interceptor sewer, my back stooped to allow passage along this five foot high tunnel. In the distance behind me, I can hear the flushers getting on with their work, which comforts me for a while until the sound begins to fade away.
Today, I have to find a seersealer that has crashed along this stretch of tunnel, just short of the interception. The cameras in the walls will reveal a problem, but it takes a human touch to replace or repair our little helpers.
After a quarter of a mile or so, my back is aching and the muscles in my neck begin to spasm. In the distance I can make out the mouth of the tunnel and a little mound propped up against the wall that must be the seersealer. Beyond the mouth of the tunnel, all that is visible is a deep, dark cavernous chamber.
I stare for a moment into the nothingness that lies ahead. One step forward and I catch a flicker of movement up ahead. Stop, dead still. The seersealer? It is possible that its circuits are still operational and that it is just stuck, but what I saw or sensed appeared to come from further down, down in the open space. I head there to stretch my aching muscles before cramp sets in.
The torch in my jacket flickers. Flickers again as I curse aloud. My voice echoes and disappears just as my torch flickers once more, fades and dies. Plunged into darkness, I am paralysed. The only sound is the distant rush of water, the drip, drip closer still and a faint rumble overhead as London goes about its daily business. The sound of my breath is closest of all, raking in and out of my lungs, rushing around my head. And the blood in my veins pulses with a near deafening thud and pumps the sewage of my own system, flushing out the toxins of overindulgence.
Before panic takes a grip, I lower myself to a squatting position and search my belt for a fresh battery. I knew it was on low and meant to change it before I came down here today, but then I got distracted and forgot. I curse again at my own stupidity. My eyes begin to adjust and I can once again make out the lump at the end of the tunnel that I am heading towards. I keep my eyes ahead, on that deep hole of darkness, trying to rationalise my thoughts. It was the seersealer that twitched, I convince myself, not something else further down in the abyss. This is the only acceptable explanation.
I drop the dead battery into my pack and unclip the new one. Look down, catch movement on the periphery of my vision, look up and fumble the battery. It drops with a sickening gloop into the muck that lines the tunnel floor. On all fours, with desperation bordering on insanity, I slop about searching for my last battery, my last and lost hope, but it is gone. I realise as I stand up that my torch fell in my haste and that is lost too. I must complete my work in darkness, take the little robot with me for repair now that I am unable to do it without the necessity of light.
I try to focus ahead, to pinpoint the exact location of the seersealer. There is a shimmer of light in the space beyond; the reflection, perhaps, of some long lost treasure. I move down the tunnel and squat down beside the little seersealer, which has dropped in its tracks, hovercraft body propped against the tunnel wall. Its sprayer arms are tucked up against its metallic chest, empty of the chemicals that repair the walls with its waterproof membrane.
“Okay, little fella,” I whisper to myself as I work, blindly trying to attach the robot to my pack. “Let’s get you out of here then.”
I turn back the way I came, deciding not to venture into the opening behind without my torch, my back shall have to suffer the consequences.
Then I hear it.
The most heart-wrenching screech. An unearthly wailing, coming from behind me, coming up from the interception. I swing around, a jolt of adrenaline shoots through my veins. I am unable to move. Paralysed with indecision. It is the sound of neither man nor beast. No human voice. Then panic grips my insides and squeezes. I start up the tunnel, stooped and slopping through the muck, my progress impeded by the density of the water and the awkwardness of my waders.
“Oi.” The sound warbles like a waterlogged synthesizer. I slow down, look back. Nothing. “Oi… come back.” My heart is hammering to escape my chest and the sickness is stirring in the pit of my stomach, but I force myself to stand still, to listen. “I just want to talk to you.”
The voice is pathetic and pleading. I am torn as the panic begins to subside. I reason that whatever it is cannot be able to move very far, else it might have come after me. I stand my ground, unsure of what to do, then decide that whatever it is will be caught on the cameras and it is up to the water authority to sort it out. So I move on, slowly down the tunnel, carrying my burden.
“Please…” It wails again. I stop, turn towards the sound.
“What are you?”
“Come back and I’ll explain.”
A trick. It’s trying to trick me into going back. Have they finally designed a robot that is capable of conscious thought? I am wondering if it might be one of the latest telemole designs. But what possible reason could they have to design such a machine with the ability to converse with you? I turn once again to continue my journey and somehow it senses my movement.
“No… don’t go. I’ll explain, really I will.”
I pause, knowing that really I should get on and out. The eyes of the cameras dotted along the tunnel will soon wonder what it is I am up to and the authorities will have no compunction whatsoever in dismissing an employee on the grounds that they are mentally unstable. I have always been very careful to mask the evidence of my personal fears.
“This better be good. And quick. I don’t have much time.” Already I can feel the gentle tug on my safety line as Dawn has come back to check my whereabouts.
“Take me with you. I’m stuck here. Need to get out to sea, to die. Never die down here, damn neural net is likely to keep me going forever. Come closer. I can’t hurt you. I am just a mind, trapped inside this casing.”
Baffled as I am by this strange explanation, my curiosity is aroused and I move back towards the source of this metallic voice. The tunnel opens up into a huge chamber with massive pillars stretching endlessly upward. I am surrounded by the arches and buttresses of Victorian architecture, a sight that takes my breath away. Even without the benefit of my torch, the awesome space before me sends shudders through my body. I stretch my aching muscles and catch a faint glimmer out of the corner of my eye.
To the right, I can see an object, about the size of a football, lying in the sediment just below the entrance to another tunnel. A face appears to look at me, a bright yet fearsome visage, designed perhaps to instill a sense of awe in all who gaze upon it.
“Yes, yes, I know. I didn’t ask to end up looking like this, just put me in your pack before anything sees you and let’s get out of here.” Even the voice has a commanding tone to it and I am loath to leave this underworld without unraveling the truth. However, I think this talking… thing… head has the best suggestion yet. Though I know I may regret my actions later on, I make a small nest in the base of my pack, into which I place this treasure.
I feel like a nineteenth century tosher, scavenging around in the bowels of the earth looking for lost coins and having chanced upon the most prized treasure of all, the tosheroon, my own metallic ball of wealth unimaginable. I am gentle with my tosh, as I re-arrange my pack and the malfunctioning seerseeler.
“Oi.” I lift the flap to release the muffled voice. “No need to pussyfoot around with me, can’t feel a sodding thing anyway, no nerve endings in this stupid design.”
“Shut up, Tosh. I imagine it would be a little difficult to feel anything, detached as you seem to be from your body.” I reach over my shoulder to replace the flap, then change my mind.
“Don’t you Tosh me, I was an eminent scientist in my time. I never intended it all to turn out like this.”
“No, I don’t suppose you did.” Even the bad tempered ranting of a former scientist with no tactile grasp on reality is better than the silence of my own horrors crashing down on my journey home. The darkness chases me unabated down the tunnel and I have never before been so relieved to get out of that hell hole.
“What happened to you?” Dawn greets me on my exit from the manhole. “Thought I lost you for a moment.” I draw myself up and rub my neck, quickly flipping the top over my pack.
“Lost my bloody torch, can you believe it? The battery went dead, dropped the new one and my torch in one go, trying to refit it.”
Dawn narrows her eyes at me. “You sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah,” I sigh. “No problem. If you don’t mind, I’ll knock off early and take the seersealer home with me to fix.”
“Sure. See ya.”
“Bye.” She takes off leaving me to change and pack up.
I suppose you might say that I am mad to take a chance that this head is not some kind of trick and will explode on the stroke of midnight, or beguile its way into my life then take control of my body and mind. But as far as I am concerned, these are the scenarios of science fiction and what I have at the bottom of my pack is science fact. I have, what seems to my limited knowledge of computer science, to be a robot head detached from its body and somehow able to converse and access the memory of a real person, as far as it believes. But my interest is merely that of a curious, inquiring mind. I just want to take it apart and see how it works.
I am sitting cross-legged on the platform at Clapham North waiting for a train. My pack is across my knees, lid open, shiny but muck-smeared contents peering up at me. The face is like the metallic representation of a young man, eyes blind, and mouth silent. The voice box must be sealed inside, but the sound comes out from a speaker located somewhere just underneath the chin.
“Where are we going?” It says.
“Home.” To take you apart, my insipid little Tosh.
“Look, I may have a metal head, but my brain is very much alive in here, so if you’d just like to tell me where Home is precisely, perhaps we can make some kind of arrangement.”
Arrangement? I chuckle to myself.
“People don’t make ‘arrangements’ with robots. Next you’ll be trying to tell me that your brain has been defrosted after hundreds of years in a cryogenic institute by some mad computer scientist who just decided to start playing god of cybernetics. Home is near London Bridge, which is where we are going. On the tube.” I stand up, re-arrange myself and my pack as the train glides into the station.
“Well, not quite hundreds of years. Look, if you can just drop me over London Bridge into the river as you’re passing, that would be fine by me. With a bit of luck, this damn casing is not watertight and some hungry sea creature will eventually crack me open and seal my fate.” I flip the top on my pack and board the train.
“Yeah right. Just give me a screwdriver and I’ll seal your fate.”
“Oi.” A muffled squeak sounds from the bottom of my pack. I smile and shrug at the other passengers who stare curiously at me. One rather prim looking lady raises her gloved hand to her nostrils trying to pinch her nose and at the same time look as though she hasn’t noticed the almighty stink that follows in my wake. Others just get up and move down to the other end of the carriage. Of course, I’m well used to this effect that I have on people. Once, it might have bothered me, but now I just find it rather amusing. I have given up caring what other people think, life is short enough, without wasting time and energy on such corporeal matters.
“Are we alone?” A little meek whisper escapes my pack. I look around, and then flip the top open.
“Yeah, more or less.” Those passengers hardy enough to withstand the stench are now reassessing the situation and starting to move away from the smelly, mad woman who is talking to her bag.
“Unusual,” Tosh says. “Have they finally started laying on enough trains to cope with rush hour passengers?”
“Nope. I just stink, that’s all.”
“Don’t you bathe?”
“Frequently. But it never quite gets rid of the smell. When I asked my ex-boyfriend, Jim, why he wanted to split up, he said it was because I smelt of shit all the time.”
“Oh. How unfortunate. Why do you do it?”
“It’s a job. Besides, why should I change my life to suit other people? I’m happy.”
“Shut up, Tosh. What would you know about it?” There is a pause. I look down into my pack and swear I can see the bloody robot head smiling to itself.
“Just chuck me over the nearest bridge and you’ll understand what I know about it.”
The tube slides to a standstill. I look up. We are at Elephant and Castle and I didn’t even realise we had left Clapham North. If I am quick, I can get the irritating shit head home before it realises that I have no intention of chucking it over any bridge.
“You know what the problem is with people today?” it says.
“No.” I sigh.
“People have no commitment these days. Take my situation for example. I could have had a fully working body, if some arsehole hadn’t pulled the plug on funding and screwed up one of the most ambitious projects mankind has ever attempted.”
“What are you prattling on about now?” My head is starting to hurt.
“I’m talking about growing human neurons on silicon chips. I’m talking about building truly bionic limbs. I’m talking about the future of cybernetics.”
London Bridge, my stop. I stand and sling my pack over my back. As if by magic, the throng of passengers part like blades of grass in the wind and I get off the train.
“Yeah well,” I say. “The public are always the last to hear of these new fads. I wouldn’t lose your head over it.” I flip the top on my pack to muffled cries of indignation.
“How did you get into the sewer in the first place?” We are at my small flat, just off Tooley Street. The traffic roars past below, heading for Jamaica Road, oblivious to the scientific discovery going on behind closed doors. The seersealer is in pieces all over my living room floor and the head sits beside me, watching through blind eyes as I attempt to fix a minor problem.
“I assure you, you don’t want to know,” says Tosh.
“Don’t tell me,” I say, carefully reconstructing the little robot. “Two kids, a game of football and an open manhole.” Tosh is silent, but I am sure that if it had been capable of blushing, it would be glowing red. “So. In theory… if you had an artificial body and we planted a silicon chip inside each limb, the neurons in your brain can fire and send a message to the chip, which in turn makes the neuron fire and controls your movement.”
“That is a simple way of putting it,” Tosh says.
“Hm. Interesting.” I am on my hands and knees now, tinkering with the seersealer and using the time to explore its internal workings. If you are going to do a job, you might as well do it properly. “So what happened to this project, why was it abandoned?”
“Look, don’t ask me. I didn’t flaming well ask to be woken up. I was hoping that by the time they decided to defrost me, stem cell research would be far enough advanced to at least grow me a new body.”
“Wishful thinking, Tosh. We haven’t quite reached that stage of the game.”
“So I see.” I look up.
“Why did you have to bring me home with you anyway? I didn’t bloody ask to be taken home, I asked to be lobbed into the river. Can’t you even get that one simple thing right?”
“Give it a rest, will you? Why are you so desperate to die anyhow?” The think tank is firing neurons to a non-existent body, churning ideas around the mind map of its existence. I am sorely tempted to open it up and take a look at its inner workings. A little tinkering here, a little tinkering there.
“People have to have some kind of purpose in life, don’t you think? Otherwise, what is the point?”
“There is no point,” I say, “You’re born, you spend most of your life mucking around and then you die.”
“At least you have the certainty of death awaiting you. You are, in a way, working towards something. And you have your purpose. Your purpose is to keep the stench of human existence below the surface, where it belongs. Without people like you, life would be a disorganised cesspool. But where is my purpose?” I pause from my work.
“I suppose you do have a point.”
“So stop farting around with that imbecile robot and take me to the river.”
“All right, you little…,” I abandon my tools and scoop the head up off the carpet. “You wanna play games? I’ll bloody show you games, I wasn’t the captain of the junior netball team for nothing you know. I’m fed up with your griping.” I slam the door on my flat, seersealer spread in pieces across the floor to await my return. “London Bridge or Tower Bridge?” I snap, stuffing Tosh into a plastic bag on my way out.
The traffic rumbles over Tower Bridge and I feel the suspension of the two bridge sections move the tarmac beneath my feet. I stand with one foot either side of the gap where the two sides meet and watch the water below. A tourist boat ruins my view and I look up and out over the river, wondering what it might be like to float away and out to sea, being fully conscious of the experience.
“I cannot feel or see, so what difference will it make?”
“Pardon?” My reverie disturbed, I glance down into my plastic bag. Tourists jostle me from behind, trying to get a view of the river, but I refuse to budge. “Fancy a tour of the bridge?” I say, trying to bide my time.
“No. Just get on with it.”
“I think perhaps I should wait until it gets a bit darker. There are too many people around. Someone is bound to report the incident. I could get done for murder.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, how can you be done for murdering a robot? Just plead insanity and they’ll probably let you go straight away.”
The crowds are beginning to thin and I move from my prominent position to a more secluded spot, carefully lifting Tosh out of the bag. “Just make sure you don’t drop me onto a tourist boat.”
I hold my treasure in the palms of my hands and raise it in the fading light of the evening sun. It glistens now. Now that I have cleaned it of muck. Glistens like a true treasure. It is a mine of information. The only thing I have been even close to possessing. Something for myself, something with which to share this lonely path towards death. If only I could get inside and see how it all works. I hold it tight now to my chest. I know that what I am about to do is a kindness and service to a tormented soul, but I am loath to do it.
“Do it.” It is a desperate shriek, like the first time I heard that warbly metallic voice. It brings tears to my eyes. I have to do it. To put this unhappy mind out of its misery. I feel the metal casing slip in my hands, sweaty now with fear and indecision, then raise the head up high, ready to launch it out to meet its destiny.
Wednesday morning. The seersealer is fully functional and back on the job. I was commended by my employers for my swift action, given the circumstances, and the prompt return of the little robot which is now working with unprecedented speed and accuracy.
They were slightly perturbed at first by the unusual changes I had to make to the robot’s body, particularly the size of the new head that I gave it, but once they saw the dedication and devotion that this little creature gave to its work, they stopped questioning and started talking of new designs and would I be prepared to give some input?
It is with cheerful anticipation that I shimmy my way down into the sewer today. Routine checks have never before been so appealing nor entertaining.
He is waiting for me as usual. Hovercraft bottom racing up and down the tunnel to stem the tide of boredom, though surely it has to be more interesting than lying in two feet of sediment doing nothing?
My little seersealer-Tosh, whizzes into view and I am greeted with a belligerent “Oi.” I wonder how long I may be equipped to deal with this miniature mind-bomb that I have created. As though sensing my apprehension, Tosh speeds out of sight, waving his sprayer arms with willful abandon. Ah well, I suppose I have only myself to blame. Myself and an unforgiving conscience.
by Frances Gow