Delney Road – A Short Story

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The jagged chimes of a phone alarm shot through Jess’s dreams and jerked her awake. 8 o’clock, Thursday morning. Sunlight was glaring off a metal streetlamp outside and unwelcomely in through the crack between blind and windowsill. Jess sighed. Seminar at 10.

The marshmallow fluff of duvet and pillow felt so nice wrapped around her, battling back the winter morning cold. Seminar at 10, though. Get up. She’d stayed up late last night to finish the reading and could feel the lost three hours of sleep tugging at her to stay in the warm. She leant down over the side of the bed, picked up her phone, and turned off the angry blare still squealing out of it.

Thumb automatically heads to the Facebook icon without even a subconscious thought. Muscle memory.  Jess had heard something about how the blue light from your phone screen makes your brain think that it’s daytime – wakes you up. She scrolled, hoping that that was true and within about thirty seconds she’d be miraculously energised.

As it happened, that didn’t work. And like every morning, Jess lay in bed for twenty minutes letting her brain slowly rumble into life as she trawled through endless baby photos, holiday snaps, article shares, club night promotions. Hardly anything interested her. Who even was that bloke? She made a mental note to go through her friend list at some point and delete all the people who she didn’t really know – it’d make a good form of productive procrastination. She made the same mental note every morning.

Someone had invited her to a protest in London against the government cuts to arts subjects in schools. Something she should probably care about. Being politically active was one of those things you were always meant to do as a student, and Jess was embarrassed that she hadn’t quite got round to it yet. She tapped ‘interested’, dropped her phone on the duvet beside her, and dragged herself up for a shower.

*

10.37 AM. The minute hand was drowsy this morning and Jess was floundering in the sea of beige that made up her seminar room. She watched the greens, blues and yellows outside through the window: lucky. 10.38. She had so much reading to do this afternoon. Finishing Nineteen Eighty-Four, analysing twelve pastoral poems, highlighting that Judith Butler article – could probably skim-read the last one. God, Dan’s voice was dragging on this morning. Dragging on more than normal. 10.39. Only 11 more minutes to go. Try to focus.  That thing where you try to concentrate so hard that you’re concentrating more on the concentrating than on what’s actually being said. Vicious cycle – that happened all the time at the moment. Hand reached into pocket and itched to pull out her phone. She’d felt the buzz of a notification earlier, and the frustration of not being able to look at it made her fist clench. Right, now, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell, concentrate, concentrate.

“What, though, are the implications of a device that works both as surveillance and as a propaganda machine?” Dan was asking.  “The telescreens both make you watch and watch you. Is that important?”

A few moments of silence passed. The circle of students was communally fascinated by their notes or their laps. “What about knowing that you’re being watched?” he probed. “I mean, I think we’d all like to think that we wouldn’t change our behaviour if we were being watched, wouldn’t we? But is that true?”

Nothing. Jess did want to help the sweetheart out but couldn’t deny there was also some level of schadenfreude that made her enjoy watching him struggle – just a little bit. Ben’s almost-whisper finally edged through the quiet.

“I guess the equivalent for us would be, like, if our phone or laptop cameras watched us back. Did anyone see that episode of Black Mirror where the boy’s laptop camera gets hacked, and they use it to blackmail him? That’s kind of a similar idea – I mean, they both play with the possibility of surveillance being used for the wrong reasons, in the wrong way, which could easily happen, if you think about the amount of CCTV and stuff we have everywhere.” Dan was nodding gratefully. “And with the telescreens both watching you and being watched – in some way, it’s like the party are watching themselves being watched, isn’t it? Like, the fact that it’s a TV makes it the centrepiece of any room, and so Orwell’s drawing attention not only to the way they’re being watched, but the way they’re so constantly and entirely aware that they’re being watched. The suppression isn’t in the watching, it’s in the knowing – they all know, they all know that they all know, and no one does anything about it. That’s what makes it really scary.”

His voice petered out damply. Jess made eye-contact with Dan and nodded thoughtfully, demonstrating thorough engagement with the discussion at hand – and returned her focus to the leaves glistening on the poplar outside.

*

11 hours later, after gruelling through endless pastoral fields and woods (Butler would have to wait until tomorrow), Jess was huddled into her coat on a picnic bench outside The Greyhound, listening to something she actually found interesting. Tara’s warm breath was misting her cider glass as she paused her flurry of words to take a sip.

“It’s like,” she swallowed, “it’s kind of like ‘Anonymous’ – you know that hacktivist group who wear the V for Vendetta masks?” Jess nodded. “Well it’s like that in terms of the hacking, except a lot more sinister. Apparently their aim is basically to bring about worldwide anarchy which seems, you know, a little far-fetched – but their method is to use the government’s own technology or software stuff – I’m not with it on the technical details – to act against the public until the public bring down the government. Not to that we’re all major Tory fans, but it’s kind of scary that someone hates them so much that they’d screw over you and me to get rid of them.” Jess nodded again and mumbled something into her pint. She felt so out of her depth when it came to these kinds of conversations. She bit her hangnail and decided to start reading the news.

“There was this thing up on their website the other day,” Tara was rummaging in her bag for her phone. A couple of clicks of the home button – it was dead. “Shit – can I use yours?” she asked. Jess reached into her pocket and passed it over. She was suddenly very conscious of the sparkly unicorn case.

Tara smiled thanks and started tapping away. “You’ve got to make an account to get on to it so I’ll just use your uni email – is that OK?” She didn’t wait for confirmation. The website popped open like a safe. Tara scrolled for a few seconds and then found the post that she was looking for: ominous black letters announced plans for a government- and hierarchy-free society, like something from a sci-fi story.

“They sound like a load of nuts,” Jess said, lighting a cigarette. “I mean, they can’t actually do anything, can they?”

Tara pouted in response. “You’d assume not, but who knows?”

Josh leaned over to them from the other side of the bench. “Are either of you guys planning to go to this at the weekend?” He turned his phone to face them, and the anti-arts protest that Jess had seen that morning blared out. “We were thinking we should all book tickets up to London together and go. You’re already on the event.”

“I’d be down for that,” Jess replied, and Tara nodded.

“Sweet, so we can book our trains for around 11? That should give us plenty of time to get there – and there’s about a thousand people on the event, so we’re going to want the time to get through to where we need to be.” He hit the train ticket app on his phone. “Shall we book them now, while we’re thinking about it?”

*

The flat buzzer chirruped. Jess put down her bowl of cereal and picked up the phone that connected her to whoever was at the door. “Hello?”

“Hello – is that Miss Brennan?” Formal. Jess was still in her pants and pyjama top.

“Yes, that’s me. Who’s this?”

“Miss Brennan, it’s the police. My name’s Officer Starling. We’d like to come in and talk to you, if that’s alright.” The police? Had one of her flatmates done something? No one else was in – and they’d asked for her. Or one of her friends been killed – one of her family?

“Er, yes, of course – come up.” She pressed the button to let them in and crashed the phone back on the receiver. Trackies – find trackies. What was the etiquette when the police came round – should she offer them tea? Coffee? Biscuits?

Knuckles rapped on the door of the flat as Jess stepped back into her slippers. She took a deep breath and noticed a racing pulse. She hadn’t done anything wrong. That feeling though – that feeling of being automatically guilty was there and strong. She hadn’t done anything wrong.

“Miss Brennan?” a voice called. Jess replied for them to come in and stood in the hallway uncomfortably. It was a friendly voice with a stern edge to it, and a woman with a smiling but tense face joined it round the open door, followed in turn by a tall man in uniform.

“Can we go in the living room and sit down?” Officer Starling asked. Jess nodded, feeling like she might start to cry. “You don’t have anything to be afraid of, Miss Brennan.”

They declined her offer of tea, coffee, or biscuits, and Starling and the other officer sat down on the sofa while Jess took the armchair. It was like the practice interviews she’d done for uni with her parents. She felt as small. “What’s going on?” she asked.

Starling opened a briefcase and took out a file of papers. “We know you were at the arts-cuts protest in London last month, Miss Brennan. We can see it from your Facebook, as well as your GPS, and we know you had train tickets to London that morning from here.”

“Yes, I was.” Why didn’t they just ask? She wouldn’t deny it.

“And your GPS stats also tell us that you were in Delney Road when the first brick was thrown – at approximately 2.46 PM.”

Jess didn’t want to think about Delney Road. They’d only been marching for half an hour before finding themselves in a kettle. Bricks and glass had been flying and they’d been crushed up against one another, unable to find the way out. She didn’t know who’d been throwing them. People around her had been arrested, and the police had used batons on a couple – those had been the scariest minutes of her life.

“Yes. Yes, I was there. But I didn’t throw anything.” Starling looked doubtfully at her. “I didn’t!” Jess continued. “I was terrified. All I wanted to do was get out.”

Starling cut off her protestations. “Are you aware that a police officer ended up hospitalised after the events in Delney Road that day? After that protest?”

Jess looked at the floor. “No.”

There were a few moments of silence. She felt the feeling of unwarranted guilt descending again, heavier than before.

“Do you have feelings of anger towards the government, Miss Brennan?” Jess looked up at Starling, confused. “Do you consider yourself an anarchist, at all?”

“What? No – well, yes – I mean, doesn’t everyone? Feel angry towards the government, I mean? But no, I’m definitely not an anarchist.”

“We have evidence here that last month, only a few days before the protest, you not only visited the site of an anarchist organisation – you signed up to join. That doesn’t seem like something that someone who’s ‘definitely not an anarchist’ would do, does it?”

“You have to sign up to visit the website!”

“But why were you visiting the website?”

“I…” Jess dithered. “I don’t know. We were just talking about them.”

“Are you aware of the threats that this group have made to public life, Jessica? It would be understandable how someone  – someone who’s easily politically persuaded – could look through the ideas expressed on their site and think that it was a good idea to, you know – show some anger against the powers that be. By inciting violence. Maybe even spurred on by your university reading.”

“What reading?”

“Aren’t you reading Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell for one of your modules?”

“How do you know that?”

“We can access your university syllabus, of course. As well as the fact that your email address is linked to your search engine, so we can see that you’ve been looking for articles related to it.”

Stand up for yourself. This isn’t right. “Is it illegal to visit the site, Officer Starling? Or read Nineteen Eighty-Four?”

Starling looked taken aback. “No, it isn’t. But visiting that site alerts us to who might be having certain… thoughts. Inclined towards causing trouble that might land a police officer in Intensive Care.”

“But it isn’t illegal. And despite having my GPS stats, you can’t prove that I was at all involved in the violence that happened that day. In fact, I have friends who were there who can bear witness to the fact that I was not.”

“Friends like Tara Cunningham?” Starling asked quickly.

What? “Well,” Jess was starting to feel defeated. “Yeah.”

Starling rifled through her notes. “Yes. She’s one of your top contacts via calls and texts as well as on Facebook, and we can see that she was also at Delney Road at that time. So she doesn’t really seem like a reliable witness to me.”

“Surely she’s the most reliable, since she was there?”

“But you could very easily be covering up for each other. And you did both seem fairly riled up at the protest.”

Jess was sinking deeper into confusion by the second. “Where you there? How can you know that?”

Starling reached again into her briefcase and pulled out a small laptop. She tapped on it for a few seconds. Jess made eye contact with the male officer who had been silent throughout their exchange, and then immediately regretted it. His eyes bored through her brain.

Starling turned the laptop on the coffee table to face Jess and pressed the spacebar to start a video that was on the screen.

It was a low-quality film, obviously taken with a phone. The noise of the chanting was deafening and the figures were blurred, but Jess could just make out her own figure moving in and out of shot, from above, as though the phone was held in her swinging hand. Josh and Tara on her left side held placards aloft, and all their faces were contorted in anger.

“Is that from my phone?” Jess asked. Starling nodded. “But…” she hesitated. “But I didn’t film anything. I had my phone in my hand then so it wouldn’t get nicked – I mean, before the kettle – but I don’t remember filming anything.”

“You didn’t,” Starling said, matter-of-factly. “You don’t need to. We have bulk powers to access the cameras and microphones of anyone, or any group, if we feel like there’s a need.”

“So,” Jess picked up her phone that was lying on the coffee table. “So this could be recording at any point, and I wouldn’t even know?”

Starling shrugged off her question. “We’re not here to have a surveillance debate, Miss Brennan. Just tell us anything else you can remember about Delney Road – anything you feel it would be good for us to know.”

They clearly knew everything there was to know already – and that which there was not. “Am I being charged with anything?” she asked, with a sudden surge of courage.

Starling paused, not breaking eye contact. “No.”

“Then I don’t understand why I’m being interrogated.”

Why didn’t either of these officers ever blink? Starling paused, and then nodded, and started to pack the paperwork and her laptop back into her briefcase. “We’re going to go and have the same conversation with Miss Cunningham. I’m leaving you with a caution.” Her eyes flickered to the table at the other end of the room, where Jess’s laptop stood open, camera eye uncovered. “Just be careful, Miss Brennan.”

The door slammed. Jess sat frozen in her chair. A few moments passed while Jess sat frozen in her chair. Then – Blu-Tac over her phone and laptop cameras. Location services off. For a few hours, she even kept the curtains shut.

*

8 o’clock. Another alarm dragged Jess out of the dark warmth of sleep. She’d managed to stick to her resolution of reading the news and had trained her thumb to now go automatically from snooze to BBC News rather than Facebook. It made her feel very civilised.

Today’s top stories: the GCHQ digital information database has been hacked by the organisation Tara had told her about. They’re threatening to sell off all the public information to the highest bidder, unless the public reject the government.

The government and an internet provider are embroiled in a court case because the internet provider had refused to keep it hidden from a customer that the government had requested his web history.

An official has been arrested for using surveillance software to record celebrities in various compromising positions, using their own devices’ microphones and cameras, and attempting to blackmail them with the videos.

Jess yawned, and pulled herself out of bed toward the bathroom. Another Thursday. Seminar at 10.

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