In the hi-tech industrial estate where I first went to work there were still wide patches of grass between the plots on which companies had constructed call centres and warehouses. The rain was allowed to lie in long puddles in the grass and mud. Every so often the grass was mowed, but for the most part it was left unused. Once, gypsies came and spread their caravans on the grass. We heard about it on the tannoy. They were evicted and the council brought in diggers to cut channels along the fields so no caravan could be towed there. A channel four foot deep and then a wall of earth four feet high marked the perimeter of each lot. But the grass had been torn up and now there were great tracts of mud. When it rained, I thought to myself: these lakes are like great wounds and what they wound is time. The gypsies have left great scars of tme in the muddy fields.
May 2nd. My boss allows me, after a hard day of work, to take an hour off for my birthday. I change from my toetectors and take off my hardhat and walk past the empty plots of land to the station. Ahead of me, the slim, boyish figure of a woman I would see every morning waiting for the train. I had seen her before, coming down the bridge towards me on the platform. I remembered how the sun flashed across the lenses of her glasses and seeing what I imagined was a look of pain and hatred on her face.
As I walked behind her, I remembered the lines from the gospels which spoke of the face we would have to wear to meet God and thought: that pained and hating look will be mine on the day of my judgement. It will be the face everyone will wear in the Thames Valley.
I had turned nineteen on that day. Nineteen and I knew great parentheses had been placed around me. I was an exception only in a banal sense - a bad machine, one who had been hollowed out too deeply, who did more than carry out orders and give his body to the company. I would come to know others like me. Others with that morbid excessiveness, that mutation of interiority which made them dissatisfied with their job. Often they'd become vicious. I remember X. (I've forgotten his name), the long-eyelashed reader of Sartre who like to insult me. I bore his insults happily. I felt elected, privileged. He noticed me and insulted me. One day he told me I should leave the company for my own good. I saw a copy of what I now know must have been a Methuen copy of Existentialism and Humanism by his computer terminal.
And I remember M. who had a copy of Genet's The Thief's Journal on the back seat of his vast company car. He would drive me to London and we'd eat on his expense account. He'd been kidnapped as a child, he told me, and held in a caravan. The police came to free him, but days had already passed. 'What happened?' I asked him. Nothing, he told me. It was his mother's third husband who'd kidnapped him. He was mad, but no paedophile. He'd lost his job and then his wife and now he'd lost his life. He'd wanted to hurt the boy's mother, that was all. 'What happened to him?' He went to prison said M., as we drove back up the motorway. The world of books had opened to M. in the caravan, he told me. 'Up until then I'd never read a book ...'
Parentheses. We did little for the most part in the warehouse where we were supposed to work. This was boom time in the Thames Valley; there weren't enough workers, and if you were sacked at one end of the warehouse, you would reappear at another, being employed by a different temping agency. We, the warehouse workers, didn't like the office workers. Their world was bright and clean, ours dusty and half-lit. Sometimes we would pass resentfully through their open plan offices. When they came to visit us, they had to be careful. Rows would break out and a lad of the warehouse would stand nose to nose with an office worker, bellowing. It was marvellous. Later, apologies, still more wonderful. It had all been a misunderstanding. 'I thought you meant that ...' - 'I thought he had said ...' The warehouse manager calmed us down. He was on our side, we knew it. He understood us. Now and again he'd call us over to ask for a progress report. Then he would say 'good, good' and we were allowed to go. He was watching us, we knew it, but he was like an indulgent father and once he had worked as we worked, on the warehouse floor.
That was the late 1980s. Three years later, when I returned to the same companies, the ethos had changed. The reign of efficiency had intensified; no longer was there the chance to snatch an hours sleep in the long afternoon. No longer was overtime a chance to read the paper on Saturday morning. I've heard the ethos has changed again and the offices are deserted, everyone working at home or offsite. The same workers I knew in the warehouse had become anxious office employees. A world disappeared and now the empty lots which I always imagined lay open and dreaming in our place are occupied by new office buildings.
What sense of 'we' there was, of 'them and us' has dispersed. The warehouses are gone and the offices empty. Companies are now marvellously fine network spun across the world. Now the word 'we' refers to the small team with whom you stay in contact by e-mail - and to your family, your husband or your wife, in the room next to you as you work. You don't need to go out to office; you don't have to. You write reports in the morning and take conference calls every evening. The office comes to your living room.
The world has been fitted around you like an exoskeleton. From your home office you perform the great, subtle movements that alter the course of the world. Your boss is the archangel who looks out for you. She allows you to wheel higher and higher in the sky until you imagine you are close to the throne of God. And what is marvellous, still more marvellous, is that you are also the young woman I might meet on the street, an angel and a human being, with wings that spread across the sky and hands that could reach out to take mine.
Meanwhile, the wounds of time are closing, leaving no trace. Worktime and hometime are completely enmeshed in the Thames Valley. The new solitaries, wired to the others but not living alongside them seek what they call spiritual solutions. There are painting classes and lessons in the history of art. Everything is at your disposal; you meditate and buy mail order healing crystals. There are only new skills to acquire and old skills to improve, only quality time and time to be invested in relationships, only jogging time and time to follow leisure trails through the woods.
Visiting the Thames Valley, I notice that space, too, is annulled. Every corner of the land is accounted for. Even the gypsies, feared by everyone, have been settled. Tracks have been lain in the woods. Cycle paths thread the countryside. Nothing moves. The takeover is complete. All time is worktime and nothing besides.
But I know that M. is still driving his great car up and down the motorway. His heart is full of rage and loathing. I imagine his car tearing a hole in time and space. He is like the anti-Messiah, I think to myself, a living wound. He hates enough for all of us. One day the poison will flow from him into our veins and the Furies will rise with hatred in their faces to battle the angelic order.