The Uncomfortable Gaze #4
I was sitting on the tenth floor of an office building on a Friday morning, which in this particular building meant that the weekly fire alarm test was about to begin. At ten o’clock exactly, a zodiac of blinking red lights criss-crossed the ceiling, and a bored voice assured absolutely everybody that whatever happened in the following ten minutes or so would be entirely unreal.
Almost every table stopped its discussions, silent for the announcement; it was so loud that nothing could be done until it had finished. Very few people apart from myself actually looked up, trying to locate the source of the voice, and follow whatever abstract pattern could be made from the warning LEDs. They all kept their shoulders hunched forward, fingers raised, shirts rucked and mouths slightly parted, so familiar with this ritual that all involved knew that, after playing statues for a few moments, they would be allowed to continue with their days, as long as they could put aside any instincts that arose in them.
They were playing statues. They were already excellent at controlling themselves.
Those following ten minutes were some of the strangest I had experienced in my life, purely because I had the good fortune to be able to step outside my own brain and see the wiring that really needed testing.
What I watched was a group of well-educated, well-dressed and pleasant human beings conduct an internal war. They were trying to shrug off the shackles of fifty thousand years or so of biological and cultural conditioning and ignore every startling sign that they were about to die.
The lights in the ceiling flashed red in sequence, a colour which has meant war, has been blood, has enraged animals, since the last time we all grew new bones.
A man’s voice screamed about fire, about not using the elevators, in a ululation which brought to me the images of being crushed underfoot, of twenty or thirty skulls cracking at once in a deluge of corduroy and anodised aluminium and polished leather tumbling down the stairs. I thought of choking on the fumes of melting electronics filigreed with lead, or jumping from a window, with wonderful views over the Thames all the way down.
And in the midst of the murderous insistence they sat, and clattered politely on their keyboards, and cleaned their computer screens with detergent, ate crisps and blew the salt from their fingertips.
I came back to my mind thunderstruck by how well we had all evolved, but I could have been wrong. Perhaps there was somebody else, tucked away behind a row of printers, whose heart quickened with mine, just a little. Somebody who dreaded ten o’clock every Friday morning, and who could not believe that they were not already running.