A Journal of The Plague Year, And Other Tales

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White Nights

White Nights

I don’t think I have had a wink of sleep at night these past few weeks, now

that midnights are as bright as day.

On evenings like this, I wander into the centre of our town. Way into the small hours, I sit and watch my fellow night-owls flit around me.

Just imagine! In the cafés and restaurants some people are finishing dinner when others are ordering breakfast. When it’s light all night, all things are strange.

Here, you can sit and gaze at stately bridges crossing placid canals, the slender spire of the Admiralty building at the far end of the avenue, and the grand sweep of columns on the curved facade of Kazan Cathedral.

We are in Saint Petersburg, promenading on the elegant Nevsky Prospekt in the footsteps of tsars, nobles and great writers of days gone by.

Are you getting the travel bug, now? Keep trekking. Just around the corner you will reach Istanbul, the gateway to Asia, with its skyline of domes and minarets overlooking the wide and mighty Bosphorus, silhouetted by the setting sun.

Not that the sun descends one nanometre in this place.

That’s what I love about the Marco Polo shopping mall. Every scene is frozen at a point of perfection. And you don’t get the heat and the irritating street pedlars, like you would in actual Istanbul.

Let me explain: what Veritas Retail have built for us is a giant shopping mall divided into zones, every one decorated with wall-sized photographs representing the various parts of the world that Marco Polo travelled through – and others he probably didn’t. Veritas has used a bit of developer’s licence, here and there.

I can’t wait until they build the planned extension. That will take us all the way to China. After that, none of us will ever have to leave Basingstoke again.

I had got so wrapped up picturing this exciting prospect that at I failed to notice a young woman who had sat down on the far end of my bench. I glanced at her now. She was not happy. She was glaring at a pair of earrings in the palm of her right hand and at a receipt in her left. She shot a bitter look past me to the Hellenic zone.

“I bought these earrings from a shop up there,” she said, catching my eye. “Then I tried them on at home and they didn’t suit the colour of my hair, so I took them back. But they say they can’t give me a refund because the earrings have been through my ear lobes.”

“Why don’t they suit your hair?” I asked.

There was something about this woman I found off-putting – the permanent scowl she wore, as though she’d sprung from the womb bearing a grudge – and a type of intense, awkward energy in her movements.

“They’re diamante,” she explained, thrusting them up in front of my face for inspection, “and my hair’s blonde. Well, it’s blonde for now. I need the emerald-effect earrings, so I don’t look washed out.”

“Why don’t you buy some emerald-effect ones,” I suggested, “and give that pair to someone else?”

“After they’ve been through my ears?” exclaimed the woman. “That would be spreading germs.”

“Maybe that’s why the shop won’t take them back.”

“I’m not asking them to take them back to re-sell them. They could just throw them away. I mean, they’re only five quid.”

I nodded and prepared to leave, thinking I might find some better conversation in the Lands of Arabia. A man I met there called Geoff said they’ve got a shopping mall like this in Dubai. He said it’s called the Ibn Battuta, after an Arab explorer. Geoff said he’d be going to Dubai to see the mall for himself. I wanted to find him now so I could see the photos he’d brought back.

However, the young woman had more to say.

“You know what they say on ShoppersNet? Retailers are the unacceptable face of capitalism. They’ve got all the money, and they’ve got all the goods. But they just want to take more and more money out of us shoppers. Someday soon, though, we’ll put a government in power that’ll force them to give us stuff for free, until all the money’s evened up.”

“I’d vote for a government like that,” I said glibly, and one again made to move.

“Would you?” asked the blonde earnestly, and grabbed my wrist to keep me there. She leaned in closer, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial hiss.

“Join us!” she said, twisting her features from their customary scowl into an inviting smile.

“Join what?”

Her eyes darted back again to the shuffling, window-gawping crowd.

“Look around you. You wouldn’t believe how many of these people are poised to rise up. We organise online and we have user names to keep ourselves secret. The shops are trying to find out who we really are, so they can pick off the ringleaders. But thousands of everyday shoppers can’t be silenced. Join us!”

So, this blonde with her leather-effect jacket and Louis Vuitton-effect handbag was a recruiter. The important thing now was to play a bit hard-to-get.

“It’s not really me,” I said, trying to pull my wrist free. “I’m not that much of a shopper. I just like the atmosphere, wandering across all the continents in here and speaking to the different people. Did you know they’ll be starting the China zone soon? They say there’ll be a Chozen Noodle in the food court there.”

“The future,” said the blonde, now grabbing my upper arm and tugging at my jacket, “isn’t about food courts and noodles. That’s false consciousness. Face facts: you’re living in rip-off Britain and it’s only going to get worse, unless …”

“All right,” I said, as though overwhelmed by her revolutionary fervour. “Count me in.”

I held out the hand on my free arm to shake hers. My name’s Jay, by the way. What’s yours?”

The blonde let go of my wrist suddenly, as though it were infected, and wiped her hands on her pencil miniskirt.

“User names only. I’m denise123. If I told you my real name, I may as well give you my address.”

“That might be useful,” I said. “I mean, if you wanted to hold one of our secret meetings round your house.”

The blonde looked back up at me, the scowl back on her face and a glint of suspicion in her eyes.

“Who are you?” she asked. “You say you want to join us and two seconds later, you’re trying to find out my name and address. I bet you’re working for the shops. You’re one of their customer influencers.”

“What’s a ‘customer influencer’?” I asked, cocking my head to one side in a display of ignorance.

“Don’t play dumb. You’re paid to make friends with shoppers, like you did with me, and then slip things in like: ‘there’s a great sale on toasters at Wilko, by the way’.

“I don’t talk to people about toasters at Wilko.”

“And they pay you to root out activists on ShoppersNet. You’re their miserable, little spies.”

She turned to face down the avenue, cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted harshly.

“Anyone from ShoppersNet around? I’ve found one of them. I’ve found a shop spy! Right here.”

I wasn’t going to run. That would imply I was guilty of something. I rose nonchalantly from my seat and strolled up Nevsky Prospekt towards the Winter Palace.

“Drunk,” I mouthed, while passing a woman with a pushchair who was staring at the yelling blonde. Around the corner in the Bavarian zone I broke into a run, weaving through shoppers.

On a bridge across a miniature Danube I stopped at a bin and stuffed into it my job sheet for the night – the one listing the zones I should visit and the special offers I should promote.

I crossed the Alps zone, arrived in Venice and slipped through the door under the Bridge of Sighs into the office of the mall security manager.

“My cover’s blown,” I said, between heavy breaths.

“Where? By who?” asked the manager, calmly picking up a biro to take notes. His black suit and tie made him look like a pall bearer.

“Lands of Rus zone. ShoppersNet recruiter. Bleach blonde hair, black PVC jacket and mini skirt. She was in the Hellenic zone earlier this evening, trying to get a refund.”

“We’ll pick her up from the cameras,” muttered the security manager, smoothing down the notes he had made. “Someone else can work on her. You’re finished for the night. Wait there for a moment, though.”

He turned to a computer on his desk and tapped away for a moment or two. A page slid out of a printer to his side. He spun it across the desk to me.

“You can’t work here any longer if your cover’s blown. We’re transferring you to Bracknell.”

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