Howard Smithson Johns sat on the veranda of his twenty fourth floor apartment idly sipping scotch as the clock struck twenty seven in the old town square nearby. He clanked the ice around the spacious tumbler from time to time, for the sound of it more than the effect. He liked to do this when he travelled to the larger cities of old. The CBDs of Old Sydney and Old Melbourne used to look like fairylands at this time of night. Most of their offices were empty, the pre-dawn cleaners yet to arrive, but still entire floors of office space were bathed in light.
There was just this hour between the last train of one timetable and the first train of the next, when just the occasional cab ventured through the city streets. Despite almost twenty years of the thirty six hour day, that dead time between twenty seven and twenty eight hours, (or fifteen and sixteen hours depending on which cycle of the 36 hour day you were in) still seemed to hold. The trains still stopped. The streets still emptied. Even though a third of the population were shopping somewhere, and another 33% were just three hours into their work shift, and everyone officially believed that there was no day or night in the Shopping World, in a ‘bureaucracy town’ like Canberra somehow this magic hour in the darkness of night still exerted a vestige of a previous world order.
Howard could remember the arguments early in his political career. The unions were at the last barricade. Workplace reform had successively removed one layer of workers’ rights after another. All that was left was the thirty six hour week. It was ironic that, in all the world, it was the country in which trade unionism had reached its zenith that it also met its nemesis: Smithson Adams. For just as it seemed the few remaining unions would hold sway with public opinion, it was the aging Adams who came back out of the woodwork with the slogan: Choice is All, and All have Choice.
Why argue for a 36 hour week, he reasoned on chat shows across the nation. Why not a 36 hour day? Now that the world was clearly in the fourth phase of progress, the developed nations had the perfect opportunity to lead the way. In a 36 hour day, everyone would still have eight hours of sleep, but they would have 16 hours of leisure. Or ten hours of sleep and 14 hours of leisure. Whatever combination one chose. The weekend was outmoded. Shopping Worlds could be open all hours. The consumer would have complete choice.
The trick was, of course, that every 12 hours a new working day started for a third of the working population. The eight hour day would give way to the round temporal dozen. Governments of the so-called ‘developed nations’ immediately saw the benefit. In a global movement of materialist catch-up amongst the developing nations, led by China and India, there was not long to go for the economies of the old “West” – the former US, Canada, Old Europe and Australasia. The once-cheap goods from the developing nations would soon cost the same as those produced locally, as the wage gap producing them closed. Here was an opportunity for the “West’ to generate a temporary competitive advantage, both in accelerated production and in consumption. The end result would be the same, but at least New Prosperity, as Adams called is, would give the old “West” a competitive edge for a while longer.
And so the thirty six hour day, and the thirty six hour clock (itself a market revolution), was introduced. A third of the nation worked 12 hours while a third of the nation slept and a third shopped. It was the bureaucrats and administrators running transport and utilities infrastructure who couldn’t let go of the ‘changeover hour’, as they called it. The Public Sector Association in Australia argued that they needed just one uniform period in which to check the lines, check the cyber circuitry nationwide, check the road and rail grids. And the public sector organised its 12 hour shifts so that there was still a ‘dark’ three hours in the middle of the traditional ‘night’ to work around this magic hour of national quality assurance and quality control.
So it was, twenty years later, that in Canberra – a former public service town - the blues and reds of corporate neons still in this hour alone imbued the silent skyline with the concrete cogency of the dormant office towers whose identity they telegraphed. And between the tall office and hotel towers, streetlights and worklights splashed pavements, kerbsides and side alleys into orange or lavender blue watercolour relief. Occasionally an unidentifiable figure walked from wash to wash. Later that day, someone would want to know what the activity their Consumer Choice Chip would register meant at that hour.
Here the CBD had never amounted to more than a couple of blocks, and since the collapse of federalism the former national capital had fallen, at least on the surface, into relative disuse. These days the city just represented the northern border of VIC. The former Albury-Wodonga was developing strongly as the new Melbourne, and was the seat of VIC government. But Canberra was the centre of Howard Johns’ seat in the VIC parliament, so it was here Howard spent much of his time when parliament was not sitting.
Although parliament was in fact sitting at the moment. There had been a smear campaign against him, targeting excessive travel claims while he was visiting his mother on Philip Island in the nation state’s south. Howard had been given clear intelligence there would also be insinuations about sexual proclivities associated with his ‘Philip Island jaunts’.
That these were untrue is not what bothered Howard Johns. That was not why, just 24 hours earlier, he had tried to commit suicide. If anything, it was the acute shame and embarrassment his mother would have to endure that caused him pain. He loved his mother, and would stay alive at all costs just to make sure she could rest assured.
It was true he’d inflated a few travel claims, but only to ensure she was not out-of-pocket herself. The reality was that sometimes, when he was supposedly visiting his mum, he was in fact a guest of one transcorporation or another, doing the back door work up for a government deal. But of course Howard couldn’t say that in public response to the so-called scandal. Government was not supposed to be doing ‘deals’ with business.
However, the scandal’s impending escalation was by no means responsible for his actions yesterday. It was true he had ‘absconded’ from a parliamentary sitting to avoid being in the firing line, but only at the request of the leader of his Chamber. He certainly wouldn’t have taken his immediate political situation seriously enough to end his life over it.
As he clinked the ice around in his tumbler and stared mutely out over the near vacant CBD, Howard was still puzzling over his actions. He knew he had been depressed for some time. He found the parry and thrust of parliamentary conflict emotionally exhausting, and was not enough egotist of an to find that it justified the small gains achieved on the basis of principle.
It was principle that had motivated Howard to follow his father into politics. It was a commitment to the desire to pursue social change on the basis he had inherited from both of his parents. While he was committed to the party, and the ideology it represented, fundamentally he was interested in results that mattered to society. And in this, pragmatic as he was, Howard Smithson Johns felt he was an anachronism in the world of contemporary politics. In New Prosperity, principle was a thin fibre that existed in some distant vacuum, suspended all by itself, vibrant but friendless. When push came to shove, ideology just fell away from the main game like banknotes from a gaming table, only to appear again in the next round in another’s hand.
It was endless. And in it, Howard had no emotional support of his own. There was no love. No lover. Not even a former partner or a good friend in the Party. Just the loneliness of returning home after endless dinner meetings, evening engagements, strategy planning sessions, press briefings; home to perhaps further phone calls, or simply half a bottle of scotch and sleep. To be up at the fifth hour ‘next day’ for his near-pathologically driven zip through the back streets of whichever city he happened to be in to begin it all over again.
He was not sure he had even intended suicide when he ran the bath. He just wanted to relax, soak himself away from it all. He was already three quarters of the way through the bottle. He idly took the Wüsthof paring knife his mum had given him for Christmas – his latest culinary plaything – more out of interest in its beauty than any serious commitment to self-harm.
As he undressed to step into the deep, iron, claw-foot antique, he was aware that his sexual ambivalence was an unsettling feature of his current self-doubt. He had not had a relationship with a woman for over two years now. Had undertaken the exemplary two marriages and was, frankly, beyond the effort. And while he was aware he was probably bisexual, he had simply never met a man with whom he had felt capable of exploring anything beyond what passed for casual stereotypical heterosexual male contact. Certainly no intimacy, even less sexually so.
There was just a general sense of emptiness that went to the very core of his self, compounded by the meaninglessness of the political life he led, and he wanted a genuine break from it. So the idea of opening the length of his veins and watching his life slip quietly away into the bath came to him as something of a curiosity. He simply finished the bottle of scotch and executed the surgery with his rather exquisite example of kitchen steel, uncharacteristically without further analysis.
Unfortunately, what Howard had never known about himself until this point was that the sight of his own blood made him nauseous. He had no idea know how he had escaped confrontation with his own haemorrhaging life fluid before now, but the sight of the length of the first forearm leaking red into the warm water brought his scotch and whatever else was left in his stomach up in violent waves. He didn’t even make it to the veins of the second wrist.
Another factor that probably saved his life was the irrational fact that, as he slit his right forearm from the elbow down towards the wrist, he realised that he would most probably dislodge his Consumer Choice Chip. While Howard was not opposed to the Chip in principle, he did resent the more subversive uses to which its capabilities were put. He agreed with the money-free state that the Chip, with its simple point-of-purchase reading, facilitated. The carriage of health records and other personal data for in-wrist updating also added to personal mobility and individual control over one’s information. He agreed that the Chip’s capacity to read vital signs and initiate automatic paramedic retrieval in emergencies was a life saver. Its remote interface with the individual’s PIMS1 had transformed individual productivity and sense of security.
But as a politician, Howard was privy to some of the other uses to which the Chip was applied: monitoring all bodily activity, for instance, to provide data for commercial product research and development. Sexual activity and eating were of particular interest to commercial providers. Adverse health status, such as cardiovascular irregularity, was used to automatically adjust insurance and debt repayment risk assessments. Its GPS capability, Howard knew, was used to track movements both for commercial market research purposes but also for security and intelligence monitoring. And he was also aware the Chip had, unknown to the general populace, listening and, in some models, radarvision capabilities.
All of these functions wedded the wearer to the transcorp that produced the model, because the market and R&D data that users unwittingly provided to their transcorp of choice afforded constant competitive advantage. So there was a principle in play here that would have seen Howard perfectly happy to see the Chip sliced from his wrist. And yet he baulked at the final fence. Faltered before the instrument was completely adrift. Perhaps it was because subconsciously he did not want the sudden cessation in his vital signs to instigate an emergency retrieval. Perhaps his deeper mind realised the mistake he was making, and the implications it would have for his career if he survived by unsolicited emergency rescue.
Perhaps an even deeper, more calculating intelligence – the sort that always comes into play during the actual experience of trauma – told him that he had already found a way to retrace his tracks: the vomiting is what would be primarily read and transmitted by the Chip, not the blood loss.
Whatever mental processes worked on his ontology’s behalf in those few brief moments, successive waves of emetic convulsions drove Howard Johns from his bath. As he grappled with a confusion of water-and-blood-slopped ceramic surfaces, however, he fumbled with the knife in his left hand, caught it with the blood-bathed right, and inadvertently slashed his left wrist anyway. Luckily this was a transverse cut rather than the more studied lengthwise vein-slit of his right. Otherwise he would never have survived. Nevertheless, the blood now started to flow also from his left wrist as well.
Suddenly intensely alert, he grabbed towels in which he attempted to wrap his haemorrhaging arms whilst he continued to vomit raucously into the bath. He felt dizzy and faint, yet his mind was racing faster than it did during Question Time in the Chamber.
The towels were filling with blood. He was not staunching the bleeding. Between emetic bouts, he had to grab fresh towels from the hall closet and re-bind his arms, tightening them into a tourniquet effect with his teeth. Eventually, once the vomiting subsided, he instinctively threw himself upon his arms on the bathroom floor in order to use his entire body in the application of pressure to the leaking wounds.
Eventually he passed out, to awaken hours later naked and shivering. The unwelcoming light of the next day was fully evident in the apartment beyond the open bathroom door. Howard was horribly, and disappointingly, alive. He spent the rest of the day trying to patch up his wounds without having to go out to make purchases, and to wash the blood out of his towels and his bathroom without unduly registering suspicious activity on the still-implanted CCC.
Mid-afternoon he had finally found sleep. It was dark before he awoke again. He dressed, with no intention of going anywhere but this veranda, and was still here as the darkness drifted into the early hours before daylight, observing restless thoughts move inchoate through his mind, still unable to make sense of his unintentional suicide attempt. He had thought himself desolate, but it was difficult to believe that his life lacked such meaning that he would deem it worthy of ending. It simply didn’t make sense.
He would have appreciated the coming days free of responsibilities in the Chamber to further reflect on his state of mind, the health of his self, as it were. And to give his wounds time to heal, as they would show up in the various arrays of security screens through which he routinely passed in his day’s work. Unfortunately there was a message on his netface from the Leader of the Chamber that there seemed to have been a reprieve on the campaign against him, for the moment at least, and he was needed back in the Chamber to progress the Water bill. There were, apparently, ‘developments’.
He was on downtime at the end of his formal 36 hour cycle, and should really be going to bed. But felt little need of sleep. No fairies for me tonight, he thought. And his eyes rested for a while on the giant monochrome face of Smithson Adams, pasted on the base of the tower block opposite, with its omnipresent text: CONSUMER CHOICE – ALWAYS WITH YOU. And, taking another sip from the clinking tumbler, he dwelt with no small irony on the impact consumer choice had made upon his life just twenty eight hours before.