Monitor

4,465 words – approx. 15 minutes

“Hannah, if you’d like to come in?” The woman jerked from her thoughts at the sound and rose from the purple, rectangular sofa, tugging down her lead-grey skirt as she stood. Before she took a step she crouched to pick up the plastic cup of water at her feet, careful not to crush it. This was no time for clumsiness.

She didn’t recognise the man who held the door open for her. He was smiling, but without showing his teeth, and there was something goblin-like in the way his head bowed towards his outstretched arm. Hannah flashed him a quick grimace then watched her feet cover the check pattern of the carpet. As she passed him he flattened himself against the door, as though scared to come into contact with her. Be assertive, she reminded herself, and forced her head upwards. But she couldn’t stifle the shiver that ran through her when the door clicked to.

Up close, the table seemed bigger than it had through the glass wall. It was light and smooth, and across its expanse sat an older, balding man. His hands were loosely clasped in front of him. The window at his back must have been tinted, because although it was bright outside Hannah could make out the dim reflection of her short black hair.

“Please, take a seat.” The man’s hand gestured briefly before returning to its position. Hannah sat down, and tried to let a welcoming expression rest on her face. The younger man who had held the door open for her now joined his colleague, who began to speak.

“Thank you for coming in, Hannah, and for, uh, completing the appraisal forms.” He said her name as though it was the first time he had seen it. Hannah nodded firmly, confirming that yes, she had completed the forms. “This is Gary,” he continued, opening his palm to his right. “From human resources, who will be sitting in on today and will ask a few questions.” There was a pause, then he smiled, a wide crescent grin that exposed a neat picket fence of dental work. “Nothing to worry about.

“Now, I understand that this is your first appraisal with us. So you’ve been here a year! Why don’t we start by- would you like some more water?”

Hannah looked down at the empty cup that she held pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Had she drunk it already? Or spilled it? No, the table was dry. Drunk it, then. But when? She felt a familiar prickle across her chest as she looked at Martin. His face was creased with concern.

“No, it’s fine,” she smiled. “It’s fine, thank you.”

There was a short silence before he started speaking again. Hannah could hear a distant buzzing that seemed to be coming from the back of her head. Her tongue ran roughly over the ridges of her teeth. She tried to let herself relax and take deep breaths, but this only distracted her from Martin’s voice. She must look like a schoolchild, she thought, stiff and formal. As she thought this his worried look sprang into her mind. And the pause – was that disapproval?

Perhaps more water would have been a good idea. She’d been caught off-balance. But it was too late now. She couldn’t interrupt him. Despite her straining his words were indistinct, like she was underwater. Any moment now he would reach a question and her inattention would be exposed. Her focus had now turned entirely inwards as she scrambled for an escape.

The idea that shot through her mind shocked her – she had somehow entirely forgotten about the Monitor. It had only been installed two days ago and she had hoped not to use it for a little longer, but at that moment it seemed the only option. With as natural movement as she could manage, Hannah rested her elbow on the table and ran her fingers up through her hair to the back of her ear. The metal was warm and dull, and ridged like coral. A thin whistle filled her ears, beneath which she could make out Martin asking her how she felt things were going.

This was okay. She had practiced this. As Hannah began her prepared answer, the whistling faded out and the quality of the air around the men began to change: it shimmered and rippled, like the horizon on a hot day.

This mustn’t alarm her. That’s what the doctor had said. She just had to keep talking for a few seconds longer. There were models without the whistling and where the effects were immediately visible, but they were only available privately – and Hannah certainly couldn’t afford that. She’d been surprised enough when she’d been offered one at all. It was a trial, they had explained, a basic model, but it worked in exactly the same way as the ones she might have seen in the news. She had seen them, of course; the Monitor had been a major health and technology story when it was first unveiled, and two weeks ago she had read a feature about the black market for them among officials in the former Soviet bloc.

But as she came to the end of her recital she felt her heart rate rise. It wasn’t working. The space around her appraisers was altered, but still transparent. It was supposed to be grey, if nothing else.

Fuck.

She rubbed the back of her ear frantically, her fingers growing red and sore from the metal attachment. How could it not be working?

“Well, yes, thank you for that,” Martin was saying. He cleared his throat roughly. “Perhaps we should go through each section one by one, how does that sound?” Hannah nodded, unable to speak, as the first flickers began to appear around his temple, tentatively at first then bolder, more insistent, until a yellow-green haze surrounded him. She held her breath as she looked at Gary, whose aura – the term was embarrassing, but that was its name – was a clear green.

When she exhaled it was as though the cords that lifted her shoulders slackened. Not only was the Monitor working, but she could now see that she had, so far, made a good impression. She leant forward, settling into her new ease, while Martin reeled off sales figures, property types and questions about Hannah’s relationship with buyers. With each response she saw the auras of both men become more vividly green, which in turn gave her more confidence in her next answer. And on the few occasions over the next hour that a tinge of yellow invaded the mist she was able to take a different tack, try a different angle, until the harsh shine had softened. Only once did she see red, when she interrupted Martin with a joke about subsidence – although Gary’s aura glowed the greenest yet at this.

Eventually Martin had no more questions, and turned to Gary, signalling that it was his turn. It felt to Hannah that she had come through some gauntlet, and thanks to the Monitor she knew she had done so unscathed. Now Gary, who had nodded throughout the earlier exchanges, asked a few perfunctory questions about future plans, to which Hannah replied with the usual lines about greater responsibility and improving her own performance.

Then she said: “And I want a pay rise.”

She hadn’t expected to say it even as she thought it, but the fluorescence of their auras was intoxicating. It was as though another voice had broken into the discussions, although of course it was hers – just as they are your arms that push you from a plane thousands of feet in the air with only a skein of fabric attached to your back. Immediately she felt sick, but she couldn’t take it back.

Their auras didn’t waver. “It’s certainly something we can discuss,” smiled Martin, with an expression that Hannah would have taken as contempt were it not for the green halo that surrounded him.

As soon as she had shaken their hands and stepped outside the glass-walled office, she texted Maya:

It went well, I’ll tell you more tonight. Love you x

Her next client was at 2:15, and at least 20 minutes away. She checked her watch then broke into a meaningless jog to the car. She’d be late.

In the driver’s seat she twisted the ignition with one hand, and with the other reached up to the back of her ear. She hesitated, and in that hesitation a decision was born. With the gentle purring of the Monitor still in her ear, she eased the car out of the parking space. She hit 30 before she reached the road.

*

When most people meet an estate agent, they expect one of three types: the overweight divorcé in an ill-fitting suit; the underweight ice queen with penchants for long nails and peroxide; or the stubbled, permagrinning manchild. One of Hannah’s greatest assets at Hinton and Co was that she fitted none of these categories.

Instead, when she leapt from the driver’s seat almost before the wheels had stopped, and bounded up to the couple – mid-20s, jeans and t-shirts, no engagement ring – with apologies spilling from her mouth, she looked as though she had fallen into the job by accident.

“Hi, hi, hello, so sorry, you know what it’s like,” she gabbled, clutching each hand in turn (Paul: stiff and overbearing; Sally: still damp with handcream). It was this air of benign ineptitude that evoked a trusting pity in clients. There was no malice there, no malevolence. Hell, they thought, we can take her for a ride!

There was nothing unusual about this couple, that was instantly clear. When she started at Hinton and Co, straight out of university, a Business graduate back home in Peterborough desperate for a job, she was assigned only the difficult properties and demanding clients. In her first week she’d almost quit after an army veteran shouted at her for showing him round a flat above a kebab shop that had black mould lining the bathtub. But not many made it through their first year – and fewer women – so just by enduring the lows she was now rewarded with the more straightforward cases.

Even without the Monitor’s guide Hannah could tell the man didn’t like her. He either felt intimidated by a woman in a suit when he was in weekend clothes, thought she’d be incompetent, or, to be charitable, had just hoped for some male banter. But he’d keep his feelings in check as long as she stayed klutzy, so Hannah focussed instead on the girlfriend.

“Let me make sure the computer’s not made a mess of this,” she said. “You’re Paul and Sally, you’re looking for a two-bed, maximum £200,000 – that’s ok, we can get you well below that – and you’re first-time buyers. Is that right?” This was all correct, as Hannah knew it would be, but there was no harm in a little conspiratorial aside. Everyone likes to think they’re smarter than the machines. And, of course, the property they actually went for would be £200,000, if not a little north of that.

But that was later. For now, Paul and Sally both nodded. “Exciting!” Hannah yelped. This drew a small smile from Sally, while Paul placed his hand on her lower back. “Let’s go!”

They had three properties to view that afternoon, but even as Hannah pulled up outside the first one Sally’s aura had soured from a wary green to orange. Hannah’s first thought was that she’d said something during the journey, and a spiking pain shot through her chest. Then another thought occurred to her.  As the couple climbed out of the car, she quickly closed her eyes and tried to recall the relevant page of the Monitor’s manual.

The Schülte-Harris Personal Affect Monitor may detect changes in aura directly attributable to the subject…

She strained against the boundary of her memory.

…or indirectly, such as in response to a subject-initiated discussion.

It was only half-formed in her mind, but she had to take the gamble.

“Look, I’ll be honest with you,” she called to them, opening the door onto an unyielding hedge. They turned around, halfway to the front door. “I don’t think this is right for you, not for starting a family.” She watched Sally’s face soften in relief at being understood, and saw her and Paul’s auras return to a healthy green. “I’m still happy to show you around, but I think your time would be better spent viewing other properties.”

What else could they do? Here was the person employed to sell them the wonders of a house telling them, openly, that it wasn’t right for them. Paul turned to the square, dark, terraced house and sucked his teeth, and within ten minutes Sally was marvelling at the kitchen of a modern semi-detached, her aura the colour of moss.

Six weeks later they moved in.

*

Two children were loudly singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in the waiting room. Hannah, sat as far away from them as possible, tried to ignore their insistent chants by focusing on the stream of public health messages that played on an endless loop from the television screen mounted on the wall.

Occasionally the cycle was interrupted by a beep, and a name and room number would appear on the screen: Jane O’Hara, Room 5; Randeep Singh, Room 11; Jeremy Moore, Room 3. Hannah knew that wasn’t how her appointment would begin. The psychologist slots were separate, meaning she had to announce herself at the desk rather than use the automated system, carefully watching the receptionists’ eyes for any spark of fear or disgust. But still she looked up each time.

When Priya’s small frame appeared in the doorway Hannah stood up before her name was called. They made small talk, awkward like a first date, on the way to the room. Hannah had realised early on that she was more intelligent than her therapist, and the height and build of this Indian girl – even that name – bolstered her looming, not unpleasant feeling of superiority.

“So, how’s it been?” beamed Priya, hunching forward as though they were discussing a teenage crush rather than the barb-legged anxiety that crawled daily across Hannah’s chest.

The question was so inane that Hannah struggled at first to reply. When she did it was with a film of condescension; oil on water.

“It’s been alright, I guess.”

“How was the Monitor? Have you been using it?”

“Yeah, a bit.” Priya was undeterred by this truculence.

“And what situations have you used it in?”

Hannah felt suddenly like a hand, a giant hand was pressing down on the top of her spine. She wanted to sleep.

“Oh, you know. In situations when I’d normally get anxious.” A pause. “My appraisal.” She didn’t mention the viewings, the month of sustained record sales she’d achieved, the promotion that had been hinted at.

“Your appraisal!” There it was again, the ‘good dog’ enthusiasm, a family friend asking about a child’s day. “And how was it?”

“It was strange at first, seeing the auras appear, like you said.” Priya nodded encouragingly, sympathetically across the small circular table. “But they were almost always, you know, green.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

Hannah paused. “Relaxed. More confident.” Priya was nodding again. “It was like I didn’t have to worry about what they thought, like that part of my brain could just relax.”

“And what did you learn from that?”

Hannah’s mind groped towards the right answer. “That maybe I don’t need to worry so much about what other people are thinking.”

“And that’s mindreading, isn’t it? Which is one of your unhelpful behaviours.” At that moment Hannah hated Priya more than ever. But the conclusion was inescapable. She’d been led into this labyrinth and was now in the pit of the minotaur.

“Yeah,” she said, smiling, healed, imagining herself leaping across the table and grabbing Priya’s neck with her hands.

“And you turned it off afterwards?” said Priya slyly.

Hannah nodded.

“Good. Because this is for understanding those unhelpful ways of thinking so you can identify and counter them, not as a crutch.”

Hannah nodded again. It felt like she continued nodding for the next 40 minutes, until the session was up.

*

There were whoops and yells as the froth overflowed the rim of the champagne flute. There was probably more on the glass tabletop than in the five glasses, but by this stage in the evening perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing. Besides, they could always order more.

“To Hannah!” someone shouted. Hannah’s reply of “To me!” was lost in the toast. She waved at the bar with her credit card, then stood to go to the bathroom. As she did so she must have rubbed her nose, because Ellen and Daniel looked at her questioningly. She shook her head and picked her way through the thick crowd.

The mirror, with its night-blue backlighting, would’ve made anyone look good. Hannah stood in front of it with her arms fully extended, palms flat down on the smooth, clean, speckled black surface.

“You deserve this,” she said. Quietly, under the music. And in that moment she believed it, that the money, the congratulations from her colleagues, and the champagne buzz were hers by right. It was at the crest of that glorious wave that she reached up behind her ear and switched on the Monitor. Just for a moment, she told herself.

It was comforting to hear that hum again. And, although she didn’t exactly think it, she had a superstitious sense that the Monitor deserved this. None of this would have happened without the device that curled round her ear. It was a form of mindreading, she thought – there was still an important human element of identifying the right response, but at least it was clear what the situation to respond to was. How did other people manage it? It was like, she thought, pleased with the analogy, interacting with a baby. You knew when it was grizzling or upset for some reason – but no-one would deny that knowing how to quieten it was a skill.

Someone else entering the bathroom interrupted her thoughts and she stepped back into the bar. The billows of grey washed over her with as much force as the music. She stood in the doorway for a moment, breathing heavily.

The Monitor will only display a coloured Aura if a Personal Affect is detected. If no Personal Affect is detected, a neutral Aura will be displayed.

Hannah tried to remember this, to remember that this smothering grey cloud indicated only the crowd were not thinking of her, that she was hardly registering. There was nothing sinister in those faint, dismal mists.

She moved towards the table her colleagues were stood around. You could easily see through the auras – that had been an early design flaw. Hannah had seen the news reports and shared videos of people lurching forward into people, furniture, swimming pools. But still, the combined impact of hundreds of grey mists couldn’t help but imbue the surroundings with a claustrophobic quality.

When she reached the table Hannah threw back the glass of champagne that had been left for her. The needling in her chest soothed a little, and a glow of green filled her vision.

*

The woman at the bar had the remains of a mojito in a tall glass on a black napkin. As Hannah approached her she stopped playing with the stirrer and looked up. There were no bartenders to be seen.

“Do you… come here often?” She had to raise her voice over the din of the music, but it was beautifully pitched. The little acknowledging pauses and self-deprecating laugh as the cliché began to roll off her tongue, the upward glance at the woman, the expectant doe-eyed expression. Every element choreographed, orchestrated and executed to perfection.

“No, it is my first time here,” the woman said pleasantly back. “I am here on business.” She spoke with a Scandinavian accent, and her aura was a wary yellow. Hannah looked back at the crowd she had come with, their auras already drained of colour. She thought of Maya and sighed, but any meaning it carried was lost in translation.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

*

It took her three attempts to open the door of her flat. The first two had missed the lock completely, and quite probably scraped some of the surrounding paint off. The third time, however, her aim was true, and a hiss of victory escaped her lips when the key sunk into its berth.

The hallway swayed from side to side as she staggered along it, her arms out for support, muttering lividly to herself.

“Fucking Swedish fucking bitch take my drinks take drinks from me.” Here her voice rose in pitch and took on a childlike lilt: “Oh, no, I must be going, thank you it was a pleasure to meet you.” And back to a furious growl that disintegrated into fragmented curses.

Maya stirred when Hannah collapsed into bed next to her.

“Good night?”

Hannah grunted. “Bit drunk.”

“Good. You deserve it.” A few moments later a rustle of snores started up. Hannah shook her to wake her, but didn’t reply to Maya’s inquiring noise. Instead she let her sleep and lay there herself, the still-bright green of Maya’s aura infiltrating first her eyelids then later, much later, her angry dreams in which Priya, the Swedish woman and Maya burnt a property for sale down.

*

Hannah’s hand clenched and unclenched around the Monitor in her pocket in an effort to keep warm. It didn’t work, but at least gave her somewhere to focus rather than the sickly swimming of her head. Visions of the night before rose and fell, their undulations making her ever queasier.

Susan, or Suzanne, accepting her by-now masochistic offers of more drinks with a toothy, tempting smile even as her aura shone red (it was hard to believe no-one else could see it).

Stepping uncertainly across the dancefloor, tottering through crowds of grey-swathed dancers like little lost ghosts.

Maya, oh God, Maya lazily turning towards her, her aura bathing the room in pale light.

Hannah swallowed hard, some mixture of spit and phlegm. Kept it down. Her longer-term plan was unclear, but she had one priority this morning, and she was almost there.

Everyone in this part of town knew Denny’s, although Hannah couldn’t at all recall how she did. She’d certainly never been here before, but she knew where to find it. Some dogs find their way home even when left thousands of miles away.

A leatherless ball smacked into the wall inches from her head.

“Sorry!” came the offhand shout. She could see the sign for Denny’s ahead. Once she’d done this she could get back to bed.

Some sort of bell tinkled dully as she pushed on the door. Piles of items lay in no obvious order around the room. Decks of cards, guitar plectrums, and collectible coins spread across the counter, behind which stood a balding, thin man, skin stretched taut over his face like drum leather.

“Yes?” Denny raised his eyebrows.

“I want to sell this.” She placed the Monitor on the counter and Denny picked it up, turning it over in his hand. When he reached to take it Hannah moved her hand away sharply. Denny gave her a look.

“Personal or general?”

“Personal.”

“Pity.” He paused, still inspecting the Monitor. He regarded it like a border guard checking a passport, his pinched eyes flitting from the Monitor to Hannah and back again. “The general ones are much more valuable. Parents of kids they think are autistic but can’t get diagnosed, think this’ll help Brianna to understand the world around her.” It was like he was talking to himself. “But that’s not to say I can’t do anything with this. I’ll give you twenty.” Mistaking Hannah’s silence for bargaining, he added, “Twenty-five, then. But I can’t go any higher. If I’m found with one of these without a medical note to go with it…”

Hannah nodded. “OK.” She expected Denny gave a similar speech to anyone with a General Monitor to sell. A professional haggler. She didn’t care. She needed it gone. She took the money and left the shop as quickly as she could. The children were still playing football outside – they were wearing shorts and t-shirts, but didn’t seem cold.

*

It was three weeks before she dared to return, telling Maya her mother had seen a necklace she loved. Maya swallowed it whole – Hannah’s mother could never be sniffy about jewellery.

In the shop Maya hung at a doorway like a teenager at a dance as Hannah tried to nonchalantly sift through the heaps of junk. Denny gave no indication of knowing her until she had finished her fruitless search and glanced questioningly at him. The small shrug and tilt of his head were all she needed, and for the second and last time she left the shop by its grubby, transparent door.

Only afterwards did she realise that he must have thought she wanted to get it back, and she felt a sharp urge to set him straight. But no. Better to make the break clean, to bury it under the weight of days.

It was easy enough to stop the therapy and avoid any questions. Missing a couple of appointments, ignoring the phonecalls and cursory letters – an overstretched service is grateful for any slack it can get. Her sales average returned to where it had been previously, but no-one seemed to notice, and she found that caring less about her performance made her anxiety levels bearable.

Some months later Hannah was watching television, her head resting on Maya’s stomach, when the news came on. She dozed through the first two items, but the third made her take notice.

“The Schülte-Harris Personal Affect Monitor was touted as the next big thing in medical technology,” explained the voiceover as a conveyer belt of metal objects ran across the screen. “But NHS bosses have ruled the treatment ‘too expensive’, despite it proving effective in treating conditions such as anxiety and autism.

“It means that the devices will only be available to private patients, in a move that is certain to increase pressure on the Department of Health to level the playing field between NHS users and those who are able to pay.”

Hannah paid no attention to the rest of the package, and that night she slept better than she had in weeks. She couldn’t have said why, but knowing that the Monitor was no longer available to her was reassuring.

But she still kept a close eye on the curve of people’s left ear. Just in case.

Author’s note:

I can’t remember where the idea of the Monitor came from, but it fascinated me as soon as it occurred to me. I know I would find that sort of technology incredibly tempting; who wouldn’t want to know what people really thought of them?

The most enjoyable part of writing this was the backstory of the Monitor, although there’s only a little in there. I can imagine a barely-functional prototype on Tomorrow’s World, and the image of triallists bumping into things is very entertaining. It reminds me of a VR product I saw that let runners ‘race’ their best times on a route, like Mario vs Boo – absolute chaos would ensue.

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