Thursday, February 26, 2009


It takes nine months to be born, but only about as many days to reach Limbo.

The building was nondescript in a street of forgettable frontages and the dun-coloured door was the kind you walk past even when you know what you're looking for. I did it at least three times.

No sign, not so much as a business card tacked into the layers of paint. Eventually I found a bell-push which had been slapped with the same dun-loaded brush, hidden high in the corner. I pressed it. I could still step back, but what would that prove? Only that I didn't have the commitment which I had promised her memory.

After a few moments the door was opened a crack. An eye reflected the late afternoon behind me. 'Yes?' A soft voice, female.

I held up the newspaper clipping. 'Your advertisement? I phoned yesterday.'

'Come in,' she said and stepped back into the gloom, pulling the door with her. When she closed it behind me a light came on automatically, revealing - unexpectedly after the outside - a clean and pleasant hall area, simply furnished with a modern desk and a couple of small lounging chairs. The woman, a neat brunette, pointed towards one. 'Someone will be with you,' she said.

'My name is-' I began, but she cut me off.

'I don't need to know that, sir,' she said briskly. 'Someone will be down.' She went to her desk and pressed a button on an intercom, but said nothing.

I sat.

Outside had been a cacophony of people and automobiles and distant sirens, the sounds of a city under stress. Here, all was quiet and muted colours. There wasn't even any Muzak. After a while I sensed a presence and opened my eyes . . . I hadn't realised I'd closed them.

The man standing in front of me wore a short-sleeve shirt and tie, and a straggle of light beard attempted to compensate for the recession of his fair hair. 'Come with me, please,' he said without introduction. I recognised his voice from our phone conversation.

Our progress on carpeted stairs was soundless. Two flights up he motioned me into an office. There was one desk, facing a wall, with two captain's chairs in front of a computer. Fishes swam across the screen, gobbling each other whenever they met.

He noticed my glance. 'Screen-saver, stops burn-in,' he said. 'The fish remind me of, of out there.' He waved at one of the chairs. 'Sit.'

I did. He sat on the other, smiled briefly and then tapped on the computer's keyboard. My name appeared on the screen. 'Why do you want to do this?' he asked, sliding the keyboard away and turning to look at me.

I shrugged, trying to hide my discomfort. 'How many reasons d'you want?'

'Don't be flippant,' he said sharply. 'If we're going to do this, you've got to be absolutely straight with me. Otherwise-' he paused '-otherwise . . . it's all a waste of time.' His eyes levelled into mine with an intensity that didn't fit their soft brown colour. 'Details, every detail I ask for,' he said.

'I'll know if you try to hide anything. If you do try, that's it - we quit, no matter how far we've gone. OK?'

'All right,' I said. 'One question, though . . . is there any reason that would make you refuse?'

He raised an eyebrow, then reached in a drawer and pulled out a photograph, an old Polaroid with its blacks browning and once-white edges tinged yellow. It was of himself, but younger . . . and wearing a Roman collar.

I looked back at him. 'A priest?'

He nodded. 'Jesuit.'

'For long?'

'Long enough. If I haven't heard of a sin, it probably hasn't ever been committed.'

I told him all of it then. I brought Kay briefly back to life, resurrecting some happiness. The heartache had never died.

'So you see,' I said when I'd finished, 'it's not the cops, or the IRS, or the mob or anything like that. It's just that I don't think I . . . should . . . stay connected.'

He nodded. 'It's not unusual, about eight per cent of those who come here - most of the rest are running from things outside themselves.' He swung around and pulled the keyboard towards him again. 'It usually works out OK for people like you.'

'How come?'

He shrugged. 'Who knows? Maybe because you'll know when it's over?' He looked carefully at me. 'You know it's irreversible?'

'Yes, you told me on the phone.'

His fingers hovered over the keys. 'OK. We'll start with your social security number.'

It's only when you look that you realise how much you're connected. It starts with the registration of your birth. No, even before that, when your mother's first scans are tagged. After birth, the family doctor's records begin, at home your name is written into the family Bible, and sometimes, depending on circumstances and parental ambitions, it's even the time they put down your name for your first school, maybe even your second too.

Then there are the official links: driver's and marriage licences, tax returns, passport, credit rating. The operational listings of living: credit card transactions, airline tickets, purchases' delivery receipts, car and home registrations. And the involuntary ones: parking tickets, divorce petitions and death certificates.

People are paid salaries to monitor us, lists are sold to people who want to market something to us, global trends are forecast and millionaires made on the bits of our life which are countable. Sure, it can be uncomfortable if you think much about it, but it does give us a sense of belonging.

'Why do you do this?' I asked during the third evening's session, when he'd already told me more about me than I knew myself.

He paused from tapping at his keyboard, and when he spoke his voice was soft. 'The church is a complex organisation,'he said. 'Like any outfit its size, it has its own police, its internal intelligence service. The Jesuits have traditionally filled the role.' He shrugged. 'Sometimes we had to investigate our own people, and one day, inevitably, I was ordered to look into the life of an old friend.'

He resumed clacking the computer keys. 'Priests are human too. I found there was a woman involved, and a child. The matter was sensitive, the woman political. My friend was transferred, to remove him from the situation.' His voice dropped. 'He hanged himself. After that, I found I had a conscience. I realised that privacy is the last human right, one under threat of extinction. And if he had had this option, maybe he could have absolved himself.' He stopped working again, briefly. 'I decided to use the order's apparatus to give people that chance. It's by way of gaining my own absolution.'

It costs everything you own, however much or little. And there's no point in trying to hide anything.

'The more that institutions take to technology, the more they become dependent on networks,' he murmured as he continued tapping into my electronic being. 'And once there's a network, there's a way in.'

It wouldn't be perfect, he admitted. There were bits of paper scattered through my life which couldn't be located, or retrieved. And unconnected computer files, not on any major network. These would remain as shadows.

It was weird watching my life scroll up on his screen, evening after evening. There were some surprises: he found a driver's licence I'd forgotten about, in another state. And there were three years where I hadn't filed an income tax return. My credit rating was interesting - I didn't know I would have been able to borrow so much. He hacked into a nationwide database which analysed my credit card spending and broke me down into half-a-dozen lifestyle categories. All my addresses were there, even my current rented one, milestones of my life with their attendant memories.

'That's the database which decides your junk mail,' he murmured, and skimmed through until he reached something which he copied onto another part of his own screen. Then, with a few deft keystrokes, he made his special connection to the file.

'You'll still be in places which you don't know about, but this-' he pointed to what he'd copied '-this is a record of who has bought you on lists, so we should be able to get at them too.'

'Personal relationships,' he said.

I didn't answer for a few moments, as Kay's memory came to life for the second time since I'd come here. It was always two Kays - one a picture of the bright and beautiful woman who had spent our early years together simply loving me, the other an alcohol-distorted vision of her broken body in the remains of the car I'd been driving. I had received a suspended sentence on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. In the following months, I'd often thought of suicide. But it would have been a final rebuff to her memory.

'None current,' I said finally.

'Friends? In your apartment building? At work?'

'I've- I've been keeping to myself, since-'

He nodded. 'You can't say anything about this to anyone.'

'I know.'

He put his hand on my shoulder. 'This was your choice. We don't encourage or discourage, as you've probably noticed. But you can still pull out.'

'It was my choice,' I agreed. 'Is my choice.'

His brown eyes were serious. 'The idea, and the need, are as old as man. But today it's harder to get away.'

The last day was a Friday. It always was, he said.

I went to my bank in the morning and closed my account, taking the money in cash, money which was mostly Kay's life insurance, money which I could never spend. In an envelope it seemed an even worse insult to the value of her life.

I left the office late. Gretchen, a pool secretary, was the only other person left, waiting at her desk for fresh nail-polish to dry

'Have a good weekend,' she said brightly.

'Thank you, Gretchen,' I smiled. 'You too.'

'Sure. See you Monday.'

I nodded.

The note informing him that I wouldn't be back was on my supervisor's desk.

He opened the dun-coloured door himself, the brunette receptionist was gone for her weekend.

'Come in,' he said gently.

I handed him the envelope.

Upstairs we sat beside each other for the last time. I felt funny, very close to him. He was the one who knew my life most intimately, though I knew nothing more about him than what he'd told me that one evening. That had been simply him establishing credentials.

'OK?' he asked.

I nodded. 'Tell me something, though, if you can.'


I pointed at the screen. 'How?'

He smiled quietly. 'The church is everywhere, my friend,' he said.

He pulled the keyboard towards him and tapped my name one last time. Then his special programme began working its way across the networks, eliminating me from every place we had located my digital self - police files, the IRS, birth registration files, and many more. In a matter of minutes, I disappeared. Digital decease.

Transfer to Limbo.

He held out his hand. 'God go with you,' he said.

It's OK up here, it has a calmness even in stormy weather. This is where we're closest to whatever it is that we exist for, what the ancient hermit monks found.

The cabin is part of the deal, high in a mountain chain. There are many, it seems, scattered all across the nation, owned by the group, the order. I get a visitor once a month, driving a 4WD truck. I leave him a list, and go trapping, and he leaves me the supplies. They're not much, and get less each time. I don't need much - out here you quickly become self-sufficient. I saw him once, climbing into his cab as I came back from the woods. He wore a priest's collar.

There's no way back into the system, of course, but that's not important. Lonely? No, not really, in a world that is now myself, my own. There's plenty to think about, and the time to do it. The time it will take to absolve myself. There are others like me, and if I ever feel I want to go and find them, that's when I'll know it's over.

(I wrote this one in the mid-90s, and it was published in The Alsop Review, under my pseudonym William Trapman. It seems to have travelled well through time.)