The neon sign flashed every morning. “YOU ARE DOING LORD’S WORK”. The last four letters of the sign flickered intermittently.
That morning had been worse than others. A big freeze had come over Melbourne which was in the middle of its most terrible winter. The other day, Lucille saw a bird drop from the sky, mid-flight. So the trip to work took longer than normal. Her bus stalled several times and she ended up walking the last leg of the journey.
She scuttled in, bristling from the cold, and scanned her ID at the entrance desk. She said hello, out of habit, but the desk was no longer manned; just a sign blinking Access Granted. At the bottom of the stairs, she took out a folded square of paper from her pocket and checked it. It had a map and directions and a small sun drawn in yellow crayon in the top right corner. Her brow furrowed and then she nodded.
Lucille walked up three flights of stairs to her floor. It was crowded, bustling with other women at their cubicles. The fluorescent lighting was already too bright, making Lucille wince. There were no windows near Lucille’s desk, only at the entrance to the room. It didn’t matter anyway – they were barred with iron and there wasn’t much sunshine anyway. She plonked her bag into the bottom drawer of her desk. Her phone out on her desk, silenced, next to her keyboard. Lucille put on her headphones and turned on the computer.
Buzz, buzz. Her phone’s screen flashed. ‘Pill reminder.’ She moved her bag over and took out a small white box of translucent pills. Popped one into her mouth. ‘Time really flies here, eh?’ Her co-worker Suzy popped her head over the cubicle. ‘Every time that notification goes off, I know it’s only an hour until I finish.’
Lucille nodded. ‘How was the night?’
Suzy shrugged. ‘Channel 49. Lots of French.’
Suzy got the talk shows, the comedy and the celebrity interviews. The night shift in exchange for that lighter and fluffy international content.
Suzy went back to her desk and Lucille checked her email, seeking that day’s assignment. That day she was assigned to Channel 52, a news channel dedicated to 24-hour coverage of Lisbon, where the most recent bombing had taken place. Media was still debating whether terrorism was the right word for it. Still the way to go if you want to take someone’s mind off the terror, Lucille thought. Focus on the clinical definition of a word, not its sensible meaning and horror.
She put her headphones on and got to work, concentrating on the speech by the broadcaster as they cut between press conferences and on-site war coverage. The worst is when the footage starts to repeat at a later news program, on a loop for what seems like hours. Repetition, routine and reminders: that’s what her day is composed around.
Speaking of reminders, another buzz, buzz on her phone. ‘Stand up and stretch’ it says.
Sitting in a cubicle for eight hours a day was starting to affect Lucille’s back. She ached regularly. She’d requested a standing desk numerous times now but given up pressing the issue after repeated attempts had gone unanswered. At this stage, she was sure that the Human Resources manager had been replaced by an automated service; it sent courteous but short emails and ignored her calls. One time on her lunch break, when she took the stairs down to the alleged location of the HR division, she found an empty office. She peered through the clear glass: it looked fresh, abundant with vases filled with flowers, and windows looking out into the nearby park. What a view, she thought wistfully. Assuming the manager would return soon, she waited for their return and took a seat outside the office. After thirty minutes, her lunch finished and Lucille returned to her desk, resigned and reluctant to contact them again.
Lucille had worked at Sync Live, a closed captioning service for close to fifteen years. Ten years ago, she would have been assured of covering some good news, some fireman saving a cat from a fire, or a town breaking the Guinness World record for baking the world’s biggest pancake. Nowadays, with funding cuts and even less staff, the company had focused on delivering its services to the sectors that required their help most. So less time and money got spent on entertainment and instead invested into promoting the war effort.
After taking a gap year and struggling with tertiary education, and then dropping out, she took up a vocational course in court reporting and captioning, hoping this would tide her over until she was sure of what she wanted to do. Her parents cautioned against it, saying she was ‘clever enough’ to be a doctor, a lawyer, or maybe even have a government job. But Lucille was wilful and rigid in that particular way that young twentysomethings are with their parents, and the adversarial parental tones made her more persistent.
Besides, Sync Live was known for doing incredible work for media. A media company, alive and kicking after the stringent media reforms – they pushed boundaries. And a non-profit to boot. Lucille felt proud to be working for a company whose charter aligned so strongly with her own ethos.
After a few years working at Sync Live, she had her first breakdown. She collapsed at her desk, her head hitting the keyboard, and was hospitalised that evening. She was only discovered when the calls came in, wondering why Channel 50 news broadcast on the investigation on Russia’s president was captioned with mkmkmkmkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk for over an hour. After the third collapse that year, her family was notified by her doctor.
The doctor explained that her mind was having difficulty processing the imagery and content from her role. It was a form of self-defence, the mind shutting down. Could she perhaps take a holiday? Or maybe swap to another segment, another time? Your mind needs a break. Lucille shrugged. She knew the company wouldn’t look favourably on such a request. It’d make her look weak. Besides, she felt like she was doing good work, telling the story of what was happening.
‘The war isn’t your story to tell, really,’ said her doctor.
Lucille shrugged but she was set on doing what she thought was right. ‘What are my options?’
She was prescribed Forgettability, a serum that could be injected or taken via pill. ‘Injecting the serum is a process akin to the idea of treating diabetes with an injection,’ her doctor assured her. ‘It’ll force your mind to take a break and give it the relief it needs. But you need to be aware that it’ll affect your decision-making process and you won’t be able to drive on this medication. It’s very strong.’
Lucille spent that night researching it online. For more serious users, one website said, some of the side-effects of Forgettability were absent-mindedness, memory loss, brain fog and infrequent but strong abstract, psychedelic hallucination. ‘For some the drug has the effect of inducing brain fog and other strange mental behaviours,’ said her psychologist during an appointment paid for by her parents, ‘but it will help numb the trauma induced by the scenes.’ Lucille was convinced. Something to help numb her pain and keep her working for the good guys. She gave up driving and kept going to work.
Due to Sync’s lack of health insurance and professional counselling services, Lucille had been paying out of her own pocket for the medication. Not a cheap thrill. At some stage, she remembered she had to decide whether to continue her treatment in order to keep working at Sync. Whether it was still worth it. She’d noticed herself slipping: not remembering where she left her house keys, whether she fed the cat, and once, which street she lived on. Detail eluded her and it seemed like the world was starting to become a hazy dream. These occurrences scared her but it was a dull, frozen sort of fear. It felt more like she’d been frightened in a dream and had just woken up.
They were still just occurrences, she told herself. She was fine most of the time. She often told herself to sleep on it and to decide in the morning. But she doesn’t remember the nights after work very well.
On her lunch break, Lucille goes downstairs to the communal cafeteria. She pays for a small sandwich and sits at a table, pulling out her book, Half of a Yellow Sun. She has been reading the same book for five years now, but forgets most of it after each day. She likes the front cover, the striking yellow. Her heart would remember something from a while ago, and she’d get a warm glow whenever she looked at it.
Her phone buzzed again. ‘Time to leave.’ On her way out, Lucille didn’t notice the neon sign. She saw something luminous flashing above her as she walked into work, and thought it might have been the bestowment of a halo for all of her good work on Earth. She smiled and took out the folded piece of paper from her pocket, carrying the instructions on how to get home.
Image: Jeff Hendricks