THE PSYCHIC FIFTH
Mabel, Enid, Agnes
and Maureen managed to meet, quite by chance, outside the cafe, in the course of
their morning business, it looked rather full. They settled on a seat in the
pedestrian concourse, and an exchange of the gossip of the day, in particular,
all the opinions about the real dad of
'Hello,' said a
newcomer, Mrs G., as they recalled. She seemed familiar. 'Donít stop for me, I
knaw it all.'
carried on. Rodney or Greg?
'What, that Rodney
in Galagil Street went Mrs C.
Agnes hesitate. 'Well, I din naw where he's living. Tall, with dark hair....
'Na, he's brown,
or ginger even,' corrected Maureen.
'Is he the one
over Grainger Street way?í mused Mabel, trying to get the different Rodneys
clear in her mind.
'I'm not getting a
very clear picture of him, my dears,' said Mrs C. Maybe her tone was a little
'Well, none of us
knaws exactly.... But Mrs C. had gone.
'Who was she?í
asked Enid. 'Mrs.... her name begins with C, I think...'
'Niver seen her
afore,' noted Agnes tartly. 'Nor want to again. Snooper. Probably in with the
Child Support Agency. Have to watch what you say, girls. Times, like these....í
At the other end
of the street, a gaggle of men had accrued not quite in line with the 66 bus
stop. A combination of wind and sun favoured a stand a little left and down of
the stop itself, where sensitive bodies could combine the best shelter and the
most sun. Men notice these things.
'A hard time that
Alice had,' said Ben, meaning his pal's wife and her problems. 'She should never
had stayed with that doctor in Shiel Raw. He's nae good at aal.'
'As soon visit the
moon as visit a patient, that man.'
None of them
specially noticed a fifth man join the group. Mr M. they recognised him as.
hard-pushed to reach everyone,' he commented sagely.
'Nut sae reluctant
when it comes ti rakin' in the salary, like.'
'Of course, anyone
can make an official complaint.'
'Look here, Mr. -
whatever your name is, don't ye com tellin' us what we knaw an' dinnaw about the
health service roon' here. Aave hed mair pills prescribed me nor yeve had
haircuts and hot dinners. Complain indeed. Whee ti A'd like ti knaw. A pack mair
doctors, that's whee. Sae stuff it.'
Mr. M arranged a
fixed rigid grin in response to this aggressive talk. He paused a second, as if
recollecting, then spoke, and sinister and urgent his message was:
'Well now, Ben,
that isn't very friendly. You all know me, a nice easy-going chap. I donít like
no aggravation. Not like what you had with that article hidden in the garage,'
he said, motioning to Ben.
'Yes, the axe.'
'But Aa nivvor
telled anyone aboot that.'
'The axe you
murdered your neighbour's dog with, Mr Ben Taxwell. I think we'll just walk down
to the police station together and sort that one out, what do you say?í
lost for words, Ben assented, and went off, bus forgotten, to confess or at
least give his version of the events that murky Sunday when Copper the red
spaniel from two doors down had been found playing pirates and treasure chests
in the ripe rhubarb.
'Fancy that,' said
one or two of the three left standing waiting for the bus.
'Gadgy must be a
mind-reader,' commented one.
And trying to keep
their thoughts strictly to themselves, they sat well apart when the bus turned
up soon after.
What was behind
all this, if ultimately, was the success of Easytown's Befriend a Councillor
campaign. A Councillor had been allotted to each pub and club in the district, a
sort of local respected probation officer figure people could entrust special
titbits of gossip to confess to, if you like. Someone with the status of an
elected Councillor fascinates people that way, as if a spark of God were in the
chosen one's make-up, and he or she had a special power to assess and act,
punish and give absolution. It probably stems, like all religion, from the
figure of the supervisor in the kids' playground.
Anyway, what with
having to select women Councillors, and hunt round for beleaguered minorities,
there just weren't enough traditional male Councillors to cover all the drinking
spots. A rota was made up, with each Councillor dealing with four or five
different venues a week. Then alcoholism became a problem and the information
collected became less and less reliable. And information was desperately needed.
How else can a society be policed by mere administrators unless informers come
forward to set justice in motion?
Pro-Councillors was the answer. These were facsimiles constructed of bionic
tissue with the latest cloning techniques, but with strictly controllable
hyperthaluses, that avoided the addiction trap. Expensive but perfect collectors
of information, RPCs were let loose on the public with special funding from some
section of the crime fighting TV network, who figured the information collected
would be of quite extraordinary general interest - to insurers and employers,
tax units and credit companies. After all, computers could now handle any amount
of information. It was almost a duty to get them information to handle. The
Psychic Fifth, as it became known, was an extension of this experiment. Here,
genetic modifications produced faces considered to be so close to the perceived
norm, that everyone thought they recognised the person, and in most cases,
accepted their presence. These Robots were programmed to join any group of four
or more persons and join in the conversation. Hence the 'Fifth' part of their
name. 'Psychic' because they had telelinks with the main computer banks in
Easytown and could call on any amount of background information to assist in
their work: other faces before them became linked to names and records, and even
trivia like the report of a missing axe could be useful in the right
The system worked
well for two or three years. Misdemeanours were shunned. It became dangerous to
express criticism of the Local Regime in any form. Public conversation descended
to the level of exchanges on the weather. You might have been in Brighton or
Cheltenham as Seaville or Easytown. Unreal it seemed. Friends came to mistrust
each other. Many pubs shut. Likewise cafes and places for easy foregathering.
Small circles of two or three friends (never more than four) who knew each other
(and sometimes even then asked for identification) met behind closed doors in
private houses, rather than be seen in public. The Fifth Pyschics were
frustrated. Letting a stranger, however plausible, however vaguely familiar, in
on your conversation was one thing. Admitting them to your house quite another.
The citizen was perfectly justified in refusing to let such a slight
acquaintance come over the threshold. In fact, that was exactly the course all
the best crime-buster programmes advised. 'Never let a stranger in....
A Fifth Psychic
could sometimes be seen, forlornly, hopping from one foot to another, trying to
raise its amplification potential and overhear conversation from within a house,
like a humanoid TV licence spy, but the usual chaos of multi-voice conversation,
with Emmerdale in the background, and the blare of a music system from the kids'
rooms upstairs, made that impossible.
Psychics began to
hang about in groups on street comers and collect information on each other. Not
surprisingly (to us) this information was not welcome back at HQ, where it was
trivial and familiar, to the nth degree. Something, the robots sensed, was
wrong. They were used to collecting information for a grateful receptor. Why was
their intelligence now rejected? How else could they communicate with the great
receivers of information?
Like a vacuum
cleaner gone into reverse, the Psychics entered that terrible phase of their
existence, still remembered in Easytown as the Evacuation, when random, but
essential bits of knowledge from the central computer bank were picked up by
robots and made brutally public: chalked up on walls, shopfronts, bridges,
hoardings, van panels, bus shelters, shouted out at shopping centres, announced
under 'Any Other Business' at endless social meetings - everywhere and anywhere
It seemed feasible to communicate data, in the belief that was their function -
to obtain knowledge and share it. If there was no or little information to be
gleaned outside and brought in, then the only alternative outlet for their
functional zeal was to use the information already collected and see if it was
that Local Government had kept for decades suddenly began to appear as public
slogans. The nick-names of councillors were explicitly explained. (Like 'Slug',
referring to the almost tangible glittering trail left by one who shunned
washing or a change of clothes while serving as a flying picket away from home.)
Or the smothered challenges to the election of ó.Or how many relatives of
Councillors X and Y held jobs with the Council. And how many Councillors were
benefiting from disablement grants and sickness benefits, white others less
privileged were thrown back on the forced labour lists. And why documents
submitted for Council Tax Benefit claims - originals only please - kept getting
lost. Plus the strange behind-closed-doors influences of business pressures on
Council decisions. The most confidential files on the most private meetings,
exempt, it was believed, from public scanning for ever, suddenly became popular
knowledge. And the personal records of personnel, and drug rehabilitation
programmes. Worst of all, the destabilisation campaigns carried on against
specific housing areas, and the communities within them, where redevelopment was
favoured, was suddenly accessible, with devastating effect.
A virtual volcano
of unpleasant information came hurtling out, to be read, discussed, laughed at
and be indignant over. For the first time ever, people came out onto the streets
in crowds, spoke to the Fifth Psychics, congratulated them, asked them
questions, treated them with friendliness and consideration. The Robots, in
turn, learned of their own genesis, and the evil of their creators.
It was not easy
knowledge to cope with. The reaction that followed was generally known as the
Lunch-hour of the Long Knives, or by some local historians, as the
Exfenestration of Easytown.