It was a Friday night, about nine weeks into the project. Tess’s voice sounded normal, but I could see that she had been crying and her narrow face was pale. For the ﬁrst few minutes of the conversation, she leaned her head back against the wall behind her bed, gaze turned to the ceiling. Then she righted it and looked straight at the camera. Her eyes were as I’d never seen them: both empty and terrified. Mum sometimes had the same look, towards the end.
‘I’m scared,’ she said.
‘What about?’ I asked, stupidly.
‘I’m so fucking scared,’ she said, and burst into tears. She had never cried in front of me; in fact, she had told me she rarely cried. It was one of the things we had in common.
Then she sniffed, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and said more clearly: ‘Do you understand?’
‘Of course,’ I said, although I didn’t entirely.
She looked straight into the camera for a moment, and said, ‘Can I see you?’
At ﬁrst I thought she meant: could we meet up? I started to remind her that we had agreed that shouldn’t
happen, but she cut me off.
‘Switch on your camera.’
After a moment, I said, ‘I think it’s best if we don’t.’
‘I want to see you,’ said Tess. ‘You get to see me.’ She was staring right at the camera, her tears almost dried up. She gave a small smile and I felt myself soften. It was hard to resist, and I almost said, ‘OK, then,’ but instead I said, ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea.’
She looked at me a moment longer. Then she shrugged, and returned her gaze to the ceiling.
I will be honest here: I didn’t want Tess to see me in case I failed to meet her expectations. This isn’t rational, I know: who knows what she thought I looked like, and what did it matter? But I had examined her face so carefully, I knew every nuance of her expressions, and I couldn’t bear the thought that, if I turned on the camera, I might see a look of disappointment pass over it, however brieﬂy.
Then, still looking at the ceiling, she said, ‘I can’t do it.’
‘Of course you can,’ I said.
She didn’t speak for over a minute, and then said, uncharacteristically meek, ‘Is it OK if we stop for today?’ Without waiting for an answer, she terminated the call.
I admit that that particular conversation has replayed in my head several times since.
All I can say is, I said what felt right at the time. She was upset and I was comforting her. It seemed entirely natural for Tess to be scared. And when we spoke the next day, she was back to what by that stage was ‘normal’ – calm, polite and detached. The incident wasn’t mentioned again.
Then, a few days later, she looked into the camera and tapped on the lens, a habit she had.
‘Do you have everything you need?’
I had presumed that we would go on communicating right up until the last moment. But I also knew it had to end.
So, I said, ‘Yes. I think so.’
She nodded, as if to herself, and looked away. At that moment, knowing I was seeing her for the last time, I felt a sudden, intense rush of adrenalin and something akin to sadness.
After quite a long pause, she said, ‘I can’t thank you enough.’ And then, ‘Goodbye.’
She looked into the camera and made a gesture like a salute.
‘Goodbye,’ I said, and, ‘Thank you.’
‘Why are you thanking me?’
‘I don’t know.’
She was looking down at something, her leg or the bed. I stared at her long, ﬂat nose, the curve of her cheekbone, the little eyelash lines around her mouth.
Then she looked up, leaned forward and turned off the camera. And that was it. Our ﬁnal conversation.
Wednesday, 17th August 2011
There is no Internet here, not even dial-up.
I didn’t anticipate not being able to get online. Of course I had done my research, but the commune has no website and I could ﬁnd little practical information elsewhere beyond directions on how to get here. There were just useless comments in forums, along the lines of Oh, I love it, it’s so peaceful and beautiful. I know that communes are places where people go to get ‘back to nature’, but I understood that they are also where people live and work on a semi-permanent to permanent basis, and so assumed there would be some facility to get online. Spain is a developed country, after all.
I understand that Tess had to head to a remote spot, but three-quarters of the way up a mountain, without a phone mast in sight – that’s just unnecessary. Of all the places in the world, why did she choose to spend the last days of her life here?
I admit, though, that the location is not unpleasant. I’ve pitched my tent in a clearing with extensive views over the valley. The surrounding mountains are huge and coloured various shades of green, blue and grey, according to distance. At their feet is a thin silver river.
The furthest peaks are capped with snow: an incongruous sight in this heat. Now we’re going into evening, the sky is darkening to a mysterious misty blue.
There’s a woman here dressed like an elf, with a top exposing her stomach and sandals laced up to her knees. Another one has bright red hair twisted up on either side of her head, like horns. Lots of the men have long hair and beards, and a few are wearing these priest-like skirts.
Most of them, however, look like the people begging at the cashpoints on Kentish Town Road, only extremely tanned. I had thought I might not look too out of place here – mum used to say I had hair like a hippy, centre-parted and almost down to my waist – but I feel like I’m from a different planet.
Nobody here seems to do very much at all. As far as I can see, they just sit around poking ﬁres and making tea in ﬁlthy saucepans, or drumming, or constructing unidentifiable objects out of feathers and string. There seems to be little ‘communal’ about it, aside from a collective wish to live in a squalid manner for free. There are a few tents like mine, but most people seem to sleep in tatty vans with garish paintings on the side, or in shelters amongst the trees constructed out of plastic sheeting and bedspreads. They all smoke and it appears obligatory to have a dog, and no one picks up their droppings. I’ve had to use half of my supply of Wet Wipes cleaning the wheels of my suitcase.
As for the human facilities, I was prepared for them to be rudimentary, but was shocked when directed to a spot behind some trees signposted ‘Shitpit’. Just a hole in the ground, with no seat and no paper, and when you look down you can see other people’s waste just lying there. I had promised myself that, after mum, I wouldn’t have dealings with other people’s excrement, and so have decided to make my own private hole in some nearby bushes.
It is, of course, everyone’s prerogative to live their life in whichever way they choose, as long as they do not hurt others. But – like this?
Back in London, I felt near certain she had come here. It all seemed to add up. But now I’m starting to have doubts.
Nonetheless, I told myself I’d spend a week here making enquiries, and that is what I shall do. Tomorrow, I’ll start showing her photo around. I’ve prepared a story about how she is a friend who stayed here last summer and whom I’ve lost track of, but believe is still somewhere in the area. It’s not actually a lie. I just won’t mention that I’m looking for proof of her death.
It’s almost half-past nine now, but it’s still sweltering. Of course, I had researched the temperature but I wasn’t fully prepared for what thirty-two degrees feels like. I have to keep wiping my ﬁngers on a towel to stop moisture getting into my keyboard.
It was even hotter in August last year, when Tess would have been here. Thirty-ﬁve degrees: I looked it up. She liked the heat, though. She looked like these people, with their sharp shoulder blades. She might have worn a little top, like the elf woman – she had clothes like that.
I’ve opened the ﬂap of my tent and can see a rash of stars and the moon, which is almost as bright as my laptop screen. The site is quiet now, except for the hum of insects and what I think – I hope – is the sound of a generator somewhere nearby. I’ll investigate that tomorrow. Although I have a spare battery for my laptop, I’ll need power.
You see, this is what I’m going to do whilst I’m here: write an account of everything that has happened.
I got the idea from Tess. One of the ﬁrst things she sent me was an ‘autobiography’ she once wrote for a psychiatrist. It provided a certain amount of useful information, although, like everything Tess did, it was full of digressions and inconsistencies, the facts clouded by retrospective emotions. This isn’t going to be like that. I just want to lay down the truth. I’ve told the police a certain amount, but they don’t know the full picture. It feels important that there is a definitive record.
There are some things I haven’t told anyone about, like Connor. Not that I’ve had anyone to tell. I don’t suppose the police would have been particularly interested. Besides, even if there had been someone to tell, I don’t think I could have. Whenever the thought of him, Connor, came into my head – which was fairly regularly, even in the midst of the police business, even when I thought I was going to prison – it was as if I was allergic to it. I would feel very ill for a moment and then my head would reject the thought, as if it was trying to protect me from the attendant strong emotions.
I’m not yet sure what I’m going to do with this. Nothing, probably. I’m certainly not going to put it up online. I know that’s what we ‘young people’ are supposed to do, but it never appealed to me. Volunteering unasked-for information, presuming others will be interested in one’s life, seems both pointless and impolite. Of course, on Red Pill we’d present our opinions, but that was different. There it was a rational discussion about a philosophical topic, not a splurge of whatever random thing came into our heads. It’s true that some people did use the site as a kind of confessional, posting long accounts of their ‘journey’ and what terrible childhoods they had, using it as an outlet for their angst. But I didn’t join in with that. I never said anything personal. In fact, apart from Adrian, I don’t think anyone there knew what age I was, or even that I am a girl.
So, the ﬁrst thing I want to say is that it’s not true that Adrian ‘preyed’ on the ‘vulnerable’ and ‘socially isolated’. The police psychologist, Diana, kept on going on about it too, making a big deal about mum dying and me living alone. But ﬁrstly, by the time I had found the site mum had been dead for almost three months and secondly, it wasn’t as if I’d never gone near a computer when she was alive. It’s true that my online activity did increase after she died, but that seems a natural consequence of having so much more free time.
It is possible that, had mum been alive, things might not have gone exactly the way that they did, because she wouldn’t have let me go and meet Adrian on Hampstead Heath that day. But who’s to say I wouldn’t have lied to her? I could have told her that I had an eye test, or some other excuse that justified a few hours away from home. I was not in the habit of deceiving her, but one of the things this experience has taught me is that concealing the truth is sometimes necessary for the greater good.
So, it’s impossible to prove whether or not I would have become involved with Adrian and Tess had mum still been alive. Therefore it’s pointless to speculate.
As for ‘socially isolated’: it’s true that after she died and I moved to Rotherhithe, I didn’t see many people. Mum and I had lived in the same house in Kentish Town all our lives, and the new ﬂat wasn’t near anyone I knew. I didn’t even know Rotherhithe existed before moving there. When Diana heard that she seemed to think it was significant, and asked why I had deliberately moved somewhere remote. But it wasn’t like that; I ended up there by accident.
When mum was given her year prognosis, we decided we would have to sell the house and buy me a ﬂat to live in after she died. The reasons were ﬁnancial. There was a big mortgage on the house and credit-card debts, and although I had been caring for her up till then alongside the NHS nurse who came in every day to administer her medicines, we decided we would have to get another, private person in for her ﬁnal months. The progression of her MS meant that she would soon need lifting in and out of bed and onto the toilet, and I couldn’t do it on my own. Also, I would have to get a job in the future, and because I didn’t have a degree we decided that I would do a distance course in software testing. Mum had a friend whose son, Damian, had just started his own software-testing company, and she arranged for me to work for him from home on a freelance basis, provided I had completed this course. I would need to study for three hours a day to get the qualification, so that was further reason to get some help.
Mum and I did our sums and worked out how much we would have for my ﬂat. The answer was, not very much at all. Kentish Town was too expensive, so we looked at areas further out, but still, the only places within our price range were Not On: former council ﬂats on the top ﬂoor of intimidating tower blocks or, in one case, on the North Circular, the ﬁlthy six-lane road mum and I used to get the bus down to get to the shopping centre. I would often not make it past the front door before telling the estate agent I had seen enough.
Back at home, I would tell mum about the viewings, making her gasp with descriptions of ﬁlthy hall carpets or a car balanced on bricks in the driveway. Penny, the woman we’d employed to be mum’s carer, eavesdropped on our conversations and one day, looked up from the property pages of her Daily Express.
‘It says here that the area around Rotherhithe is a wise buy,’ she said, accentuating the last two words as if they were a phrase she had never heard before. ‘Because of the Olympics.’
I ignored her. She was a silly woman, always offering her banal opinions and fussing around with her lunch, and I had quickly learned to pretend she wasn’t there. But she kept on butting in, going on about Rotherhithe. Eventually, mum and I agreed that I would go and see a place within our budget in the area, just to keep her quiet.
The ﬂat was on the ﬁrst ﬂoor above an Indian restaurant on Albion Street, just behind the Rotherhithe tunnel. There was a huge sign above the restaurant with the (unattributed) statement that it was ‘the best curry house in Rotherhithe’. Albion Street was small but busy; teenagers on bikes barged through shoppers on the crammed pavement, and thudding music issued from a barber’s shop. The pub on the corner had Union Jacks covering the windows, so you couldn’t see inside, and men stood outside drinking pints and smoking, even though it was only three in the afternoon. When I found the front door to the ﬂat, the paintwork was shiny with grease and on the step below lay the remains of a box of fried chicken, a pile of half-gnawed bones.
It was all highly unpromising, but because I had come all this way – it had taken over an hour by tube from Kentish Town – I decided that I should at least have a quick look inside.
The ﬂat had clearly been unoccupied for some time; the front door resisted opening due to the large pile of post banked behind it. On entering I noticed a strong smell of onions.
‘It’s just for a few hours in the afternoon,’ the estate agent said, ‘while they get the curry started.’
He led me ﬁrst to an unremarkable bedroom, and then to the kitchen. The particulars had mentioned an ‘unofficial’ roof terrace, which turned out to be just a bit of asphalt outside the window overlooking the back yard of the restaurant. The yard appeared to be used as a rubbish dump and was full of drums of cooking oil and catering-sized Nescafé jars. A solitary bush grew out of a crack in the concrete. When the estate agent led me back into the narrow hall, he grazed the wall with his car keys and left two gouges in the soft plaster.
Lastly, we went into the front room. It was dim, despite it being a bright day outside. The reason for that, I saw, was that the restaurant’s sign jutted up over the bottom half of the window, blocking out the light.
We stood there for a moment in the gloom, and then I said I would like to leave. The estate agent didn’t seem surprised. Outside, as he was locking the front door, he said, ‘Well, at least you wouldn’t have to go far for a curry.’
I didn’t reply. On the tube back, though, I started to think that the comment was actually quite amusing so, when I got back home, I repeated it to mum.
I had, of course, intended for her to laugh. Or at least smile; she was wearing her respirator all the time by then, and was short of breath. But instead she said, in her Darth Vader voice: ‘That’s nice.’
‘What?’ I said.
‘Useful,’ she said. ‘For when you don’t want to cook. You were never very good at cooking.’
This was not the reaction I was expecting. It was meant to be humorous, because I didn’t eat spicy food. That was the point. When I was eleven, I had a chicken curry at my friend Rashida’s house and went bright red and was sick. Mum had to come and pick me up.
I am not proud to say I got angry. I remember looking at her with the respirator clamped to her face, the tubes up her nose, and having this ridiculous notion that rather than helping her live the tubes were actually sucking out her brain cells, emptying her out to a shell.
‘I hate curry!’ I said, and then, louder, ‘You know that! I was bloody sick at Rashida’s, don’t you remember?’
I didn’t usually swear, and certainly not at mum, so that tells you how upset I was. I remember Penny, who was as usual planted on the sofa, looking up from her Sudoku, and mum’s face sort of folding in on itself.
I stormed off into the kitchen. I know now – I knew then – that it was an irrational reaction, but I wasn’t thinking straight. With the benefit of hindsight, I think that her forgetting things was a taste of what life was going to be like when she was gone, when there would be no one left who knew these little facts about me.
I stayed in the kitchen for a few minutes, to calm down. By that point, it wasn’t really a kitchen any more; more like a store cupboard for mum’s equipment and pills. I remember staring at the boxes of nappies stacked up on the table – the same table that mum used to lay for breakfast each evening before bed, where I had taught her how to play chess, where she had plaited my hair before my interview at Caffè Nero – and I had what I suppose you could call a realization. I won’t go into details because, as I say, I intend this to be a factual account, not personal. Suffice to say, I realized that every hour I spent looking at ﬂats would mean one less hour spent with mum, and, besides, it didn’t really matter what my new ﬂat was like. I hadn’t heard of the Mediocrity Principle then, which states that nowhere is more special than anywhere else, but I think that’s what I was applying.
I went back into the living room. Mum’s head was ﬂopped over to one side, her eyes closed. She wore these red satin pyjamas to assist her movement and the front of the top was darkened with drool. Penny was ineffectually wiping her chin, and so I took over and stroked her hair and apologized, and then I held her dead-bird hands and said that, actually, the ﬂat was lovely, perfect, and we should definitely buy it.
So that’s how I came to live in Rotherhithe.
At the funeral, friends of mum – including some distant relatives from York whom I’d never even met before – said that they would come and visit me in my new place, and to get in touch if I ever needed anything. But I didn’t encourage them, and no one pressed the issue. I suppose they didn’t want to intrude, and presumed that my own friends were looking after me.
Rashida was the only person I wanted to tell, because she had actually met mum. We became friends in Year Eight, and because her dad rationed her computer time she used to come over after school to play on mine. Mum would bring us Boasters covered in whipped cream and tell Rashida about how she had once hoped to go to India but then got pregnant with me and so never did, and that she hoped I would go there one day instead. Back then, before she got ill, I’d show my impatience when she repeated herself and said silly things. ‘But I don’t want to go to India!’ I’d say, and Rashida would giggle and whisper to me, ‘Neither do I.’
I hadn’t spoken to Rashida for a few years, but had kept track of her on Facebook, and knew she had moved to Rottingdean with her ﬁancé, a management consultant. I sent her a message telling her mum had died, and she said she was sorry, and that if I was ever in Rottingdean I must visit her and Stuart. I noticed that she had posted a new picture showing off her engagement ring, and she had done her nails like the girls at school, with a stupid white stripe across the top, which was disappointing.
I didn’t tell anyone else, but I announced my change of address on Facebook. In reply a girl called Lucy, who I’d worked with at Caffè Nero, sent a message saying she was now managing a sandwich shop nearby in Canary Wharf, and that we should meet up. But Lucy was always quite odd. On her breaks she used to go to the Super-drug down the road and steal make-up testers. She was always asking whether I wanted her to steal me something, and got offended when I said no, even though she could see I didn’t wear make-up.
I had seventy-three other friends on Facebook, girls from school mostly, but they weren’t proper friends. Our entire year was ‘friends’ with one another. It was like at Christmas, when everyone would give everyone else a card whether they liked them or not, just so they’d get one back in return and could compare the thickness of their hauls over lunch. A couple of them used to be actively mean to me and Rashida but that tailed off in Year Ten when they got interested in boys and turned their attention to the girls who were their competition.
Every so often, someone would post details of an open invitation party. Once, I went along to one, organized by Tash Emmerson. This was in 2009; mum suggested it when we realized that I hadn’t been out for seven months. The party was in a cavernous bar in Holborn with horribly loud music; I remember this one song that went, over and over again, ‘Tonight’s going to be a good night’, which was ironic. A glass of orange juice cost £3.50. Everyone was talking about their experiences at ‘uni’, which I couldn’t contribute to, and when they weren’t doing that they took photos of each other. I felt so drained just being around them I had to prop myself up against a wall in the corner.
What was odd was that a lot of them were keen to have their photos taken with me even though, as I say, we could not be described as proper friends. I remember Louise Wintergaarden and Beth Scoone advancing on me at the same time from both sides and throwing their arms around me, as if we were really close. When the picture was taken, they dropped their arms and walked off without a word. Then it was Lucy Neill and Tash and Ellie Kudrow. When they put the photos up on Facebook, they didn’t even bother to tag me. I showed one of the pictures to mum and she said the girls looked really tacky, with their bleached hair and orange faces, and that I looked like Cinderella sandwiched between the two wicked stepsisters. I didn’t tell her that under one of the pictures someone had commented, Ah, the old stand next to a munter trick? I didn’t care, but I knew she’d get upset.
After that I didn’t go to any more parties, but I read their updates. I didn’t understand what they were on about most of the time. It’d be gossip about people I didn’t know or references to TV programmes and celebrities and YouTube clips I didn’t recognize. Sometimes I’d follow the links they were all getting so excited about but they’d always turn out to be some idiotic thing, like a photo of a kitten squashed into a wine glass or a video of a teenager in Moscow singing badly in his bedroom. And always, these pictures of them dressed up to the nines, sucking in their cheeks, cocking one leg in front of the other like horses. It was like they had all had a lesson I hadn’t been invited to – nor wanted to be invited to – in which they learned that hair must be straightened, nails must have that white stripe across the tip, and that you had to wear your watch on the inside of your wrist and your handbag in the crook of your elbow, with your arm stuck up like it’s been broken.
It was the same with their status updates. Sometimes they’d post these elliptical messages, which didn’t make sense by themselves, like sometimes it’s better not to know or well, that’s fcked it then, without making clear what they were referring to. Their lives were ﬁlled with banal drama. I remember that Raquel Jacobs wrote once that – OMG!!! – she had dropped her Oyster card down the toilet. I mean, who needs or wants to know that? It seemed incredibly stupid and pointless, yet they all responded to each other as if these things were interesting and important and funny, using all this made up language like whhhoooop, or misspelling words like hunny, or abbreviating words for no reason, and putting XXX at the end of everything they wrote.
It wasn’t that I wanted to be like that myself. But I just didn’t understand how everyone seemed to have mastered it, to know what language to use and respond instantly to comments in the ‘right’ way. Even people who were really stupid at school, like Eva Greenland, seemed able to do it.
Very occasionally, someone would post a proper question, such as what were the advantages of using an external hard drive with their PC versus an internal one. Those I would reply to, and sometimes got a response. Esther Moody wrote back Thnx u r star xxx when I advised her how to change her Google settings from Autoﬁll. However, the vast majority of what they wrote was nonsense and had no relevance to my life.
I suppose what I’m saying is that if I was ‘isolated’, it was through my own choice. If I really wanted to, I could have met up with Lucy from Caffè Nero, or gone along to another one of the open parties from Facebook. But I had no desire to.
I liked being by myself. Before mum had become ill it’d been perfect. I’d spend evenings and weekends upstairs, reading or on the computer, and she’d be downstairs, cleaning or watching TV or doing her miniatures, then she’d call me every so often for meals and cuddles. It was the best of both worlds.
I had inherited the furniture from the old house, which had been put into storage; before she died, mum arranged with Penny that her son would pick it up in his van and bring it to my ﬂat. But Penny and I were not on good terms by the end. We had a ridiculous argument over her Sudoku book, when she discovered that I had ﬁlled in some of the puzzles. I explained to her that I had only done the advanced ones that I knew she wouldn’t be able to complete herself, but she took offence.
Then, when mum died, Penny kept going on about how odd it was because mum hadn’t displayed the signs of imminent death the day before: ‘her feet weren’t cold, and she had a whole Cup-a-Soup’.
Anyway, the upshot was, her son never got in touch about the furniture. That was all right, though, because I found that I didn’t even want it. Once I took the tube to the storage unit and saw it all there – the coffee table with the smoked-glass top; the white chest of drawers, still with the rubber bands around the handles which we put on to help mum open them; the black leather lounge set; the dinner gong; the tall, framed family tree which she spent £900 getting done and proved that a distant relative once married the aunt of Anne Boleyn. I remember especially the glass corner cabinet, which mum used to display her miniatures. It had been in the house ever since I could remember, and I had always loved looking at the things in it. But now in the storage room, it was just a bit of cheap shelving, and the miniatures were in one of a pile of taped-up boxes. I thought that even if I brought the shelves and the box back, and wiped them clean and arranged the miniatures in exactly the same way as mum had them, it still wouldn’t be the same. I decided to leave everything there, and just keep paying the £119.99 monthly storage fee.
Instead, I bought everything new, from the huge Tesco Extra in Rotherhithe. I didn’t need much: a blow-up mattress and sheets, a little desk, a beanbag, a toasted-sandwich maker. I put my books in stacks against the wall, arranged by colour, and kept my clothes in bin bags: when they got dirty I put them in another bin bag, and when that was full I took it to the launderette. I was working from home anyhow, so I didn’t need to dress up.
I passed the computer course easily, and began my new job for Damian, mum’s friend’s son, as soon as I had settled in to the ﬂat. It wasn’t hard. Every few days he’d send me a link to a beta site that needed testing, and I’d run it through a quality assurance program, checking for faults and bugs and weak spots, and then send back a report. I got paid per job; most would take less than a day, but the more complicated ones might require two. After I had ﬁnished my work, I would stay on the computer, playing games or, later, posting on Red Pill. I had set up my desk next to the window and quickly realized that there was a big advantage to the restaurant sign blocking the lower half of the glass; it meant there was never any glare on my laptop screen.
Afterwards, the police kept asking me exactly what led me to Red Pill. I told them I couldn’t remember, that I just followed a random link, but of course I knew exactly how I got to it. I just didn’t want to tell them.
As I say, after moving into the ﬂat my time playing games increased, to around eight hours a day. There was one game in particular, World of Warcraft. I suppose it was as if that was my full-time job, and I ﬁtted my testing work around it. I enjoyed how quickly time went by when I was playing: whole afternoons were effortlessly dispensed with, like eating a doughnut in two bites. I soon reached level sixty and was invited to join a nice guild, which got together for raids two or three times a week. On several occasions I was nominated as leader, and it was during one pre-raid meeting, discussing strategy, that another player started a debate about how the decisions one took in the game revealed one’s own philosophy. For instance, whether, after a raid, you distributed the gold you personally gained amongst the other members or took it all for yourself. I hadn’t previously thought of the game in those terms and found it interesting, and he suggested that I check out this website, redpill-uk.info. A very cool philosophy site, he wrote. It’ll blow your mind. He emailed me a link to a podcast on the site by the man who ran it, Adrian Dervish.
Although I ended up listening to nearly a hundred of Adrian’s podcasts, I can remember that ﬁrst one clearly. I made notes on it – I make notes on all the important things that happen – but I don’t need to look them up now. The title was Is This a Laptop I See Before Me? and Adrian’s opening words were, ‘So, folks, today’s question is – how much can we really know?’ He then gave a whistle-stop tour of classic epistemology, starting with Socrates and ending at The Matrix, which happened to be one of my favourite ﬁlms. He’d pose a statement – ‘I’m 100% sure that I’m speaking into a microphone right now’ – and then say, ‘But! What does 100% actually mean?’ The best way I can describe it was like a never-ending game of Pass the Parcel: each idea was unwrapped to reveal another inside. I remember that as the podcast went on, he started chuckling over those ‘But!’s, as if this was the best fun a person could ever have.
There was something immediately compelling about Adrian’s voice. He was American, and his accent was warm and intimate. He would be saying these mind-expanding things but in a cosy way, using these quaint words like ‘folks’ and ‘gosh’. ‘This is really something to get your philosophical chops around,’ he’d say. Or, ‘If you thought that was interesting, golly, just wait till you hear what I’ve got for you next.’ After a few minutes, I stopped the podcast, got down on the ﬂoor and brought my laptop close to my head to drown out the noise on the street below, before listening to it all over again.
After that ﬁrst podcast, I made myself a cheese toastie and then came back and listened to another four, back to back. As I did so, I explored the site. Its motto was ‘Choose the Truth’. The name Red Pill was another reference to The Matrix: the ﬁlm’s characters, unaware that they are in a virtually simulated world, are invited to take either a blue pill to stay ignorant or a red pill to be faced with reality, however upsetting it might be.
I investigated the forums. In one, members were debating the ‘laptop’ podcast. I remember being impressed by their ability to articulate and argue persuasively. I’d read a viewpoint and think it was entirely reasonable, and then someone would challenge them and make a counter-argument that seemed equally convincing. For instance, I remember one member – Randfan, I think it was – posting his opinion that only a cretin would claim to be certain that anything in the material world actually existed. We know our perceptions and that is all we can ever know. In reply, Juliusthecat said, But how do you know that is the case? Or rather, how do you know that you know that this is the case? They’d discuss these vast, abstract ideas as if they were everyday topics of conversation, as casually as mum and Penny used to talk about which supermarket had the best deals on that week.
As well as forums for ‘pure’ philosophy, there were others dedicated to more specific and contemporary subjects, such as whether taking someone out for dinner was the same as using a prostitute, or the ethics of downloading music. There was also a place for people to post their personal real-life dilemmas and get rational advice. One member, for instance, wrote how she had made a new friend at work who had seemed like-minded, but had then discovered this friend believed in angels, and now she didn’t know how to talk to her any more.
On the home page was a statement from Adrian, in which he introduced himself as the founder of the site and stated that although he was interested in all philosophy, he was a Libertarian at heart. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know what that word meant. I hadn’t even heard it before. He explained that Libertarians believed that people owned their own bodies, and the products of their labour, and were against force: essentially, that we should all be free to do whatever we wanted as long as it didn’t hurt anyone else. There didn’t seem anything to disagree with about that.
Some members were obsessed with the political and economic sides of Libertarianism, full of plans to banish governments and railing against taxes, but they tended to stay in their respective forums, so it was easy to avoid them. People tended to stick to one or two topics that most interested them: I found I spent most of my time in Ethics, but there were forums for Religion, Arts, Logic and Maths, and so forth.
The site was an antidote to the rest of the web: to the rest of the world, really. Only rational thinking was tolerated, and anyone who wavered off course was immediately called up on it. There was no casual use of words – ‘literally’ meant ‘literally’ – and unlike other forums, proper punctuation and spelling were expected.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t a supportive community. Banishment was only enforced if a member was fundamentally opposed to a basic tenet of the site – if they weren’t an atheist, for instance – or as a last resort for persistent troublemakers, like JoeyK.
You could see it coming, when someone was going to be banished. They, the member, would start to get all cocky on the forum, challenging Adrian just for the sake of it, thinking they were being clever. He would patiently engage with them, rationally argue, but if they continued being difficult and hogging the board and ruining things for everyone else, he would have no option but to ask them to leave. As he said, if they disagreed so strongly with what he was saying, there must be a better place for them. There were plenty of other philosophy sites out there.
After a few weeks of listening to the podcasts and lurking on the forums, I took the plunge and joined. I chose a username, Shadowfax, and spent some time deciding which of my favourite quotes I should have as my ‘sig’. In the end I went for Douglas Adams’ ‘Don’t believe anything you read on the net. Except this. Well, including this, I suppose’, which always made me laugh.
I posted my ﬁrst comment on a discussion about altruism: whether an act can really be selfless, or whether we’re just doing things that ultimately benefit ourselves. The posters were in broad consensus that nothing we did was selfless, but I felt differently. I put across the point that when we are close to other people, the distinction between what is ‘best for me’ and ‘best for others’ is artificial. What is ‘best for me’ is often to sacrifice some self-interest in order to help others. Within seconds, someone replied, broadly agreeing with me but pointing out something I had missed, and soon others joined in and it became a full debate. Hobbesian2009 wrote Good entrance, Shadowfax! Most newcomers to the site, you see, just posted a timid introductory message, rather than launching straight into a debate. I had made something of an impact.
Two weeks later, I decided to start my own thread. I spent a while choosing my subject; it had to be attention-grabbing but not so outrageous or provocative I looked like a troll. I decided upon a subject that had been on my mind for a while: whether it was OK for a person to do nothing with their lives except what they wanted to do – for example, play World of Warcraft – as long as they could support themselves and didn’t harm anyone else.
Immediately after posting, I had an unsettling few minutes when I thought that no one was going to pick it up, but then received my ﬁrst comment. The thread got seven responses in all, which I learned was pretty good. Most regulars were wary of newbies, waiting for them to prove their commitment before they engaged with them. To my surprise, Adrian himself joined the discussion, posting his opinion that those who were lucky enough to be in a secure position should use some of their privileges to help others who had a worse start in life.
I won’t say I found debating on Red Pill easy from the start, but it did come quite naturally. What I liked about it was that once you had the tools, you could apply them to almost any subject, including those you had no experience in. For instance, I was a significant contributor to a discussion on whether it’s more ethical to adopt children than give birth to them. For the next few weeks I contributed to debates and spent most of my evenings on the site. I got to know the regulars. Although the site had nearly four thousand registered members across the world, there were only around ﬁfty people who regularly contributed to debates, and so they quickly became familiar.
It was quite a tight ‘clique’, but one you could get into by demonstrating intelligence and logic. They gradually came to accept me, and a happy moment came when once, in response to a newbie asking about an ethical matter, Not-a-sheep wrote, Shadowfax, we need you!, because I was known to be strong in that particular area.
I also started reading. Adrian posted a list of books – ‘the canon’, he called it – which he said were essential grounding for anyone who wanted to get the best out of the site, like Plato’s Dialogues, Hume, Descartes and Kant. I ordered a few from Amazon. I read a lot before but only really sci-ﬁ and fantasy novels, and I found them hard going at ﬁrst, but I persevered and set myself an hour’s reading time every evening, making notes as I went along.
I had received several PMs – personal messages – from Adrian himself. The ﬁrst was a welcome message when I joined up, and then another after three months on the forum, congratulating me for surviving the initiation period (most members drop out before then, apparently). Then, after nearly six months of regular posting, I got a PM from him asking me to apply to become an Elite Thinker.
The way the site worked is that once you’d posted your ﬁfteenth comment you graduated from being an NE, which stands for Newly Enlightened, to a fully-ﬂedged member. Most people remained at that stage, but a small number were invited to take an online test for Elite Thinkers. This meant that Adrian deemed you capable of more advanced thought, and, if successful, you got access to a special forum where discussion was on a higher level. It was a subscription, twenty pounds a month.
In the PM, Adrian said he had been particularly impressed by my participation in a debate over the difference between shame and guilt. You’ve really impressed me, Shadowfax. You’re one hell of a smart cookie. It was quite a thrilling moment, I must say.
Of course, I said yes. Adrian sent a link to the test, which was in two parts. The ﬁrst asked me to respond to a series of ethical dilemmas of the sort I was used to debating on the site – whether I would kill one person to save ﬁve others, for example. The second part of the test was more of a personality test, a list of statements that required simple yes or no answers. It’s difﬁcult to get you excited. You readily help people while asking nothing in return. You can easily see the general principle behind specific occurrences.
A few hours after submitting the test Adrian emailed to say I had passed, and I was admitted into the Elite Thinkers. From then on, I spent most of my time on the ET forum. There were around ﬁfteen members who were very active, posting several times a day, and I was one of them.
Then came the day of that message.
It arrived late one afternoon, when I was in the middle of an overdue testing report. Since discovering Red Pill I had let my work slide somewhat, and the previous week Damian had sent a stiff email advising me that although he was sensitive to my grief over mum’s death, he was going to have to let me go if I didn’t meet deadlines.
So, I was trying to get this report ﬁnished, but nonetheless couldn’t resist opening Adrian’s PM. It was immediately clear that this was something different from his usual messages. On the site I was always known by my username, Shadowfax, but here he used my real name. He must have got it from my credit-card details.
The message read:
Leila, I’ve been watching your progress on the site with great interest. Fancy a F2F?
A face-to-face meeting. He named a place near Hampstead Heath to meet, and a time, which happened to be the following morning.
I remember my ﬁngers going limp on the keyboard. My ﬁrst thought was that I had done something wrong, but I soon rationalized that. Adrian was an important man; why would he bother to meet up just to tell me I was to be banished when he could do it online? Besides, I hadn’t, to my knowledge, done anything to displease him. On the contrary, he regularly congratulated me on my posts and had only the day before told the forum that I had a ‘ﬁrst-class mind’.
The only other options were, in a way, more daunting. Either he was considering making me a forum moderator, and the meeting was an interview; or he wanted something else from me. The question was – what?
That’s enough for tonight. It’s 4.40 a.m., and my eyes have started to sting. The skin of the tent is growing lighter and after the lovely coolness of the night I can feel the temperature starting to rise.
Excerpted from Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach. Copyright © 2013 by Lottie Moggach
First published 2013 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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