LabLit.com

Buy The Honest Look for the Kindle

Fiction

Zeroth

From the LabLit short story series

Steven Earnshaw 30 November 2011

www.lablit.com/article/697

Put a field into the Engine for not wanting to do anything, put in a field for feeling nothingness. Go on. Why not?

With my head on the pillow looking toward the window the edge of the duvet is very large in my line of sight. Very large. Nearly the whole picture.

The edge of the duvet. Not very important.

I could get up now. Pretend it’s a quarter-past five in the afternoon, not in the morning. Deceive myself.

Why haven’t I moved? The edge of the duvet, with its yellow flowers and green leaves, is not fascinating. The perspective I have lying here is not fascinating in the least little bit. I need sleep. I don’t care if I never wake up. Mark One in the States. Fact.

In the midst of morning Clar contemplates her empty brilliance. My empty brilliance. Fact. Truth value = 1. With my hand on the pillow looking toward the window the edge of the duvet, with its yellow flowers and green leaves and low tog rating because of the superior central heating we installed when the girls were young, is very large in my line of sight and I am emptily brilliant. Very large.

The edge of the duvet. Note, not very important.

I’m OK now but I’ll be very tired later on, too tired to make important decisions. I should cancel the meeting with Azad and Chloe.

I could get up now. Pretend it’s a quarter past five in the afternoon, not the morning. Fool myself. I don’t care if I never wake up. I should want to wake up.

There needs to be a field for wake-up. Question. Want to wake? Yes. No. Number. Date. Place. Husband Mark One. Home/Away. Daughter Number One. Home/Away. Issy. Daughter Number Two. Home/Away. Date. Place.

Get up. There cannot be a duvet field. There cannot be. It is not in the least way important. The duvet does not need to be captured. That would mean I have to capture everything. Data capture is structured, it is not a catch-all. Not everything is important. Certainly not the duvet large in my line of sight looking toward the window.

It wouldn’t capture this feeling, not wanting to do anything.

Put a field into the Engine for not wanting to do anything, put in a field for feeling nothingness. Go on. Why not?

On the drive to the meeting the pink cherry blossom on the windscreen. Pink with brown edges, blowing away. End of April. Spring. Beyond the windscreen and spring nothing but empty fields. What was that feeling this morning? Put the windscreen wipers on. Do not put the windscreen wipers on.

That empty feeling. There all the time, not just mornings now. Not caring if I’m alive or dead. What is the name for that empty feeling there all the time? There needs to be a field for feelings with no names, with numerical markers. Start with the number one, not zero. That empty feeling. No, we have to start with zero.

0. It really has to be 0.

There have always been names for nothing. It is the number nothing which is special.

When is Mark One back from New York?

My feeling for Mark One is not zero, but it is not the feeling or collection of feelings I had in our first years together. Those feelings had names like lust and love and awe. My feeling for Mark one this April = 2.

The girls have drifted away. = 3.

Difficult to pinpoint. My love for them is tied up with what they used to be. They are other people now, their own selves. They are not with me, part of me, tied to me. I have a feeling when I think of them, individually or together, but I cannot name that feeling. = 4. Mark One + Feeling for Mark One + Girls have drifted away + Thinking of girls together and individually =.

Adds up to 0.

Other people have named 0 depression. I’m not depressed. Feeling nothing is depression though. No it’s not. The feeling I have is.

0.

**********

‘Mother.’ m0ther.

‘Yes, Clar.’

‘Did Clarissa have a nervous breakdown? Is that what it is?’

‘Clarissa who?’

‘Clarissa Dalloway.’

‘Of course she did.’

‘Is that why she’s always feeling “there”, absolutely present to herself?’

‘I don’t understand you, Clar. I haven’t read that novel for the longest time, sweetness. I read Elizabeth Taylor now. That’s what grown-up women read, novels about what it’s like to be us, not women with psychological problems. I have to go.’

Why did dad hang himself in the garage?

= 5.

**********

A field for dreams which must never by analyzed. Last night, the dream I remember from last night. I’m in Pakistan. Perhaps. Azad is there. The people are talking about a chicken shack. They put five chickens in there at a time at the beginning of each day. They don’t kill them – there’s a trapdoor or hole which they push them through – perhaps to kill them. When I see the shack it’s the size of a shed. They open the door and it’s crammed with chickens, but there are also people in there, rising above the chickens, women from the nineteenth century, not perturbed by their situation, and with little fuss heading to the door.

Dream Number 312. Record only. No cross-reference.

**********

She blushed as Azad told her that the business had five thousand employees. The best way forward she told him would be for her to interview ten senior and twenty middle managers and look at their worksetting practices. It’s a simple matter of inputting the number of hours up to their contracts, and assigning hours to tasks. She would meet the working party who were finalising hours-to-tasks.

‘When I have done that, they will need to formulate a strategy for implementation and training. I know you wanted to take that phase in-house and retain my services on an ad-hoc basis, but I would again urge my involvement throughout the training and implementation phase. It’s a false economy not to. You don’t need a false economy.’

Clar continued to blush. Azad thought she was menopausal, having hot flushes like his mother.

**********

Mark One wasn’t there when she got back. She must have got the wrong day and wasn’t motivated to clear up the inadequacy. She took the rosé out of the fridge and up to bed, got drunk and fell asleep, dreaming of her Engine.

**********

The corner of the duvet with its cluster of yellow flowers and green leaves nearly took her eye out. Clar wondered how she felt. It wasn’t immediately apparent on waking. The empty feeling rose within, a definite nothingness. She remembered the pink cherry blossom on the windscreen on the drive to the meeting, how the wind took it away. She remembered another detail from yesterday – white blossoms on trees in the fields. There was no such thing as a May tree. They are Hawthorns, she thought. Pointless thing to know. Her father used to point out trees and their names. ‘Why did he hang himself in the garage?’ My father used to point out the names of trees to me when I was a little girl, and then he hung himself in the garage.

**********

Dream Number 313

My dream is of a car journey with a husband and children. The car is green, something like a Mini Cooper. I get the wrong turning off the dual-carriageway and calm down, thinking I know this road, it’s from back home when I was a teenager, before it changed. But I know it’s not that road, and this road is twisting and turning. I know I’m not in complete control of the car, but convince myself that I am. It keeps shaping away sharply in dogs’ legs and ahead there are fields and gravel pits. Nobody in the car is saying anything to me. They know I’ve taken a wrong turning and that sometimes I drive too fast when I’m in the wrong. I drive too fast so I don’t have to think about the names of the trees. We go along these roads for quite a long time, the whole thing is irrelevantly picturesque, then the road straightens out and is going down fast, even though it doesn’t seem that steep. I’m sure the brakes work because my brain isn’t telling me any different, but all the same the brakes don’t slow down the car, so they can’t really be working. There’s a large lake or pool straight ahead and I can carry on down the road towards it if I like, pressing the brakes, because the straight road does arc upwards towards the sky, like the end of a ski-slope, so that I know if I’m pushing on the brakes the car will come to a standstill at the top of the slope at the very least.

There are divergent roads either side of the water that I could take, but something tells me it would be a bad idea, that I would keep on with the endless car journey going in the wrong direction, being in the wrong, swerving left and right into dogs’ legs. The car is heading for the end of the slope and I know the car is going to go straight into the water. I have to save myself, because it will be one less person to get out the sinking car, even though there are two children and my husband in there. I have to save myself.

I get out the car just as it flies off the end of the ski-slope into the water and stand watching it as it dives into the water, with the girl, the boy, and the man, my husband, my family, stuck inside it. There are people around the lake and one or two make for the car as quickly as possible. I stay where I am and then move slowly towards where the car sank, but I’m not wet yet. I don’t see them get out the car, but they do escape and I’m really pleased that my daughter, aged between eight and ten, with her black hair flat against her face and head as if she’s just been dragged up from the depths of the ocean, asks and cries for me, just for me, not for her father or her brother, and I hug her and cry.

This one man starts asking her why her daddy wasn’t driving the car, although he doesn’t say ‘daddy’, he says ‘landlord’, but he means her father. I’m scared they’ll discover I bailed out and left the father and children to make their own way out of the car, and then they’ll blame me and turn on me. (But who was driving the car? It doesn’t make sense). I keep hugging my daughter, I love her so much, I really didn’t know I could love her this much. But I’m sick with myself and can’t understand why I was so pleased to see the girl first rather than the boy, since I thought I unconsciously favoured the boy over the girl. And I’m also puzzled as to why I’m not thinking about the father, although I am in fact calling him to mind in this way and thinking about him. I love them all so much that I don’t understand why my love isn’t everywhere and at once and for all of the family and for all of the time.

Why is it separated out? The thought makes me feel more sick. The man keeps asking the question. His face isn’t unkind. It’s a little pock-marked, but I don’t want this to sway my opinion of him. I just wished he wouldn’t keep asking my daughter about why her father wasn’t driving the car. Who does he think was driving the car?

End of dream Number 313

**********

Dream Number 314.

There’s a man in the house who appears to be called something like Dave Diamond, and I think he’s here to teach my son to play the guitar. However, he isn’t talking about what he’s here for at all, he’s just there, like he’s one of the family, walking around in the living room. I can hear my husband in the kitchen clanking pans in a way which means it’s up to me to entertain Dave Diamond, if that indeed is his name. He sort of ambles around the room, very relaxed, and me pretending to be relaxed and kind of nodding in agreement at something as if there is an unspoken connection between us, as if we both know what is going on. But I am definitely pretending, I don’t really know what’s going on, even if I’m sure Dave Diamond does. I have this vague thought that he’s here to teach my son how to play the electric guitar. Because things often pop into my head like this and prove to be right, as if my memory clicks on by itself without telling me whether something I’ve remembered is right or not, as if the Engine is working without my control, which I think is quite possibly true.

I have to go in the kitchen then to see my husband. He carries on clanking pans. He knows about the man in the living room, but says nothing. He speaks through his attitude and says it’s my problem to deal with, though I really don’t remember personally inviting Dave Diamond in, I really don’t. I say to the man that I suppose he’s come to teach Matthew the guitar (I don’t know if that is my son’s name), and perhaps Matty isn’t around because he’s gone off the idea? Should I get Matty? But Josh (I don’t know my husband’s name either; it’s not Josh, I just don’t know what it is at all) still isn’t interested and says that Dave Diamond has come the wrong week, it was last week(end) he should have come. I feel a bit better about the situation now that I have something definite to tell the guitar teacher, but part of me feels he won’t be very happy to be told we don’t want him to start teaching my son now.

In the same dream, and it’s chronologically next, I’m on the bus going to Karen’s, although I’m on the bus with Karen, so that doesn’t make any sense, since I’m on the bus to go and see her. Bella is with us, and she’s going to see Karen as well, the same Karen. The bus stops at the junction at the bottom of Karen’s road and we get off and turn the corner into Karen’s road where there’s another bus stop. There’s a crowd at the bus stop talking about the Engine and even though I tell Karen and Bella not to get on the bus because it’s not far to walk to Karen’s they get on it. I feel obliged to get on it as well, but they’re not on it, which is annoying but seems to be part of the dream logic, so I don’t worry too much, I feel I’m worrying just the right amount in the dream for a dream at this point. Also I’m not that worried because I can just get off at the next stop. So I do that, and Bella and Karen are already in Karen’s house, which is surprising and a little annoying.
End of Dream Number 314

That reads like two separate dreams.

I am recording the dreams, but I won’t put them in the Engine, I’m sure of that. The algorithms would determine the meaning but the algorithms would already be the meaning. You wouldn’t need to read the dreams, only the algorithms. It would be a pointless exercise. ‘We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.’ That may be so, but it does not weave from dreams. It weaves from the world around.

**********

Dream Number 315.

It’s early evening, dark, wet, and I’m standing on a bridge. Down below in the mud between the river and the bank, just beyond the foot of the bridge, there are police and other interested people. Somehow, unbidden, after minutes of waiting for this power, I can zoom in to where the focus of their attention is. The body emerging from the mud is his, after all these years, looking no different. There are no details, so perhaps he’s just a skeleton, but in my heart I know it’s him and that all the intervening years between then and now will be shown to have been a lie. I feel a sickness at the heart of me that hasn’t been there in all the intervening years, and knowing I have lived without fear in those years as I’ve established myself with a husband and family makes me feel sicker. All those years they didn’t know what I’d done, and I didn’t know who I was myself. Now the horror of me is coming home. It was outside of me before, it must have been, I never felt it even if the murder was lodged in my brain as a fact. It’s dark, and the slime and ooze and his body are all as one. I am sick of myself or at myself.

End of Dream Number 315.

When I wake up I feel sick like in the dream. I have no idea who the dead man was in the dream. Not anybody I know.

It’s May now. The cherry blossom is mush in the driveway, indistinguishable from mud. They’ve called me back in for another meeting. I want to explain my holistic programming, and then perhaps Azad and Chloe will understand what I’m about, why I’m special. They don’t need to know about Ada’s language, they just need to know that it’s the way I capture and process data that makes Clar Solutions the best.

The landscape is familiar from Dream 313, and I can drive as if in the dream, paying no attention to braking, gear-changes or indicating.

In the meeting Azad makes me blush ridiculously. I think my blushing makes him crimson too. They have accepted my argument, that is, the argument they should retain me throughout the implementation phase. The meeting is so short Chloe feels obliged to say something about her visit to New York. ‘Ground Zero was so moving. To think...’

The Mayans had zero, but it didn’t save them. They used it in their complicated calendar systems as a place-holder, but not for calculating things. It wasn’t really a concept of zero, of nothingness. That’s why they died out, they had no number to represent nothing so they had no intimation of the danger of their non-existence. All they could do was count the years in complicated calendar systems. Nobody knows why their sophisticated civilisation died out, but that’s why. Nothing to do with failing to come up with the plough or steel. The failure to understand the power of 0 was their downfall. They used carved heads for zero. I wonder if Chloe saw Mark One at Ground Zero.

**********

I go in to the Engine. I check the fields and their entries. I try out some different database queries. The results are OK but don’t tell me anything new. I know what I have to do. I have to put zero into the Engine for it to make sense, I have to put the empty feeling in for it to tell me what is at the heart of things. How can I put nothingness into it?

**********

Mark One says he will be back the weekend. It’s wrong, I know, but I ask Azad out for a drink using an electronic communication. He doesn’t reply. Perhaps he hasn’t received it. I haven’t the nerve to phone him directly. A dream comes to me and tells me to phone him. I phone him at home and ask him out for a drink. I can tell he doesn’t want to, but he complies. As a joke I put his details into Ada’s Engine to see what will happen. But Ada herself said that the Analytical Engine, as powerful as it might seem, could never generate new truths. It tells me what I already know from a different angle.

**********

It didn’t go well with Azad. I started to explain my theory of holistic data management, but he was uninterested. I was wearing my red shoes and red underwear, but they didn’t make any difference. When holism didn’t attract him, I switched to discussion of Ada Lovelace’s Analytic Engine. He wasn’t interested in the first woman in computer science, the first person to understand the potential for software before anybody else. He kept up a frowned look, which marred his otherwise beautiful features. When I mentioned she was Byron’s daughter he showed more interest and we talked literature, but I couldn’t get him interested in Virginia Woolf either. He thought it was funny my parents had named me after a character in one of her novels. I said I didn’t find it very funny, and in order to shut him up I told him my father had hung himself and Virginia Woolf drowned herself. And anyway, I continued, Clarissa was also the name of a novel in which a woman gets raped by somebody called Lovelace and dies. It was difficult to get the conversation back on a more friendly tack after that and he got a text and said he had to go. It was a pre-arranged get-out, I’m sure, from Chloe. It was pure coincidence Ada ended up marrying somebody called Lovelace since he had nothing to do with Richardson’s Clarissa. It’s highly implausible that Chloe would meet Mark One at Ground Zero. That’s one of the problems I’m working on with the Engine, how to cope with the possibility of coincidence. The improbable is a feature of the probable though, says Aristotle.

**********

Mark One has just got back from New York. I was in bed. He showered and got in and then he was all over me. The jet-lag doesn’t kick in until later so he thinks he can just come back and paw me. I told him it was too soon, not nice to be treated like that, to get some sleep, and we could make up and catch up later that day or in the evening. He was over-tired and I made some allowances, and when he finally got to sleep he muttered phrases from our times together, the good times and the bad ones, in sickness and in health. Everything, everything, even going out with Azad to make something, everything is nothing. Nothing can come of nothing. If I have to describe the feeling to you it is a vast chasm in my chest and misery in my head, and nothing but.

It’s not depression. My dad had that.

The number 0 is not positive or negative. It is Rational and Real and Even. 0. If one set does not have any apples, the one has 0 apples.

The truth value is false, = 0.

The noose formed a 0 around my father’s neck.

Antidepressants may increase the risk of suicide. My father took antidepressants, the older type. My father committed suicide. Nobody knows how antidepressants work. Nobody can measure the level of serotonin in the brain.

I wake Mark One up for a fuck, and picture Azad to make sure I come. When Mark goes back to sleep I increment the fuck column by 1 in the Engine. It reads 1,872.

I click on the Help icon. The Engine returns a null value.

**********

Start Dream 316.

Nothing.

End of Dream 316.

**********

The first middle manager I meet has a bald head and a beard. He’s insisted somebody from Human Resources sits in. Nobody has told me this would happen. My job is to capture information and treat it holistically. What could be the problem? I can defer the meeting and ask Azad and Chloe, or go ahead with the meeting as if it makes no difference. Do I need to be this man’s friend? I ask them why the meeting is set up like this. I don’t know who I should be addressing, Tony and his real ale pullover, or Libby, tight skirt and the smile before oblivion. They tell me it’s company policy, the Union, HR and the Corporation working together. Fine, I say. I ask my questions. Tony starts to patronise me, suggests he knows more about working processes than I’ll understand in a lifetime of Sundays, whatever that may mean. I keep pulling him back to the questions in hand, trying to itemise the kinds of tasks his workforce do and the time required, and the level of person who can do each task. He asks about the task he’s involved in now, the task of answering questions. This is not bean-counting I say. That’s what you think, he says. Libby doesn’t have an opinion, she’s just there to observe, not facilitate. I note down the possibility of making answering questions a task. He smiles. I see why he’s not got further than he has, trapped as he is in a limited consciousness. Yes, I say, it is possible for me to gather in all the information and show the way forward. He’ll be retired by then, he says.

I wonder to myself if there will be much more hostility. He thinks it’s a staff-slashing exercise. Like Libby, I can’t comment. He repeats that he’ll be retiring soon, turns to Libby, nods, and tells her his wife died last year. The smile goes and she says she’s sorry. I grind my teeth.

**********

Mark One needs to talk when I get back.

‘Shoot’, I say.

‘Look Clar, in New York...’

He doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. It’s not information. We agree to go our separate ways. Nobody will be hurt now the children have left home. He goes up to the attic and takes one of the girl’s rooms until he can find somewhere else to live, without me. I retreat into the Engine, put in the necessary data about our relationship. The Field of Feelings returns a null value.

It brings back my father’s suicide. My mother found him, hanging from ladders hanging from brackets in the centre of the ceiling that he’d fixed up years before. I phone mother. She’s the motherth mother. This is the zeroth emotion.

**********

Start Reality. 507.

I dream of the root of minus one, symbol i. i. I see now it’s i. i2 = -1. Me times me = minus one. I times I. Negative. i is an imaginary number. End Reality 507.

**********

The Enchantress of Numbers

I was born Ada Augusta Byron in 1815. My father died when I was 9.

He was Lord Byron. He died in 1824.

They were worried about family insanity, and taught me maths to stop me going mad. I caught measles, and was crippled and confined to bed and the number of children I had was an odd number, 3.

**********

The problem with the Analytical Engine is precisely that it has no recourse to narrative disclosure, it cannot cognise the world as discourse, it cannot understand stories. i know this. i tried to get him to remember how we met and the good things that had happened since but Mark One did not understand. i asked him to tell me the story of us when he told me he was leaving. i put the story into the Engine. It returned null. i have now made the root of minus one a value where previously we had zero. Like the Mayans i have carved a symbol to represent the root of minus one. It is the image of i, my self. Anybody can do it, make an image of themselves to stand in for i.

**********

i had my meeting with the first of the senior managers. He was more arrogant than the last until i pointed out the problems his company had and the money they were haemorrhaging. He went pale when i said that. ‘Haemorrhaging’ i repeated. i told him if they didn’t stop that unwanted flow, they would haemorrhage senior staff, it was the only thing that would make sense. i suggested he visualise money as blood seeping out through the fistulas of his corporate creation. Now count down from tenth to first, i ordered. He did it. And then...? i prompted. Nothing, he said? Not quite, i corrected, it’s ‘zeroth’. Describe the zeroth. The new woman from Human Resources wanted to stop the conversation because she felt sick at zeroth, but he wanted to go on, because he was starting to see the whole picture. i told him he was thinking holistically now. Carry on counting down i said. He understood. He raced passed nothing to minus one. What’s the square root of four? Two, he said. What’s the square root of one, i asked. One he said. What’s the square root of minus one? He didn’t know, so i filled him in.

We got down to itemising the tasks he set his particular staff and the time each task attracted. Even with just two interviews the patterns were starting to emerge. i grind my teeth, dream of green leaves and yellow flowers, the empty note sounding i.