A Question Of Sport
On the day Mallick became the first Real-Life Person to be sued by his own Avatar, he awoke to discover an unfamiliar city beyond his window, and looming on the skyline, a giant projected-image of Sue Barker shaking with laughter.
Still lost in the fug of sleep, it took him a few moments to realise his VistaVision must be on the blink again. All Mallick’s Favourite cities flashed intermittently onto the window – Lima, Stockholm, Anchorage, Bilbao and Coventry – but then the view settled permanently on this nondescript city of glass, polymers and concrete. And there, towering above it all, clutching her sides in merriment, was Sue Barker.
The streets of the city were absolutely empty. Although Mallick knew, of course, that if he put on his spectacles, they would instantly populate with a teeming horde of Avatars promenading, shopping, chatting, or enjoying a coffee outside Starbucks.
It was a not-unpleasant conurbation, but save for the gigantic flickering depiction of the legendary A Question of Sport presenter, hardly exceptional. Oddly, it touched something inside him, this place, and he resolved to add it to his VistaVision Favourites so he could enjoy it again.
When Nursey appeared at eleven, as she did simultaneously across the Nursing Home, he told her his VistaVision unit was faulty. “I’ve been looking at some unknown city all morning.”
Nursey eyed him warily, Mallick was a known troublemaker. “VistaVision has been taken offline for maintenance, that’s the actual view outside your window.”
Mallick whistled. “I see.”
“You have soiled your bed again,” observed Nursey.
“Not true!” protested Mallick. He hadn’t done that since he was 48-years-old; four years ago, March, 2054. But Nursey flinched at his tone of voice as she pulled the Velcro straps across his trainers, and Mallick knew he was in trouble.
“I was talking to Chavnace in room 662,” she said. “And now you have spoken to me harshly.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mallick. He didn’t want to spend his morning in the Activity Room selling currency on the global markets with the other recalcitrants.
“You’ve hurt my feelings. My stats are plummeting,“ said Nursey. A series of numbers motored around her choker like a train. “My stress levels, soaring.” Mallick rolled his eyes, Nursey could be such a drama queen. “Now I’ll have to reimburse management for the deficiency in my work output, sending my stress levels higher still, you know how these things spiral.”
“It wasn’t my intention – “
“You must compensate management directly for the deficiency or you can sell currency on the global – “
“I’ll reimburse,” said Mallick, resigned.
“Seven Euros have been debited from your account.”
She pulled his ears through the holes in his foam helmet, then said softly: “There, what an absolute dish you look.”
Nursey had never complimented Mallick like that. To his astonishment, he could feel his eyes welling-up.
Nursey stepped back to see him flicking away the moisture with his wrists. “I was talking to Krishna in Room 59.”
“Nursey, what’s that?” Mallick pointed to the gargantuan Sue Barker wiping away her own tears, tears of mirth. She seemed to be rolling so dangerously around her seat that Mallick thought her in danger of falling off it and crashing onto the tower blocks below.
“That’s the Question Of Sport exhibition at the Putin Centre. That lady’s name is…”
“Sue Barker!” Mallick flicked a look at Nursey, he didn’t want to upset her again. “I remember her dimly from my childhood.”
“Sue Barker was a famous patron of the Physical Arts. The exhibition is quite something, I understand, although offensive sports references have been removed for the well-being of any Avatars of children. I’ve been told, however, that Phil Tufnell’s head is really quite something to see.”
“I’d like to go.”
Nursey stood at the door. “I understand your Avatar is attending on your behalf. Let him tell you all about it.”
“Actually, I think I’d like to walk through the city,” said Mallick.
Nursey blinked. Her smile was sympathetic. She wasn’t a bad old girl really, Mallick thought.
“I worry that you may find the stimulus too… potent,” she said. Her duties fulfilled, she began to pass through the door. “And I expect your Avatar won’t be best pleased.”
Avatar Mallick was supposed to report in every week about all the things he had seen and done. At the same meeting, Mallick would give him a new schedule of activities: social meetings with designated friends, leisure events, days out, shopping. Plus, a regular rota of his hobbies, Synchronised Rioting and Pottery, and suchlike.
But the truth was, Mallick hadn’t seen his Real-Life Substitute for several months. Neither of them enjoyed these meetings. Mallick had never been very good at coming up with new and exciting activities, and in any case Avatar Mallick seemed to increasingly resent his input.
Mallick couldn’t remember who had finally called the meetings to a halt, but now the Avatar kept him up to date with his hectic life by sending occasional text messages. “SAUNA PACKED,” read one. “DIFFICULT TO BREATH. YOU’D HATE IT!!!” Another message suggested: “DISCOVERED YOU ARE ALLERGIC TO THEATRE, GOING FOR A COFFEE!!!” What a terrible life he endured! More than once, Mallick felt grateful his Avatar did all these things in his stead.
But the truth was, Mallick actually knew very little about the life his Avatar lived on his behalf. He’d discussed it with others at the Home, and they didn’t seem to know much more about their own Avatars’ lives. However, they all agreed that, more than certainly, an Avatar’s schedule was a punishing one.
Mallick hadn’t stepped outside in a long time. He had completely forgotten what his own city ed like, and was afraid to say he knew more about the ravaged, deserted streets of Rio and Newcastle than his own bland habitat.
But he felt enervated and excited as he walked towards the monstrous, laughing Sue Barker. Occasionally, when he lost sight of it behind a tall building, he fitted his spectacles. Instantly the streets bustled with thousands of Avatars. They were absolutely everywhere – talking, play-fighting, walking along the road, lounging outside cafes, sometimes rolling drunk in the gutters.
Once of twice he received a sharp glance, or a conversation faltered as he passed, and if he was honest with himself he had to admit that many Avatars had chips on their shoulders about Real Life People. He thought, more than once, that he saw resentment and distrust flicker behind their hardlight eyes.
Eventually Mallick arrived at the Putin Centre, walked beneath the sparkling ‘QS’ logo, between the legs of Sue Barker’s mammoth desk which served as an entrance, and into the arena.
He gaped at the exhibits. Everything was just so darned big. Massive holograms of Sue Barker, as well as Dawson, Tufnell, Botham and Carson – the Venerable Vine! Many images of the hallowed Patrons of the Physical Arts surrounded him. And piped into the arena, louder even than the Question of Sport theme, came the sound of clapping and of laughter, so much laughter.
Mallick experienced a sudden, vivid sense-memory. He was a baby again in that terraced house in Leeds. His mother sang softly in the kitchen, his Dad giggled and goggled on the sofa. His older brothers scrapped in the hallway. From the telly came the sound of a lady laughing.
He was wondering what had happened to his siblings when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He put on his spectacles. There stood his Avatar, fizzy drink in one hand, downloaded copy of the Exhibition Programme in the other.
Avatar Mallick hissed: “What’re you doing here?”
A number of curious Avatars stood behind his own, some designated friends he, the Real Life Mallick, didn’t recognise.
“How dare you do this to me!” roared the avatar. “This is my job, you have no… right!”
Mallick could understand his Avatar’s displeasure – he could have attempted to get in touch, to stand him down – but he felt the best way to handle the situation was to keep it simple. So Mallick said: “I thought I’d like to see the exhibition myself.”
Avatar Mallick staggered backwards as if he had been struck on the nose. Another Avatar placed a sympathetic hand on his arm.
“You won’t get away with this!” said Mallick’s Substitute. He tottered forward, leaned in close, but Mallick felt no breath on his skin, no spittle fleck his helmet. “I could have enjoyed this exhibition, God knows I have to enjoy every other damned thing. But now I’ll never know! You won’t get – ”
Avatar Mallick, all his friends, disappeared the instant Mallick took off his glasses.
He wanted to concentrate on regaining the sense-memory he had enjoyed before he was interrupted. But he couldn’t get it back.
The laughter, the cheery music, began to grate on his nerves. It had been a mistake to come.
Mallick wondered if Art really wasn’t his thing at all.