Why aren’t they screaming?

Do you expect me to talk? Goldfinger expected me to die. I did neither; I gave myself for my country.

When the film posters and watch adverts first appeared in February of this year, blazoned on shopfronts and Instagram feeds, the world was familiar to me, running along in cheerful ignorance. Friends exchanged hugs. Businessfolk shook hands. I gazed wrly down from my pedestal.

The posters showed my battle-scarred body manfully sheathed in merino wool and handmade Italian tailoring, a titanium glint on my wrist carefully arranged to match the steel in my eye. I was made a glowing symbol of stoic patriotism, gladly welded to the spinning, whirring, ticking machine of the endless present, alpha and Omega together. 

Meanwhile, in the Far East, the first British died of the virus.

I found out from a newsboard in Glasgow airport. Another enemy was threatening my country. The dead Briton was in his 80s, on a cruise ship just off the port of Yokohama, Japan. The presenter warned that he was the first of many, and spoke of ‘a coming storm’, a ‘global pandemic’. She asked ‘Is this the end for Great Britain as we know it?’ and I thought, with a smile, not a chance. We would be ready. How could it hurt us, who had been through so much, and triumphed? 

For a time, nobody changed. Public life remained reassuringly continuous, the system keeping everything under control. The London underground thronged with tramping footsteps, travellers with their heads down, not talking, cocooned in their blue-light bubbles. Notes and coins changed hands with newspapers and coffee cups across the country. I kept to my duty of selling time.

Then a ripple, or the shade of a ripple, started to spread. I saw it first in Camden and Picadilly, in Oxford and Liverpool, Swansea and Edinburgh. It encroached on the edges of the collective consciousness, like a nightmare remembered at twilight. 

Everything was normal until it wasn’t. Suddenly the machine fused and I was alone.

For months there was no tick or whirr. Since no one had bothered, or had time, to take the adverts down, I presided over the unlit and emptied concourses alongside any number of vapid and insistent displays, calling to nobody through the silence. The air grew stale and tannic and, while news stories told tales of dolphins in Venice, all I saw were the gathering dusts and fading colours of a culture in decay. Looking out over empty streets, my adverts enticed nobody. By the Hammersmith flyover my visage peeled into a cold and commanding sneer. 

Still I had faith this was not the end. The great machine of modern life spun on behind the surface of those darkened windows, planning, preparing, waiting for the right moment to bud back into life.

Sure enough, in July beams of sunlight broke through the clouds; the centres of commerce gradually lost their air of baffled absence. 

Then workmen appeared to refresh the advertising hoardings and the world slipped from my view.

Now it is October and I am back, gazing out once more to promote watches for a twice-cancelled event. But my faith is broken.

A rash of pastel colours spreads along bookshelves, strident signs exhort social distancing, disinfectant flanks every entrance to every building. How false! How pathetic! Still commuters flow through city arteries. Still clandestine dinner parties break out like nervous laughter. And yet the change beneath the surface is terrible. 

The ripple has unpicked the mechanism, reassembled it with some parts missing. The only certainty, death (why whisper it?), is more present then ever before, waiting for us, lying there with cruel eyes. Looking down again from billboards and shop windows, I see only more oblivious crowds, more endless, meaningless consumption. Freshly-cut hair, hidden, peachy cheeks, fog puffing up over glass lenses — how can they ignore it? 

They know what is happening, and yet they bury themselves under images of their old lives. In hospital wards and care-homes, pubs and factories, lights are slowly going out, forever. Spreading, always spreading. 

The fools — why aren’t they screaming?

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