Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Warning for length. But this is a story that must be told in its full, gory glory.
I am shaking with rage. I can feel it roiling in my stomach, shuddering down my arms, making my fingers judder on the keyboard.
I have just been told I do not exist.
It all started off quite normally. I drove down to the village to do some errands. I went to the chemist to get things for my cold, had a lovely chat with the pharmacist (I love pharmacists; I love their knowledge and certainty), made some jokes with the charming blonde girl on the till and the young, immaculately dressed young man who has just come to work there.
Then, my card did not work. No matter; I had some cash. I thought it was a computer glitch. Even my tiny chemist in my small village has vast, humming, black computer tills, which often misbehave. We have laughed about it in the past.
When I get home I think that I will just quickly call the bank to check, before I settle down to my work.
It takes some time to get through to a human. In the process, an electronic voice tells me the balance in my account is NIL. I have a momentary panic. There is, for once, some cash in my account, because the heavenly Russians bought the book, so that I am flush with roubles.
Never mind, I think. More glitchiness. Soon I shall speak to a person and all manner of things shall be well.
I finally get an operative. She asks me security questions, as she should. I breeze through them, quickly, efficiently, wanting to get the thing done and everything explained and fixed.
‘You have failed the security check,’ says the operative.
‘What?’ I say.
‘You will have to go into your local branch with photographic identification,’ she says.
‘No, no,’ I say. ‘It is a Saturday. I live in the middle of nowhere. I have a lot of work to do. I cannot be driving about the country with my identification. I know who I am.’
‘You have failed the security check,’ she repeats, reprovingly.
‘All right,’ I say. ‘Which question did I get wrong?’
‘I cannot tell you that.’
‘Well,’ I say. ‘I know that I am myself; I know that I gave you correct information. Let’s just run through them again to make sure.’
‘That is not protocol,’ says the operative.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Well, how about you ask me another question? I have been banking with you for twenty-three years. I know I exist. Let’s try again.’
‘That is not protocol,’ says the operative.
‘I see,’ I say, although I do not see at all. ‘Well, do you think I could talk to your supervisor?’
I am put on hold. A Mozart trumpet sonata plays at me, jaunty, mocking, slightly distorted. I wait. And wait.
Eventually, the operative returns.
‘The supervisor is not available,’ she says. Is there a tiny note of triumph in her voice, so high that really it can only be heard by dogs?
‘Well,’ I say. ‘There must be a solution to this. I am all about solutions. I know I have not been kidnapped by space aliens and replaced with a pod. This cannot be beyond the wit of woman.’
‘The supervisor says that specially trained personnel can ask you further security questions,’ says the operative, slightly unwilling.
‘Brilliant,’ I say, firmly. ‘Put me onto them.’
‘They can call you back in two hours,’ says the operative.
‘No,’ I say. ‘Let’s get this sorted out now. We are not doing neurosurgery. We are not building the Large Hadron Collider from scratch. Perhaps you could ask me the further questions?’
‘I am not trained for that.’
‘What is this?’ I say. ‘Do you have to be instructed by NASA? We are not doing espionage. Have your personnel been trained by the CIA? Are they in a specially reinforced bunker?’
‘They can call you in two hours,’ says the operative.
‘Listen,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to get cross with you. I know this is not your fault. I understand that you are trapped in a bureaucratic maze not of your own making. But really, this is absurd.’
‘Two hours,’ she repeats.
At which point, I’m afraid I lose it. I do not shout, but a stream of clichés pours out of me like sewage. I actually use the expressions ‘Kafkaesque nightmare’, and ‘Sartrean circle of hell’, and ‘existential meltdown’, and ‘ontological freefall’.
‘I know that I am who I say I am,’ I explain, again. ‘There is clearly some mistake at your end. We must be able to solve it.’
‘It is not protocol,’ she says, again. She is good at this. If I were not so despairingly furious, I would be impressed.
‘My God,’ I say. ‘This is like something out of the Stepford Wives.’
I have a crackling vision of them all, in their windowless, neon-lit office, where they were probably programmed by Fred Goodwin himself, before his disgrace and fall. I can hear him cackling as he imagines the endless misery of the real people on the other end of the telephone.
‘This is like one of those films with Liam Neeson,’ I say. ‘Where he arrives in Berlin and says hello I’m Dr Johnson and the receptionist says Oh I’m sorry, Dr Johnson checked out three hours ago.’
There is a pause.
‘I understand,’ says the operative, gingerly, ‘that you are frustrated.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I am not frustrated. I am filled with rage and impotence. I cannot tell you how extraordinary it is to be told that you do not exist.’
We go round for a bit more. The unstoppable force has met the immovable object. Eventually, she grinds me down.
‘All right,’ I say. ‘I give up. The Royal Bank of Scotland has won. Get your CIA-trained operative to ring me back.’
She takes the number. She repeats it back to me, incorrectly.
‘Oh,’ I say, bright again. ‘I see what has happened. You have that number wrong. Is there not a possibility that when I gave you the original answers, you misheard? That this is all human error? I am sure you are brilliant at your job, but it can happen to the best of us.’
‘I check all the information with the computer,’ she says.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Of course you do. But what if you did not hear right, like you did just now with the telephone number? What if when I said B for my postcode, you heard P?’
‘I check it as I go along. I follow protocol.’
‘But,’ I say. ‘Just in case, you could ask the questions again.’
‘No, I cannot do that. That is not correct procedure.’
‘But why?’ I say.
This floors her.
‘Because it is not procedure,’ she says, eventually.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘But why is the procedure like that? What is it designed for? Does it assume that in the gap between the first asking and the second asking I shall run down to the cellar, where I have the real Tania Kindersley tied up with gaffer tape, and force her to give me the correct postcode?’
‘I do not have that information,’ says the operative. Those were her exact words.
So the brick wall was hit. The Stepfords had won. I was no longer a real person, but a mere computer error, a technological imposter, an incorrect number.
I apologise to the operative for being cross. It really is not her fault. This is what happens now. The human may not rage against the machine, because the machine always wins.
Here is the really strange thing. This is not my original post. I sat down to write it a while ago, was just really cooking, had got to the bit about the CIA and the Kafkaesque nightmare, when my computer TURNED ITSELF OFF.
I had no control. Everything shut down: click, click, click. I watched, in horror. Goodbye, said the cheery blue screen, heartlessly.
Then it turned itself back on again. Bloody hell, I thought, good thing I am anal about auto-save.
There was no trace of the post. There was no auto-save, even though I have it turned up to ten at all times. A thousand words of outrage had been eaten by the ether. I searched everywhere: temp files, back-up files, anything you want files. I scrabbled and panted and looked and looked.
The Royal Bank has control of my computer, I think, by now at the edge of reason. Not only do I not exist, but they are erasing my very words.
At that moment, the specially-trained security operative rings. He has a business-like East Coast American accent, and by now I am so crazed that I think he almost certainly is CIA. He is obviously very senior. He is charming and efficient. I think that Langley training has really paid off.
The questions are, oddly, multiple choice. Of these five addresses, with which have you ever been associated? Then a list of Acacia Avenues. Do you have dealings with any of the following companies or none? And then, and this is the sinister bit – Do you know any of the following people? They are really, really strange names. I scrabble to write them down, for posterity, but the senior operative is clearly expecting this, and speaks much too quickly. I do manage one: it is Birse Hides. What kind of name is that?
There is not one single John Smith or Joanna Jones. They are names so odd that if Martin Amis wrote them in a novel you would be surprised. One of them, I swear to you, has the first name of Mohammed. I do not catch the surname.
I take a deep breath. ‘I know none of those people,’ I say.
Oh my GOD, I think. They not only do not believe I exist, they think I am in league with Al Qaeda.
The stupid thing is that I am in the middle of a work storm. I have miles and miles to go before I sleep. I have to finish a whole chapter. But I shall not be beaten. My original post may have been surgically removed, but I am so bloody-minded that I sit down to write it again. Even though it takes another precious hour out of my working day.
Ha, Royal Bank of Scotland, I think, as I type the final full stop. I EXIST. I AM A HUMAN BEING. You bloody well cannot shut me down so easily. I shall not, not, not be beaten.
And there is even photographic evidence of my actuality. Here it is:
I took the dogs for a walk. Up the beech avenue we went:
Older Niece’s dog, whom I am sitting whilst her humans are ON HONEYMOON:
We examined some thrilling logs. I am not being ironical, I really do find piles of wood thrilling:
The coos watched us from the horizon. See, see, I am a human entity; actual cows may observe me:
Then back down the avenue we went:
And looked south over the moody hills:
In the garden, flowers were flowering:
I sat on my old mossy chair, and looked to the west. This is what I could see with my real human eyes:
I was watched by real canines, who are not holographs:
One more of The Pigeon, for the beauty:
And there was the hill, actual as actual:
There. I am NOT A NUMBER. I am a HUMAN BEING.
And now it may be time to lie down in a darkened room.