As far back as anyone could remember Frettingsbex had been under surveillance; two coin-operated binoculars nested above the town like base metal owls on Godbury Rise. The rise itself was near conical, and its non-conformist geology apparently merited it special status over other hills in the area, and so it was that the council had gifted it with a pair of telescopic eyes. At first, the binoculars had been free to use; a situation which suited some lazier members of the police force, who rather than tread the beat, could take it in turns to watch Frettingsbex through the lenses, and radio down to a colleague whenever they spotted something suspicious. It could have been a masterful use of resources, had Godbury Rise not been a radio dead spot.
Over time, someone in the Public Facilities Department decided that 20p ought to be the going rate for detail, and a coin slot was added to the binoculars. Money raised would help pay for their maintenance and possibly a car park. However, rather than return to the beat, a handful of rebel constables, calling themselves The Watchful Five, formed a pocket of resistance and continued to use the binoculars for official police business. The paper carried the story and described how the splinter group were self-funding their intelligence gathering activity, which had so far turned up an interesting lead on a series of thefts from a plumbers merchants. Surprisingly, their campaign gained momentum and members of the public began requesting their change in coins so that they could donate to the cause. For a period of eight or nine days, nannas clutching fistfuls of pence swarmed the rise until police procedure was reviewed. Ultimately, it was concluded that, despite its surveillance credentials, simply watching crimes take place from a hill top was not an effective way to police a town. Eventually, the snoopers’ outpost was all but abandoned and thereafter only intermittently manned by ‘offbeats’; nostalgic policemen not on duty.
When a laminate detailing town planning proposals was tied to the lamppost outside the bookies, talk was less about Frettingsbex’s new roundabout and more about the installation of a CCTV camera. Residents with longer memories wrote to the paper citing the influence of The Watchful Five and their pioneering work on the rise. In truth, however, the camera was a council resource to monitor traffic. Once the relevant permissions were passed, the roundabout was constructed, and the camera installed above the butchers. The upstairs of the shop was rented as a control room, and access was made private via a fire escape; which grew up the side of the building over a series of weekends. On a horizontal pole outside the shop, rabbits, pheasants and pigeons hung; forming macabre but effective corpse-awning over the window. During the first week of the camera being operational, faulty wiring caused electricity to travel along the pole and throughout the ‘S’ of each meat hook, temporarily animating the animals. Never one to shy away from publicity, the butcher – Graham Rowebutt – made his staff wear Frankenstein masks until the fault was corrected.
The control room consisted of little more than two brown plastic chairs and a folding table (spirited away from the parish hall); a three-axis joystick to control the camera; two VHS players connected by a wire; a box of blank VHS tapes; a shelf labelled Evidence; a ring binder labelled Handover Notes; and a monitor to watch the action on. New to the security gig, Harris and Barrett were on their first week of night shifts.
“Seen this?” asked Barrett, handing Harris a video tape labelled: Camera Test 1: Hammer Horror
“Where’d you pull that from?”
“Evidence box. Down bottom. Don’t recognise the writing.”
Harris posted the tape into the VHS player:
Early evening. An empty roundabout. A car pulls into view, indicates left and disappears down the hill. A pause. Three figures in Frankenstein masks gather on the centre of the roundabout. The persons zombie around the island, arms outstretched, bumping into one another. One of the individuals breaks out into a dance. The largest entity observes the dance, turns towards to the camera, and removes his mask. The disguise is lifted and Graham Rowebutt addresses the camera with a meaty ‘up yours’. All three withdraw.
“Cocky prick.” muttered Harris, ejecting the tape. He flicked the switch on the monitor and observed the roundabout.
“Tea?” asked Barrett.
“Aye, gone on then. You mashed it?”
“We got any Fruit Pastilles left?”
“Who has coffee and Fruit Pastilles?”
“Thought we were having tea?”
“We’re having coffee now. No teabags left.”
“Still want a Fruit Pastille?”
“Not with coffee, no.” Harris continued to observe the roundabout “Hello.
From the road directly opposite the camera a Land Rover and trailer pulled out onto the roundabout. Making no attempt to indicate, or even turn, the vehicle very deliberately mounted the small traffic island and stopped. For a while, everything in the image remained perfectly still and Harris couldn’t be sure that system hadn’t glitched. Barrett joined him at the console.
“That picture look stuck to you? He should’ve cleared the roundabout by now.”
“Could be.” Said Barrett, “Twiddle the camera, if its buggered nowt’ll happen.”
Harris engaged the joystick and the camera panned from the Land Rover and settled its gaze on the bookies. The hill that led down to The Quartermaster public house was deserted. Harris guided the camera back to its original position.
“What a complete toffee, he’s just stopped on the roundabout!”
The Land Rover flashed its headlamps and a hooded figure in wax jacket got out of the driver’s side. Harris and Barrett watched as the individual closed the door and slowly walked to the trailer. As if following stage directions, he went round the back of the trailer and emerged from the other side holding two objects. Facing the camera, he held the items above his head and gently laid them on the ground. The waterproofed spectre then rewound back around the trailer and into the cab. Again, the Land Rover flashed its headlamps, splashing the butchers in beam, and drove off, down towards to The Quartermaster.
“Can’t recall this being covered in training.” Said Barrett.
“Time is it?” Asked Harris.
“What the hell difference does that make? 1.44am.”
“I’m making a note. Whatever that was, it was deliberate.”
“You think it was a warning?” Barrett mined his nose.
“I think we’re being watched.”
“Who’d watch a traffic camera?” He flicked the extracted mineral at the kettle. It stuck.
“The Watchful Five might.”
“The watchful what, mate? I’m going down to see what he left on the road.”
Harris stared at the monitor and waited for his colleague to appear in their own independent short. After some time, Barrett made his entrance and half-jogged over to the bookies. He looked down the hill and shook his head. Harris thought this part was particularly hammy. Barrett rescued the dramatic tension by retracing the steps of the figure in the wax coat and eventually collected up the objects that had been left on the roundabout. Turning to face the camera he unleashed a Graham Rowebutt-worthy ‘up yours’ and ran back towards the butchers with his haul. Aluminium dinks ascended the staircase with Barrett and when the door opened he passed from the consumer-level video grain of the night into the relative MGM Technicolor of the control room.
“Brass taps!” rejoiced Barrett.
“I’ll wipe the tape.” Replied Harris.
With the exception of a mobility scooter clipping the curb and capsizing on the roundabout, Harris and Barrett’s week of day shifts passed uneventfully. The captain of the scooter had crawled from his vessel to the tiny concrete island and jabbered away to himself like a castaway. It had only been when Graham Rowebutt braved the traffic to help the lost sailor off the island that his accidental exile ended. The butcher-cum-coastguard ushered the victim into his house of meat and the two went halves on war stories about things they’d seen/experienced on the roundabout. Harris and Barrett had watched the video several times. Little was mentioned about the Land Rover incident until their second week of nightshifts, when the continuity of conditions prompted Barrett to enquire.
“Did you fit your taps then?”
“Smashing, aren’t they?” Harris span round in his chair. “Been meaning to ask you the same.”
“Pretty sure they are. Real weight to them.” Harris brought his hands together and rounded both palms, as if to simulate supporting a globe.
“You put them on your bath or your sink?”
“Same. The missus was well impressed.”
Barrett made the tea, and the colleagues speculated on the possible motivations behind an individual making a sacrificial offering to a CCTV camera. For a time, concerns were aired that by taking the taps, the pair were somehow compromised. In the giver’s debt. However, Harris pointed out that, even if the figure in the Land Rover had somehow witnessed the removal of the taps from the roundabout, no persons − other than himself and Barrett − could possibly know what had become of them.
“For all our friend in the wax jacket knows, those taps might as well be at the police station in a bag labelled: S.”
The rest of the night was spent in a celebratory manner and the pair chain-drank coffee. When they ran out of milk, Barrett called a hip flask off the substitute’s bench and their bloods ran like a barmy equation: one part stimulant, one part depressive. Operating on this strange petrol, hyperreality set in. The world beyond the camera was represented on the monitor, and although they knew what they were looking at was real, they were aware that it was also a simulation. The only incident of any note involved a speeding van. On its approach to the roundabout, the van failed to decelerate, or give way. The driver’s foot must have been made of concrete because the van accelerated, half-mounted the traffic island, and shot off down the hill towards to The Quatermaster. Pausing the video frame by frame, Harris had been able to make out: Steve Clifton – Cement Merchant, stencilled across the rear panel and jotted down the registration number.
The following evening Harris and Barrett returned to their post, and once again observed Frettingsbex through the monitor. For the next twelve hours they were the town’s black box. Being the the first half of the shift, Barrett took the controls, and for what felt like the hundredth time that night, zoomed in on the poster in the bookies window that read: ‘Best Odds in Town! Wanna Bet?’ .Harris took a nap and dribbled onto his shirt. Looking at his leaking face, pinched by sleep, Barrett couldn’t help but feel that time has more respect for the dead than it does for the living. It was midnight that broke the deadlock; Barrett inserted a fresh videotape into the recorder and woke Harris. In his slumber, saliva had soaked a window into the architecture of his shirt so that his captive nipple might peek out. With much effort, Harris dragged himself over the controls and he, and his nipple, sat watching the monitor for signs of life. At that particular moment in time the monitor might as well have been a microscope because almost immediately some Land Rover shaped bacteria moved on the petri dish roundabout. With a trailer in tow, the vehicle stopped on the traffic island and flashed its headlamps.
“Santa’s back.” Noted Harris, sitting to attention. “We must have been good this year.”
Wearing the same hooded wax jacket, the driver climbed down from the cab and closed the door. Plotting the same course as before, he eventually emerged from the other side of the trailer with two longish objects. Facing the camera, he held the items above his head like he was at an awards ceremony and gently laid them on the ground. Unpicking his steps, the best newcomer got back into the cab, flashed the headlamps twice and drove towards The Quartermaster.
“Do the honours.” Said Harris without so much as taking his eye from the screen.
Fresh drizzle had given the road a coat of varnish and on the monitor it looked as if Barrett was walking on water. The aluminium steps arpeggioed as he descended and climbed. The door flung open and, once again, Barrett passed from the Kansas of the night into the Oz of the control room.
“Shower heads!” he gloated.
“I’ll wipe the tape.” Replied Harris.
Back on the dayshifts Harris and Barrett couldn’t escape the attentions of the butcher Graham Rowebutt. Several times during a day he’d knock on to see if there was “anything he could do.” He’d taken particular delight in a response of “your job” from an aggravated Harris and continued to drop in unannounced. Rowebutt, it seemed, was quite the expert on matters of surveillance and had close links with The Watchful Five, in so much as he’d catered their protest on Godbury Rise with an endless supply of sausage sandwiches. Harris was especially offended by this tale and on many occasions pointed out that if he respected surveillance enough to walk a load of sausages up the rise, how come he couldn’t walk any up the fire escape. It was before trading hours on the Thursday when Rowebutt knocked on with a newspaper under his arm.
“Police are wanting a word with you pair.”
“Oh aye?” Replied Harris, partly pretending not to care and partly promoting Barrett to adopt the same tact. “What’s that about then?”
“Don’t worry I told ‘em both you were clean. Very clean.” Rowebutt used the newspaper as a improvised towel and mimed drying underneath his arms. “You haven’t heard then?”
“Heard what?” Asked Barrett with genuine innocence.
Rowebutt uncoiled the newspaper and threw it on the table.
“Hit and run outside The Quartermaster. Early hours of this morning. Lock-in.”
“So why do the police want to talk to us? That wasn’t our shift.” Protested Harris.
“Seems them other two on duty was at the lock-in. Police can’t question ‘em when they’re pissed can they?”
“Cheers for letting us know, Graham. We’ll be seeing you.” Said Harris.
“Anything I can do?”
Harris glared at Rowebutt who shrugged and made his way back down to the shop.
Barrett read aloud from the paper:
“Police are appealing for witnesses following a hit and run incidenTt outside The Quartermaster, Frettingsbex, around 2am last night. The victim, described by witnesses as legless, was identified at the scene but no details have yet been released to press – although he is is believed to be local to the area. Anyone with any information is asked to contact the station.”
“This tape is almost full so they must have left the camera running before they buggered off to the pub. I knew they were on the swerve them two.” Harris wound it back to 1.45am and hit play. For minutes nothing happened. The roundabout was still. Floating without function somewhere in the night. Then it appeared. The Land Rover. Despite there being no other traffic on the road the vehicle indicated right on its approach, and disappeared down the hill, towards the pub at 1.57am. Harris and Barrett looked at one another.
“I’ll wipe the tape.”
The subsequent week, they were back on nights; the only audience members at the evening showing of The Roundabout. At least with the matinee performance Graham Rowebutt was in and out to provide some comic relief. Without him to supply extra dialogue, the experience became more like an art installation sound tracked by a boiling kettle. The police made their enquiries but eliminated the possibility of any useable CCTV evidence. Given that the operators had apparently forgotten to leave the camera running, and were in the pub at the time of the accident, law enforcement was at a loss. So was Barrett. He’d barely spoken since the hit and run, couldn’t quench his thirst, and had gone right off his Fruit Pastilles.
“Even if we told the police what we saw, there’s no evidence to support our claim. It’d be our word against his.” Harris broke the week-and-half stalemate. “Apart from some tacky bathroom fixtures, we can’t even tie him to the roundabout.”
“Taps were antique.”
“Yeah, and the shower heads were plastic. No weight to them at all.”
There was a silence.
“He had a family y’know. That poor bastard that got gob-full of Land Rover.” Barrett interlocked his fingers to make a hand helmet and placed it on his head.
“Oh, shit! Here we go again.” Harris starred the monitor. Barrett joined him. They watched as the Land Rover mounted the traffic island, stopped and flash its headlamps at the camera. Leisurely, the figure climbed out of the driver’s side, closed the door and walked around to the trailer. The ritual seemed to be taking longer than usual this evening.
“What is he doing back there?”
When he eventually emerged from the other side Harris felt ill and Barrett began to dry retch into the back of his hand. With a foot under each arm, the driver dragged two legs across the roundabout and dropped them in the same location he’d left the taps and the shower heads. Some time was spent arranging the legs into an ‘X’. Standing next to the limbs, the figure yanked his hood down. Looking directly at the camera he formed the final part of the most peculiar multiplication problem Harris and Barrett had ever seen: Land Rover X Frankenstein = ?