It happened on a Thursday. I had skipped breakfast because I didn’t have the time. This wasn’t uncommon. I normally skipped breakfast.
I caught the Bakerloo line to the office in Paddington. The journey consists of two stops. Due to the overabundance of earning morning commuters, it felt like twenty stops. I sat next to an unhealthily sweaty and obese man in a business suit with headphones in his ears, piping in what sounded like heavy metal music. He was completing a crossword with a ball point pen.
I glanced casually into his lap and caught a glimpse of the puzzle. The boxes were blank, all that is, except one. There was a single word scribbled into the boxes: “Simulacrum”.
I stopped off at a little Parisian style café that I frequent on the way to the office. The clientele consist mainly of hipsters and students but the quality of coffee was impressive. I ordered a Flat White and waited whilst the barista hastily prepared my order. Whilst waiting, I glanced out of the coffee shop window and noticed a bearded homeless man across the road. He was lying on a makeshift cardboard mattress, reading a battered and weathered paperback. I stared at him, perplexed as to the fact that a homeless man still had access to books.
Suddenly, he looked up and caught my gaze. I looked away, just in time for the barista to conclude the preparation of my beverage.
I work as Insurance and Asset & Wealth Management Director for a Big Four firm. My role entailed taking technology transformation capabilities to the Asset Management client base and leveraging Target Operating Models to enable large scale global transformation programs.
My client meeting was scheduled for 10am. The meeting was a pitch for a consultancy engagement that we had codenamed Project Autumn. I went to my office and asked my assistant Agbani to bring me a double espresso. My office is frameless glass on all sides. This was part of a wider corporate initiative to affect a more transparent and open working culture. Personally, I think its bullshit.
I ran through my notes and rehearsed the presentation to myself. I had rehearsed it endlessly. In a variety of permutations. Loud. Quiet. Standing up. Sitting down. I don’t normally get nervous.
At 9.52, the client arrived in the waiting area. Agbani knocked my glass door and informed me they were here. This was unnecessary as I could clearly see through the office glass.
I put on my beige fitted jacket and collected my leather skin portfolio. I walked the office floor to the conference room where the client was being ushered in. There were three of them altogether. All middle-aged or elderly men. No women. This was going to make it harder.
We said our usual perfunctory greetings and took a seat at the conference table. The partner, John Mahler, led the meeting and I was to present the bulk of our proposal.
About two minutes into the meeting, I began feeling a peculiar sensation. It ran from the base of my spine all the way to the top of the cervical vertebrae. I began to feel a strange nausea emanating from the back of my head. I poured a glass of water and gulped half of the contents.
Finally, John handed the meeting over to me. I straightened my skirt and rose from my seat, relocating to the head of the table. I activated the plasma screen hanging behind me and began the presentation.
I proceeded to run through the main points of our pitch. Emphasizing how we were a trusted business partner with a proven track record and proficiency in showcasing quality in delivery and operational governance. It seemed to be going well. I was assertive, lucid and engaging.
Throughout the first two sections, the clients all nodded their heads in tacit agreement. When I made it to the third section, that’s when things took a turn. Abruptly, one of the partners butted in with a question.
I stopped, irritated that the interruption had broken my flow.
“Yes? Go ahead,” I responded.
“Sorry to interrupt but, what are these Autumn projections based on?” he asked.
“Well, they’re based on…”
“Because I don’t think we can ‘presume’ a current rate of return like that. The market being what it is. There are several factors coming into play here, Brexit not being the least of them. Nobody wants to be first to jump in uncertain waters.”
Everyone stared at me. I glanced at John who stared back at me with pleading eyes, begging me to provide a response that would placate the partners.
The gentleman carried on, filling the vacant silence with rude persistence. “I’m sorry but I’m just a bit concerned that that feels like a simulacrum of our forecast, as opposed to an actual and more accurate representation.”
I backtracked, mumbling, “What?”
That’s when it happened. I felt a cold shiver run from the base of my spine upwards reaching the apex of my skull. Everything went silent. My vision began to go blurry. I felt my skull begin to tremble uncontrollably. My field of vision began to narrow rapidly.
John sat up, immediately noticing that something was wrong. “Are you okay?”
Everything went black. If you’ve ever fainted at any point in your life, you’ll know what the feeling is like. If you haven’t, it starts with a lightheaded-ness, similar to the first drag on a cigarette. This is called a presyncope. Typically, an attack occurs while standing and it’s preceded by a sensation of warmth, nausea, light-headedness and visual “grey out”.
I woke up ten or twenty minutes later. I was sitting in one of the conference chairs. Three or four people were stood over me, peering into my somewhat narrow field of vision.
“Can you hear me?”
I nodded. John was staring into my eyes.
“Blink if you can hear me.”
I blinked a couple of times to show that I wasn’t paralyzed.
“Okay, try and sit up.”
There were two associates standing either side of him. They helped me to sit up in the chair.
“Yes. Fainted. Have you ever fainted before?”
One of the associates poured me a glass of water. They handed it to me. I grasped it without saying thank you.
“I think we should get you to a hospital”
“No. I’m fine John”
“You’re not fine. You just collapsed in the middle of a fucking client proposal.”
I tidied my hair and then realized the gravity of what he just uttered.
“The client?” I said plainly.
“They’ve left. We’ll pick up with them next week. Don’t worry.”
“Look. It’s nothing to worry about.” He turned to one of the associates. “Will you call her a cab?”
The associate nodded and promptly exited the conference room. I turned to John.
“What on earth for?”
“To take you to the bloody hospital”
“I don’t need a hospital. I’m fine”
“Well then, go home and rest. You’re overworked. Too many late nights and early mornings.”
After another few minutes of arguing, I finally relented and agreed to go home and rest up on the provision that I could return to work the following day if all was well. The cab arrived downstairs. I packed up my things and got the elevator to the ground floor.
It was a bleak day. There was a gentle rain pattering on the building windows. I got in the cab and instructed the driver to take me to Marylebone. The early morning traffic was exasperating.
We turned the corner and drove past the British Library. A thought struck me.
“Stop the cab!” I shouted. He pulled over suddenly and turned to face me. “I thought you wanted to go to…”
“I changed my mind.”
I opened my purse and grab a wad of cash. I dropped it on the passenger seat in front of me and got out. I shut the door and walked through the rain towards the front entrance.
The library interior was tranquil. There were a few students sat at their laptops, earphones in, working on their dissertations, no doubt. I sauntered over to the reception and put my soaking handbag down on the marble surface.
The elderly receptionist looked up, adjusting her glasses that had a lanyard attached.
“Yes?” She asked.
“Dictionary” I muttered.
“Can you direct me to a dictionary?”
The receptionist put her glasses on and consulted her desktop computer. She typed a few commands on her antiquated keyboard. It’s a cliché that elderly people are bad with computers but it doesn’t make it untrue.
After a few moments, she looked up at me. “Aisle 13B.”
I left without saying thank you.
After finding the precise shelf, I perused the periodicals on display and finally found an Oxford English Dictionary. I flipped through the pages tetchily until I came across it:
a slight, unreal, or superficial likeness or semblance.
an effigy, image, or representation:
“Sim-yuh-ley-kruhm” I said out loud to myself. “Sim-yuh-ley-kruhm.” I said it again, relishing the soft smack of my tongue on the roof of my palate as I pronounced it.
I returned the book to its home and exited the library. The torrential rain had intensified and was forming gigantic puddles that were hindering pedestrians and cyclists. Next door to the library was a small independent coffee shop. The type of place I avoid. But the outdoors didn’t seem like an attractive option.
I entered and found a vacant seat. A waitress behind the counter ceased reading her fluffy middle-class paperback and came over.
“Hi. What can I get you?”
I glanced up at the board.
“Oh, um, Cappuccino. Skimmed milk.”
“Sure thing,” she said, before scurrying off.
I glanced around surreptitiously, trying to find some sign. Some evidence. Searching. Scanning. It must be somewhere.
After several minutes, the waitress returned and set down a cappuccino with one of those heart shaped decorations fizzling in the foam. I took a sip. It was bitter. Too many coffee beans.
I glanced around the coffee shop. There were a few patrons, but not many. An old, bearded man sat feeding biscuits to the small bedraggled dog at his feet. Two middle-aged women were discussing an upcoming social engagement. A younger man sat by himself in the corner, on his Apple Mac computer, no doubt working on his ‘novel’.
I took a few more sips and then set the cup down. I reached into my purse and fetched a few coins which I left on the table. I got up and left.
The rain has slightly subsided. People were still brandishing umbrellas of various shapes and colours. I could be anywhere. Paris. Berlin. Tokyo. I turned and looked up at the cafe marquee hanging over my head. The name of the café read: Simulacrum.
I walked to a doctor’s surgery in Edgware Road. It was a private practice. I wasn’t registered as a patient, but that didn’t matter when I offered to pay double the normal rate. I waited a mere five minutes to see the consultant.
“What can I do for you?” he asked. He was an overweight man with a receding hairline. I could see the shape of his head through his fading grey hair.
“I keep seeing the same word everywhere.”
“I had an incident where I fainted at work this morning. And I can’t stop seeing the same word. I think they’re linked.”
“What word?” he asked, his tone somewhere between confusion and bewilderment.
“Simulacrum,” I responded.
“What does that mean?”
“I looked it up. It means a representation or imitation of a person or thing.”
I looked at him with pleading eyes.
“Do you have a history of fainting?” he asked. “No.” I responded, unequivocally.
“Well, I can give you something for that.” He started scribbling a prescription.
“What about the word?” I asked, growing impatient. I wanted answers. I wanted some sort of tangible, rational explanation for these outlandish but seemingly linked occurrences.
“I’m afraid that’s not my field,” he said regretfully.
“Well, whose field is it?” I shot back.
He looked up at me, peering through his glasses. He ripped off the prescription and waved it in the air.
“Go to Park West and ask for Doctor Ensslin. He’s your man.”
I got a cab to Park West. I didn’t feel like walking and the rain had resumed. However, I discovered that getting past Dr Ensslin’s receptionist without an appointment proved even more problematic.
“I’m sorry. If you don’t have an appointment, there’s nothing I can do,” he said. I glanced into the waiting room. There were one or two people waiting. In any event, the waiting list of patients did not appear look full.
“Please. It’s really important,”
“I’m really sorry,” he uttered before returning to his work. I reached into my purse and collected a roll of notes.
After filling out a form and waiting for forty five minutes, I finally got into the consultation room. I took a seat near the window. I glanced up at the wall at the array of diplomas on show. Dr Ensslin had obtained his doctorate in psychology from the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1990. After another ten minutes waiting, he finally entered.
“My apologies,” he said. He took off his coat.
“Can I get you anything?” he asked, looking me up and down.
“I’m fine,” I replied.
He took another two minutes looking over my details.
“So,” he finally said, “what brings you here?”
“I had an incident this morning. I fainted at work.” I explained.
“I see,” he replied.
“And now, I can’t stop seeing the same word. Wherever I go. Wherever I look. Here. There. Everywhere. I mean, six hours ago, I didn’t even know what it meant. Now, I’m seeing it everywhere.”
“What word are we talking about?” he asked, sounding more and more interested.
“Simulacrum,” I said.
Abruptly, he got up out of his chair and sauntered towards the window. He stared down at the street below.
I waited awkwardly whilst he seemed to enjoy his private momentary respite.
After a few minutes, he muttered “Baader Meinhof.”
“What you’re describing sounds like the Baader Meinhof effect.”
Naturally, I asked what on earth he was talking about. He then proceeded to give me a tediously long-winded explanation that seemed more an exercise in showcasing his intellectual vanity than getting to the root of my problem. For your benefit, and for the purposes of time, I’ll try and truncate it into a more succinct and esculent summary.
In 1994, a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ online discussion board posted that he had heard of the Baader Meinhof group, a left-wing militant group that were active in West Germany from 1970 to 1998, twice in the space of 24 hours. The phrase became a meme on the newspaper’s boards, where it still pops up regularly, and has spread across the wider Internet becoming known as The Baader Meinhof effect or phenomenon.
Got all that? Don’t worry. You’ll hear about it again soon.
Have you ever heard or seen something, it could be a person, a book, a film, a style of dance, the name of a flower. Whatever. It’s something you think you’ve never heard about before. Suddenly, it crops up everywhere. You hear someone mention it on the train. You read about it in the paperback you’re digesting. You hear it mentioned in a television program. It’s everywhere.
You’ve probably experienced it. You just didn’t realise there was a name for it.
The explanation is simple. Your brain, which loves patterns the way a dog loves Frisbees, is excited by the fact that you’ve learned something new, something fresh, and a type of selective attention takes hold. So now that your brain is subconsciously looking for it, it finds it everywhere it looks.
“It’s perfectly normal,” he assured me, as all mediocre doctors do.
“It doesn’t feel like a normal thing,” I countered, slightly riled by his insouciant demeanor.
A few minutes later, I decided to leave promptly. It didn’t take long for me to realize that, other than providing an adequate explanation to my quandary, Doctor Ensslin was useless to me.
I flagged down the first Hackney cab I saw and instructed the driver to take me back to my flat in Marylebone. When I got home, I poured myself a glass of tap water and drank the whole thing in one gulp. The events of the day raced through my mind like horses on a racetrack. What the hell was going on?
I sat down at my personal computer and googled the word ‘Simulacrum.’ The web browser returned 1,740,000 results. There was nothing of note. Then, something caught my eye:
‘Do You Always See The Word ‘Simulacrum’? THIS Is What It Means’
Further down, there was a whole website dedicated to the word. Upon reading through the message boards, it transpired there was a whole community online of people who repeatedly see the word ‘simulacrum’ everywhere. It’s the same way there are hundreds of websites online dedicated to people who see the number s11:11 everywhere. A growing number of people around the world were repeatedly seeing small signs like this. Upon further investigation, there were numerous different explanations as to who or what is sending us these subtle messages ranging from belief in angels, inter-dimensional beings, the universe itself and even God.
I scrolled through the website. There was no clear explanation elucidated, just numerous outlandish waffle and guesswork. I decided to approach the website owner. Let’s call him Kevin. I emailed Kevin offering him an explanation as to what had occurred and listing the instances that occurred that had brought me to his website.
I took a shower and drank a green tea. When I returned to my personal computer, there was a reply waiting in my inbox.
Kevin thanked me for getting in contact. He explained he was aware of the Baader Meinhof phenomenon and wanted to discuss further, either on the phone or in person. He asked me where I was based.
I wrote back explaining I lived in Marylebone. He replied almost instantaneously. Coincidentally, he lived in Harrow. A mere 35 minutes on the tube. I explained to Kevin that I was uncomfortable meeting him at his home or vice versa. Kevin suggested meeting at a pub named The Golden Curtain in a couple of hours.
I dressed and got ready. My phone pinged. John was emailing to check whether I was okay. I didn’t reply. I was running late and didn’t have time.
I jumped in an Uber. The journey took around 17 minutes. The driver tried to make small talk about the weather, the European Union and the current Labour party leadership, but I was neither listening to him nor was I interested.
The Golden Curtain looked like your typical archaic run-down pub from the 1970s that was still desperately clinging on to business despite declining clientele. Despite its appellation, there were no opulent drapes or shutters.
I glanced around the pub and noticed a small meek, bearded and disheveled young man sitting in the corner, a half-empty pint of stout in front of him. I approached and he introduced himself as Kevin. I shook his hand and offered to buy me a drink. I thanked him and requested a Singapore Sling.
When he returned with the drinks, he took and seat and began to explain what had lead him to set up the website.
When he was thirteen, he was watching an episode of the TV series Countdown when one of the contestants mentioned the ‘simulacrum.’ Kevin asked his dad what the word meant. Kevin’s dad had no idea and told him to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary. For the next sixteen years, Kevin began to see the word everywhere.
He would see it in cheap paperbacks, at bus stops, in pubs and clubs, in crossword puzzles and on billboard advertisements. He would overhear it in conversation at the barber’s.
The word was stalking him.
“So I went to a psychologist and he told me about…”
“The Baader Meinhof Phenomenon?” I interrupted.
“Correct,” he replied, “but I wasn’t convinced. It seemed more than just a simple cognitive bias that people get now and then. There seemed to be something more. A pattern. A communication. Like someone or something was trying to get a message to me.”
“What are you talking about?”
He glanced around him, as if to suggest the topic of our conversation had rerouted into covert territory.
“Have you ever heard of the Simulation Theory?” he asked.
I shook my head ominously. This is exactly what I’d feared. Without pause for thought or hesitation, I’d blindly rushed into an interaction with someone who I thought could provide me with answers. Unfortunately, I was about to be treated to what can only be described as a barrage of claptrap.
“It’s the idea that our reality is actually an artificial simulation created by a superior intelligence or being”
“What? You mean, we’re living in a video game?” I asked incredulously.
“Precisely,” he said, pleased with the lucidness of his explanation. “This isn’t just a load of stoner hogwash or a philosopher’s joke,” he continued “International scientists have sufficient reason to believe that the universe is a simulation because there’s evidence it behaves mathematically and is broken down into pieces. Think of the pixels in a video game. That’s how subatomic particles function.”
I shifted in my seat uncomfortably. I had little desire to proceed with this conversation.
“You don’t believe me do you?” he said.
“To be perfectly frank, no,” I replied. “I think you’ve been watching too many Keanu Reeves films. That sounds like a lot of pseudo-science coated in an awful lot of poppycock.”
“There’s no need to get facetious” he said, defensively. “You came here wanting answers to your questions. I never said that they’d be answers you’d want to hear.”
“I’m sorry but what does this have to do with the price of tea in China? What does that have to do with my seeing the same word over and over again?”
“I believe it is an indicator of the universe’s movements and trends. Different word repetitions mean different messages that are encoded within the simulation. Again, think of it like a video game. Do you ever play video games?”
I stared at him blankly. “Do I look like the sort of person who plays video games?”
“Sometimes when you’re playing a video game, there are glitches or bugs in the software code that can cause drastic problems to a player. They can be issues with the display and graphics, collision detection errors, game freezes and crashes, sound errors and so on. I believe that the reason that you and I are seeing the same words repeated over and over again is because of a glitch in the code of our simulated reality.”
This is where he really lost me. I took a long sip of my Singapore Slinger.
“And who is in charge of this ‘simulated reality’?” I asked, unsure why I was persisting in humoring this man.
“A superior species or primordial being. A God. We call them ‘controllers.’”
“Controllers?” I asked. He nodded eagerly. He persisted, “And they’re amongst us. They’re everywhere. Like carbonated bubbles in a soft drink.”
I laughed. He lent forward.
“Think about it. Think about how many things that have happened in past twelve months that just don’t make sense on a rationale level. That was unexpected, off-kilter or out of whack.” He listed on his fingers, “Celebrity deaths. Brexit. The US Election. The mix-up at the Oscars. They’re all glitches in the programming.”
He went on like this for quite some time, ruminating on his theory and batting away skepticism. Finally, I could take no more of it. I drank the rest of my Singapore Slinger and stood up.
“I’m sorry,” I announced, “I really have to go.”
“Have I said something wrong?” he asked, awkwardly scratching his beard.
“No,” I replied, “but there’s no polite way of saying this, I think this was a waste of time. I’m not interested in conspiracy theories.”
“It wasn’t a waste of time,” he countered. “And it’s not a conspiracy theory. You’re just not ready to hear it yet.”
His superciliousness riled me. I was a primary school teacher being spoken down to by a pupil.
I decided to walk half a mile to avoid the tedium of waiting outside the pub for a cab. I was also wary of Kevin following me and attempting to continue our interaction.
I caught a nearby Uber which took me home. I opened a bottle of Australian Chardonnay and drank three glasses in quick succession. After flicking through several channels on the television, I decided to have an early night in order to be match-fit for work the following morning. I was in the bathroom, brushing my teeth when it happened again.
I was standing at the sink, looking at the mirror when I began feeling the peculiar sensation. Once again, it ran from the base of my spine all the way to the top of the cervical vertebrae. I began to feel a strange nausea emanating from the back of my head. I poured a glass of water and gulped half of the contents. My field of vision began to narrow. I felt my skull tremble uncontrollably. Then I collapsed and blacked out.
The next morning, I awoke up on the bathroom floor. I had dried vomit sticking to the side of my mouth. Nausea and fatigue swept over me in a wave of dizziness. I felt hungover. I felt jet lagged. But I had neither drunk an excessive amount of alcohol nor crossed several time zones. There were shards of glass all over the floor. I pulled myself up and turned on the tap. I washed my face and then made the short journey to the kitchen.
After collecting the pieces of glass and getting dressed, I caught the Bakerloo train to the office. I managed to get a seat. I noticed the unhealthily sweaty and obese man standing opposite me in the carriage. Heavy metal music was screeching from his headphones. Once again, he was completing a crossword with a ball point pen. I stood up and crossed the carriage under the pretense that I was getting off at the next stop. He had his back to me. I glanced over his shoulder to get a glimpse at the puzzle.
‘Simulacrum’ was nowhere to be found amongst the white boxes adorning the page. A small tingle of relief crept over me.
I got off the tube and walked the short distance to the café where I collect my morning coffee. This morning, the café was experiencing unprecedented levels of business and the queue was stretching out of the door. Finally, I ordered a Flat White and waited several minutes for the barista to prepare.
I glanced outside the door, to see the homeless man lying under the bridge. He was still reading his battered book. A group of teenagers had gathered nearby and were hurling abuse and insults. I couldn’t make out clearly but the nature of the insults stemmed from the unmistakable stench of urine.
A peculiar feeling swept over me. A feeling of powerlessness, as if my whole being had been taken over by a foreign body.
Without thinking, I suddenly ordered another Flat White from the barista. He wasn’t impressed to be greeted with another order upon handing me my first. The queue behind me didn’t seem impressed either. I paid for the second cup and left the shop. I walked straight across the road and approached the homeless man sleeping on a cardboard bed.
He stopped reading and peered up at me.
“What do you want?” he asked. I offered him the coffee.
“I’m not going to give you money because you’d probably spent it on booze, heroin or pills or I don’t know what. But please, have this.”
He took it, uncertain. A group of teenagers watched me from outside the coffee shop.
“Can I talk to you for a second?” I asked the homeless man.
He nodded. “What book are you reading?” I asked him, trying to make conversation.
He flicked through the battered and worn pages. “It’s a book about the Cold War.”
“The Cold War?” I asked, intrigued. He nodded irritably. I continued, “What about the Cold War in particular?”
“Um,” he started, “The chapter I’m reading at the moment is about a left-wing militant group that committed terrorist acts in Germany from in 1970s…”
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