“Morning,” said Janet. As usual, she was the only other person there at quarter past eight in the morning.
Keith was too out of breath to manage more than a grunt in reply, but they went to work on the same bus most days so she’d know what he meant.
“Does he look familiar?” asked Janet.
Keith followed her gaze to someone who was dashing toward them even faster than Keith had done, probably because the rain was coming down properly now.
“Isn’t that the weird kid from school?” Keith had recovered enough to speak in sentences, as long as they were short sentences. “What was his name?”
“Yeah, that’s right-” She broke off and jumped to one side.
The man stacked into the side of the bus shelter where she’d been standing, hitting it hard enough that Keith expected the whole flimsy structure to come down. He reached out to steady the man as he reeled back. “Steady there, mate, are you OK?”
“What? Me? Oh, yeah, sorry ’bout that.” The man looked dazed, which made Keith sure that he was the boy he’d known at school. The face in front of him might have a few more lines around the eyes and a few less hairs on the scalp, but there was no forgetting that dazed look. It had appeared at around the age of twelve and hadn’t faded until the day they’d left the school and gone their separate ways. Nor, it appeared, had it been attenuated since. If only Keith could remember the name.
“It’s Terry, isn’t it?” asked Janet, much to Keith’s relief.
Surprise washed away the dazed expression for a moment, but it was back in place before he replied. “Yeah, how did you know? Hang on, it’s Janet, isn’t it? And you’re Keith, right?”
Which reminded Keith that Terry hadn’t always been as dazed as he looked. More than one teacher had been surprised when they thought they caught him dozing, only to receive a perfect answer to the question they’d thrown him.
Keith shook his hand. Janet reached toward Terry for a hug but he didn’t seem to notice, intercepting her extended hand for a shake instead.
“What are you doing with yourself these days, Terry?” asked Keith.
“You know, this and that. Worrying about politics.”
“You and the rest of Britain,” said Janet.
Keith heard the subtext of ‘let’s not go there’ in her tone. It would be a pity to spoil a reunion by finding they were in opposite trenches in the Battle of Brexit.
“It’s all gone crazy.” Sharp as he was when it came to remembering names and facts, Terry never had been good at picking up subtext. “Crazy leaders all over the world clowning for crazy voters on Twitter. Crazy climate.”
Terry threw his hands up toward the roof of his shelter, which roared back at him with the sound of the rainstorm. “Is that a tropical storm in England or a winter downpour in August? Either way, it’s crazy. Then I started noticing the alliteration.”
He paused for breath. Keith looked at Janet. Terry was getting more and more manic as he spoke, and Keith hoped Janet had some way of heading off the lunatic conspiracy theory that Terry looked like he was working up to. Unfortunately, Janet was looking back at him in a way that said she was hoping he’d do the heading off.
Terry so obviously wanted them to ask what he meant that Keith found himself asking, “alliteration?” before he could stop himself.
“Yeah, alliteration.” Terry was off again before Keith had even started to wince. “I’d have missed it if it wasn’t for the crazy leaders. Duterte, Orbán, Modi, Putin, Erdoğan, Salvini. Populist nationalists taking over all over the world. They had to be messing with us, right?”
“Trump,” said Janet, showing Terry’s intensity was drawing her in as much as it was Keith. “Hang on, who’s messing with us?”
“That’s it! The alliteration!” Terry sounded like he thought he was answering Janet’s question. “That’s where I saw it. With Trump. I mean, with his spokespeople. Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders. All alliterated.”
“Kellyanne Conway isn’t-” Keith didn’t get any further before Terry cut him off.
“Sure, not if you write it down, but it’s alliterated phonetically. That’s what matters. Seriously, what are the chances that all of them are alliterated? And that two of them had the initials, ‘SS’? Like Heinrich Himmler’s lot?” Terry frowned. “Hang on, he’s alliterated too. That means-”
“What are the chances?” asked Janet. “There are a lot of alliterated names around.”
“Tiny, that’s what they are.”
Janet’s question had pulled Terry back from whatever rabbit hole he’d been about to follow Heinrich Himmler down. Keith wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.
“All right, there was Scaramucci. But he only lasted two weeks and anyway, that’s not even a real name. It sound like a character from a romcom about a Mafia boss. That was messing with us so much it goes beyond alliteration, that’s what Scaramucci was.”
“But that’s America,” said Keith. “we’re not in America. This is Britain.”
“Right, right, and look what’s happening over here.”
Keith had been trying to puncture Terry’s enthusiasm, but it looked as if he’d doubled it instead.
“We’ve got a prime minister called Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson! He sounds like they mixed up Downing Street with the Russian channel on Pornhub. Then we’ve got an alliterated home secretary and a rhyming chancellor.”
Terry stopped and looked at them as if he’d made an incontrovertible point. Keith exchanged another look with Janet, who looked as bemused as he felt.
“Priti Patel and Sajid Javid.” Terry’s impatient tone told Keith he was sure they’d agree with him if they actually knew who the home secretary and the chancellor were. “It’s the final proof.”
“Proof of what?” Janet sounded like she expected to regret asking, but was committed to following Terry’s train of thought to the bitter end.
“It proves that they’re messing with us. Like I said. You know. Them.”
“Let’s pretend we don’t know.” Keith found himself sharing Janet’s commitment to seeing this through, though he wasn’t sure if it was because he wanted to know what was going on in Terry’s head or that there was no chance of Terry letting either of them go until he’d got there.
“The programmers,” said Terry. “I mean, I mean, none of this can be real, can it? You don’t get world leaders like Trump and Boris in real life, do you? We’re in a simulated world. It’s some kind of experiment. And the programmers got bored. They started giving us clues. Like in Dickens, where the characters have names that tell you who they are but they’re all too thick to notice.”
Keith wanted to object. There had to be a logical flaw and any minute now, he’d work out what it was.
“If that’s true, do you think it’s a good idea to go around telling everyone about it?” Janet spoke slowly, trying to sound soothing. “What will the programmers do if they know you know? Perhaps there’s a reason why the kids in Mr McChoakumchild’s class thought it was a bad idea to mention his name, hm?”
“It doesn’t matter who I tell.” Terry did not sound soothed. “They’re the programmers. They know what I’m thinking whether I say it aloud or not. They can read our source code, guys.”
Keith closed his eyes to concentrate better. There had to be a flaw in Terry’s logic somewhere but trying to find it was like feeling for a handhold while sliding down a slope of featureless ice, his hands flailing for purchase but clutching at empty air.
He opened his eyes, sure there was something he’d forgotten. He’d been think about it a mere moment ago. He checked his pocket, but his phone and keys were there so it wasn’t he’d left either of them at home yet again.
“Did you hear something?” asked Janet.
“I’m… I’m not sure. Was it like someone talking?”
“Yes.” Janet frowned. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
Keith was so preoccupied that he didn’t notice the bus pulling up to the stop until the doors hissed open behind him. He followed Janet on board and sat next to her. His gaze was drawn to the empty bus stop, and he noticed Janet staring in the same direction. She turned and met his gaze, looking as puzzled as he felt.
They both shrugged and went to work.