He hunches over me with heavy breath, excited eyes and a large bogey clinging to a hair in his nostril. His gaze is on the screen as fingers caress my sides, stroke my casing, slide over the tracker and hit the first keys. He clicks on favourites, finds Twitter, adds user name AlphaMalePlus and the password SexMachine100. Tweets spool onto my screen, topped by the bell with twenty-six notifications and envelope with three messages. He reads the latter first: one saying he’s a devil, one that he’s sad and the third asking if he wants to join the Movement for True White British Patriotism. He deletes all three then scans the notifications, smiling at compliments, sneering at rebukes, responding to a handful with a collection of profanities and the repetition of “Get a life!” It’s followed by a slurp of Coke and a handful of Walker’s cheese and onion before he begins his daily search, names and hashtags that he has noted or related to the day’s stories in The Mail. Tweets catch his attention and he fires off responses.
You beardy fundamentalist fuckhead!
Keep your whingeing femiNazi opinions to yourself you ugly dyke bitch!
Get lost you racist Nazi donkey fucker!
You can’t sing, you can’t act and your mother should have flushed you down the toilet!
Abuse shoots through my motherboard, into the wireless node, hits the router and spews around the internet, provoking groans, chuckles, shaking heads and surges of anger. Most will ignore it for now, some will recognise the handle and block him, a few will respond. And tomorrow there will be another clutch of messages and notifications to make him happy. It’s reactions, not what they say, that matter.
Twenty-fours later and sure enough there’s a new round of replies.
What’s wrong with you?
Your words only convey the underlying misogyny of the patriarchal hegemony in modern society.
I see the corners of his mouth curl, a triumphant twitch at having irritated, disturbed, maybe caused sleepless nights for a couple of recipients. It’s the final message on my screen that changes his expression.
I remember the time you messed your trunks in the school swimming pool.
His fingers freeze on my keyboard; it’s the first time I’ve seen fear in his eyes. Then he clicks on the sender’s profile – Jackanory, with the TV show’s 1980s logo as an image – finds forty or so tweets about talent shows and Radio 2 presenters. There is a minute or so of uncertainty and then he blocks it, shielding himself from whoever lurks at the far end.
He returns to his routine, scanning hashtags and handles, throwing out abuse, but he is slower and more uncertain than usual. After a few minutes he opens a new tab, enters LinkedIn and begins to type names into the search box. He doesn’t click to enter any of their profiles, but they match names in recesses of my hard drive, repeats of searches from months or years ago. All boys’ names, probably from his school. Each time he pauses and stares with eyes conveying a mental calculation, but there is no moment of revelation. It goes on for fifteen minutes until he logs out of the platform and into a website with XXX in its title. Now I have to endure half an hour of writhing bodies and artificial moans before he spurts a white mess onto my frame and lets out a relieved sigh.
Usually that ends it for the day, but for a while he glares at me, then logs back into Twitter as HighAndMighty – the alternative identity he turns to when he has been blocked – and searches for the handle Jackanory. He finds a new tweet praising a dance by a TV presenter on Strictly, and lobs another brick.
@Jackonary you must be blind. I’ve seen amputees dance better than that clodhopping tart.
He logs out and shuts down.
Two days later he logs in again and spends an hour typing names into Facebook, LinkedIn, Google; peering at photos, job titles, shreds of the lives of men he knew as boys. Some take up more time than others, prompting a sustained sneer and an angry dance in his eyes. Then he enters Twitter, searches handles and hashtags and spends half an hour in a fresh round of abuse.
You’ve always been useless! You should have retired before you started!
You’re an ideal couple, because you’re both thick and ugly!
You’d look better with your head in a pile of shit!
He smiles, picks his nose, seems satisfied, but then logs out of AlphaMalePlus and into HighAndMighty. There’s a reply to his reply from Jackanory.
I know that’s you AlphaMalePlus. I hope you’ve stopped picking your nose all the time.
His face flushes red and nose snorts. His finger goes to his nostril but he stops and moves out of sight. My microphone picks up the sound of a nose blowing into a tissue. For a few minutes I can see only a blank wall, hear a quiet muttering, then he returns and smashes three words into the keyboard.
You retard scum!
He blocks Jackanory on that account and logs out.
Another two days and he’s back as AlphaMalePlus, spraying abuse, chortling at the expressions of indignation, when a notification pops up. The first word is a handle he hasn’t seen before, @WatchWithMother, followed by words that knock him off balance.
Robert, you must calm down. This is doing you no good.
He shudders and snorts a light spray of snot onto my screen. His fingers hover over my keys until he curls them into fists and thumps my frame half a dozen times. Then he scatters fingers over the keypad and hits send.
Im mot Robret!!!
He slams me shut. All is dark and quiet but my battery idles, waiting the fifteen minutes before my systems close. It’s nearly time when fingers prise me open, reactivate my screen and enter the password. My memory kicks in and reopens the Twitter page. I expect him to block WatchWithMother but a shot from the router throws up another notification. He opens the message.
@Jackanory = @WatchWithMother = Mum.
I feel the vibration as his hands slap the table to my sides. His face is a picture of panic. His fingers slide onto my frame but stop short of the keyboard then retreat. He places a hand on my lid, pulls it forward by an inch, pauses, pushes it back and twitches. Another message shoots onto my screen.
I like that young man who sings and acts. I follow him and I saw the rude message you sent.
Fingers drop to my keyboard and smash out a reply.
You’re mad! I don’t know you!
At the moment he sends the message another appears.
I knew it was you because of what you said, that his mother should have flushed him down the toilet.
Now he withdraws. I see his hands rise then come down on the edge of the desk and he pushes himself back. It takes twenty seconds for another message to arrive.
I think you must have remembered from when you were young, when I was ill.
Nothing for a minute. His eyes remain on my screen but they seem to have turned inwards, his attention locked onto something in his own mind. Then another message.
One day I was really horrible and said I wished that I’d flushed you down the toilet.
Another pause. Now I see his face crease into a self-pitying pain. The next message comes.
It is you Robert, isn’t it.
For a few seconds he’s still, but then his fingers return to my keyboard and tap nervously.
He places a hand over his eyes and I watch it shudder, press into his cheeks as tears emerge from both side. It’s two minutes before the next message, but others follow quickly.
I feel horrible about what happened when you were young, and I know it must still hurt you.
Since then I’ve had help. I’ve examined myself. I’m much better.
But I can see you’re unwell. You need help as well.
It has to be someone other than me, someone much more skilled. But as a first step, can we just look at each other and talk?
Are you on Skype?
He sits with head in his hands and closed eyes for another minute, presses a knuckle to his nose and takes a deep breath. Then he places the cursor in a message box and gently types an account name.
He leaves the room. Five minutes pass. He returns with a freshened complexion and damp hair, as if his face has been in a basinful of water. He clicks on the Skype icon, looks at his account name on the screen and waits another minute before typing in the password. That weird little noise runs through my speakers and his account box opens with an indication that a call is waiting. He closes his eyes, nods his head as if counting to ten, then presses the receive button. My videostream facility kicks in and the sad, concerned face of a middle aged woman floods my screen. A fresh tear appears in his eye. His lip quivers and he speaks quietly.
“I’m sorry Mummy.”
Image: Electronic Frontier Foundation graphic, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 through Wikimedia