You Never Know Who Your Friends Are by Chris Green
A writer can become dangerously obsessed with fiction. The temptation to try to create something original out of an ordinary everyday situation can be hard to resist. I could not possibly know what I was getting into when I created Quentin Thief’s social media profile. Quentin was a fictional character I used in one of my short stories, Buy and Buy. When I found myself twiddling my thumbs one rainy afternoon, to amuse myself I set up gmail and Facebook accounts for him. I gave him a few page links, David Lynch, Banksy and The Prisoner to get him started, and Liked a couple of bands for him, Accidental Goat Sodomy and The Angry Samoans. I had used these band names in one of my earlier stories. I thought their unconventional names might stimulate some interesting updates on Quentin’s wall for me to check later. I created a bitstrip avatar for him, a portly figure with long hair and a beard and set him up with a couple of bitstrip adventures. I became his Facebook friend so I could play around with his day to day posts. No malice was intended. Quentin had no Facebook friends apart from me.
Quentin’s first friend request came from Seamus Dark. I had no idea how this could have happened without me logging in, but I was intrigued. Seamus was also a minor character – in Magic and Loss, one of my other recent stories. Seamus didn’t have a very detailed profile. The only Likes that he had put in were for the TV series Lost and the blind musician, Moondog. Rather than panic as perhaps I should have done, I played along with it, on the assumption that there was bound to be a simple explanation for his being there. It was surely someone playing a prank, as indeed I had been. By accepting the request, I felt that one way or another I might be able to get to the bottom of it.
The next time I logged into Facebook as Quentin, he had five friends. Besides myself and Seamus Dark, there were three others, Reuben Flood, Bob Scouler and Guy Coventry, all minor characters from stories of mine. Reuben was a character from the semi-autobiographical Quicksand, Bob from my epic tale Isn’t it Good, Norwegian Wood? and Guy from my homage to jazz and film noir, Jazz. I could find no rational explanation amongst the armada of thoughts struggling to surface. This was beginning to feel a little spooky. It was like the feeling you get at night when you think someone is following a few steps behind you. Chills ran up and down my spine.
There were a series of posts between the characters. I scrolled back through a few screens. The references were very cryptic. The copious use of acronyms, AFDN, AFT, BTDTGTS, IYNAEGBTM, etc made the messages unfathomable to a social media novice like me. I had only just grasped LOL and LMAO in internet jargon. Were they hatching some kind of plot? There certainly seemed to be a lot of collusion between them. I signed out, and signed in as myself but found, amongst my regular feeds, exactly the same posts. Now there was even a bitstrip featuring their all their avatars. They bore an uncanny resemblance to how I had visualised these characters. Quentin Thief used the avatar I had created. He wore an Aloha shirt and Bermuda shorts. Seamus Dark was decked out in a blue Paul Smith suit with narrow lapels, untied woollen tie and a pork pie hat. Reuben Flood wore painted smeared green shorts and Ché Guevara T-shirt. Bob Scouler wore a grey serge suit along with a tattersall check shirt and lovat and mauve paisley tie. His haircut, the neat central parting and the sides hanging just over the tip of his ears was from the seventies. Guy Coventry wore military combats. Despite their comical appearance, they all had expressions of purposeful intent. ‘Watch out! We’re coming to get you,’ read the tagline for the strip.
I phoned my friend, Ram, who I saw as quite knowledgeable about all IT matters. Ram banged on a bit about internet security, proxy servers, hackers, firewalls, and malware, but after a few minutes of his techspeak, I was none the wiser. What on earth were packet sniffers and keyloggers?
‘Can you come round and have a look, Ram,’ I said finally. ‘You’ll probably be able to see how this is happening just like that.’
‘I’ve just got to run a machine round to Gerry’s and I’ll be over,’ he said.
‘Gerry’s? Isn’t he in Birmingham? That’s eighty miles.’
‘About that,’ he said. ‘Seventy eight point four. Look! I’ll be over around seven, OK. Why don’t you just switch the thing off and take the dog for a walk on the common or something?’
With my writing residency in abeyance and Patti on sabbatical in San Sebastian, life was slow. Lewis was in the forces and Carroll had gone off to university, so I just had my dog, Murphy for company. Murphy had originally been Carroll’s dog but now she was in Edinburgh, he had become my responsibility. Despite his being twelve, he was still a ten miles a day dog. I was no longer a ten mile a day dog walker. It was a good thing that the common was so close. I could find a seat while Murphy ran around chasing phantom rabbits.
At The Belted Galloway, I got chatting to a couple of walkers. They waxed lyrical about the beauty of the area. How lucky I was to have this all on my doorstep and such a delightful pub, full of rustic charm. Did I know there were thirty eight species of wildflower on the common? They were just going to do another six miles and then call it a day. They had found a lovely little B and B that welcomed walkers. I began to feel I was spending too much time in front of a screen in my own internal world.
I got home late afternoon and put a pizza in the oven. I was apprehensive about switching the computer on, but finally, I did. By the time Ram arrived, a little after seven, Quentin’s Facebook friends had multiplied. There were another half dozen familiar names from my literary lexicon. This time the list also included a couple of my leading characters, Tara Vain from Tara’s World and Max Tempo from Tequila Mockingbird.
Muttering to himself, Ram started going through the feeds. Over his shoulder, I could see at a glance that Tara or Max seemed to have started most of the post entries, with various combinations of my other characters responding. Dr Bolt from A Change Is As Good As A Rest and Judson Cleary from With or Without an E seemed to have joined the fray. Dave Too from Kosmik Kitchen was there too, and Roy Tackler from Slumpton. Poor Roy. He spent most of his fictional life on the bench. I never did give him a first team game. Then there was his chronic alcoholism. The list of characters on the posts seemed to go on and on. Even Mason Wiley from a story I was in the process of writing seemed to have got in on the act.
‘GHOMCOAFA,’ Ram read out. ‘Get him off my case once and for all. Looks like someone’s out to get you.’
It was Tara, I noticed. I had described the nitty gritty of Tara’s reliance on other people, he disastrous relationships and her subsequent descent into madness. Perhaps I needn’t have been so explicit.
‘WWLWEP. We will liquidate with extreme prejudice. Max Tempo’s not too keen on you either. What did you do to upset him?’
‘Nothing, Ram. He’s fictional, remember.’
‘IGTBBTTR. I’ll get the bloody bastard this time around. Well! This doesn’t sound very fictional. What did you write about him?’
‘He was just a delusional character in my story, Tequila Mockingbird, who thought the Mexicans were out to get him. He saw signs of them everywhere. Maybe I could have been more sensitive in the way I portrayed his nervous breakdown’
‘I am not a number, I am a free man. What’s that all about?’
‘That’s a line from The Prisoner. The Prisoner is one of the likes I gave to Quentin Thief. It looks as if he’s trying to make a point.
Ram started humming a tune. It was an annoying habit he had when he’s concentrating. I worked out the tune was Puff the Magic Dragon. Puff the Magic Dragon! What was he on?
He carried on scrolling down. Another batch of acronyms appeared.
There was one from Nolan Rocco. In Slumptown I had made him the root of all evil in the story. Just thinking of him as a real character was scary. ‘IGYBFWLAM?’ I asked, before Ram moved on.
‘I’ll get you back for writing lies about me,’ said Ram with little or no hesitation. How did he know all these acronyms or was he just making them up? Perhaps it was Ram who had been creating the characters? Now I was getting paranoid. IWSMP.
‘Mick Jagger? What’s Mick Jagger doing here?’
‘He says that you mentioned him in one of your stories and he’s unhappy about it.’
‘Click on him. It can’t really be Mick Jagger, can it?’
‘2,080,706 likes. Yes, it can.’
‘He appeared briefly as a character in ‘2015 – An Odd Space Essay’, I only gave him a couple of lines.’
‘Perhaps he feels he should have had more.’ Ram began to hum Jumping Jack Flash, one of the least hummable tunes I could think of. He was thinking again.
‘Let’s sign in as you, what’s your password?’
‘Nice mix of upper and uppercase characters. Quite a secure one I’d say.’
The posts on my wall looked pretty much the same but there was now an additional one from Quentin Thief. It was the picture of a car crash.
‘What’s that all about,’ asked Ram.
‘He might be referring to the fact that one or two of my characters have had car crashes,’ I said.
‘It seems to me that because you and Quentin Thief are friends that you are going to see any post that he puts up.’
‘I’ve got that, yes.’
‘But the ones posted by the others should not show on your wall.’
‘Yes. I can follow that much.’
‘So these that are posted by Tara Vain should not be there. OK? Or the ones by Max Tempo.
‘But they are.’
‘You’ve heard of the darknet,’ he said.
I hadn’t. I wondered if it had something to do with Seamus Dark, or perhaps if Seamus Dark had something to do with the darknet.
‘It’s sometimes called the lost net,’ said Ram
I thought of one of Seamus Dark’s two likes, the TV series, Lost.
Ram explained that the term darknet was used to describe all underground web communications associated with illegal activity or dissent. ‘Don’t learn to hack, hack to learn,’ he laughed.
‘How does this fit in with what’s been happening here,’ I queried.
‘Probably nothing to do with it,’ said Ram. ‘But something weird is happening, isn’t it?’
‘What can I do about it?’ I asked.
Ram said with a wry smile, ‘You could always stop writi……..…
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved