Last week, I shared with you the opening of my novel – except it’s not the true opening to my novel. I wrote a prologue.
Now, internet wisdom says that if you show a script to a publisher with a prologue in it, they’ll put it in the bin. This is pretty ridiculous, but I imagine that such ‘wisdom’ is actually baloney. There is something to be said for using ‘crutches’ like prologues by way of lazy exposition.
I would argue there are times when a prologue is a very sensible conveyor for some important context and clues to character background, a flashback to a moment from the protagonist’s life. Some great novels use mini-prologues to tell the story throughout, like clue-shaped breadcrumbs that slowly reveal a character’s worldview and their past intentions.
What is your opinion on prologues?
Here’s my prologue, which also functions as a short story.
Autumn 3.29 HC, 2209
“I’m sorry I’m late.” I blustered in through the door, my shopping falling to the floor and spilling out of my bags. The lid of a round, cylindrical box rolled away, revealing a high-end gold watch. A gift for Helena. “Transport, am I right? Hi, I’m Javier. You say it Spanish, Jjj, like that.” Tell them your name before they mispronounce it, Helena cooed in my ear last night. Helena loved it when I called her Jjjelena. I doubted Hugo the Head of HR, sitting directly across from me, would find it so amusing.
It was already embarrassing for them. I loved social stuff like that. Like when you do something wrong in public and no one wants to say anything because they’re almost more embarrassed than you. In Spanish it’s called ‘verguenza ajena’. The shame of other people.
It was all an act, of course. Not the needing the job part – I needed that like I needed a hole in the head, but I had a hole in my bank account. The accent was a massive door opener. Javier was a young self-starter from a poor country who had managed to make it in the Capital. I was an experienced player in this game. Even better if you could play double jeopardy with it. “My partner at home, Ricky, told me great things about your company,” I lied. I mean, I had a friend called Ricky. And, well, once I kept a guy for company, but that was a while ago. I was experimenting. They didn’t need to know that part. And the shopping? Also an act. I didn’t need this job if I could buy expensive gold watches, right? And being late? “And my sister Alexa works here, too, on the tenth floor?” Spice it up with just a hint of nepotism: if you like our family product, surely you’ll buy again. Then I’d wow them with my extensive experience in leading concurrent workstreams, drafting scenarios on the impact of company behaviours and successful engagement resulting in multi-million investments in deprived areas.
In truth, the being late wasn’t an initial part of my strategy, but I decided to own it. I don’t really watch the news anymore – far too depressing. If I had, I might have taken a different route to work that morning and arrived five minutes early, as planned. As it was, I had become caught up in some mass demonstration scheduled for 9am that day, to protest the cuts or something. It was led by the people who weren’t as expert as me in cheating the system, or so I thought. Is it arrogance if it’s true? These people were there because they were genuinely disadvantaged, yes – but if they only worked a little harder and improved their game playing skills, they might all have jobs.
Mass unemployment, then, or worker’s rights or something. Different day, pick a different problem from the hat. Not mine, not my struggle. I felt sorry for them, but this morning they were in my fucking way to an interview. It was almost as bad as when the transport workers were striking. Then they got struck off. Strike and you’ll get struck. The language of irony. Four months later they offered the jobs to other people.
It was a weird journey, actually. I ended up walking most of the way. The protesters were dressed in black and most of them wore white masks with horizontal slashes across them, like their faces had been lacerated by a three-clawed beast. The beast was the machine. The man. Wait, man or machine? Others put white sheets over their heads to hide their identities. No visible eyeholes, but the same three tears across the front. No faces. All marching forwards at different paces. All in eight different shades of black, apart from the masks. For a common cause. And there were fucking loads of them, I mean, you had to push through. Some of them turned their heads towards you ominously, like they were trying to freak you out. Maybe if they spent less time on their costumes…
Yes, I understood why they felt this way, but how sorry can you feel for a turkey that votes for… well, you know. When you believe the lie the first time, shame on the liar, but when you believe it again, and again, and again, always trusting, never doubting, shouting down people who are trying to help you? So we were all in this together, said the top to the bottom. I wasn’t really sure where that left me, and Ricky, and Helena, and the people we drank beer with and complained about the world outside while we got on with our jobs, making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and shitting on both of them because we were hanging in there, unlike everyone else. We were the true protagonists of our stories.
It was good that they hid their faces. I’m not being mean, it’s not their fault, is it? Not when they don’t have access to public health care, or nutritious foods, or moisturiser.
That’s why it was often a risk to go for a new job. If it got back to your current employer that you were looking elsewhere, they’d probably drop you like you were hot. Less so for me.
By the end of this interview they’d want me, and I’d accept, but not before being offered a job somewhere else where they wanted to pay me 20% more than here – but that was fine because I wanted to work here more, as a strategy designer, in a company with great ethics, in a company that cared.
I hated all this bullshit, genuinely I did – but I was very good at it. In the last four years I’d been promoted three times by carefully planning my next steps, learning just enough, wowing my managers just enough, and most importantly smiling and charming the senior management just enough to make them think I was doing that thing that every company seemed to want you to do – ‘add value’. “You’re really adding value here, Javier,” they’d say. At which point I would start my careful search for the next thing. Always leave them smiling. Get invited back to the festive drinks. Make them realise they should’ve offered you something more. Then you apply again in a couple of years. They’re gagging for someone like you. It’s the circle of life.
Javier is my name – but that Javier wasn’t me. I wondered whether anyone coming into one of these rooms was themselves. I mean, there were checks, of course. You couldn’t just be anyone, come in and say anything you liked. You had to be able to back it up.
I really was born somewhere else, but I was raised here. I had all the privileges that you could claim, but I sneaked under the bar to call myself under-privved in as many categories as I could. Check my medical records and you’ll find I had a car accident three years ago. I still limp today – if I have to. I brought my cane in – it clattered to the floor earlier with my shopping – didn’t you notice? Check my address and you’d see I really did live with Ricky – but he was a friend – a collaborator. We used each other for advantage. Triple threat. We knew what we were doing.
“I underpinned our research with the most up-to-date practice…”
“…leading a working group of company executives and directors…”
“…maintained the team’s positive and cohesive attitude…”
“…exceeded expectations by generating additional revenue streams…”
“…buzzworded the axiom through maximising quadrisyllabic skillsets.”
The interview panel in front of me nodded, opening wide for the shit salad on nonsense bagels that was my honed personal pitch.
The interview ended with the usual. Did I have any questions for them? Of course I did. I took out my pen and wrote their responses next to my pre-written questions into my notebook. This was a two-way process. We had to be right for each other. More psychology, more smoke and mirrors.
“This is the end of the formal part of the interview,” said Hhhugo the Hhhead of HhhR. He turned to his compatriots. “Susan, did you see the protest this morning? I barely got here in time myself.”
“I know, I know. Terrible. I mean, It’s awful, isn’t it. We’re sitting here, and they’re out there. Some of them have nowhere to go. How many of them do you think are out there? I’ve never seen anything on this scale.”
The third one, whose name I never caught, nodded in agreement. “The news said there were hundreds of thousands. They’d bussed themselves in, or got the train or… anyway, a lot. There’s nowhere near enough police presence. They were warning people not to leave their houses unless they had to, but I mean, I’ve got to go to work, right? And the interviews – thank you for coming in, by the way,” she turned to me. “What did you think? Did you pass it on the way here?”
“Yeah, why I was late, a bit, actually.” Trying not to undermine my own crafted experience of arriving here.
“How many do you think there were? Are they still out there?” The third one stood up. “I’m going to go look out the window,” and left the room.
“Maybe you should just wait here a bit. We don’t have another interview until after lunch.”
“It’s getting pretty bad out there. The police have made over twenty arrests already just in this area,” Susan said, scrolling on her phone. “Look,” she waved her phone in front of Hugo for a couple of seconds, then me.
An awkward silence. I didn’t feel like I could get out my phone, even though the other two were on theirs. The other woman returned after a couple of minutes.
“Sorry I was gone so long – I started chatting to Georgia. She says that whoever’s been organising this, they’ve been planning it for a long time and that it spells big trouble. She didn’t go into detail, but she looked pretty white. I mean, for Georgia.”
“Shouldn’t we all go home, you know, before something kicks off here?” Hugo said, looking up at me as if I should be the one advising him.
“I can’t… I mean, I don’t… probably, yes.” A clear, direct communicator. Strong decision-making abilities.
I hoped this wasn’t part of the interview, because I was fucking it up now. I reached down to my pile of shopping and picked up the gold watch from the floor. It was a smart watch, currently displaying a fake set of watch insides. The skeleton.
A loud chime sounded over the internal loudspeaker system; a descending arpeggio in C major. Bing, bang, bong!
“Fellow colleagues, we are under strict orders to lock down the building. Could all colleagues on ground, basement, and floors one and two, please make your way to the upper floors as directed. If you have any questions, please speak to one of our friendly Emergent Situation Wardens. Colleagues on floors three and up, please remain where you are. Wardens, E. S. four. That’s E. S. four. Thank you.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. The others looked at each other. “I have no idea. Who’s the warden for our zone?” Shrugs. Further scrolling on phones. More frantic now. Time was moving faster.
Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty.
“Do you mind if I look at my phone, too?”
The three of them shook their heads at once. The protocol had changed. I was a prisoner, not a candidate. So were they. I took out my phone and opened a news app.
Live feeds updated faster than I was able to read them. Correspondents streamed their observations, some uploaded videos. Outside, beyond our prison of glass and metal, people were taking back control. Glass was smashed. Metal was wielded. Both were become weaponry.
“Nice interview, by the way. I shouldn’t be saying that, I know, don’t look at me like that Hugo. But considering we might not… ever…” Susan’s voice trailed off. The third panellist, who I started calling Karen in my head, let out a sob.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hugo said. “We’re all humans. What, they’re going to kill everyone to make a point? I don’t think so. We’re perfectly safe here. Don’t get hysterical.”
“Thanks, Hugo, for that,” Susan snapped, her voice cracking a little.
“This is surreal,” I muttered, scrolling back through my phone. “Where did it come from? It’s all happening so fast…”
“You really think this is something people got up and decided to do this morning? Look at it,” Hugo said, eyes transfixed on his device. “What are they doing now? They’re duct-taping people up. This is fucked up. It’s fucked up.”
“Oh for goodness sake Susan. I think the situation warrants it.”
“No, I mean… isn’t that your wife?”
Susan held her phone up to him. Hugo’s face fell.
Five minutes of quiet. Ten. Twenty.
Another announcement. Bing, bang, bong!
“Fellow colleagues. Please remain calm,” a different voice to before. Someone better at hiding their terror. The other voice had been axed. Too wobbly. “Wardens, that’s E. S. one. E. S. one.”
“Is one better or worse than four?” I asked.
“Could be better,” said Susan. “I think it’s better.”
“I… think it’s like DEFCON, like they have in the States. DEFCON one is the worst one.”
“No, you’re both wrong. It’s just different,” Hugo turned to me. “Not better or worse. Just a different type of emergency.”
“I don’t think so, I’m pretty sure it’s…”
“Not helping. We have to be positive.”
“Fuck off, Hugo.”
“You fuck off.”
“Maybe we should all just not say anything for a bit,” I said, raising my voice over the top of them.
“Good idea,” said Karen.
Five minutes. Ten. Twenty.
“My sister.” She was real. Useful playing card at the time. Now I remembered to be concerned. It’s fine. She hadn’t texted me either. We hadn’t spoken in a year, nearly. Did I not mention that before? We kept it to special occasions – big birthdays, that kind of thing. Pretty chill. Not good for us to be together for long periods. We were too competitive. It got nasty. But if there was a chance I wouldn’t see her again…
“Where does she work?”
“Tenth floor. I think.”
“The lifts’ll be off, if it’s DEFCON one,” Karen said. “I think. And the stairs, too. It’s total internal lockdown.”
“Who made you an ESW?”
“I talk to people.”
“Instead of doing your job.”
“Not again, please, Hugo…”
A loud crash made us all jump. We all rose quickly to our feet, ready to run, as if there was some way out.
“Maybe we should leave this room. I mean, we’re trapped here like rabbits.”
Karen peered through the glass door, craning her neck left and right.
“Ah-eee!” she screamed, jumping back from the door like it was electrically charged.
“What? What did you see?”
She started sobbing. “They’re already here.”
I moved to the door and peered out to find what she had seen. The same masked invaders I saw earlier. Taking matters into their own hands. From where I stood, I counted eleven of them. Despite the hundred or so people on this floor, most people were frozen still. Some were grabbing at items from their desks, hopeful that a pair of scissors, a stapler, a laptop might defend them against metal rods and broken glass.
I stepped backwards, away from the chaos taking form outside and tripping over Hugo, who had sneaked behind me to catch a glimpse for himself. I stepped aside and let him go forwards.
As he got there, one of the figures appeared at the door and shoved it open, hitting Hugo squarely in the forehead. He fell backwards and down, knocking pencils, cold coffee and interview notes from the table, tipping it all over on himself. TKO. Susan and Karen jumped to the sides, backs against the wall, breathing heavily, calculating an impossible escape route. I was doing the same, standing dead centre. The masked person looked at the three of us, pulled me out of the room and into the open plan office. Then Susan. Then Karen. Someone else grabbed my hands and I heard the sound of tape being pulled from a roll. Winding it around and around my hands, way more than they needed. Next, they pushed my ankles together, winding around and around, and up my knees, binding in my arms. Mummifying me. Another one of them had started to do the same to Karen, who already had a piece of tape over her mouth to stop her whimpering. Just behind, a beautiful woman with Mediterranean features and long, dark hair with curls which had been swept back tucked behind her ears, out of the way of her task. She stood tall, serene, quietly documenting the proceedings with an old 35mm camera: some ironic fucking victory. These were the people who had done nothing to further society, choosing instead to whine about their position. Now they were taking things by force. The woman pointed her camera at my predicament. It clicked, and she wound on the old plastic film inside.
Susan stood, with only her arms bound. They pushed us both down, Karen and I, into a pile of other office workers. As I went down, I saw flying staplers and laptops, other office equipment, tables upturned and used as bunkers; the employees finally starting to organise themselves now but too late, too late, we were already overwhelmed. They had hostages. There were threats. They didn’t need the element of surprise anymore. People surrendering.
Down onto my back, my body immobilised completely. A piece of tape over my mouth, over my eyes, put there by someone with horrible breath, the last thing I saw was the mask they wore, terrifying, no eyes, just a broken face.
I had no control. I couldn’t even blink, but I could swallow. I could breathe.
Five minutes. Ten. Twenty, perhaps. I no longer knew.
Then a pinch. My nostrils. They weren’t letting go. I twisted my neck away, but they held on tightly – until I realised, it wasn’t someone’s finger – it was a paperclip. An office paperclip. I almost laughed, except there was nowhere for the air to go. I convulsed, shaking, overtaken by hysteria, panic.
How long could I last like this? Was there anyone left to save us? What of Hugo, and Susan, and Karen? That wasn’t her name. Doesn’t matter. I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. I can’t die. I can’t die.
Then anger. They were fucking themselves in the arse. These fuckers can’t run the world. They can’t do anything, that’s why they were in this mess. I struggled, wriggling like a worm, humble, pathetic. That’s it then. That’s it. DEFCON one. Cue the swirling colours.
Five seconds. Ten. Tw… twe…