by Tom Jensen
I first see it on a Sunday afternoon in spring.
The weather’s turning milder – still chilly but not enough to stay indoors. So I go for a walk down the road, heading for the park. The sun’s out and there’s blossom on the trees. I feel happy, relaxed, carefree. And that’s when I hear it – a whining, buzzing noise up to my right. It sounds like a bumble bee. You don’t hear many of those nowadays. So I look up, and there it is in mid-air, hovering and blinking at me.
It must belong to some kid – an adult kid playing with his new toy. I’ve seen the things before. A while ago this guy was operating one, filming a bride and groom outside a church. It was about ten feet up and then it swooped down and panned around, taking in the whole street. And I wondered, is this legal? I mean, there was traffic and everything. But I thought, he must have a licence.
Ours is a law-abiding country.
Then again, you never know who’s got hold of them. People hidden near airport runways, deliberately trying to cause a disaster. Terrorists. Or teenagers playing with their dad’s shiny new piece of kit. Playing with hundreds of lives, just for a laugh.
So there I am on the pavement in this quiet street. Houses on either side, privet hedges, a few parked cars. And I’m looking at this Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, and it’s looking back at me. Seriously, it’s floating above the road with its little helicopter blades spinning, pointing its camera at me, waiting for me to move.
So I think: that’s what I’ll do. Move on as if nothing’s happened. Maybe it’s filming another wedding and I’m in the way. I stroll ahead, not looking up. Not even listening. Just hearing. And I can hear it – the buzzing – still just as loud. So I quicken my pace. An old lady comes out of a side street, but I can’t slow down. I need to know if I’m really being followed. Tracked.
I enter the park and it’s still there. To avoid the trees it takes a detour, falls behind momentarily. But as soon as I’m on the path it’s back again, sounding even louder, as if to say: surely you didn’t think I’d gone? I ignore it and cross the park with longer strides, faster and faster till I’m jogging – a Sunday jogger in full clothing. People move aside; a boy on a tricycle swerves and falls off.
They must think I’m crazy.
The path leads to a war memorial. I circle it and sprint towards the park’s edge. And I’m thinking: if I can get into the bushes I’ll be all right. But the drone soon catches up. There’s a couple on a bench, but they’re kissing and don’t notice – not even when it flies past. Now I’m climbing the railings and it’s behind me, ignoring the obstacles. I plunge inside a thicket, tearing my clothes, panting like an animal. I’m under a canopy of leaves and brambles, but the drone’s got all the time in the world. So there it waits, buzzing patiently in the shade.
At least I’ve got time to think. It’s clear I am being watched. But who by? Who’d want to? I’m just an ordinary guy. Ordinary job doing waste disposal contracts. Ordinary family, friends, sex life, politics. Ordinary dreams… There’s nothing about me that’s important. Nothing worth spying on me for.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe they picked me because I’m so normal. As an experiment. A guinea pig. I picture a control room, with operatives trawling through oceans of data to find the ideal target.
The sky must have clouded over, because it’s grown darker; after a while the buzzing merges with the patter of rain on leaves. Are drones waterproof? How long till their batteries die? More to the point, can they resist attack? As the shower dies down I scrabble around for a weapon. I find a pebble and break off a stick. I’ll be no pushover, no soft target. The drone’s got a fight on its hands.
I come out of the thicket, weapons hidden, and brush myself down. I can sense it, quite close – within reach, even. I stroll between the bushes, leading it on, then – Whoosh! – lash out with the stick. With a loud buzz of alarm it pulls away. I hurl the pebble, but it misses too, denting the now-empty bench. Meanwhile, the drone’s climbed to a safer height. I head back across the park, frustrated. I’ve lost my first battle.
But I can still win the war.
That night I sit in my room in darkness, watching between the curtains. It’s hovering above the street, a red light flashing on its camera. What can it learn from staring at my window? It must know everything already: when I leave, where I go at weekends, who stays the night. But if it’s trying to see how I tick, it’s wasting its time. It’d do better looking on Facebook. That would show who I really am. Not just a string of cold facts.
Monday morning. I’m up early after a good sleep. As I put out the wheelie bin I give it a defiant sneer. It pretends not to notice and follows me down the street. Outside the tube station, people are milling around. I head underground and off to work. How will the drone spend its day? Hang outside my flat like some sad, desperate stalker?
The tube is crowded and sweaty, and when I arrive a bald guy nudges me onto the platform. Nothing violent. But the blood goes to my head, and when I emerge into the street I’m quietly fuming.
And then I see it. Waiting for me. What the hell? Surely it can’t have followed me in the tube? Or does it know where I work?
‘Fuck you!’ I shout.
People turn their heads. I ignore them and stride towards the office. My heart’s beating fast. I crash through the doors and climb to the third floor, looking out of the window at each landing. It’s following me up.
My office is open-plan. How many weeks – how many months – has it been filming me here? I’ve never noticed it before, but today it’s outside, gazing through the window. I dump my bag next to my workstation and log on.
Kerry – my larger-than-life colleague – is browsing the Internet over a coffee. We say hello and talk about the weekend.
‘I was followed by a drone, and it’s still here,’ I say, pointing to the window.
Only I don’t. She’d probably think I was mad.
Instead, I ask about her husband. He lost his job at Lloyd’s Bank. The redundancy package was good, but he can’t sit around all day. So while he applies for another banking job, he’s been sprucing up the garden.
‘He got rid of this giant wasp nest yesterday,’ she says, sipping her coffee.
And on her iPhone she brings up a photo of a nest, spanning the width of a garden shed. And then an even larger ball of foam enveloping the nest.
‘Didn’t he get stung?’ I ask.
‘No, they were all tucked up in bed! One long squirt from the aerosol does it. Suffocates the little buggers!’
I look over at the drone.
‘Think I’ll get a coffee too,’ I say.
The day passes quickly. No one notices the drone. Besides, it doesn’t hang around. Just long enough to see me settle down, then it’s gone. And the next time I look, someone’s closed the blinds. But it’s still outside. After work Kerry and I go for a drink with Nathan, an accountant from upstairs. It’s warm so we sit at a table outside the pub. As we clink glasses and talk shop, I feel it staring from across the street. There’s a brief lull in the conversation. Should I tell my friends? The drone’s there, challenging me to.
So I do.
‘Look, it’s a remote-controlled thingy.’
Nathan looks first and registers. ‘Must be Harry Gunnell spying on us,’ he says. Harry’s an unpopular middle manager. Kerry bursts into her trademark laughter. The conversation turns to Harry, and I realise my war must be waged alone.
Friday evening. The tension’s been mounting and I need some release, so I go to a nightclub with friends. This time I ignore the drone, even when it follows us in the street. It’s learned to keep a safe distance, so it doesn’t spoil our enjoyment. Inside the club I drink and party like there’s no tomorrow. I get involved with a woman called Naomi – so involved my friends leave without me. When I take her home we’re so wrapped up in each other I forget the drone. Same goes for Saturday – even when we go to the park for some fresh air. And this time we’re the couple kissing on the bench. We exchange numbers for next weekend. I’m hoping our relationship will last. She’s beautiful, and unpredictable: our conversation’s a journey into the unknown. And for the first time I wonder if I’ve found my future partner.
In the evening I’m on a high. I’ve never felt so positive. I dance round the flat to my favourite tracks, then open the curtains and karaoke to the moon. Life is wonderful, and I fall asleep happy.
Sunday morning. I’m back to reality with a splitting headache. And the drone’s at my window again. Is it taking the piss? Trying to break me down, with some long psychological game?
I won’t be destroyed! I’ll kill it before it kills me.
I buy an aerosol from a garden centre and test it in the bathroom. Its range is promising. Back in the park, I climb the railings. I must lure it into an enclosed space. Again it follows me as I delve into a bush. I can see it up close, trying to get my coordinates. Doesn’t it remember last Sunday? Lifting the can, I take aim between the leaves and – Psssh! – a jet of foam sends it spinning, clattering into a tree. I burst out, commando-style, the aerosol in both hands, and fire again as the drone whines and chokes, the foam clogging up its blades. And then it’s down, like a bird shot by a hunter, flapping and writhing on the ground. There’s no escape for it now. I close in, laughing out loud with relief. At last I can get my life back! I stand over it with the spray-gun. Its camera looks up at me, blinking, pleading.
And for a split second I feel a tinge of pity.
Followed by a blinding flash of pain, and another, and another. And finally, oblivion.
Three months on life support, with multiple bullet wounds. Permanently disabled.
It fired the gun so quickly I didn’t stand a chance.
All credit to Naomi: she stayed close to me, for a while. But she’s young, her whole life ahead of her. So I’m back in Yorkshire with my parents. It’s not easy for them. I need help to move around, eat, drink and go to the toilet. But they cope, because they love me. And there are times I can be at peace. On bright days they wheel me outside, where I smell the woodsmoke from across the valley. We sit and remember my childhood, when life was simple and I roamed the moors, my mind and body free. As I close my eyes, they slip away for their afternoon nap.
And from the bottom of the garden I hear a familiar sound, like the buzz of a bumble bee.
Tom Jensen mostly writes absurdist drama. In 2014 he took part in the Royal Court writers’ programme, and this year a festival of his short plays, The Jensen Fest, was staged in New York. Drone began as a short story but has been performed as a monologue at several theatres in London. For more details, see www.tomjensen.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @absurdistworld.