The Ultimate Dystopia: Part Two
Read part one here.
My room has barely changed at all since I went to uni. The only addition is a wall of photographs of me and my uni friends, a few select ones from college and school scattered in, and all the film posters from the short films I worked on while I was at uni. I directed some, I wrote some, I was behind the camera for some, I was even an extra in a couple.
I lie on my bed and look at the posters. There’s so many, I’ve had to tack some to the ceiling. You know, I worked my arse off at uni, not just with my degree; I was always involved in some short film, usually multiple films. I had a part-time job at the cinema. I volunteered to help a charity make a marketing video. I took every opportunity I could. And what did I get for it? A long and laborious unpaid internship.
It’s not that I’m not grateful for the opportunity but, you know, I wanted more.
My phone pings. I’m expecting my mate, but it’s that site. No way! I actually got a message.
I click on it, fearing that it might just be an incredibly disappointing ‘Hi’, but it’s at least half a page long. I click on her profile before reading the message. I like to put a face to a name.
Her name is Louise and she’s really pretty. In an authentic way, not a fake way. She’s a film graduate as well and is ‘temporarily working in a shop’ until she lands her ‘dream job’. Well that just says it all about prospects in film and media. We have a few things in common; she’s a film buff too, and likes extreme sports and is a black belt in ju-jitsu. Wow, okay.
I read through her message; she’s just introducing herself, talking about her hobbies and…
Want to go for a coffee sometime? :) xx
We went to a nice Italian restaurant on my mum’s insistence - take her for a proper date! It’s not too fancy but warm and cosy.
I like Lou - call me Lou, but no poo jokes! She hugged me when I picked her up, and got rid of my nerves in the first minute with her joke. She has lovely eyes too, warm chocolate brown.
“So you work in film and media? What do you do?”
I realise that I’ve been silent for too long. I could drown in those eyes. They seem even deeper shining in the soft amber glow of candlelight.
“I’m an editor. I work on adverts and marketing videos, and I do some social media too.”
She smiles broadly. “That’s so cool! It’s great that you managed to get a job so quickly. Everyone says it can take years to get a foot in the door.”
Wait - does she think I’m actually employed? I open my mouth to tell her the truth, then shut it. Her face is all lit up; I think she likes me, is even impressed by me, and if I admit that I’m in an unpaid internship, would she lose interest?
“I love my job. It’s awesome, waking up in the morning, knowing I’m going to be making films. I have less trouble getting out of bed now.” She laughs, but her face falls immediately after. It was only a tiny thing. I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been so close.
I reach over and place my hand over hers. She curls her fingers around mine. “You’ll get there too,” I say.
Lou smiles, but it looks a little forced; her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. “Just got to keep trying, right?”
I want to hug her, reassure her somehow. I have never been so desperate to comfort another person. I know what she’s feeling - I feel it every day - and I can feel guilt setting in, the uncomfortable weight of it pooling in my belly. It was my lie that upset her.
“Of course you’ll get there. It’s hard, really hard. But your films are amazing and so… important, so socially relevant.” She finally gives me a small, but genuine smile. “Your film about the homeless woman and her teddy bear - I nearly cried. My comedies make people laugh, but your films could change the world. I really believe that.”
She covers her mouth with her free hand. “Thank you.” There are tears in her eyes. I didn’t mean to make her cry. I’m not sure if I’m being helpful or screwing it all up at this point.
“When you make it, you’ll make it so much bigger than me.”
Lou bursts out laughing. “Stop now. Don’t inflate my ego too much.”
I draw my hand back and whirl a mouthful of Carbonara onto my fork. “It’s true,” I say, before popping it into my mouth.
It’s dark by the time I drive her home and walk her up to her door. She lives with her parents in a quiet little village; the lack of noise is striking compared to the constant cars and mass of people in the city. I can even hear crickets chirping.
She hugs me; a long, warm hug. I catch a whiff of her perfume, fainter than when I picked her up. “It was lovely to meet you,” she says. She has pulled back but still has her arms wrapped around my neck. “I had a good time.”
That sounds genuine. My heart starts to beat a little faster. “I did too. A really good time. Um…” It’s come to the awkward part. “Would you like to go out again sometime?”
She surprises me by grabbing my face with both hands and kissing me. “There’s your answer.”
I’m planning a weekend away with Lou on my lunch break. Trying to decide between Cornwall or Snowdonia. Lou mentioned she’d like to get more into photography, so I’m thinking of taking her somewhere that has lots of great photo spots, give her some tips on how to use a dslr and filters and show off my skills too.
I’m slowly becoming a different person by dating Lou. The person I want to be. The Tom she thinks she knows is a lie - is a complete fabrication, some dreamt-up alter ego - but I’ve spent so much time being this Other Tom that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to draw the line between the real me and him.
The whole thing has spiralled out of control so quickly, a little lie there to fill in that gap, another to cover that suspicion… little threads all wrapping around each other into a big ball of wool, threatening to unravel at any moment.
I could just tell the truth, slam on the brake before the crash, because I’m sure that - one day - I’m going to crash the big red bus of lies. But Other Tom is helping me to be a better person. Other Tom is upbeat; Other Tom loves his job and is good at it; Other Tom doesn’t just pretend to have confidence, he actually has it. He transforms me from a disillusioned unpaid intern into someone who has a lot to offer a girl like Lou. She asks me for advice on her job applications, she asks me about cameras, filming and editing. She looks up to me, makes me feel like a person with worth. Other Tom is taking over. I feel like I can live and breathe through him. I find myself increasingly thinking like him, adopting his attitude, slipping into the sharp suit that is Other Tom more easily by the day.
I’m clicking back and forth between a list of photo spots in Snowdonia and Cornwall - where would Other Tom go? - when I hear the voice of doom:
“Intern number two!”
Fuck’s sake. I take a deep breath - Other Tom is always calm, always professional - and spin my chair around, and smile. “I’m Tom,” I remind him pleasantly.
“We need to have a meeting at the end of the day. Can you come to my office at 5pm please?”
I’m frozen to the spot until Steven leaves the room. I have this gut feeling that I’m about to receive bad news - but why? It must be paranoia - Other Tom probably is paranoid, he’s a liar, after all. Usually a meeting with your mentor would be a good thing, right? And I’ve been working so hard - well, Other Tom has - and I think I’ve been doing much better the past couple of weeks. I get less negative feedback on my work. Even Steven is running out of things to say. But I’ve never had a meeting with Steven beyond the first day - I’ve been here for nearly a month - and that doesn’t bode well.
I’m staring at my desk, and the little figurines artfully placed around it. The tiny patches of bright colour blur against the white. There’s one red figurine that stands out so sharply, like a blood stain, irresistibly drawing my eye.
Terminated for ‘negative attitude’ and ‘mild insubordination’. My so-called ‘mentor’ and the managing director didn’t even give me a chance to say my piece. Cut me off at every turn. Just gave me a cardboard box to put my things in and hurried out of the room as fast as they could.
Now I’m holding my box of shame, trying to avoid the eyes of those still in the office. Whenever I look, their eyes are firmly on their monitors, but I can feel them watching me. I need to get out as quickly as possible before I have a breakdown. Even Other Tom can’t help me right now. He has been shattered, blown into a thousand pieces by the news.
I only brought in a few figurines, a small plant, a mug and a pencil case. I’m considering just leaving them there - the things aren’t worth much and it will save the embarrassment of carrying my box back home. It would also mean that someone - possibly Steven - would have to waste their time boxing up my crap and finding some way to get rid of it. An idea I like - a final fuck you. I will not clear out my desk as you asked. If I had a tube of superglue I’d glue all of it firmly to the desk.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t be Steven, it would be the cleaner or the receptionist who both have enough to do. And, thinking about it, I can’t even bear to leave the mug. It’s funny how such little, almost worthless things can hold so much meaning when you’ve looked at them every day for a month, got used to them being around.
It’s raining, so I walk fast, fearing that my box will collapse and all the contents will go rolling down the street, taking the last of my dignity with them. What am I going to tell my mum?
I still hadn’t worked that out by the time I got home, but it didn’t matter - it was obvious what had happened when I came home with the box. Mum hugged me, and I can’t tell you how much I needed that hug. It’s been a good few years since I really needed a hug from my mum.
“Oh never mind, you wanted to leave anyway,” she said.
Yes, I wanted to leave, but I wasn’t actually planning to. Now I’ve lost the reference and truly have wasted a month of my time.
“You’ll find something else.”
Mum looks taken aback. I didn’t mean to shout, but why does everybody always say that when you miss out? You’ll find something else. I need to hear that it was beneath me anyway, because it was. I learnt barely anything there; I could already use the software myself, I already knew how to edit. There was nothing I did in that office that I couldn’t have done from my own bedroom.
“I know you’re disappointed, Tom. But it’s no good shouting at me.”
“Tell me what is good, then. What am I supposed to do now? I’ve tried everything. Run out of ideas.”
“Why don’t you try working for yourself?”
“But I don’t have any experience. How am I supposed to get clients?”
“You made all those short films. It might take time to get started, but you were working for free anyway.” She sighs. “I don’t mind if you’re not earning for a while. I just want you to be happy, Tom.”
“I’ll think about it,” I mumble and escape to my room as quickly as I can.
I lie on my bed, staring up at the ceiling. Maybe I can work for myself. I know how to make adverts, I know how to make films, I can even write films.
I’m hunched over my desk, scribbling in my notebook. There’s a knock on the door, but I keep going in my furious creative frenzy. I’m listing contacts, jotting down ideas: short film plots, scripts, ways I could advertise. Anything I can think of to make this work.
The door opens and finally, I pause. My wrist aches. “I’m busy, mum.”
I drop my pen, and spin my chair round. Lou stands in the door, in her work clothes. “Can I come in?”
“Yeah, of course.”
I follow her eyes, flitting over the papers on my desk, my plans scrawled in biro. She finally focuses on my face, then on my hands. I realise my hands are splattered with black ink. One of my pens leaked. I wonder if it’s over my face, too. Now that she’s studying me I’m acutely aware that I need to shower and that I haven’t shaved for two days. My t-shirt was crumpled when I put it on this morning; I probably look a mess.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” I smile. “I really am. Sorry I’ve been quiet. I’ve just been so busy.”
“Too busy to not answer your phone in two days?”
“I expect it’s run out of battery.”
Lou sits on the bed, and pushes her hair back behind her ears, a nervous gesture. “I was worried about you.”
She nods. “Your mum said you lost your job. Is that why you’ve been quiet.”
I look at the floor. “Yeah.”
I hear Lou get off the bed, then she’s kneeling by my chair. She takes my hand in hers and clasps it tightly.
“It sounds like they treated you horribly.” Her voice is fierce. “You could take them to court, you know.”
I shake my head. “I don’t want to.”
She starts spouting off about employment tribunals and hiring a solicitor. I’ve never seen her angry before, and I know that I should be that angry, even more so. I can feel it brewing; a little spark, struggling to catch. The last month has weighed me down so much that there’s not much fight left in me.
“I can’t take them to court,” I say eventually.
“Why not?” she demands, eyes blazing.
“I was never an employee.” The fire fades from her eyes and she stares at me blankly. “I was an intern. An unpaid intern. I can’t even claim loss of wages.”
Her mouth drops open, and she drops my hand. “You lied to me.”
“No. I just didn’t correct you.” That was the wrong response, I know, but I’m still sore about the way my internship ended and I’m tired of accusations flying at me. Negative. Insubordinate. Liar. All may or may not be true.
Lou gets to her feet and shouts. “Lying by omission is still lying, Tom!”
“I’m sorry. Look-” I reach for her hand. She steps back. I can feel panic rising, climbing up my throat, preventing me from saying the things I so desperately need to say before I lose her forever. I need Other Tom, but he was packed up in that crappy cardboard box along with my little plant and pencil case. “I just wanted you to like me, because I really like you. I thought that if you knew I was doing an unpaid internship, you wouldn’t want to go out with me, and then it was too late to tell you the truth!”
She folds her arms across her chest and regards me coldly. “I don’t know what’s worse, Tom. That you lied, or that you think I’m that shallow.”
“I didn’t think you were shallow. I just thought that you were like me… that you have aspirations and standards as to how you want to live your life. And I wouldn’t blame you if you thought that an unpaid internship didn’t cut it. It certainly isn’t good enough for me.”
Lou lowers her eyes to the floor, and sighs. “Fair enough. We all have standards.” After a moment, she raises her eyes to mine again. “And someone who lies isn’t good enough for me.”
She turns and starts walking. “Lou, come on.” But she’s gone.
“Don’t be nervous. You’ll be fine.”
Susie squeezes my shoulder, then sits down on the opposite sofa.
I laugh a little. “How can you tell?”
“You’re all stiff and-” She leans forward in her seat, balls her fists and pulls an angry face. It’s such a comical look on this tiny Asian woman that I burst into laughter. A second later, she laughs too and sits back. “Just be you.”
The studio is a three-walled construction inside a warehouse. On the top floor, several people sit behind their sound equipment and peer down at us; there’s the occasional white flash as someone’s glasses catch the stage lighting. It kind of feels like I’m being judged by the gods.
“What if I’m just a nervous character?”
Susie laughs. “Are you ready, Tom?”
One of the cameras is pointed directly at my face. I still hate being in front of the camera. I smile - my winning smile. “Let’s do it!”
Susie sticks her thumbs up, then relaxes in her seat.
“I am so excited to have Tom Donnelly in the studio today, and he’s going to be talking about his latest film. If you don’t know Tom - he’s the director of Footsteps, the 90 minute short film that won Sundance film festival this year and sparked a worldwide interest in rock-climbing. It’s so great to have you here, Tom.”
“Thank you. I’m… very excited to be here.”
“Your new film is about a very controversial topic at the moment, a hot topic - unpaid internships.”
“Yes. It follows two young people, fresh out of uni, unfortunately not able to find a job in the industry - so they’re doing unpaid internships to gain experience and boost their CVs.” Now that I’m talking, I’m beginning to relax a bit. “But the experience isn’t what either of them thought it would be. The companies running these internships are a bit exploitative. It’s starting to have an effect on the characters’ health, both mental and physical.”
I realise that I’m talking a bit too fast and my mouth has gone dry. The studio lights are really heating the space; I feel like I’m getting a tan. I take a gulp of water then continue. “What I really wanted to do with this film was, firstly, make people aware - especially young people thinking of doing an unpaid internship - that it can be exploitative. Not always, but can be.” Susie is nodding along. “I really wanted to get across the damaging effects of exploitative internships and really, just ask the question: should we really have unpaid internships in the UK?”
Susie leans forward slightly. “What inspired you to make this film?”
“Actually, I, um…” My throat has gone dry again. I have another drink of water. “Sorry. I wanted to make this film because I was doing an unpaid internship myself after I graduated. It didn’t go well, it was a really bad experience, and it messed me up a bit for a while after. It took me a long time to reignite my belief in myself and start making films again.”
“So what would you say to anyone considering taking on an unpaid internship, Tom? Not worth it?”
“Well-” I shrug. “It depends on the circumstances, but from personal experience I would say no and that it might be better to work on your own stuff, keep building your portfolio, keep applying for jobs. I think the major problem with unpaid internships is that they’re unpaid. And you might think that you can handle the work and the pressure, but the added pressure of not earning and always being aware that you’re working for free can really get to you.”
I lean back in my chair and cross one leg over the other. This is getting easier. “Essentially, I think it devalues people and their work.” Susie nods. “I’d say be very cautious about putting yourself in that position.”
“Do you hope that things will change after you release your film? Do you hope that there might be less unpaid internships?”
“Yeah, I do. At the very least, I hope that it will make people think and that we’ll see a tightening of the laws around unpaid internships.” I smile. “It might sound a little ambitious but I want this film to inspire social change.”
“Well, if it’s anything like Footsteps, it certainly will do.”
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Georgie Bull is a freelance writer and published author living in Worcester, England.
Author: Georgie Bull
1. You Can Go Home Again
2. A Beautiful Dream
5. Let Me Tell You A Story
6. The Haunting Of Verno House
7. The C Word
8. A Ghost Story
9. Father's Son
10. Time (poem)
11. Poems - Unheard and Silent Musician
12. The Ultimate Dystopia - part one
13. The Ultimate Dystopia - part two
1. The Desert - Peregrin Jones
2. The Being Verse - Peregrin Jones
3. Who Will Feel The Rain Now? - Leena Batchelor
The Blue Hour by Dreena Collins
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