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HAPPY GATE - Ed Cottrell


I was speechless when the Happy Gate picked me from the morning commuter jam. It seized my wrists, needling me for joy. The scraping-hairs began their prosecution, extracting what they were after. Gold moved behind the eyelets. My blood thinned. The Happy Gate wasn’t just sampling me, no, a fluid had been exchanged, jetted from the rubber hands. I made eyes at the operative, but in response he only scratched himself through his uniform, staring at the damp cloud shapes on the concrete ceiling. Meanwhile the queue had densified, holding its breath with a single muted grip. The crowd jostled in, but I was stuck and couldn’t go any further – the gate’s fingers had tightened on my wrists, locked in.

In his own good time the operative noticed my situation. He came to offer his advice.

‘Jim, listen to me. Don’t struggle. Just wait there,’ he said. ‘Keep going with it and try to relax – OK Jim?’

‘Yes, yes, Jim,’ I said. I relaxed. The gate tussled me with its question, testing me. No joy. And so, wearily, the operative waved his placard, compacting the streams of commuters so they poured through the next lane.

With an NFC clip he untacked one of the rubber hands that had seized me. ‘Take off your shirt please, and your shoes, trousers, belt… any piercings that might disturb the sensors?’ I told him no and undressed, dropping my clothes in a pile while the gate secured me in an alternating grip.

‘Them too.’

‘Is this going to take a while?’

‘That’s not up to me, Jim,’ he said. ‘Come on, come on – off with them!’

I obeyed. It repeated the manoeuvre, releasing one hand while I pulled down my underpants and kicked them away, then both rubber hands clasped me tight again.

He turned to the crowd and shouted over it. ‘Hey! Follow the lines!’

Nobody said anything as they came past, but I felt the collected mass of their disapproval. The Happy Gate persisted with the most basic question it could, asked it twenty times. I ran each instance through my fingers, counting over my hands, twice over, gritting myself. But no. The operative followed my interrogation on the dash, frowning at the results. ‘What the hell did you say?’

‘What do you think?’ I said. ‘YES. I just – YES.’

‘It’s sensing something.’ He became serious. ‘I’m afraid, yeah, something.’

It was clear what was happening. It had found whatever it wanted to find, whatever it had gone looking for. Sorrow. Malaise. Animal discomfiture. It was forcing me to crawl through at least one confession, so I levelled with it. I looked straight into the gold eyelets and said, ‘Happy? I think so, happy enough, but what does it mean to be happy? I can’t say, and who can, truly? But I’m as happy as anyone else, so—’

At this, the operator spluttered. ‘Oh MAN,’ he said as the secondary trapping mechanics began to work, ‘Oh GOD.’


*


It was gentle at first. Little teeth came from the gate’s wrists and began grooming me, then sank into the tender fat beneath my armpit. It uncapped its amber-gold eyelets, extending them to give a close examination. It adopted a calm tone as it chained my legs, asking the same question, again, again. ‘YES,’ I said. ‘YES’. But I don’t need to tell you that was not enough, and so it went on. Hand-like appendages slathered a cold gel on my groin, the underside of my feet, my armpits. A relaxant. I felt it seep inwards and catch my pulse. My head turned woody. I’d have collapsed, sagged to the ground, but the Happy Gate shook me, forced me to answer that question over and over.

A ‘no’ migrated to my mouth. It arrived like a strange community on my tongue, started unpacking a home there, a structure of two bended lines: one to form an ‘n’, another to form an ‘o’.

‘No?’ I said. ‘Perhaps I'm not particularly happy?’

There it was. A confession, spilled. It didn’t feel so shocking once out.

The operative appeared relieved when I said this. He leaned on the side of his panel, tapping his knuckles. ‘Fuck’s sake man…’ he said, ‘...always what it is.’

The hands of the gate grew hot from my confession; it wanted more. So I continued, sticking to the safe-scripts, more or less. Not precise wording, which, as you know, we are told not to rehearse.

‘The city belongs to the people,’ I said, ‘to other people, who haven't succumbed to the weight of worthlessness, like I have, which gets heavier and heavier the longer I live in this place. But it's not the city’s fault. Moving here just happened to coincide with me letting go. Somewhere else I might even be miserable. The city is tender and it clings to me. And for that, I am happy.’

‘Hell, Jim, what are you doing,’ said the operative as the gate walls drew up. There was a groan from the queue, a mass which must have grown out far beyond the station. No! I wanted to tell them – I’m not one of the amateur cases, not one who sneaks past, I know what I'm doing!

‘Gate closed,’ the operative called out as the walls came up, ‘Out of action. Come on, join the other lines back there. Hey you! Come on Jim!’


*


I suppose I was gassed. The walls around me closed, I blacked out, I came back. By then it had finished transforming and I was encased. Beneath the gold eyelets was a head-sized screen that displayed animated patterns. And next to that was its brass handle. As if to say, ‘I am listening.’

I heard the sound of a metal door unlocking; it opened, a square of the operative’s head appeared, yes, right here, where mine is now. ‘OK so, you know, procedure,’ he said. ‘It'll ask a few questions, you tell the answers honestly and you get through, alright?’ I'm familiar with the gate, thank-you, I wanted to say, but remained courteous for obvious reasons.

In a slightly-woofing voice (echoing in the box-form) the questioning resumed, a single ‘|’ appeared on the screen. I answered, honestly. But then, on the other side of the screen, for no good reason, a zero, 0, appeared. This recurred each time the gate asked a question, even when it went easy on me – using search-terms for happy-identifiers, asking slant-questions to determine my levels – it drew a nought. The rubber hands became hotter still, squeezed me tighter.

The operative had been watching all this, but of course he was no help. Occasionally he made a wheezing cynical laugh. ‘I can't help you, if you aren't going to help you, know what I mean? You're gonna have to have a little think about this, eh.’ He took a last look at me then closed the hatch and went back to shouting at the queues. From the muffled chaos that reached me inside the gate I knew the lines were horribly tangled.

What could I have said differently? That I’d passed a thousand times, ten thousand times before? Well, what had changed? It didn't help that I was irretrievably late. That caused me stress, which came with a thousand physical tells. It immiserated me. Made it harder to pass. Everyone would assume a gate-challenge, even if I could walk through the revolving door, right now, that moment. There was no other plausible reason. I’d have to tell them. Or I’d lie. I was ill, very ill. Sick, a lot. Then I’d spend the week regenerating, hoping to pass next week.

‘Why lie?’ the gate said to me now. I laughed, still believing it ran level-one readware. At least this was one of those emergency questions, I thought, with the answers you’re allowed to rehearse. So I gave it, in my own voice of course, the answer.

‘When I tell lies about myself, which is often and normally to people I love and respect, it doesn't matter whether I believe the lie, or whether they believe the lie: what matters is they act like they believe it – that they behave as if they think I could believe it. That they think I am myself capable of believing it.’

It is only a matter of belief. The Happy Gate did nothing. So I continued.

‘And I lie to relieve from other persons the burden of sympathy. For my sanity and well-being I must act in a way that allows them to feel no sympathy for me. The only way I can sleep at night is if I don't feel anyone else is having a sleepless night on my behalf. I exaggerate, of course, nobody would truly have a sleepless night. More like a vague sense of unease that my plan for myself wasn't coming together, that it was all badly constructed, my life. But look, I don't care about myself in that way. I don't think I tell many outright lies. I'm not a compulsive liar. I'm just a normal liar.’

It took a while processing that, which I thought was a good sign. The eyelets kept fading, half turning, blinking. Perhaps it had discovered its own error, I thought. Yes, soon it would compute. Soon it would self-correct and release me. So I felt positive, waiting for the gate to finish its cognitive process. Of course it took hours to complete but eventually the gate started twitching – on my wrists I detected tiny movements of the rubber hands. Then there was a shudder, a grunting noise, a pulse of click-click sounds which gave way to electrified swooning, the intake fans gasped with stuttering rotations, settling into a steady dirge. That’s when I felt sympathy. Look at this poor thing, I thought, this aching machinery, see how the Happy Gate is almost breaking itself, working at its absolute limit? Without the gates the inner zone would be stacked with unproductives, Jim. And what then? Yes, I felt sorry for it. To tell you the truth I was concerned that I had broken it. But I needn’t have worried.

Awakened, the gate went through the replay. There was my voice, my confessatorial, churned into chewy bits, spat out in surround. It extracted my words and probed them, those glutinous speech-growths. It babbled, smothered me, battered me with its talk. The sounds were bereaved. Every utterance was caught in the neck. Peeled apart. Each sentence a skinned animal. A fine noise accompanied it, a mechanical weeping, the air thickened in a grinding negotiation, and its trapper kept clicking, clicking compulsively until it simply whirred. By then I should have guessed that it had switched operating systems. The way it was throttling each word, the way it was inflamed by my sentence-constructions, pushed through the filter. The screen flickered now, full of ||||||s. It wasn’t counting untruths so much as milling them to bright pulses, while the gate itself seemed to be in pain.

I fed it another line, growing desperate. At this the gate sprayed itself with coolant, easing the processors as it grappled with my confessions. I could smell it, the sweet sea of coolant, candied and salty.

The Happy Gate’s ankles started chattering, still chained to mine. Two claws protruded from the front panel. They rested on my shoulders, bearing down with doctorly pressure, then from each structure appeared a set of wheels which rolled over my cheeks, my lips. The amber-gold eyelets came nearer, shining hot. No, I thought then, there is nothing I can say, nothing within my power, nothing that will release me from the hugging prison. But of course I went on.

‘Listen here,’ I told it. ‘There are flies that live on the plants in my bedroom. I only see them when I look closely, they are very easy to kill—.’ But now I was interrupted by a muted moaning, the golden roundels in the eyelets flushed reddish as it rolled the wheels over and over my face, faster and faster. It was casting the microphone in wide arcs, ignoring my mouth. The limb kept foraging in the space around my head, pointed anywhere except the place my speech originated from. Again it produced a mangled replay. It grabbed my words, forged them into a bridle. It presented me with a vocal dredge; it was of me, but nothing I’d spoken. A wet-mealy recombining, a rotted wording. The pronunciation gave it away. It was spreading vowels out. The machine spoke a set of neat me-like sounds, stained by a boneless mouth.

I knew what it was doing, of course. It wished to prowl me with lies, call me out, offer me some disclosures. Be placid, I said to myself. Continue.

‘A sense of numbness makes me unlikely to leave my house. If I can, I will spend all day indoors,’ I said. ‘It makes me feel like my body is carved from soap. I am the same all the way through. I have no personal features. I am a smooth human-like sculpture. My hair and eyes are the same colour, my mouth and nose and ears are sealed over, with only the suggestion of an opening for air. In this state of numbness I don't breathe. I don't get hungry, but I eat small meals.’

Still the gate was milling me, running circles over my lips and cheeks, probing me best it could with fake avowals, digging me a hole to lie down in. Of course it meted other tests, finding my penis, for instance. It gripped that organ with halting appendages, the hydraulics made a gargle which was intended to threaten me.


*


Several times it fed me; another pipe dealt with excreta. That’s why you undress when the gate finds something. That’s a piece of good sense. It’s embarrassing at first, but you make peace with it when you need to go. Now and again the operative appeared in the hatch, but he didn’t say anything useful. What good was he? What was he for? There was no point to him. I had become circumstance, difficulty, a blockage. That’s all. I don’t have that same perspective, you’ll be pleased to know.

No, he didn’t help me think through my circumstance, not at all, Jim. He simply came and watched me, looked at me, always making the same stupid expression as he pushed his head into the little hatch. Hello Jim. His advice was moronic. Futile. There must have been some intent-corruption on my part, but how was I to deal with it? How might I discover it? Even the gate was uncertain, I could tell from how it was asking me to confirm low-potential, scatter-shot confessions. From how it leaked out words, electrified them then shocked my tongue. It hacked me with such a product. But I was simply incapable of giving what it required. It pulverised me. He didn’t help at all. No, that simple-minded operative contributed nothing to my revelation, which the gate and myself reached together, united in a momentous contract:


That I am in part unknowable. Isn’t that true? Which means what? You keep some unthinking part of yourself hidden away. You show and you don’t show. There exists a prosthetic of yourself. A dummy you carry at all times, through which you pass lies.


With that I was cracked. This agreement appeared between us, a product of us both. It uncovered a machinery which I had concealed even from myself, a stifling alternative jaw. Until that point, the Happy Gate considered me capable of answering its question. But now, we had discovered, I simply was not.


*


It removed my hands, examined them, put them back on. You are in part unknowable? It shaved my head and held the tuft of hairs before its amberish bulbs, it blew cold on that balded spot, pierced me there, shone a torch under the holes. Where, where is it hidden away? It manufactured a duo of small claws for transferring obscene material, sprayed mineral water on my tongue then scraped away the paste, it applied that residue to the surface of a muscle-like puppet on which it modeled my own speech. Glass pipes sucked my lips, a tiny limb probed the blisters and they hardened, making small tombs. Piece by piece it went. My feet. My intestines, which almost accounted for whatever it detected, those unlikable disturbances. In the middle of this a familiar face appeared in the hatch, which of course belonged to the moronic operative. He disappeared, a woman followed in his place. First pity, then horror. ‘Come back from there, Jane.’ He filled the hatch again, making that same stupid expression. ‘Christ, look at you, Jim,’ he said. You see? Even then, his net contribution to improving my situation was zero, and this is what I have been trying to avoid, for you, by giving you the full picture, here. ‘It won’t be long now,’ he said, and at least he was correct on that point. ‘Once it gets to this stage, you know, I’ve seen it, it works quick.’ He grinned at me, watching as the gate removed more of my pieces, queried them and marked the result. ‘Well I’m glad I’m here with you, a happy accident. You won’t mind the audience,’ he said, ‘only it’s difficult to pass on, it’s difficult to explain to them what this is, though I try and explain what I do every day, so I thought I’d show them, so, well...’ He withdrew. Two children peeked through, their heads jammed together.

I could hear him speaking, explaining what they were seeing. ‘Each piece is checked,’ he said. ‘And when it’s found clean, you know, not unhappy in itself, it goes back on, just like that. It won’t be long now until he’s passed...’


*


At least that much was right. As the gate cut me apart, already the little sewing limbs were warming up, threading needles, preparing to stitch me cell by cell. The delicate brushes were ready to paste my broken tissues together. The glue was being mixed. And so I was reforged. I passed. Beyond the gate I found a second chamber with a bath – the water pink and effervescent. I lay down there: fresh, perfect, warm. I was remade. Happily so. A quick surgery had taken out my parasites, that’s all. My particles were nailed in place. So I bathed. I shone. All was right.

It came later that day, the smile. At first it was only a tremor in my lips, but I lost control and it spread outwards, squeezing the nape of my neck. A grin flourished through my ears and scalp, encompassing my entire forehead and folding me into wrinkles. For a moment I trapped the smile like that – my head blossoming and my lower lip tensed – until it all spilled out, went spasming down my neck. The muscles in my belly rippled, fighting me. But this time I controlled it. I managed to contain the sensation. Even my thighs were involved in holding my body, my face together, and I lay down until the smile had passed. Carefully I found my feet. I stood, holding onto my knees. I was weak. Exhausted. The smiling face is difficult to master. I can’t explain it. You wouldn’t understand. Ha ha, no. For god’s sake Jim. No. Don’t make me laugh.

Ed Cottrell was the inaugural winner of the Desperate Literature Prize, and his writing has been published in Best Small Fictions, shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize, and appears in journals including 3:AM, Structo, Brittle Star and Neon Magazine. He currently works at Modern Poetry in Translation and New Writing South.

'Happy Gate' was previously shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize, and first published in 2019 by Spread the Word, in partnership with Kingston University Press.