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LIFTER, HOUSER, WATCHER - Jess Smee



I press play and there she goes: neon-pink Nike shirt ballooning as she lopes across the tufty grass of the Rift Valley, pencil-thin legs inside bulbous once-white trainers, running in fits and starts because my internet connection isn't what it was.

Joging and taking off in the Rift Valley”, it says below the clip, bringing to mind other misspellings, on worksheets and notebooks, bright yellow post-its left around the flat. I feel a teacher’s urge to correct the mistake, then reconsider. All that’s behind me now.

The rest I know too well: the thumb eclipsing the shaky image, the wind blasting into the microphone, her body tilting forwards, running, running. Then take off.

She cries out as she goes, an animal shriek. Panic? Exhilaration? It boots me in the gut every time. It’s a yell that crosses linguistic divides, ignores national borders. It’s biroed somewhere in my New Words book: Hiewing: a sound emitted by lifters as they take off, often high pitched.

By now I know all about her. Everybody does. Faith Winston, the promising (former) athlete whose digital ghost lights up my hut. Soaring higher until she reduces to a dark spot, and then she’s gone, the swaying camera tracking her until it no longer can. It scans back and forth across a cloudless sky, frantic, then dips to end on a random shot of sun hats dangled beneath a sign reading “Safari Curio Shop”, a hand-painted giraffe next to a Coca-Cola bottle. There’s shouting, which I don’t understand, though also I do. Then the screen goes black.

Pouring tea from my flask, I lean back in my broken office chair, immune to the musty air of my hastily assembled, porta-loo-like hut. There are dozens dotted around the town now, thousands across the country. The wind sways stripped branches, eddies dry leaves around the parking lot. Sensing something, someone, I squidge my forehead onto the cold window and squint down the street, past the line of poplar trees that loom like crooked giants, next to the supermarket and the fish and chip shop with the neon “Frying Times” sign that used to flicker day and night. Now it sits dark and empty, like the other shops in the row. Obsolete cast-offs from Back Then.

I look left, right, scanning my patch. They designated it a Red Zone a few weeks ago, after the fourth lifter, little James Nightingale. Giggling in his outsized plastic fireman’s hat, he’d dashed away from his mum, grinning back at her, catch-me-if-you-can. And then he started to lift, little white shoelaces dangling. I ran nearer, getting close enough to catch his euphoric squeal. After that it went blurry, my arms flailing, reaching, missing, until I stood stone-still, agog as he lifted. “James, get here now,” his mum shrieked at the spot he’d left behind. An old woman resting on the bench hoisted herself to her feet, barking instructions, waving her walking stick at me: “Left a bit. Faster…he’s getting away...” The plastic helmet paled until it was gone. Then a long silence, broken as his mum fell to her knees, crunching on her shopping bags, hands pressed to her face.

After that they locked up the supermarket for good, hammered slats of wood across the glass door, stretched red and white tape across the bench. Doing something for doing something’s sake. Sometimes there’s nothing else.

There’s someone out there, I’m sure. My hand grips the cold door handle, I track movement in the distance. Something child-sized darts across the street. I hold my breath, feel my heartbeat reverberate. Then I see it – the long orange nose, white bib and perky tail, briefly illuminated in a fuzzy circle of street light. Its gait rhythmic, the fox sniffs the unmowed grass by the bench and disappears down the dark alley towards the bins.

Back on my computer, Faith hangs mid-flight. She’s oddly reassuring, familiar after multiple viewings. Reminiscent of a time before we really grasped what was happening. Before everything shifted and history was spliced, and the talk was of Before and After, Then and Now.

“What would you do if the liftings were to continue?” I’d asked my students. A slow-motion grammar workshop on the subjunctive, right at the start of it all. Finally interested, fourteen faces tilted towards me like satellite dishes. Only Inga, usually the liveliest in the class, was looking away, gazing out the window at the small white clouds buffeted by the wind. From the next seat Fritz, her perpetually dour twin, as hulking as she was slight, glowered at me. “What would you do if the liftings continued?” I repeated, scanning blank expressions, hoping Inga might come back to us.

Eventually Lucas, the Belgian boy with nose-piercings in the front row, spoke. “I do not think this, the liftings, will continue.” His voice grew slower. ”It...may not be real.”

I stepped towards the white board, ready to dissect his grammar, but Inga suddenly turned, firing words at his pale face. “You don’t believe it? You need more evidence? Yesterday someone went up in my mother’s town. Gone.”

Fritz glared at her, eyes beetle black, legs splayed across the space beneath her Formica desk. He’d loomed over her, around her, since they’d joined the advanced class for foreign learners the week before. He’d spend every lesson tapping something – fingers, foot, pen – loud enough to let everyone know how bored he was, only speaking to contradict Inga. I stood as tall as I could and addressed her: “Sorry to hear that Inga, go on...”

Fritz jumped in, first eye-rolling, then categorical. “It is totally real. I know It. I decided we go back to Germany. Get tickets tonight.”

“A grammar point...” I interjected, picking up a marker. “If the liftings were to continue, I would go...” But Inga was louder. “Fritz. You’re not serious?”

“Yes. We go home before it is too late.”

Their argument switched to German, sped up. Fritz leaned in, shouting just inches from her face, smacking his pencil tin on her desk, once, twice. Other faces turned towards them, voices rose around the room. “Class!” I shouted, trying to wring some authority from the short age gap between us, but my voice came out too high. “Get out Worksheet 8...please…”

Eventually Fritz and Inga retreated into an angry, sulking silence. Heads turned to print-outs, pens scribbled. I stroked the beard I’d cultivated for gravitas, then glanced at my phone tucked inside my grammar textbook. From Day 1 I’d been a crammer: an individual who compulsively tracks news and information on the lifting phenomenon. I swiped my news app open. “UK support hotlines say mental health crisis inevitable” read a headline. “Child lifters: schools to close in two weeks” said another. The class worked on in silence. In the front row Inga was chewing on her pen top, her brow creased. Fritz’s foot was thudding; I stared down at it, then up at his small black eyes, boring into me. I looked away; outside, leaves were starting to turn, flecks of colour corroding the green. A small pigeon landed on the window sill, feathers shuddering in the wind. I scanned the class again. Inga was watching the bird too, until she turned and her eyes caught mine, suspending me in a brief, powerful flash of North Sea grey. Then Fritz slammed his pen on his desk and the pigeon flew away.

The radio in the hut crackles, slightly off station. The news comes dotted with white noise: Miracle anti-lifting pills impounded... identified as out of date antimalarials. I unscrew my flask, releasing acrid mint into the confined space. My phone bleeps, a photo from mum. The Madrid skyline, again, suburban blocks half-hiding frosty hills. I zoom in and spot her ghostly silhouette reflected in the window pane – why risk the balcony? I ping her a heart and my own gloomy vista from the hut. Outside, a distant figure is making a dash for it, running through the car park towards the bus stop. Human this time. Then one figure turns into two, arms conjoined, heads tilted, four legs pacing in sync. The street light casts a mutant shadow. I track them until they’re within eyeshot of the next hut. Housers. New Words, page 7: those who stay home for fear of lifting.

“Gone,” Inga said, smiling, before the lesson the next day, “on the night bus”. Fritz’s departure energised her. She laughed, rocked backwards on her chair, lobbed verbal missiles in conversation class, argued ferociously with Lucas the Belgian. Whenever possible she steered the conversation back to lifters, which was all any of us were thinking about anyway. But here her bravado failed, perhaps from a sense of how much she had to lose, how much was worth preserving. “I’d rather be bored than lifted,” she said. “Maybe I’ll become a houser!”

I picked up the marker and wrote the definition in green pen on the board. The students, unanimously solemn, transcribed while I added more new vocabulary: Watcher: someone who guards a street, keeping a lookout for Lifters.

After class I wandered into the student lounge in search of coffee. But the machine was still broken. “Hard to get repaired these days. Everything’s so bloody slow,” said Jane, who worked on the till. I was turning to leave when I saw Inga, sitting alone with her feet on the table, frowning at a newspaper.

“Fritz and I are better in different countries… different continents even better,” she said, looking up at me and laughing, before turning back to the paper.

I stood over her, staring blankly at the front page headline. Global lifter total tops 5,000, it read. My phone beeped; another message from Adam on the “Last blast before we’re a housin’” chat group set up to organise that night’s friends from uni reunion. “O’Malley’s, 8pm. Don’t be late!” it read, followed by the now obligatory emoji – a dancer, leaping high in the air. I smiled, flicked the phone onto silent, and took a breath. “Fancy coming for a drink with me and my friends tonight?” I asked.

Squashed around the sticky pub table, the rounds came and went quickly, as though we were in a hurry. “Welcome to the last supper,” Adam shouted after an hour or so, and we all laughed too loudly, pretending everything was normal, until we couldn't anymore.

“It just feels wrong,” I said, after a gulp of beer. “Down my street, swings, a slide, but no kids, just double-parked delivery vans.”

“Parents are scared shitless,” said Adam, who’d been driving a van himself since graduation. He shook his head like he was shaking off a fly. “My latest gig’s a school run. Have to sign a form saying I’ll walk the children to the building, just in case...” His tone went pseudo professional. “Holding hands at all times. Door-to-door service guaranteed.”

Somehow Inga had ended up on the far side of the table, chatting to my friend Sally and a guy I didn’t know. I looked over as often as I dared, watching them huddled over a phone screen like it was a campfire, their soft banter interrupted by the occasional blast of Inga’s outsize laugh. Her cheeks glowed, reddening further after some pronunciation mistake meant she came back from the bar with a round of lagers that turned out to be snakebite and black. “Come on,” Adam teased, “how did you say it?” We laughed harder when she flipped the situation and got him trying – failing – to order a wheat beer in German. Closing time crept up on us but there was no way we were calling it a night. “Pile in the van,” said Adam, already way over the limit. We hesitated, then recalling the risky open-air trek across town to the club, clambered in. Adam drove fast, singing, switching radio stations when the news came on. I ended up on the back seat, next to Inga. As she stared out the dark oblong window, our legs touched, denim on denim. I tingled, reduced to that one single line of more than likely incidental contact. As we passed a neon public information billboard – Going outside? Think again. Don’t do it unless you have to – I felt Inga’s hand brush mine. Her fingers, small probes, met my skin, then retracted in a tactile question mark. I reached towards her in the darkness, our hands first missing, then merging.

I turn up the electric heater and scan the street, now as inert as a photograph. Even the wind has died down. I press play on another clip. "Watch them as many times as you can. Try to join the dots,” they told us at emergency response training. I know many of them inside out – the shopper’s dog racing in dumb circles in the Lidl parking lot in Amsterdam, barking incessantly after its owner, floating away above its head. Helena, poised and immaculate, a badger-like white streak in her dark hair, slamming the boot of her Fiat, lifting upwards in front of a church in Rome, shedding shopping like sandbags from a balloon. It was the Chiesa Dell'Ascensione, a local paper reported without further comment. Or Pablo, hiking in the Basque Country, lifting with his bulky rucksack still on his back, its weight flipping him belly-up towards the open sky. He turns back to earth as he fades, fixing his girlfriend down below with fierce, angry eyes. Some of my colleagues were sceptical about that one. “Suspiciously professional,” said John, the press officer. “We have to keep our guard up,” he added in a knowing tone that was once default.

I sigh, press play on Faith again, watch her fastening her hair, stretching, lunging, elongating her muscles, left side, right. Her expression is frozen, then she smiles, just once, broadly but inwardly, with a flicker of private emotion I’d picked up even on my first viewing, as Inga and I lay on my thick living room rug, the evening news droning above us, ignored. Flecks of blue telly light played on our semi-clad forms, random bits of clothing still half attached: my sock, her tee-shirt, which she wore like a turban. “A thousand and one nights,” she'd grinned, so close I could smell rosemary, the seaside. I’d stroked her face, tracing her cheekbone, skimming over the faint scar where she told me a teenage Fritz had thrown a hockey stick at her.

“New film footage has surfaced of Faith, a month after her ascent,” the newsreader announced. We watched, suddenly rapt, whispering quick-fire in the newsreader’s pauses, Inga mouthing words she didn’t know: “apparent authenticity?” Our eyes were pinned on Faith, voyeurs, hungry for her last sprint into the sunlight. We watched in wonder, alert as if caffeinated. I was cold but Inga was burning, grey eyes agape.

I covered us with a blanket, feeling under-dressed in front of the flatscreen. An expert was talking about the “reported lifting,” still hedging his bets. We watched a forest of microphones close in on Faith’s parents in front of a fruit stand in downtown Nairobi. “Yes, that is Faith,” her mum nodded in a daze, confirming her identity, clutching a young boy in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt as though he might rise from her arms any second. Her father, enfolded in a scarlet and black checked Maasai blanket, stood silently, gazing at a clutch of Faith’s medals in his hand.

I drape my puffy jacket around my shoulders, check the street, wishing I’d eaten before coming to work. It’s cold and my fingers whiten with immobility. Faith loping in the sunshine reminds me how carefree we’d been just months ago, how blithe. The happy shoppers, the dog walkers, the tourists tracing our old town walls that I no longer noticed but Inga loved. Kids on skateboards, students in rowdy clusters, families on picnic blankets, staking claim to lurid patches of green in the local park. All that idling. All that outside. Inga and I as foolhardy as the rest, cycling through autumn’s flush to our favourite place, a nature reserve miles outside town. We’d lock our bikes outside the visitor’s centre and stroll hand-in-hand along forest paths that smelt of mulch and mushrooms. Inga would lead, walking with a slight limp on her left side from when she’d fallen down the stairs as a kid, steering us towards a bird hide atop a brambly hill. There we’d sit, bony hips touching, peering across the canopies, enveloped in a fog of bird song. The leaves shifted colour by the week, then fell. “Taking a forest bath,” Inga called it, uncorking a Riesling, telling me how the woods had been her second home when she’d lived with her family in Offenbach. “Better than being at home with Fritz,” she said, her shoulders tense beneath the curve of my arm, until with a firm, dull clunk she tapped beaker on beaker in a toast and smiled.

The number of lifters climbed from single cases to dozens, hundreds. Soon most cities and towns around the country had had at least one. Inga’s sublet ended and she moved in. “Just short, not forever,” she said, as I struggled not to say that forever sounded fine too. But we were never really alone. News updates became our buzzing background hum. I was hungry for facts, scrutinising numbers, geographic locations and videos like they were an equation to decipher. But Inga frowned during the broadcasts, the lines on her forehead like the grain on pale wood. To distract her I cooked her recipes from my pristine, bought to impress cookbook. She sat quietly, mopping up the last of her curry with naan, then looked me straight in the eye. “I just want it all to be over,” she said quietly. Time blurred into a lump. Days, weeks, passed and the more I made light of things, the more she became unreachable, cordoned off like a crime scene. Before long she was staying inside unless it was unavoidable, our trips to the nature reserve a fading memory. She rarely spoke and when she did, her words were haphazard, her thoughts elsewhere. She was angstating - the practice of hiding, or cocooning, for fear of lifting - before the rest of us even clocked what it was.

She’d send me out to stock up on increasingly exotic lists of ingredients and Evian. I’d lug it all home, relieved to feel the pinch of the air becoming winter, lingering on street corners just to stay outside, checking my phone, playing it cool, not that anyone was watching. As Inga grew quieter, I puffed myself up into the voice of reason. We had probability on our side, I told her. What, really, were the chances? And since when did we get our news from a bunch of YouTube films? Inured to my own dumbness, I told her it would pass, it was a storm in a teacup. Inga smiled at me, laughed, then turned away. When she looked back she was wiping tears away with her jumper cuffs. “The storm will smash your idiot teacups,” she said slowly, like she was in an oral exam. I opened my arms to her but she brushed past me and went into the bedroom, where she was soon on her phone again, most likely to her dad in Offenbach. He was calling twice or more a day, trying to talk her into coming home.

It’s murky outside, that diffuse winter half-light which gives up before it’s even tried. The radio crackles grow louder, smothering the newsreader’s voice. When I retune it’s one of those strength in adversary, reasons to be optimistic stories, about how a lifter in New York managed to grip on to a skyscraper window ledge, before being yanked back from the brink by his fellow office workers. I switch off the radio, feeling the bite of jealousy, imagining the overwhelming relief of restraining a lifter.

In the silence I recall Inga’s phone conversations, loud through the bedroom door, filled with torrents of unintelligible words, each syllable more barbed than the next. I’d creep in, tentatively slide her a cup of tea-no-milk, then retreat, a gatecrasher in my own flat. When I reached out to stroke the gentle slope of her neck she would jerk away. Her nocturnal teeth grinding increased with the lifter numbers and I hugged her, feeling her muscles tense on the memory foam.

Maybe I overdid it. The radio was on nonstop, updates every fifteen minutes. “The number of lifters in the country has risen,” the broadcasters would say, failing to spot the pun, before wittering on about stocks in electricity generators trebling, agoraphobia becoming commonplace, cult recruitment soaring. Then there were the earworm jingles touting lifting insurance policies: Don’t miss the boat. Put your loved ones first! Inga grew paler and I tried everything to distract her, to bring her back. Themed movie nights. Booze-soaked, stay-at-home parties for two. Fine-tuning risottos and paellas, which sometimes even looked a little like the photos beside their recipes. Once, our bikes off limits, I asked Adam to run us out to the nature reserve, hoping a change of scenery would activate the rewind button. Inga was livelier than I'd seen her for weeks as the van bounced along the country roads, cheeks pink as she laughed at Adam’s anecdotes about his second job delivering the wrong supplies for the construction of new watcher huts. The seat beside us was filled with a stack of the cartoon fliers they were handing out outside schools: Risky Rabbit says: Go out with a grown-up holding your hand – or stay in your burrow! Inga smiled weakly, leaning back into the same seat fibres we’d sat on on our way to the club, feet squarely placed on the same grubby carpet. Time felt stretched, elongated, like on those hot summer afternoons in the classroom, when the sunlight was solidified by dust hanging mid-air. We stopped at the nature reserve and I jumped out and waited for her to follow, but she didn’t move, just sat staring down the mulchy path, the tree canopies overhead clinging to each other like housers. “We can head straight to the hide,” I said. “It has a roof...” She looked at me, shook her head a fraction, then spoke into the air between the front seats: “I’m sorry. Adam, can you drive me back?”

Back home she moved like a sleepwalker, balancing random items in her arms: a hair brush, books, crumpled lumps of clothing, squeezing them in her rucksack. Then came that forlorn drum roll as she clattered her bike down the steps outside. I watched from the window as she pushed it down the street, shoulders hunched, her determination to move, to leave, numbing her fear of cycling, of being outside. She was off kilter, either because of the heavy luggage or her limp. She hadn’t said where she was going and I hadn’t asked. Near the corner she looked back, just for a moment. Then she mounted her bike and pedalled towards the town centre, rucksack bulging on her back, as I stood watching, stirring the tomato sauce as though it really mattered, throwing in pinches of herbs I’d picked up at the indoor farmer’s market. When I looked up again, she was gone.

All she left behind were long pale hairs on my pillows, those bright yellow vocab post-its plastered around the kitchen: kettle, radiator, skirting board. Weeks later I found a cast-off worksheet from class. Write three examples on subjects of your choice: A) Real: “If it gets worse, I would leave” (“will leave”, I corrected automatically). B) Unreal: “If my friends ever lifted, I would never go out of my house again” (tick). C) Past unreal conditional: “If my boyfriend had decided to be a houser, I would have joined him (frown, unwilling tick). Without her volcanic laugh a cloying silence oozed into every corner of the flat. I called her, again and again, listening to the robotic voice telling me this number has not been recognised. There were no messages either, just Adam’s ironic gifs and photos from my mum, still housing in Madrid. Where the hell was Inga? Back in Offenbach with Fritz? Had she got on a flight before they were grounded? The other, unthinkable possibility was something I refused to think.

If she had gone home, she wasn’t the only one. I kept working as long as I could, but soon enough the call came from the school: student numbers had dropped too low and they were shutting the doors. They promised to pay my last wages, though they never did. Short of options, I signed up to be a watcher, quietly, impossibly, hoping I might intersect Inga on her red racer en route to the nature reserve. At the training sessions we practiced sprinting towards a rising helium balloon and learnt how to keep an eye on those out alone, the dawdlers. We read up on the theories, the scientific speculation. Perhaps it was something gravitational, affecting certain spots? Experts trawled through data, taking a punt at where the next case might crop up, first based on geography, then ethnicity, then age, then any other variable that came to mind (including eventually, pathetically, the lifter's last initial). Or maybe it was an illness, a condition. One professor blamed emotional extremes, arguing lifters were often in a state of inner exuberance or instability: the mugger who lifted as he pointed his knife at a Russian tourist in central London, or Pablo, the Spanish hiker, whose girlfriend later told a tabloid he’d just told her they were finito when his feet lost contact with the earth. By then Estonia was using sensors to alert watchers to individuals at risk. “We’re still on analogue,” said our trainer, “keep your eyes open and be ready to run.”

The drizzle picks up and another fox pads through the shadows, meters away from the hut. A scrappier beast this time, padding in nervous bursts. Time moves begrudgingly here, like in those grammar lessons when pan-European pupils shamelessly tracked the clock. Another six hours to go in the hut, or the rut, as my co-watcher Simon calls it. He’s been lucky enough to stop one. Twice. Called me straight away both times, voice shaky, raw with the euphoria of touch, of guiding them back down to earth with a thud and no harm worse than a bruised knee or sprained ankle.

Stuck to the wall, there’s a tally of sightings of those who pass the hut: fewer this week. Hardly surprising: most people are staying in, housers nursing their powerlessness, only occasionally venturing outside in twos, tethering themselves to the planet. Who’s next? goes the whisper that circulates in silence, jumping from one mind to the next. By now, I’m jumpy too. My swagger left with Inga. The guy who played it down, who strutted to the shops, who devoured the unfolding reality like episodes in some noir binge, is long gone. My uni friends have returned home, my neighbours are housing. The only people on the streets seem to be watchers heading to their huts. Most, like me, running.

There’s a photocopied photo of Inga pinned to the wall too, her mouth ajar, mid conversion, eyes tilted skywards as she gesticulated across the treetops from our hide. I'd scrawled “MISSING” in red capitals across my lumberjack shirt she had on. Now there’s a new note pinned above it: Might have seen her (Thursday). Not sure. Don’t get your hopes up. Simon. I call him. No answer. The radio drones on, the voices suddenly ringing clear, like I’ve got company.

And in a way I have. The poor hiewing lifters invade my thoughts, day and night. Especially James Nightingale, the toddler. I still feel that blind panic, the craving for a handful of solid flesh. “Faster... he’s getting away”.

The last bus of the day pulls up. Doors clunk open but there’s no one inside, just a silhouetted driver and his sidekick. Like Batman and Robin, Sherlock and Watson, the human race now operates in duos. Neighbours talk of teaming it, yelling over the fence, voices boisterous to hide their nerves: who wants to team it on a shopping trip? Most would rather go without than go alone. The days of solo strolls are gone, there are no jogs beyond the running machine, no picnics, no al-fresco anything. Even the fox sniffing around the hut looks worse for wear, his bones undulating under a lacklustre coat. A rangy city animal, a ducker and a diver. Scavenging has taken a turn for the worse too. Those dropped sweets and ketchup splodges are history. These days we wouldn’t dream of dawdling with a bag of chips at the bus stop.

Running late, Simon’s text bleeps onto my phone. I lift my finger to reply but spot a figure turning the corner, advancing steadily, a cut-out in the fog. I sit bolt upright. The fox concedes the pavement to the newcomer, a lone human, walking towards me with an unmistakeable left-leaning tilt. I’m already leaping to my feet, bashing my knee as I race out of the hut.

“Inga,” I shout, my voice cracking after too much solitude. I pound towards her and she steps forward, moving out of the shadows of the poplar trees, until the street light reveals the heavy features of a middle-aged man. Embarrassed, I nod stupidly at him and he smiles politely, a slow-motion beatific crease that drops, muscle-by-muscle as he watches me lose my footing. In that second, everything folds inwards as I’m yanked away, overcome by the gravitational whack of something larger than me. A pull that is incredible, irresistible. I feel, taste and hear a distant voice, yelling through the haze. I’m untouchable, out of reach. Then I hear a long squeal. Extended. High pitched. Hiewing. It comes from everywhere at once. Then I realise it comes from somewhere deep inside me, a shriek of pure relief. I can fly.

Jess Smee is a Berlin-based writer, editor and translator. Her journalism has been published in the Guardian, Spiegel Online and elsewhere and she has reported for Reuters news agency from London, Madrid and Frankfurt. Her short story, Paper Collector, was printed in Dream Catcher magazine.