It was a bright cold day in September, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Sullivan Fitzpatrick O’Flanagan, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of Welkerish dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and unwashed Gronkowski jerseys. At one end of it a Fathead poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about sixty-five, with a sleeveless hoodie and an expression of perpetual grumpiness. Sullivan made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Week 1. The flat was seven flights up, and Sullivan, who was thirty-nine and had a tattoo of a shamrock above his right ankle that had become infected, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BILL BELICHICK IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list which had something to do with players clearing waivers and being signed to the practice squad. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Sullivan turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the NESNscreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. He moved over to the window: a doughy, pale figure, the plumpness of his body merely emphasized by the red, white, and blue officially licensed jersey which was the uniform of the Nation. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the relentless consumption of malt liquor and miniature cigars.
Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn ticket stubs into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The surly face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BILL BELICHICK IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the pitiless blue eyes looked deep into Sullivan’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word GREATRIOTS. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a scatback, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people’s windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Football Research Directorship mattered.
Behind Sullivan’s back the voice from the NESNscreen was still babbling away about undrafted free agents and the establishment of the Second Patriots Dynasty. The NESNscreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Sullivan made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what frequency, the Football Research Directorship plugged in on any individual sideline transmission was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they listened to all of the signals all the time. But at any rate they could plug into your helmet whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every defensive signal scrutinized.
Sullivan kept his back turned to the NESNscreen. It was safer, though, as he well knew, even a dummy call of “Omaha” can be revealing. A kilometre away the Ministry of Profit, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste — this was Boston, chief city of Gilette Stadium, itself the most populous of the provinces of New England. He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether Boston had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with pages of Sports Illustrated and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed drunks standing around street corners where the plaster dust swirled in the air along with brief snippets of conversation including words like “jealous” and “haters” and “ain’t us”? But it was no use, he could not remember: nothing remained of his childhood except a series of bright-lit tableaux of Steve Grogan fumbling against a background of mostly unintelligible jeering.
A sense of complete helplessness had descended upon him. The Ministry of Profit — Miniprawfit, in NewEnglandSpeak — was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Sullivan stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the slogan of the Nation:
DO YOUR JOB
Sullivan turned round abruptly. He had set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the NESNscreen. He crossed the room into the tiny kitchen. He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese ricespirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, gulped it down like a dose of medicine, and sat down to set his fantasy lineup for Week 1.