Thursday, 31 January 2008

Waltzing Mathilde

Portraits hang on three of the four walls of the ballroom. The fourth wall is made of toughened glass and looks out over the harbour. In the distance the sky meets the sea, a melding of blues; in the foreground white-capped waves run ahead of the wind and crash on the craggy rocks that stand out from the shore. As 2,400 couples dance here, there is the faint noise of the surf audible through the window, a subtle regular hiss like the static crackle behind the music from an ancient vinyl record player. The dancers are unperturbed by this, it is unlikely that they even hear it any more. They move in harmony, waltzing in great interlocking circles, parading the ballroom in an eternal cycle of creation.

The dancers all wear heavy metal slippers. The ballroom floor is magnetized, and as they dance the slippers slice through the magnetic field lines, causing the flow of electricity in the superconducting cables that run below the floor. The dancers convert chemical energy in the form of food into electrical energy that can be put to better uses: this year alone they will produce enough energy to power all the 50" flat-screen plasma televisions in the country for long enough to watch every episode, analysis, re-run and repeat of American Idol XXIV: Escape from Guantanamo, and still leave enough to power the internet-enabled fridges, toasters and washing machines that the modern age deems essential.

The dancers are the elderly, the subnormal, unruly children, anyone who's ever received an ASBO, anyone the police didn't much like the look of, first-time criminals, habitual criminals, committed recidivists, students, unmarried mothers, unwanted grandparents and civil servants who have lost large amounts of public data. They come from all walks of life, and when their shift ends, they can return to what they were doing first. Many of them don't remember that they have that option when their shift ends, and so they stay here. Dancing happily to music that's entirely in their heads. A humane form of the hamster wheel for humans.

The first portrait on the wall, the one opposite the window, is of the the woman who made the ballroom possible, Waltzing Mathilde. She was born in Paris in 1920, collaborated with the Nazis in 1941, and fled to the US in 1943 under threat of death. By 1950 she had been committed to a secure mental hospital, where she waltzed quietly all day long. The portrait is of her shortly after her incarceration, waltzing in the recreation room of the mental hospital. She is petite, and wearing only a torn nightdress. Her feet are bleeding from her non-stop waltzing, but there is a smile on her face reminiscent of that of the Mona Lisa. There is a vacancy in her eyes reminiscent of modern television audiences. She is clearly happy in the portrait, even if it is the joy of oblivion.

Mathilde was studied to find out why she waltzed, and why when they tied her to her bed she would struggle to waltz to the point of rubbing all the skin off her arms and legs where they were bound. She was put into especially heavy shoes, and still she waltzed, untiringly and unceasingly. Not even four months of increasingly heavy electroshock therapy could stop her waltzing. She finally stopped waltzing when a surgeon removed 80% of her brain-stem. She also stopped breathing.

Portrait number two is of Spastic Freddy. Before Mathilde was killed in care, researchers thought they had isolated the chemical occurring in her brain that made her waltz. The chemical was synthesized and injected into the brain of Freddy, a young man with acute depression. The chemical made him flail about spastically, uncontrolled and uncoordinated, flopping around like a rag-doll. He was put out of his misery when the head-doctor of the asylum shot him four times in the chest. The same doctor received the Congressional Medal of Honour ten years later for having had the wisdom not to shoot Freddy in the head.

The research done on Freddy's brain led to the refinement of the drug, and with the advent of large-scale bio-industry, huge vats of bacteria were programmed to produce it. The third portrait is of Felicity Landon, who built the first ballroom and prescribed it to all of the patients of mental health facilities in the state of which she was governor.

The ballroom solves so many problems, of overpopulation, of what to do with undesirables, and of where to get the energy we need for modern life. And we televise it too, on pay-per-view. We increase the drug dosage and let the contestants battle-dance for the entertainment of the paying audience.

This is definitely the future today.

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