A rainbow appeared briefly over Laston Tower. He saw it as he came out of the lobby of the Culture Palace into the cold, still morning. The Palace and the Tower faced each other from opposite ends of the long and imposing avenue that went straight through the middle of the city. They were the last remaining skyscrapers in Laston, and it was perhaps because of this that they looked so particularly raw and uncomfortable. All the rest had been swept away in the popular desire for a more modest environment.
Standing on the Palace steps, Trenchfoot gazed up at the rainbow and the sheer, cream sides of the Tower, faintly glistening in the icy light of the sun. The Tower looked brittle; with one breath of wind, it seemed ready to crack and fissure. While it was quite sunny down there at the far end of the avenue, a heavy cloud hung over the Palace. Its gaunt sides and glazed windows reared up behind him to elaborate pinnacles and friezes at the top. Putting down his box of oil paints, he buttoned up his coat and pulled up his collar while trying to concertina his neck into his body. The skin on his face felt stretched in the cold air.
The shadow of the cloud moved down the gardens and ran along the middle of the avenue, a thin island of grass and dwarf hedges surrounded by tarmac. Then, the shadow swept up the sides of the Tower which turned a dull grey.
The so-called Tower was more like an elongated cut diamond with one end pointing down into the earth and the other pointing into the sky. Apart from housing a revolving public observation platform, high up towards its pinnacle, the Tower served no real purpose.
Trenchfoot had only been up there once. It had been one evening. The light up there was unnatural and, with the horizon considerably lowered, tke sky was like an encompassing bubble. He'd loved the experience despite feeling a bit of vertigo. It had felt excitingly dangerous. You were somehow neither far enough away from, nor close enough to, the earth to feel safe. Up there om the imperceptibly turning platfom, you could look out through the raked windows at the grid of streets spreading out to the gentle rise of Laston Hills amd at the countryside beyond.
The rainbow faded and the cloud began to smother the top of the Tower. Picking up his box, he walked down to the road to join the queue for a community transporter.
Unlike the Tower, the Culture Palace served a real purpose. Every square foot of it was used for Personalised Activity Programmes or ‘PAPS', as they had come to be called. It wasn't the only place used for Paps, nor the most popular. New, smaller activity centres seemed to be springing up all over the city. In fact, he was a bit unusual in preferring the old Culture Palace, but he felt a kind of loyalty to the place. With the introduction of the new centres, he had hoped that the Palace would have emptied of people a little, yet the demand for Paps just seemed to expand to their increased supply. You still had to jostle your way along the corridors between activity periods.
He had finished his first of the day. He'd quite enjoyed it - learning about colour tones with the computer. He'd mix different colours on his palette and then match the result against one of a similar tone in a set of squares on a grid from black, through gradually paler greys, to white. Then, the computer, using its camera eye, commented on his decision. It was too polite ever to actually say 'wrong', but it very rarely had actually agreed with him that morning; but then, nobody had said this art business was going to be easy, he told himself.
Standing in the queue and stepping from foot to foot to counteract the cold , he took out his plastic day-plan print-out from his pocket and checked it through. There was his appointment with Ella in half an hour, Astronomy at 1.30, Aztec culture in the afternoon and, then, home. Not exactly busy - he could probably fit in a couple of visits to a video parlour.
A transporter murmured up to the curb. The queue pressed towards the doors, but he didn't move with it. He had plenty of time; despite the fact that it was starting to rain, he thought he'd walk instead. So, he walked round to the back of the transporter and crossed the road to the linear gardens, not bothering to look out for traffic. Like everyone else, he had ceased to check. The transporters moved very cautiously, and their forward sensors triggered their brakes long before they could touch anything. People cursed the transporters for their slowness, but they were gentle giants.
As he strolled down the park towards the Tower, he watched the dolphin-shaped transporters glide along the avenues and the faces of the people inside looking blankly out of the porthole windows.
Half-way along the park was a pool of water with a low wall round it. Some new sculptures had been placed in the pool: a bronze of an old man with his trousers rolled up to his knees, standing in the middle with a small child, another sat on the wall fishing, his eyes fixed on a motionless float. A woman crouched beside him, her hand poised to scoop up some water. Trenchfoot moved from one to the other, craning round to get a look at their faces. But, short of getting into the pool himself, he couldn't get a good look at any of them. Another time he'd come in boots, he thought. Turning off to the left, he crossed the road and walked up a side street that led to the Department of Well-Being.
Trenchfoot peered through the washes and swathes of the rain at the divisional offices of the Departments of Industry and Agriculture, the Department of Media, the Department of Deliberation - all set back a little along one side of the street. They weren't very large buildings - nothing to compare with the Culture Palace. With the advances over the years in miniaturisation, it was said that all the departments together could have been no bigger than a shoe-box if it hadn't been for the need to allow the Directors some space to work in.
Looking down to the end of the street, he could see the transporters queueing up in front of the Department of Well-Being, releasing a steady stream of people into it. The DW-B was one of those glass buildings that was designed to reflect the buildings around it rather than make a statement itself. Unfortunately, all the surrounding buildings were of the reflecting type too so that the resulting effect was of a large number of imperfect mirrors reflecting each other. Nevertheless, the DW-B's offices were resplendent.
The doors of the DW-B had intrigued him for years. As soon as anyone approached them, they emitted a high-pitched hiss and shot back into recesses in the glass walls with an incredible agility. This was an architecture that made its presence known through sound rather than sight; or possibly, there were no doors and the hiss had been installed to give the illusion of doors. A couple of times, he had tried to discover whether there were any doors there at all by running as fast as he could at them and yet, however fast he ran, he never managed to touch them. It was no good coming to the Department of Well-Being when it was closed to see what happened then, because it was never closed. On this day, Trenchfoot walked through the doors at a relaxed pace.
Inside, the marble hall stretched away to a stained-glass rose window at the far end. This, he knew, was bigger than any cathedral window but, from where he stood, it was no bigger than a drawing pin, so enormous was the hall.
Along both sides of the concourse were a line
of double doors, each topped with a shallow, dark wooden arch. To the left and right of him were steps that curved their way to two smaller halls, one above and one below ground. People chatted in groups, in the middle of the echoing, marble expanse. The place reminded him of the vault corridors of the Department of Eternal Repose.