Before it all happened, there was nothing I wanted more than for it to happen. I was evangelical about it. Shameless, you might say. There I’d be, standing in line at the post office or eating a falafel wrap, and the spirit would move within me. The Dump, I’d tell my audience, was the greatest thing that could happen to humanity right now. It was our Watergate scandal; the most comprehensive challenge to state secrecy since WikiLeaks. The Dump was going to do more for the voiceless and powerless of this world than if Jeremy Corbyn had been elected or Bernie had made it to the White House. The woman who just wanted to buy stamps would edge away, the guy in the kebab shop began serving someone else. I’d wipe sweat from my cheeks. No more classified documents or spy cops or government cover-ups. No more secret emails. Screw the man, expose the bastards for who they really are. Actually (by this point, I’d be shouting), forget Bernie. The Dump went way beyond anything a left-wing government could achieve. Imagine England winning the World Cup but instead of the warm lager and jingoism, our prize would be information. Every dirty deal every politician ever made, every sordid photo. We’d know all of it.
It was around this time that I fell in love with Tom. One night, I locked the two of us in a bathroom. We were at Amber’s house for a party. A birthday or housewarming, I don’t remember which but if you searched her name on The Dump now, you’d find all the details. The WhatsApp messages to each guest, the time and number of kisses going up or down depending on how much she liked the person. Being her oldest friend, I got neither kisses nor a suggested arrival time: I was at her house most Saturday nights anyway.
I lifted the toilet lid and yanked at my skirt. Tom backed against the towel rail.
‘Babe, you know I want to. It’s just that there are people right outside.’
I laughed and pulled my underwear down. His face was confused, perhaps excited. Music pounded on the other side of the door.
‘No, not that. I need to empty my Mooncup.’
‘I want you to see every part of me,’ I said, squatting over the toilet. I began fishing inside myself for the Silicone stem.
Tom swayed slightly.
‘I am pretty intrigued about how it all works.’
‘So basically, you use it like a tampon but the cup is refillable.’
I found the end of the menstrual cup and gripped it with my thumb and forefinger, then pulled. A tiny, wobbling container of blood appeared from between my legs.
‘And when it’s full, it looks like this. Now I just empty it and rinse it, then put it back in.’
There was a loud bang on the door, followed by Amber’s voice.
‘If you guys are shagging in there, you need to hurry up. Some of us have to pee.’
Tom and I looked at each other and laughed. I tipped the contents of the Mooncup into the toilet bowl and flushed, then shoved it back inside myself. Tom opened the door and disappeared, leaving me alone with Amber.
‘I was showing Tom how Mooncups worked,’ I said. ‘I want him to know everything about me.’
Amber narrowed her eyes.
Dumpers, they called us before it all happened. People who believed in The Dump
Three months later, The Dump happened.
I was on the bus to work, late probably. Back then I was employed by a small art gallery named for the eighteenth-century industrialist who founded it, a powdery man with too much money who eventually died of arsenic poisoning. My job was to write the descriptions that hung next to the paintings. The title of the piece and the name of the artist, the date it was made and the materials used. If the work was well known – say, the Vermeer we got on loan one month in exchange for some Chinese silk paintings – then I was allowed to be more creative. I could speculate about the identity of the kitchen maid and point viewers to the brilliant azure of her apron, made from crushed lapis stone. I could note that Vermeer painted her with only half a smile. People, in my experience, like to be told what they are looking at.
The bus stopped at a set of traffic lights and my phone buzzed. It was Amber.
‘It happened,’ she said.
‘The Dump. It’s live. The hackers did it early this morning. They created a website, like this huge Google Drive to deposit all the emails, messages, photos, uploads, downloads. Type a name and you’ll see everything that person has ever done on the internet.’
The lights changed and the bus moved again. I hadn’t thought much about The Dump lately, it had become boring to me in the way that extreme hypotheticals always do. No one bothers keeping Mao’s Little Red Book on their shelf after university.
‘Are you serious?’
‘Deadly serious,’ Amber said. ‘Everything is on there. the Guardian homepage is covered in British war crimes and the tabloids are having a field day. Apparently, Prince William once messaged Judi Dench for nudes.’
‘The Dump,’ I repeated stupidly. ‘It happened.’
At work, I found it impossible to concentrate. The curator sent me home at lunchtime because I looked so unwell. Tom was on the sofa, watching television.
‘You’ve heard the news,’ he said.
I sat on the arm next to him. My legs felt strangely weak.
‘Yeah. The Dump.’
‘I thought you’d be more excited,’ Tom said. ‘Isn’t this meant to be like winning the Premier League?’
I stared at the television screen.
‘The World Cup. This is meant to be like winning the World Cup because even people who don’t like football get excited but in this metaphor, football represents information that contributes to the public good and…’
I stopped. Tom was looking at me strangely.
‘Did you search for anyone?’ he asked.
My shoulders prickled.
‘On The Dump?’
‘No,’ I said, sliding off the sofa and crossing the room to the door. ‘Of course not. It’s a tool to expose corruption. I would never look a civilian up without their consent.’
‘Fine. I was just asking.’
I gripped the door frame. ‘Have you searched for anyone?’
Tom’s hand was a pale fist around the remote control.
‘No, I haven’t.’
I didn’t know what to say. I looked at the screen again. We watched in silence, me clinging to the door, him clinging to the remote.
I locked myself in another bathroom. Tom’s bathroom, although I’d been living there for months now so had some claim to call it mine too. By then I knew the URL. Everyone did. It was orbiting social media like a flaming comet. Easy to remember, an address that belonged to the early days of the internet: www dot the dump dot com. I typed it into the browser on my phone and waited. Then it appeared, a search box and a blinking cursor. The text at the top invited you to type someone’s name, anyone. I stayed neutral. A nineties TV presenter whose soiled history had been all over the MailOnline that morning. The screen flickered and then there it all was. Direct messages from each of his social media platforms, emails and photo attachments stretching back to before the millennium.
I scrolled with the side of my thumb.
We arrived first and followed the waitress to a table near the back. Every wall in the café was painted pastel, as if colours at full volume were considered too troubling for hungover eyes. Joel and Kate appeared and then Amber, who was fifteen minutes late. She did not apologise.
‘Why is Tom always making us go for brunch?’ she hissed in my ear, so that the others wouldn’t hear. ‘It’s so heteronormative.’
I realised that I didn’t have an answer for her. Tom often did things that I found hard to understand. Cleaning his trainers with a special aerosol spray, for instance, or using three different apps to check the weather forecast. Brunch was just another one of his unknowable personality quirks – an adorable personality quirk, even. Amber didn’t see it that way.
‘We’ll go for a drink next time,’ I said. ‘Just the two of us.’
Amber looked at me without saying anything but I understood. The pastel walls throbbed. When Tom asked if we were ready to order, we flinched.
‘Yes,’ I said, drawing back from Amber. ‘Good idea, Tom.’
The coffee arrived and conversation turned predictably to The Dump. ‘Did you see the deputy mayor had to step down?’ Joel said.
‘She’d been sending emails to property tycoons, telling them that they’d be allowed to build over historic landmarks in exchange for cash. Madness.’
‘My friend’s boss got fired,’ Kate said. ‘Someone from HR went through his personal messages and found out he was really into sploshing. You know, like where you have sex but you’re covered in whipped cream? What a freak.’
‘But is that legal?’ Tom asked. ‘Can HR just look at their employees’ messages?’
‘Nothing about The Dump is legal.’
Amber unfurled a hand from her coffee. She placed it on the table next to me.
‘Have you looked up Tom yet?’
Her voice was a quiet purr in the clatter of the café.
‘Of course not. The code of ethics is that you don’t check someone without their consent.’
‘You could just do it and he’d never find out. No one would ever know.’ In the blanched room, Amber’s mouth stood out like a paper cut.
That night in bed I wrapped my arms around Tom and imagined I was a limpet sucking onto a rock.
‘Your abs feel great. Have you been doing that yoga video?’
He grunted, half asleep. I counted three shrieks of a car alarm somewhere on the street outside then asked, ‘We’re not going to look each other up on The Dump, are we?’
‘I’m starting to wish The Dump had never happened. People are obsessed with it.’
We were silent for a moment, then Tom rolled over to look at me.
‘You can search my name if you want,’ he said. ‘I don’t care. I have nothing to hide. Do you?’
‘Of course not.’
I answered too quickly. I sounded as convincing as the car alarm.
Tom did have a point. People were obsessed with The Dump.
The curator and her deputy – two women in their late fifties who I assumed still made calls on landline phones – were discussing the weekend’s scandals when I arrived at work the next morning. They came thick and fast now: emails that showed the Foreign Secretary had dined with weapons manufacturers, a BBC executive rejecting an eight-part series about the Brixton riots via Google Chat because ‘we have 2 many sad black dramas this year’. Judi Dench’s nudes. It was all there, behind The Dump’s gaping search bar.
‘And it’s not just the politicians and celebrities,’ the deputy said. ‘Our internet history is on there too. Just imagine.’
The curator laughed, her neat brown eyes crinkling.
‘Well, they’d have a job to find any dirt on me. I think the most embarrassing thing you’d uncover on my file is the time I messaged my niece to ask what a Dua Lipa is.’
I sat at my computer and opened the notes I was making on our latest acquisition. It was a Ben Nicholson painting on loan from a gallery in Cambridge. Oil on carved board, 350 millimeters by 445 millimeters, March 1962. When the curator presented it to me, I knew at once that I disliked it. A grey square and a blue rectangle. When you looked closely, you saw that the canvas was actually wood. I read that Nicholson often took a penknife to his work, scraping and scraping until the thing that only he could see revealed itself in the grain. This painting was of a city in Greece. I didn’t see it.
I twisted to where the curator and her deputy stood. Shame and defensiveness thrashed around my body.
‘You’re not meant to search for people whose private matters aren’t in the public interest to expose,’ I said. ‘It’s against the ethics of The Dump.’
After work I went to Amber’s to drink wine and watch TV. The Prime Minister had given a press conference, reminding us that we were citizens in a free and democratic country and were therefore duty-bound to respect the laws of privacy.
‘You know, people are saying that searching someone’s name on The Dump is basically the same as stalking them on Instagram,’ Amber said.
‘Who is saying that?’
I looked at Amber. Sometimes things passed between our heads without either of us having to say anything. My mum had hated it. Whispering, she’d say. You two are always whispering behind my back. But we weren’t whispering, we hadn’t even opened our mouths.
We watched the programme in silence. It was The Newsroom and all the characters were talking at once. A British woman with a pinched face flapped her arms above her head.
Amber said, ‘I recognise her. Didn’t she used to date Hugh Grant?’
She paused the episode then took her phone and Googled: newsroom british woman. She found a Wikipedia page and skim-read it, the woman’s face frozen in a comical expression on the screen.
‘I was wrong,’ she said. ‘She played someone who dated Hugh Grant in a film, she didn’t date him in real life.’
She pressed play and we watched the woman who didn’t date Hugh Grant wail at her Blackberry. Had her email had been hacked? Maybe someone had read a message that wasn’t intended for them.
‘No,’ Amber answered before I asked the question. ‘She accidentally sent an email to the entire office, telling them that she had an affair with the Will McAvoy dude.’
More flapping and shouting. Amber laughed and stretched her feet on the coffee table. She addressed the woman on the screen.
‘Things could be a whole lot worse, mate. Trust me.’
Tom held the phone right up to my face. I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He was telling me a lot of things very quickly, one after another.
‘Tom, slow down. Give me a second. I was sleeping.’
‘I don’t care. Sit up, look at me.’
I pushed myself against the headboard. It was a message, most likely sent by a drug dealer or an old person because it appeared in a green bubble which meant that it was a text. Whoever sent it had typed four or five in a row without waiting for Tom to reply.
‘What is this? Hold it still, I can’t read.’
But Tom snatched his phone away.
‘They’re from my mum,’ he said. His eyes were dark and he was breathing very fast. ‘She went on The Dump – all her friends were doing it apparently, so she decided to give it a go. She doesn’t look me up, I’m her son and she thinks she knows everything about me. So she decides to type your name in.’
I couldn’t speak. The words weren’t there.
Tom carried on.
‘And what does she find? Messages you sent about her. Tonnes of them. Photos of the cardigan she gave you for Christmas and snarky comments about her holiday snaps from Madeira. Describing the vegan shepherd’s pie she cooked that time as’ – here he paused and checked his phone for reference – ‘“having the consistency of wet cement and the flavour of gym sock and – ’”
‘Alright, Tom. Alright, I get the picture.’
We stared at each other. Tom was still panting.
‘It was Amber, wasn’t it? You were sending all of these messages to Amber. What’s her problem? She never liked me.’
‘This has nothing to do with Amber.’
Tom paced the small rectangle of carpet next to the wardrobe.
‘Your mum really shouldn’t have done that,’ I said, quietly. ‘I didn’t give my consent. It’s against the ethics of The Dump.’
He stopped and threw his phone on the bed. It landed face down with a sad thump.
‘She thought you were great, you know. She told me all the time.’
I felt bad that Tom’s mum had seen my messages, of course I did. But what old people didn’t understand was that WhatsApping your mate a photo of a shepherd’s pie that looked like cat vomit meant no harm to the person who had lovingly prepared it. It was just a message! They were all just messages, I wanted to scream at Tom, who was now refusing to speak to me. Messages didn’t mean anything. The descriptions I wrote at the gallery were meaningless, too. You had to look at the paintings and make up your own mind.
That night in bed, Tom broke his silence.
‘You’re the one who wanted this,’ he said. ‘You and all the other Dumpers.’
I said nothing and waited until the sound of his breath told me that he was asleep. I got out of bed and dressed without switching the light on. I didn’t take much: clean underwear, a couple of t-shirts, my phone. Outside the air was cold on my face and strangely sweet tasting. A fox materialised from nowhere. Its fur was grizzled but it moved like a cat. I stopped and watched it slink towards a dark side street, tail suspended elegantly in the air.
Amber said nothing when she opened the door. In her room, only the side lamp was on. The duvet was ruffled in the shape where her body had been. I got into bed, on my usual side.
The politicians stopped resigning. Evidence of collusion, racism, cheating, misogyny, money exchanging hands, words in people’s inboxes, minutes from meetings with warlords and pharmaceutical giants became normal. And then there were the dick pics. So many dick pics that you could line them up from tip to ball sack and they’d circle the Earth three times. The government gave up trying to take The Dump down. If everyone was guilty then no one was guilty.
The Ben Nicholson painting was still a blank square to me but I stood in front of it every day, willing it to talk back.
A teenage girl killed herself after some classmates searched her name on The Dump and found topless photos she’d sent to an ex-boyfriend.
I’d been at Amber’s for a week and Tom hadn’t called or messaged. We had reached an impasse, a place where words no longer had one, fixed meaning.
Amber said, ‘Do you think that Tom has looked you up?’
I still believed it.
‘If he does, he’ll know everything about us,’ she said. ‘All the stuff you never told him.’
‘Yes. I realise that.’
On The Newsroom, McAvoy left a voicemail for the British woman who didn’t date Hugh Grant, saying that he’d never stopped loving her. In the next episode he denied ever sending it.
I touched Amber but it wasn’t the same as before. We kept out clothes on and we only did it at night, placing our hands around each other’s joints. Wrist, elbow, shoulder, like we were trying to stop something from folding in two.
We drank a lot of wine. One Friday, two weeks after I’d left Tom, Amber pushed a new bottle into my hand.
‘Go on. And tell me what you taste.’
I filled two glasses and took a long sip.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, trying to decode the label’s cursive font. ‘It’s a Merlot so – ’
‘No.’ Amber dragged the bottle across the table. ‘You don’t need to read what the label says. Use your mouth.’
I snorted. ‘I didn’t realise you were such a wine snob.’
But her face was serious so I refilled my glass and tried again.
‘Citrus. Maybe petrol. Grass that has just been cut.’
Amber nodded and let go of the bottle’s neck. We sat like that, saying nothing inside or outside of our heads for a long time. ‘You miss Tom,’ Amber said.
‘I think I do, yeah.’
‘You never liked him, did you?’
Amber gazed into the deep liquid of her glass, then set it down. The table was covered with the rings of other glasses, coasterless stamps that stained the wood like pockmarks.
‘No,’ she said. ‘But I think I understand now why you do.’
My stomach went cold.
‘What does that mean?’
‘I searched your name on The Dump. I’m sorry. I know you say that you need to have consent before you do that to someone but I just wanted to know. I couldn’t bear not knowing something about you.’
The icy feeling spread upwards.
‘I can’t believe you would do that, Amber.’
She put her hand on mine.
‘I read all the messages you sent to Tom. The first “I had a nice time last night” and the selfies, right through to the joint bank details and the reminders to pick up toilet roll. I read everything. I get it now.’
I peered down at our hands. We both knew then that something had ended and started, all at the same time.
‘Thank you, mate.’
I didn’t need to say anything else.
I looked at the scratches that swirled the painting. I looked at the geometrical trinity of square inside rectangle inside rectangle. I looked at the blue and the grey, the crepuscular tones of fading daylight in an ancient Greek city. I looked at the edges of the wood, where the Argolic Gulf lapped. I stood in the gallery, alone, as I had every day since leaving Tom. But this time I looked without expecting anything in return.
He rang like I knew he would. His voice was muffled, he was outside, too public a location for this kind of phone call but the desperation made him do it. I fixed myself in front of the Ben Nicholson painting and stared into it like a video chat screen. He was confessing, words and water tripping over each other in his mouth.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I hate myself for doing it. But I just had to know.’
I had my period that day, my Mooncup filled silently and invisibly inside me. His confession didn’t shock me, nothing shocked me anymore. We’re living through the most comprehensive challenge to state secrecy since WikiLeaks, Tom.
You know all of that. That’s the easy part. Now we have to find out whether we can live with it.
Phoebe Hurst is a writer and journalist from Peterborough. Currently Assistant Editor at The Guardian, she was previously Managing Editor of Vice and has written for publications including the Quietus, Dazed and Wired. She had a short story published in this year’s Aesthetica Creative Writing Award annual and was also longlisted for the Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize. She is a represented by Imogen Pelham at Marjacq.
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