Tuesday, 31 January 2012

That feel when you realise you've been acting like a horrible gossiping bully for the last two weeks because you're feeling bad in yourself. That feel when you realise that several members of your department might be responsible for someone experiencing a nervous breakdown. Sure, she hasn't, but it must feel terrible.

That feel when you encourage kids not to bully or talk badly to people, and yet you do it the way girls do it thinking somehow that's acceptable. Little looks as she enters the vicinity. Bitching about her to other teachers. Why the fuck did you do that, you terrible bastard? Insecurity? Boredom? The ease of knowing that just because you might be right, that means you can get away with it?

I am such a mean person. I really am. At least now I've had the gumption to realise how mean I've been before I was told by someone else and had my morality fixed for me by the threat of punishment. I hope it's that way anyway. I'm pretty sure it is. Fuck.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

I Just Want a Burger

“What have you got for sale?” I asked.
The man at the counter screwed up his eyes and began to stare me down. One of the Capitalists, I reckoned. Men like him didn’t take kindly to Marxists like me coming in his shop and demanding to be satiated by whatever goods happened to be lying behind the counter. A Marxist like me is the best type you can find: the Marxist who buys things because he wants to, as opposed to because he has been indoctrinated into doing it by a media-obsessed society.
“A little bit of this, a little bit of that,” he replied.
A question popped up on the right side of my brain.
“Why the long face?”
He grinned ruefully and began telling me a story. I tried to press the Action button to skip past his speech and just read the text below until I realised there was no text below and it was just a man. Standing there. Talking at me. I fidgeted and fingered the knife in my pocket as he rambled.
A guy next to me said, “I would like to be served please.”
“Men like me were born with long faces,” said the barman. “Ever since the Change. Few years ago I was a student. Joined a band. You might have heard of us.”
“I have, yes.”
“I haven’t even told you our name yet.”
“But I recognise you.”
“Oh yeah? What’s my name?”
I discreetly looked at his name tag. “John Mendes.”
“Shit, good to know ya!” he said, extending a hand. I shook it and heard music around my head. My Speech had increased to 29 and as a result I had levelled up. My stamina went up; and with it, my hunger. Damn. I had been standing here talking to this guy for a while. Was a wonder no Capitalists had grown impatient yet.
“Anyway, I was in this band,” he continued, scratching the back of his head chalantly, “but then we split up. They wanted to go one way, I wanted to go another. All this happened in a cinema. I ended up sitting at the back – they went to the front. I was right to go to the back, because whilst the front affords leg room, the neck strain meant they spent the next four months in hospital with whiplash. As I left the hospital, one of them appeared as a hostile red object in my compass bar and randomly decided he would start trying to poison me. He ordered me to drink a cup of tea he had left on his bedside. Luckily for me, my little red dot let me know he was after my blood, and so I threw it on the floor and left. Last thing I heard was it had burned through the floor.”
“That’s impossible,” I replied. “Why didn’t it burn through the cup? Aren’t cups they give you in hospital softer as a material than the floors?”
“Right, that’s it,” he said. “You want to fight?”
“Yes,” I said, taking out my wallet and handing him 100 gold. “Let’s go.”

He leapt from atop the counter and produced a set of fists.
A guy next to me said “I would like to be served please.”
I held up my fists and we walked around at an angle like twats do when they have an old-school fisticuffs meeting. People in the shop gathered round and shouted discouragement.
“Do ‘im in John,” shouted a guy who had been posh a minute earlier.
“Don’t let him rape you,” warned a co-worker.
“Punch him,” advised my lawyer.
Ignoring my lawyer, I gouged out his left eyeball. Then I started fighting the other guy. I dislocated his elbow. I destroyed his appendix. I circumnavigated his pancreas. I went up to each and every nerve and turned their switches to extreme pain. I turned his hair white. I threatened to shoot his family after I pummelled him to the ground. He fell to the ground and asked for surrender. At this point I got my cock out and made to rape him but at the last moment told him that I wouldn’t, but only if he admitted that he was a paedophile. He spat in my face, and shoved me to the floor. He vomited in my face. It went up my nose. So I crushed his skull and he screamed and cursed me in Arabic before smashing a wine bottle over my head. I grabbed a plug socket and shoved it in his gob, electrifying him. He grabbed a nearby anvil and crushed my head with it. At this point I realised my health was getting a little low so I punched him and the fight immediately ended.
He surrendered. I pulled him up and he paid me 200 gold.
I re-approached the counter.
“Good to see you again, friend,” he said, hands fingering an imaginary shotgun beneath the counter.
“What do you have for sale?”
“Oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
“Can I have a Big Mac meal, please?”
“Yes, why not.”
At this point the man to my right slammed a hand on the table and shouted “Never should have come here!” in an angry tone of voice. Making to turn and have a word with him, I noticed that the corner of my eye had managed to catch sight of an axe heading towards my skull. So of course I sidestepped to the left and the axe buried itself into the floor. I grabbed the man by the hair and pulled him up to my level. He screamed and grabbed for his hair.
“I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle,” I intoned.
“Take it!” he said, a shaking hand extending his keys.
A notice appeared in the top left corner of my brains.
Leather Jacket Added
Vest Added
Pants Added
Key To Motorcycle Added
Boots Added
Only then did it occur to me that I had been standing completely naked in McDonald’s for the last fifteen minutes and nobody had batted an eyelid. Ah, it all made sense now. I wondered why the guy standing at the door had smirked and said “What – someone stole your sweetroll?” Actually no, that still didn’t make sense. I don’t believe I had ever owned a sweetroll.
“Excuse me,” I said, tapping on the counter.
Where had the guy serving me gone?
Behind the counter workers skirmished. I tried talking to one of them but he said something like “Damn manager’s got me working ten hours a day.” I got him to come back again and he said “What’s the deal with all these people wanting food from me?” I tried once more, and he said “Need something?” I attempted to ask about the manager, but all he said was “Huh?” I knew I had to give up when he said “Only person with any authority around here is the Manager. Don’t you forget that.”
“Heard it in her voice,” I remarked, before making a sideline to avoid being bashed over the head by a Giant. The patrons acted as normal. Fucking automatons. Humans are all automatons these days. No one gets in fights anymore. You wander around with a snarl and a grimace and people just smile. The guy on the floor looked pitiful.
“I just wanted to eat something,” he said. “You need to get out of here.”
Then suddenly dramatic music entered the zone. I turned behind me and saw the monster outside and realised it was too high a level for me. I made to run, taking stamina pills as I went, but couldn’t go fast enough. They grabbed me.
“Alright, I’ll pay your bounty. Have five gold.”
The man grabbed me. “We’re here to help you, John.”
“My name’s Arthrax. I’m a level 23 Imperial.”
I pressed F9 in my head to reload the saved game. Clearly something had gone wrong.

I woke up in my bedroom. It was minimal decoration; just the bed and the window. I’d pay the steward a few gold for extra decoration once I had it. I waited for two hours until the sun rose, then the guards came for me. I had lost all my equipment, but I knew it was only a matter of time until I got it back. They escorted me to a room with the other prisoners. There was a bar there, where I finally received the food I had been waiting for.

I sat down and ate.

Saturday, 28 January 2012


“No one knows anything.” – William Gibson

The story of humankind is a sad and serious one. Days pass by in monotony, where gazes out of train windows and into books serve no purpose other than to remind us that boredom will be one of the last luxuries to go come the end times. Children gather for morning lessons in how to live their lives, prepare for the future, for the job they ought to get, the family they ought to create, the dreams they ought to realise. All along a set path. An idea that we propagate even as we as adults fail to live up to that dream. But we dream it anyway.

Trees hurtling past in a green smudge, and just as I used to do when I was a child, I imagine a computer game character, boxy and pixellated but with unmistakeably blonde hair and a constant determined grin on his face leaping from rooftop to rooftop and running along the electricity lines in a perfect curve after curve, resilient to logic and the usual limitations of the human body. A world where stamina comes back in seconds.

Bustling shopping centres, bodies engaged in a dance of consumerism that now I already look back on with nostalgia. There was a time once when it was an enjoyable luxury to bitch about the whole shopping thing, about how the consumer dream was overtaking the spiritual dream. How I long for that time once more. Now we turn back to the spiritual, the illogical, the black blank dream of pure faith, the American Dream a screaming and hollow-eyed skull behind the smiley face. Once upon a time the idea of a godless society was believable because we had found enough evidence of God in everything we owned. Now we realise we own nothing.

The majority of humanity is made up of adults. So when you think of a person, it is very likely that you will think of an adult. We’re all adults here. We’re all grown ups. And yet the world is the way it is. Who has failed to grow up? Someone must have. Someone ought to be told. Who’s in charge here? We’re all so sane that no one needs to see a doctor anymore because as long as you know what you have, you can get away with anything.

2002 – the year everything changed. The year the nineties finally died, having been ripped apart by the obvious a year before. 2002 – the year the Internet went broadband, and the year a football team was moved to another country. It is odd to watch clips from those times from TV and notice the difference in look aesthetically in fonts. How do graphic designers grasp that moment where change is needed? Sky Sports fonts have evolved, as well as their aesthetic, into something resembling an end-time user’s wet dream: a blue futuristic haze where the gap between information and gibberish no longer matters.

I feel like everything is dying. The West is sliding down a shower wall, confused. Football once more represents the world in a microcosm. The gap between rich and poor so large now as to be obscene. The horrible moment where you realise nothing will be done about it because the free market enabled so many other good things to happen that we can’t touch it. Just let those guys get bored of spending. Ignore the fact that millions, and millions, are being thrown away into a fuckin
A game that involves men kicking a ball. The billions thrown away. The billions kept.

Bill Gates gives me hope. The one philanthropist left. Philanthropy – the irrational and totally illogical tool of the true human. The hero. At this moment I find my life doing a little circle. Age 13 in a Drama lesson the teacher went around the class asking us who our hero was. I said Bill Gates. The coolest kid in the class asked me why, and instead of answering that it was because he had invented an operating system that everyone could use, I said “he made money,” to look cool. What I had failed to grasp was that saying something like that had the opposite effect and that anyway why did I care about impressing someone who looking back was a complete and utter prick?

A woman holds a phone in a room. Camera zooms out. There is no one on the other end. You assume she is crazy. She must be crazy. Camera zooms out more. You notice the floor is concrete, not carpet. Maybe she’s a heroin addict. More zoom. A table. Rotten fruit upon it. No chair. The walls a greasy brown. The smell is something like sweat and morning breath. It is not her fault but at the same time with smells you always associate it with the person. It is the fault of the outside. She is locked away from the outside world. The camera zooms outside. A white misty world. Impossible to see more than two feet in front of you. To try and walk results stepping in a bog. The house made of concrete is not a scene of degradation and inhumanity. It is a fucking miracle. In this sea of nothingness and entropy, this house stands. The life inside the house cannot justify its own existence. She does not venture outside, has never managed to venture more than a yard or two then shrinks back, having seen enough. She sustains herself on the mould that grows on the walls. Somehow she has lived for years doing this. A man lives under the floorboards, and with him she has bred life: life that has died and died and died until one day one baby didn’t die. A miserable existence: but the baby lived anyway. Spent every day suffering and bawling, but kept going. Camera zooms out. The white fog surrounds the scene. As we move backwards, the black stain of the house turns to a black dot. Then the black dot is gone and the white is all that is left.

A sadness so total that it makes you feel happy to be experiencing it. It is a universal sadness, a melancholy of totality. I feel sorry for us. We are so confused. Just a bunch of pale dots skittering around a landscape devoid of land. Nothing means what it means. People don’t say anything at all. But we talk anyway. The world is going to end, but we live. Our loved ones die, and life as we all know is a long defeat, with a capture and drawn-out execution, but we live anyway. We’re all amazing for doing this. Why isn’t there an outside force applauding?

The odds of me even being alive right now are so small that it hurts my mind to think about it. I exist. This moment, this moment, the moments to come are all mine to own, and only me. No one else is allowed to butt into my existence. I have been gifted complete and utter uniqueness. This version of me is the only version that will ever exist. There will be no Me 2.0. Or 3.1. I remember Windows 3.1. I remember it even though the new paradigms mean I shouldn’t remember it because it’s not only long ago in time, but long ago in technology-time.

Technology-time moves quicker than real time. We all know this. Twelve years is a chasm of development where technology becomes unrecognisable. This is too much for a human brain to handle, if the brain thinks about it too much. I don’t know where it is going, or why it is going there. But it goes anyway. Twelve years ago the world was so innocent. So unknowing. So basic. A version of humanity that seems stupid to us now. They didn’t even have mobile phones because they were so idiotic they wondered what the point of them was. If my dad had a conversation about the Internet with himself back then he would end up hitting himself and asking why he's such a stubborn bastard.

I will look back on this and laugh at myself for assuming I am developed at all, that I know anything, when I don't. I am afraid. All the time. Afraid of myself. Afraid of navigating a concrete landscape whose socio-geographic divisions mechanise all who struggle along its unforgiving pathways. I am in love and it makes me want to cry because how can something so good exist in such a shitty world? Perhaps all that beauty is stems from recognising that there is no real point to life and that beauty happens because we fight on through the struggle of days. Let's not try to figure out everything at once. Just get by day by day.

But the struggle makes me sad. The personae people create and use on others. I am not a persona, or don't try to be. If I'm down, it is etched on my face and I don't bother letting people know otherwise. Not now. Faking emotions for the benefit of others is auto-strangulation. I am nothing and no one. I have nothing to offer. But I offer it anyway. I want nothing from life. But I ask for things anyway. I want a record player. But a vice-grip part of my brain shows me the truth of life, and asks how dare I ask for a record player when there are people struggling out there and all you can do is sit there hating yourself for wanting a record player?
But it's your fault that I feel guilty for wanting a record player.
So shut me up then! Or are you that pathetic that you can't?
I can't because you're ubiquitous.
Big word. Well done. All that university education was clearly worth it.
Shut up.
Progress I guess. Back in 2005 I'd hold dialogues between myself and myself over the course of several thousand words and feel worse for it.

Reaching out across the indifferent plains, the fog of war, the veil of insularity that divides me from others and others from me, doing the right thing not because you want to but because it's the right thing, putting yourself in others' shoes, asking yourself the real, painful questions - these are vital for developing if not a good attitude then perhaps a sympathetic persona. If that's the best we can ask for, then so be it. Then once you do the thing your mind didn't want to do, you realise it was the best thing for you and you hate that part of your brain that wanted to override your good side. Example: today. Details provided on request.

The serotonin rush of the immediate and the spiritual comfort of the adult way of doing things. I attempt to live a life shorn of this childish striving for the here and now. That game that when I shoot someone I feel my brain experience a rush. The relief of escaping from the day and just shooting. This is our next generation. Shooting this guy. That guy. The Internet has trapped us in this loop forever. I want to play games. Why. So I can be better than the other guy. Why. So that I can be the best. Why. Because it matters to be the best at this game. Does being the best at other things matter to you. Yes. Then why not be the best at them. Because I'm good at this and it's fun. It's fun, is it. Yes. Well I tell you it's not going to be fucking fun when you're old and your parents are dead and you're living alone and your tap leaks and there's no money, your car failed its MOT, you work fifty-six hours a week, you got screaming kids and an exhausted depressed wife, then you get older and your wife dies or leaves you and you spend your last years with nothing but memories and an ever-increasing pile of mouldy books around you, then you see whether playing games was really the best preparation for adult life.
Fuck you. I know about all that shit. I played games to escape the fact that my future was going to be like that. And tell you what, I'm going to play them still when I'm older. If I don't take part in humanity's drama, then I can never fail.
You're living in a dream world.
So what.
It's not right.
In a world where concepts that were once unquestionably wise and have since been shown to be foolishness, who knows what right and wrong are? Leave me to my dreaming. That's all we've got left. Those who want to live properly go ahead and live that way. I'm too afraid of being normal to be anything but weird. I'm too afraid of being alive to be anything else but dead.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Bad Start

I am a helpless child, the son of a helpless father. At times I feel like my existence here is a joke, that eveeryone is laughing at me pretending to be a grown up. When I get angry I feel myself wanting to cry because that was the pattern of my childhood - sister hit me, I cried, mum made it all better. Lesson learned: don't fight back, cry, and let someone else take away the bad thing. But life has bad things everywhere and I need to realise that. There is no perfection.

Getting my head off the pillow this afternoon was an effort. Thoughts, all negative, tumbled around my head like washing in a vast drum. Wondered why anyone could like me. Wondered why anyone valued my company. Stopped using personal pronouns. Went to London. Occupied it. The Man pushed us out. Went to America. Voted Democrat. Wondered why no one else did even though Gingrich commited adultery at the same time as Clinton despite calling for Clinton's resignation and Romney pays 15% tax despite having 270 million dollars. World is all wrong. All of it. Why do we get up anymore? Global warming's going to fry us, economy's going to starve us. Entertainment is getting shitter because people are pirating material, and as a result the Internet will no longer be the Internet soon and all of it will be taken over by the Man, and instead of pirating the fourth sequel to some shitty film, we have to go watch it again.

I feel angry, bitter, used up, overweight, and bald. I have no charm at all. Right now, I just want to click "wait" and add some hours to my day so that I can return to work and stop thinking about myself for a while. But then I hate work at the moment so what the fuck am I talking about.

Friday, 20 January 2012

First they came for the Megaupload,
But I did not speak out,
because I did not use Megaupload.

Then they came for the Filesource,
But I did not speak out,
because I did not use Filesource.

Then they came for Mediafire,
and that's what I kind of wanted to speak out,
But I did not speak out,
Because I was reading an epic thread.

Then they came for 4chan,
And I cried.
Then realised that every single website taken down will spring up again elsewhere,
And so went off for a wank.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012


The sun set over a day that had blazed like a war between tractors and dust, lost by both. The only way for David Fantastic to establish a relationship with the evening was to direct himself to the nearest undertaker window in order to survey the effects of staring at death all day and see if it was etched upon the faces of the wretches inside. An undertaker attempted to look David’s way but was distracted by a passing gnat. Not good.

David put his hands in his pockets and strafed around the street avoiding the newspaper men, the grey rancour, dope-heads sitting inside cardboard boxes, and the other foul aspects of city life such as people’s coughs in his face and their sudden sour breath. Too much to take. Too much germs everywhere.

He veered a right and found himself outside Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. This was safe. This was familiar. The pint was right. Not so many windows. A little peace and –

Upon entering, a roar of laughter bellowed in his face. Bank-heads. A combination of red-faced balding and smooth-chinned old men with slick-haired stood there, slack-jawed and somehow rich young men gathered there for all to admire, shouting their banality and spitting their casual vitriol all over the vicinity. Bank-heads: the ultimate extroverts.. As Level 4 Exos, bankers were given privileges to travel wherever and however they wanted.
Don’t make eye contact, he said to himself as he slow-motioned towards the bar, suitcase dangling from his hand, sweat beginning to tingle through his brow, armpits suddenly there, legs weak and stomach trembling. As long as you’re not looking at them, it’s less likely that they will acknowledge your existence and they’ll leave you alone. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s the way it should always be.
It wasn’t to be.
“Oi, you spilled my pint!” yelled a voice in his ear as he edged onto the bar. A chill ran through David’s spine as he turned to face his accuser.
The man, concocted seemingly from oil, tomatoes and rage, jabbed a finger into David’s face. “This pint was full a second ago! Now fucking look at it!”
David’s curse was to be blessed with an acute psychological awareness of people and their motivations. As a child his mother had told him never to judge books by their covers, but then she was silenced by the introduction of e-Books which bore no cover, no distinctive mark of quality. People were not books. They sweated. They frowned. All emotions boiled up to the surface eventually. This man was no different. He was clearly an idiot, but a dangerous idiot – the type possessed of a small fraction of knowledge that gave him what he thought was the right to an opinion.

The face of the celebrity life stylist Delores Pain appeared in the right corner of his vision, engaging David in possible life-choices that would benefit him as recommended to statistics according to society’s general useful application of said phrases in said situation. Delores Pain pointed helpfully at each choice, offering the Speak option if he happened to be eyesight impaired (something David couldn’t fathom seeing as the device was designed for eyes). He scrolled through the choices via his neurowaves:

“I’m sorry mate, can I get you a drink?”: 70% chance of avoiding contact
“Tough luck mate, happens to the best of us”: 20% chance of avoiding contact
“Leave it out”: 10% chance of avoiding contact

David began to open his mouth to go for the first option, when he found his hand involuntarily lifting itself up towards the man’s face. He watched as his middle finger extended upwards.
What am I doing?
“If you don’t put that finger down, I’m going to smash your fucking face in.”
David laughed.
Why am I laughing?
“Right, outside.”
David found himself hurtled along to the back alley by these five burly men. The street outside walked past, oblivious. The pub nodded sadly as they passed by, hiding their faces inside coats and hats and pints.
David, pushed onto the floor, looked up at the five faces.
“Now, have you got something to say to me?”
David shook his head.
“Why don’t you talk?” said the man, looking genuinely confused for the first time.
David pressed a button on his hip.
An electronic voice spoke from inside David’s left lung.
“David Fantastic is currently suffering from low serotonin levels. He has also not spoken aloud for two years, forty two days, four hours, and twenty one minutes. Recommended suggestion: tell David to eat five a day and exercise. Suggested phrases according to universal application:

Leave the fucking house. 3% chance of success.
Get off your arse. 2% chance of success.
Other: 95% chance of success

“Other,” said a random guy at the back.
“Mate, I’m sorry,” said the man closest to David, sitting down with all the other bankers. “I didn’t realise you were suffering mentally. You’re one of them Innies, aren’t you?”
Dave nodded and lit a cigarette, wondering when they were going to tell him to eat five a day and/or leave the fucking house.
“What’s that then?” said the random guy at the back.
“Let’s have one then,” said the banker to David.
Dave handed them round to everyone.
“You’re alright,” said one of them, a young man with a face made of chance and a jaw carved from ivory spent in blood already used from years of hoarse commandments uttered inside a marble cave they called the city. “But you don’t talk much.”
David’s left lung spoke. “David Fantastic is a Level 2 Introvert.”
“Oh right. What’s that then?” said the random guy at the back. The two men at the front looked at him.
“You fucking thick or what, Lee?”
Clearly the majority of these men don’t read newspapers or books.
David grabbed inside his bag and brought out a book called The Truth Behind The Laws We Have Died To Prevent, a polemic by the murdered journalist Clem Butler, a book available only through the underground. And Amazon. He gave it to the man called Lee, who peered at it like a squirrel peering at nuts.

Which then led to David telling them through hand gestures all about how the world was divided into two sets of people – the Extroverts and the Introverts. This happened twenty years ago. The law dictated that Introverts were to be treated in hospitals, but, until they were cured and became Extroverts, they were to be given disabilities and allowed to live the lives that their mindsets required of them. At the time, most Introverts agreed to this, because, to quote several leading figures at the time, they were “sick of all the stupid loud people” and found that “there was no irl, only afk”. The extroverts were fairly happy as well, free as they were to live their lives without having boring people coming along to parties who did nothing but sat awkwardly in the corner making everyone feel sad because they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with them.
For a while there was peace in the land. This division benefitted everyone. But then something terrible happened.

“What happened?” said a banker, face dropping with awe like a gawping snorkeller.
David typed something into his Life-Pad and a voice spoke.
“Hikikomori. A state of complete detachment from society. A phenomenon affecting young adults who have chosen to withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement because of various personal and social factors in their lives.”
He typed something else.
“Increasing crime. Hooliganism. Road rage. Anarchy. Absolutism. Civil war. Despotism.”
This was what happened on the surface. To the world ‘out there’. Increasing rage. A reversal of the centuries of struggle to achieve something close to what we could call civilisation.
The bankers smoked and thought for a while. David thought about the last few years of his mostly miserable adult life.

David Fantastic had spent the last four years trapped inside his room until recently emerging and attempting to take part in the world and its drama. Drama was something he hadn’t wanted to take part in. Drama was something for the Exos to drum up in their spare. Drama was having drunken fights on Saturday nights in town centres over nothing. Drama cost the NHS billions a year. Drama was the creation of emotion over events and words so trivial as to be almost meaningless. David, like so many Innies of his kind, reckoned that all Outies didn’t know that the true meaning of life lay in actively escaping people, and as a result of this existential confusion they took it upon themselves to start wars because none of them had the answer despite them always acting like they had the answer. Sometimes he was right. Sometimes he wasn’t. Such was the case with most things.

David was possibly an elitist. The thought had occurred to him, until he realised that an elitist thinks his life is the correct life, his opinion is the correct one, and his example is the best example. David didn’t think that. He knew he was made out of problems. His despair at life extended beyond mere misanthropy. The self-loathing he piled upon himself kept him awake at night and asleep during the day. The moment legislation passed rendering all Innies unemployed due to ‘disability’, David let go the reins of pretence and galloped into the merry misery of total self-annihilation. Entire weeks were spent guzzling wine (wine delivered through the door through the Internet, naturally). During these drunken sessions, David would feel his mind finally unwrap, and extract itself from, well, himself. His rational mind was a tree, but his morbid mind was a demented monkey, shimmying up and down its trunk, rubbing its nascent odour all over himself so that nothing else he could possibly think of was the smell of monkey shit. But in those drunk moments, he would feel his mind leave its moorings and unleash itself upon a world that for an all-too-brief while would appear as though it were his loving mother as a child – open armed, smiling, and endlessly patient. He would fantasise during these times about how he would go out with friends, chat up women, and go dancing, because in those times, he would actually want to...

Then he would wake up sober, and would realise his mind was fundamentally unable to enjoy these things when not drunk and so he was doing no more than deluding himself. Then he would berate himself mentally for fantasising and not being true to himself (whatever that meant) and would spend his time staring at a blue tinged screen inside his cavern space, darkness around him, wrapped around his shoulders, its feathery touch belying its omnipotence. Darkness was that being to whom all letters were written. Darkness was where he threw out his toys and let them fall into the abyss. The darkness listened when his mind hammered notions over and over to itself, letting the sound of the hammer blows echo into the void. The darkness shut his eyes back up when he woke up from a nightmare. The darkness was a mute great-grandmother with no teeth. It didn’t judge him. And so he found himself emulating the darkness. No more hateful thoughts. No more thoughts at all. Simple surrender. Existence, defying space and time. David reckoned that physics might cure the ailment known as mortality: if time and space were connected, then maybe if he didn’t move at all, then for him, time wouldn’t move at all either. So he sank into his eternal chair, and lost all notions of space and time. It became a game. Sometimes he would stretch his loneliness as far as he thought it would go. Then he stretched it so far that it broke the rubber band of his emotional mind and he no longer felt lonely. That was around the time his mother died.

David remembered his deliberate, almost mystical desire to feel no emotion at all. His mother, he reasoned, was an Outie, and she therefore didn’t deserve his love, because his love could only ever be given to another Innie.
For the first time in seven years, David spoke.
“Gentlemen,” he said, hearing how his voice cracked, how weak it sounded out in the murky London air.
“Wot,” said a banker with a face like curdled milk.
“Would you say,” he began, picking his words carefully, “that you are powerful men?”
They looked at one another and all their mouths downturned in what appeared to be attempts at thought, but, as David was all-too-aware, this was almost certainly a deceitful attempt at modesty when in truth, all these men probably controlled the small simple world occupied by the Outies.
“Well, I get paid a fair bit, I must say,” said the main banker. “But what do you mean by powerful?”
“Can you change the system?”
“What system, mate? We operate within the free market paradigm. There’s no government. There’s only the market. Us and the government have nothing to do with each other. There isn’t power where we work. We’re just in it for money. If you have an issue with the government, take it up with your local MP. You know who your local MP is?”
David shook his head.
“Well,” said the man, barely restraining a bemused chuckle, “Maybe find that out first before you start trying to overthrow the government.”
“Why do you say I’m trying to overthrow the government?”
“It’s what all you lot ever talk about. You Innies. I’ve read all your blogs. I don’t read books or papers, but I read that bloke – what’s his name?”
“Yeah, John.”
“Who’s John?” said David.
“It’s this blog. He calls himself John. It’s not his real name – it’s a pseudonym – but the blog is all about underground agencies and shit. Top stuff. Course I shouldn’t read it because I’m like, an Outie and that. But still. Worth a read.”
“Okay,” said David.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012



By Olly N

  Everybody lives; but only a few are truly alive.
- Zippy (from “Rainbow”)

“Why do I bother?” I said.
Travelling on the underground always makes me feel dirty. The smell carries a blackness that goes up the nostrils and clogs up the pores. It is hard not to blink all the time. Tiredness weighs me down, the invisible strings of the Man threatening to pull down my eyelids like blinds, cutting me off from the dreadful reality that not only do I have to go to work and do the same things today as I had done for the last twenty years, but They don’t even have the decency to provide me with a humane means of transport. At least those horses in the backs of trucks headed to the slaughter have fresh air to breathe. That’s why you never see animals on the Tube – it’s because even animals know the Tube is below their standards. I am just too tired.
“Why do I bother?”
No answer from anybody. What a surprise.

The train stopped. Everyone left the carriage. We got off the carriage and made our way out of the station back home to our abode, and sat in front of the television. Both of us were hungover, having been to a party last night which was unspeakably good. It was eight in the morning and the day had the potential for being the greatest chill-out day ever recorded in history.
“Did you hear that crazy man on the train saying ‘why do I bother?’”
“I couldn’t help but hear him.”
“What a weirdo.”
“I fancy a McDonald’s,” I said, a feeling almost certainly prompted by the McDonald’s advert on the telly.
“That’s funny,” she said. “Me too. I wonder why that could be.”
The grey wind of London blew through the window. It took me a moment to realise I was now driving the car. I had thought there was some inner debate about the decision to go to McDonald’s, but evidently my body had overridden my mind and so here we were, watching the suburbs and shops whiz by.
“What a wonderful way to waste petrol,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “Shut the window. It’s freezing.”
“Why was it open anyway?”
“You were smoking.”
“I’m still smoking, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, but…”
“Open the window if you don’t like it. It’s fine.”
“No, it’s fine.”
“No, honestly, it’s fine.”
“No, really. I like it. I like the smell of cigarette smoke.”
“So why was the window open in the first place?”
“What do you want to eat?” I said.
“Big Mac meal, please.”
To our dismay there was a massive queue.
“Who has a McDonald’s at eight in the morning?”
“I don’t know. Hungover people like us, maybe. Everyone in these cars would probably fail a breathalyser test.”
“You’d probably fail a Sats test, considering what you had last night.”
“Possibly. I know a way to pass the time.”
All of a sudden she lowered herself to the floor and started undoing my flies.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know. I’m still drunk.”
What surprised us both was that when the time came for us to order, I hadn’t come yet. We both expected that the narrative of the blow job would flow smoothly into the narrative of ordering our meal, and yet here I was, staring at a loudspeaker that was asking us what we wanted.
“Two Big Mac meals please,” I said.
“Want to go large?”
“No, thank you.”
“What drink would you like?”
“Pepsi. No, wait - one Diet Pepsi and one Pepsi.”
“You both want Diet Pepsi?”
“No. One Pepsi, one Diet Pepsi. Is that so hard to…”
Oh God.
“Sorry, no,” I stuttered. “It’s fine.”
“So that’s two Big Mac meals, with one Pepsi and one Diet Pepsi.”
“Er… yeah.”
“OK. It will be ready to collect in a moment.”
It was done. I almost didn’t notice it had happened. I wondered whether they had spotted it, but doubted it somehow: nobody watched those sort of things. But then, if I was being completely honest with myself, I actually wanted someone to see it. The feeling of being watched and perhaps attracting the envy of a fat man sitting in front of some monitors appealed to my baser nature. Perhaps he would record the event and masturbate over it at home. And then, it’s possible he might upload it onto the Internet, and it would become a hit on YouTube, somehow. After that, the world would wonder who these people were inside the car, and I would be able to say that I was one of them. The better one to be.
“That’s five pounds sixty please,” said the girl in the window.
My girlfriend popped up from nowhere, leaned over me, and gave the girl a fiver.

I took the money off the woman and saw something kind of horrible - a pubic hair lodged between her teeth, sticking out in a really obvious way. I took a look at the man in the other seat who I presumed was her boyfriend. He was sitting looking forwards at the road as if she didn’t want to be looked at. I looked at him anyway. He looked sort of red and his hands were gripping the wheel quite tightly. And then I saw his flies were undone.
“That’s two Big Mac meals, one with Pepsi, one with Diet Pepsi. Enjoy your meal,” I said, handing it over.
They drove away. I shuddered. The couple seemed sort of creepy, sordid, a bit like they did weird things like that all the time. I felt a weird urge to wash my hands so I told Bob I wanted to wash my hands. He asked me why I wanted to wash my hands and I said it was because I needed the toilet. He said why didn’t you just say that in the first place and I shrugged. He said I was a weird kid but yep go ahead but don’t be too long because there are customers waiting.
I went to the loo and sat down. Next to me I could hear some girl. She was muttering something. I listened closely, afraid of what it might be.
“You are a bad person. You deserve what is happening to you. You are evil, you are evil. Take your medicine.”
I wanted to say something but she sounded crazy. It was only when the lighter flicked that I realised she was doing drugs. Maybe heroin. I didn’t know much about drugs. There were some weird noises and then she did this big sigh: ahhhhhhhhhhh. The toilet flushed and she got up. I waited for the door to slam so I could leave the cubicle without the need for confrontation.

I finished freebasing and looked in the mirror. Something had gone weird in my brain because I kept hearing my dad in my head yelling at me from back when I was little and my mum as well. My dad died four years to the day of cancer. I remember how he lay there, all thin and not my dad anymore, and he kept moaning. I swear that day I vowed to myself if I ever got cancer, I wouldn’t go out with that sort of whimper but with a bang. Get a gun or just jump off a building. But then would I have the guts to jump off a building? It was too hard to do that. Getting a gun would be too hard as well; I’d have to go Brixton or someplace like that and just walk around trying to get mugged. Maybe I could get mugged on purpose, and then I’d be famous for being one of those people in London who were the victims of gun crime. Someone opened the door and then shut it again. Probably some guy who couldn’t tell the difference between a pictorial representation of a woman and a man. The dress was a bit of a giveaway. Maybe he liked to wear dresses in secret. Who could tell what people get up to whilst locked inside their rooms in the dark hours?
I heard the toilet flush behind me and realised I had been staring at myself in the mirror for the last minute.
“Oh,” the girl said, face reflected in the mirror.
I must have looked bad because her eyes were as wide as saucers. I looked down at myself and noticed that there was cocaine all over my shirt and my pipe was lying next to the sink.
“Hi there.”
“You’re Audrey, aren’t you?”
“They’ve told you about me, I assume.”
“They said you were the oldest one working here.”
“How old do you think I am?”
“I don’t know. I can’t say.”
“Well, guess.”
“Forty. I’m just guessing. It’s just a random number.”
“I’m twenty-nine. Fuck.”
I banged my hand on the sink, sending the pipe juddering onto the floor where it smashed into a million tiny little pieces. After giving my shirt a cursory wipe I entered the restaurant again. Bob was serving a customer but I didn’t give a shit. I strove up to Bob and told him he could stick his job right up his arse.

I was serving a customer because of the temporary shortage of staff owing to toilet breaks, when Audrey appeared from nowhere, and shouted that she was quitting so loudly into my left ear that I thought I might go deaf that very second.
The woman who had been ordering put her hand over her mouth and backed away a couple of steps. I knew then that Audrey had been doing something bad again.
Her shirt had talcum powder all over it which she hadn’t bothered to clean off. Her hair had fallen out of its pin making her look like a crazy person. Her skin looked grey and her eyes looked mad. The worst part was realising that she looked like she always did, and why on earth had taken this long to realise we had to get rid of her?
“What’s that on your shirt, Audrey? More talcum powder?”
“I like to keep my skin moisturised.”
The lady who had been ordering pointed an accusatory finger at Audrey, indignation scrawled all over her face.
“You’re a disgrace. There are children here.”
Audrey leaned over the counter and said, “You’re a disgrace, bringing your children here.”

The woman with the cocaine on her shirt took of her shirt. Needless to say, the manager fired her on the spot.
“You can’t fire me, because I quit!” she said. We watched her storm through the restaurant out the front door like a hurricane ripping through a barn.
The whole scene was over as quickly as it had begun, and despite the spitting, was fairly quietly enacted. Adrenaline was pumping through my body as I made my way back to where my children Sally and Tim were sitting, looking up at me expectantly.

“No food, Mummy?” I asked.
“No, they’ve run out today. We’ll have to try Burger King.”
“Who was that funny woman?”
“No one to worry about, Benjamin.”
I don’t like Burger King as much. Their burgers have big massive tomatoes in them which means that when you take a bite of them all the juice squirts out the sides and makes it all messy. Sally doesn’t mind because she is only little and table manners don’t matter to her because she isn’t as grown up as me.
“But Mummy, I don’t like Burger King.”
“Take the tomatoes out, Benjamin.”
The way she said my name in full meant she was cross with me, although I didn’t know why but it didn’t matter because she was getting us a burger because it was Friday and Friday was treat day so that meant she wasn’t cross really. She was probably crosser at the shouty lady who worked there with the icing sugar all on her. I wondered why somebody in McDonald’s would use icing sugar because they weren’t bakers but Mummy told me that McDonald’s also made sugar and sold it to other people. Not many people knew that so I felt clever for learning it.
We drove to Burger King. On the way there was a man crossing the zebra crossing really slowly.

I crossed slowly because I realised I had no reason to rush anything. Time belonged to me in the same way that space belonged to me. I am sick of this culture where people have to rush around everywhere meeting deadlines that they think are important and people who think they are interesting but aren’t. After I reached the end of the crossing, I found myself standing in the middle. At this point I realised nobody would give a damn if I sat cross-legged and watched the cars go by. I lost a leg a few months back you see, and was laid off from work with disability benefits. Since then I’ve decided not to leave the house much apart from sojourns such as these.
A car drove by inside which sat an old lady and what appeared to be her son. He looked far too old to be driven around by his mother. But driven around he was.

“I’m going quite insane, Mother,” I said. “I’m twenty-nine but I feel like an unformed foetus.”
“Don’t be silly, Timothy.”
“I can’t seem to escape you, Mother.”
“Don’t try to, Timothy, don’t try to. Your father and I will always be a part of you, even when we’re dead and gone… and oh, to think of our departed youth always brings a tear to my eye...”
“Don’t dwell upon it, Mother,” I said, handing her a tissue. “It’s not good for you, always bleating on about the past. Don’t live in the past.”
“I can’t help it. Times were better back then, when the hills were greener and the skin of everyone’s face was whiter and the television was better and the cars we drove were more cheerful and the future was a good place. A better place. Something we could all share in.” I could tell her eyes had misted up even though my eyes were attracted to a lingerie advert. “Where is this ‘all’ now, Timothy? That’s what I want to know.”
“It’s all fine, Mother. What do you and Father want for Christmas?”
“Christmas?” she said, the expertly crafted moans of melancholy shooting through her voice like mournful trumpets. “Oh, Christmas, what does it mean anymore? It’s all so… commercialised.”
“It was always commercialised, Mother.”
“No, no it wasn’t, not in my day.”
“You were there when Jesus Christ was born, were you?”
“Don’t you dare call me old, Timothy!”
“You sound drunk. Have you been drinking?”
“No. Yes. Some. Just a little mulled wine earlier, why?”
“Was it really mulled, Mother?”
“No, it was cold. What of it? What does it matter to you, what I get up to?”
“You’re right. It’s none of my business.”
I watched the lamppost rush towards us. My last thought before the car crashed was why oh why didn’t I kiss Lucy Beckett back in high school?

I watched the car crash into the lamppost with the air of detachment I carry around with me in a little bottle. The ambulance was probably on its way already. Probably knew the crash was going to happen before the crash had even happened. Most of what I see seems pre-written anyway, like a script on television. I am a stand-up comedian when I’m not walking around town being drunk. The best part of being a stand-up comedian is the space it affords you to talk about whatever you want, just as long as the audience is willing to listen, which it does for a surprisingly long amount of time. Imagine asking someone if they want to sit and watch a man talk for two hours, and most of the time they would shake their head and tell you they’d rather talk to themselves for two hours. People love the sound of their own voice. But I ask: what is there to talk about, really? Not much. I walked into a greasy spoon. Inside were plastic chairs and people made out of stubble. On the right side an old man was reading The News of the World. On the left side a young student was eating a croissant that I assume wasn’t made in this place. I wanted to ask him to leave the establishment if he wasn’t going to buy anything from here but didn’t.
“What’ll it be, Steve?” said Dorothy, the lady who ran the place.
She maintained a dignity I found admirable despite knowing she was working at the end of the world. I had been coming here for years, my fame rising each day, whilst she remained the same. Yet she did not resent my fame.
“Usual, please, Dorothy. I must say you are looking resplendent as ever.”
“Thank you, Steve. Shame I can’t say the same about you. Dave! Usual for Steve!”
“Yep,” grunted Steve from somewhere in the kitchen, voice muffled by the greasy fog in the air.
“You’re a real heartbreaker, you know that?” I said, putting my elbows on the counter with an air of what I hoped was insouciance. “We would have had beautiful babies. We could have gone travelling all over the world. Taiwan. Tibet. Alaska. Sydney. And my favourite… Kashmir.”
“I’m exactly where I want to be,” she said, sidelong smile escaping from her lips. “And anyway, what about you and your career? I’m sure there are plenty of women out there who’d want to go to… where was it?”
“Women have literally thrown themselves on top of me, my dear: but nothing compares to you.”
“Right. Well, here’s your breakfast. Enjoy.”
“Got any papers for me?”
“Here,” she said, rolling her eyes and handing me a rolled-up copy of The Times. “Bring it back when you’ve finished.”
“You know I will.”
I walked to the table with the paper, wondering she was finding my act tedious yet. Almost certainly.
The four students in the corner seemed to crank up the volume. A boy with a quiff said

“I think conversation serves an important social purpose.”
“What’s that, then?” said Lisa, my girlfriend, whose chin was a little too long and whose hair was curly and whose earrings descended down her lobe like tiny cymbals on a tambourine but whose attitude was spikey and whose friends were widespread owing to her ability to draw people in with a carefully planned mixture of spontaneity and coquettishness and so I loved her to bits.
“Frankly,” she said, “I think all conversation does is act as a lubrication to sexual intercourse. Words can turn someone on, words can turn someone off. At times, disgust can itself be sexual, in the same way ignorance can be the greatest act of protest.”
I nodded as if my head were on a spring, but was rudely interrupted by the sound of Adrian, the dry academic one sitting with glasses whose frames were as black and thick as lampposts, whose voice grated with implied pretension and irony coated in layers of earnest desperation.
“Sometimes you sound like a child,” he said.
Lisa gasped. I clutched for her hand under the table but she slapped it away.
“I know it’s supposed to be endearing, but really it’s quite tiresome.”
He paused a moment to let his words sink in, before turning to me, looking past Lisa as though she did not exist.
“Roger, I don’t know what you see in her, and if I’m quite honest, I feel that you’re only with her because she gives great head. I should know. I’m a medical student.” He stubbed out his cigarette on the ashtray that sat on the table which sat like a judge or a referee or a Buddha, eyes crinkled with mirth at the meaninglessness of it all. Everyone in the café seemed to be waiting for my response.
“I see what you’re doing there,” I said, putting out an arm to stop Lisa from scratching Adrian’s face. “You’re attempting to break social conventions, moulds that you feel are a hindrance to progress, because, like John Lennon, all you want is some truth. However, your flaw is that your search for truth is a search for yourself, and due to the vacuity of your persona, you find nothing. A bad workman blames not only his tools, but in your case, his co-workers’ tools. I love Lisa, Adrian, hand on heart; and it’s about time you understood that. In your world, women have to live up to impossible expectations. In my world, a woman is a person. End of argument.”
Lisa grabbed my hand again. A warm feeling enveloped me.
Adrian leaned forward. “In your world…” he began, then realised he had lost. “Alright. Is there a God?”
“Yes,” I said.
“No,” he replied firmly. “I see the blackness at night and cannot fathom what it is I am seeing.”
“Try getting laid,” said Lisa.
“Is it God?” continued Adrian. “Is He the blackness that I see whenever I close my eyes, whenever I look at space, whenever I enter a vacant room? Darkness is the absence of light: but darkness is the potential for the void to enter. How can I consider it, knowing that it cannot be substantiated according to empiricism, philosophy, psychology, linguistics… even mathematics? This void is impossible because it is impossible to know whether or not I, in fact, already exist inside it. This may be Heaven; or worse… I may be God.”
“What are you talking about at, Adrian?” said Taylor, the goth chick who everyone fancied, even me, because she was so thin and had such black lips and eyes such a light blue that looking into them was like looking into a mystical land where God sat and smoked weed. She was into Adrian but Adrian had no idea, the idiot.
“The void.”
“Is there a void? I see no void.”
Actually bothering to indulge him in his idea was practically like blowing him then and there.
He looked at her.
“You’re not there,” he said. “You’ve unzipped yourself and revealed your void.”
“What do you mean?” she said, looking down at herself.
“I see a void where your mind and your body should be.”
“That is because you are an arsehole,” said Lisa.
I laughed.
“Come on Ade,” I said. “Lighten up. Taylor thinks you’re cool – be nice to her.”
Taylor crashed her palm onto the table in front me, making everyone in the café jump.
“I do not think Adrian is cool. I think he’s an arsehole. But you’re a bigger arsehole.” She grabbed Adrian’s hand.

She grabbed my hand.
“Come on, Adrian – let’s go.”
I saw the void overlapping my hand and realised my hand was dissolving into the void. If my hand could dissolve into the void, perhaps my mind could as well? Was it worth dissolving into the void if it meant subjugating my entire spirit?
She ran a quick hand up my thigh.
We walked out, away from the grease, down the road. The world had stopped and started afresh, the world was broken, the world was fixed, the world spun on no axis, all was memory, there was no future.
“I like cutting myself,” she said.
“I don’t bother with it because no amount of cutting can convince me of my reality.”
“It’s better than sex. Not that you’d know.”
She stopped dead on the pavement. A woman walked past, sad face.
Taylor spread her arms and legs, looking like a star blazing amidst the tedium.
“The razorblades cut through the wrist.”
Slowly, deliberately, deliciously, she ran a hand over her arm, before resting upon her wrist.
“The skin resists for a brief tangible moment.” She looked at me, those bright blue eyes freezing my brains. “This is the point where you can still go back.”
Then she dug one of her long nails into the skin.
“Then the cells give in and the skin parts like the Red Sea parted before... Noah.”
“Letting in the rush of the void?”
“No!” she said, storming up to me and grabbing the side of my face. “Not like the void.”
Then she grabbed her lips to mine – lips that I knew were crazier than mine – and then blackness swirled all around, opening and closing like the mouths of baby birds, squawking blindly for the chance of surviving just one more hour.

I nudged Jenkins as we walked past the couple kissing.
“Haw-haw! Don’t they look funny?”
“Wizard funny!” he said.
Then we sat on a bench; that was me Harry, and Jenkins, and Giles and Billy. There, to be rebellious, we smoked cigars: massive cigars that my father had bought in Cuba having been there for some sort of holiday with a woman from work.
“Try to whistle.”
“You know I can’t, Harry.”
“I know; but do try it again, would you?”
All that came out was a weak sort of wind-like sound, and we all laughed tremendously hard. Then came the silence, and the lighting of the cigars. The people who walked past didn’t even give us a second glance. Perhaps that meant we looked over sixteen. That was excellent. It meant we could to all sorts of stuff and get away with it. The cigars looked massive.
“What do you want to be when you’re older?” I said.
“To whom do you speak?”
“Me first,” said Giles. “I want to be an engineer, helping build things, ordering people about, wearing a builder’s hat - not that I’d be doing any of the actual building of course…”
We guffawed uproariously.
“… and when the day was over I would go home to my wife, kiss her on the cheek, saying how do you do to my children, both of whom would be called Reginald and Gertrude…”
“I shan’t have children,” said Billy.
“… and whose toys would be yo-yos and that funny game where you have to catch the ball in the cup.”
“Ah yes, Ball in a Cup. That is a rather fun game.”
Then silence hit like a slap in the face. I saw a woman walk past with a child in the pram and I wondered what would happen to me when I grew up.

Four small boys were smoking cigars on the bench, but I could tell they were nice lads; I knew them from the local public school, the one that Helen’s boy went to, it was a nice place, sort of place I would like to take Lisa to when she was older. John the nanny was there when I got home.
“Hello, John,” I said, heaving the shopping bags onto the kitchen counter.
“Hello, Rita. Hello Lisa.”
“Hello,” said Lisa.
I unpacked everything.
“Tea, John?”
“Yes, please.”
I put some tea on. When I got back into the lounge I saw that John was interviewing Lisa.
“Ooh lovely,” he said. “Lisa’s been telling me about her toys.”
“Yes,” said Lisa. “The worst toy I ever had was one which Mummy bought me once when I was five, it was rubbish because when you play with it the thing doesn’t work.”
“Now Lisa, Mummy worked hard to find that toy,” I said, sitting down with the tea.
“What thing was that, Lisa?” said John.
“The bit where it’s supposed to go ‘bing!’ the bit with the bell but it doesn’t go bing.”
“Why was that?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was defective,” I told John. “I took it back and got her a new one, but she didn’t play with it.”
He smiled. Lisa looked from John to me, expecting a question.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Lisa?” I said.
“I want to be a dancer!”
“Why a dancer?”
“Because… because I like dancing.”
“Any other reasons?”
“Because the people on the telly who dance are all… really… pretty, and I would like to be like them.”
“Can you dance for us now?”
Lisa danced.
“That’s very good. You will make a great dancer.”
“She will, you know,” I told John. “I’ve started with the lessons. One on Wednesday, one on Sunday.”
“That’s good. Get them started early.”
“Yes. I’ve also got her learning piano. Played her Mozart in the womb. She’s going to be our little composer.”
I watched Lisa play with her blocks.

Lisa’s mother made that sort of humming smile sound that contented mothers make when they are watching their kids play. There are few people more prone to melancholy than a mother looking at her child. They are so aware of what could go wrong, what will go wrong, what has already been done wrong, that every moment is both precious and torturous. The tea tasted good. I wondered what the fuck I was doing with my life.

Oh God. The dread. The dread that when she is her own person she will reject me completely and move to Australia. But then, if she does move to Australia and finds a nice man, why should I stop her? What right do I have to be an interfering old busybody? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. She’s still young. We’ve got a while to go yet. I’m still young. Am I still young?
“Can I ask you a strange question, John?” I said, as we sipped our tea.
“Of course.”
“Am I still young?”
“I don’t think I am.” I nibbled my nail, well, the skin around it. “In fact, I feel old.”
“You’re forty three, aren’t you?”
“Oh right.”
“When I was young, forty-four was old.”
“Maybe you weren’t young then.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure.”
Memories of teenage rebellion, pock-marked faces and fumblings in the dark. Golden hair, green grass and wafted smoke. Smell of incense in every room. Music belting through walls at any hour. Sleep a shunned option, food a luxury, drink a necessity. Clothes left dangling on the edges of laundry baskets. Plates stacked up in corners accumulating carpet hair. Mugs building new life forms made from green fur. Beds coated in ash and sweat. And yet it all seemed perfectly natural at the time.
“When did I become so clean?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why is everything so clean in this house? What infections am I protecting against? I read something once: something about e-coli. I know e-coli is bad but I don’t even know what it does, what it is. Do you know?”
“No, can’t say I do.”
He looked so peaceful. So unknowing. So young. I wanted to suck the youth away from him like a vampire. He didn’t even know what to do with it, how to use it properly.
“I should look it up.”
Stop biting your nails. But they taste so good. That’s no excuse. You’re a grown woman - you’re supposed to be in control of your nails, of your life, of your urges. Only children act on impulse. Only children have no discipline, no concept of responsibility, of themselves as people, as struggling entities bound to death. Don’t think like that. She’s not dead. She’s alive. Alive.
What am I? Am I even a person? Do people look at me and see me, or simply a means for gossip? I’ve heard them, talking about me, at parties. Soirees. Social gatherings. I hate that phrase, social gathering. Makes us all sound like moths, gathered around a flame that serves no function other than to burn us alive.
“Right. I’m off bowling,” said John. “That’s okay, right? You said I could go bowling today?”
“Yes, I’m not busy. Just going to sit and watch her play for a bit.”
“That’s a nice idea. Put your feet up.” He grabbed a cushion and put it behind her head. “Thank you, John.”

I walked out the house and got in the car to meet my mates. I like that lady and her kid, I really do, but it’s a whole other world. I don’t know if I want to be a parent. I don’t know. Can’t be sure of anything. Why bother being a parent when there’s all global warming coming to fry us all to death anyway? I, for one, wouldn’t want a child if I thought there was even the slightest chance it would fry to death. But then I suppose you could say the same for anything: there’s a chance it will get run over, die of leukaemia, all that stuff. The bowling alley was a ten minute drive.
Bowling alleys usually consist of the following ingredients: a sulky employee spraying mysterious chemicals into a shoe handed to you with a pitying hand who knows alone how many other feet have sweated into it; a first bowl with a ball that’s too light; a second bowl with a ball that’s too heavy; a spare celebrated in an unwarranted manner; and a ball that goes into the gutter which everyone laughs at. Then you hand the shoes back and wonder what just happened. This happens most of the time during most organised events such as this: a feeling of timelessness, of stepping out of one’s self but all the time being aware of one’s new surroundings, a breaking away into a void without purpose, an exclamation mark without a letter beforehand, so that it becomes meaningless. As we walked towards the lane, I saw this kid sitting watching his friend bowl, and I swore that he looked about ten years older than he should have, because he had the most depressed look on his face I’ve ever seen.

Johnny’s rubbish at bowling. His sister is better. I hate her. She’s so stuck-up. I bet she’ll beat me.
“Hurry up and bowl, Johnny.”
I got up, and bowled, disappointed to find that I did not keep going and going into the skittles. It would have been cool if I had kept going. I wonder what it’s like in the world behind the skittles. I wonder if there are elves who transport the balls back to us, working underground, behind the walls. The same elves that make sure that there is always food in the shops and there are presents under my tree at Christmas and the stocking. How do they get the stocking into my room like that? They’re magic. Two ladies sitting in the café bit were watching us bowl. I wonder if they thought my bowling was bad or good.

I had just been bowling with my friend Lucy, and now we were having a post-match hot chocolate in the café, watching the other bowlers. There was this one boy I was watching, who was skating around because he had wheels inside his soles.
“I wish those shoes with wheels were made for adults,” said Lucy.
I laughed. “Yes. I think everyone does.”
“It’s like those indoor playgrounds we used to go to. I loved them.”
“Me too.”
“Remember that one in Croydon? It’s shut down now, but I remember it as this magical place full of wonder.”
“Yes, I remember. I hear they do adult playgrounds these days, in some places.”
She tittered and put her brown hair behind her ear, eyes flickering away. Something behind me had obviously caught her attention, but having seen that it was not as interesting as on first glance she settled back to the conversation. Maybe some nice-looking bloke whose wife appeared by his side.
“Yeah, but you know anyone who goes to them would be a secret paedo,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, uncomfortable.
Why couldn’t I have the same attitude as she did towards stuff like that? She always made jokes inspired by cutting-edge comedians and sometimes I wanted to ask her just to take a moral stance once in a while and be herself.
The child's back was emblazoned with a bright yellow t-shirt. We watched it run up to bowl. It got five skittles – not bad. The lady on the table next to us was talking loudly to her husband. Curly thick blonde hair splurged from her scalp, threatening to drown her husband. Spangled bracelets clattered in the air to accompany her gestures.

Les had a bit of food on his chin.
“You’ve got something on your chin. No, not that side, the other side. Yeah. Got it. What was I saying? Oh yeah. That’s why Janine never managed to get along with wassisname, you remember him don't you, Gary or something? Strange fella, that one. Very strange. Always wore that thick gold necklace around his neck, like he was a gangster or something. Maybe he was a gangster. Very secretive sort of bloke, wasn't he, Les, don’t you think? I remember once he came up to me and offered me a cigarette. Yeah. Just like that. Out the blue. Inside my own house as well. I know. What a nerve! I'm glad she dumped him. Wasn't good for her.”
Some bloke came up to me and said,
“Excuse me, madam, we don’t allow alcohol on the premises.”
“Do you work here?”
“Let me just finish this.”
“Alright, madam, but after that – no more.”
I could tell Les was bored. But never mind that. He needed me more than I needed him so if he couldn’t stomach me having a bit of a rabbit then that was his problem.
“I says to Janine, ‘you need a nice fella, you do. Kind. Sensitive. The sort of who buys you flowers for no reason at all, on a whim.’ ”
“I buy you flowers on a whim.”
“Yeah you do. Roses are my favourite though. Didn’t you know that?”
“What about chrysanthemums?”
“Chrysanthemums? Not sure about them.”
“What about orchids?” said Les.
“Orchids?” I said. “Orchids? You're joking.”
“You’re raising your voice.”
“Orchids are sort of slutty, aren’t they? The Pot Noodles of flowers.”
“They're very sought after.”
“I’m sure they are very sought after, but then so are Pot Noodles.”
“You think Pot Noodles are sought after?”
“Yes I do, as a matter of fact. I’m sure someone is willing to pay four thousand quid for a Pot Noodle somewhere. Someone out there is mental like that. They get everywhere, mental people, don’t they? They do everything, pretending to be normal. You see ‘em, don’t you? Like the other day, I saw one of them on the bus, talking out loud about mustard.”
“Yeah, mustard. And liquorice. He was saying something about mustard and liquorice. Can't remember it now but it was quite funny - I was struggling not to laugh, I tell you. But I hate it. Public transport and all that. No room to breathe. I can see why mental people talk out loud all the time without stopping. It's like they need to break the silence. Me and this ex of mine called Blake once went to St. Paul's Cathedral and it was so quiet, it was all eerie. As if the silence had a mind of its own. Then, as we were sitting there pretending to be religious, some bloke suddenly stands up and goes, ‘Holy Mother Jesus of God, please let me win the pools today!’ Course no one responded. Pretended he wasn’t there. Best way to respond to things like that I suppose. If you pretend something isn't there, a lot of the time it goes away. A little part of me felt sorry for him, but it’s hard to feel sorry for someone if they're mental because they don't count. Well, some of them can, but most don’t.”
Les got up then.
“Oi, where are you going?”
“I’m going.”
“Business thing.”
He kept walking backwards, nearly crashing into a boy wearing a yellow shirt. The boy looked at him with a confused look on his face before resuming his bowling. I felt sorry for the boy, having his game interrupted by Les and his stupid backwards walking.
“If you’re going to leave me, at least do it with a little dignity. You look like an idiot, walking backwards, tripping over people. Are you all right, sweetheart?”
“Yes,” said the boy, giving me the same confused look.
Fine, I thought. If you want to be confused by everyone, that’s not my problem. I’m not the one walking backwards. Go play your bowling. Shut up the bad world of the grown-up. But you don’t know I’ve got three kids at home your age and none of them has the same opportunities as you. I bet your mum is a housewife, living off your dad’s wad. I bet he’s a banker. Yeah. One of those big bankers, gambling with everyone else’s money.
“Fine,” I said. “Leave me like the rest.”
The man came over.
“Sorry, madam, but I must insist you can’t drink any more.”
His face was so brown. I wanted to tell him what I really thought of him but thought it best not to. Places like this don’t like it when you tell it like it is. For a moment I thought I would tease him by downing a bottle of Jack’s and seeing what he would do about it but then decided it wasn’t worth it.
“Fine. I’m off. Happy now?”
I packed up my things and wondered if I could get a lift home off of Les.

Having run away like the coward I am, I started the car as quickly as possible and drove to Rita’s, leaving the missus to get home from the bowling by herself.
“Honey, I’m home!”
“Hello Lee, my darling!” said Rita. I leaned over to kiss her.
“What’s this?”
“You know what it is.”
“David Attenborough again?”
She loved nature. Nature programmes most of all. That’s what I like about her. She has a passion, a spirit – whereas the missus just has her smoking and fuck all else. I tried bowling, and what had come of that? Fuck all. So fuck it.
“How are you?” I said, putting an arm around her. Rita smelled good. Her red hair tumbled down her shoulders. The room was small, cramped, but cosy. The fake fire glowed cheerfully.
“I’m alright. Bit cold.”
“You’re always so cold, aren’t you? Poor thing.”
“Yeah. Just put the fire on.”
“Good idea. Should get you nice and warmed up.”
It was half eleven and I realised I had done all I wanted for the day. If she wanted to watch Attenborough for the rest of the day, that was fine by me. Maybe get a curry later to cap it off.
The animals started mating.
“How come animals never seem to care much about sex?” she said, lighting up.
“What do you mean?”
“Look at them. Their faces. Expressionless. Do they even come? You get those monkeys who look like they might have, but then they go mad over anything. I do love the little mice, though.” She fast-forwarded a bit. “Look at them. So cute. Big eyes, that's what does it. Anything with big eyes is cute. Apart from Betty Davis.”
“Who?” I said.
“Actress. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, you remember? We watched it a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh, yeah.”
“She just looks weird. Looked weird, whatever. Some people are more alive when they're died than they were when they were alive, you know what I mean? All people end up memories anyway.”
“That’s a bit morbid sounding.”
“Don't worry, love. I’m not going to do myself in or nothing. People who do that deserve everything they get.”
“Is that so?”
A mouse was being eaten by a hawk.
“Yeah! Don't give me all that diminished responsibility bollocks.”
“Yeah. All those prats going around pretending to be depressed just so they can live on benefits can all fuck off.”
“Whereas you..?”
“I am actually depressed. Look.” She held up a bottle. “These are my pills. These are for my problems. Biological problems, problems I can’t do anything about because they’re ingrained in my psyche.” She jabbed a finger into her temple. “Ingrained!”
“Has something got your goat, love?”
“What? No, nothing's got my goat. What does that even mean, anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
“Didn't think you'd know. It doesn't mean anything, I'm just tired. Didn’t sleep much last night.”
“Why didn’t you get up later then?”
“Couldn’t get back to sleep.”
“Ah right. Another cup of tea?”
“That would be lovely.”
I got up, and at that moment, the doorbell rang. Every time the doorbell rings in Rita’s house, I always crap myself thinking it’s the missus and she’s finally found out about us. But a part of me reckons she knows about it anyway. I stood in the corridor like a rabbit in headlights.
“Answer it then!” shouted Rita.
“Bloody hell, calm down.”
I opened the door.

The door opened. A man was standing there.
“Taxi for a Mr. Dwight Smith?” I said.
“No, I’m not Dwight Smith,” he said. “I’m Lee Harrison.”
“Do you know Mr. Dwight Smith?”
“I received a call saying come to this address. This is 28 Hathaway Drive, isn’t it?”
“No. This is 29.”
I squinted.
“Ah! So it is! Thank you very much!”
That made my day, a mistake like that. Sometimes it’s good to make a mistake. Shakes things up a bit. I crossed over to 29 and knocked on the door. A man emerged in suit and tie, looking quite dapper. He had fairly long brown hair and a goatee. Probably a banker.
“Taxi for Mr. Dwight Smith?”
“Where to, mate?”
“Bowling alley.”
“Which one? There’s a few around here.”
“The one with the thing on the front.”
“Oh yeah, I know what you mean. Down Stanley Way.”
In the mirror I could see how distracted he was. Something was bothering him.
The drove was silent for the most part. Contrary to what people might think, I actually prefer it that way. I even prefer it when people sit in the back, like this bloke was doing. It’s not that I’m anti-social, but I like to think of it as my car, and I’m the one in charge. People who sit in the seat next to me I always think want to tell me the exact route, or tell me about their lives, and if I’m perfectly honest, I don’t give a shit. I just want to get them from A to B and for both of us to be human beings without pretending we’re friends. I’m doing them a service, yeah – but that’s not to say I am their slave and they need to offer their charity in the form of small talk. I enjoy the view, knowing the road belongs to me. It improves my self-confidence, knowing that I am the best driver in the whole town.
“You’re taking rather a long way, aren’t you?”
“Traffic’s blocked off Cashmere Road.”
I could tell he didn’t believe me. Could tell he came from a place where blokes like me weren’t allowed. Well, that was him. I could have got annoyed with it, but I could tell from the moment I saw him that he’d be like that.
“You quite sure?”
“Yep. I can put the radio on if you like.”
“No, that’s alright, thank you.”
There it was: the admission of defeat. I hoped he’d lie in this bed tonight and think about that. Probably wouldn’t though.
“Right. Here we are. Seven fifty please.”
His face looked drawn.
“Are you alright?”
“No, I’m not. My son is in there. They rang me to tell me that he ran to the end of the alley and dived through the skittles. Apparently he’s stuck and they’re trying to get him out.”
“Quite,” he said, looking like he’d sucked a lemon.

Only yesterday I had my appendix removed, and now this comes along. Stupid idiot. Sort of thing I suspected he would do. Fucking fire engines everywhere and everything. I hope he isn’t so injured that he can’t go to school. Then he’d fall behind. No I shouldn’t be thinking like that. But honestly, what sort of an idiot dives into skittles? What sort of a child have I raised?
I got out and walked as fast as I could without looking undignified. A young couple walked past me, full of youth and freedom.
Probably fuck each other like jackrabbits later. And then there’s me. What do I get? An idiot for a son and a whore for a wife. Great.

A man was walking towards the bowling alley as we walked down the road. Looked like he was in a massive rush. I wondered if he had something to do with the fire engine. Maybe there had been an accident. Nah. Things like that don’t happen in real life. Life is boring. Like this girl I was walking with. Rosie. She was so nice to look at, wrapped up in that brown furry coat with its big buttons, and that long brown hair and those glasses, but she was getting quite boring now. An animal lover, big-time, and considered herself an informed left-wing socialist, although all she had watched were some Michael Moore films and a Bill Hicks stand up show. Maybe she had read a little Naomi Klein. Doubt it, though.
“I really think the corporative state we live in ruins our lives,” she said, emphasising the point with her hands. “It makes the gap between rich and poor ten times larger than it ever has been.”
“Did you see that guy running just now? That was weird.”
“Don’t you agree the corporate state is bad?”
Life was exhausting enough simply to live it.
“I agree.”
“And the oil situation… we could have found alternatives to oil twenty, thirty years ago, but the oil companies have stopped them from making them because they want to sell their oil! It’s all about money. The politics of greed.”
“I agree.”
This wasn’t going anywhere.
“Listen,” I said, standing in front of her, putting my hands on her shoulders just in case she had the urge to run into the path of cars.
“Rosie, I really like you, I mean, you’re really cool, but…”
“Oh, here we go.”
“It’s just… are we all that compatible? I’m not looking for commitment at the moment. It’s not me, it’s you. I mean - it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve got issues. Deep-seated psychological problems.”
“I get it, John. That’s fine. You go off. You can do better than me, anyway.”
“Really?” I said.
“No, you idiot. Try reading Naomi Klein sometime.”
Then she slapped my face before storming off.
“I have,” I shouted to her back.
The middle finger over the shoulder was an ample reply.

God what an arsehole. Massive fucking bastard arsehole! I hope he dies. So much for dating. Jenny was so full of shit saying he was nice. Fucking prick fucker arsehole. All of them. All men are arseholes. But for some reason we’re supposed to talk to them. Why? Why? I remember when I was a child how the boys in school used to compare each other's farts. Comparing farts! Why, as a woman, am I not allowed to do the same thing? We all fart! Let's celebrate the horror of that fact. Horror, that’s all it is. Life is horror.
I first ran away from home when I was eight. During that time I witnessed how terrible the night could be in a big city. Homeless people asked me for money which I could not provide. Drug dealers loomed over me, asking if I wanted some ‘gange’. Drunk people staggered to and fro, burping and leering, and that was only the women. The men brawled outside pubs. Knives flashed in the dark, glimpsed glints of light peeking out from atop trouser pockets.
Earlier today, I stood at a bus stop where fat idiotic grandparents doted over grotesque screaming grandchildren while the malformed middle generation hid its inhuman face from view, and realised that the world is fucked. This attitude has been bestowed upon me by years of watching so-called English civilisation meander its mouldy way through these turgid streets crammed full of state bricks and grey pavements sodden with chewing gum imprint, some of it sticking to the underside of one’s shoe as though attempting to hitch a lift out of this terrible place. Staring at the cracks, watching weeds dribble through. The nights in the city are ten times worse: the screaming smash of a beer bottle on the grey pavement, followed by the bear-like roars of the testosterone-driven males and the wanton screech of the working-class females (who don’t even know they’re working class); the hissing buses and the staggered splash of trainers into rancid puddles of gutter water; then the pause, and the deadpan burp before the vomit, and the stench of piss in alleys and parking lots. The reek of kebabs composed of grey matter. The sight of thirteen-year-olds hanging around outside newsagents at one in the morning for some more of the demon drink.
The drink. Alcohol turns us all into babies. It reveals the truth about us - that we want to be children again. My dad was a drinker. Used to be aggressive with it.
I wonder what it must have been like here two hundred years ago. Perhaps the entire town centre was nothing but fields and woods, where one might sit on a rock and read some Keats, perhaps now and then taking a nap and waking up to see a rabbit gnawing on your left cheek. Better that unpleasant feeling than the din of now - the ruining rumble of passing 4 x 4s… why, even the smug cleanliness of cyclists is abrasive.
I walked on, trying to forget John. But how can you forget something which seemed so important only a month ago? Life can’t be a series of mistakes, of misjudgements, can it? Forget about last month. Forget about last year. Forget about everything. You were deluding yourself that you meant something, that you were in love.
I walked past pubs in which old men drank themselves into late morning oblivion, smelling of tobacco and rancour, having not bathed for days, noses red and tongues yellow, faces bloated and eyes swimming.
Reality coughed politely and I emerged from my reverie.
To my mild surprise I found I was in a shopping centre. Must have walked for a long time. I checked my watch. Half one already. Lunchtime. My legs carried me into a restaurant. I ordered a sandwich that had not been made for me but was eaten by me anyway. It wasn’t vegetarian, but I didn’t care. No point caring about things. Two women sat nearby wearing suits. Business types. Soulless sell-outs. I bet they didn’t even care that the chocolate mousse they were eating was made by Nestlé. An impulse made me lean over. If I was going to have a shitty day, I might as well make it shitty for someone else as well.
“Excuse me.”
“Can you tell your friend not to eat Nestlé chocolate mousse please?”
“You can tell me yourself if you like,” said the other woman. “What’s wrong with Nestlé chocolate mousse?”
“They kill one and a half million babies every year.”
“What? The mousses? Mice?”
“Not the mousses specifically, but Nestlé. Their baby milk is full of so much crap that children drink it and die. It is marketed aggressively as a viable alternative to breastfeeding but it’s not. It is twenty-five times more likely to cause child diarrhoea than breast milk. Nestlé is also promoting Nido whole milk powder in Armenia. Whole milk is unsuitable for infants, but no warning appears on the label. No warning.”
“Why should I care about someone in Armenia?”
“Because it’s wrong not to. Don’t eat that mousse, and instead open your eyes to the harm that corporations are doing to the world.”
“Okay, I will. Erm, thank you.”

Josie and I stared at the chocolate mousse as if it was alive.
“It’s strange, Jo,” I murmured.
“What’s strange?”
“I’m feeling quite happy at the moment.”
“Why am I happy?”
“No – why is it strange.”
“Because I have no reason for it. I’m single, I’m broke, and I’m an orphan. But I feel good.”
“That’s nice.”
She sipped her coffee. I could see a frown. She opened her mouth and then shut it.
“What were you going to say?”
“Well, I was going to say: are you okay?”
“Yes, I just told you. I’m happy.”
“Well, in my experience, people who say ‘I’m happy’ usually aren’t. It’s like they’re trying to convince themselves. Genuinely happy people don’t feel the need to say it.”
“I know what you mean. But I am.”
“I’m pleased for you. How long do you think it will last?”
“Not sure.”
The milkshake began to make a noise so I pushed it away, disappointed at the anticlimactic nature of its finale. Whenever you finish something delicious, you are never truly satisfied because the enjoyment is in the consumption, not the finishing. Josie opened the chocolate mousse.
“You’ve just killed a child in Armenia,” I said.
She laughed, covering her mouth in case the girl got uppity again. Thankfully the girl had left. I like making Josie laugh.
“Here’s an interesting fact,” I said, already knowing she wouldn’t find it interesting. “There is a tradition in Vietnam of never finishing one’s plate if eating a meal served in someone else’s house. If you finish a meal, it is your way of not saying you are full, but that you want some more, by which you are saying that your host hasn’t fed you enough. It is strange how not finishing a meal is considered slightly rude here in the West, when in fact there is no more honest a way of telling someone you are satisfied than not finishing one’s plate.”
“That is quite interesting.”
“I think it is.”
“Where did you read about that?”
“Don’t remember.”
I liked the way her hair fell over her ear. Like an old thirties film star with that hair, those slightly over-preened eyebrows, and just the whole air of jaded glamour. I half-expected some jazz soundtrack to accompany every time she moved. Sometimes I like simply to look at someone. We can admire someone for the way they look. Admiring her as if she was a nice picture, like the Mona Lisa. She put her hair behind her ear and dipped her spoon in the chocolate mousse. Her lips parted. There was a bit of chocolate mousse at the edge of her mouth which she wiped off. I could see she only had a couple more spoonfuls to go until she was reduced to scraping. I might pity her then.
“What are you thinking about?” she said.
A blush raced through my skin.
“Erm…” I tittered. “It’s embarrassing. You’ll laugh.”
She looked amused and a little apprehensive. The spoon of chocolate mousse hung in the air for a moment.
“What is it?”
“Promise you won’t laugh?”
I waited for her to finish her mouthful.
“Right.” I laughed again. “Well, you look pretty today.”
She smiled quietly but I could tell she wanted to laugh. That was somehow worse than if she had laughed. “Thank you. You do too.”
“Thanks.” I stood up and tucked the chair in. “I’ve got to get back.”
“Oh. So soon?”
She shoved the mousse away and made to stand up. There was still loads left. She was not a scraper.
“Nice seeing you. Bye.”
I stood up and walked through the shopping centre, wondering if that would be the last time we met. I could feel her stare on my back all the way until I turned the corner. Heat all around me. My entire body was blushing. Was I normal? Was that normal? Probably not. Why can’t I be normal? I’m a working professional. Professionals shouldn’t say things like that. The film image of the hand putting her hair behind her ear kept repeating in my head. She had wanted to laugh at me. How embarrassing.
Just by the exit was a sweet shop selling all sorts: pick n’ mix, gobstoppers, strawberry laces filled with sweet but mysterious gooey stuff, cola bottles... all the classics. I stood on the threshold, wishing I could rewind life, Ctrl-Z it all. Undo.
You’re a professional. What are you going to do, eat sweets whilst sitting in the meeting? You’ll look like a fool. They’ll all laugh. Everyone laughs at you behind your back, you know that? You’re a joke. Everyone thinks so. You must be unhappy because you’re inside a sweet shop, comfort eating. You’ll get fat, eating sweets. Not that you’re all that thin. And look at that. Now you’re actually going inside the shop. You look ridiculous amongst all these children, wearing your suit. Don’t go pretending that you’re buying these sweets for your hypothetic son or daughter. They know you haven’t got any children. Everybody can tell these things.
There was a tap on my shoulder.
“Oh, hi.”
It was her. Blushes were burning my cheeks.
“You forgot your cardigan.”
“Oh wow, thank you.”
“That’s alright. I had to run to catch you. You walk really fast.”
She was breathing heavily. We were both red in the face. Must have looked strange, us both standing there looking at each other in a sweet shop.
“We didn’t get time to arrange our next lunch.”
“Oh yes, of course! Sorry, I’m a bit all over the place.”
“That’s fine. When are you available?”
“Any time. I mean - ”
“I can’t make tomorrow. There’s a function at the Hilton.”
“The Blundell and Reich thing?”
She was staring at me. Really staring into my eyes. Was it normal for people to stare like that?
“What about tonight?”
“Tonight. What are you doing tonight?”
“What am I doing tonight?”
“Yes. Tonight.”
A child crashed into my back, sending me crashing forwards into Josie. The sweets spilled all over the floor.

I took the headphones out of my ears and looked up at the ladies. Sweets all over the floor.
“Oops. Sorry.”
“That’s alright.”
They both bent down to pick up the sweets and their heads banged together, making them both laugh. I grabbed a gobstopper and took it the counter.

The boy appeared and shoved a gobstopper in my face, blocking my view of the ladies. I wanted to help the women but Larry said to me if I ever left the counter unmanned again he would sack me so I had to stand and watch as the ladies picked up the sweets. Then he licked it as if to secure his gobstopper territory. Stupid fat kid. Look at this stupid fat kid, licking the gobstopper before he’s even bought it.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“It’s Saturday.”
“Two fifty.”
“I’ve only got a pound.”
“Well, you can’t buy it then.”
“But I’ve licked it now.”
“Fine. Give me the quid.”
Then he made some weird laughing sound.
“What’s funny?”
“Fooled you. I’ve actually got five pounds. My dad gave it to me. He’s rich.”
“Give it me then.”
He put a hand in his pocket really slowly. The two women left. I wished I could be in on whatever joke they had shared.
“Say ‘please’.”
“You little prick.”
“Oooh, you said prick. I could sue you for that. I’ll get my dad to come and sue you. He’s rich. He works in the City. And you work here. Looooser.”
I grabbed the walkie-talkie.
“Ooh, walkie-talkie,” he said. “I’m so scared.”
“Larry, you there?”
Where the fuck was he? He was meant to be back from lunch fifteen minutes ago. He left early as well. So he was half an hour over his allocated lunch.
“Has he left you alone? Are you going to cry because your daddy’s gone?”
That did it.
I pushed the kid in the nose, causing him to topple backwards and the entire gobstopper stall to crash and roll all over the place. Then I ripped off my uniform and walked out. Fuck this.
I was now walking around the shopping centre with no shirt on. I could be arrested. It’s alright for blokes, though. Women on the other hand can’t go topless in public. But why is it so bad? Everyone would rather see women walking around topless than men. Imagine if all the women in the high street walked around topless. It would be paradise. Like in those African tribes where it doesn’t matter, they walk around topless all the time. I saw a programme the other day with an African tribe in it. I know that’s like, my roots or whatever, but I just don’t feel attached to it at all. I’m English. I don’t feel like I have ‘black roots’ and shit. I feel bad but that’s the way I feel. My dad is always saying I should go to ‘home’ to Africa when I’m older, but I don’t want to.
“Excuse me.”
Security guard strode up to me. Small. Had a big forehead and receding hair. Poked a finger into my chest.
“You can’t walk around like that.”
“It’s indecent.”
“I’m a builder. I’m helping to build.”
“Build what?”
“A building.”
“You’re not building a building. I know you. You work in that sweet shop over there.”
“Not anymore. I quit.”
“Look. You quit school at sixteen, that’s what you get - a job. It’s a disgrace, you being the way you are. Go back in that shop and beg your manager to give you your job back.”
“He’s not there.”
“Where is he?”
“Lunch. Well, even more reason for you to go… hey!”
I tossed my middle finger over my shoulder as I headed out the shopping centre into the high street. The sun shining on my bare skin felt good. No one gave me a second glance. This was great. I could walk around topless all day if I wanted. No one could tell me what to do. I was my own person. Look at these people, with their stalls.

A boy with no top on approached the stall.
“There is no God but Allah?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Why what?”
“Why is Allah the only God? What about the other God?”
“You misunderstand. Allah is the Muslim word for God. It means that there is no other God but God. All religions have the same God.”
“What other Gods would there be?”
“Metaphorical gods. False gods, like money, or celebrities, or materialism. Reliance on objects for spiritual guidance. There is more to life than that.”
“I don’t like religion. Makes wars.”
“It’s not like that. People who fight in the name of religion have used the name in vain. Their motivations directly contravene everything said in the Qur’an. The true way is one of peace. Have a look.”
He shoved the leaflet into his pocket.
“So how long you been religious?”
A young girl appeared next to him.
“Like you, I first discovered the Qur’an in my teens. I was in a bad place, mentally. Took drugs.”
“What sort?” said the girl.
“Started out on marijuana, then turned to cocaine, ecstasy. Tried crack once. At that point I realised I had reached a dead end in my life. Considered suicide.” I paused to let the words sink in but their faces remained impassive. “Then a friend of mine gave me this book and it turned me around. It wasn’t easy, but I realised that there were greater forces out there. Just knowing that lets you see yourself as part of a greater organism, a tool in the hand of the Creator, a cog in his Great Works…”
“Why is God always a He?” said the girl.
“Why is God always a He?”
The boy drifted away, having lost interest. I wondered where he had to go with no top on.
“Because addressing God as a ‘He’ reminds us that he is a personal, guiding force.”
“Yeah, but why not ‘she’?”
“God gave males and females different roles: the males are assigned headship whereas females are assigned helper-ship. The masculine title reminds us of God’s authority and sovereign headship over creation, over both males and females.”
“Yeah but why are women assigned helper-ship though?”

Religion is like, mental. I don’t like it. Oppresses women. I’ve read books. I’m much cleverer than everyone else in my class. I’ve read more books than anyone I know actually. I’m in the lowest class in the year, but I’m the cleverest one in the whole year, it’s just that the whole system is racist. It’s subtle but you can tell it. I’ve seen teachers in school holding back from calling me a nigger. You can see they want to do it when they get really angry. They’re like, ‘you nitwit’. They think I’m too stupid to know. But I know.
“God is a good God who loves and values all his creation, both men and women.”
“Yeah, but why isn’t He a woman? I reckon Islam is well anti-women. All those headscarves. Subjectating.”
“Whatever. It’s like, anti-women, innit.”
“It is though. I don’t think a woman should have to dress down just because some bloke fancies her, know what I mean? It’s like ‘I fancy your wife – make her dress down so I stop fancying her.’ That’s wrong, isn’t it? Just stop fancying her, mate, know what I mean?”
I walked off. His answer wouldn’t be worth listening to. I want to buy a new handbag. I already have five but this new one looked well nice in Argos. I saw it in the Argos catalogue but it was available in Next as well. There was a bloke playing a guitar and singing a song on my right, singing like he was a proper singer. I never know what to do with buskers because it’s like they’re beggars in denial of their poorness. It’s like Big Issue sellers – I just want to go up to them and say ‘stop pretending you have a job.’ But buskers, they’re sort of worse, because they’re not homeless but it’s like they wish they were. I know loads of poems off by heart but it’s not like I’m going to stand around reading poems out in the freezing cold and pretend that’s a valid way to make a living, you know what I mean?

“Childhood living is easy to do,” I sang, wondering what the girl was doing hovering around me. “The things you wanted, I bought them for you. Graceless lady, you know who I am. You know I can’t let you slide through my hands.” I was about to reach the chorus when she stood right next to me and so I let the last chord die in the air.
“Do you mind me asking what you’re doing?”
“I’m going to read a poem aloud.”
“Want to.”
“Can you do it somewhere else?”
To be frank, I was slightly intimidated by her. All kids these days intimidate me. She might have had a knife on her or something.
“Fine,” I said. “Be my guest. You have a poem book?”
“All in my head.”
A guffaw tried to escape me but I disguised it as a cough. “Right. Let’s hear your poem.”
“It’s not mine.”
With a clear resounding voice, she began to recite. From the moment she spoke the opening lines, people’s heads turned, most of whom hadn’t noticed my singing.
“You do not do, you do not do
Any more; black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot…”
“Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time -
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God…”
More and more people.
People had stopped to watch. As the crowd increased, it began to attract people in increments. In my experience, I’ve noticed that the larger a crowd gets, the more likely it is that other people will come. Some people looked bewildered, wondering what they were meant to be watching or listening to. Several looked at me for an explanation. I gave none, for I too was watching the girl. Curiously, no one had given money and walked on yet.
“…And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw…”
Most people had evidently never heard the poem before. The kids stood motionless, eyes wide, minds open, clutching the hand of their parent. To the children this was normal; or at least, about as normal as anything else in the grown-up world. As long as their parent was there to hold their hand they were not daunted. With every new line came a new reaction. Eyes frowned. Hands went onto hips at the line about every woman adoring a fascist. A few people yawned now and then, but only out of tiredness. Nobody left.
“They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”
A moment of uncertain silence.
“That’s it,” said the girl flatly.
The crowd clapped. The ones at the front fished inside wallets for some change.
“I don’t want it. Give it him.” Then she left.
They all seemed unsure. Hands stopped inside pockets.
“I don’t know her,” I said. “It’s fine. Thanks for listening.”
Then they were all smiles and frowns, their world turned upside down a little, before breaking out into groups once more and dissolving away to shop and forget about the weird girl with the weird poem who didn’t want any money and the singer next to her who didn’t seem to know her. I knew what they would be saying:
Was it part of an organised poetry event? Was she meant to do that? Bit risqué for the middle of the day, wasn’t it? Don’t worry dear, these people know what they’re doing these days. But I don’t think anyone arranged it. That singer looked as puzzled as anyone else. But he must have known her. No, I don’t think he did dear.
Then they would eat their dinner and watch telly because telly was comfortable and nothing unexpected happened and it was something they paid for which was right because just listening alone isn’t good enough to most people.
Inspired by the girl and by the fact I had made no money all morning, I decided to sing the song I really wanted to sing that day. I grabbed the guitar and crashed chords out of it like it was the last song I would ever play.
“The worst word is not Cunt,
The knife that cuts hardest is blunt.
The worst word is not Fuck,
It is Love that renders me dumbstruck.
Love is the worst swear word of all,
Love consigns you to the soil,
Love is the destroyer of worlds,
Love is Atlas’s hurl.”
That last line was awful. I really should have amended that.
Nobody was listening to me. I knew why. The melody sounded comfortable. I could sing anything and no one would notice. Two Goths going by.
“Fat kids dressed up in white,
What an awful, awful sight…”
They laughed and gave me a quid. I was getting paid for abuse. This was genius. I should do this all the time, I thought. An old couple reached down to put money into the coffer so I started singing:
“Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend…”

“Great song,” I said, nodding to the kid.
“What was it?” said Doris.
“Oh yeah, the Beatles.”
“Not a big fan, are you?”
“They’re nice, I suppose.”
Midday on a Saturday is quite a busy time. We could have gone shopping tomorrow but no. Well, it was a nice day for a walk.
“Poor boy. Must be all of twenty-four and looked homeless,” said Doris.
“I think it was the beard. I’m sure he’s fine. Looked like he was having a nice time.”
“Yes, but I do worry when I see boys his age in the cold weather, though. Ginger ones, especially. Do you think he wants some food? He did look very thin.”
“I’m sure he’s fine, dear. Where did you want to eat?”
“I was thinking we could have a nice drink.”
“I am quite peckish.”
“You did eat breakfast early.”
“I did, but you ate breakfast quite late.”
“You knew we were going out for lunch.”
We stopped walking. “How’s about I eat something now, and you eat something later? There’s a nice place just here. Pret A Manger, it’s called. French. It looks quite nice. It’s all fresh, you know. You can have a drink, and I can eat.”
“Can’t you wait a bit? I’m not that hungry yet.”
“Do we have to eat at exactly the same time?”
No point even trying. She walked on and I followed. We walked to the end of the road until we reached the tail end. Pret A Manger hung like a Christmas bauble, dangling its smell our way until we went inside. Upon the roundabout leading out of town, I noticed a man my age sitting upon the roundabout.
“See that bloke? Nutter.”
“Don’t stare, Reg. Might get his attention.”

I sat on the roundabout on the grass watching cars go by round and round, all of them different colours and shapes, the face of the passengers and drivers staring forward into the future. My set of messages were growing larger every day. Last night I made a new one and brandished it now, letting its message sink into the eyes of the passing masses:
I know it makes little difference to most people. They all call me crazy, I know. Sometimes I think I can hear the voices of the people in the cars. “Hey Dad, look, there’s a crazy man sitting on the roundabout holding up a board.” But the child remembers it. The children always remember things. It’s because their minds are more open. Throughout the course of my day I change the message on the board every half hour or so.
Six years ago, I retired from my job working for the Civil Service. I know it is the archetypal boring job, but I liked it – well, as much as one can like a job. Ever since my wife died three years ago I don’t do all that much. Bit of golf now and then. Spot of rummy in the pub.
But after a while normality begins to itch, so I decide to try and change the world for about six hours. I’m the first to admit it is the hobby of a madman. Thinking of myself as a superhero might be a little delusional, although not necessarily incorrect. My therapist said a while ago that I should probably stop doing this because, well, it was anti-social.
“Anti-social?” I said. “Pro-social, if anything.”
To his vexation, his words made me want to carry on more than ever.
Something about modern life profoundly bores me. As much as I like golf, quite often I look at myself from sort of God-like perspective, and ask: is this it? Is this all my life will ever be? “Played a good round of golf,” they will say at my funeral. However, with the addition of this strange hobby, they will also say, “And liked sitting on roundabouts holding up messages to people driving by.” Strange Bob, I imagine they’ll call me, sitting chatting in the pub long after I’m gone. Strange Bob is infinitely better than Bob. What is ‘Bob’? There are millions of Normal Bobs out there, Ordinary Bobs struggling to make a living, striving to be like every other Bob, never realising that they will never be remembered as anything other than a functional body walking on a set path, rather like an automaton wobbling around a Swiss clock, running around only when it’s told to.
I love to see peoples’ reactions. Adults are so narrow-minded that anything vaguely out of the norm prompts absolute hostility. I have been honked at more times than I can remember. Several have yelled that I am a hazard. How exactly am I a hazard? Messages are blasted out from hundreds of advertising boards every day, and they’re not labelled as hazards.
I do enjoy this fresh air. Probably getting lung cancer from the fumes, but then again, maybe not. Who knows? It really is a marvellous way to do nothing whilst simultaneously doing everything. Time to change the message on my board.
I shan’t bore you any longer – I’m sure you other, more important things to do than listen to an old man – so I shall leave you with the remainder of my messages so if you ever fancy taking up this hobby you shall have some to use.


I’m not sure about that last one. I have to be in a really bad mood if I use it – say, for instance, if I’ve been around too many fat people. And by fat, I don’t necessarily mean overweight – fat people have been around since the dawn of time, and there have been many great fat people – but rather the state of mind of certain fat people. The self-pity. The idea of being victimised, cursed. Believe it or not I do rather like a McDonald’s now and then.
A child was pushing his face comically against the rear window. His eyes caught mine and for a moment we were interlocked in a silent greeting. I hope my message reached him. I waved. He waved back.

“Who are you waving at, Adam?” said Daddy.
“Some old man on the roundabout. Did you see him, Daddy?”
“No, Adam.”
“Did you, Jane?” I said.
She was playing a computer game. “No.”
“Did you see the old man on the roundabout?”
“No, I didn’t. What was he doing?”
“He had a sign on him. He was sort of wearing it.”
“What did it say?”
I thought about it for a second.
“I couldn’t understand the last word but the first word was ‘work’.”
“Oh! ‘Work’! That’s a good message. You should work.”
“Then it said, ‘is’.”
“‘Work is’?”
“Work is… what?”
“I don’t know the last word.”
“Was it a big word?”
“Can you spell it out?”
“No. Began with M. I dunno, I can’t remember it now. Oh look, Daddy! A McDonald’s!”
Jane sat up too. “McDonald’s!”
“Please can we go in?”
“No. We’ve got dinner waiting on the hob at home.”
“Oh… please?” We stretched the sound out. “Ohhhhhhh. Pleeeeeeeaaaase.”
“No,” said Mummy.

“We’ve got a nice dinner at home.”
“What is it?” said Jane.
This was the secret: not to reveal it. If I did, they would inevitably be disappointed.
John smiled and nodded. Yep. We had them on the ropes now.
“Can I guess?” said Adam.
A guessing game. What a good way to distract them until we get home. We’re good parents aren’t we?
We made our way home, and got out of the car. The girl next door smiled at me as I went inside. She’s so quiet. I think she has a boyfriend but I hardly see him. I worry about them. I wonder if they are having problems. I hear things sometimes but you can’t be sure, can you? Don’t want to call the police to find that everything’s fine because then they’ll think I was trying to wind them up and I might get fined or something and that would go on my record.

Having cranked out a smile, to the woman, I shut the door and stood there in the hallway crying for a bit.
Why bother, I thought - why bother why bother why bother why bother why bother with all this angst and hurt and pain especially when everyone is bad and everyone deserts you in the end and anyway how long until my next cheque comes through, just keep living because you’ll have money soon and then you can buy things to make his unhappiness go away but then the unhappiness outruns the money so you get loans and spend more money than you really have and it doesn’t matter because when you buy one more that one thing will be the one thing that will finally make you happy him happy both of you happy when of course you know as you’re buying it that your life isn’t miraculously changing but you buy it anyway because you must be wrong; the gift must know more than you, you’re just stupid so when you get home and look at it you expect it to start speaking to you and telling you the meaning of life but it can’t because it’s not aware of this value that’s been placed upon it by people, it’s not even human for fuck’s sake but who cares when it can make him stop moaning.
Three days and he had barely moved. Three days. So thin. His skin looked yellow. I went to the toilet and washed my hands and looked in the mirror. I didn’t look too great either. Bags all over the place. Hair a mess. Maybe I shouldn’t have shouted at him.
I peeked my head through the bedroom door, wondering if he was upset. I hoped he would be crying because then I would know that I still meant something to him.
His eyes were closed.

My eyes are closed. My body lies on the bed. The mattress beneath it is my conscious mind. Underneath the mattress lies the unconscious, collections of needles and dead insects propagating in its dusty void.
Memory is dirt, and filth, which I pretend to repress but can’t seem just to throw away. The first time was the best. I can remember it so well. Everything after that has just been stale, recycled, thin, gasping and coughing like the school geek on Sports Day. I want to throw it all away. I need desperately to forget. I need it to be better. It has to better next time. If it isn’t better soon I don’t know what I will do, how I will cope. Something needs to change. It can’t be me. She needs to do it better. She was here once but now she is outside my body, miles away – she doesn’t have a clue what it is like to be in here so she isn’t as important as the needle. Her job is to bring it and make it better. Look at her moving back and forth like that.
“What’s the rush?” I said. “What’s the rush. Hey. You listening? Stop.”
“You awake?”
“I’m going out.”
“What? You’ve just got in. Where?”

Every farewell feels like the last now. Every time I go back into the house I wonder if he will be dead. That was the last check. Definitely. Mum was right. She knows it all. She knows more than me about blokes coz she’s had troubles of her own and I’ve just ignored her or I’ve told her she was a stupid cow, why did I do that? I’m so horrible fuck I deserve everything I get… maybe this is God punishing me for the way I’ve been in my life? No that’s stupid don’t like that. Go to the police. No I can’t. They’ll arrest me. They’ll call me a criminal and put me in jail. Accomplice to the crime. What crime? Having it. You’re the one buying it for him, you’re the one who’s going to get done. What else can I do then but leave? He could stop if he wanted. But he doesn’t want to. He likes things the way they are. Mum will know what to do. You can tell her everything. It’s not your job to feed him like a baby. Coz that’s what he is. A baby.

A young woman in her early twenties approached me. Looked like she had troubles. I don’t know why I can tell with some people, but I just can. I think I’ve got a special ability like that. I think in every person there are the five senses and an extra sixth one that’s unique for each person. My brother can tell if someone has been born a premature baby. I don’t know he does it. He can go up to someone and then ask them if they were born premature and they were. My other brother can roll his tongue. I suppose that’s not really a sense. But mine is that I can tell when someone is troubled. That’s my thing. I can also tell when I’m being watched, but I think everyone can. It’s like a sixth sense. Seventh sense. I mean.
“Single to Gillingham, please.”
“Twenty-two forty, please.”
“Aren’t there any cheaper ones?”
“No, sorry.”
Her hand shook. Concern knocked on my head like a little hammer that had no right to be knocking because she was a stranger and it wasn’t my right to pry into anything so I didn’t.
She scrabbled for cash. “Only got eighteen.”
I sighed and took a fiver from my pocket. “That’s enough.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“That’s alright.” Inward I was just thinking: don’t bloody cry. She didn’t. I gave her the ticket and watched her go. I would never know what was wrong with her. Not my place to know I suppose. I looked at myself in the mirror. Needed a shave. Knew I should have shaved when I got up. Shaving’s so boring though. I might grow a moustache. Yeah. I’ll do that. I’ll grow a moustache. They might call me Eddie with the moustache instead of Big Eddie. A bunch of kids were next up. I could tell they were Swedish right off. Don’t ask me how I knew, but I just knew. I’ve got a sixth sense for stuff like that I think.

“Here are your tickets.”
“Thank you,” I said to the man on the counter. Ulrich and Ulrika both had flown in from Sweden for the day and were keen to explore the land of England. Little did I realise their idea of exploration was sitting around talking, whilst the world passed by. But then, to some people, we were ones doing the passing by.
We left the train station and walked past the street whilst inside it, the centre of attention whilst being the outsiders, watched by a few people whose idea of exploration was sitting on a chair and watching the world go by. An old couple were sitting in a café. The husband was drinking and the wife was eating some cake. Both looked like they have having a good time.
“Reckon they’re happier than us?” said Ulrika, head barely raised above the ground, long brown hair drooping sulkily in and around her eyes, pudgy cheeks making her look younger than her years, in a good way of course – I’ve always had a fondness for the pudgy cheek look, ever since I went to Russia...
“No,” replied Ulrich, whose jaw was an axe and whose eyes were like bullets. “I don’t expect they are.”
“Why are we staring at these people as if they were images on a television screen?”
At this moment Ulrich took it upon himself to hand me a lollipop.
“What’s this for?”
Ulrika closed her eyes, letting the day seep into her pores.
“If you begin to suck on the lollipop, you will understand,” said Ulrich, mouth set in stern promise.
“What difference would sucking a lollipop make?”
“All the difference.”
I shrugged and inserted the lollipop into my mouth.
“Now I am going to speak,” said Ulrich. “If you wish to argue my point, then make a note of the point which you find most offensive then at the end of my speech feel free to attack whatever you find distasteful.” He handed me a pen and paper. “Are you ready to listen?”
Ulrika stood motionless like a Gormley statue. “Hurry up and speak, Ulrich. I grow impatient.”
“Right. Here I go. Got to be in Swedish though.”
“We stare,” he declared.
“Is that so?”
“Yes. It’s what we do. Work is spent staring at the Internet, then occasionally staring at the clock. In extreme boredom, one might stare at the breasts of a co-worker if one were so inclined. Leisure time is spent staring either at a television screen or a computer, having downloaded something to watch. Alternatively, you might go to a pub or club, and during that time you will stare at people’s faces or, if it’s a slow night, at the wall. If dancing, you may shut your eyes, but this usually results in falling over or vomiting. So you must keep staring, trying your best to cope with the nystagmus that occurs when you have drunk too much. If you happen to drive, you stare out of the window either at the world passing you by or heading towards you. If it is the latter case, you must avoid the things coming towards you, because that’s the way to avoid having to get your car repaired. Alternatively, next time you see a large wall, try driving into it. You might find you are pleasantly surprised by the results; a year spent in hospital, reading books, sympathy coming your way from relatives. Those who have cottoned on that it was a suicide attempt will either shun you or feel sorry for you: these people are not worth getting worried about. The drawback is the possibility that someone might berate you for not caring about your life, in which case you have two choices: either get rid of them, or follow their instructions to the letter. They will tell you to get a grip, get a job, get a wife: and you try to do that. You get a job that involves staring at a computer screen, and then you find yourself staring at women's breasts in the vain hope she will become your wife someday. Then maybe in a few years you get lucky, and she marries you. Then you can both stare together.”
The street was like treacle, running over us and sweetening our pancake faces. Ulrika swayed in the wind, nodding a little as though she were falling asleep. Ulrich was trying to reflect on what he had just said and whether we would respond to it, and whether it would affect his self-confidence much if we didn’t. I could tell he decided he would try not to care less whether we responded, because whatever we said in response would only ever be one which he would shrug off because the moment had passed and the words he had just said no longer belonged to him – rather they belonged to his past self, one who wrote the speech in his head.
My voice sounded like a foghorn in a misty morning sea.
“I like it, Ulrich.”
Ulrika opened her eyes and stared unwaveringly at me, the flat curiosity in her eyes belying her attempts at absolute indifference.
The day seemed to sag and moan like as though struck a great blow. A sudden smell of curry on the air: that London scent which always gave me a thrill but now reminded me of the places we would never be allowed into because we knew nobody and nobody knew us.
“That is good, Gerd,” said Ulrich.
“Is it?” I said.
The wind gushed for a moment, pushing all thoughts to one side. Then it went off somewhere for a drink.
“Why would it not be good?”
Ulrika moved our way and kissed Ulrich on the cheek. Then she stepped on tiptoes and kissed me on the cheek as well.
“Come, you silly, silly men. Let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
“One moment, Ulrika,” said Ulrich. “Gerd has presented me with a question which I feel deserves an answer.”
“If you insist,” I said.
A small smile from Ulrich’s mouth. “Don’t play the fool with me, Gerd – we both know you wish your words were able to inspire absolute indifference.”
“Doesn’t everyone? Doesn’t everyone wish that someone would override their musings and thoughts, seeing him for the falsity that they are and reducing their mind to a screwed-up lump of paper?”
“But what then? What happens once your mind has been screwed-up?”
“One finds a sort of peace,” I retorted.
“What peace?”
“The peace of... stupidity.”
“Come, boys,” said Ulrika, grabbing our arms. “Let’s walk.”
She kicked her legs high in a mock can-can as we walked. As always she told us that we were silly but if she could marry us both, she would. The old words: but the best, for it boosted both mine and Ulrich’s egos, assuaging our argument which frustrated us both because we had nothing to argue about anymore.
The McDonald’s came closer and we all chuckled because we knew that everyone was in the mood for one. Our feet sent us through the door into the otherworld that smelled rancid and was noisy but was a quick route to predictability and childhood security. No one would ever be hurt here. No one would be dumped or would have to discuss Sartre and look a fool upon being told that it was Altona that was his best play, not Nausea, and that anyone who liked Nausea probably didn’t have the right to read Sartre in the first place, etc etc etc. Once upon a more innocent time two people said those very words to me, sending me tumbling down into a kind of despair for a while. Then I restored myself via time, and went onwards in a triumphant circle.
“At heart,” said Ulrich as we approached the counter, “Every woman is a Catholic.”
“And why would that be?” said Ulrika, slapping her hand down to get the attention of the workers. “Hey! Anyone here?”
“Because you all specialise in being guilty. Men don’t feel as much guilt, which is why we are capable of so much evil.”
“Every woman adores a fascist.”
A man tapped me on the shoulder. He wore a pair of sunglasses and his hair was slicked back to make him look like a blind member of the Mafia. Next to him was a gimp crawling on all fours, and what appeared to be a woman wearing nothing on her body. The mafia man spoke.
“If you have been affected by the issues raised in this piece, call 0800-SPINE and our experienced callers with be there to listen in silence while you say things like, ‘Why did I bother calling this number?’ but soon the silence will tell on your soul and you will start spilling everything.”
Then the man and his friends walked away.
“Is that it?” I said to their departing backs. “Is that all you’ve got, gimp man?”
“It is enough,” said the naked woman, before unzipping her body suit to reveal a business suit and dumping it on the floor.
“What do you want to eat, Gerd?” said Ulrika.
“Big Mac Meal, please. I think that LSD is kicking in, by the way. That, or a gimp is just leaving McDonald’s.”
Ulrich turned, spinning like a drunk. “Where.”
“Over there. The gimp on all floors.”
I felt Ulrich nodding. “I see him too, my friend. Don’t worry.” He slapped me on the back. “We didn’t give you LSD. That was just a placebo.”
“We decided to experiment on you for our own amusement. You have passed the test, although it was a close thing. Do you feel alienated and excluded for having been the victim of a practical joke?”
“No, because nothing matters.”
We grabbed our food and walked past two young girls. I stopped for a moment to stare at them, the tray of food already starting to die because it was realising what it was.
“It’s such a dilemma, Louise. Terence is so lovely, such a nice person, whilst Paul is such a bad boy. Terence makes me feel like the most awful sinner. He’s like a judge sitting atop a seat up in Heaven.”
“You fuck him yet?”
“Then he’s gay. Fuck him.”
“I can’t fuck him if he’s gay.”
“I meant metaphorically.”
“I can’t metaphorically fuck him if he’s gay.”
I turned away in what I hoped was disgust and walked back to the table of my friends feeling what I hoped was depressed but was simply an advanced state of boredom. We ate in what I hoped was awkward silence but was simply advanced conversation. We ate what I hoped were fatty foods but were simply advanced dietary products, using technology so advanced it was impossible for the naked eye to detect; or the naked body for that matter. I looked to my future with what I hoped was dread but was simply advanced excitement.
“What do you look like naked, Gerd?” said Ulrika, sipping her milkshake.
“That’s strange,” I said. “I was just thinking about that woman with the gimp. She was naked but was actually - ”
“Don’t dodge the question. What do you look like naked?”
“Quite ordinary, Ulrika. Why?”
“I am trying to make you feel sexually intimidated. Is it working?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“You are a liar. What else are you afraid of, apart from assertive women?”
I thought for moment, staring at the wall for inspiration. None came.
“Yourself? Why?”
“Because I find myself ten times more unpredictable than anyone else. People are like robots. For the most part I can tell what they are able to say or do, what responses they will choose to suit the occasion. I for one, know exactly how you will respond to what I just said.”
“What response do you think I will choose to what you have just said?”
“That. That is how I thought you would respond. But that’s what I admire about you, Ulrika: you aren’t unwilling to lump yourself in with the rest of humanity and pretend you’re not anything but boring and a solitary walker like the rest.”
“Why are we friends?” said Ulrich.
“Are we friends?” said Ulrika. “What is a friend?”
“No idea,” I said.
“So, Gerd,” said Ulrika. “Any love interests in your life?”
“Only of the alienated apathetic postmodern kind. The other day, Selma was crashing at my pad and then I said, ‘Hey, fancy a fuck?’ and she said, ‘Sure - my life is such a bummer at the moment due to my depersonalised emotions and inability to find meaning in my job or career or love life or work that sex provides the only means of stimulation to let me know I’m alive. Even not coming provides some sort of emotion, and lets me blame my problem on the male gender.’ And then we had sex.”
“There is no Selma, is there?”
My Coke began to make a noise so I put it down like I would a crippled dog.
Mine is the mind of the slow dreamer. I do not wish my fate bestowed on others, nor do I desire that I be the only one to whom it may be bestowed, for I am not unhappy with the way my life is going, although it is rather banal and tedious. I try to make anomie and accidie my friends, embracing rejection as though it were a wayward brother. Rejection is a natural part of existence; if we are not familiar with rejection then we do not know what it is to be descended from Adam and Eve. They were ejected cruelly from Eden; their ejection lives on every day in humankind’s long defeat. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane the night before he died; I pray to Jesus every night that I will not wake up. This life disgusts me to the point of vomiting. Sometimes I wonder if I watch too much Bergman. But Bergman is good, and you cannot have too much of a good thing, so it is good that I watch too much Bergman.
A girl walked the road, before heading up to her flat above a shop. I wonder what it’s like living above a shop. You get to stare down at all the shoppers as if you are in a café, but you get the added benefit of total privacy, a voyeur without the drawback of the possibility that you are someone else’s object.

I ascended the stairs and put the kettle on, fighting off the usual cravings for the McDonald’s. My dog Poo barked happily. I fed him. Then I put the telly on. The telly always has to be on. It’s like having a friend in the room. I’m not lonely or anything – I’ve got loads of friends – but everyone knows that if you’re in a room by yourself, it’s nice to have a telly on. The kettle boiled and I stood there drinking it, part of me wondering why I was standing looking out of the kitchen window at the street below instead of sitting in the lounge watching the news like I was supposed to. The television chattered on happily without me. The window showed both my reflection and the world outside, and it was my choice to pick one. I looked good, so decided to adjust my focus to the world outside, watching the sun set behind London’s high-rises.
There was a man outside walking down the road. He did not know I was watching him. I studied his posture; he was unaware and oblivious. Physics states that it is possible to affect something in the universe simply by looking at it. If you believe that, then I made a massive difference to that man’s life simply by looking at him. It is possible that when I moved my eyes towards him, the atoms shifting in the air perversely altered his path, perhaps by a gradient of a millimetre more to the right than normal; then this shifting of atoms then might have had an effect on the person walking his way, altering their course by a centimetre; and then eventually the course of everyone walking near those people might move by a metre or so, which would be a considerably fate-altering distance whose effect would be more and more widespread.
Or, perhaps the man had the feeling he was being watched, but couldn’t say where from, and this feeling of unease prompted him to walk a little faster than normal, so that of course then everything is altered not only in terms of space, but also in terms of time. Unlike the universe, our atoms are not getting farther from each other, but rather closer with each passing second.
A red car drove in the opposite direction that the man walked. At the moment it approached him, the man tripped over something, stumbling dangerously close to the road. The car beeped its horn and swerved a little to the right. However, this swerve failed to take into account the car coming towards it. Both cars scraped one another, sending a wail reverberating around the road which was possibly the sound of God himself saying that everything mattered, even me, sitting here looking at cars pass by my window.
The drivers yabbered at one another while the man walked on, determinedly unaware and uninvolved. I watched him and watched him until out of nowhere he stopped walking, turned around and stared up at me, before continuing on his way. A chill ran down my back. All this time, he had known I was watching him. The whole time. An eerie feeling overwhelmed me as though an evil spirit had noticed me and wanted my soul.
I turned round to see my flatmate standing in the door. I jumped six feet in the air.
“How did you know I was here?” she said.
“Why did you have to be so quiet?”
“Why did you have to leave your door open?”
“Why can’t you walk louder?”
“Why do you have to be so jumpy?”
“What do you want?”
“I’m popping to the shop. You want anything?”
“No thanks.”

The road passed by in treacle. Two drivers were yelling at each other about their cars. Not worth looking at for much longer, unless I wanted to get involved. Picked up a paper from the newsagents. Paper full of suffering. So much suffering. I love it. I want more. All this hatred. All this pain. People who can never truly be real to me but rather characters in a play. I try to feel emotional about stories but can only summon up a sort of disgust: is this the best these newspaper writers can do? That one on page five, for instance - bit grotesque, isn’t it? And that one with the murderer getting two years, where’s the justice in that? People like justice and good endings in their films, and so it’s always disappointing to read newspapers, with their bad endings.
Two blokes there, buying sweets, both bearded, both looked unemployed. Quite fit. I half-hoped they might look at me and say something, anything, even if was sexist. Sometimes any attention is better than ignorance. But no. Barely noticed me. Too busy talking about beards or whatever.

“Standard, Jim?” I said, paying for my sweets.
“No. I don’t need the news. It’s never good: always murders and rapes. The fact that I wake up every morning is bad enough news for me.”
“How droll.”
Woman who smelled of exotic smoke and incense passed by, of no real consequence. We emerged. The street zigged and zagged. People criss-crossed our path like bullets foaming through a sea of clotting blood, wounds inflicting the earth and all its arteries, pores clogging, muscles stiff, broken and cracked, wrecked and starving, starving from days of ennui. This was the day. This was the present, the now, the here, the morning, the end, the beginning, and by God we had sweets and pork pies and nothing could stop us, except of course, our tedious and repetitive selves.
“Maybe God is dead and humanity is some kind of rigor mortis,” I muttered.
A man bashed past my face. He didn’t matter. What mattered was Jules’s question from a minute ago.
“Maybe God is dead and humanity is some kind of rigor mortis,” I said.
“So what was your question?”
“What question?”
“You asked me a question a minute ago and I didn’t hear you.”
“So much has happened since then. I can’t remember.”
“What’s happened since then?”
“I can’t remember.”
“We were talking about songs that if you like, mean you’re gay.”
“Oh yeah, I remember. My question was: what are the gayest films out there?”
“Good question.” I mused. “Yes. A very… good question.”
“Relevant? Worth answering?”
“No, but what is?”
“That is a good question.”
“No, ‘but what is’.”
“What, relevant?”
“No, not to the current topic which we are attempting to pursue.”
“Which is?”
“Gay films.”
“Yes,” he said, punching the air.
“Lord of the Rings is so gay,” I finally stated.
A woman with a clipboard approached our faces like the Minotaur jumping out at Theseus and I shirked her via my hand and my slinky hips.
“What’s gay about it?”
“Did you know that every day, a thousand - ”
“No thank you. People walking around in a homosocial environment.”
“Hardly. What about Butch Cassidy? Two men, alone, cuddling up…”
“They never cuddle up. At no point is there cuddling.”
“They do cuddle, when we’re not watching.”
“What are you talking about?”
“When the camera’s off, they’re at it like rabbits. What you see isn’t the whole thing.”
We sat on a bench. There, we opened our newly purchased cartons of juice drink and pork pies. Juice drink is wonderfully fake – it contains ten percent juice, with the other percent constituting the drink.
“They’re not real,” said Bill. “When the camera isn’t on them, they don’t exist.” He raised his pork pie to his mouth and devoured. I enjoyed his satisfaction.
“Of course they do,” I said. “What about all those scenes they had to edit out? They’re still out there, being and talking, except we aren’t privileged enough to see those particular scenes.”
“Those scenes aren’t good enough.”
“They would be for gay people.”
“Enough with that. Plenty of films gayer than that film anyway.”
“Such as?”
“Top Gun. Days of Thunder. The Warriors.”
A telephone box stood looking at us. The three shops opposite opened their legs to customers but the curtains in the windows above shook and shimmered, as though they were clapping their hands for every word we spoke. To live above a shop must be like being a God… chick up there staring at me. I looked away, enjoying the feeling of being watched by a woman.
“The Warriors isn’t gay. Bunch of men beating the shit out of each other. Can’t get more straight than that.”
“Have you seen their uniforms? Their haircuts? Their pretty faces? I’ve never seen a prettier bunch of gangsters in my life. And the way they move… it’s like watching ballet.”
“Where’s the ballet?”
Bill shoved some more pork pie into his mouth and spoke through a mouthful of reconstituted meat. I took my first bite. It tasted wonderfully unnatural.
“Right, next time you watch it, watch for that bit where they’re running into the train. One of them actually skips. Then he leaps.”
“It’s fucking gay.”
“Just watch it.”
“Bollocks. Anyway, I see your Warriors and I raise you Apocalypse Now.”
“Fuck off.”
“No. Gayest film ever.”
“How, exactly?”
“The bombs and the Wagner. Campest scene ever.”
“How exactly is that camp?”
“Wagner,” I said. “Campest composer ever. Have you never seen a Valkyrie? They all look like Divine.”
“Alright, Wagner’s camp, but anything using his music doesn’t automatically become camp.”
“It does.”
“The Nazis used Wagner’s music – were they camp?”
“Campest dictatorship ever.”
“What, genocide and declaring war?”
“There is nothing as camp as declaring war.”
“The Holocaust? Was that camp?”
“It was concentration camp - ”
“But gay camp?”
“Well, maybe not the Holocaust, but the uniforms, the marching, the moustache…”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying Hitler was gay. A moustache like that. The salute.”
“Yes. The salute.”
“It’s possible.”
“But possible.”
The old man sitting on my right suddenly leaned over and asked me for a light. I had forgotten there were other people in the world. Sometimes conversations drag you in, like a pit of black oil.

“Thanks,” I said.
“You’re welcome.”
“You boys want to know something interesting?”
“No, not particularly.”
“I fought in the war. I fought the war so that you two could sit there like that in the middle of a weekday, eating your pork pies, and discussing the Holocaust like it’s all a big joke. But I tell you, lads – it wasn’t funny. Nor was Hitler. I find it a little disgraceful that you can laugh at Hitler without appreciating that he was real once, and that men like me fought to stop him from ruining the world. But then I listen to conversations like the one you just had, and I ask myself, ‘why did we bother?’”
Despair overtook me and I placed my head in my hands.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Want some pork pie?”
“No, thank you.”
“What’s up?” said the other one.
“Man thinks we’re worthless.”
“Ah, right. Maybe we are.”
“Possible. However...”
No use. I straightened up and attempted to regain some dignity back.
“My wife is in hospital.”
“Oh, right.”
“She’ll make it.”
Silence. A man entered a phone booth. A woman entered a shop, her arms already laden with bags. Then I watched a couple pushing prams; they were both under twenty. Then I watched a group of five students; they were laughing. Then I watched a man come towards us. Stubble was on his face and his hands were shaking. Then he passed by. We sat in silence for a few moments, watching the world go by. The sky was blue. The buildings were grey. Music gurned from a nearby speaker, of indiscernible quality. The woman who had entered the shop came back out. She had not bought anything. Probably just had a look. I would never know these people. I would never know the names of the people whom I sat next to either. Why have I spent my entire life sitting next to strangers in silence? Why was I not more friendly? Everybody my age always goes on about how much nicer people were back in the old days, but I’ve never bought into that belief. In my opinion, people have always been rude and surly, or at worst, ignorant. I felt a disquieting need to reaffirm my faith in humanity, and so tapped the arm of the boy next to me.
“Is the future going to be good?”
“What do you mean?”
I struggled. I licked my lips. I scratched my head. Couldn’t find out what I wanted.
“I’m not sure.”
“You mean the environment?” offered his friend.
“Why not.”
“Well, that’s screwed. I read this book once that gave humanity a 50/50 chance of surviving this century.”
“You read a book?”
“What was it called?”
“Don’t remember.”
A wind blew. Litter danced. Molecules shuffled and skated on water, flying stupidly like Daddy-long-legs, completely without purpose.
“I don’t remember,” he repeated.
“Don’t remember what?” I said.
“The book title.”
“What book title?”
“The one you just asked me about.”
“Oh, yeah. Course.”
Short term memory loss is the first sign that the mind is going. Impossible to go anywhere right now. Overwhelming suffocation. World as tough as a hard toffee. Why do we always struggle at the end? Why do so few people accept their fate? Who is satisfied? Why this constant regret? Death is a gift, but we never want to unwrap it. Those who want to are classified as mentally ill.
“What are you two doing later?”
“Fun things?”
A few mutterings.
“Not sure.”
“Why aren’t you sure? You’re young. Aren’t you going out with nice girls?”
“Girls aren’t into us.”
They got up silently, leaving the question unanswered. I assumed the answer was that they didn’t know either. Complete weakness. My worst suspicions about their generation had just been confirmed. Christ.
The bench was mine now. A strange urge to rebel overwhelmed me. I took off my coat, folded it over three times, placed it at the end of the bench, and lay down to look at the blue sky.
“Spare an x chromosome,” I muttered to whoever was willing to be troubled. Some kid with a quiff. Waste of time and space.

Some old tramp was asleep on the bench.
“Spare an x chromosome,” he said.
I jerked away. If it had been something sane I might have given him something. I never know how much I’m supposed to give those guys. Usually I give 50p, but is that too much? Too little? What do they spend it on? Are they really reliant upon charity? What happens if nobody gives them anything one day – does that mean they don’t eat or drink anything at all?
Some chick was looking me up and down, a cat-like smile on her lips.
We approached one another, slowly at first, but, after we both realised the other was in the same frame of mind, quicker until we were eye-to-eye. The high street faded into nothingness like a Seurat painting, leaving her isolated in my sight, burning onto my retina into a dangerous photograph. This felt like a meeting in a dream where you feel like something is going to go wrong, like it will turn out to be a monster or something.
Time to play my James Dean card. I grabbed a cigarette from behind my ear.
“Got a light?”
“Sorry, I don’t. Well, I do, but it’s in my handbag and I can’t be bothered to get it. Get your own lighter, cheapskate.”
“Seems you can spot a cheapskate a mile off.”
“Could smell you from a mile off, Smokey.”
Grabbed the lighter and lit my cigarette. She moved towards me. Then she sniffed my neck quick-style like some crazy dog. I almost shuddered – it was weird, man.
“What are you doing?”
“Not as cheap as I thought.”
“You’re not wrong,” I said, grinning sidelong in a style I hoped made me look like a sexy ragamuffin.
“So?” she said.
“So what?”
“Aren’t you going to offer me one?”
“Yeah, why not,” I said, fumbling in my breast pocket before extending it with what I realised was becoming a shaking hand. “Cigarette?”
“No thanks. I don’t smoke.”
The cigarette went sheepishly on top of my ear.
“So. What’s up?” I said.
She laughed, scraping her foot on the floor for some reason as she did so, as if she were a braying horse.
“The hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know… what’s going on with you?”
“What’s going on with me?” She laughed. “Well, I was going to introduce myself, but I suppose I can tell you what’s up with me first if you want me to.”
She was getting on my nerves but man, she was hot. Ring through her lip, tint of red in her hair, tall like a gazelle, but soft as a bouncy castle. Big, bouncy castle. The sort of castle that you jump around in until you’re so exhausted you feel like if you jump anymore you’ll die.
“No, that’s, er, fine…”
She laughed again. “It is?”
“That’s... that’s good.”
“So, what’s your name?”
“Emily. Yours?”
I took a drag as I tried to think of something to say. It was hard to think with her standing there, looking around like she was already bored with me. Shit. Girls are so impatient.
“So, what books do you like?” I ventured.
“That’s pretty random.”
“I’m a random sort of person.”
“Where are you from?”
“Around here. You?”
“That in London?”
“North.” One last attempt to stave off the silence. “Where exactly are you from in London?”
“You remind me of an American, the way you dress, talk. Even the way you smoke. Why do you act like that?”
Time for another drag. Smoke dribbled from my nose and steam blew from my ears and heat rose on my cheeks. Had to say something cool to disguise the fact I was feeling embarrassed. I had to remember though that this is what women always do to men: reduce their egos. You’ve got to roll with the punches.
“Well, it’s mostly because I’m unable to formulate my own emotional and personal response to the world, due to the over abundance of ubiquitous emotion packets in the media which prompt me to gather personae together, mashing them up until they resemble something that I can call my own personality, although in my opinion a personality is an impossible concept akin to that of dark matter – good in theory, but not in practice.”
“So you don’t have a personality?”
“Nope,” I said. “You’re the first person I’ve ever met who I’ve said that to.”
“Nah, I bet you say that to all the girls.”
I snorted. She was making me laugh. It was supposed to be the other way round. Shit.
“Nope,” I replied lamely, “you’re the first.”
“How many of your childhood friends do you still have contact with?”
I rifled through my brains. “Uh, none.”
“Thought as much.”
“So, what’s your favourite book?”
“Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you.”
We marched to the nearest café. This was weird because it felt like she had successfully punctured my ego but it felt good. Instead of an ego balloon which looked pretty, I was more like an inflated bladder in need of a good piss. I had just pissed all over her and she didn’t seem to mind. Everything suddenly seemed more real and more unreal at the same time. Everything was different. I was different. My walk was different. What I saw looked at different. I swear the sky was bluer than it was a minute ago. Shops seemed to have shrunk away from me like vampires from a cross. Homeless people suddenly mattered more and normal people mattered less.
“Spare an x chromosome,” came a familiar voice, now from our left.
We stopped.
“Why have we stopped?”
“He’s crazy,” she said. “Give him money.”
“What - ”
“Come on.”
I fumbled and brought out a fifty pence piece that sparkled in the morning light, unaware it would be soon be groped by the grubby hand of a crazy homeless man who probably wouldn’t know what to do with it. I put it into his hat and got all ready to look in his eyes for some flickering sign of gratitude.
“I am a doctor of Linguistics, reduced to the status of a bum,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She grabbed my coat and pulled me away. “Don’t indulge self-pity. It’s infectious.”
“What do you mean self-pity?”
“It’s not him you pity, it’s yourself.”
The man chuckled drily. “I did it to myself, you know. Started realising the meaninglessness of the bourgeois existence. The house, the car, the television. All an illusion...”
“Enough,” said the chick.
She shoved me into a café and we ordered some coffee.
“And a flapjack.”
“They’re expensive.”
“Flapjack or I walk out and don’t look back.”
“Alright, alright. Stick around. You’ll get your flapjack.”
She was making this hard. If she liked me, why treat me like this? All because of a flapjack. But of course, it wasn’t about the flapjack. It was about me, and about how willing I was to lay myself down for her like a poker player laying down aces. I could fold aces if I had to. But of course I didn’t have to. It was my choice. Or at least I kept up that pretence. I didn’t even know what I saw in her. And then I took a lot at her and realised she was worth the sacrifice. She had lived a life whereby men hadn’t laid down their cards for her. Couldn’t tell why: that’s just how it was. We sat.
“So, what’s your favourite novel?”
She drank coffee. Looked around the café. Then she dunked her biscuit in the coffee and ate a bit more of her biscuit.
“Did you hear me?”
“You going to answer?”
“How come?”
“I know you’re not really interested. In truth, you only asked me in order to give yourself an excuse to tell me what your favourite novel is. You wouldn’t have asked me otherwise. I don’t mind, though. You bought me the biscuit and the coffee, and so as long as I am eating and drinking these, I will listen intently to anything you say.”
She slurped her coffee loudly to see if anyone would notice. Everybody noticed but no one responded. She put her feet on the table and then did a ‘hurry up’ gesture.
“Right, well. My favourite novel is Catcher in the Rye. For me, it holds special personal resonance. As far as I’m concerned, no other books are worth reading. You agree? No? What books do you like?”
She shook her head vehemently and waved her hand again for me to continue. She didn’t give a shit about what I was saying, but listened anyway.
“Alright, well, I have friends who tried to introduce me to Hemingway, but I don’t think his works are that great, because there’s too much speaking and not enough description. I like to get into the minds of characters, you know what I mean? I want to know what they’re thinking, what sort of person they are, what their motivations are, their aims in life.”
I realised I had run out things to say. I felt tired of moving my jaw and sick of the sound of my voice.
“Do you have aims?” she said.
“Yeah. I’ve got aims. Of course I’ve got aims. Anyone who doesn’t have aims is either a loser or a stoner. Or both.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to be a film director. I’ve done stuff already, outside of college. I know some guy who knows this guy whose brother is a cast director – you know, the guy who tells people where to go, where to stand. Sort of like the real director, except the director focuses more on the shot, while the cast director tells people where to move to as if he were a builder making the building that the architect designed. But I want to be the real director.”
“Cast director would be a good start though.”
She finished her biscuit. I had run out of time.
“So… do you like me?” I asked.
She laughed. “You’re alright.”
“Yeah. Actually, there is one thing.”
“What’s that?”
“You act like you’re in a film.”
I dabbed the cigarette out on the ashtray and blew smoke sideways in a phoo. Pretend smoke anyway. Pretend smoking was just as good as real smoking.
“You think?”
“Yeah. Didn’t you say you were from London?”
“Yeah. Doesn’t mean shit to me.”
“You’re weird.”
“I know.”
“I meant in a good way.”
“I know.”
I didn’t know.
I decided to go for the angle of the rebel. “I hate my parents.”
“How come?”
“Bunch of phonies.”
“What does that mean?”
“Like they don’t really understand the world. Walking around like they’ve got it solved, when in truth nothing can be solved. It’s all bullshit. Like me, you, here – bullshit. Yeah. Seriously. All… pre-arranged, gender politics shit. Boy meets girl, boy tries to chat with girl, boy realises he has nothing in common with girl, but boy keeps talking to girl in the hope she still likes him, and for some reason he feels exactly the same way, and so that’s it right there – that’s their common ground, their desperation – and so they hang on, and hang on, and hang on, and one of these days they finally get laid and he knocks her up and next thing you know they’re married and wouldn’t you know it, both their lives are already over at the age of eighteen - boom.”
“You’ve already got me pregnant? You were subtle.”
“Well no, but you know. It’s like a pre-written script.”
“How many times have you said that speech?”
“You think that impressed me?”
“It made an impression; whether that’s the same as impressing you is another matter.”
We stared at one another intently.

Two kids were rehearsing some hackneyed American play, but appeared to be taking it a bit too far so I thought I’d ask them to pay up, because, like Pete said, they were starting to unsettle the customers. His mannerisms made me feel uncomfortable, as did the girl’s. They were smoking non-existent cigarettes – a sign of a mental illness if ever there was one. Maybe both had a mental disease. Later that night I would have a dream whereby I was giving them coffee except the coffee was actually my own poo, and they were both naked and laughing and pointing at me, and then I realised I was naked as well except I had pubic hair and neither of them did – one of those dreams that makes no sense.
Pete and Taylor ignored me as I got them, but they were probably bored of me like I was bored of them. Had to get out of this place. Memories had begun to pile up like dirty dishes, growing mould, stagnating. The sad truth is I had begun to realise where I was.
Never a good thing, realising exactly where you are.
At night in bed I can conjure the image of this place up in my mind’s eye; and then from what I can conjure the sounds, then the touch of the plates, and finally, worst of all, the smell of the food. Smell for me is the most evocative sense. Being able to create a smell in your head is weird. When you do that, its like you’re right back at work instead of lying in bed, and its like work has invaded your leisure time, infiltrating it. I might be watching something on telly and then I swear I can actually smell work itself, and it takes me right back into the nightmare. Then I spend the rest of the evening feeling bitter that tomorrow I have to go back to work again instead of enjoying the fact I’m not at work anymore. Unless I open a bottle of wine. Then it’s alright. Then I am within myself and at peace and all the world makes sense and there is really nothing to worry about. Liquid perspective.
This place is so loud it really is, but no one notices it when they’re talking, when they’re the ones making the noise… but when you’re silently carrying food to and fro, there’s that constant jabber, that awful chittering, a sort of laughing scream thing that makes you go mad yourself if you listen for too long, and so I stopped listening, and started zoning out.

The waitress’s face looked like wallpaper glued crudely onto her bones using nothing more than Pritt-Stick. When she attempted a smile it looked as if the wallpaper would peel away completely. Then she realised what must look like to others, and so changed her face back to precarious neutrality.
“Two espressos,” she said.
“Thank you.”
“Thank you,” said the wife.
A pause as we waited for her to get out of earshot.
“Did you see that waitress?” I said.
“Shhh! She might hear you.”
“I don’t think she could hear it if I had a megaphone and shouted it into her ear, she’s that bored.”
“How can you tell?”
“She looks bored. Like, really, really bored. Don’t turn around!”
“Why not? I thought she was too bored to notice!”
“But she would notice if you turned around and stared at her.”
“I’m not going to, but I’m so glad you don’t engage in hypocrisy anymore, William.”
“I don’t. That was merely a lapse.”
“I have a question, William.”
“A question?”
The sound of the mug landing on the glass table seemed to echo, like the sound of a pebble falling deep into a well. A question, a question... What could it be? Lists of possible sins found out reeled themselves off in my head. I told myself to be calm and authoritative and keep thinking up cover stories for the hidden porn folder deep in the hard drive. Had she found that? How had she found that?
 “Ever considered waxing?”
“Pardon?” My irritated tone disguised my relief.
“Waxing. Your body. Your legs. Can I wax your leg when we get home?”
“Oh, come on. Don’t you think you can handle it?”
“No, I don’t think I can handle it. I know it will hurt, and I’m a sucker for pain.”
“You know William, you really are such a boring person.”
“I know.”
“You are a fundamentally boring man. What happened to our glory days, Willy? We used to spoon on the beach, make love in the daisies, in the cinema, in the car…”
“We never did that. You’ve basically just completely fabricated our past.”
“But we could have, William, we could have! In fact, we should have! Why didn’t we?”
“Because… we couldn’t be bothered.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“But we can make love in the daisies now if you like.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. There aren’t any daisies for fifty miles.”
“There is a beach though.”
“Tonight. Let’s go.”
“It’ll be awfully cold.”
“Body heat can provide ample warmth.”
“That’s silly, William, just silly. We’re not going to make love on the beach tonight. Now drink up. I simply must get that handbag I was telling you about.”
“If you simply must, then I shall move and leave the remainder of my drink.”
“You really are quite wasteful.”
I slurped the cold coffee. She didn’t notice. She was already seven paces away. I got up to follow.
We walked through the shopping mall, treading the same path as thousands before us. The strings pulling us were unique, the combinations of our co-ordinates unmatched by any in the past. All babies are the same until they leave the womb and then all are different. There were some nice-looking lamps in that shop…
“Wait a sec. Some nice lamps here. We need a lamp, don’t we?”
“Honestly, William, why lamps?”
“Another lamp wouldn’t look out of place.”
We went in and looked in the lamp section.
“It’s so hot in here.”
“It would go well in the corner.”
“What corner?”
“The corner in the lounge you’re always going on about.”
“I simply must take off my jacket.”
“You’ve always said we need a lamp.”
“Can you hold my bag while I take off my jacket?”
I stood there holding the handbag.
“We’ll be out of this place in a minute.”
“Tell you what, you buy your lamp and meet me in Debenham’s.”
“Can’t you just wait a few moments until I buy this lamp?”
“We can come back later.”
“But - ”
“Too much to carry. Can I have my handbag back please? And my jacket?”

He stood like a sullen child until he saw my logic and my clarity, blinding him in its perfection for a moment, denting his masculinity. His face reflected defeat. I had scored a point. Good for me. I grabbed his silly hand and led him towards the big Debenham’s at the end. Every shopping mall has a big Debenham’s at the end. Either that, or Mark’s and Spencer’s, although it’s different with Mark’s because you don’t know where you are for a moment - one minute you’re looking at handbags and then you’re looking at cheesecake in a fridge, and then you’re buying some lovely-looking brandy that you just know will taste scrumptious and what are we here for again oh yes handbags because Darlene just loves handbags it will be the perfect gift for her, she’s always going on about handbags… but wait, is she? Is she actually always going on about handbags? She’s always going on about her Archie and her hip but not handbags, but then really she should go on about handbags because if a self-respecting lady isn’t going on about handbags then she really doesn’t know what she’s going on about and that’s not a healthy state of mind to be in, you’ve always got to want something don’t you because if you don’t then you’re not healthy, always go to keep healthy keep up five fruit and veg a day although what does that actually do? Make your digestion better perhaps? Yes maybe hopefully that’s it because I really am farting far too much at the moment, it’s quite embarrassing really, William tries not to laugh like the good boy he is bless him but in the end I always start laughing and he takes that as his cue and laughs as well… am I too harsh on him? No you can never be too harsh on a man all men have it coming, the things they say I mean honestly, sometimes he is such a total idiot like just now although I can’t remember what he said exactly but you know him you know how he gets, well maybe not you, but Darlene knows, she knows him almost as well as she knows me and that’s quite well, although not too well because you can’t tell with her sometimes...
“Can I help you, madam?”
“I’m just looking for a handbag. You had it in here last week, but I can’t find it at the moment. I’m hoping it isn’t sold out. It was very nice, and I wish I had bought it then and there. It’s got the word ‘Lucco’ on it and it’s black.”

“I’ll have a rummage in this section, madam,” I said, hoping her husband didn’t take that the wrong way.
I found myself laughing with them like a deferential plonker, fawning and clasping my hands together, waiting for the moment when her agonised husband would slap me with his moustache. Been here two months and it felt like forever. Youth sapping itself away, coolness now vanquished. Used to be in a band. That was a year ago. Only a fucking year ago. Now, I’m getting down-the-nose looks from people who clearly wish they were shopping in Kensington. What has gone wrong with my life? Nothing. It’s called being an adult. Shut up and be grateful. Grateful for what? I don’t know. Just be grateful for it.
“This the one, madam?”
 “Oh, that’s marvellous!” she said, clasping her hands together. “You really are an excellent young man! Tell your manager that a customer thinks you are an excellent young man.” Then she kissed me on the cheek, and there was an overwhelming blanketing flowery smell as accompaniment.
“Steady on, Mary,” said her husband.
Then, as quickly as they entered my world, they went away. A hand clapped my shoulder and I jumped.
“Good job, Nthanda.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“That’s Vince to you, son.”
“Been here two weeks and he’s already out-stripping every other salesperson. Now he’s even getting kissed by customers!” He leaned in towards my ear. “Keep this up and we’ll be talking about promotion this Christmas, son.”
“Thank you, sir. Vince.”
He winked and patted me on the cheek. I watched him go away. I wondered if he was serious, and tried to force down the belief that he was. No use hoping. No use caring. Just make it until lunch and then the day starts going downhill.

Nthanda. Good lad, him. Course I was talking out of my arse saying he’d be promoted. Nobody that good deserves promotion. The kid was grateful enough just to be working here, coming from that country with its wars and famine. I don’t know how he ever got out of there. Boy doesn’t say much about it except that his whole family was killed. Dreadful, isn’t it? Rougher sort of culture over there. That Rwanda thing… it’s all evidence, isn’t it? Not that I’m racist or anything, but it’s like their culture makes them more murderous than us. Not that Nthanda’s murderous. He’s alright. It’s those ones with the knifes and the guns and the gangs – they’re the ones that get my back up.
I vote BNP, but don’t tell anyone that. The missus knows. She votes BNP as well. Not got much of a chance here… not yet, anyway. Places are starting to wake up though, like Burnley for instance. They know what’s going on. They can see it. Soon everyone else will dispense with all this political correctness rubbish and just do what they know is the right thing. I haven’t got anything against the blacks or the Muslims – I like them as a people – but I think the world would be a happier place if everyone just went back to where they came from. England for the whites, Saudi Arabia for the Muslims. They whinge about democracy, their lot. You should see them, marching through London, with their placards and beheading threats to those who don’t adhere to their plan. And yes, I’ve met Muslims and they all say they disagree with it, but really, you can’t tell, can you? It’s like those Germans after the war who all said they never supported the Nazis, but they did. They all did. Appeasement, that’s what it was – that’s what got Hitler so powerful. If we had just marched into Germany back in ’35, none of the war stuff would have happened and the world would be a better place. I’m not a violent man. I want peace as much as the next person.
In the stockroom Jamal was listening to Jazz FM, as always. I’ve never liked jazz. I think you have to be like their lot to get it.
“I need a file. Move out the way.”
“Alright, Vince.”
“Yeah, alright.”
“Right, where is it… got it. That’s fine. You can go back in now.”
“You mean thanks.”
I gazed at him for a moment, feeling the urge to headbutt his ungrateful face. But I didn’t. I was, after all, the better man – I didn’t need violence in my life. I wasn’t raised to be rude. I don’t know what those ghettos are like. Some days I wonder if he smokes drugs. Wouldn’t put it past him. Can’t do anything though. I’ve aroused enough suspicion. If he wants to ruin his future prospects, then it’s not my problem. Time to go back to the office for a nice relaxing British cup of tea. I love tea. One of the many great British inventions.

As I watched Vince walk away I swear I could have just beaten him up right then and there but I didn’t though because I restrained myself. The doctor says that anger is wrong so I try not to get angry but it’s hard especially when people talk to me the way they talk to me like he does. she says the anger I get is because I’m frustrated with my life and whatever but if I find some consistency, then my life will get better and when my life gets better I’ll feel better as a person. I’m on pills as well which is weird because I’ve never been on anything like that, it’s like because I’m on pills I feel like I must be one of those mental people who you see on the street. i don’t know if they’re working though because I still feel angry even though I’ve got a job and prospects and all that other shit they go on about. This room is the dead end of the world. I file away in here for hours and hours by myself but as long as I’ve got my jazz on the radio, it’s alright. No idiots coming in here asking me for shit, ‘do this, do that’ - I know what I’m doing, so it’s just Vince saying ‘do that’ once in the morning and I can cope with that. Lately I’ve started having a spliff before I start work. Makes it easier. Vince knows about it I think but fuck it he can sack me if he wants. Got to put some towels on the shelf now. I walked out of the stock room onto the shop floor.

A boy was by a cage putting towels on a shelf.
“Excuse me?”
“Do you, erm, do you have keyrings?”
He wasn’t even looking at me. He was just stacking those towels. He’d never make it in life with that sort of customer attitude.
“Alright, come.”
I followed him. We walked in silence.
“So, how long have you worked here?”
“Six months.”
“You enjoying it?”
“It’s alright. Here.”
He looked at me. It felt like being punched in the stomach. A strange impulse to fall to my knees and beg forgiveness overwhelmed me.
“You’re very helpful. What’s your name?”
“Thank you for your help, Jamal.”
The boy vanished from my side and I stood staring at keyrings, wondering that troubled me so much. Guilt rose in and around me like green smoke. You’re too middle-class now. You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be that age. You don’t remember what the kids were like. Do you even remember what it’s like to be picked on? Of course you don’t. You’re the big boss now.
I grabbed a keyring, any keyring, it didn’t matter, what did it matter, who even buys a keyring I mean honestly, the kid will unwrap his presents and this will be the gift that confuses him, he’ll be happy with the toys but the keyring won’t make him happy. A man walked past on the way out.

I went out of Debenham’s. I had to meet the missus outside the doctor at eleven thirty. She was six months gone now with the second and had all sorts of funny business going on which for some reason she was embarrassed about. I don’t get that. Married seven years and still she’s embarrassed about women’s stuff. Me, on the other hand – I don’t get embarrassed. She knows I like all sorts of weird stuff. But I suppose it’s different, isn’t it. Yeah. Like, I could never tell her about that time I… well, let’s just say I watched something involving a woman, a camera, a bum, and a horse. Stuff like that she just don’t need to know. And, if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I don’t really need to know about her delicates. There was this one time she was on the blob and I saw something and I swear I could die a thousand deaths if it meant I didn’t have to see it again. But that’s how it goes. The human body is a deeply and profoundly confusing thing. Me and Tone were discussing it in the pub the other day – I think he started off talking about good wank material and I said something like ‘it’s not what you see, but what you don’t see,’ and then he said that was the same as normal sex weren’t it and I said yeah, and then we started discussing the intricate nature of the entire sex mechanism process and how it was like a deeply profound and confusing thing.
It’s funny thinking about vaginas when you’re walking through a town centre. It’s like – that woman pushing that pram is looking right at me and I’m thinking about vaginas. I wonder if she can tell. Maybe horniness is telepathetically transferred. She’s probably horny, being a single mother like she is. But no. I’m not one of those blokes. Never have been, never will be. My missus is the only missus. The best missus. Those blokes who don’t appreciate what they have don’t know the meaning of true love. It’s like, love so strong that your entire body, brain, heart and soul are dedicated to keeping that person happy. It’s a deeply profound and confusing thing. You wonder: why this person? What the fuck’s so good about her? Did I love her when I met her? How did I realise I loved her? The answer is, you don’t realise. You just fucking know. It’s a cliché, yeah, but honest, you just know. It’s like putting a key into a lock – it fits proper and snug, like.
I wish I could tell you how to find it, but you don’t – it finds you. I’m not one to believe in God but sometimes I think I’ve been blessed. I just feel bad for all the other blokes who haven’t been. Some of them you can tell have given up hope. And yet, as much as I feel sorry for those blokes, those are the ones who I want to smack over the face. Dunno why. Some people just have faces that are asking to be punched. Moping cunts.
I reached the doctor’s just off the high street, but she wasn’t outside the doctor’s like she said she would be. Maybe something was wrong. Was she late? I checked my watch again although I knew it would be the same time. Yeah, she was late. This wasn’t right. So I went in and spoke to the lady at the reception.
“Excuse us.”
“Yes, how can I help?”
“Is Mrs. Bennett still in?”
“One moment.”
I drummed my fingers on the counter.
“Ah yes, it says here that she’s in Room 3 with Dr. Jameson. Would you like to take a seat while you wait?”
Part of me wanted to say no, I’d like to stand here and look at your tits. That part of me will never go away no matter how hard I try to make it leave. Not that I try that hard.
“Will do. Cheers.”
I hate waiting rooms. You look around to see if anyone looks ill but no one looks ill at all. Maybe there’s the odd cough now and then, but mostly everyone just looks bored and uncomfortable. I always play that game where I try to guess what people have.
That bloke over there, fidgeting probably has crabs. Maybe piles. He is old, after all. Well, you never know: not bad looking for an old bloke.
That woman with the boy – the boy probably has a cold and she’s wasting the doctor’s time.
The middle-aged woman at the end of my row –probably something bad, like the start of cancer or something. She’s got that dignified look people have when they know they’ve got a proper illness.
That bloke diagonally opposite – well… truth be told he looks like he don’t have nothing. Looks completely healthy. Maybe it’s something mental. Yeah. That’s it. Mental. Completely off his nut. But then, don’t mental people do mental things? Like, Tourette’s people swear all over the place. Why isn’t he swearing? Maybe he’s schizophrenic. Hears voices. But then, shouldn’t he be talking back to the voices, or at the very least, blocking his ears to try and make then go away? No. He’s normal. Shit. He’s onto me.

“Why are you looking at me?” I said to the fat man.
“Sorry mate. Miles away.”
“No, you weren’t. If you were miles away, you’d be looking at the wall. There’s plenty of blank wall there for you to look at. It’s right in front of you. I, however, sit at an oblique angle, meaning you had to deliberately shift your gaze towards me. Tell me, what’s wrong with me? Do I have something on my face?”
“I was going to ask you that.”
“Ask me what?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“I just - ”
The voice over the loudspeaker heralded me like a farting trumpet.
“Mr. Euan, please, to Room 3.”
I got up.
“If you must you, I’m suffering from depression. Happy now?”
“Yeah. Well no. Get well soon, mate.”
“Yeah, thanks.”
I made my way to the corridor, nearly crashing into a pregnant woman on the way there.
“Try using the other exit next time,” I said.
“You what?”
“I said, use the other exit. There is another way out, you know. You were taking up all the space.”
“Am I hearing this? Are you serious? Who are you to say that to me?”
The man whom I had talked to earlier came into the corridor.
“What’s going on here?”
“This bloke is – oh hi love!” she said, hugging him.
“Should have known,” I said, making my way to Room 3.
Opening the door I was immediately engaged by a light green smell that was too medicinal and clean, like the guilt of air freshener after a bowel movement. This was the room where progress came to die. This was the room where time came to rot. This was the room where the universe vanished into the end, and became the burned white scream of the scar. The red blood of sluggishness bleeds from the sky blue vein, its actions now without cause, its source’s beats irregular, pumping out its own death. The slowing, the sighing, the silence, then the stop…
She was tapping something onto a computer and did not look up.
“Hello, Joseph.”
“Hello.” I put my coat in the back of the door then stood there with my back to the door.
“How are you today?”
“Fine, thank you. Yourself?”
“Fine, thank you. Be with you in just a moment.”
It was all fine. Everything and everybody fine. But then, if that was true, then I didn’t need to be here, did I? I sat down on the sofa. I could tell she wanted me to lie down but I wouldn’t lie down because then she would win.
“Did I hear some kind of hullabaloo outside?”
“Oh, that was some a misunderstanding. People. You know how they are.”
She swung around to face me, that clipboard in hand and that look on her face, that oh-so-smug look that said ‘I’m sane, I’m normal, and you’re not, even though you’re more intelligent than I am’, because I really am intelligent. I know lots of things. Read more books in a month than most people do in a lifetime, you know.
“So. Tell me about your week. Did you go to work?”
“Was it a productive week?”
“Dr. Grant?”
“Yes, Euan?”
“I realised last night that I find it hard to acknowledge myself as an actual person. I know you look at me and see a person, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a mouse instead.”
“You’re not a mouse. You’re a man, same as any other man.”
“Why wouldn’t you be?”
“I’m… neurotic. Very neurotic, in fact. And dangerously masochistic.”
“How so?”
“The other day I put a knife to my wrist.”
“Did you cut?”
“No, I just laid it on there for a while. It was really cold.”
“Ah, I see.”
“Hurt a bit.”
“Then it stopped hurting because it warmed up. The heat from my arm went into it. I’m too pathetic even to self-harm myself.”
She threw a curveball.
“As a child, did you ever witness your parents having sexual intercourse?”
Notes on pad.
“Have you ever had hateful feelings towards your father?”
“What nature?”
“Mother or father?”
She twiddled her pen between two fingers, before pointing it at me. “Mother.”
“I wanted to bash her head in when I was five. I remember saying those exact words.”
“And what did you say to your father when you were angry with him?”
“ ‘I want to bash your head in.’ ”
“Exactly the same words?”
“So you wanted to bash both their heads in?”
“Is that bad?”
“It’s fine.”
“Do most people just want to bash their - ” She was shaking her head, indicating this wasn’t a question worth asking. “Okay.”
“Are you unhappy with life?”
“I’m generally quite discontented, yes. I would call it an advanced boredom but I suppose that wouldn’t wash.”
“You’re not being judged here. What would make you happy?”
“Absolute freedom, perhaps.”
“A world without the need for specifications would make me happy.”
“Well, I’ll offer you this advice: if you can’t be happy, be stoic.”
“I can’t be stoic.”
“That’s fine: if you can’t be stoic, then I’ll prescribe you some Citalopram. Would you like me to prescribe you some Citalopram?”
“I would if I knew what my illness was.”
“The word for it is anomie. Greek word. No cure I’m afraid, only treatment. Some people see through a glass clearly, others darkly... I don’t know why.”
“But that doesn’t make sense.”
“I know. Now do you want the prescription? It might improve your life and change it completely for the better. On the other hand, it might not. Who knows?”
“Yes, I’ll have the prescription. Might make things that bit more exciting.”
“That’s the spirit.”
She typed something out on the computer, muttering under her breath as she did so. Rhythmic phrases, beats to some song in her head. Something to pass the time.
“I admire your blunt, bored efficiency,” I blurted.
After a moment’s silence during which I wondered if I had actually spoken, she turned and handed me the prescription, a strangely pleased expression on her face.
“You must be an Ayn Rand fan as well,” she said.
“I am. How did you - ?”
“That’s good.”
“Does it… mean anything?”
“No, I’m afraid it doesn’t mean anything.” She gave a little consoling smile and rubbed my arm. “Sorry.”
“That’s alright. Well, thank you. I suppose I shall see you again soon.”
“Almost certainly. Just make sure you stay away from knives. Don’t want you harming yourself again.”
“I shall make sure I don’t. Doctor?”
“Shall I be one of those people who go to therapy for the rest of their life?”
“I can’t say.”
“Do you want to go to dinner with me later?”
“I’m afraid not, Euan. You know the way out?”
“Yes, thank you.” I extended my hand. She shook it. “Goodbye, Dr. Grant.”
“Goodbye, Euan.”
I never wanted to see her again. She had rubbed my arm and that would be a treasured memory, but the sympathetic rejection was humiliation itself. As I walked down the corridor I realised I was walking out the wrong way – I was actually leaving via the entrance. I was a fool and a hypocrite and did not see beyond my own blind judgement. Had I learned something about myself? Possibly. I emerged into the waiting room, half-expecting the pregnant lady and her husband to appear, pointing accusatory fingers at me and brandishing flaming lanterns with which to burn me alive. But no: there were only nice people waiting, all humans, all with their own problems.
I walked out of the doctor’s. The world didn’t care that I was now one of those people who were mentally ill. Faces remained blank, fingers did not point. Children remained in their own worlds, skipping and jumping like the happy little pixies they were. Two cars came down the road. The one in front was being driven by what looked like an elderly chap. He was looking straight ahead, lips pinched, eyes squinting behind double-glazed spectacles. Behind him was a couple. The woman (presumably a wife) looked at me and we locked eyes for a moment. I wanted to wave for some mad reason but I didn’t.

Strange-looking man there. Looked like he had trouble on his shoulders.
“This fucking bloke,” said Dave.
“Don’t get up his arse, Dave.”
“But he’s driving so slowly.”
“He might be, but don’t bully him.”
“I’m not bullying him, I’m just trying to make him realise how slowly he’s going.”
He beeped.
“Don’t beep. He might be an old man. Stop it.”
“Fine. I’ll slow down. There. I’m going twenty. Happy now?”
“Don’t get narked, Dave. I’m just saying he might be an old man.”
“Alright. Sorry.”
Out of the window a student passed by. I liked to stare at people as they walked, knowing that I could do anything, like make a weird face, and it wouldn’t matter what they thought of me because I would be gone within a second. A mad impulse took me and I decided to make a silly face at the student. She stood still and kept staring at me. At this point I realised something was wrong because we were still looking at each other.
“Fuck, he’s broken down.”
I was still stuck making the silly face, and so found it hard when I had to compose myself and turn back to Dave.
“Er, what?”
“Look. He’s broken down. Whole fucking road’s gonna get blocked. Come on. Let’s see if we can help.”
I looked outside. The girl was still there staring at me.
“I can’t get out, Dave.”
“That girl’s staring at us.”
“Excuse us love,” yelled Dave. “Find us interesting, do you?”

The woman in the car was all embarrassed looking.
“Yeah I do,” I said.
“Why’s that?”
“Your wife made a weird face at me.”
“That so?” he said.
Then his wife got out and slammed the door.
“I did, Dave.”
“What for?”
“I was bored.”
“Oh. Right.”
The old man in the car in front had not moved.
“Let’s help that old bloke. Want to give us a hand, love?” said the woman.
“Can’t,” I said. “Got a lecture to go to.”
“Well stop staring at us and hop to it.”
I stuck my tongue out at her and then walked. The road was filled with leaflets blowing around in the wind. Young people stood holding them out like a priest holding out a wafer. What dull lives they must lead.
I stepped into the university building and met Sam and then we ate some sandwiches and drank some drink (wine) then it was time for the lecture so we went up to the second floor and everyone was sitting there (well not everyone, just Sam Nicky Debbie Trish and Leigh but).
The lecturer talked on and on about some crap, drawing weird graphs on the board as he did so:
“We live in an increasingly fragmented age of diverse media. You, for instance. What’s your favourite music channel?”
“MTV 2.”
“And you?”
“MTV Dance.”
“And what about you?”
“MTV 1. I like the programmes.”
“This is what I mean. You are all so close to one another and yet miles away. I worry for your generation. In my day there were only four channels and everyone watched Top of the Pops if they wanted to know what was happening.”
I put my hand up.
“Yes, Rita?”
“Why are you talking like this? We don’t have problems. We’re all happy.”
“You are?”
“Aren’t you confused about the nature of our cultural malaise?”
“No.” My phone went: it was Dave. What did he want?
“Right. And she’s speaking for everyone, is she?”
No one spoke.
“Seems I am.” hope ur cool, this lecture is well boring xxx. What a boring text to send.
“Well. Back to Baudrillard.”
“Excuse me, Phil?”
“Yes, Rita?”
“What’s so important about Baudrillard?”
“If you’d let me read aloud from his book - ”
“Isn’t he just another moaning old man, desperately trying to sound clever while actually being a miserable git?” I said, composing an adequate response to Dave.
“That’s not quite an apt summary of his philosophies - ”
“It is, you know.”
“Have you read his work?”
“No, but I’ve read some philosophy. It’s all the same: men talking about whatever. Philosophy is the art of wasting time, nothing else. How exactly is any of this relevant to the future of our lives?”
“If you don’t like the lesson, feel free to leave.”
Last thing I saw before I shut the door was Mandy Varney looking confused. My clacking heels echoed as I strode down the corridor in triumph. Those poor students. All gullible and ready to listen to authority when nobody knows anything. The naughty kids at school end up being the successful ones in later life. Everyone knows that.
I began to know myself when I started writing for the university magazine, forming my own views, stating aims for a better future. People read my words and listened. If they listened to me, they would listen to anyone. Mugs, the lot of them - I don’t know anything. I just waffle on and on to get something good to put on my CV. I go drinking because I have to in order to find people to socialise with. It’s not much fun – it’s all hard work – but will be worth it in the end. I want to be a journalist for Reuters and I know I’m on the right path to getting there. Yeah, I just walked out of a lecture, but my average marks for it have ensured I’ve already passed the entire course. It’s not my fault if I’m rude – it’s only because I was born clever and assertive, raised well, and everything. I want the best in my life for myself. I want the best job, the best husband, the best kids. I am immune to doubt. I survive because I don’t have to think about other people. I’m so tired.
“Hi Rita.”
“Hi Aaron.”
“How has your day been so far?”
“Not bad, thanks.”

We walked. She didn’t ask me how my day was. Big surprise. She doesn’t care about you, said the voice in my head. You fancy her but she doesn’t care about you. She has a boyfriend so stop thinking she cares about you. Be her friend. But there is no such thing as a platonic friend. You’re either in there or you’re not. If you were in there, she would tell you she likes you. If you’re not, she tells you that you’re a nice person. Women are nice like that. Nice in a horrible deceitful sort of way.
“Well, I’m going to have lunch now.”
“You having lunch?”
“Alright. See you later then.”
I walked out of the building onto the high street. She, on the other hand, ventured right. Clearly she was taking an alternative path into town because she didn’t want to talk to me. Well, screw her. Pretty enough but soulless. Me, I’m the opposite. Ugly but soulful. Well no that’s harsh. She has an amazing soul.
The Guildhall square greeted me with its embracing hug of silence. All noise ceased as if God was saying ‘listen up.’ I looked around and everyone was so beautiful. I felt like crying right there on the spot. The world was magnificent. Every person was arranged into making the genius of existence. Even angry people were beautiful because I knew they’d too have their time. But no one else noticed, only. Perhaps they did but didn’t need to realise. Either way the world to me was utterly wondrous.
Then I went through the tunnel. A homeless man was there gripping a thin blanket.
“Spare an x chromosome.”
“No sorry.”
Then I went out of the tunnel, past a dog shit, and onto the traffic crossing.
“Watch out!”
“Sorry,” I said. Shit. Nearly got run over. Imagine if I had been. I’d be dead now.
Then I was over the crossing and onto the pedestrianised High Street. Safe. The hardened jawline of the teenage mother combined with the toothless grin of the shirker. A fragrance of burning rubber and doughnut stalls which called themselves donut stalls because they all wanted to be American.
There was another homeless man next to the Tesco cash machine. Would we ever be set free? I got my cash out and was about to walk past when he grabbed my leg and I screamed.

I grabbed a leg. It got away. Ah well. Worth it for the look on his face.
Hi there. My name is Don. I enjoy the occasional dabble in alcoholism. Sometimes I am able to spare enough donated change to drown my sorrows in a bottle of whisky. In the old days, I used to make sure I bought single malt whisky, because that was what I used to drink, all the way back in the old days. Not now though.
It seems that the drunker I get, the less sympathy I receive, and therefore the less money I make. It’s a shame really, because there’s nothing I’d like more than to drink four bottles of whisky and die and for them to find me dead. Because really, there’s no point in me living anymore, is there?
Misanthropy is when cynicism becomes justified and when truth becomes stranger than fiction. I found this out when this very ATM swallowed my card. What I soon found out was that my wife had stolen my money and fled the country with that Roger bloke she loved to talk about. So much for ‘I’m going for a break with all the girls’. Now I have no home and I’m nobody. Was I ever anybody?
I wonder if anyone really is special or meaningful at all. I wonder these things when I’m on looking up at the stars, feeling like the most free man alive, but wishing that someone would wrap me up and hold me close to them, close enough to strangle me.
“Ron,” said a man passing.
“Got an x chromosome?”
“Afraid not.”
He always passes by on a Friday, It’s only by him that I know one day from the next. When I want to know what day it is, I simply count the number of sunrises since I last saw the x chromosome man.
A bloke passed by who walked quick and looked hungrier than me. I’m going to sleep.

Homeless guy. Made a mental note to give him my change when I came back out. I went into the supermarket to buy some sprouts because I fancied sprouts and immediately went up to the person standing by the tins of food.
“Excuse me. Where can I find sprouts?”
“I’m not sure we have any.”
“You must have. What sort of a place is this if you don’t have sprouts?”
“Are you sure that anywhere stocks sprouts in June?”
“I’m pretty sure. Sprouts are on the national curriculum, after all.”
“I was just suggesting that we are all still in school because the nanny state is like some teacher in the way it decides what is and isn’t good for us, and we ordinary citizens are just the school children sitting cross-legged on the carpet listening to the stories that our teachers read out to us every Friday afternoon.”
“My, that takes me back,” said the worker, engaging their face in nostalgia, whilst leaning bum-first against the shelf. “I remember when I was a child, and we had Friday afternoon. Ah, Friday afternoon. Whatever happened to that?”
“I don’t know. What day is it today?”
“And is it the afternoon?”
“It’s the evening.”
“Did you have an afternoon today?”
“Can’t remember anymore.”
“Right. Well… who do you think would know about where to find sprouts?”
“Eulàlia. Been here sixteen years. Knows this place better than anyone.” He leaned in closer. “She can get you things.”
“Like what?”
I leaned in closer. “So you think she might be able to get some sprouts for me?” I whispered.
“Can’t say any more except look behind you.”
I jumped upon realising the Hispanic cleaner was behind me. How had she managed to keep so conspicuous? The worker winked and sidled away, leaving me with this woman mopping up the floor. I realised I’d been leaning too far and fell over. Then I got up quickstyle like a jack-in-the-box on heat.
“You are the one they call Eulàlia?”
Si. I am Eulàlia.”
“Do you know anything about sprouts, Eulàlia?” I said, fascinated by her movement, scrubbing the same area of floor over and over in some sort of existential milieu without meaning, actually getting it dirtier and dirtier instead of cleaner and cleaner.
She chuckled in contralto tones.
“What... things have they told you about me?”
“They said you could get things.”
“I can get things. But sprouts? That is asking a lot.”
“I’m willing to pay.”
“How much?”
“Five pounds.”
“Okay deal.”
“Not to you, but to the shop, seeing as that’s the price of the sprouts.”
“Where are the sprouts?”
“To the east,” said Eulàlia, pointing.
“What aisle?”
“East…” said Eulàlia, shuffling away.
“Where are you going?”
“Away from you; for if they find out I have given information to a sprout-lover, they will fire me.”
“But I can still ask you more things. Just because you’ve backed away three feet doesn’t mean you’ve completely managed to get away from me.”
“But this area of the supermarket is my area, and if I move out of this area, then I’ll be fired.”
“So you’re in a Catch-22.”
Si. An existential crisis. I’ll be fired either way.”
“Why not resign and come join my cause?”
“What cause?”
“Well, when I say cause, I mean the search for the sprouts. It’s not so much of a cause as it is a search for a vegetable.”
“No thank you, Senor.”
“Thank you for your help, Eulàlia.”
“It’s pronounced Eulàlia.”
“Well, thank you Eulàlia.”
“You are welcome.” She placed a marble in my hand. “Take this. May it serve you well.” Then she vanished into the flappy door thing. I’ve always wondered what incredible sort of room needed a door like that. It must hold wonders indeed. Someday I shall find out, and then the thrill will be gone, because I’ll know the truth behind those doors, and as we all know, fiction is stranger than truth. Apart from what it like, isn’t.
I made my way east. I noticed that the further east I went, the more different everything seemed. People began to grow more knackered. The temperature dropped like the balls of a teenage snowman. Shop shelves grew Door-ish. Ice-creams appeared, mocking me. Where were the damned vegetables? Were even vegetables banned from this place? Were only E-colours allowed?
“Excuse me,” I said to another worker, “Where might I find sprouts?”
“Sprouts?” said the worker. “Never heard of ‘em.”
I placed the marble in her hand and winked. “I think you know.”
“Why are you giving me a marble?”
“I was told it would serve me well.”
“Nah. It’s a marble.”
“Oh. But can you help?”
“What were you saying?”
“Sprouts. You must have heard of them. What do you eat at Christmas?”
“Turkey, gravy, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and…”
“Fine, you got me,” said the person. “You interrogated me enough. I can’t take it any longer. I’ll confess.”
“It’s not so much a confession as merely a providing of information.”
“Alright, alright, enough of the third degree. Aisle four.”
“So that’s two aisles down?”
“Yes. But you are strange for venturing there.”
“Why? What’s wrong with sprouts?”
“They are… somehow wrong,” was all the person said, before she too went into that weird transparent plastic flap room.
Aisle four seemed strange. There was only one other person in the whole aisle: a man of about forty years of age, with a skulking guilty look about him. He glanced sidelong at me, ready to run if I said something.
“Are you here for the sprouts too?” I said as cheerfully as possible.
“I don’t know anything about sprouts!” said the man, clutching a hidden package against his breast. “And don’t you go thinking these are sprouts either! I don’t know anything about sprouts! I’ve never had sprouts!”
“I don’t care if you like sprouts,” I said. “In fact, I’m here to find some sprouts myself.” “Wow…” breathed the man. “So… honest. So… free. So… unashamed.” Then he let the package in his hand drop to the floor, and a load of sprouts fell out. “Oh, darnit. Look what I’ve done. Now everyone knows I’m a sprout-lover.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, helping the man pick them up. “You like sprouts. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
“You mean that?”
“Wow,” he breathed. “You’ve changed my life. All my days have been spent in furtive shame, wishing I had the same taste glands as everyone else.” His face looked anguished. “I tried to make myself hate sprouts – believe me, I’ve tried so hard - but my mouth just wouldn’t have it. I like them. A lot. I tried to limit myself to sprouts at Christmas, but I just had to eat them at more regular intervals: first, once a month, then once a fortnight, then once a week… but now I’m doing sprouts twice a week. I’m not an addict though. I just need to have sprouts, because my body calls out for them in the same way that your body calls out for …” He looked in my basket. A pack of Black Jacks was inside. “Jack Black. It’s just a body thing. It has nothing to do with the mind. I can’t help what I am.”
I clapped an arm on his shoulder.
“It’s alright,” I said, repeating it like a mantra even as he started crying. “You’re safe now. That’s it. Let it all out.”
Then we went to the counter and proudly put our sprouts on the conveyor belt. The student who had just paid for his goods gave me a funny look. I gave him the marble.
“Go on now, get out of here.”
He stopped looking and went, gazing at the marble.

For some reason a bloke gave me a marble. Oddly enough I like collecting marbles and it was a rare breed. Would look good in the collection later. Walking around being unemployed is one of the most depressing yet exhilarating activities known to mankind. I have attempted to grow a beard, but in this climate it ends up making me not look like a backwoodsman, but rather like a highly unemployed man. I am in my early twenties and my life is over. This allows for a degree of freedom because nothing matters. I walked past the speeding sign, a face that looks happy when the driver approaching it is below thirty miles an hour and goes sad if the speed exceeds thirty. It is an effective device. I stood still, watching the faces of the drivers all anxiously braking in order to appease the Speeding God.
“You have displeased me,” I could almost hear it say.
At this point I realised that this effective means of reducing speed could be considerably improved. Instead of a happy face, we could see the picture of a happy child. However, when the speed exceeds thirty miles an hour, the picture would change to a hideously mutilated corpse. Or, instead of a corpse, a screaming face. Or yet, don’t restrict it to still images. A moving film of something nice, say My Little Pony, would be replaced with the worst scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A child in the back seat of the car would have nightmares, and blame their parents for driving too fast. At least then the message will be learned: if you drive too fast, chainsaw-wielding murderers will kill you. Better yet, cut straight to the point: less than thirty this message would appear:


and over thirty this message would appear:


However, once children cottoned on that they lived even though the image told them they would die tonight, the signs would no longer be effective. I think the film idea is the best solution. Yes. I shall lobby my local councillor.
A mother and her child passed by. He was eating ice-cream. He looked happy. The mother wore a look of quiet desperation.
“Come on, Benjamin,” she said, pulling him as though he were a dog. I watched them go, wondering where my childhood had got to, wondering what hope there could be for the future when men like me could be reduced to the status of a zombie voyeur wandering the streets in search of an event, any event, half-hoping a terrorist bomb will strike just to make me feel special.
“Why do I bother?” I said, to whoever was listening.

The End