My manager is in my face pointing to the spreadsheet with an accusing finger, “You haven’t even logged several sales we had on Friday!” Spittle is spraying from his lips until he glances at something or someone behind me, then he suddenly eases up and practices restraint. I follow his gaze and Sam is stood there, her cheeks blush a little as she tries to make herself look busy, her eyes sliding down to some chocolates on a shelf and starts ‘neatening’ the stack. The manager takes his accusing finger away from the screen and places his hands in his pockets, “Just make sure you log all the ticket sales before you leave in the future, okay?”
“Sure,” I nod in response. The screen glows against my face like a replacement for the sun. I scan the food section seeking Sam’s face, and she looks up over at me, I give her my best glare. She saunters back to the snack counter as a customer comes in, has another quick shot at me, bites her bottom lip and then averts her attention to the customer and puts on her best smile.
After work, I sit at the bus stop with the neon sign from the cinemas glowing behind my back giving me a green halo. I cast my eyes down onto the pavement, noticing all the lights reflecting on the wet tarmac, including the green neon sign, my artificial moon shining under all this water that I’m drowning in. Night time shoppers walk by, the constant tack, tack, tack of feet in light shoes as people take it easy with their shopping bags of artificial moonlight. An image pops into my head of Sam dancing to the beat of some music I can just about hear from someone’s headphones as they lean against the glass pane of the bus stop. Halos of green light outline her curves, and I’m taken deep into my head where the bus stop has disappeared along with everything and everyone else it’s just Sam and I. She’s dancing, and I’m trying to move to the beat but coming off as awkward with two left feet. Her blue, blue eyes are looking at me enticingly, and an extra hollow layer makes its way into my psyche as I try to feel anything other than the water in my lungs.
“Hello,” my head flashes on, off, on, off and Sam just keeps on dancing, slowly shimmying closer to me, gesturing with a ‘come hither’ gesture. But just as we appear to float closer together my head flashes on, and the fish with all it’s teeth greets her with a grin. She steps back, her eyes wide and horrified. “Hello,” I repeat as if she’s still somewhere near, even though she’s disappeared from my visions. “Hello,” I say again to the darkness.
“He speaks!” A woman squeals breaking me from my trance.
I freeze on the spot like a deer in the headlights. I knead my hands and flick my tongue on the roof of my mouth making a clicking sound, a nervous tic I get sometimes.
“What? Are you trying to call a dog?” Chewing gum woman asks, sitting next to me on the bench, too close.
I get up from the bench, and I run my hand over the back of my neck and hone my vision on a bit of reflected light in a puddle in front of my foot. “Hello,” I whisper.
She tilts her head “Are you speaking to me?”
She claps her hands together, which draws the attention of other commuters. I knead my hands nervously. “He speaks!” she screeches again.
I recoil inward a cartoon image of myself as a turtle going back in it’s shell plays in my head. I Remain still like a statue till all the attention is away from me.
I click my tongue on the roof of my mouth, “I’m J.J.” I mumble as fast as possible.
“What was that?” she leans forward on the bench
“J.J,” I try to speak more clearly, “I’m J.J.”
“Thought you were Gilly?” She chews gum loudly.
“No, No. I..I am Jacob James Gilbert. Gilly is a nickname people use, my surname shortened.”
“Ah,” she takes her phone out of her pocket, her artificial moon glows against her face, then she puts it back in her pocket, “I’m Jasmine”
“Both our names begin with J.” I notice out loud.
“Yea.” She lights a cigarette with a flick of her lighter and I step further away from the bench. “Whats up? Do I smell?”
I can almost hear the turning of her neck as her body tenses up in some mental restraint and, the tension then flickers into to amusement, “Wow.” She stares ahead.
“Cigarettes” I nod my head towards the smoke
She looks at the end of her cigarette, watching the ash pile up with a puzzled expression on her face until it dawns on her, “Oh!” She beams, “I see!”
“I’d smoke if it wasn’t for the smell,” I remark.
She stares into the distance, clearly thinking, “e-cigs,” she mumbles.
“e-cigs, you can smoke them without the smell.”
“That isn’t the same.”
“So…” She sucks in some air and smoke, “Ya finally speak!” She starts excitedly.
I shrug again.
“Shit,” she flicks ash onto the pavement, “Don’t go all mute on me again!”
She continues to sit, and I continue to stand in silence till the bus arrives. The buses lights are glowing on the inside, and its headlights glare like eyes. I look at the faces in the windows, the bus turning into a submarine in my imagination. “You waiting for a taxi?”
She starts towards the bus, “Hey,” she says over her shoulder, one foot on the platform, “How come you get taxis at the bus stop?”
She scoffs, “You’re a funny guy,” she hops onto the bus, “See you around, then, I guess.” She shouts over and drops her cigarette on the pavement and then shows a pass to the driver.
I closed the lounge door and Greg, my social worker, breathes in as he takes in his surroundings, no doubt noticing the emptiness. He opens his notepad, and as if cued on what to say next asks, “Have you thought any more about socialising?”
“I socialise enough.”
“I see,” He plays with his ID badge that dangles from a ribbon around his neck, “when?”
“At work,” I reply directly
“Is there anyone in particular at work that you get on with?”
I shrug my shoulders, “I guess so.”
“And what would you say to meeting up outside of work, or even to go to see a film once you’ve both finished a shift?”
“I don’t know.”
We sit with an awkward silence between us; he shifts his eyes around the lounge taking it all in again, “So are you refurnishing? Or,” he shrugs holding the palm of his hands out openly in question, “are you taking on a rigorous minimalist lifestyle?” He smiles.
I take a look around my lounge as if the aesthetic is new to me too, “I’m not sure yet.”
“I see.” He fingers his ID badge again.
He looks at me seriously, places his notepad on his knee, “I see,” He repeats and scribbles something quickly, “How do you feel,” He takes a pause and looks at his notepad for a moment as if carefully reading some detail that is new to him. “How would you feel,” He starts again, “If we brought your appointment with Dr Aaron forwards?”
My knee-jerk reaction is to spit out my question, I stop myself and pause for a moment to make it sound and look as casual as possible, “Why?”
“I just think,” He places his pen above his lip and holds it there like a moustache while he thinks, “I just think,” He repeats as he starts again, “That we should review you earlier than previously discussed.”
“It’s up to you,” I reply under the pretence of not being bothered
There is a big bulky tattooed skinhead type pacing up and down from the entrance and back to the receptionist’s desk. The receptionists sit behind a transparent protective barrier. A brown haired woman has sat in a chair three seats away from me to my right, wearing a puffy jacket and is watching the skinhead intensely. A woman with her ID dangling around her neck arrives, and the big guy stops pacing, and they face one another. “David.” She starts sternly.
“They’re five minutes late,” David complains, frowning.
You can tell he’s the type of person that gives his social worker trouble and that she has to be able and willing to dish stern words out if needed. With her ‘no excuse’ voice switched on, “Just sit down, David.”
“They’re five minutes late.” He repeats like a petulant child, stamping his feet on the spot.
“David, we’ve had this discussion before. Haven’t we?” His social worker asks.David’s nostrils flare, and he looks down at his trainers, his shoelaces have come undone.
“Come on, sit down, David.” His social worker repeats, glancing over at the nervous woman in her puffy coat and then at me with a smile that is meant to reassure us.
The skinhead turns around and screens us, looking us all up and down before turning back to his social worker, “No.” He starts pacing again.
His social worker sits down one seat away from mine and acts like she’s had enough with him now, that she’s ignoring him until he finishes his childish tantrum.
David stops and looks at her sitting down quite comfortably, his social worker raises her wrist and looks at her watch then looks through the glass window at the receptionist, smiles and nods. The receptionist presses a button at the desk, and her voice comes out clear from behind the glass, “The doctor won’t be long now.” She pushes the switch back, and the waiting room falls to silence. David shuffles up and down till he lets out a big sigh, “I’m leaving.” He says with a dismissive wave of his hand.
His social worker is in no rush to chase after him; she looks back at the receptionist, they each give a knowing smile that appears to be code for, ‘Well, we expected this. That’s David for you.’
I feel a surge of anger towards this stranger David; I want to punch him right bang in his eye and kick him in the nuts. But it’s only because I wish I had the guts to just storm out of here too. His social worker casually strolls out of the waiting room nodding goodbye to the receptionist.
“Jacob Gilbert.” An Asian man’s voice calls out.
I start to get up from my seat slowly, and as if he sees the question on my face he tells me, “Greg is already here.”
I follow the doctor to his room. Greg is sat waiting with one leg over the other, his notepad resting on his thigh. “Hey, J.J.”
“Hello.” I sit down next to my social worker and the doctor sits in front of us, his legs apart his bulge all too clear to see. It’s not that I spend time looking purposely in that direction; he’s just dressed in such a way it’s hard to miss or else he’s fucking massive. But that’s not anything I want to consider for very long.
“So how are you, Jacob?” He looks at my notes then back at me, “Or would you prefer I call you J.J?”
I shrug my shoulders. I’m not bothered.
He looks across at Greg and smiles. “I’ll just follow Greg’s lead and call you J.J, then.”
We sit in awkward silence for a moment.
The doctor writes something then looks back at me, “how are you doing since we last met?”
The doctor smiles again, “It appears Greg may be disagreeing with that.” He puts a fist under his chin as if posing like The Thinker statue.
Greg scans his notepad and then says, “he’s sold or gotten rid of most of his possessions.”
“Have you?” The doctor turns to me, wanting me to confirm.
“Yes,” I admit sheepishly.
“And why is that?” He asks, his interest in me suddenly intensified.
“I have plans.”
The doctor leans forwards in his chair, his legs now less far apart sparing us the bulge. “What kind of plans?”
I think it over a minute, trying not to think it over for too long, “You know,” I look to a stain on the carpet, “Just saving up for better things.”
“You sold your possessions to save money?”
“Yes.” I try not to let my inner scowl show on my face. What is so hard to believe about that?
“For anything in particular?” He leans back in his chair again, “Surely you’ve still got your guitar, though?”
Greg shakes his head, “He’s got rid of that too.”
The doctor leans forward again, “Really?” He looks at Greg as he asks this, then looks back towards me, “What do you want to buy with all this money?”
“A better guitar.” I lie.
“I see.” The doctor writes more notes. “Do you know what type of guitar?
“A Les Paul Gibson probably.” I shrug.
The doctor sucks in some air through his teeth, writes some more notes down.
“Seems a bit much to sell all your other possessions for a guitar,” he pauses and writes something quickly, “even if it is a Gibson guitar.”
“I don’t make that much working at the cinemas.”
“Have you ever considered making it a goal to get a better-paid job?”
“I don’t want a better-paid job.”
“But you want enough money to buy a Gibson.”
“Yes, but why work for so many stupid hours to get paid more to buy a Gibson guitar you’ll never have time to play anyway?”
Dr Aaron clicks his pen and looks between Greg and I, rolls his tongue over his teeth, “So sell all your possessions instead?”
“It’s not like I have sold everything.”
“Yes, he still has a laptop.” Greg butts in.
“A laptop and?” Dr Aaron asks
“Nothing else that I could see.”
“What about the necessities?”
“I have a fridge. I still buy food.”
The doctor sits back and opens his legs wide again, his hands closed together as if praying under his chin, “I see. Very minimalist of you.”
“Yes,” I agree.
“I just worry about the reasons for your new minimalist lifestyle.”
I don’t know where the voice inside my head comes from but I find myself talking about minimalism in more detail than I’d realised I’d even thought of, “I decided that I want quality things not a quantity of useless tat. That I’d rather have a shitty paid job that allows me my own time, and have to sell previous items of interest to afford something of quality.”
The doctor nods his head and seems to be buying it.
“That is a rather profound thing to realise in your life.”
“Profound thing to realise.” His voice repeats in my head over and over.
I’m standing at the bus stop envisioning my head flickering on and off with that electric fizz in between, and people are looking at me. Some manic guy with OCD is trying to stop his eye visibly twitching because he wants to change the broken light bulb! I’m stood here flickering on and off like an occasional beacon of light, but the light only shines to show you the monsters in the dark. If someone were to ask if they could paint a representation of me, I’d ask them to paint a human body with a light bulb head. It would have a gruesome-looking fish inside bearing sharp teeth, and it would be electrocuted every time the bulb flickers on and then disappears just as suddenly, the last thing you’d see would be its eyes bulging from the electricity.
“Gilly,” An unfamiliar voice interrupts my imagination; I turn my flickering head towards her with a zig-zag mouth and crosses for eyes.
“Are you stunted or somethin’?”
I imagine her breath smells awful with its mixture of stale cigarettes and minty chewing gum.
“I’m talkin’ to you!” She screeches waving her hand to grab my attention. “Earth to Gilly!” She giggles and sits back down on the bench stretching her legs out, “Do you even talk?” She scowls at the pavement in puzzlement; hands dug deep in her pockets. “Oh,” her body becomes animated with new insight, “Are you deaf?” She smiles proudly at herself.
An old man with a walking stick joins her; she gestures towards me with her thumb and says, “I think he’s deaf.”
“Have you asked him if he is?” The old man says in a grainy voice, a smoker’s chuckle following.
“He don’t talk.”
“Maybe he has headphones in.”
She leans forwards on the bench and looks at him, shakes her head, “Can you see any damn headphones, Grandpa?”
“I dunno,” his coat makes a shuffling sound as he shrugs his shoulders, “They’re tricky these days with all this technology.” He nods towards me, “Especially these youngsters.”
She opens her mouth wide with chewing gum squashed on her tongue, eyebrows raised, “He’s about the same age as me I reckon.”
“A bleeding baby then!” Her grandpa replies with another hearty chuckle, “Ya bleeding babies you two!”
She rolls her eyes and sits back, her back resting against the glass pane and folds her arms, her denim jacket tightening at the elbows and rolling up a little at the wrist. She has a small tattoo on her wrist that I can’t quite make out.
“How do you two know each other?” her grandpa asks, “Are you two an item?” He winks and chuckles again.
“Grandpa!” She spits, “I don’t know him,” she chews her gum loudly, “He’s just always at the bus stop.”
“What are we talking about him for, then?”
“I’ve been trying to get him to talk to me.”
“But he’s deaf.”
“No, Grandpa. I said I think he’s deaf; I don’t know if he is!”
Her grandpa waves his hand nonchalantly, “Ah,” he shakes his head and tuts, “Leave him be. He don’t need you mithering ‘im.”
They fall silent for a few moments then I hear the rustle of a bag of sweets, and he offers his granddaughter one.
“Thanks,” She takes the chewing gum from her mouth, holding it in between her finger and thumb. She pops the sweet in her gob, and I wonder how it must taste after that minty fresh gum contradicting the cigarette taste. I hear rustling get closer to me, just at my shoulder, the old man holds the bag out towards me. I look at the broken zipper on his coat and turn to look out the glass.
“I don’t think he wants one.” I hear him say as he shuffles back to the bench.
“Fucking rude.” She screeches.
“Leave him alone, Jas”
“Well,” I hear her sigh, “Still.” She continues, “Just so rude.” She whispers.
Her grandpa leans in close to her ear and whispers something. She sighs with an air of resignation, and then their bus arrives.
The old man waves at me through a window on the bus. A submarine comes to mind, his wrinkled face looking through the circle window waving at me in that illusion of safety inside all that metal. I find that I’m waving back, looking at the old man’s lips. People’s mouths are windows to the soul for me; I shall never cross the threshold of eye contact.
Another woman takes her place on the bench, she stares straight ahead through everyone passing by, a big smile on her face and occasionally mouths something at someone only she can see. I’ve seen her around before; I saw her on the psych ward once. I don’t feel sorry for her, she’s in her own world, and she’s comfortable in it. People say she’s ill, I say that may be so, but she seems better off than everyone else I see.
I’m wearing a suit with a red noose (a tie) contrasting against my whiter than white shirt. I even envision black socks in shiny black shoes. My bulb flickers on and off, the gruesome fish inside shimmering into vision every time the light comes on,
“Earth to Gilly!” Her voice echoes in my head, I’ve heard that voice before. “Earth to Gilly!” Her face is a blur in front of me; I blink hard and open my eyes again. Sam stands in front of me, “Ground control to Major Gilly!” She grins.
“Hey, Sam.” I finally manage.
“Where were you just now?” she chuckles
“Here,” I say dryly.
She rolls her eyes, “you know what I mean.”
I take a peek at the spreadsheet glowing in front of me, inviting me to boredom. She puts a finger to her lips feigning surprise, “I know! Have you got a girl on the mind, Gilly?” She winks.
I look at the spreadsheet before me, inwardly sigh at the grotesque task of looking through all the tickets sales this month and editing any stupid fucking errors. Kill me. Shoot me now.
This artificial sun glowing in my face, this nothingness disguised as something.
“Jeeze you are really out of it today! Are you okay?”
Her words are bubbles popping into nothing, just white noise inside my head. She’s looking at me through the window of the submarine and we departed from each other’s lives years ago, she just doesn’t know it yet.
“Gilly,” Samantha asks me at the ticket checkout, “do you still play the guitar?” I’ve known Sam since primary school,
“no,” I reply numbly.
Sam sighs as if feeling defeated, her cleavage resting on the edge of the countertop, “Aww,” she moans, “I was hoping…” She stops short and looks at me; her eyebrows raised, “Wait, why did you stop playing the guitar?”
I shrug my shoulders
She tilts her head, “But why?” She’s nothing if not insistent.
“Because…” I let the word roll on my tongue as I move the mouse tiredly on the mat and click another cell in a spreadsheet, “reasons.”
“Should I be worried?” She bites her bottom lip.
“Are you okay Gilly?”
I yawn from boredom at the spreadsheet glaring at me, “Yea.”
“Tired?” she giggles.
Some customers make their way over to the confectionary counter, and Sam runs across to be of assistance.
The Beatles were right you know. We’re all living in a yellow submarine, well the majority of people are. I look over to Sam and imagine us swimming away from the submarine holding hands. I’m already out of the submarine; I fell out. Sometimes I look through the little round windows, and sometimes you look back at us from inside and some of you sneer some of you smile that sympathetic, pity smile, but most people just look through us. Sometimes I think maybe you’re all sad too, confined and claustrophobic in there. It seems everyone drowns in the end. After the customers have got their chocolate, popcorn and fizzy drinks they saunter on over to me, the tickets guy. I’m the guy that changes their life with a ticket to a new perspective for a couple of hours. The fact we’ve only had these five customers is why I take the evening shift.
A ribbon of steam curls under his nose, the froth from his cappuccino staining his upper lip. Plates and cups clatter behind us with the gush of the coffee machines. The lights above our heads have a monotonous hum, and one strip of fluorescence light near the entrance keeps flickering. My social worker pours another sugar into his cappuccino. “How are you doing?”
I shrug my shoulders, my staple response. I watch as a woman walks in with an empty pram, pushing it with one hand while holding the baby in the other, the baby’s head is on her shoulder, and he or she flails her arms about and wails loudly.
“How is it going at the cinemas?”
“I’m changing lives evening by evening!”
“Sorry, I can’t hear you?” He leans over the table to hear me better.
”I’m changing lives evening by evening,” I repeat trying to raise my voice over all the noise.
”Oh,” I’m unsure if he’s heard me. His NHS Identification badge that tells you he’s a social worker with ‘Shademore NHS services’ with his name ‘Gregory Davies’ dangles down a ribbon around his neck, with a picture of him looking a bit young with a bit more hair.
“How’s the guitar going?”
“I dunno,” I gulp down some of my orange juice.
“Are you keeping to your practising schedule?”
I shake my head
“Is there any particular reason why?”
“Don’t have my guitar anymore.”
He looks at me questioningly, “Sorry,” he winces a little at the sound of the baby crying right behind him now.
”I don’t have my guitar anymore,” I repeat.
“why? what did you do with it?”
He takes a sip of his cappuccino, “Why did you sell it?” He asks, his voice rising with surprise.
“Just felt like it.”
He puts the cup down gently on the saucer, “I’ve known you long enough to know you don’t do things on a whim.” He looks at me sceptically, “you usually have reasons, a plan.”
“My plan was to make money from it.”
“I see. For anything in particular? A new guitar perhaps?”
“Hmm,” He wipes the froth from his upper lip, “It seems odd if you ask me.”
“What can I say, I’m a weird guy.”
We sit in silence amongst all the noise; the baby has since stopped crying.
“Any negative thoughts and feelings?”
“Since I last saw you?” I ask, as a way to be evasive. “Isn’t that like asking if I’ve taken a breath since?”
A little smile creeps his face, “Any I should know about?”
“Not any out of the ordinary, for me anyway.”
“So yes you’ve had the usual negative thoughts, but anything more serious?” He looks at me, expecting an answer like the previous one he quickly utters, “You know what type of thoughts I’m speaking of.” He gives me a pointed look.
I consider how to answer this one because If I appear too confident, he’d know I’m lying, but I can’t tell him the whole truth either. “I’ve had, you know, thoughts.”
He knows what I mean. “And have you wanted to act on them?”
“I’ve wanted to..”
“Do you have any plans?”
“No. It’s just a passing thought and feeling.” I lie.
“So no plans?” He asks again as if not quite hearing me.
“No, no plans. Just thoughts and feelings.” I lie again.
“What stops you acting on those thoughts and feelings?”
“Fear.” There is some truth to that, “The idea of those it’d hurt.” I lie.
I don’t believe in the long run the particular actions in question would hurt anyone. To the contrary, it would bring relief to a lot of people. But I learnt that this is the response they want. “You know what people like me lack?” I ask him.
“What?” he peers over his cup curiously.
“We lack a fundamental part of the functioning human’s psyche,”
“And what is that?”
“Delusion. Illusion. Whatever you wanna call it.”
“How so?” he puts his empty cup down with a little clink.
“See to function a human needs delusion. It’s like what that writer Albert Camus said about suicide being the most rational answer.”
“I see.” He tilts his head, the light flickering behind him at the entrance.
“If you go too high on the scale with delusion you get the mental illness label, if you never even get on the scale you also get diagnosed with mental illness! My problem is, I see that life is meaningless and I have no illusions to put a veil over it. It’s just there, bleak as it is staring at me.”
“What if your delusion is thinking you’re not deluded?” He chuckles, “A common delusion,” he winks, “I find.”
“But objectively speaking there is no purpose. I’m rational in an irrational world. It’s perfectly rational to be depressed in this world, to see that life is meaningless.”
“But if life itself is so irrational, then why bother spending time being so rational?”
“Rationality or lack of it isn’t a choice.” I gulp down the last drops of my orange juice, “Plus, without any rationality, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
My social worker tilts his head to one side, “But according to your theory rationality is, in fact, an illness.”
“No. Too much rationality without delusion is an illness. You need an illusion to drive the rationality you do have into something that can be used to thrive. You take away a delusion that propels that rationality then you have no wheels to spin the thriving.”
“So delusion is like the wind to a windmill?” He picks up his empty cup and looks down at the emptiness then puts it down again.
“Yes. Or water to a watermill.” I squish the bottle in my fist.
“Interesting.” He rests his chin on his hand.
“And that’s the problem with trying to treat people like me.”
“I gather you’re feeling hopeless.”
“I guess,” I shrug my shoulders, “I mean I suppose I feel that way but I also know that feeling is bullshit because hopelessness necessitates that hope exists somewhere or did exist at some point.”
“You’re a very deep thinker, I think to your own detriment.”
“Detriment to what?”
“Objectively to your survival, to your own thriving.”
“What happens once a person has seen how an illusion works? You can no longer see past the fact it’s an illusion! So any treatment is simply about installing illusions and some mild delusions of worthiness, meaningfulness. But what if you can’t unsee the truth that it’s all just lies we have built into our psyche purely for survival?”
Read part 1 of this chapter
The neon sign glares through the bus stop and reflects on the night washed pavements; it’s raining that summer rain, and it’s humid as hell.
“Gilly,” A voice beckons to me, loud and boisterous, “My man! How are you doin’?”
I turn to see who it is; it’s a guy I used to know from school, I nod in acknowledgement of his presence, hoping he doesn’t wish for any more conversation.
“How’re ya doing?” I know this is just that thing people call small talk, and he doesn’t give two shits about me, I turn to look at the bus routes.
“Have you heard the news?” He continues on
I nod and I look down at the shiny pavement, closing one eye then closing the other watching how the reflection of lights appear to change their position.
“What do you think?”
I look at my shoelaces that I’ve just noticed have come undone, I find his topic of conversation to be too vague, I shrug my shoulders.
“Ah man, you’re still as awkward as ever.” he smiles, and fist bumps my shoulder.
He used to do that to me at school ironically to take the piss out of my supposed social incompetence.
“But yeah,” he leans against the glass, “Shademore high is closing down.”
“Oh” I manage
“Yeah.” He shrugs his shoulders, “It’s a real piss take because my auntie was gonna put my little cousin in Shadmore.”
He runs a hand through his hair, “She’s ranting at us all the time now, man!” he leans his head back against the glass, “We can’t move again.” He says, trying to mimic his aunties voice.
I nod to show I’m listening as I watch rain drops on a reflection of a green neon light. “Ofsted closed them down, said they’re not up to scratch,” he laughed, “They’d been threatening that all the time when we were there,” he looks at me, “do you remember?”
I can only nod, I remember it well because every time rumours got around about Shadmorehigh closing I was fucking buzzing! But then I’d consider the fact my mother wasn’t just going to keep me out of school if it closed down, she’d just take me to a new one. And then I’d get angsty about Shadmore high closing.
“I mean,” he continues with himself, “It’s not like we turned out bad is it?” He laughs, though it’s clearly fake, “I mean we’re still alive, right?”
He asks as if needing reassurance.
I take quick glances at him as I take in all the changes that have happened to him since school, never crossing that threshold of looking at his eyes. He’s filled out since his school days, we both have. He has a goatee and is wearing long shorts and sandals with white socks.
I never thought he’d be one to dress like that, sandals and stuff. He’d have pulled a mooney through the bus window at the guy he’s dressed as now. “It’s gonna start lightning soon,” he lifts his bag from the bench, and points to the sky “got all my camera gear in here.” He grins.
A woman about the same age as us; in her late 20’s comes and sits where his bag was. She’s chewing gum and smoking a cigarette.
“What you doing nowadays, anyway?” Nick asks, his eyes subtly glancing over at the woman.
I shrug again, close my eyes tight and try to unleash the leash around my throat, “Work.”
“Ah.” He nods his head, “Yeah, life got old quick after school and all that shit, eh?”
“I…I guess.” It’s like he read my mind, then again life got old way before leaving school if you ask me!
His bus arrives, and he rummages in his big pockets on his khaki shorts, “Nice seeing ya, Gilly.” he steps on the bus and shows his pass, the driver nods his approval and Nick walks on and is still walking to a seat as the bus starts moving.
“What kinda name is ‘Gilly?'” She chews loudly in between her words.
I feel my body go more rigid, wooden. I freeze up inside. A stranger is talking to me; I don’t like the intrusion.
She scoffs, “Cat got your tongue?”
My taxi arrives just in the nick of time, my saving grace. I go to open the car door when her voice, shrill behind me, “Eh, are you ignoring me?”
I quickly get into the back of the car, tell the driver my address and the car jerks forward.
I find myself looking out the rear window at the woman chewing gum.
The neon sign from the cinemas glares through the glass panels of the bus stop, my taxi arrives and a bus pulls up behind it.
“You have nice night?” The driver asks me in a strong Asian accent
“Yea,” my eyes dart around the interior of the car, I take a deep breath.
There is that summer hum of distant mopeds, and for a moment I reminisce of holidays as a child in Spain.
But to serve as a stark reminder, there are stickers all over the cab advertising ‘Shademore taxis at the lowest price for all local destinations an more.’
“Nice summer,” The driver intones as the car jerks forward and the air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror swings rhythmically to the motion.
“Yea,” I try a smile and think about a line I read in a book the other night where the protagonist pays a cab driver more money not to talk. I consider for a fleeting moment that I do should do the same.
“You been out with nice girl?” The driver asks in his broken English.
I focus down on my shoelaces, “No.”
“Shame,” I don’t look to greet his eyes in the rearview mirror, but I know he’s staring at me through it and that he’s grinning with white pearly teeth.
“Right turn at traffic light?”
“Yes,” I confirm the direction.
I feel a sense of relief sinks into my flesh as we edge closer to my flat, and I let my breath settle into the moment as the car pulls up outside the building.
I show the driver my Shademore disability pass to get a lower price.
He clicks his tongue on the roof of his mouth and shakes his head as he looks at his counter on the dashboard, “Should show pass when begin!”
I always forget, “Sorry.”
He smiles and I try to mimic the action of a normal smile back to him but it just feels like the friction of lips behind forced off their hinges.
“Never mind,” He waves away my apology but with a huff at the end of his sentence ejaculating his frustration.
I give him the money and close the door, running my finger down the edge four times to double-check it’s really closed.
The driver is eyeing me through his window, his face the epitome of a living question mark. I watch him pull away and drive off.
The lobby of the building is lit up, I pause and gaze through the gaps in the blind through the window and see a man checking his post. I wait for the figure to go and for the light to go off before putting my key in the door and turning. The light beams back on as I enter and then darkens once I’ve left the lobby and the other corridors light up to my presence till I arrive at my door.
My flat greets me with a calm emptiness. Security lights beam a little glow through the windows from the garden. I close the blinds, just another day over in a life not long for this earth.
The laptop whitewashes my face against the vast blackness of my empty flat. I’m picturing myself with a lightbulb head on a regular human body; I imagine my lightbulb head in different scenarios like walking down a dark unlit alley and lighting up the path as I walk. Drunks and druggies are stood against the wall, their faces reflecting orange from my head. Yes, I’d wear a suit with a tie and draw an ironic happy face on the glass. Come to think of it the bulb would be a dud; it would keep flickering on and off with a fizzing sound in between each flick. I’d go off into the town of Shademore at night with a smiley face drawn on my head and stand outside someone’s window, “police,” his or her voice will say shakily down the line, “there is a lightbulb stalking me.”
A shot of whisky and a cigarette
Dimly lit inside my den
Swing music and all that jazz
Hook my thumbs under my braces
And snap them back
The sound of high heels
On the floor
Outside the door
The woman in red
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It was chilly out, and snow had started to swirl in a heavy breeze. I’d sat down to eat my dinner when my golden retriever, Darwin, raced to the windowsill, standing on his hind legs with his front paws on the sill. I slurped soup off my spoon and some if it dripped back into the bowl on the table, “What’s going on?” I asked Darwin.
Darwin turned his head to look at me, his paws still on the sill, his ears twitching. Then there was a knock at the door.
I dropped my spoon into the bowl with a clatter and headed towards the door.
Snow softly fell and clung to the fabric of his peacoat, his hands deep in his pockets for warmth.
I stared at him blankly for what in hindsight feels like too long. His blue eyes stared back at me, and a strand of hair hung above the rim of his glasses, his forehead creasing with tension.
“Mr Ashworth?” He leaned in.
I licked my lips, “Yes, whose asking?”
Darwin sat next to me, his head tilted with curiosity.
“I’m Jerry, Jerry North.”
He told me his name with a look on his face that suggested I should know who he was. I shook my head, “I don’t know any Jerry North!”
“I know your son,” He turned back to me, “Well, I know him very well actually,” He bounced on the balls of his feet and looked down at his shoes with a meek smile curling the corners of his lips.
“How,” I frowned, “He…” I faltered. It had been a long time since I’d talked to anyone about my son.
He held up his hands placatingly, “I know what you’re thinking,”
I gave him a scornful glare, “You have no bloody idea what I’m thinking!” I hissed and started to close the door on him.
He jutted his foot in the door, “I know he died when he was five,”
I swung the door wide open again, “What?”
“He died when he was five but,”
“But?” I asked him, bug-eyed, “But what? He died when he was 5, and that was that. What do you want?”
“Have you ever heard about the Soul retrieval facility, Mr Ashworth?”
I scoffed, and my face reddened in anger, “You,” I pointed accusingly, “Stop with this sick prank!”
“Have you heard of it?” He asked sternly, his hand on the door.
“I’ve heard the conspiracy theories!” I spat, “It’s nonsense!”
“What if I said that it’s true?” He leaned further into the doorway, “And,” He held up a hand to ward off any protest, “And that your son was retrieved there not long after his death.”
“I’d tell you what I’m telling you now; you’re sick! Playing a sick joke on an old man who still…” I could feel it in my throat. The hot swell of tears.
The blue-eyed man placed a hand on my shoulder gently, “Listen,” He looked me straight in the eyes. His stare was intense, and despite myself, I found something trustworthy about his eyes.
“Your son is 35 now,”
“Would be,” I hissed still not giving entirely into that trust.
“I’m his husband.”
My jaw dropped, and I scanned his face for answers.
“Listen, he was retrieved along with a lot of other children in the facility and,” He took a long breath and looked down at the ground sadly, “They were experimenting with this new technology. Downloading souls into clones.”
I baulked at the absurdness of what he was saying with a wry smile tinged with sadness, “Downloading souls? Clones?” I shook my head with a sigh, “I don’t know who you are but leave me alone!”
“I swear,” He shivered, and his lips tinged purple, “I swear it’s the truth!”
I would have slammed the door on him, but his foot remained on the step, and he held the door open with a strong looking hand. “Listen,” I started dejected, “Maybe you did know my son, maybe you knew him from the nursery,” I looked at him sadly, “But you’re clearly ill or,” I raised a brow at him, “On drugs?”
He shook his head, “If you’d just let me in!”
“No,” I held up a hand, “Next you’ll be telling me Elvis isn’t dead!”
“He isn’t,” He replied earnestly.
“What? See! You’re just like those usual crackpot conspiracy theorists!”
“Bowie isn’t dead either!”
I snorted, “You’re kidding me! Surely if either of them were still alive, they’d have been seen!”
“No! Their bodies are dead; they got cloned into different bodies to help them blend in unnoticed!”
“So those crackpots that reckon they’ve seen Elvis?”
“They’re just that, crackpots. He’s still alive, but he looks nothing like Elvis anymore!”
I didn’t know what to do. What was I supposed to believe? It was snowing, and we were both getting cold, “I don’t want to speak with you anymore,” I told him waving my walking stick at him, “Don’t ever return, do you hear?” I stepped forward and got in his face, “Do you hear?” I enunciated the question carefully.
And that was that. He held up his hands as if surrendering and stepped back. But there was sorrow in his eyes, and for a moment I nearly cracked and opened the door again. But in the end, I locked it up, put the chain on the latch turned the lights out and went to bed.
“You two going to a dressing up party?” Alex asked his two acquaintances who he only really knew by name from college, Drew & Drake.
Drew & Drake were a great duo because of their names. Unfortunately for them and you dear reader, they weren’t Drew & Drake the calm, collected suave detectives two names like that would make just ultra cool! Nah. Drew & Drake were just two best mates who were unemployed who wore sweatpants because they’re comfortable. Neither were they a brand of whiskey though they often smelt like they were.
“Well?” Alex gestured with his palms open in question.
Drew spun around in his pink flamingo costume, “What?” He looked at Alex blankly.
Alex pointed to Drew which didn’t help Drew because Drew knew he was Drew.
Alex rolled his eyes, “The fucking costume!”
realisation crossed Drew’s face, “Oh, you could say that.” He nudged Drake.
Drake turned around in his penguin costume, “It’s sort of a party, yes.”
“Can I come?” Alex beamed.
Drew & Drake exchanged glances, Drews flamingo beak collided with Drake’s round penguin costume. “Don’t think it’ll be your scene,” Drake explained.
“Why not?” Alex crossed his arms and looked across the road with a petulant expression on his face.
“Because…” Drake’s face screwed up hard in concentration.
Drew nudged Drakes penguin costume.
“What?” Drake flapped.
Drew pointed down the road at the hearse, “Here he comes.”
Drake followed Drew’s finger and sighed.
“I guess it’s time to say goodbye,” Drew swallowed down a knot in his throat.
More people emerged, and Alex’s eyes had widened, “I wish I’d never asked. I’ll guess I’ll be going about my business!”
Drake shot him a glance, “Yea, mind your own business next time, we don’t even know you that well!”
“God put me here to ask you these questions, so I did, my question has been answered, but I only have…” He watched as the place swelled with yet more people dressed as parrots and penguins and a few budgies but mostly a sea of pink flamingos. “More questions,” His eyes narrowed as he crossed the road to get away from them.
The bells rang out like a weapon of soul destruction; humans having been primed to know it meant goodbye.
Alex watched the procession of pink and a few other colours here and there with a brow raised and a chuckle rising in his throat despite himself.
Cars rolled by and the passengers stared out the window wondering what on earth was going on, one driver who saw his wife’s perturbed face chortled and joked, “It’s global warming. All these birds are emigrating to strange places.”
As the pallbearer’s carried the coffin through a path, the sea of people created it looked even more surreal. The pallbearers were dressed in smart suits but had owl masks covering their faces.
Someone stopped by Alex to watch, his dog pulling on the lead. “What the…”
Alex turned to the stranger, “It’s certainly….” Alex scratched at the stubbed on his face with a perplexed look, “Something…”
The little dog barked at the crowd of people dressed strangely.
The stranger looked horrified, “I better go,” He started his face pale.
“I don’t think they’ll mind a dog barking….”Alex started to say but the man had swiftly shuffled away pulling his dog along as it kept turning around to yap at the procession outside the church doors.
The vicar stood at the front of a statue of Jesus on a cross, light came shimmering in through the coloured glass behind him.
“Frank was a…” The vicar rubbed a finger on his collar, “an eccentric,” He said as he looked out at the sea of faces and beaks. “Frank lived life to the full, and though he has gone now, he will forever be remembered as a humorous, genuine, kind man.” The vicar scanned the faces and beaks around his church, “There is a lesson that can be taught by this kind man and that is not to take life too seriously. He’s known for a few sayings like, “Your arse…ahem pardon my french, is at the bottom of you for a reason, it’s the last thing you put down!””
The mourners mumbled and nodded their heads.
“And, “Window cleaners are the spies you should be most afraid of.””
The mourners chuckled.
“And one of my favourites,” He peered over his glasses, “I must forewarn there is bad language here, but for the sake of respect I shall quote him exactly as he says it, “A fork in the road gives 3 choices. Either you choose one of the prongs, you go back, or you don’t use the fucking road.””
The crowd laughed once more, and Drake turned to Drew, “That’s our Frank.”
“That’s the Vicar!”
Drake shook his head and rolled his eyes, “No I meant…” He sighed, “nevermind!”
As they swarmed out of the churches gaping mouth and onto the pavement outside, ‘I like birds’ by the Eels played.
Lankie leant against a wall down a cobbled path behind peoples houses and a pub. A cigarette between his fingers and his right leg bent with his foot on the wall. Down the left mouth of the ginnel, a penguin waddled towards him. Lankie shook his head and did a double take, “What the fuck?” He huffed through a haze of smoke.
The penguin approached closer and closer till Lankie could make out the man’s eyes.
“What the fuck is this?” He gestured with his cigarette hand with palm wide open.
“It’s a penguin costume,” Shortie replied matter of factly.
Lankie rubbed at his temples with both hands, ash falling from his cigarette. “You going for a Batman theme and took the penguin bit too literally?” He grinned.
Shortie looked up at his Lankie friend, “What?”
Lankie shook his head, “nevermind.”
Not long after Shortie appeared behind him his entourage appeared, three waddling penguins.
Lankie pulled his lips back with a sarcastic look on his face, “We’re meant to look inconspicuous.”
Shortie ignored him and turned to his boys, “Right,” he barked as if it was an order.
All the men began unzipping their penguin costumes and stepped out dressed up as women.
“Shit,” Lankie shook his head, “You’re all like some really freaky fucking Russian dolls!” He averted his eyes from the colourful makeup on their faces and the attempts at hiding their stubble rather than shaving. “Yea put the penguin suits back on, you were oddly much less noticeable.” Lankie shot Shortie a glance, “why didn’t you wear a penguin costume anyway?”
“Didn’t want our wives seeing us dressed like this!” Shortie gestured at his wig and dress, “they’d wonder what we were up to.” He said in explanation.
In his garish floral dress and brunette wig with curling strands of hair down his ears Shortie led the other three men who were also dressed garishly, one of the men had short denim jeans on with that torn effect at the rims. Lankie towered over them and followed with a scowl behind the tights on his head. They snuck across the road to the hairdressers. To any onlookers it would have been a sight, five men stalked across a zebra crossing. One tall, Lankie man in a long coat creating a further illusion of height and four men in front wearing wigs, looking not so glamorous. It would have made a good copy of the famous Beatles photo, but with one extra band member if it was taken at night. Shortie crept along the window of the shop and peered into the darkened room.
“Right,” He gestured with his arm for Johnny in his denim shorts,
Johnny looked over his shoulder, his wig flailing with the momentum before bending down to the lock on the door and picking it carefully with his lock picking tools. When the click came, he looked over at Shortie and grinned in the dark. Stepping back from the door he let Shortie have the privilege of opening the door.
“Right come on boys!” He waved a hand to gesture at the other two short fuckers and one Lankie streak of piss.
Shortie, Lankie and the two other short fuckers skulked around the shop trashing to pieces, pouring shampoo on the floor, spraying foam everywhere.
While Johnny went into the back room and picked the lock of the safe.
“You got it yet?” Shortie shouted into the back room as he took a piss in a corner of the shop.
Johnny came out in a flash with a wad of cash in his hands!
“We need Nicholas to know it was us to send him a message!” Lankie reminded Shortie.
Shortie shook a spray can of hair curl spray foam and wrote the words, ‘This is the long and short of the story,” on a mirror.
Lankie shook his head, “What does that even mean?”
Shortie shrugged, “It means this is the end.”
Lankie shrugged and led them out of the shop.