205. Ginger Sponge & Custody

Late Shift.
I arrive at work feeling pretty good, rested. This is rare for me. Usually I’ll turn up at the weathered, paint-peeled door to The Factory in a state of exhausted despondency, the door looking pretty much how I feel.
But not today.
I’ve been away for a couple of weeks, some time in the sun, reading books and drinking cold beers with sea spray on the warm wind. Usually I see holidays as an expensive luxury, just another worry to struggle paying for, but this time it was a necessity.
My wife could tell I was struggling. Sinking. Things were getting on top of me. She booked a holiday that entailed doing nothing and wouldn’t let me find something to do, so I did just what I really needed to do.
I did nothing.
It worked.
Now I feel rested, able to face the unending stream of shit that cascades onto me for eight hours a day without hurling myself headlong into the nearest convenient piece of thundering machinery.
I walk into the office and see Intense Ginger Bloke hunched over his keyboard, leg jiggling, air whistling through hair-clogged nostrils like the last words of a dying inflatable sex doll.
He smells weird.
They do say gingers smell differently. I’ve never noticed it in red headed women, but men… Most ginger men I’ve known have been highly strung fuckers, leg-jiggling shouters, red-faced bellowers. Not every ginger, just a lot of them. Prone to fits of rage at the slightest provocation but rarely with a violent ending. Just… angry. It seems to make them sweaty. Sweaty ginger blokes can occasionally smell like an electrical fire, a knackered toaster, a fucked kettle.
I wonder if ginger men are actually robots…
Intense Ginger Bloke seems tense, more tense than usual.
I say, “Morning.”
He looks up with red rimmed eyes, blinking. He says, “Oh, yeah. Morning. Nice holiday?”
I nod. “Yep. Smashing.”
I chuck things into my drawer – tea, a bag of sugar, paracetamol, Cuppa Soup. I press the power button on the computer and it DONG’s into life. I adjust the height setting of the office chair, look up.
Intense Ginger Bloke is looking at me across the desk divider like a Beagle who’s been told he’s got terminal cancer and won’t make it to his seventh birthday.
He says, “Our lass is leaving me.”
As greasy tears well up in his piggy eyes I fight the urge to fist pump, shout ‘YES!!!’ and do a little dance.
I love being right.
I’ve been predicting that she’ll leave him for at least two years now. He’s a right one for posting blissful pictures on Facebook of a perfect family life but I’ve never bought it.
All those little griping stories he tells me about how she’s pissed off at him for buying stupid fucking toys on a whim, how he casually criticises her parenting abilities, how he flatly refuses to allow her a little more financial freedom because it would ‘mess up’ his bewildering payment/savings system of fourteen separate bank accounts.
He’d never take her for a night out, never go on holiday unless it was to the caravan in a windswept field facing the grim grey North Sea. They don’t ‘do’ presents for birthdays or Christmas or Valentine’s anymore because ‘you don’t need all that stuff to prove you’re in love.’
Turns out perhaps you do.
Those pictures he posted on Facebook showed a young woman gradually losing a bit of weight, getting her hair done differently, wearing contacts instead of glasses, applying her make up like a YouTube tutorial, improving her image over months and years whilst the grinning mug stood next to her gained weight but refused to lose the Berghaus fleece covered in dog hair, come rain or shine.
He always put on a voice when he quoted her, a stupid voice, but when I met her once at some function or other she turned out to be warm and intelligent, witty, her voice far from the oaf that her ginger partner portrayed.
I remember him telling me about the evening he bought his virtual reality goggles and how he stood flailing in front of the computer, describing to her what was happening with great excitement, but when he took the goggles off he found himself alone, in the dark, and that she had gone to bed…
Alarm bells.
Warning signs.
Red lights.
He saw none of them.
Everyone else did but he didn’t.
I look at his sad face and I want to slap it, hard. I want to describe exactly how he fucked up, give him a walking tour of his errors but it would be of no use whatsoever.
You see, his last relationship ended the same way.
He’d taken that girl for granted too, presumed all her late nights behind the bar at the local golf club were spent pulling pints when really she was pulling… well, who’s to say?
Good luck to her.
The first Intense Ginger Bloke knew about it was when she didn’t come home, and then he realised her belongings were gone.
A day later a total stranger turned up demanding his bed, saying it was the property of his ex. This was the new chap, the bloke who’d been quietly getting the benefit of that bed whilst Intense Ginger Bloke was at work, but instead of punching his lights out, Intense Ginger Bloke paid him £100 for the bed.
I’d have dragged it into the garden and set fire to the fucking thing, personally.
So now he’s looking at me with his lip trembling, the injured party, once again the victim of a cold hearted woman, and all I want to do is laugh.
But I don’t.
I sigh.
I say, “Shit, that’s bad news, mate. I’m really sorry to hear that.”
He gives a brave smile. He says, “It’s not my fault, I wanted to work at it but she didn’t. She’s changed, since having the young ‘un. I mean, we had our ups an’ downs before that, like anyone does. It’s just afterwards… I wanted more kids but she was dead against it.”
He leans in, brow furrowing. He says, “I think it were chemical.”
Confused, I say, “Chemical?”
He says, “Yeah. Well, everything was fine and then it wasn’t! Nothing changed but suddenly she was unhappy, arguing, picking at me all the time. So I said to her, go to the doctor. You’re not right! It’s them hormones, they’re all fucked up. What you need is for the doctor to give you something, some tablets maybe, to straighten you out then everything will be fine!”
I flinch. I say, “You said that to her? You said the reason she isn’t happy is just hormones? How did she take that?”
He shakes his head. “She went fucking mental. Blew her stack. Like I say, hormones…”
I shake my head too, for a totally different reason.
The stupidity.
He says everything’s fine because nothing changed, but that’s precisely why she was unhappy.
Intense Ginger Bloke is a man of simple tastes. He’s meat and tatties, holidays at Filey, pints of bitter, grumbles about foreigners. He’s all about what roads you used to get to work, to Manchester, to Cornwall. He’s fuel consumption, smart meters, pension plans and spread sheets.
He likes Mrs Brown’s Boys.
He calls the old Top Gear team ‘the lads’.
He still quotes Only Fools and Horses.
He’d call Nigel Farage a maverick if he knew what a maverick was.
He’s never tried whisky or gin or vodka, never smoked a cigarette, never taken drugs, never had anal sex, given or received.
He’s funny about what he eats.
In the dining room and in the bedroom.
In other words, he’s a boring cunt. A really, really boring cunt.
don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for boring cunts in this world.
It’s doing all the boring shit that anyone with a single iota of imagination really can’t be bothered with.
Boring cunts lap it up.
But boring cunts don’t sit well with people who are going places.
His ex girlfriend is going places.
Without him.
When he met her she was living at home with dysfunctional parents who had a hard time paying bills from one day to the next, just blundering through life.
She wanted better than that.
She saw Intense Ginger Bloke driving a well polished Vauxhall, saw that he had his own house, paid his bills on time, had a steady job, didn’t drink heavily, didn’t do drugs. Sure, he was no looker, but that also meant he wasn’t shagging anything with a pulse.
He was safe.
This was all fine, but what she couldn’t see at the time is that he is also an incredibly boring cunt.
And he is intense.
The steady routine worked for a few years, the savings gradually built up in that strange labyrinth of 14 bank accounts, and they bought that 1970s three bedroom semi-detached in the dullest suburb of Leeds which has been Intense Ginger Bloke’s destiny from birth.
They got the dog, they got the caravan, then they had the child.
Tick, tick, tick. All the boxes.
Intense Ginger Bloke was over the moon. His life was filled with his spread sheets, his caravan club committee meetings, his Toby Carvery Sunday lunches with dozens of obscure family members that make up his social circle, his cans of lager whilst watching the Formula 1 on one of his gigantic televisions.
He isn’t yet forty.
She isn’t yet thirty.
There’s a ten year age gap between them but it may as well be twenty years, thirty years, forty years.
Because this is it.
She didn’t need a crystal ball. She could see the future.
That’s the problem with someone who is safe, who is dependable, who is secure.
They’re predictable.
She could see the second child on the horizon, maybe a third. She could see the ambition to swap out the single axle caravan for a double axle, the endless carveries, the lines of rain washed caravans with tattered St George cross flags fluttering overhead.
Picking up dog shit whilst trying to kick the brake on an overladen pram.
Swapping the sharp jacket for a practical fleece.
The Intense Ginger vision that led from her twenties to the grave, laid out in a practical spreadsheet format, detailing his inevitable weight gain and probable heart attack in his late fifties, and her own decline into despairing frumpyness as the mother to his children, the cook for his beige meals, the cleaner of his understains, the fetcher of tins from the caravan fridge whilst he laughs around the barbecue with his caravanning cronies about that fucking time Derek fucking Trotter fell through the fucking gap in the cunting fucking bar.
She smartens up her act.
She goes running.
She eats healthily, not the stodge HE likes for his tea.
She changes her hair, changes her make-up, changes her glasses for contact lenses.
If he won’t take her out then she’ll bloody well take herself out.
Midnight turns to one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four.
Girls nights out become weekends away.
And then… and then…
Intense Ginger Bloke shakes his head again, blows out.
He says, “It’s come out of the blue. I just didn’t see it coming. Why didn’t she say something?”
I could see it coming from my side of the desk for years but he didn’t notice a thing.
I’m speechless.
He slaps the desk and sighs, rubs his face.
He says, “Right, I’ve got to crack on. Lots to do.”
I say, “Yeah, it’s probably going to be a busy one today.”
“No,” he says. “I’m working on my spreadsheets. I’ve got to work out budgets, who gets what, fair allocation of time with the child…”
“Your daughter.”
“Yeah, her, fair allocation of time with the dog, caravan custody…”
He drones on, I zone out.
He taps keys and mutters to himself for a couple of hours.
I get on with my work.
After a while it occurs to me that Intense Ginger Bloke is really enjoying himself.
I wonder if those Nazi administrative types enjoyed their nice tidy ledgers filled with neat, triplicate horror.
His leg is jiggling overtime and he stops occasionally to stab the buttons on a calculator. He mutters, shakes his head, types again then gives a little smile.
Just before lunch he pushes away from his desk and drains his tea mug.
“Ah! That’s sorted! I just need to see Soulless Boss about changing my shifts and getting a pay rise, then everything will be fine.”
I look up from my work. “Pay rise? We haven’t had a pay rise in years. How much are you asking for?”
He checks his figures again. “Let’s see… a hundred pounds.”
I laugh. “A hundred quid?? Fuck off! They won’t give you a hundred quid a month!”
He blinks owlishly at me. “A hundred quid a week. I need a hundred quid a week extra or I won’t get by.”
I check to make sure he’s not taking the piss. He’s not. I say, “Why the fuck will they give you and extra ton a week, four hundred a month? Why?”
He looks indignant. “I supervise the studio. It’s an important job and it’s about time the role is recognised!”
I say, “You take jobs from account handlers and give them to me and I do the work. You’ve not batted a stroke all day, apart from your fucking spreadsheets. You think that’s worth an extra hundred?”
He scowls. “Yeah, I do.”
I say, “Good luck with that.”
He says, “I need it. Without it I’m fucked. I won’t be able to afford to eat!”
I say, “Where’s your list of expenses. Let me see.”
He tilts his computer monitor and I lean over to take a look.
I shake my head. “Fuck me… Really? You’re budgeting a hundred and thirty a month for TV and Broadband? You save a hundred a month for ‘car sundries’? Caravan storage, all these other bits… fifty a month for your fucking phone? Mate, you’re not starving! Cut out all that crap and you’ll be fine!”
He turns a deep red and glowers at me. “I need my telly. I’ve got fuck all left, at least I’ll have a telly to watch.”
I say, “Yeah, whatever… I don’t see child maintenance on here. How much is she asking?”
He says, “Oh, Don’t worry about that. I don’t have to pay any.”
I blink at him. “Excuse me? I thought you just said ‘I don’t have to pay any’. I don’t want to be alarmist, but you have a daughter so I think you have to pay!”
He says, “No, I’ll be looking after her half the time so I don’t have to pay. I’m sure of it.”
Something occurs to me. “Wait… You say your lass is leaving you. Where is she going?”
He shrugs. “Dunno. I think she’s getting a flat somewhere, but I can’t see it being a great place, what with her only working part time.”
I say, “But she’s leaving… with your daughter. If your lass’s flat is a shit hole, then your daughter will be living in a shit hole for fifty percent of the time!”
“Not my fault,” he growls. “She chose to leave me. If she can’t afford a decent place, that’s her lookout.”
I’m at a loss. “But… your daughter…”
“Not my fault.”
I look at this stubborn, pig-headed arsehole in front of me and I fail to feel any pity for him.
I don’t need to feel any – he has enough self pity for both of us.
If it was me in his position, if my marriage broke down, I’d do the right thing and leave, not send my wife packing. My priority is my kids. The idea of me sitting there in a three bedroom house on my own when my kids are cramming their possessions into a shitty bedsit somewhere makes me feel sick.
I realise for the first time just how fucking greedy and self centred Intense Ginger Bloke really is. He’s a taker, not a giver. That precious fucking house of his, his TVs and his computer, his gadgets, his games consoles, his drone, his caravan, his fucking toys, they all mean so much to him.
He’s like a dragon crouching over his hoard, both furious and frightened that one shiny thing might be taken away, when in reality the most important things are slipping away unnoticed.
I imagine that flat where his girlfriend is moving – a dingy rental, and I know how dingy rental properties can be because I’ve lived in a fair few. I’m imagining his daughter wondering what the is going on, what she’s done wrong to be sent to live there and why she can’t sleep in her own room all the time.
It makes me angry, and I’m going to say something, but then I stop.
I remember his girlfriend.
Intelligent, witty, good looking.
I remember Intense Ginger Bloke describing her staying out late, staying out all weekend.
She’s not stupid.
She’s not the type to suddenly jump without there being a safety net.
So I make a few new predictions.
There’s someone else.
Another bloke is in the picture, just as Intense Ginger Bloke was the safety net to catch her when she left home, there’s someone else catching her now. Yes, maybe she’s moving into a flat but I’m willing to bet it’s a six month lease, enough time to let the dust settle with her angry red haired ex, to get the cheque for her half of the equity in the house that he has to pay her to avoid selling his precious house.
And she won’t want him around every day, picking up and dropping off their daughter. No-one wants to see their ex every day, not when you can get greater custody AND have them pay maintenance too.
No, I can see what’s happening.
But he can’t.
All he can see is his spreadsheets, the numbers, the trinkets and toys, the material things that mean fuck all when all is said and done, shit that pleases one day and is in the charity shop window the next.
He thinks this is Hell, but it’s actually the honeymoon period. The shit is still to hit the fan.
I know that over the next few months I’m really going to hear about it, he’s going to moan and sob, possibly lose the house, lose some custody. Maybe he’ll join Fathers For Justice and dangle from the top of Leeds Town Hall in a sagging Spiderman suit, whining about the relationship that he managed to fuck up.
I wonder if it’ll be worth hearing all this shit, and then I’m sure it’ll be worth it, just for one thing alone.
For when this sad cunt gets back on the horse and starts internet dating.
I can only imagine the bizarre stories that will crop up.
So I give him a sympathetic smile, grab his mug and say, “Cheer up, mate. How about a nice cuppa?”
He smiles at me, eyes filling up, says, “Yeah, that’d be great, buddy. Thanks.”
I fill the kettle.
I know I’m a two faced cunt, but it passes the time.

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204. Air Conned

The sweat rolls down my face.
The slightest movement is an effort, struggling against the damp, heavy clothing clinging to my body that grows heavier with each passing minute as the cheap synthetic fabric absorbs my sweat.
I take a sip of brackish water.
Flies drone through the soupy air, circling. They occasionally land on my head and I spasm in revulsion, my temper flaring as I flail impotently at them.
“Bastards…” I mutter. “Fucking bastards…”
Everyone is a Fucking Bastard to me at this moment. Everyone, everything.
A rivulet of sweat makes it’s way between my shoulder blades, down my spine, then soaks into the already sodden waistband of my trousers.
I shudder.
I look at my watch. Less than three minutes have passed since I last checked the time.
I have five hours to go.
Five hours, five days, five years, it seems meaningless in this heat.
Five minutes is fucking purgatory so any more time added makes little difference.
I take another sip of water.
I occasionally think I must be in a Turkish prison but then I look up and realise I’m at work, in an office, in the year of our Lord 2018.
It seems like madness.
I look across at the I.T. department. It’s hitting them particularly hard, but they are quite delicate flowers. I’d like to say they’re dropping like flies but the flies seem to be the only organisms thriving in this hell hole.
They I.T. department are dropping like an I.T. department in a Turkish prison. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
The air conditioning packed in three years ago.
The I.T. department are mostly to blame for this.
When the air con was still coughing along it didn’t get a moment’s peace. Some dickhead in a shirt and tie would sidle over to the controls, peer over their varifocals at the settings and give them a tweak.
Warmer air would flood the room.
Tuts and huffs would break out, then some bold chancer would stride over and press a few buttons.
Cold air would blast out.
Then June from Accounts would sashay over, clutching a thin cardigan across her bony frame, squint at the settings, and soon a monsoon heat would pour down your neck as you gasped for air.
This went on all day, every day. Hot, cold, warm, cool.
People fell ill. The constant change in temperature made people have funny turns, strange fevers. A sick atmosphere descended on the office staff.
And then someone died.
The Air Con died.
The office is a delicate ecosystem, designed to operate efficiently in a constant temperature, reliant on technology to maintain the equilibrium.
Take away that technology and you are reduced to chaos.
Without air conditioning, the office is basically a tin shed with minimum ventilation, it’s tinted glass absorbing the heat and throwing it into the room like a giant three-bar fire.
That was three years ago.
Emails have been sent, managers have wept in front of the financial director, all to no avail.
The air con is dead and it will remain dead.
Our job is now to simply survive.
An I.T worker walks slowly past, conserving his strength. His feet are bare and his Next suit trouser legs are rolled up. His damp shirt is open to the navel and his tie forms a make shift sweat band around his bald head.
We glance at each other, expressionless.
He walks on.
He holds his stained glass beneath the water fountain and a trickle spits out then stops.
He sighs, turns to the tap, fills his glass with a slightly brownish fluid.
From his pocket he retrieves a packet of Dioralyte, tips it into the water and stirs it in with his finger.
He walks slowly away.
The door to the canteen opens.
Dimples walks in and flinches as the hot, stale air hits her.
“Blinkin’ ‘eck, it’s like getting off the plane at Faliraki!” She cries.
She looks bereft.
Someone shouts across the office, “Dimples, what’s on the canteen menu?”
Dimples looks close to tears. “Stew an’ dumplings. Stew an’ effin’ dumplings, in this heat!! It’s getting more an’ more like effin’ Tenko with every minute!”
A moan of anguish rolls through the office.
I hear someone say, “I can’t have salad again. I’m eatin’ nowt but salad. I’ve got to the point where if I sneeze, I shit salad all over the back of me pants. That can’t be right, can it?”
Someone snarls, “Stew an’ dumplings?? Stew an’ fuckin’ dumplings?? AL I WANT IS SOME FUCKING COU COUS!!”
I hear a crash as a monitor hits the floor followed by a brief scuffle, then uncontrollable sobbing.
Office Phil jumps up. “Listen, why don’t I nip out and get fish and chips for everyone? It’ll be like being at the seaside! Tins of shandy, mushy peas, it’ll be great!”
Morale picks up a bit. Everyone coughs up a tenner with the promise of three quid change upon Office Phil’s return.
I decline the offer, because I’m not a fucking idiot.
I gaze out of the window and watch as Office Phil hurries across the car park and jumps into his 1998 Vauxhall Corsa. He screams out of the car park and turns right up the road.
The fish shop is down the road, to the left.
The right turn takes you to the pub.
Office Phil isn’t coming back.
He won’t be back for a week.
June from Accounts saunters by. She is wafting herself with a Spanish fan she’s brought in, a souvenir from a lovely holiday she had in the Costa del Sol in the eighties, she says, before it got all tacky, she says.
June from Accounts thinks she’s gorgeous.
She isn’t.
She thinks she’s slender, leggy, elegant, but try to picture a heron that’s just been run over by a golf cart, then stick a wispy ginger wig on the unfortunate heron, and a flimsy floral print summer dress that’s a bit too off-the-shoulder/wing, then you’re getting there.
June from Accounts likes it hot. She wanders by, hoping to treat the boys to a fleeting glimpse of varicose vein, a greying bra strap, a hint of corm plaster peeping from the side of her sling backs. A tuft of fine hair protruding from the mole on her chin wafts gently in the breeze from her fan.
She crows, “Ooh, it’s lovely weather! All you moaning minnies, getting grumpy because we’ve finally got a proper bit of Summer! Enjoy it while it lasts, that’s what I say!”
She struts up and down, slowly, some strange pretense at sensuality. She is pigeon-toed, so always seems to be tripping up over one of her own feet. I’m appalled and fascinated in equal measure.
June from Accounts doesn’t drink. “I don’t need a drink to have fun – I’m high on life!”
This is a favourite adage of her. For those of us who need to drink two bottles of cheap wine simply to feel half human, it’s a fucking insult. I want to clip her round the back of the ear with a house brick then chuck her in a fucking pond.
(I know it’s not very politically correct to suggest such a thing in this day and age, but we all feel this way from day to day, it cannot be denied, and if we bottle up these feelings they’ll turn into a tumor the size of a grapefruit and nobody wants that.)
I’ve heard that June from Accounts likes to dance at social do’s. On nothing stronger than a cranberry juice she’ll take to the dance floor and go for it, grinding against all and sundry, rubbing her bony hips against a variety of groins and beer guts, treating unwary onlookers to a flash of withered tit barely concealed beneath an alarmingly diaphanous gown.
I avoid all forms of social function for this very reason.
But now I can’t avoid June from Accounts. She seems to think she’s lifting the spirits of the office with her weird display, a demonstration of how a positive attitude can transform a knackered office roasting in thirty five degree heat and smelling of halitosis and bin juice into some sort of island paradise, with her as a hula girl serving Mai Tai’s in a grass skirt.
She simpers as she swaggers, flapping her fucking fan, completely deluded.
Then somebody says in a slightly too-loud voice, “Oh, do park your boney arse, you knock kneed rat bag…”
I barely suppress a snort of laughter. Sniggering ripples through the office.
June from Accounts gasps and glances around. An expression of pure rage flashes across her face, quickly masked by one of aloof amusement.
“Jealousy is a terrible thing, you know…” She saunters back to her chair, all the while wafting herself with that fucking fan.
It angers me that she seems so pleased with her feeble retort. I know it won’t stop future grandstanding and hideous flirtation. She’s nearly sixty – If a sixty year old man was capering around the office half naked he’d be burned at the stake right there in the car park, and rightly so, but this dizzy trout has a free license to shake her tits whenever and wherever she pleases.
I briefly consider getting my cock out and doing a bit of Irish dancing, but decide against it. The infernal heat is playing tricks with my mind.
The door barges open and two blokes walk in, struggling with a huge box.
Judith from I.T. accosts them.
“Err… can I help you?”
One of the blokes waves an order form under her nose. “We’re here to fix the air conditioning.”
A buzz of excitement fills the muggy air.
Air conditioning! Cool breezes! Oxygen!
The two blokes are treated like kings. An assortment of beverages are provided, all at a horrible temperature.
Throughout the afternoon we are treated to banging and clattering coming from the roof space overhead. It is music to our ears.
Although I’m trying to keep my fluid intake up I know I’m getting dehydrated. The fans whirring on every available surface blow the warm air straight into our faces, drawing more and more fluids from our systems.
Everyone is at breaking point. The air shimmers outside, the glass panes of the windows are too hot to touch and radiate a horrible heat straight into the room. All eyes are on the ceiling, imagining those brave lads crawling around up there, fitting pipes, connecting electrics, bolting things together.
And then they reappear. Judith signs a few forms while we all watch, and the blokes make for the door.
A sudden spontaneous round of applause starts, and the blokes give a little uncomfortable wave, then they are gone.
The office staff gather around the air conditioning control unit.
I watch, from a distance.
Judith says, “Right, we’ll have no-one messing around with this! It stays on one temperature and that’s that. It’ll be on the cooler side, and if it’s too cold then you can put on a bloody cardigan. Here goes!”
Judith types in the numbers, presses the ON switch.
Far away, a fan kicks in.
We wait.
And wait.
I hold a hand up to the nearest air con unit.
The office staff look at me.
I say, “Nothing. Not a fart.”
Everyone looks devastated.
Someone shouts, “I can hear one unit running! Over here!”
We walk over to a locked room, with a keypad on the wall.
The server room.
Judith punches in the numbers and opens the door. A freezing blast of cold air flows out.
She quickly closes it again.
She says, “The air conditioner was already working in there… it was getting a bit tired, but it worked…”
She scuttled out of the office, in the direction of finance director’s office.
Half an hour passes.
Judith returns, defeated and weepy.
She says, “The finance director they would only stretch to the one unit and the computers get priority. The law says they only have an obligation to provide water. I told them the water cooler is broken, but he just said to use the tap. The air conditioning isn’t getting fixed. It’s never getting fixed…”
Judith rushes from the room to have a good long cry in the toilets.
It’s at this point that we should just kick off. Trash the joint. Barricade ourselves in the server room and smear the walls with our own shit, smash up the servers in a Luddite rage, storm the finance director’s office and tear our his liver, gorging upon it in front of his terrified dying eyes…
But we don’t.
Because we’re fucking English.
Instead we sigh, mutter, and return to our sweltering desks, tap slippery keyboards, peel errant pieces of paper from our damp forearms, dream of pints of cold lager.
Then there is a tremendous boom.
We all stop working.
I hope the air conditioning unit in the server room has exploded, but I check my connections and everything is on line.
Then there is another boom, then a rumble.
Beyond the hot dark glass of the office, clouds are gathering. Stacks tower high into the atmosphere, golden fringed with dark grey hearts, green tinted and loaded with electricity.
A fat drop of rain smacks the glass, smearing the dust.
We all stand by the windows, work now forgotten, staring at the skies in wonder, listening to angry heavens, smelling the smell of rain on pavements through the the slight openings the windows will allow, a smell of my childhood, seventies streets and rusty swings.
We are all quiet and quietly excited.
We stand together, listening, smelling, hoping… praying for a storm.

Posted in The Stories. | 3 Comments

203. Missing Inaction

I’m watching him.
He glides past, face forward. He clutches a coffee can, a chipped cup, a half empty pint of milk that looks like it’s well on the turn.
He stumbles a little, recovers, glides on.
Face forward.
His face is red and there is a slight sheen of booze sweat on his brow, damp stains at the armpits of his greying white shirt.
It is 2.30pm.
Boozer’s Purgatory.
Lunch is but a distant memory and he is attacked by yawns and heavy eyelids, the brief respite of chips and full fat Coke turning from hammering heart and synthetic alertness into a soporific sugar slump of epic proportions.
The alcohol that has sat in his system all day, perhaps all year, yowls for company. The morning’s nausea is replaced by thirst.
A nice cold cider would take the edge off. Ooh, look, it’s sunny out. Beer garden weather. I might have a coke, but it’d be nicer with a J.D. in it, ha ha.
Office Phil is struggling.
I call him Office Phil, but he has picked up a new name in the office, one that I haven’t given him.
He’s just known as Weird.
‘I caught Weird watching me again.’
‘I saw Weird coming out of the ladies toilets again.’
‘Will someone give Weird a shake – his snoring is putting me off my work.’
‘Is it just me, or can I see a bra strap under Weird’s shirt?’
I’m watching him now, waiting for the signature Weird move.
Here he goes…
Facing forward, his eyes become wide and seem to swivel in his head like a chameleon’s.
Bloodshot and runny, his huge eyes check me out. They see the work I’m doing, what I’m drinking, what I’m wearing. They slither over everything, leaving a psychic snail trail wherever they go.
I instantly feel like I need a shower.
He passes a desk and his eyes grope the surface, contaminating everything – job tickets, stationary, a birthday card…
He stops.
His hand shoots out, grabs the card, holds it up.
Eyes darting, he feeds on its contents, draining every last drop of heartfelt sentiment.
He puts the card down.
It is still a card, but it is now a dead card, cold and meaningless.
I’m willing to bet it’s the first birthday card he’s touched in years.
He glides on, careful footsteps, eyes darting.
I shudder.
He is a thing caught in a net and hauled to the surface, gasping and flapping, lantern eyes bulging and reeking of the deep, a creature not meant for the daylight.
The only light that attracts him is the blinking and flashing of a fruit machine in a dank pub corner, a friend to bleep to him through an otherwise lonely evening.
Weird lives with his mother.
Weird is rapidly approaching fifty.
Weird pretends to have an affinity with me, because he occasionally rides his bicycle to work. He tries and fails to create an air of bonhomie, as if we are a pair of wild gypsies of the road, exploring the world awheel in a carefree manner.
I ride a bike to work because I don’t like the faff and expense of owning a car, and because, well, I like riding bikes.
Weird rides a bike to work on the days when he knows he’s so far over the limit that at best he’d be pulled over into a grim lay-by and breathalised by the local constabulary resulting in loss of license and a hefty fine, at worst he’d hurtle straight into the side of a mini-bus full of special-needs kids on jamboree to Flamingo Land, killing all of them in a spectacular fireball whilst he miraculously remains unscathed, resulting in shameful tabloid headlines and a lengthy prison sentence where he’d be routinely used sexually by all and sundry in between bouts of mind splitting drunkeness from drinking the hooch he’d brew in his own toilet using bread crusts and mouldy fruit.
On the booze days he deems it wiser to drag his decrepit Halford’s mountain bike (circa 1988) from the shed and bump it up and down kerbstones along miles of paths to work, wobbling past tutting grandmas and struggling mothers with toddlers and pushchairs.
He’ll stagger in to work twenty minutes late, face blotchy, helmet askew on his melon head, scratching his pot belly through a sweat drenched Budweiser t-shirt, and tell anecdotes of the road, of crazy drivers and tricky junctions, pot holes and torturous hills.
I’ll nod politely, not wanting to discourage, then let him stumble to the toilets to vomit ferociously and douse himself with tap water, until he shuffles back to his desk, shuffles past his desk, to the canteen for bacon.
He’ll start work around ten, but then the difficult part begins.
I’m convinced Weird used to work in the office years ago, before he left with a flourish, only to return a while later applying for his old job again as if nothing had happened, indeed, as if he’d never actually worked here before.
He’d made such little impact on the office first time around that when he started again, in his old job, people actually treated him like a brand new employee, complete with orientation days, training and a whole fresh slew of second chances.
I grudgingly admire him for that.
The problem was, in the time that he’d gone he’d somehow completely forgotten what his old job had entailed, so when he came to knuckle down to work and get cracking, he simply couldn’t do it.
He could not do his job.
They tried to retrain him but to no avail.
He couldn’t do it.
Judith, his manager, just glossed over this fact, mainly because she can’t do her job either and I guess must have felt some sympathy for Weird.
This was three years ago.
Judith used to keep herself busy in the office making tea for everyone and keeping up spirits by being a nice person, all for the bargain price of sixty thousand a year, but now that Weird is here she has him make the tea for her, and it makes her feel more important now that she has someone else to do the meaningless and trivial tasks for her, even if it does mean she is effectively completely redundant.
So Weird sits at his desk, blinks at the screen, sighs, yawns, scratches, then gets busy.
He potters around, collecting the tea mugs in his department, then he brews up.
After that he tops up the Post-It notes, pens, paperclips, printer paper.
After that he disappears for an hour.
After that he fetches Blue Roll from the warehouse, then makes more tea, then hides in the toilet, then makes more tea, until lunch.
And after lunch…
Sometimes he makes coffee, just as he is doing now.
Other times, when he feels frisky, he finds a woman to talk to.
Sorry, a woman to talk at.
He talks at them while his eyes slither over their bodies, drinking them in, storing the information away in some murky corner of his mind for later dubious usage.
He tries to smile when they actually say something back to him, but all that happens is his top lip curls away from his stained teeth and his eyes glare emptily.
He’s the only person at work who’s had formal warnings simply for looking at people. It’s even more tragic that he takes these warnings in a ‘fair cop’ kind of way. He knows full well what he’s up to and how creeped out women are in his presence.

And now Monday is here, but Weird isn’t.
I hear Judith muttering darkly to Dimples in the kitchenette.
“He rang in this morning, asking for the day off. I said no, but he said please, so I said yes. He said he had an upset tummy.”
An upset tummy? I suppose twenty four cans of Export lager and a diet of kebabs and Vindaloo will upset even the strongest tummy.
Judith relents, gives him the day off.
but then he rings in on the Tuesday and asks for another day off.
Judith asks if he still has an upset tummy, but strangely Weird says no, he just says he’d quite like a day off because the weather is nice.
Judith takes a hard line. She says no, she wants him to come in to work.
Weird says ok.
Weird takes the day off anyway.
Judith phones him later to find out where he is and gets his answer phone.
Judith is not happy.
It’s the last we see of Weird for a week.
He goes AWOL.
Judith is fetching tea, going to the warehouse for Blue Roll, washing up dirty cups.
Judith is most displeased.
She leaves many, many messages on Weird’s answer phone. Some are quite stern, some are concerned, some are pleading.
Now she involves the shambolic mess that passes for Human Resources at The Factory and they stumble into action.
Letters are sent and are unanswered.
More letters are sent, this time by recorded mail, and they remain unanswered.
Three weeks pass.
Judith is thoroughly sick of making tea and fetching Blue Roll, tasks she now considers beneath her imaginary skillset.u
Judith decides on drastic action.
She decides to visit Weird’s House.
The next day, Judith is back in the kitchenette, drying cups with wads of Blue Roll.
Dimples waddles over, smelling gossip.
Hiya Judith, want me to dry up? Oh, by the way, how did it go at Weird… I mean Phil’s house?”
Judith turns red. “I went round with Cardboard Supervisor. They said it might not be wise, a woman going round his house on her own. They were worried about what might happen.”
Wow. Concerns were raised in case an employee might rape or murder his own boss on a welfare visit.
I keep earwigging.
Judith sighs. “It was a hot day yesterday, remember? Well, we turn up at his house and we can hear music. We knock on his door. No answer. We keep knocking. The music really was very loud, so Cardboard Supervisor takes a look through the front window. He can see through to the back of the house and the patio doors were open. Suddenly he sees Phil. He comes dancing in from the back garden. He’s only wearing a pair of Speedos and a cowboy hat! He’s got dark glasses on and he’s grown a full beard. He goes dancing into the kitchen, grinding around and waggling his hips and bottom. It was rather horrible, to be honest.”
“What music was playing?” Dimples looks fascinated.
Judith has a think. “Honky Tonk Woman, I think. Well, he dances in and lights a cigarette and fetches a beer from the fridge! He’s about to go dancing out into the back garden again when Cardboard Supervisor bangs on the window. Phil drops his beer with a scream and it explodes, sending beer everywhere. Cardboard Supervisor shouts for him to answer the door. We stand there for a while, at the door, and the music is turned down. Phil eventually comes to the door. He’s still in those bloody daft trunks and cowboy hat. He didn’t even bother to grab a towel! He’s covered in beer and suntan cream. He’s got a golden tan, by the way. He goes a lovely colour, the lucky sod. I just burn. Anyway, I say to him, ‘Phil,’ I say, ‘Phil, what’s going on? You’ve not been to work for three weeks and no-one has heard from you! We were worried! Why haven’t you been at work?’ And you know what he says?”
Dimples shakes her head, hanging on Judith’s every word.
“He says, ‘Bit stressed.’ Can you believe it? He’s got the easiest job in the office, he lives with his mother and he tans like David bloody Dickinson in a car fire and he’s saying he’s stressed! We asked if he’s been to the doctors and he says no. We ask what his mum thinks about this and he says he goes out every morning like he’s off to work, but when his mum goes out he returns home and gets out in the back garden on a bloody sun lounger!!”
His mum. They ask what his mum thinks. He’s forty seven and his employers are asking his mum’s opinion of this shit show.
Dimples says, “Well, are we going to advertise his position then? It’s a breach of contract, and he’s not got a doctor’s note. I mean… it’s not like he really knows what he’s doing. It’s the opportunity to get shut of him that you’ve been waiting for!”
Judith turns red. Smiles weakly…
The next Monday Weird stumbles into the office, late. He’s got a hipster beard, a deep tan and a sweat stained Hawaiian shirt on. He reeks of beer fear with an undertone of Ambre Solaire.
He sees me, says, “Hell on those roads this morning. Some right nutters about.”
I just stare at him.
He looks over my shoulder. “Looks like we’re running low on Blue Roll. Lucky I came in today.”
I say, “You’re lucky to still have a job, mate.”
He pulls himself up to his full five feet seven inches, swaying slightly. “Not at all. Judith pleaded for me to come back. She said we’re struggling without me.”
I look over at Judith. She’s watching us talking. She blushes, looks busy.
I say, “Better get the kettle on, Phil.”
He nods, turns a bit green under his tan. “Aye, I suppose. I just need to nip to the loo.”
He staggers away to retch his guts up.
I go back to work.

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202. Bad Friday

The only sounds are a clock ticking and the muffled clattering of crockery from the kitchen, two rooms away.
A wall mounted gas fire – faux wood panelled – protrudes strangely from the wall. lined up in a neat row on the top are a variety of nick-nacks. A cut glass bell. A cut glass basket. A cheap carriage clock. A strange rose made from pottery and wire that I secretly accidentally broke a month ago and which I clumsily stuck back together somehow and now it gives me a sense of deep burning Shame every time I look at it because I know that breaking it was a Sin.
I unclench my fingers from the sheepskin rug.
Beneath the rug a jade green carpet swirls like an infinite ocean, and indeed it does become an ocean on occasion for Han and Chewie and Luke, when their space adventures lead them to a strange sea planet where they are attacked repeatedly by a wide variety of dinosaurs, giant plastic spiders and the occasional, unwilling, aquatic Jack Russell terrier.
The carpet might be green but the sky is still grey.
It always seems grey.
I don’t need to check the carriage clock to know that the time is around 2pm on a Friday in April, in the Year of Our Lord 1980.
One brother is sat listlessly on the floral patterned couch, staring out of the window at the grey.
My other brother is sat near me, waiting for me to select an action figure so that he can also choose the same one and create a small argument, just for something to do.
I choose Han.
I always choose Han.
My brother tries to take it and makes a whining noise and we are instantly hushed from the kitchen.
I let him have Han.
I always let him have Han.
The atmosphere is crushing.
And then, from the kitchen, my mother appears.
The feeling of guilt is like a tsunami, a thick, black wave flooding the room. Her lips are pursed sternly as she looks at us.
“Come and sit on the couch.”
We sit on the couch.
The Children’s Bible appears, we are shown a picture.
“Jesus has fallen now and people help him lift the cross back onto his shoulders. Just think how he must feel. And remember, he did it for our Sins.”
She shows us a colourful picture of Jesus taking a bit of a tumble. Some white people with beards look a bit shocked. A Roman soldier looks very disapproving. Some white women look sad. It’s all very sterile.
The scene playing in my head is altogether more gruesome.
I’ve convinced myself that this is actually happening somewhere, over and over again every Easter. A bloke is getting whipped, stripped, beaten then crucified, once a year, forever.
And who’s fault is it?
My fault.
Because I broke that fucking rose on the fireplace.
I can picture cobbles with fresh drops of blood in the dust, howling crowds, a cross made from two fucking great railway sleepers, grit and stones getting in your sandals which you can’t remove because you’ve got half of B&Q on your bloody shoulder.
And what’s he got to look forward to?
I push my thumb nail into the palm of my hand, as hard as I can stand it.
Then I imagine what it must be like to push all the way through.
The pain.
The blood.
I feel a bit dizzy.
My mother closes the book and I can detect a satisfied look on her face, certain that she is doing a good job of parenting.
I look over at the rose, certain that I am a terrible human being.
This goes on until three o’clock.
Sitting around, fidgeting. Feeling worse and worse. My mother popping through to shush us and inform us of some fresh horror. A nailing. A stabbing. Jesus’ mum popping by and probably making him feel ten times worse. (No mum, I’m fine! Stop wiping at my crown of thorns with a hanky with lick on it! Of course my underpants aren’t clean! I’ve been SCOURGED!)
And then, finally, at three, she comes back in. Sits us down.
“He’s dead now. He died at the stroke of three.”
I look at the carriage clock. Exactly three o’clock. I look at the rose next to it. I’m waiting for a crash of thunder and a bolt of lightning.
“Just remember though – he died for YOUR sins.”
She says we don’t have to be quiet anymore as it doesn’t matter because he’s dead now, as though the sound of us playing with Star Wars figures would really have distracted Jesus and put him off being crucified.
I don’t feel like playing anyway.
Not after my clumsy fingers snapping a petal off a pottery rose resulting in the actual Son of God being nailed to fucking cross.
And this happened for a good few years.
My mother taught me this.
My school taught me this.
My church taught me this.
Catholics at the time were a closed off bunch so as far as I knew these teachings were – literally – gospel.
And it wasn’t just Easter.
We had a mobile hairdresser come round once a month and we all got a haircut.
We all got the same haircut, even my mum.
It turns out this hairdresser was fairly cheap but she had something of a limited repertoire.
So we all had the same haircut.
I decided I wanted to be a bit different.
So I asked for some hair gel and my own hairbrush, rather than the thickly matted communal hairbrush we had all been using for eternity.
My mother frowned, but relented.
After the next Big Shop I was presented with a pot of blue sloppy hair gel and a plastic hairbrush.
Then she said. “There you go. But be careful that you don’t look in the mirror for too long because if you do, you’ll see Satan looking back at you over your shoulder.”
And she went about her business.
I stood in front of the mirror holding my new pot of blue hair gel and my new hairbrush.
I didn’t look in the mirror.
As the years went by the strata of guilt settled like sediment, each fresh misdemeanor compressing the next, solidifying it, making it more real.
Monthly confessions in church, whispered through a grill to a priest who gently tried to wheedle out some masturbatory muttering, something juicy to spice up the mundane, everyday sins.
A handful of Hail Mary’s and a few Our Father’s later and our souls had been restored to factory settings, clean and unsullied.
But something didn’t sit right.
If three Hail Mary’s and an Our Father absolved me of the sin of snapping a petal from an ornamental rose, then how many Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s would the newly apprehended Local Hero Peter Sutcliffe need to make his soul whiter than white?
I knew it would be possible. One of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, either Dismas or Gestas, actually repented on the cross. He’d have dodged the Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s of course, seeing as these two little ditties hadn’t been invented yet, but a life of thievery and skullduggery just wiped clean at zero hour?
Not a bad option if you asked me.
So I realised it wasn’t a fair system.
We needed a sliding scale of sin and punishment.
Some bloke in a funny collar sitting in a rabbit hutch didn’t seem the best person to be deciding this, but I also realised that’s all the Catholic Church really is – a lot of men of various importance wearing funny hats, collars and dresses, sitting in rabbit hutches of various sizes, deciding how many Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s are required to absolve someone of the sin of snapping a leaf from a pottery rose, or watching a next door neighbour having a shower, or smashing in the heads and faces of thirteen poor women using a hammer and a screwdriver whilst wearing an old jumper as trousers so you can get your cock out easily through the head hole before wanking over their dying bodies.
Like I say, it really needs a sliding scale of sin and punishment.
At church I’d see the younger people near the back and the older people near the front and it put me in mind of a conveyor of death, everyone moving forward a pew with each passing year until it’s your turn to get in the box.
The older people seemed to sing the hymns the worse but sang them more loudly, bleating to be noticed by a God they’d mostly ignored whilst in the rear pews of life, but now they were near the front He had grown larger, frighteningly close.
There’s no napping in the front rows.
He Can See You.
Big Father is Watching.
I remember a quote from a priest.
He said, “If I’m wrong about religion, if there is no God, I’ve only wasted eighty years of my life. But if I’m right, and if I hadn’t believed, I would have wasted Eternity.”
Following that thought though, if there is no afterlife, then Eternity is eighty years long because that’s all you get.
So which one are you going to choose?
No easy decision.
So I realised quite early that I needed more facts.
So I started asking questions.
And that’s when I learned that questioning religion in itself is a sin.
You don’t question, you just believe.
It’s called Faith.
If you ask questions then it shows you lack Faith, if you lack Faith then you don’t believe, and if you don’t believe then it makes you a Doubting Thomas.
How’s that for a tidy little Catch 22?
So I asked questions about religion in school and got into trouble and I asked questions about religion at home and I got into trouble.
I stopped wanting to get up on a Sunday to go to church and my parents relented slightly and allowed me to go to evening mass instead.
This was a small but significant victory.
But each Good Friday, poor old Jesus went for a walk with one of his dad’s old joinery projects on his back, and got a murdered by some Italians because I snapped a leaf off a pottery rose when I was six.
And you know what?
I stopped giving a shit.
If all you get told all your life is that you are a sinner, that the things you do are bad, then after a while you just shrug and come to accept it. And if you realise that a man in a rabbit hutch wearing a dress whispering magic formulas to save your soul that can’t possibly work and are frankly ridiculous, then you just accept that you’re probably going to Hell and you just get on with your life.
So I just kept arguing with my mother about religion and kept arguing with teachers about religion and what little Faith I had withered on the vine before falling on barren ground.
I begrudgingly went through the motions of going to church.
I went with a friend, just about my only friend, a lad called Guy.
Guy was tall and good looking in a Latin kind of way. He’d probably have looked very handsome in a Roman Legionnaire uniform, having a stab at Jesus’s side or giving him a bloody good scourging at a convenient pillar.
So one Sunday we trudged to Mass with typical teenage lethargy.
Guy stopped.
He said, “How much money do you have on you?”
I said, “Five pounds fifty three.”
He said, “I got eight quid. Why don’t we go to the pub instead?”
We were fifteen.
It was the best idea we’d ever had.
So instead of sitting through a dull Mass we listened to Thin Lizzy on the juke box of The Black Bull, drank pints of Tetley’s and ate crisps.
It was magical.
I had found my true religion.
Drink absolved me of my sins far more effectively than religion ever did. Or at least it made guilt disappear in a lovely beery haze, which was even better.
We were big lads and could pass for eighteen easily, so getting served was never a problem.
What was a problem was that our parents eventually found out we were going to the pub instead of going to church.
It was a bad time.
We were heathens, we were going to Hell, it was the Devil in the pint glass.
My mother was a tee-totaller at the end of a long line of heroic Irish drinkers. She’d seen the ruin caused by The Drink, the fights and the fallouts, the illness and death. She spoke of parties where people would drink and drink then go upstairs or out the garden to be sick before going at the drink again, parties where folk got rowdy and where everyone needed to retreat to the kitchen so my grandfather could have fighting space in the lounge to subdue the wayward reveller, calling through to declare the coast was clear and allowing everyone to keep on drinking around the unconscious body on the living room carpet.
She told us these stories as precautionary tales.
I thought they sounded terrific fun.
So my mother wept and argued to keep me in church and away from the drink, and I would shout and argue to keep in drink and away from the church.
The thing is, I’ve always had a way with words. I don’t mind a good old discussion.
That’s what got me into so much trouble regarding religion.
Religion isn’t supposed to be debated by the common man. We’re supposed to to trust that all the important theological discussions are taking place on our behalf behind closed doors between men of learning. Our job is to Believe and to go about our daily jobs of tilling fields and paying tithes.
So I’d argue my point with my mother, who had been taught never to question and therefore had no answers.
So all we did was argue and fall out.
So, eventually, I moved out.
I moved out and never went to church unless someone was born, or someone died, or someone got married, and even then it was under duress.
But every Easter, on Good Friday, I’d look at the clock at three, and I’d imagine. I could see it.
The blood. The cobbles. The cross. The broken pottery rose.
So years later I go home for Easter.
It’s the Friday and I’m stood with my mother in the kitchen, having a catch up.
I have one eye on the clock, but she doesn’t.
It’s a quarter to three.
I ask her, “So will you be going to Mass on Sunday then? I don’t mind getting the dinner ready when you’re out. I’m quite handy in the kitchen these days.”
She hardly pauses in wiping down the counter top. “We won’t be going. We don’t go to Mass any more.”
I’m stunned.
I say, “What? You don’t go to Mass? How come? What changed your mind?”
She said, “You did.”
I’m confused. I say, “Me? How?”
She said, “I’d been brought up never to question, only to believe. To have Faith. Well, you started asking questions and it got me thinking, and it really didn’t make much sense, when you give it a bit of thought. So I decided it was all a bit daft so I stopped believing. Do you want a cup of tea?”
I mumble something and wander through to the living room.
It’s a different house but some things are the same.
A cut glass bell. A cut glass basket. A cheap carriage clock. A strange rose made from pottery and wire.
The clock says it is three o’clock exactly.
He’s dead now, I think.
He’s dead and it’s all my fault.

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201. Towel Movement.

I’m sipping a cup of coffee in the stuttering yellow light of the canteen, letting my greasy breakfast congeal on the plate.
I don’t know why I bought it. I didn’t want the eggs from jailbird hens, the bacon from slave pigs, the Spam from… whatever Spam comes from.
No more.
I’m giving up this shit.
I’ve cut down on the booze of late and I’m feeling healthier. Lost some weight. Cut back on the crap.
I miss the numbness on an evening, if I’m honest, the instant off switch that comes with drinking.
Still, it’s better than the trembling, sweating anxiety in the night, the bleary bleakness of the morning, the grim fumble for the fridge in the evening.
I ordered the full breakfast out of habit so now I push it away, sip my coffee, stare at Scorcher.
Staring at Scorcher today is more enjoyable than any fry-up.
He’s obviously confused about something because his face is twitching like a sack of ferrets as he gawps into middle distance, a fat sausage speared upon his fork, forgotten.
Normally it would be totally out of character for me to talk to anyone in the canteen. I’ve been known to instantly abandon any food on the rare occasion of someone deciding to join me at a table, so repulsed am I by the sight of other people eating. Don’t get me wrong, my own manners aren’t impeccable, but as much as I don’t want to see you slobber over a fried egg sandwich, I’d also rather you didn’t see me with a beard full of Spam and beans.
But now I’m filled with curiosity.
The thing is, as a rule, Scorcher doesn’t think. Ever. By his own admission he’s a thick cunt.
Honestly, I’ve heard him say as much.
In a heated exchange at a union meeting with the factory bosses he once stood up and said, “You’ve been sayin’ we don’t make no money so that means we don’t get no pay rise for the last fifteen years. A factory that don’t make no money don’t stay open for fifteen years – even I know that, and I’m a thick cunt!”
He got a round of applause for that at the time, to be fair.
I couldn’t decide if the applause was for the point he was making or if everyone was just agreeing that he is a thick cunt.
So here is Scorcher, sausage on high, deep in thought.
I can’t resist it.
I’m drawn like a moth to a flame.
I slide out from my side of the table, walk over, take the empty chair opposite him.
I say, “Something on your mind, Scorcher?”
He blinks.
Looks at me.
Looks at the sausage.
He takes a slow bite of the sausage and chews with his mouth open, carefully negotiating the chunk of gristly meat with his tongue to make sure the few teeth in his head can get a chew at it.
I wince.
He swallows.
“Yer might say that, Luci,” he drawls. “Me ‘ouse, it backs onto a field up t’road from ‘ere. Well, I were lookin’ out t’kitchen window last neet, an’ I saw this fuckin’ towel in t’field.”
It’s my turn to frown. “A towel? What sort of towel?”
He says, “It were a white one.”
I say, “Was it windy last night? Had it blown into the field from someone else’s garden?”
He shakes his head. “Still as t’grave, Luci. Not a breath o’ wind. But this ‘ere towel were floatin’ about, like. Too an’ fro…”
Scorcher simulates the flightpath of the wayward towel with his half eaten sausage.
I scratch my head. “It does sound a bit weird, Scorcher. I mean, I don’t believe in ghosts myself, but… you know… Was it a big towel?”
He says, “I’d say, if I ‘ad to make a guess, it were a bairn one, y’know.”
“Bairn? You mean a baby’s one, then?”
He shrugs. “Dunno. I’m not a fuckin’ towel expert, Luci!”
I’m intrigued. “Well, at least that gives me a sense of size. How long was it floating about?”
“Till it got too dark to see. It reet unnerved us, so it did!” Scorcher takes another bite of his sausage.
I shake my head. “That’s a bit of a mystery you got there, Scorcher. Do you reckon someone was fucking you about – a practical joke? You know, pretending to be ghost or something?”
He just shrugs again, looking confused.
I say, “Tell you what – keep an eye out tomorrow, and if you see it why not try take a couple of pictures?”
Scorcher snaps his fingers. “There’s a fuckin’ good idea! Why didn’t I fink o’ that??”
Because you’re a thick cunt, I think, but don’t say anything.
I finish my coffee and go back to work.

Next day I see Scorcher. He’s shambling hurriedly over the factory floor towards me, waving and whistling between his teeth, trying to get my attention.
I stop. He catches up.
He says, “I took yer advice last neet, Luci! I were lookin’ out at yon field, an’ there it were, yon towel! But this time, there were two o’ the fuckers! So I did as yer sez an’ I took a load o’ photos, like!”
I say, “Brilliant! Let’s have a look at these phantom towels then!”
Scorcher get’s out his phone.
He presses a few buttons, starts to scroll, his brow furrowed.
Then he looks triumphant.
“Got it!”
He holds the phone to his ear. Waits. Then he says, “Alreet! Is that Boots? I dropped a film off this mornin’ like. How long you reckon till they’ze developed?”
I roll my eyes.
He hangs up. “Be ready Thursday.”
I say, “For fuck’s sake, Scorcher! You’ve got a fucking Samsung smart phone in your hand but you go and crack out the Olympus fucking Trip and a roll of fucking Kodachrome! It’s a towel in a field, we don’t need any David Bailey level stuff, we just need a few bloody photos!”
He says, “What’s me phone got to do wi’ photos?”
I sigh. “See that lens at the back? It’s a camera lens! You can take photos with it!”
I show him how it works. What buttons to press.
He shakes his head. “I’ve ‘ad this fing two bleedin’ year an’ never knew it could do that!”
I say, “Have another go tonight and let me know.”
He nods. “We’ll crack the case, Luci. It’s startin’ to do me ‘ead in, like!”
I know what you mean,” I mutter as I walk away.

Next day I’m in the canteen queue.
Beans on toast. Coffee.
He’s sat opposite me.
It’s like we’re old buddies now, regular breakfast pals.
He’s stabbing a nicotine stained finger at his phone.
He says, “I did it, Luci! I took a shit load o’ photos on mi phone! It were a piece o’ piss! Them two towels were back, floatin’ around like fuckin’ ghosts! I got a load o’ snaps but I’m fucked if I know where they are on this fuckin’ thing!”
I say, “Give it here…”
I take the phone off him and press the photos icon.
I slowly and silently scroll through the pictures, looking carefully at them, one at a time.
“What you fink, Luci?” he whispers.
“I think…” I say, “I think you’re as thick as fucking treacle, Scorcher.”
I show him the camera.
Each picture shows a full screen shot of Scorcher’s face.
In some he has puppy ears.
In others he has a duck beak.
Angels and flowers surround him in one picture.
He mutters, “Bollocks. I might have pressed a few buttons. Fat fingers, y’know.”
“Fat head, more like.”
Scorcher snaps his fingers. “Well, them other snaps are back from Boots tomorrow. That’ll decide it! Y’see, I were a world famous photographer, back in t’day, y’know! One time I…”
“Never mind that bollocks, Scorcher. I’ve neither time nor patience. Let me know when you’ve got those photos.”
I drain my cup and leave.

The day goes slowly.
In spite of myself, Scorcher’s story has actually got me intrigued.
As a kid I was always interested in mysteries. There’s the obvious ones like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and aliens, but I used to spend hours reading about lesser know stuff like the Oak Island Money Pit, the Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe Manor, the Hand of Glory, the Solway Spaceman.
It all intrigued me, filled me with wonder. My childhood was so fucking dull that I yearned for the unusual, the bizarre. Overprotective and over-religious parents created a grey, cosseted environment from which I longed to escape, into a world that was strange and filled with oddities.
Little did I know that would mean working forever in a freak show of a factory filled with people who make Spring Heeled Jack and the Jersey Devil look like fine upstanding pillars of society.
It wore me down, made me cynical. I stopped believing in mysteries, I stopped believing in everything, mostly stopped believing in myself.
But Scorcher’s towels…
For some reason it has reignited my sense of wonder, my love of the strange.
What the fuck is he actually seeing? Floating white apparitions of some kind, but his addled mind can only compare them to something he can understand – namely a fucking towel.
I’m in two minds wether to actually go see for myself.
I decide to wait until the next day. Take a look at Scorcher’s photos, then maybe go myself and and check it out.
My own mystery.

Next day, canteen.
I don’t know what I want to eat.
I don’t want the pink meat, I’ve gone right off the pink meat.
I hate cereal.
it makes me shit myself. Coffee used to make me shit myself but I’ve acclimatised now. Cereal… nope. After a week of cereal. I’m exhausted.
Maybe it’s an allergy or one of these intolerances that every fucker has now.
I don’t know. I should probably get it checked out but it’s easier to just not eat cereal.
A plate of pink meat clatters down in front of me.
Full mashings.
A Sports Direct pint pot of tea bangs down, slopping a small brown lake across the battle scarred Formica.
I flinch.
“Not ‘ungry, Luci?” he says, stabbing at his plate like Norman Bates in the shower.
“No,” I say, staring with horror at the glistening massacre slithering on his plate.
“I got summat you might wanna get yer teeth into…” Scorcher thrusts his hand down below the table.
“No! Oh fuck!” I push back from the table.
It’s not uncommon for blokes at work to whip their cocks out on such occasions for comedy effect.
I don’t fancy the pink meat, so the flaccid grey-brown meat in an ageing man’s trousers certainly isn’t going to get my juices flowing.
Scorcher slaps a glossy blue packet bearing the blue Boots logo onto the table, much to my relief.
The photos.
I look up at him. He winks at me.
I say, “Did they… did they come out alright?”
Scorcher nods, cramming bacon and eggs into his mouth.
He swallows. “Clear as a fuckin’ bell, Luci. Like I says, I were a pro, back in the day, did a bit o’ tit work for The Sun for a few year, ‘ad to knock back a threesome wi’ Sam Fox an’ Linda Lusardi on account of it not been professional an’ that…”
I put my hand on the packet, slide them across the table.
I feel strangely nervous. Actual photos of an actual mystery.
I say, “You can see these towels, floating then, yeah?”
He nods. “Yep. Both of ‘em. It’s weird. Take a look.”
I open the packet.
Start to flick through the photos, one at a time.
I feel myself going red.
I say, “You’ve looked at these then?”
He nods again. “Aye.”
I say, “What do you see?”
He says, “Towels.”
I say, “They’re owls. Fucking owls.”
“That’s what I said. Towels.”
“You said towels, not owls. There’s a world of fucking difference.”
Scorcher shrugs. “Nah, it’s just you an’ yer fancy fuckin’ way o’ talkin’. You say it weird. It’s spoke ‘t’owls. That’s how everyone says it. you got a fuckin’ plum in yer gob, that’s yer problem.”
I’m furious. “Look, not everyone says towels instead of owls. It’s a pretty small demographic that says towels instead of owls, in fact it might be just you. So let’s get some details sorted out here – how the fuck does an owl become a baby’s towel in your head?”
“I didn’t say baby. You did. I said bairn. Cos it’s a Bairn Towel.”
“A bairn… Barn. A fucking Barn Owl.”
“That’s wot a said, fuckin’ cloth ears! A fucking Bairn Towel!”
I feel a bit dizzy.
After a moment I ask, “Wait, why did it strike you as being odd that there was an owl in the field?”
He shrugs. “You only get them in zoos these days, don’t yer? Like them ostriches ‘n’ rhincerooses ‘n’ badgers ‘n’ shit. Owls. Fucking weird, ain’t they? Wi’ big eyes ‘n’ wobbly ‘eads. They creep me out.”
I put the photos back in the packet and shove them angrily across the table. “There’s owls all over the place, Scorcher, same with badgers. You can’t moved for the fuckers. There’s weird creatures out there, I grant you, like spectral hounds and big cats, but they’re myths, not real. As for towels…”
I run out of steam.
I stand up and turn to go.
Scorcher says, “There’s loads o’ them big cat round ‘ere, matter o’ fact. I used to put food out for a big black one as big as a leopard, back in t’day.”
I sigh. “Of course you did, Scorcher. I bet you rode the fucker to work like He-Man as well.”
Scorcher gets out his wallet. He pulls out a folded piece of paper. It’s a photograph, greasy and nicotine stained. He passes it to me.
It shows a wall, a field, a telegraph pole…
…and a huge cat prowling near a wheelbarrow. It’s in focus, clear, and it’s plain to see the cat is far longer than the wheelbarrow, maybe six feet or more.
It’s the best big cat photo I’ve ever seen.
It takes me back to those books I read when I was a kid. That sense of wonder.
And I know, I just know that the photograph is for real. It’s older, not doctored, and it’s an original.
It’s a genuine photograph of an ABC – an Anomalous Big Cat.
Then I look at Scorcher.
Pathological liar, serial bullshitter, the Titan of Tall Tales.
I can just imagine him being interviewed about his sighting, him telling the facts, then going on to embellish it with some story about being abducted by aliens or how he fucked Marilyn Monroe in the back of a Transit Van in the car park of the Frontier Club in Batley.
I sigh, fold up the photo and hand it back to him.
“I’d keep that to yourself, Scorcher,” I say. “You don’t want anyone thinking you’re a liar, do you?”
He nods, puts it away, keeps eating his fry up.
With a heavy heart I go back to work.

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200. Cold Cuts

Skittering a little over the chipped concrete.
Slivers of sleet and snow slipping from cuff and collar, the freezing metal of my bicycle stem numbing already cold fingers.
Something chilly and wet worms it’s way down the back of my neck like a reminder of Death.
I’m cold and I’m damp and now I’m in The Factory under dozens of fucking blazing sodium lamps in cleated shoes that seem designed to slither on factory floors like it’s some creepy contemporary dance performance, nowhere to hide, adding to the Bambi-like grace of a lycra clad forty-something tip-toeing between hammering engines and motors and wheels and belts and drives and power, making my bike look like a chip fork next to a Magimix 5200XL food processor in the pastel shade of your choice, feeling somewhat vulnerable in my stretchy, figure hugging synthetics.
I can understand why people think that cyclists look like fucking dickheads – it’s because we do.
There’s no getting away from it.
Deny it all you like, but the truth is, it ain’t pretty.
But it works.
The soaking clobber I’m wearing keeps the worst of the cold and wet off me, it is bright enough to alert even the most rabid Audi-humping cunt to my vulnerable presence, it is tight enough so it doesn’t flap about like a fucking sail at the slightest breeze and blow me back to Kansas with the Wicked Witch on my back and Toto nipping at my bollocks and it’s made of some weird Voodoo material that will be warm and dry by home time.
I hate putting on wet clothes.
The image that always springs – involuntarily – to mind is that it must be like fucking a drowned corpse.
Cold, wet and bloody difficult to squeeze into.
And just plain wrong, of course.
The simple act of riding a bike is also considered wrong by many, seen as some weird heresy against technology.
I had a car once but the doors kept flying open at the wrong times and the clutch went and the tyres burst and the tax ran out and the MOT needed paying and insurance was due so I decided FUCK THAT SHIT and now I ride my bike again.
A two wheeled heretic.
My bike tyres are leaving two wet waving lines on the concrete. I think they’re pretty, but pretty isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
I’ve always parked my bike in a warm quiet spot near the offices, down a dusty little corridor, under some fire escape stairs, out of the way where no-one can see either me or it.
But someone saw.
Someone, some cunt, saw my wheel peaking out and reported a rogue bike in an unlicensed area so the hard word came down: ADEQUATE BIKE PARKING IS PROVIDED IN THE WAREHOUSE BY THE BINS NEAR THE CAGES AND THE GLUE AND ALL EMPLOYEES WHO RIDE BICYCLES MUST USE THE FACILITIES PROVIDED.
These glorious facilities are at the opposite end of the factory.
It’s a ten minute round trip in my lovely lycra to park my bike now, a trip that involves me mincing my way through the machines, past smirking arseholes with faces like fists, and I hate it.
Clip clop go my shoes.
‘Wanker!’ goes the thick, slurred voices of the fist faces.
“Fucking puff!” they shout.
When I look up they look away with school kid delight, pretending it wasn’t them as they go about their shit jobs with a sense of hard man superiority, just because they’re not wearing lycra, just because they get to drive to work in a fourth hand Mondeo with three hundred and seventy thousand miles on the clock and a gearbox like a spoon in batter.
Cock suckers.
I keep walking.
I look up.
I see who said it, a red faced bloke who I happen to know drinks eight tins of strong lager before his shift every morning, a bloke who has a heart condition that will definitely kill him quite soon, a bloke who has a conviction for fencing wedding rings he nicked in a grubby little break in, a bloke who is obviously better than me.
I almost say something.
As it happens, I don’t need to.
A slushy snowball whistles from nowhere and smack the bloke full in the face, hard, sending him reeling. He clutches a work bench and spits blood, dazed. He looks around for who threw it, sees no-one.
I face forward, keep walking.
I shout, ‘THIEF!’
Keep walking.
And suddenly the phantom snowballer is by my side, giggling and capering. Tears of glee in his eyes.
“Sweet wheels, Luci!” says Fucking Amazing Dave. “Give us a backy!”
I look quickly around. No gaffers.
I say, ‘Hop on,”
He perches precariously on the saddle and I slow pedal into the warehouse with Dave whooping behind me.
I park up, laughing.
We need more Fucking Amazing Daves in the world, less tin-swigging ring-nicking rotten-hearted motherfuckers. We need to get the balance back.
I stop laughing and notice Dave’s hair.
I say, “New hairstyle, Dave?”
He gives his hair a proud flick to show off his fresh trim.
“Aye mate! You like?”
I pause. Fucking Amazing Dave is sporting a crude mullet, tatty bangs falling around his ears with a kind of tufty affair taking place on the top.
I shrug. “There’s many that couldn’t rock it, Dave, but on you… yeah, I like.”
Dave grins happily. “Cheers man! I was in the mood for a change, y’know? I mean, y’gotta stay fresh, yeah? Keep mixin’ it up! You should try it, man!”
I say, “It’s hard to stay fresh in the hairstyle department with male pattern baldness, Dave. You generally have two choices – Phil Mitchell or Max Wall.”
Dave shakes his head sadly. “Nature can be cruel, Luci. I thank Jesus every fuckin’ day for letting me ‘ave this lovely ‘ead o’ ‘air – it’s me crownin’ glory!”
He flicks his tatty mullet again, enjoying himself.
I say, “Don’t rub it in. Who’s your hairdresser, then? You must keep him busy. You’ve had a shit load of different styles over the years, if I remember right.”
Fucking Amazing Dave pulls himself upright, chin in the air. “Yer lookin’ at my ‘airdresser, Luci! This is all my own work, mate. Always ‘as been. I don’t pay no fucker for what I can do me sen!”
“Really?” I look at his haircut with fresh eyes. It does have a certain amateur quality and it’s a little lop sided, but to say it’s probably been cut in a bathroom mirror with kitchen scissors by a lad who’s four tins deep into a six pack, then all things considered I don’t reckon it’s too bad.
You’ve missed your calling, Dave,” I say. “You could be the Mister Teasy Weasy for a new generation.”
Fucking Amazing Dave looks suspicious. “Mister Teasy what? Sounds a bit, you know, sex offendery to me.”
I sigh. “He was your first celebrity hairdresser, Dave – Raymond… Bessone. That’s it. He was all flicky with people’s hair, all fancy, he had this little moustache… so actually, there might be chance he was a bit sex offendery. I don’t really know if I’m honest.”
Fucking Amazing Dave shakes his head. “You know some right useless bollocks, you do, Luci. No wonder you stick out like a pot prick in this place, dressin’ like that an’ talkin’ like that. Good job y’got me to keep you in line!”
He winks at me.
“Yes,” I say. “Good job. So how come you cut your own hair? At what point does a person say, ‘fuck it – I’ll do it myself’?”
“I’ve not paid for an ‘aircut in eighteen years, mate,” he says with more than a hint of pride. “Biggest rip-off there is, the ‘air cuttin’ game. You think about it – ‘ow many ‘air cuts you get a year? Let’s call it once a month, for a bloke. Then you times that by twelve, yeah? Right, then you times that again by eighteen…”
Dave’s brow furrows. Then he shrugs. “What’s that add up to, Luci. I’m lost.”
I think a bit. “Two hundred and… sixteen?”
He snaps his fingers. “Cock on. Well done. Yer not as daft as yer look. Now times THAT by two ‘undred an’ fifty…”
I have to think a lot harder. I’m not a numbers person. “Fifty… wait… fifty four thousand.”
Dave claps his hands and points at me. “THERE! See? That’s what I saved by not payin’ for ‘aircuts for eighteen years! Fifty thousand quid! I saved meself best part of a fuckin’ mortgage! Who’s daft now?”
I go back over the numbers in my head, frowning. I say, “Wait a second. Twelve…eighteen… two hundred and fifty… Wait. Where’s this two hundred and fifty come into it??”
Fucking Amazing Dave shrugs. “Price of an ‘aircut, innit. That’s what an ‘aircut costs.”
I say, “Is it fuck. You can get a short back and sides for nine quid down the road from me. It’s basic, but at least it’s not two hundred and fifty! When have you ever paid that for a bloody haircut??”
“Last ‘aircut I ever paid for cost that,” he said defensively. “That’s when I swore I were gonna do it meself from then on! ‘Fuck that’, I said! I’m not payin’ that kind of brass for a crop I could do meself!”
I’m confused. I say, “Two hundred and fifty quid, eighteen years ago?? Back then two fifty was a lot more! Who the Hell was cutting your mop for that sort of money? Nicky fucking Clarke?”
Fucking Amazing Dave scratches at his mullet. “It were our lass’s ‘airdresser, or at least it were the ‘airdresser for the lass I were wi’ at the time. Bit poncey, like, a fancy gaff, so maybe that were the reason for the fancy prices.”
“There’s fancy and then there’s fancy, Dave. Something isn’t right there, you know.”
Fucking Amazing Dave had a think. He sticks out his tongue and screws up his eyes. He stands on one foot. He gives his arse a quick scratch. Then he opens his eyes.
“I reckon one thing might have bumped the price up a touch, but I don’t know though…”
I say, “What was that then?”
He sighs. Then he says, “Well it were like this. I had lovely long locks back then, even more resplendent than this mighty mane y’see before yer now! An’ our lass books us both in for our ‘air doin’ at the same place on a Saturday mornin’ like. So the night before I goes out wi’ the lads, cos as y’know, Fridays is lads night an’ Saturdays is lasses night. So I has a few pots wi’ the lads, maybe a few pots too many, an’ if I’m ‘onest maybe a few shots too many too, an’ before y’know it we’re all down Fruity Simon’s gaff in Armley doin’ all kinds o’ shite we shouldn’t ‘ave been doin’, an’ then I see it’s eight in the fuckin’ mornin’ an’ me ‘air appointment is only at nine fuckin’ thirty! So’ I hot foot it ‘ome, ‘ave a brush up an’ meet our lass on time, fresh as a fuckin’ daisy!
“She’s first in the ‘ot seat first, like, so I sits there an’ flick through a Marie Claire, reading stuff on ‘ow blokes are shit an’ ‘ow lasses aren’t wankin’ right, an’ I start feelin’ a little… peculiar.”
I say, “You’ve been on an all night booze and drugs session, you’ve had no sleep, so now you’re feeling bit of colour? Hardly a surprise, is it?”
Dave shrugs. “I put it down to a bad pint. Any road, our lass is gettin’ a ‘ead o’ ighlights done…”
I say, “What?”
He says, “A ‘ead o’ ighlights.”
“What the fuck is that?”
Dave says, “Yer know, light bits. All over yer bonce. ‘ighlights. All over yer ‘ead.”
“Right,” I say. “Go on.”
“OK. So our lass is gettin’ this ‘ear ‘ead o’ ‘ighlights, an’ that chemical solution they smear all ovver yer noggin’ is fuckin’ rank, mate. It proper stinks. An’ that’s it fer me. I feel everything shift in me guts. I can feel that greasy sweat poppin’ out all over, tricklin’ down me back an’ into me arse crack. Me face feels like putty. Me gob is juicin’ up an’ I know it ain’t lookin’ good, so I asks this young lass if there’s a lavvy, like, an’ she points upstairs, so up I go, an ‘alfway up, I know I got to get a move on cos suddenly it’s all kickin’ off inside me.”
I say, “Oh shit.”
He says, “Not yet, but we’re comin’ to that. So I find this lovely fancy bog upstairs an’ I RUN inside an’ just get the door shut an’ I start puking, man, like that little lass off The Exorcist. It’s pumpin’ out, hittin’ everythin’ except the fuckin’ bog! I’m barfin’ on the bog roll, the fancy hand soaps, the pot fuckin’ pourri. Y’know when y’turn a hose on an’ it whips around if y’not got hold of it? Well I were like that – I ‘adn’t got a ‘old of meself, so to speak! It were a right mess. So I get knelt down an’ aim at the bog, but there were nowt left, but then my guts start to boil so i get my trollies down double quick an’ get sat down, but nowt comes out, an’ THEN I power barf onto the fuckin’ wall an’ floor!! So I jump up an’ kneel down wi’ me face in the pan but nowt comes up, and then my fuckin’ arse explodes all over the fuckin’ place like Mount Fuckin’ Vesuvius, all over the wall ‘n’all, so I jump up and park me arse again but then all I can smell is the shite on the fuckin’ wall so I pukes up all ovver it again!!! Mate, it were a vicious circle!! Shit an’ piss an’ puke everywhere! After a bit it all calms down so I try dab it up wi’ some bog roll but It just weren’t ‘appenin’, so I reckons I’ll just do a bunk – leg it. Irony is, the bog bowl were fuckin’ immaculate. It were everythin’ else that looks like Bobby Sands’ cell. Then I ‘ear a little tap on the door.”
“Fuck…” I say, wincing.
“Yep” says Dave, gravely. “That’s what I thought. A little lass’s voice goin’ ‘You alright in there, sir?’ An’ I says, ‘Fine love, just grand, give us a minute, yeah?’ an’ she fucks off an’ I sort meself out then open the door AND SHE’S STILL THERE!! Stood there, lookin’ all concerned. I pull t’door shut right quick an’ she says, ‘Is everythin’ all right, sir?’ an’ I looks her dead in the eye, an I whisper, ‘DO NOT GO IN THERE. JUST… DON’T’ an’ then I walks down them stairs…”
“Did you get out? Did you escape?”
“Did I fuck. I were next in the chair. This fuckin’ clown of a ‘airdresser, the bloke who owned the gaff, ‘e grabs me an’ parks me in the chair an’ starts flickn’ me ‘air about askin’ what fuckin’ style I want an’ suggestin’ a bit off ‘ere an’ a bit off there, an all the while I got my eye on the mirror, watchin’ them stairs, ‘opin’ an’ prayin’ not to see that little lass come runnin’ down screamin’ blue murder. So I just says, yeah, whatever, an he starts skippin’ about doing ‘is thing.”
I say, “Oh God. Did you get away with it?”
Dave frowns. “Kind of. After twenty minutes the little lass comes down, wi’ a face like fuckin’ granite. She whispers to Mr Snips with his fuckin’ scissors, an’ he says ‘excuse me sir’ an’ scampers off upstairs, then down they both come, faces like thunder, an’ this bloke picks up the clippers an shaves every ‘air off me ‘ead. Bald as coot. All them lovely locks all over th lino, an’ our lass’s face were a fuckin’ picture. Almost worth it just for that! Then he beckons us to the till an’ charges us two hundred an’ fifty quid, an’ I pays, no question, although our lass is lookin’ somewhat fuckin’ alarmed at this point, but I just shook me ‘ead at ‘er, me blady ‘ead, an she shuts it, so I pays an’ I walks an’ that were the last ‘aircut I every paid for.”
As usual, I’m a bit speechless, but then I say, “I have to say, I reckon you might have been paying for a bit more than a haircut there, Dave. I don’t reckon it’s a fair reflection on the pricing systems of the modern salon. By the sounds of things you got off fairly lightly. Maybe it’s time to give the hairdressers another chance?”
Fucking Amazing Dave shakes his head. “Nah, mate. Think about it. Is it worth the risk? If I fuck up again, no… wait… WHEN I fuck up again it’ll cost us at least two fifty, plus inflation an’ such. An’ besides, I’ve taught meself a new skill! If this shit hole job goes belly up I’m off straight down the local salon to offer me services. Before you know it I’ll ‘ave me own shop, Chez Dave, an’ I’ll be makin’ a fuckin’ mint! There’s one thing I’ll make sure me salon does have n’all.”
I say, “What’s that?”
He winks. “Bogs that are tiled floor to fuckin’ ceilin’. We don’t want a repeat o’ that little episode, do we?”
He wanders outside into the snow, whistling, and starts to make a new snowball, packing it good and tight until it’s almost ice.
I park my bike and start the long walk back across the factory floor.

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199. Open Book

Hash browns.
And I’m blushing… Spam.
I sometimes even have a full fat Coke.
The thing is, when you’ve been blundering around in the dark since 4.30am, breakfast at 8.30am is more like lunch when you’ve skipped breakfast, or is that brunch even though brunch isn’t really a thing, or…
What I’m trying to say is that my body clock is permanently fucked up. Shifts do that to you. They shave years of your life, by fucking with your sleep patterns and by messing with your serotonin levels until you don’t know if afternoons are evenings or mornings are lunchtimes or if wine is a good idea when you’ve got to get up in five hours time or if Spam and Coca Cola are a wise breakfast choice.
I once knew a kid at school who didn’t like the way his eyebrows met in the middle. One day he took his dad’s razor and shaved a little here and a little there until there was fuck all left on his face and he had to go to school looking like a freak of nature.
That’s what shifts do to you – they make it so you keep trying to correct things, get it right, add something to one side of the sleep/fuel balance then take something from the other side. A nap here, a snack there, coffee here, booze there, until your heart’s beating like a fucked clock, as Marwood once said.
One time I stopped drinking for a week and got a hangover… on the Wednesday. It took three days for it to kick in.
So now it just feels easier to keep adding things here, taking things away there, blundering in the dark trying to remember if it is 4.30am or 4.30pm because it’s just as dark at both ends of the day and wether I should be necking pints of tea or pints of wine.
And here I sit with my eggs and my beans and my hash browns and my toast and yes, my Spam and yes, a can of full fat Coke.
And a book.
The canteen at work is half filled with similarly bleary blokes shuffling in shabby uniforms that are as creased as their faces, jaundiced below the fluorescent tubes fluttering in the grease-stained suspended ceiling.
So rather than look at them I look at my book, champ down on the greasy salty slab of pink in front of me, try to remember if there’s any wine left in the fridge at home, and judging by my blurred senses I come to the sad conclusion that there is none.
A scrape of a chair, the clatter of an overladen plate, the shifting of the table where heavy arms rest, ready to eat.
A battle scarred table knife tips my book up so the front cover is facing the man now sitting opposite me.
“What you reading.”
It’s Rampton. He’s eating Spam too. A big, thick, pink slab of a man eating a big, thick, pink slab of a breakfast.
I say, “The Fallen Idol, by Graham Greene. He did Brighton Rock. The Third Man. They were made into films. The Fallen Idol was too. It was…”
“Never heard of him.”
Rampton shovels a piled fork into his mouth.
Books are like magnets. They either repel or attract. The reaction is sometimes positive, sometimes negative. I read in the canteen to repel people but sometimes they attract people. Some people look at a bloke with a book and think, ‘look at that poor cunt sat on his own with nowt better to do than read a book – I’ll go sit with him and cheer the sad fucker up’.
Which is the polar opposite of what I want anyone to do.
“I got a book for my birthday,” says Rampton around a mouthful of processed meat. “Lee Childs. He’s a proper writer, he is.”
He winks at me like he’s given me a valuable tip, like I can thank him later.
I sigh and put down my book. “When was it your birthday?” I ask, just for something to say.
“Sunday,” he says.
“How old were you?” I say.
He pauses. Frowns. Shrugs. “Does it matter?” he says.
“Not really,” I say.
We fall silent, apart from the sounds of eating.
After a bit I say, “Did you do anything nice?”
Rampton stops eating. He says, “When?”
“It was your birthday. Did you do anything nice, on your birthday?”
He tears at a slice of toast, looks up at the yellow lights, frowns, then smiles.
“Yeah, I did actually!”
I say, “Lovely. What did you do?”
He says, “I had a brilliant wank.”
I say, “Oh.”
Rampton becomes a bit more animated. “Nah, it were a bit special. Y’see, the missus got up and left us to have a lie in, y’know? Got the kids breakfast an’ all that. So when I woke up I were on me own an’ I had a right knob on. It were like a horse’s handbrake. Thing is, me an’ the missus’ve been ‘avin’ a few rows about shaggin’. I’m not gettin’ enough, y’know? Since we ‘ad the young ‘uns she’s gone right off the boil. Not bothered for it. Me though, I’m still randy as fuck! What’s your missus like? She still like to fuck?”
I swallow a dry mouthful of toast and take a sip of Coke. “I’d rather not say…”
Rampton shrugs. “Suit yersen. Well, we’ve had words, the missus ‘n’ me, just so’s we know where we stand. She said she’d make more of an effort in t’bedroom an’ I said I wouldn’t shout at ‘er so much. Anyways, I’m in bed an’ I thought I’d just crack one off, y’know? I didn’t reckon there were much chance of jump so I reckoned I’d better just sort miself out.”
I try not to picture the scene but I fail. I push my plate away.
“Not eatin’ that?” He says.
He stabs the piece of Spam left on my plate and drops it on his own.
“Well I’m at the half way mark an’ suddenly I realise I’m not alone. Our lass has snuck in under the covers! It were proper sexy. She comes up from underneath, like, between me legs. I slow my stroke a bit, thinking she’s gonna take the reigns, like, but no! Next thing, she’s lickin’ me knackers!”
Rampton leans over the table towards me. “You ever had your lass lick yer knackers when you been havin’ a tug?”
I avoid eye contact. “I… well…”
“Well I have!” he declares, triumphant. “An’ it were fuckin’ magic. So there I am, wankin’ away, getting me bollocks all sucked an’ nibbled, an’ our lass has got lovely long hair. Body’s a bit fucked since she put all that timber on after the kids were born, but y’can’t ‘ave it all, can yer? So her hair is ticklin’ me thighs an’ all that, an it feels fuckin’ ace, but then she starts lickin’… well… lower.”
“Oh…” I say.
Rampton leans even closer. In a hoarse whisper he says, “I know. Sounds a bit gay all that, don’t it? But let me tell you, Luci – you ain’t fuckin’ lived unless you had a lass lick yer arsehole while yer pullin’ yer pud. I were amazed. It were a fuckin’ revelation! I couldn’t help wonderin’ where she’d learned all these new tricks, like, but who the fuck were I to complain? There I am at half nine on fuckin’ Sunday wi’ me legs in the air, wankin’ wi’ a tongue half way up me arsehole while some sad twats are kneelin’ in church!! Best fuckin’ birthday ever!”
“That’s quite the picture you’re painting there, Rampton,” I say.
He looks smug and says, “I know! So anyway, I couldn’t last long like that. I shot me bolt an’ it felt like it came from me fuckin’ boots! Never felt owt like it! An’ y’know what? Our lass only comes up an’ licks all t’jizz off me belly! Honest, it were like a porno!”
I gag.
Rampton doesn’t notice. He frowns slightly. “That’s when it went a bit weird.”
I say, “All that wasn’t weird enough for you then?”
He shakes his head. “Nah, that were all fuckin’ brilliant. Our lass kind of shuffled up the bed, an’ I must have dozed off a bit, coz next thing I know our lass is comin’ through the door wi’ a mug o’ tea for us. An’ she’s laughin’ an’ callin’ for the kids to come an’ look, an’ in comes the kids an’ on goes the light, an’ they’re laughin’ cos I’m all tucked up in bed wi’ the neighbour’s dog.”
Time seems to stop.
Then it starts again.
I say, “What?”
He says, “Yeah. Neighbour’s dog. I didn’t know but ‘e got taken into ‘ospital that mornin’ an’ ambulance blokes ‘ad knocked on t’door to see if we’d look after ‘is fuckin’ dog while they carted ‘im off to ‘ospital.”
I say, “So, you mean… all that… with the… you know… under the covers…”
Rampton shrugs. “Dunno. I could ‘ave sworn it were our lass, but then again, that dog ‘as a lovely shiny coat.”
Rampton wipes his plate with a bit of toast. “Anyway, we got a call later. Bloke next door had only gone an’ died. Dog had no ‘ome, did it? Our lass an’ the kids were pleadin’ wi’ us to keep it, so I gave in. Said it could stay on one condition.”
His chair scraped across the floor as he stood, sucking bean juice off his fingers.
I said, “What condition was that?”
He said, “Kids weren’t to ever let it lick their faces. Dogs are dirty fuckers – never know where they’ve been.”
Rampton lumbers away.
I make a note to get two bottles on the way home that afternoon.

Un lit Défait by Eugene Delacrox, 1827

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