196. Virtual Reality Check

I am calm.
There is a job on my desk but it sits there, untouched, as I stare out of the window.
It is early – just before seven – and the office is mostly empty.
I have the windows open and clean air drifts in, fresh from the previous night’s rain.
I can smell wet grass, bus diesel, flowers, soil, a hint of cow shit.
Rough with the smooth, I suppose.
The North was industrial but is no longer, and the farms that have always hidden beside the hammering mills have become more apparent now. The fumes and clamour have faded, allowing the bleat of lambs and the lowing of cattle to be heard and the earthy smells of rustic life add a tang to the air.
Bees drone amongst the tree blossom. The office is on the first floor and and the windows are level with whitebeam, rowan, silver birch. Thrush and blackbird warble from the higher boughs whilst sparrows tumble amongst the lower leaves, bickering over caterpillars.
The office is only a space, it is the people who make it what it is.
A shit hole.
Without the people it can be quite pleasant, without the small minded arseholes and their petty woes and their bitter grudges the office can actually be a place of quiet contemplation.
I sit, listen to the sounds of the day waking, smelling the earth, content.
The silence is shattered by Ford Focus the colour of Lucozade screaming into the car park. I can tell that it isn’t an ordinary Ford Focus because it is painted a fucking stupid colour and it is being driven as though it has just been nicked.
The orange Ford Focus parks up and a fat man gets out. He is grinning. He is wearing the factory uniform – dull blue work fatigues, a bit like a prison uniform.
He stands there for a moment, grinning at his orange Ford Focus with pride, seemingly oblivious of how it contrasts with the drab clothes he wears.
He buffs the car with the corner of his shirt then waddles into the factory, ready to start a 12 hour shift to keep up with the eye-watering monthly payments he has to make on the orange Ford Focus.
One by one they arrive, reverse parking cars that none of them own before looking at their phones until they are safely inside the dull hulk of the factory.
The office is filled with the smell of instant coffee and cheap aftershave, the sounds of bent spoons in teacups and monotone bitching.
I sigh, start working.
People greet each other.
They say things like, ‘Morning! How y’doin’?”
The stock answer is a grin, a relieved roll of the eyes, and a sighed, “Friday!”
Because it’s Friday.
For most of the week the stock answer is a similar grin, an ‘I’m-bearing-up’ shrug followed by, “Not bad for a (Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday – delete as appropriate)”
And that is the peak of their personal observations about the day, until they reach their computers, look at the headlines on Sky news or the Daily Mail and then spend the next half hour bleating the opinions of right wing journalists at each other.
The idea that Friday is better than any other day really grates on me.
It’s the worst myth of all. Why the fuck are people relieved that they can finally do the EXACT same amount of work that they do every other day? What magic fairy dust has been sprinkled over Friday to make it so fucking special? Is it the fact that they’re going to have a ‘few cheeky beers’ that evening? If that’s the only thing that makes them look forward to Friday, why don’t they just get shit faced every night of the week like I do?
Yay, it’s Tuesday. Glug glug glug.
Maybe it’s because it’s the end of the week.
But if that’s the case, what’s to celebrate?
You’ve spunked five days of your life away in a job you hate so much that you exhibit relief that it’s finally over.
Shouldn’t you be weeping?
I know I feel like weeping.
It’s another week of your life you’ll never get back, a week where you could have been something useful, something you love.
Fridays stick in my throat like sediment, a bitter resentment towards the system we blindly adhere to, The Cattle Class mooing ‘Friday’ over and over again until it’s our turn to get a gold watch and a handshake at the doors of the abattoir.
A fluttering catches my eye.
A blue tit has flown to the open window and perches, looking in. It moves in stop motion, the tilt of it’s head occurring instantaneously. It studies me with an eye like a small black pearl, measuring threat, before hopping to the corner of the windowsill. It deftly plucks a spider from it’s web, the silk stretching, snapping.
The blue tit is gone, the web thrums slightly, then it is still.
A big bunch of keys hits the desk, clattering and sliding over the Melamine surface with a noise like a car crash.
“Mornin’!” says Intense Ginger Bloke.
Recently he has started to walk with an invisible roll of carpet under each arm. This is because he is heavy, around seventeen stone, the weight you get from drinking too much beer, eating too many pies and parking your Audi as close to the supermarket door as possible.
Intense Ginger Bloke is six feet tall and he sees this as an achievement. It is alright to be heavy, because his grandma tells him it’s alright. ‘You can carry it’, his grandma tells him.
Because she tells him it’s alright, then it’s alright.
Until his heart packs in, anyway.
I imagine his full weight falling like a cut tree, thundering against the carpet tiles with a shuddering boom, big pale paw clutching his chest as his Judas heart finally betrays him, quitting it’s job too early, too soon, telling him a truth that he didn’t want to hear, that yes, he could carry the weight but that his ticker could not.
I look at him, I say, “Yes. Morning. How are you?”
He grins and says, “Friday!”
He takes off his ratty Berghaus fleece. He needs the fleece to brave the unpredictable elements that might assail him from house to car, from car to factory. Some fifty feet in total on this fine Summer morning. Who knows what might have happened had he not had his trusty fleece to protect him.
I glance outside. Sun glitters over the field where sheep sit chewing amidst the warm dew, steam rising from their bodies.
I say, “What’s the weather like?”
Intense Ginger Bloke checks his phone. “It says the weather is fine.”
I don’t respond.
He hurriedly goes to hang up his fleece, and with a brisk pace he heads for the door.
He’s going to take a shit.
My mate Tommy calls him The Man With The Clockwork Bottom.
Every day, the exact same time, without fail.
I intend to make some Out Of Order signs soon, and hang them on all the nearest office toilets, just to see if he’ll shit himself before he can find an available cubicle.
Dimples waddles by, glancing conspiratorially around before whispering, “Morning!”
She’s such a compulsive gossip that she now treats even the most trivial statement as a confidential disclosure.
I say, “Yes, morning. How are you?”
She grins with relief, looks around, then whispers, “Friday!”
Dimples looks terrified. She whispers in the same tone with more exaggerated mouth movements, “Friday!”
She looks panicked. She whispers, “I don’t know!” and flees to the kitchenette.
Inane Jane sidles past. She walks like a heron that has been downed with a rock. Her long, pale, blotchy legs are placed one ahead of the other as if probing silt, flowy pastel fabrics wafting around her, draining her skin of what colour it might have had. Close set eyes over a beaked nose peer through tiny glasses. She has the hairstyle of a much younger woman which she flicks around like she’s the star of a shampoo commercial, her crowning glory, because she’s worth it.
It probably costs her a hundred pounds a month.
It doesn’t suit her.
She sees me, says, “Good morning! How are you?”
She speaks slowly and with great care, as if reading from a teleprompter, or as if she’s going to hold up a sign that says, ‘Keep talking – the office is bugged!’
I wouldn’t dream of telling Inane Jane how I actually am, in response to her stock greeting. I wouldn’t tell her that I want to scream, that I wish the factory would burn down, that I harbour a deep, unnamed dread, that I fantasise about Godzilla-esque reptilians surging from beneath the earth to scour the planet of the human menace.
Instead I say, “Yes, morning. How are you?”
Now Inane Jane flicks her unnatural tresses, composes her bird features into a witty smirk, stifles a slight titter, rolls her eyes and says, “Friday!”
I stare at her, jaws clenching, wishing I was a Super Villain.
She tiptoes away, extremely pleased with her humorous retort.
Bogwanker hurries past. He says nothing, which is quite refreshing. He is wringing his hands with great pressure, the flesh of each hand turning white under the pressure of the other. He is grinning. He walks as if every third step requires him to avoid a landmine, a great stride added to his shuffling gait. As soon as he reaches the refuge of the now deserted kitchenette, as soon as he thinks he is unobserved, he begins to speak silently to himself, laughing and chattering without a noise. It’s the most disconcerting thing I think I’ve ever seen and I see it every day.
I look away.
I hear a door swing open and heavy footsteps plod nearer.
Intense Ginger Bloke looms into view.
He is visibly relieved by his immense turd, his bowels happily evacuated until tomorrow at 8.05am.
He seems more excited than usual.
He can barely contain himself.
He says, “It’s arrived!”
I instantly think of Godzilla striding across the Leeds skyline, lazer beam eyes disintegrating Brutalist concrete architecture and insipid modern office blocks alike. I imagine screams and pell mell fleeing, I imagine huge footprints crushing pedestrian precincts.
I smile and I say, “Has it?”
Intense Ginger Bloke is deliriously happy. “Yup! I have Oculus Rift!”
He thrusts both arms into the air in a weird victory salute. His shirt rides up to expose a large, pale belly, covered in wiry ginger hair.
I say, “Will antibiotics get rid of it?”
He blinks, mildly bewildered. “It’s VR! You know, a virtual reality headset! They’re supposed to be five hundred quid but this offer came online where you got the headset AND the hand controllers AND all the rest for less than four hundred!! I said to myself, I said, ‘I’m having THAT badger so I hit buy it now!”
He slams his finger into the desk with excessive force. He is breathing heavily. His face is very red. I watch with alarm and fascination, realising that this could be it, this could be the day his heart gives up.
I give Intense Ginger Bloke my full attention.
I say, “What did your girlfriend say? It’s still a lot of money to spend on toys without a green light from her.”
He scowls. “It’s not a toy. It’s the future.”
“Whatever. What did she say?”
He beams. “She said it was fine! I couldn’t believe it! Mind you, she’s off to Barcelona for five days soon and I expect she’ll want some spending money, so it’s all swings and roundabouts.”
I think about his girlfriend.
She had a bit of a tough start in life but she wanted something better. She got it. She used to be plumpish but now the photos Intense Ginger Bloke occasionally makes me look at show a slim young woman, very good looking. He looks lumpen next to her in the photos, a very mismatched couple. She is working on a cross trainer in the garage, toning up for her holiday. She takes the occasional sun bed. This is a holiday she really wants, not a week in a field in a caravan by the muddy North Sea, an Intense Ginger Holiday.
She wants something better, she is going to get it.
Intense Ginger Bloke wants to be careful.
Very careful.
Oblivious to the potential for catastrophe, he ploughs on.
“I got it all set up last night. It were amazing!!! It’s so… real! You got the headset on and these sensors all around you and these hand controllers where when you look down YOU CAN ACTUALLY SEE YOUR OWN HANDS!!! Can you believe it??”
I glance down at my own hand. Open and close it. I say, “Amazing.”
He is getting even more heated. Manic. He stands over me, looming, pushing against the desk that separates us. I lean back slightly.
He throws his arms around, loudly explaining the excitement that a virtual world has to offer. He describes driving, walking around, setting off fireworks, swimming. He describes how he blundered of furniture in his living room while he learned how to adapt to this strange new world, how he made mistakes, how he learned from them, how he mastered the tricky controllers.
“Then I went online,” he gasped, becoming tired through his exertions. “I thought the games were amazing, but online… there are other people there!!! People you can actually talk to!!”
I stare at him. “What… like you’re talking to me, right now?”
He looks ecstatic. “YES!!! Just like that!!”
He suddenly hammers the keys on his computer and brings up YouTube. He plays a recording of what it looks like to be in this new virtual world.
It is simple, the shapes are mainly blocks, lacking texture. People don’t have legs, their bodies are tubes, the head is a ball with a friendly face on the front.
“Isn’t it…cool?” whispers Intense Ginger Bloke.
I think it looks pretty shit, but I’m not going to start an argument, not while he’s this fired up.
But now he’s becoming more animated. “There’s this shooting game, a bit like Lazer Quest! Oh, it’s so incredible. You’re in this… place, and, and, you get this lazer gun and you’re all together, on a team, all the people, and you’re fighting robots that are controlled by the AI, the computer, but you can hide behind things, and fire round things, and… and…”
Intense Ginger Bloke suddenly disappears.
I think, at last! He’s died!
He has dropped out of sight behind his desk.
I wonder if he died immediately or if he’s writhing around down there, clinging to life.
I start to stand up when an arm pops up.
It is oddly clenched.
It is pointed at me.
I hear Intense Ginger Bloke make a loud rattling noise. “DADADADADADADADADADA!!!!”
I’m bewildered, alarmed and delighted.
But then Intense Ginger Bloke surges to his feet. His face is red and sweaty, he seems huge and terrifying. It is now obvious that he is holding an imaginary firearm of some description. He lunges over me, his face contorted with fury and bloodlust, and bellows that same rattling noise, “DADADADADADADADADA!!!”
I say, “Fucking Nora!”
He barges clumsily against the desk, knocking over a pot of pens, paperclips cascading like shell cases. He is wild eyed and snarling, spittle flying from his curled lips, speckling my face.
Still murderously eyeballing me he lifts his imaginary weapon. He clears the imaginary jam. “Kerclick.” He re-cocks the weapon. He points it at my face.
I close my eyes tightly.
I open my eyes.
Intense Ginger Bloke is panting heavily, blinking, his face sweating. He looks confused.
I glance around. Other people in the office are staring at us, open mouthed. Inane Jane has a hand to her face, appalled.
Intense Ginger Bloke drops to his chair. “It’s all so… real,” he mutters.
I clear my throat, I say, “Your girlfriend. Where was she when all this was going on?”
He blinks. “When I started playing, she was just sat on the couch. By the time I took my goggles of at three this morning, she’d gone.”
I say, “I’d remember that if I were you. Think of it as a metaphor.”
“What’s a metaphor?”
I don’t answer.
I look out of the window.
The green of the leaves on the ash tree have darkened from the bright tones of Spring to the deeper, flatter green of Summer. Some leaves are yellow. Soon they will all turn, and fall, and grow again, just as they have done for twenty five years, and I’ve watched it happen every year, seen it grow from being the same height as me to the tree it is today, thirty feet high.
I’ve watched it every year for a quarter of a century.
The people I work with haven’t seen it once.

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195. Liver ‘n’ Let Die.

I am stood in the office kitchenette, staring at a slowly boiling kettle.
I am hung over again.
I’ve tried cutting back on my drinking lately, but the overwhelming horror of the mundane has sent me hurrying back to the mid-priced Pinot Grigio with an insatiable gusto.
The kitchenette is always a grim place, even the name is grim.
It sounds like an instrument of torture.
A kitchenette is a half arsed kitchen, the runt of the culinary litter. Nobody aspires to a new kitchenette. Nobody has a dream kitchenette.
Kitchenettes are shit.
Shitette, even.
Something catches my eye.
It is a bag of meat.
A bag of meat, defrosting on a plate on top of the battered microwave oven. The bag of meat slowly leaks watery blood onto a cracked, white plate and it makes me feel very queasy.
It has finally happened.
Someone has brought raw meat in to work.
This is a new low.
“Animals,” I whisper, pressing myself back against the sink as the kettle bubbles and clicks. “Fucking animals.”
I turn away but suddenly Dimples is there, grinning up at me. She is very short and very fat. She is holding two Tupperware boxes. She giggles at me.
I flinch.
She says, “Were you just looking at my liver?”
With a feeling of horrible panic, my eyes are involuntarily dragged down to her groin. I say, “I… I can’t see your liver.”
Dimples looks mildly bewildered, then she giggles again. She squeezes her rotund form past me, her immense, sagging breasts squashing against my cock which shrivels away like a salted slug.
She says, “No, dafty pants, my liver. I got some liver but I forgot to get it out the freezer at home last night coz I’m having dinner at me mam’s tonight coz she’s been badly so I’m defrosting it now to have with onions an’ a bit of mash tonight. I’m on Slimming World.”
She picks up the dripping bag. She frowns, squeezing the contents, checking if it is defrosted yet. There are gold rings on all of her fat fingers and her nails are painted a monstrous red. They probe and squash the chunks of glistening raw liver inside the bag, the meat slithering as if it is attempting to evade her cruel grasp. Gripping and fondling, squeezing and squashing, bright red nails chasing dark red offal through bloody plastic.
My scrotum tightens, puckers.
Watery blood dribbles down her fingers and trickles amongst the shiny gold links of the watch that digs into the fat of her wrist. Absent mindedly she sucks some blood off her finger.
My mouth waters horribly. Acid rises in my throat.
I mumble, “Slimming World.”
She says, “Yeah, I got Slimming World tonight so I got to be good, just a bit o’ liver an’ onions an’ a bit o’ mash. We got a weigh-in tonight so I’ve to be good.”
I look at the Tupperware and I say, “What’s that lot?”
Dimples giggles coquettishly, her lower lip glistening with liver blood. “It’s what they got on at the canteen. Chinese chicken curry, half rice, half chips. Lovely. For afters it’s sticky toffee pudding an’ custard.”
I say, “I thought you were having liver?”
“That’s for before the weigh in, to set me on. This is for after. A treat. For being good.”
“So you’re having liver and onions and mash to set you on, before having Chinese chicken curry with chips and rice, followed by sticky toffee pudding and custard?”
She blinks. “Yeah, but I’m having that AFTER my weigh in, as a treat, so that’s ok.”
I say, “Right. How long you been doing Slimming World then?”
“Three years.”
I say, “Lost much weight?”
She says, “Cheeky bastard! I lost four pounds!”
“In three years?”
“Yeah, it comes and goes. It’s not easy, y’know.”
I reckon that she can easily lose four pounds in a single bowel movement. I don’t say that though.
I say, “ Four pounds. Well done. You can really tell.”
Dimples bats her eyelashes at me. “Ta Luci!”
She drops the liver back onto the plate with a wet splat. She bends over to put her Tupperware in the fridge, pointing her gigantic arse towards me. She is literally twice as wide as I am. I think she gives her arse a little wiggle, but I can’t be sure.
And suddenly, reluctantly, I imagine fucking her in a giant plate of raw liver. Slithering around, heaving her immense bulk into a more accessible position, hands slipping off her vast contours as the blood smears and the dark red meat squelches under my knees, slapping against that gigantic rump, the smell of meat and the smell of her, then sliding beneath her, sinking into liver as she lowers herself onto me, pressing down on me in a super heavyweight soixante-neuf, obliterating me with her gut and the guts…
As whisper, “Fucking animals…”
She says, “What’s that?”
And I say, “I didn’t used to like liver. When I was a kid my mum cooked liver and it turned into leather. It felt like clay in my mouth. There were tubes in it that my brother said were worms, worms burrowing into the cows liver, worms that were cooked alive, but later I learned they were great fat veins where the blood would go, dirty blood for the liver to clean. I only like liver when I cook it now, lambs liver patted in flour and salt and pepper, lightly fried, left to rest, then red wine splashed in the pan, stirred into the flour and the dark burned bits, cooking off the alcohol, making a sauce…”
! stumble away from the kitchenette, away from the immense woman with an open shocked mouth and her bag of raw meat. I stagger along the corridor, onto the fire escape.
The air is cooler here. I can see grass and sky through the large window pane.
I’m relieved to notice that I have no trace of an erection.
I decide to cook pasta for tea.
And drink a lot of mid-priced Pinot Grigio.

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Sound Guys & Sticky Carpets

The podcast is here!

Follow the link below to download and listen to our first podcast, and find out what the Hell this picture is about.

Hope you like it.


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We can’t all get down the pub, can we?

There’s always something that gets in the way – work, family, an inconvenient criminal conviction for dog-bothering.

So what’s the alternative?

Well, this weekend I’m starting a podcast with my mates, Sam and Andrew. We’re drinking beers in a Northern pub and discussing the kind of bollocks that blokes down the pub usually talk about. It’s only vaguely planned, but those plans go out of the window as we meander off the path to wherever the conversation goes. I’m happy to say that I’ve found a rare alchemy with these lads so it’s not just a rambling load of old bollocks – I listened back to the recordings and I’m pretty damned pleased with them. Let’s see what you think.

We will definitely be discussing books, music, creative influences and compromising sexual situations. We will be using words like fuck, cunt, bollocks and wank.

We will be getting fairly drunk, but don’t let that put you off – we have chip butties at half time to soak up the worst of it.

We’ll be on iTunes and Soundcloud, and we’ll try to have a feed on our upcoming website.

So look out on here and on Twitter – @generallucifer, @andomain, @cyclingtiger – and if you’re buying, mines a pint and a packet of pig nuts.


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194. The Gear Hunter

It is midday and I want a cigarette.
I don’t smoke cigarettes.
I might have mentioned it before, how I sometimes crave things I’ve not had in a long time, things like Walker’s Spicy Tomato flavour Snaps, Ice Pops, anal sex, good hair, a hot August, gratitude, cigarettes.
It’s probably just nostalgia.
I love and loathe nostalgia in equal measure.
I loathe shiny faced ‘B’ list comedians blithering inanely about Raleigh Choppers and The Bay City Rollers and Space Hoppers and other such vapid consumerist bullshit on BBC4 shows titled ‘We *heart* the 70’s’, but at the same time the smell of melting tarmac makes my chest ache for childhood days spent wandering alone in the merciless sun through empty streets, or petrol fumes, or the sound of the sea through an open caravan window.
Simple things.
Like cigarettes.
On a whim I decide to get hidden somewhere, tap a fag off someone and get tucked away behind a skip or a compactor unit and just smoke. I don’t tap smokes off people as a rule, but desperate times and all that…
I look around, between machines and sound for a bloke with a cough or a wheeze, someone chewing gum and checking their watch. Typically it looks like the factory is running itself again, presses and finishing lines and mystery machines clattering away in busy conversation with one another without the input of the semi-humans who turn them off.
I see human movement.
I squeeze between two units, under whirring miles of printed paper on it’s way to being spliced.
I see the figure walking hurriedly, carrying a bin over one shoulder.
I recognise the jittery walk, head meerkating around for signs of management.
He speeds up, taking a left into the warehouse to duck amongst the towering labyrinth of gloomy racking.
I follow him, listen to his footsteps skitter across gritty concrete that has never been swept, looking from aisle to aisle of paper pallets until I see him, two aisles up, hurrying, hurrying.
He pauses, sees me.
Then moves on.
“Cheeky fucker…” I mutter, running now.
I don’t want to hound Fucking Amazing Dave but I really want a smoke and, as usual, he owes me twenty quid. I’m not fussed for the money but I don’t like lending if the borrower blanks me. That’s just rude. Besides, Dave rolls a great roll up so the least he can do is send one of those my way.
I catch him by a side door of the warehouse, looking rattled. He’s fumbling with his baccy and has a filter gripped between his lips. He raises his eyebrows in greeting and says, “Hmmnnm.”
I say, “Now then Dave. You avoiding me?”
He shakes his head, loads a paper with Amber Leaf and snuggles the filter from his mouth in next to it. He rolls.
“Nah, man! I’d never dodge you! Yer like a bruvva, yeah? I just had to get clear, y’know. Get out of sight. Had a bit of a scare a bit back, truth be told. I’m feelin’ rather out o’ sorts.”
He passes me the first roll up without asking if I want one then he makes his own.
I say, “Are we off behind the skips?”
He says, “No way. I’m staying in here, out o’ the way.”
I frown. “Out of the way of what?”
Fucking Amazing Dave looks furtive. He opens the fire escape a crack and looks out, then lights his fag. He blows his smoke at the open gap but the cold breeze just blows it back in his face.
He says, “I just nipped out earlier, to Frank’s Hardware. We needed a couple of bins and some dust sheets.”
I look around. The factory is unusual in that we have a huge amount of bins all over the place and dust sheets can be found stacked in many random locations. Until recently I was convinced the fucking things were breeding, that bins were male and dust sheets were female and that litters of tiny bins and dust sheets were nesting out of sight in the dark shadows of the warehouse.
It turns out that all that was really happening was that people were buying a lot of bins and dust sheets.
You wouldn’t think that a print works would need an unusual amount of bins and dust sheets, but there’s method in the madness.
I say, “What did you get then?”
Dave grins. He pulls the bin over, lifts the dust sheet crammed inside. Underneath there are screwdrivers, jigsaw blades, boxes of screws, sandpaper and some dust masks.
He says, “I’m doing a bit of work at home. Needed a few bits.”
This is how it always goes. If you can’t nick it from the factory, you go to Frank’s Hardware and buy a couple of dust sheets and a bin. You pay for the dust sheets and bin on the company account, about fifteen quid, then you shoplift the stuff you really want by hiding it in the bin, under the dust sheet, roughly fifty quids worth of gear. The factory gets bins and dust sheets, you get some shiny stuff for nowt.
I say, “I don’t know how Frank’s Hardware stays open with you lot.”
Dave takes a drag on his fag. “They’re closing down next month. Shame really.”
I shake my head. “Yeah, shame.”
Dave says, “So anyways, I got my stuff and was riding Dorothy back to work, but it were a nice day and…”
“Dorothy?” I say.
“Yeah, Dorothy. My Nissan Micra. It’s a Micra Dot, Dot is short for Dorothy, so thats’ it’s name.”
I say, “Is it the one painted with flowers, got bit of plastic instead of a passenger window?”
Dave grins. “Yeah, that’s her. Great little motor, when I get to drive her.”
I say, “Does your lass get first dibs usually?”
Dave takes a pull on his roll up. “Nah. She can’t drive. It’s the local kids keep nicking her. That’s why the plastic on the window. Sick of paying for new glass. We come to an arrangement. They can borrow her if they promise not to burn her out or shit on the seats. I leave the keys under the sun visor so’s they don’t smash up the steering column. I left ‘em a note, setting out the rules. So they nicked her, but brought her back in the condition I left her in. Even left me half a tank of petrol, bless ‘em! So sometimes I come out the house an’ Dorothy is there, sometimes she’s not. That’s just how it is.”
I shake my head. “Fucking amazing.”
Dave shrugs. “It’s a system. Everyone’s happy! So It were a nice day, I had Dorothy, an’ it seemed a shame not to nip over to Spliffy Pete’s for a bit o’ the good stuff, y’ know? So I scores, takes the gear back to work.”
I say, “You intend to smoke it now? Bit risky, no? I mean, on a night, sure, but it’s what… just past twelve!”
“Nah, man!” says Dave. “This industrial estate is bigger than you think! You get tucked away, down amongst the weird little units off the main drag. That’s the trick. Out o’ the way. Park up, roll up, get a bit fucked up! Ha ha! It were cushty, until…”
“I say, “Until what?”
“Until today, man! So I do the usual. Get myself parked, put a bit o’ The Doors on Dorothy’s cassette deck, roll meself a chubby blunt. Fire it up, all good. Now, I reckoned it were a good spot ‘cause I smelled a bit o’ ganj on the air round that place, y’know? If one brother be smokin’ then it’s cool if I do. Kinda the rules, as I see it. So I’m kickin’ back, chillin’ when all shit breaks loose!”
I say, “Shit? What kind of shit?”
“ALL THE SHIT!” says Dave, wide eyed. “I was all alone one minute, then suddenly I got a fuckin’ SWAT Team climbin’ all over me!! There’s ninja coppers all in black wi’ fuckin’ machine guns, there’s coppers wi’ dogs, coppers in riot clobber. Vans, cars, Flyin’ Squad, the lot. There were even a fuckin’ helicopter! COPPERS IN A CHOPPER!! It were the Heinz fuckin’ Beans o’ coppers, dude! Fifty seven varieties o’ the fuckers! But I’d had a few decent pulls by then an’ I were gettin’ a decent buzz on, but this really ruined the mood, y’ know? I’m IMMEDIATELY paranoid as fuck, thinkin’ ‘I’m dead I’m dead I’m dead’. I reckoned they’d been stakin’ out Spliffy Pete’s gaff an’ tailed me to catch me red handed, then I thought that Frank’s Hardware had fingered me for nickin’ stuff, then I thought it were for both an’ that I were gonna spend the next two years gettin’ bummed in Armley nick by a load of fuckin’ lifers. But THEN I realised the fuckin’ rozzers were streamin’ right past me an’ Dorothy, an’ they were smashin’ in the doors o’ one o’ those units!! An’ fuck me, if dozens o’ fuckin’ Vietnamese dudes don’t come streamin’ out, screamin’ their ruddy heads off!! Runnin’ all over the place, climbing’ chain link fences, leapin’ over hedges, wavin’ there hands in the air screamin’ “NO SHOOTEE!! NO SHOOTEE!!”
I say, “Bit racist.”
Dave says, “Fair point, but they were! No lie! It were fuckin’ amazin! I’m sat in the middle o’ this shit goin’ down wi’ Jim fuckin’ Morrison singin’ ‘This is The End’ on the Blaupunkt an’ this fucking great helicopter thwoppin’ about over ‘ead and all these Vietnamese dudes scrabblin’ about an there’s guns an’ vans an’ I’d wound up the windows to keep the rozzers from smellin’ the weed so Dorothy were like a fuckin’ bong at this point so I’m off me tits, an’ I suddenly had a flash back. A full on flash back.”
I say, “A flash back? When did you flash back to??”
Fucking Amazing Dave narrows his eyes, smokes his cigarette, stares into the distance.
He says, “Nam.”
I try not to snort.
I say, “What, Cheltenham?”
Dave blinks at me. “What?”
I say, “Nothing. You weren’t in Nam, Dave. You weren’t even born then.”
He says, “Course not! What you reckon I am, some kind of fuckin’ fantasist? Buys a Land Rover and a khaki jumper, reckons he were in t’SAS? Not me! Nah, I mean the movies! It were just like Apocalypse Now! Deer Hunter! Full Metal Jacket! All of ‘em! I seen ‘em all so many times it feels like I were there, so when all these Vitenamese guys start leapin’ around an’ the chopper starts circlin’ I totally shat meself! Felt like I was ‘In Country’, y’know!!”
I say, “What did you do? Return fire?”
Dave ignores me. “I knocked Dorthy into first an’ rolled out o’ there, real slow. Went past the open shutters o’ that warehouse. Coppers were raggin’ down all this foil an’ shit an’ I saw these bright lights, an’ a fuckin’ field…”
“A field? In a warehouse?”
“Yeah, man. A weed field. Those Vietnamese dudes, they were growing a fuckin’ field o’ weed right there, in a warehouse, not fifty yards from our own back door. I were gutted. All that bush, goin’ to waste. If only I’d known…”
Fucking Amazing Dave stares, unblinking, seeing things I can’t imagine, horrors I’ll never see.
I finished my roll up, stubbed it out on the floor.
I say, “At least you got out of there alive Dave.”
He turns and stares at me. “No-one gets out alive, dude.”
I say, “Yeah. Whatever. Remember to give me back that twenty before you die.”
I go back to work.

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193. Could be Worse.

Past a machine and another machine, one spitting letters into a hopper, the other choked with chewed up paper and hissing like a feral beast.
Past the gaping lockers filled with tea bags and stained mugs and coffee rings, socks full of holes, tired underwear in L, XL, XXL, talcum powder and Lynx Africa, drawings from children pinned to the inside door alongside clippings of tits and arses, a calendar from 1998 with a girl from September holding open her hairy snatch on a beach, smiling, colours fading.
Past rows of filthy windows looking into forgotten workshops illuminated by flickering fluorescent tubes, machines gathering dust like defeated robots from a half forgotten invasion.
A human face.
Dead white skin, lank black hair falling over empty eyes. He sits at a battle scarred work bench littered with the detritus of a thousand makeshift repairs, his chin resting in his hand,  elbow propped amongst swarf and solder, screwdrivers and spanners. He reminds me The Thinker, a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin.
I sometimes wonder what The Thinker was thinking.
I wonder what Stu is thinking.
Stu is just sitting there, staring into nothing, utterly blank, not moving.
I feel a weird ache in my chest. Stu shouldn’t be here, in this factory I mean. He’s a bright lad with a lot of potential but he took a wrong turn, said yes when he should have said no and suddenly found himself trapped amongst the idiots of this world who drag you down, hold you back, convince you there is only defeat and that victory is a myth.
In the right place, amongst the right people, Stu would have thrived.
In the wrong place, amongst the wrong people, he has withered.
Now he sits with his head in his hand, thinking… what? Maybe thinking about how things might have been, had he only said no to a job that wasn’t right for him, right for anyone.
I push open the door into the workshop.
Stu doesn’t move.
I walk over to a filthy kettle, empty it. I turn a tap and let the water run clear and fill the kettle. I find two of the least cracked mugs and rinse them as best I can, drop a corner shop tea bag into each mug and scratch a couple of scoops of sugar from the bottom of a tattered bag of Silver Spoon.
A shuddering fridge holds various science projects studying stages of decay and a half bottle of full fat milk. I slop some into one cup, not mine. I learned long ago to skip milk as it was always sour, always curdled. Always.
I bring the cups over to Stu.
Stu blinks. He glances at me, glances at the mugs.
He sighs, says, “I’d love one.”
He looks down, reads the instructions on the back of a bottle he’s holding on one hand.
I shuffle the mugs in amongst the crap on the workbench. We sit in silence for a bit, silence apart from the thundering of the machines behind the grimy glass.
I try think of something to say. I remember the last time I saw Stu he mentioned that his girlfriend was pregnant.
I say, “How’s your lass doing? She’s pregnant, isn’t she?”
Stu sighs again. “Well, yeah, but no.”
“What… What do you mean?” I’m worried I might have said the wrong thing.
“We thought she was pregnant, you know? But then she went for a load of tests and it turns out she wasn’t pregnant.”
I say, “Oh.”
Stu says, “She had cancer.”
I say, “Oh fuck.”
“She was still living in Nottingham, you know? We met online and some weekends I went down there and other weekends she came up here, yeah? So she couldn’t travel so much, because of being ill, so I was finishing my shift and driving down there but she’s only got a small flat, so I’d help her out but she needed her rest so when I got her sorted out I’d drive back up here.”
“Jesus, Stu,” I said. “That’s brutal. I mean, you were really excited about the baby and then, well, this happens. Shit, it must have been really hard. I mean, really hard. How are you coping?”
Stu just shrugs. He hasn’t touched his brew. He holds the bottle down by his side now. I can tell that something isn’t right. I tread carefully.
I say, “Look, Stu, if you need to talk to anyone, you know, I’m here…”
“I was driving to Nottingham and back most nights,” he continues, like he didn’t hear me. He stares out the window but he looks like he’s staring out of a car windscreen. “Sometimes I was driving five, six hours a night. She’d lost her hair at this point and was wearing this cheap wig or a turban thing. It made her look weird. She was always tired. I did my best, did whatever I could. The thing was, the treatment wasn’t working. The cancer was spreading. There was this treatment in America that the doctors reckoned might work but it  wasn’t cheap – tens of thousands. Well… I mean, what do you do? So I remortgaged my house.”
I see the fingers of Stu’s hand whiten a little where he holds his chin, like his suddenly tightened his grip. They relax again, he sighs again.
“I gave her the money, twenty thousand. We both cried, it was pretty special. I mean, you don’t often get the chance to save someone’s life, do you? I didn’t care about the money, I only cared about her. It made me feel good, giving her the money. I wanted to. I couldn’t go with her though, to America. The treatment would take a month and I couldn’t get the time off. Besides, I couldn’t afford it. She flew out two weeks later. I didn’t hear from her much, but I expected that. The treatment made her really sick. I wrote to her every day and I did get a letter back, but that wasn’t a problem. I just wanted her to get well.”
I really don’t know what to say. It all sounds so… dark. A horrible place to be in. I’m not always on the same shift as Stu, and I know he’s had some time off lately, with stress, I heard, but fuck me, this is a stressful situation.
I ask him, “The treatment… did it work? How is she doing?”
He taps the bottle on the desk absent mindedly. “She said it worked. She was cancer free. When she came home I took her out for a meal to the best place in Nottingham. She looked so well! She caught the sun, gained a little weight. She still wore the wig but she told me her hair was growing back again. It was like, it was like coming out of a tunnel, you know? We could finally start getting on with our plans, on with our lives. Not long after that she went to the doctors, and they told her she was pregnant, really pregnant. I was amazing news.”
Amazing news, but Stu didn’t look happy.
I cautiously said, “And how did that go…”
He shook his head. “That’s when the cancer came back. She had to take more medicine and she lost the baby. We were devastated, of course, but I just wanted her to be well. I went to the bank again but couldn’t remortgage, so I put the house on the market. I sent her the money and she went back to the states. Another month.”
I’m shaking my head, flabbergasted. “Fucking hell, mate,” I pat his shoulder. He gives a small, sad smile.
“The police contacted me a week later. They had bad news.”
My stomach lurched. Oh God.
Stu glances at me. “The police had been aware of her for a while. They’d been monitoring her bank accounts, things like that. She wasn’t pregnant, never had been. She’d never had cancer. She was a confidence trickster. A crook. I wasn’t the only bloke she’d fooled. She lived with her long term boyfriend in that flat in Nottingham. Whenever I drove back to Leeds she’d give him a ring to let him know the coast is clear. She was just cutting her hair short and sticking a wig on top.”
I feel a bit sick. You hear about these stories on telly, but him telling me like this, it was just grim.
I say, “What about… what about America?”
Stu shakes his head. “She went to Disneyland with her boyfriend for a month. Twice. No wonder she looked tanned and healthy. She’d been swanning around Magic Mountain with her fella while I was worrying myself sick here in this shit hole. Honestly, Luci, shit just happens to me. I’m a jinx. A Jonah. Bad news.”
I shake my head. “No, mate. Don’t think that. Things look shit, I know, but it’ll get better. Maybe they’ll recover some money from that rotten bitch – she might have some of your money in the bank…”
“No. She’s disappeared. Did a flit, no-one has a clue. They reckon she might be in Spain but they aren’t really looking too hard. I lost everything.”
I try not to look to hard at the bottle in his hand but I’m starting to worry. He hasn’t touched his tea. I start to think I should say something, tell someone, but the door opens and Bear walks in. Bear is the maintenance manager, he’s Stu’s boss. Bear is carrying a Black & Decker jigsaw. He walks over to us, looks at the mugs of tea.
I whisper to Bear, “Stu hasn’t touched his brew.”
Bear looks at Stu. “Have you told him?”
Stu shakes his head. Bear sighs. He picks up the mug and gently lifts it to Stu’s mouth. He drinks, some tea dribbling down his chin and across his fingers. He doesn’t move his hand.
Bear puts down the mug, plugs in the jigsaw and fires it up. He then proceeds to cut through the workbench. A few lads from the shop floor hustle in, pissing themselves laughing.
Bear carefully cuts the workbench around Stu’s arm until the piece of wood falls away… firmly attached to Stu.
Stu sighs. The lads are crying laughing now.
Stu holds up the hand holding the bottle. I can now see that it once contained Superglue.
Stu’s hand is firmly glued to his chin, his arm firmly glued to the bench, his hand firmly glued to the empty bottle.
Bear slaps him on the back and pulls him to his feet. “Come on, lad. Let’s have you down A&E and get this shit off you.”
I splutter, “How the fuck did you manage that, Stu??”
He sighs one more time. “Like I say, Luci – shit just happens to me. I’m a jinx. I’m bad luck.”
Bear laughs. “It could be a fuck of a lot worse!”
I say, “How??”
Bear lumbers out of the door, pushing the incapacitated Stu ahead of him.
Bear shouts over his shoulder, “He could have tried to take a piss before the glue set!”


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192. Squiggles.

I’m staring out of the window, looking at the trees.
Whoever designed the factory all those years ago decided that trees would soften the impact of this great, rumbling, shuddering blot on the landscape, so we have trees.
I’ll admit that they are nice trees. Mature silver birch, hornbeam, whitebeam, and rowan.
I know my trees. I know them because I’ve spent so long looking out of windows from places where I don’t want to be. I’ve looked out of these dark boxes onto trees and fields and rain and sun and I’ve wondered, ‘What are those clouds? What’s that bird? What are those trees called?’
I suppose it’s better than being sat in a tree staring into a box full of miserable cunts, but not by much.
Most of the people I work with couldn’t tell an oak tree from a fucking telegraph pole. Intense Ginger Bloke once told me he’d seen a blackbird crash into the window. I looked down at the ground and saw a crow flailing around before flapping clumsily away to it’s roost.
“It’s a crow,” I said.
“No,” he replied. “It was definitely black.”
I’ve no idea what he meant by that, but I didn’t reply.
I’ve stopped replying.
I’m staring out of the window, looking at the trees, when I can suddenly smell jam. Sugar. Sweet tea.
Dimples is here.
She stands next to me, looking out of the window. She has a doughnut in one hand, a china mug in the other.
On the mug it says, “Worlds Best Nana’. I wonder what she’s done to deserve this lofty accolade. I’m guessing it is mainly cake-and-treat related. Both of my grandmothers were pretty shit, if I’m honest. I don’t think you can get a “Mediocre Grandparent’ mug, but if you could, mine would both get one for Christmas, if they weren’t dead.
If people were truthful then they’d sell like hot cakes, so to speak, but how many nanas will want to advertise on their grandkids fat guts that they’re responsible for their terrible health and prodigious waistlines? Not many.
Dimples says, “Ooh, it’s bloody grim out there, isn’t it?”
I say, “It’s not much better in here.”
She giggles. “Y’bloody misery!”
I don’t reply.
I can hear her slurping tea and nibbling daintily but efficiently at her doughnut.
She sucks her fingers loudly.
With another woman I might find this sucking noise faintly erotic, but not with Dimples.
I look down at her.
She grins at me.
She’s got doughnut stuck between her teeth.
I suddenly imagine her naked.
She looks like a space hopper with tits.
I feel strangely faint and my bollocks shrivel and try to hide inside me.
I look outside again.
Does Mister Dimples still fuck her? I don’t reckon so, but if he ever wants sucking off all he’d have to do is stick a Mr Kipling’s on the end of his cock and ring a dinner gong.
Maybe that’s how she got so fat.
Everybody’s happy.
A redwing takes off from a whitebeam tree with a beak full of berries. The tree is heavy with fruit but totally without leaves. They lie on the ground like strips of wet leather.
I look up at movement in the tree.
Dimples says, “Ooh, look! Squiggles!”
I say, “What?”
She points a fat finger at the glass. “Squiggles! There’s three or four of them in that tree there!”
I ask her, “What sort of tree is it?”
I’m hoping she’ll surprise me, I’m hoping she’ll know what type of tree has been growing right outside her window for the last twenty five years, not ten feet from where she sits.
Dimples looks triumphant. “It’s a berry tree!”
I feel disappointed. “Yes,” I say. “It’s a berry tree.”
She’s watching the tree, her cherubic face animated “Them squiggles love berries, don’t they? Look at ‘em! Aw, they’re so cute!”
I look at the tree, look back at Dimples, look at the tree again. “Yes,” I say. “So cute.”
She leans towards me, in full Bun Whisperer mode. “I’ve got squiggles at home too, y’know. I feed ‘em stale buns that no-one wants.”
I say, “I bet they’re fucking starving then.”
Dimples looks puzzled. “Huh? Anyway, I put stuff out for the squiggles an’ sometimes we get fifteen or even twenty! You want to see ‘em, running around and that, having little fights over bits of cake! Oh, they’re funny! My hubby, he says I’m soft, but I don’t listen. No, I love hanimals me. Any sort of hanimal. They’re very clever, aren’t they? Just look at that one holding a berry in his ickle hands when he’s two more in his mouth! Ha ha! fancy! Yes, they’re clever ickle things.”
I rub my eyes then continue to watch the activity in the trees.
Dimples seems pretty content. Yeah, she’s eating herself to death but she doesn’t seem pissed off about it. She’s content with her lot, tapping on a keyboard all day, feeding herself and her children and grandchildren of an evening, giving the leftovers to the squiggles…
I say, “By squiggles, you do mean squirrels, yes?”
She giggles and wrinkles her nose. “Yeah, but we call them squiggles in our house. It’s cuter.”
…giving the leftovers to the squirrels in the morning. She doesn’t see a whitebeam, she sees a berry tree, every tree with berries is just a berry tree. Things are so much less complicated for Dimples – she doesn’t over think things.
I don’t envy her though.
I’d rather be dead than live my life in blissful ignorance. I don’t claim to know everything, but I do question everything I know.
I try. God knows, I try.
Dimples wanders away and I stare out of the window, looking at the trees. I watch the rats climbing in the branches, great, fat grey rats scurrying from limb to limb, gripping twigs with their pink, scaly tails, keeping balance while they gorge themselves on bright red whitebeam berries. There are no squiggles, squirrels, round here – there never has been. The rats have scared them all away.
We have rats, huge rats that build nests in the rotting drifts of waste paper round the back of the factory and swarm in the drains and the roof spaces. We have great, sleek rats that can climb trees and eat berries and shuffle around boldly in broad daylight.
I wonder about Dimples’ garden.
What is she feeding?
Are her squiggles the same as these squiggles?
Does her family sit and ooh and ahh out of the back window as rats swarm and fight and snarl in a seething mass in her back garden?
Maybe they are squirrels. Maybe I can only see rats where actually squirrels cavort.
Intense Ginger Bloke is lumbering past, on his way to the bogs.
I say, “Here, look at this.”
“What?” he says.
“There. In the trees.”
He scratches his arse. “What trees?”
I sigh. “The berry trees.”
He nods. “Oh, them. What about them?”
I say, “There’s something in the trees. Eating the berries. What are they?”
Intense Ginger Bloke presses his fat beak against the glass. “They’re squiggles, aren’t they?”
I stare out of the window, looking at the trees, looking at the rats.
“Yes,” I say. “They are squiggles.”


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