My name is Bram Mobius and I bloody love chips. Absolutely adore them. I’m English, so I’m talking about the kind commonly served with fish, of course. When I’m out at work I find the smell of chips entering my nose almost every day: it’s a powerful force which reaches down from the back of my nostrils with its long, vinegary arms and rings out my tongue like a chef squeezing saliva out of a napkin. Even if I’ve just eaten, and even if what I’ve just eaten is chips, this force has the power to pull the fullness of my stomach out from beneath itself like the very same chef tugging a cloth off a table without disturbing the objects on top.
If you put me and a chip in the same room it would be a matter of seconds before one is inside the other.
I mention this because it was immediately after eating chips that I first discovered the face; in fact it was an individual chip which led me to it. I don’t know whether I caused it to fall on the floor – I have been known to send food flying all over the place in my eagerness to eat it – or whether the chip decided of its own volition to take the plunge and let its sacrifice be a signpost pointing the way to the face on the kitchen floor, but it alerted me to something which would slowly alter, and eventually end, my life.
If you were a literary critic reviewing my words, you would undoubtedly want to make a connection between what has been said and what is to follow; you would inevitably draw parallels between the chips and the face; you would be tempted to trace a line between the two, a twisting trail of the critic’s pen to spell out hidden desires and sexual undertones. If you were in front of a class of GCSE English pupils you would stand up, tell them to shush, and then decorate the whiteboard with a map of the author’s intentions. But you’re not a literary critic or an English teacher – at least I don’t think you are. I have no real idea what you are and don’t expect to find out because in all likelihood you’re non-existent.
I’m sitting here on a stool in my kitchen drinking whiskey on my own and thinking these thoughts to myself, in my head. No one in the world can hear them other than me, so I don’t know why I’m bothering to act out a monologue for my mind’s ear like this. I know these ideas inside out. All I need to do is catch a single piece of dust floating round my head, split it in two, and I could read these thoughts within; and yet I think these thoughts out loud to myself because I feel, or at least hope, that there is someone or something out there, beyond the perimeters of this expanding universe, who has the ability to hear my inner reflections, and perhaps even judge me, despite what everyone around me thinks, to be one of the good guys. When thoughts travel from a human’s brain to the mind of a thing in a parallel universe, all the laws of science go out the window, so I can’t even begin to guess what form they might take , but if you are in receipt of these thoughts right now, I ask that you treat them with care, for though they may seem like bits of ink on paper or symbols on a screen to you, to me they are the most important possessions I have, and the only thing between that stops me feeling completely non-existent.
I first saw the face about 18 months ago. I was alerted to its presence by a chip. I was sitting in the kitchen, as I am now, on this very same stool, only then my body didn’t feel so heavy. My body had just returned home, tugging my soul behind it, after working the evening shift for Harrison. It was an extremely tired gathering of fat and muscle that slouched atop the wooden stool, and yet it was still nowhere near as neighborly with gravity as it is now. Even after touring the pubs for hours trying to sell Harrison’s “produce”, I still had the energy to drag the fridge out from its usual place into the middle of the kitchen. I was impelled to tap my energy reserves in this way so I could rescue the wayward chip whose crispy end peeped teasingly out from beneath the refrigerator. And yes, I was liberating it in order to devour it: I hate wasting chips, even if they’ve been on the floor.
While I’m well aware that eating food from a dirty surface is taking a bit of a gamble, I got far more than I bargained for when I knelt down, ready to reclaim my chip, and peered into the filthy casino that was the gap between the fridge and the tiled floor.
A large blob of grayish-green was visible therein, and its presence I acknowledged with a muttered ‘for Christ’s sake’ because to me it suggested a leaking fridge and a whole lot of hassle. I pulled the fridge out for a closer look at the abnormal color of the stain. It looked like a patch from a coat that a swamp would wear on a night out, only its murkiness was balanced by an almost science-defying shimmer. It was able to spit its green sparkle in the face of physics equally well from a place of darkness or of light.
The theme of insulting science and reason continued when, looking at the stain in its entirety for the first time, I saw that it resembled a human face. Although it was made up of splodges rather than well-defined lines it was still an unmistakable likeness, far more uncanny than the Jesuses and Marys that periodically show up in crisps and pancakes, so much so that I actually found it hard to look at for longer than a few seconds without the impression that it was staring back at me with a growing intensity. It was about the same size as a real face, but somewhat wider, as if the skin from ear to ear had been removed and laid flat on the floor. I also found myself trying to recall where I had seen it before, not because it reminded me of any individual face, but because it embodied an emotion I felt I had seen many human countenances transmit to me throughout my life. The emotion was a mixture of disapproval and sorrow.
I can’t even recall what happened to the chip I was originally after. Did I eat it? I wouldn’t be surprised if I picked it up and consigned it to the bin for the first time in my life because I do remember my stomach ch-ch-ch-churning in its grave. I guess I’ll never really know.
I didn’t feel like being in the same room as the image on the floor any longer – the night had made the world seem like a gigantic room, empty but for two objects: myself and the face – so I went upstairs to the relative comfort of my bed.
The following morning brought with it Harrison, who brought with him a van-load of his “produce”. He called it “produce”, but most people would call it simply meat – although some may not even call it that. Knowing so little about its origins and the fact that it comes to me without packaging from the back of a van certainly makes me suspicious. It always arrives in carrier bags and irregular pieces which give nothing away as to which animal part it is, or even which animal it’s from. It’s dodgy as hell, as they say, but it’s also the way I earn a living. I drive around town in the evening, stopping off at the pubs trying to interest the drinkers in buying some cheap meat. Saturday evenings are usually the most successful because people are made more pliable by alcohol and I can open with a question about Sunday lunch.
‘Are you planning on having a roast tomorrow?’ I inquire. If the answer is positive then the stage is set for the entrance of my cheap meat, but a negative response by no means means curtains. ‘You’re not having a Sunday roast? That’s such a shame,’ I say, really hamming it up like a Shakespearean actor who sells dodgy meat for a living. ‘Why not?’. The usual response here is something to do with lack of money, which again gives my product the opportunity to take center stage due to its affordability. At this point I take out one of the lumps of meat and ask the potential buyer to feel its weight and inspect it closely to see how little gristle it contains. It helps to get them attached to it early on. Then I ask them what they think a reasonable price would be for a bag of meat and offer it to them for slightly less than whatever they say, providing the price is actually more than Harrison’s minimum of £2.50. I’m used to varying degrees of success – sometimes I will leave completely meatless and with pockets full of change, while other times I will be forcibly ejected by the landlord for upsetting his vegetarian customers – yet I almost always manage to raise at least enough money to buy myself a large portion of chips to eat each evening on the way home with my bloodstained fingers.
‘This is the last bag,’ said Harrison, handing it to me. ‘That should keep you going until next week.’ The handover of the final carrier always signified the beginning of a weekly ritual I approached with dread: inviting him in for a cup of coffee.
‘Did you know that if they were to classify mushrooms again, they would be animals?’ Harrison would always talk about stupid facts that had no relevance to my life and I would have to humor him because I wanted his meat. It was like being on the worst date ever.
Harrison hadn’t always been in the meat business. He had been running an amateur breast screening service until the police got involved. It took place in the back of his van, which he parked in supermarket car parks around town. The examination didn’t involve any machinery, just Harrison’s bare hands. He failed to make it clear enough to women that he was not a doctor and that the results of his breast examination carried no diagnostic weight, and that’s one of several reasons why the police were able to ban him from running that particular business.
‘Honeybees have hairs on their eyes,’ Harrison stated. He sat down on my kitchen stool and gestured with the mug in his hand. ‘Amazing, eh?’
‘You almost spilled that,’ I said, pointing.
‘Hairy eyes! I got stung on the cock by a bee when I was young. My mum had to rub ointment on it. Did you see that documentary on bees the other night? It was on the BBC I think. Well, it had to be… BeeBeeSee. Get it? I can still recall the pain, my sore cock… speaking of which, have you got a girlfriend yet?’
‘No,’ I said into my mug.
‘But you’re married.’
‘Don’t tell my girlfriend that,’ smiled Harrison. His teeth were the color of honey. ‘She’s a solid girl. Not exactly what you’d call a natural beauty, but very solid. You wouldn’t look at her in the street and think phwoar or anything but you’d still notice that she’s there because she’s got substance. Solidity. You couldn’t walk past and not notice her, you know what I mean? She’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I’m not really after a cup of tea that everybody else wants. I’m after something more solid than tea. You’d spend your whole life looking over your shoulder wondering if you’re being cuckolded if you had a typically gorgeous girlfriend, right? I’m too old to be chasing beauty.’
‘Right,’ I said, taking his mug off him. ‘So you’re chasing ugliness instead?’
‘Look, things aren’t going well with Janice.’
That didn’t really answer my question, although I didn’t care about the answer.
‘Ever since she gave birth to our boy her emotions have been all over the place. It’s like I have to go round the house at the end of each day and gather them up for her else she’ll lose it completely. I even have to go out in the garden sometimes. Last Thursday I spent 20 minutes in the rain while she cooled off. It felt like I was looking for her patience in the vegetable patch, you know what I mean?’
‘Not really. She’s your wife. Hasn’t the birth of your son brought you closer together?’
Harrison was now helping himself to biscuits, as he often did when he came round. It was Sunday and I felt depressed.
‘It’s given us a common cause,’ he said. ‘We’re thinking of entering him into an Ugliest Baby Contest.’
I was too tired to put my thoughts into words. They were very negative, so it was best to leave them floating around my head in the form of gray clouds.
‘What’s that?’ Harrison asked through a mouthful of HobNobs.
‘That thing on the floor,’ he said, pointing with a tobacco-stained finger to the face. ‘It looks like a face.’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘It just appeared there. I’m not sure what to do with it.’
‘You’d better get rid of that,’ Harrison said gravely. He turned to look directly at me. ‘My mate’s aunt had one of those appear on her kitchen floor a few years back.’ He brushed the biscuit crumbs off his lap and stood up. ‘Yeah, it drove her mad. Ended up killing herself. Very sad business. You want to get rid of that right away.’
The last 42 words Harrison left in the kitchen before saying goodbye freaked me out to such an extent I was afraid to go back inside and ate only fear for my next two meals. When I finally ventured back in, I was armed with bleach and a scouring pad. I scrubbed and scrubbed at the floor like I was in love with the earth’s core, left and right, up and down, face to face, and closer to Hell with every scrape. After about 45 minutes I felt satisfied that the image had been fully erased, although the thought of it not being totally banished from this world and instead existing as millions of tiny particles on my scourer gave me the willies. I went outside and put the contaminated pad straight into the dustbin. I came in, pushed the refrigerator back into its usual place and let out what I thought was a sigh of relief but was in fact a minuscule breath of air between a rock and a hard face.
Do you play the Lottery? I don’t know if the imaginary being in receipt of my thoughts happens to live in a world where all the poor people put a significant fraction of their money into a pot each week and allow the hand of chance to wave it away, but here it’s an institution. I’ve been doing it every week since it started and have successfully given away my cash every time apart from once in 2002 when I slipped up and my pound boomeranged back to me ten times bigger. I still imagine that you have some godlike power, hearing my inner thoughts as you do, to translate my perseverance into a real monetary reward. I don’t ask for much, only enough to quit the meat selling business and pay for a maid to scrub my floors.
I’ve had a little luck with scratch-cards recently – maybe that’s the route by which a significant windfall will come to me. I used to enjoy the act of scratching, the archeologist in me taking delight in digging for buried treasure, the obsessive compulsive removing every last speck of silver to create a perfect square of nothingness. Now, however, all these people inside me are too busy pulling together to serve the common cause of scratching away the face on the kitchen floor to feel any individual pleasure.
Yes, the face came back.
I hadn’t given much thought to it for some time. It had remained under the fridge and beneath my conscious thoughts for almost a fortnight until it was once again brought to my attention via chips.
This time I was in the Codfather, the fish and chip shop at the end of my road, buying a portion of my favorite food after a hard day’s night of meat selling. I like it in the Codfather. I like the smells and the sounds. I even like one of the people working there. Her name is Deanna and her claim to fame is that her grandma was once engaged to Pete Best, the original drummer in the Beatles. Apparently she still feels a strong sense of loss and regret over the fact that the marriage never happened. Her grandma insists that tying the knot would have somehow meant Pete not being ejected from the band and a life of super-stardom for the couple.
Deanna doesn’t seem to regret anything. She’s shy, unassuming and happy to be surrounded by chips, which is why I like her. She says that when she was a girl and people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up she would always reply “a chip”. She didn’t know why she had that as a goal, but by working in a chip shop she had come pretty close to achieving it, and this made her feel satisfied with her life.
As I was waiting for my large chips and saveloy, I told Deanna that my luck seemed to be changing. I had won £10 and then £100 on scratch-cards, so it felt like only a matter of time until I worked my way up to the jackpot and became a millionaire.
‘If I do win the Lottery I promise to give half to you,’ I said to the back of her head as she fried my chips. Her hair was very frizzy. It looked like a Polaroid of the Big Bang. Despite the flecks of grey, I don’t think she was very old, probably in her mid-thirties like me, but working in a chip shop her whole life had somehow aged her.
‘I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have to make chips for a living,’ Deanna stated, turning to face me.
‘You don’t have to stop making chips,’ I replied. A mental image of Deanna in her grease-covered uniform transposed into a luxurious setting, serving me chips on a silver plate popped into my head. I thought about describing the scene to her but decided against it. I just repeated my last sentence instead.
‘You don’t have to stop making chips.’
‘Good,’ she said.’You spend a fortune on chips.’
‘Because I love them. I don’t care about the effect it has on my wallet, but I do need to watch my weight.’ As I said this I put my hand on the metallic part of the display case containing the pies and sausages on the counter. I wanted to see if it was hot. It was so intense I had to snatch my hand back from the grasp of pain to stop my body being in its permanent possession. I knew it would be hot, but for some reason I had to disregard the caution sign and find out firsthand.
I then brought the same hand to my face and prodded one of my cheeks.
‘Look: I’m a fatty!’
‘Oh, you don’t have to worry.’ Deanna was wrapping my food. ‘You’ve got a baby face,’ she added.
That’s when I remembered the face. I only registered her compliment much later because the face on the kitchen floor so utterly engaged me at that point.
I took my chips and hurried back home to check whether it had returned. It had, so I scrubbed it away as my chips grew cold.
I have a plan to cheat the Lottery system, to beat it at its own game. It’s to bet on every single combination of numbers possible. If the amount of money needed for this is less than the jackpot that week then I’m a guaranteed winner. The problem is I don’t know how to work it out mathematically, and even then the time it would take to fill out all the tickets would be so immense I could probably do the same amount of hard graft somewhere else and get paid a fortune for it. So the thicko in me wins. He’s holding onto the theory like Neville Chamberlain clutching that piece of paper he thought was a peace of paper. The thicko in me is clutching it while ordering the archaeologist and obsessive compulsive in me to scrub, scrub, scrub.
‘Most toilets flush in e-flat.’
The following Sunday morning Harrison the Human Book of Facts was in my kitchen again.
‘Interesting,’ I mumbled. ‘But you didn’t finish what you were saying about meat.’
‘Oh yeah. The meat market is drying up. There’ll be a meat drought on soon if it continues like this. A mought, if you will.’
I despise Sundays with a passion, a passion equal to that with which I love chips. It’s not only because of Harrison’s visits; it’s been with me as long as I can remember and it’s to do with the air of stagnation which pervades the “day of rest”. To me it feels like a day of decay, a 24-hour period designed specifically for old people and their favorite things to seep like a stale liquid from the body of a zombie into the fabric of everday life.
‘With a mought on your hands, you’ve got to look for alternative sources of income,’ Harrison continued. ‘And that’s why Janice and I are are entering the little one in this ugliest baby comp. First prize is £500 and a year’s supply of nappies.’
Why should I suffer the inconvenience of all the shops being closed and all the proper television programmes being put on hold on a Sunday because of a stupid myth about God creating the world and having a rest? It’s patently false: we’re supposed to believe that God made plants before creating the sun… er, photosynthesis, anybody? I resent having one seventh of my entire life turned into a ghost.
‘It’s happening up at the D’Arcy Centre. Have you ever been there? They have loads of big functions, so it’s a great place to sell meat. If I were you I’d quit the pubs and start selling my produce to all the rich idiots there… actually, if I were you I’d get myself a girlfriend and start enjoying life.’
I’m sure that if I were to be drugged for an indeterminate amount of time and placed on a desert island I would still be able to tell which day was Sunday when I woke because I feel its rustiness so acutely. I’m always able to position myself in relation to Sunday. It’s drag is so strong, its mass so huge that my movements are defined by my proximity to the shadow it casts in the shape of a gigantic pile of shit.
‘Judy Garland’s fake eyelashes sold at auction for $125.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’ I asked Harrison.
‘I’m illustrating how there’s a lot of rich idiots at auctions, if you excuse the pun.’
‘A lot of rich idiots,’ Harrison said with his ugly smile. ‘You should get yourself over to the D’Arcy Centre when they’re doing an auction. My produce will sell like hot cakes there.’
‘I might just do that,’ I told him. That was the first useful thing he had said all day. I decided to celebrate by throwing a surprise party for the last sentence in the form of a question.
‘You know your mate’s relative you were talking about, the one who had a face on her floor?’
‘What did you say happened to her again?’
Harrison was rolling a cigarette, which meant he was about to leave.
‘She died,’ he said. ‘Dropped a toaster in the bath or something like that. I can’t remember exactly but it was definitely electrocution.
‘Did you know you are statistically more likely to be killed by your fridge than to win the Lottery?’
Scrubbing the face away soon became a regular fixture in my diary. I tried out a variety of products, from soap to bleach, from kitchen roll to metal scourers, but it would incessantly return faster and darker after every session for a face-off with reality. Even removing the tiles from the affected area didn’t stop it returning.
I wasn’t comfortable with a face calling my kitchen floor its home, so in an attempt to get to the bottom of it I called a fridge engineer round. When he came he brought a friend with him. His friend was green, scaly and about 30cm long. It was a chameleon. It sat on his shoulder and did very little. Why he had to go about his business accompanied by a lizard I do not know – it certainly didn’t appear to make him any more efficient as a fridge fixer. He talked far more about his chameleon than my appliance.
‘She gets grumpy sometimes. Don’t you, Henrietta? You just have to let her do her own thing when she’s got the grumps on. Sometimes she’ll sit in the corner of the living room by the magazine rack for days without moving. She’ll go dark to blend in with the DVD player and I have to pretend I can’t see her.’
The engineer had a uniform on which reminded me of that worn by people working for the RSPCA. He would have been more at home there. He seemed to know nothing about fridges.
‘Is this it?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied. It didn’t bode well that he couldn’t identify a fridge without my assistance.
‘She uses her eyes a lot. That’s a sign of a healthy chameleon. Sick ones keep their eyes closed. She had a touch of mouth rot at one point, but apart from that Henrietta’s always had a clean bill of health. Would you like a fly?’
I answered ‘no’ to his offer of a fly, mistakenly thinking it was directed at me. The fridge man laughed so much it made the situation even more awkward. His chortles sucked all the fun up like a vacuum cleaner after a party. He was one of those people who wouldn’t stop laughing until you made eye contact with him to acknowledge the joke. If I were blind he would have been happy to laugh himself dead.
‘So what’s the problem?’
‘It seems to be leaking,’ I said. All three of us were staring at the fridge.
He pulled it out, as I did when I wanted to check on the face, until it was in the middle of the kitchen. He held Henrietta steady on his shoulder as he knelt down for a closer look. I had made sure by scrubbing earlier in the morning that the face was not visible to anyone other than myself. There were a few green patches, but nothing substantial.
After a fairly quick inspection the fridge guy stood up and gave me his I-can’t-see-anything-wrong-with-it verdict. It now seems strange that he didn’t feel the need to take it apart or away for further inspection but I felt so awkward having him around the exposed site of the face I was glad to hear that there was no need for him to stay any longer. The face had started to become a source of shame for me. The fact that I could not let it be suggested there was something wrong with it, which there indeed was because human features aren’t supposed to grow on floors, so even the void marking its absence felt like something with death-bells on it.
When Harrison came round I would keep the fridge covering the infected area and tell him the face was no more.
Why do pedestrians have to exercise caution when men are working overhead? I presume when a sign tells us to be careful in this way it’s because the workers (who may not all be men, despite what the sign says) might accidentally drop something on us. I accept that accidents happen, but why is it important for walkers to be cautious? The notices we see all over the place make it sound as if being knocked unconscious by a falling object is our own fault for not being alert enough. Is there another sign up above imploring the workmen and women to be vigilant because of the pedestrians below? If there is, it certainly wasn’t heeded when my head narrowly missed being turned into instant mashed potato while walking to the D’Arcy Centre.
I feel lucky that I’ve not been involved in more accidents as they seem to be happening all the time. A man thinks he’s driving to work but really he’s driving straight into a fatal motorway pile-up; a woman thinks she’s walking to the postbox but really she’s walking into an open manhole. Accidents are happening everywhere, exploding, crashing, crumbling all around us. To find a safe path through all the mishaps you’d need to be an expert tightrope walker. You think your kettle’s just a kettle? Think again. It’s a potential accident.
As I was walking down the street a toolbox fell from a great height and landed right in front of me, smashing open and sending an array of sharp tools my way. A chisel bounced up and hit my shin, breaking through the corduroy armor of my trousers and drawing blood. None of the workmen seemed to take responsibility for what had just happened and I didn’t wait around for them to get their act together because that would probably have entailed standing and dripping red on the pavement forever. Instead I hobbled into a nearby McDonald’s to grab a handful of napkins with which to soak up the blood. I pressed them onto the cut and pulled my sock up to hold them in place.
While I nursed my wounds I overheard a discussion a couple waiting in line for their burgers were engaged in. The man was insisting that Rene Descartes was spot-on with his “I think therefore I am” soundbite, while the woman was arguing that he should have said “I doubt therefore I am”. I didn’t stay to find out what conclusion they reached, but I was very surprised to hear a discussion of that nature taking place in a fast food outlet.
It turned out that I traded one accident in for another: just moments before I arrived there, the lift at the D’Arcy Centre had got stuck, trapping someone inside. The thought occurred that it could have been me if it weren’t for my earlier calamity. I’d happily bring hours stuck in an enclosed space to the table and leave with only a cut shin in Miss Fortune’s bring-and-buy sale.
In the end, the poor bloke was stuck in there for three hours. I wondered how long it takes before you go mad and feel the need to smear shit over the walls. I guess you would eventually run out of corners to poo in and would one day find yourself with excrement on your hands and, trying to wipe it off onto the walls, you might decide that it’s actually quite fun and start doing it recreationally. Thankfully for him, the man trapped in the D’Arcy Centre lift didn’t reach that stage, although he certainly wasn’t very happy when he came out.
I had been pestering the people in and around the room where the auctions happen, just as Harrison suggested, experiencing varying degrees of success, when I noticed the man from the lift being released into the first floor hallway. He look pretty angry, so I don’t know why I thought trying to sell him some meat was a good idea. I opened with a line about how I bet he wished he had some food on him in there.
‘I’ve got loads actually,’ he said to me in a thick Liverpudlian accent. He then placed a sports bag at my feet and bent down to unzip it. It was filled with raw meat.
‘Could I interest you in a bit of meat? Nice and cheap like.’
‘But… that’s what I was just about to ask you,’ I said. My face contorted to create an expression it had never made before, specifically designed to express surprise at the sight of another human being doing a job you thought only you did. I showed him what was in my carrier bags.
‘You’re selling meat too?’ His face was contorting like mine. ‘You’re on my turf, pal. There’s only room for one meat seller here,’ he declared angrily.
‘Oh dear,’ I said, feeling rather taken aback. ‘You don’t work for Harrison, do you?’
‘Harrison? Who the hell is Harrison? I work for myself.’ The Liverpudlian made a fencer’s lunge and slapped one of my plastic bags.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘There’s no law against two people selling meat at once – actually, there are trading and health and safety laws and we’re breaking them, but you know what I mean.’
The man from the lift either didn’t know what I meant or didn’t care because he grabbed me by the collar and pushed me up against the wall.
‘Get off my patch, pal,’ he said. At least I think that’s what he said. His accent was very strong. ‘I’ve got a wife and kids to feed.’
‘Why don’t you give them some meat, then?’ I asked.
‘Don’t get clever with me. I bet you don’t have a family. I bet you live on your own because no one can stand to be with you. People can stand to be with me, but I need to feed and clothe them. Do you think Ben’s going to get his plimsolls if I let you press your sausages on the folks round here? Do you? Do you?’
‘If I see you and your meat around these parts again I’m going to punch you in the throat, understand?’
I gave a nod because I thought that was the gesture most likely to get me released from his choke-hold. It worked.
‘Remember,’ he said, making a fist and and pretending to punch himself in the neck. ‘If I see you around here again you’re dead meat.’
I was about to make a humorous connection between my potentially being dead meat and the produce I sell, but decided against it.
I left the D’Arcy Centre with two full bags of meat in my hands. I was sure I could have sold them pretty easily if it weren’t for that angry Scouser.
I hate the Sundays in a bank holiday weekend more than normal ones because the following Monday feels like a Sunday all over again. It was a bank holiday Sunday when Harrison came round with the bad news about his baby son.
‘He died two nights ago,’ he said. ‘It’s a classic case of cot death.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Were you sleeping with your baby?’
Harrison laughed. ‘Do you think a massive lug like me could fit in a cot? Of course not, you idiot.’
I explained that I was in fact asking whether the baby had slept in Harrison’s bed, as this would also constitute cot death, but he was too busy laughing at the idea of him trying to fit into a cot to take this on board.
‘Ha, I’m the size of a bear!’
Harrison was surprisingly jovial for someone who had just lost a child. The nearest thing I had to the experience of being a parent is when I owned a pet goldfish as a child, which is not exactly the same, but I do know that when I found it floating upside down in its tank I didn’t feel like laughing much. I guess people deal with grief in different ways.
‘Anyway,’ Harrison said, slapping his thigh. ‘The good news is I’ve got lots more meat. The mought is over!”
A horrible thought crossed my mind which linked the death of his baby to the sudden procurement of meat; the thought was accompanied by the feeling of the wind using my spine as a xylophone. I also thought about how the possibility of becoming a parent still remained such a hopelessly distant thing for me.
‘The infant death rate for boys is 1.4 times higher than the rate for girls.’ Harrison seemed to have a fact for every occasion. ‘But anyway, let’s not dwell on negative stuff. Have you got a girl yet?’
The answer that came out of my mouth was always the same: a big, fat ‘no’. It had been the same the entire time Harrison and I had known one another. That time was seven years long and two “friends” wide. Our “friendship” started because I kept bumping into him in my local pub and he seemed to think I was interested in listening to him talk all night about pointless rubbish.
‘There’s a girl in the chip shop I like,’ I said. ‘I’m thinking of asking her out.’
‘Well, make sure you do it,’ Harrison bellowed. ‘Life’s too short to procrastinate .’
‘Yes,’ I said to Harrison, who was now making strange movements with his hands in the middle of the kitchen. ‘And I really am very sorry about your loss.’
Harrison was right when he said I’d be able to offload huge quantities of meat onto the people at the D’Arcy Centre auctions, so I wasn’t going to let an angry Scouser scare me off – actually, I was rather scared, but thought the chances of running into him again were pretty slim.
It was a Monday afternoon and I was selling meat like there was no Tuesday. After I had converted my very last piece of meat – what looked like a lung – into money I decided to pop my head round the door of one of the auction rooms and see what all the fuss was about. It was definitely an auction taking place because in the middle of the stage at the far end was an auctioneer with a gavel doing that going-once-going-twice stuff that auctioneers do, but on the door it read “Bravery Awards”. I was confused. I walked into the crowd and found a seat.
‘Is this an auction?’ I asked the person next to me in a whisper.
‘Are you joking? Of course it is.’ The person next to me was a middle-aged woman with enormous nostrils.
‘But it says “Bravery Awards” on the door.’
‘Yes,’ hissed the woman. ‘It’s a Bravery Awards Auction.’
I was still confused but kept quiet as my neighbor clearly found questions annoying. I decided to watch the auction for answers.
The auctioneer introduced the next item, which was called the Physical Heroism Award. He read the following from a card: ‘this award is for an act of selfless heroism in the face of extreme physical danger.’ He put the card down and picked up his gavel. ‘Do I hear £40?’ He then did the whole going-going-gone business again until the award was sold to a man in the front row for £130. The winning bidder then walked up to collect the prize and gave an acceptance speech as if he had performed the act of bravery.
It was a rather extraordinary thing to witness. Perhaps other pairs of eyes were accustomed to that kind of thing, but mine were stupefyed at the sight of an auction of bravery awards. My eyes felt like two malfunctioning magic 8-balls relaying gibberish wisdom to my brain.
I sat through the next item and the same thing occurred. Another award was sold to the highest bidder. I felt a small burst of adrenalin on realising that thanks to a recent scratch-card win I had £100 to spend however I liked. Buying a bravery award seemed like a great way to spend it.
Next up was the Lifesaver Award. The lucky bidder was free to make up whatever story he or she liked to explain the reason for receiving the award, so said the auctioneer. He gave a few examples: rescuing a boy from the middle of a frozen pond, pulling an old lady out of the way of a speeding car, helping to land a plane after the captain passed out. I didn’t like any of his suggestions, but I did like the look of the Lifesaver statuette. It was silver and depicted a heroic-looking figure in a Neo-Classical style. It would look lovely at home with me.
The bidding started at £25. It darted up quickly by increments of ten and then languished briefly at £80. After that it was then a two-horse race between me and a ginger gentleman who looked the complete opposite of a lifesaver. I pipped him at the post by adding £10 of my hard-earned meat money to the Lotto winnings, thus clinching the award at £110. The thrill of the auction had set my pulse racing and I felt very satisfied with my purchase, although it wouldn’t be until later that the award’s full value would become clear.
I went up on stage to collect it, following in the footsteps of the previous award winners, all of whom had given a brief speech to the audience. It appeared I was expected to do the same because a pool of expectant faces stretched out before me. I stayed in the shallow end.
‘I’d like to dedicate this award to Deanna,’ I said into the microphone. ‘A lovely woman who makes me chips every day. That’s it.’
That really was it. All my years spent on this earth amounted to a pathetic crush on a chip shop worker. I had no one else to thank. No one. That didn’t seem to bother the audience as they applauded my little speech, something I took as my cue to exit the stage and the building.
It was raining outside. Although it could clearly withstand a bit of precipitation, I felt the need to hold my new trophy under my jacket as if protecting it from damage – I also felt self-conscious wandering around with a silver statuette in my hand.
As I walked through the car park I felt a slap on my back – not the congratulatory kind, but the kind which comes from the hand of an angry man from Liverpool who thinks you are encroaching on his territory.
‘Oi, pal! I thought I warned you about coming here. Where’s your meat? Sold it all, have we? Well, I haven’t sold mine, and I wonder why that is… probably because my customers’ stomachs are filled with your rubbish.’
The rival meat seller’s voice got higher and higher as he spoke.
‘People like you make me sick. Literally sick. I actually feel like throwing up right now and I didn’t feel like that before I saw you. How would you like it if I chucked up all over you, eh? I’ve got a good mind to do it. Then would you get the message to stay the hell away from here? Would you?’
I was quite scared.
‘I’m so irate I’ve a good mind to let my fists do the talking. And I’ll tell you this for free: my fists can talk pretty loud. I’m shouting now, but my fists can make this seem like a whisper. Do you want some? Do you? God, I’m so angry!’
I was clearly dealing with someone with anger management problems so I tried to ignore him and continue walking through the car park, but this only added spice to the curry of his rage. He served me up an extra large portion in the form of a punch.
One of us let out a huge cry of pain as a result of the blow. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I was the one doing the crying, but it was in fact the angry Liverpudlian because his fist had landed right on the statuette I was holding under my coat. The look on his face told me the only thing he could understand about what had just happened was that his hand hurt like a massive bastard. After that, he was pretty keen to get as far away from the source of his pain and embarrassment as he could. He led himself away with tears in his eyes.
By seeing off a bully I almost felt I had legitimately earned the right to be in possession of a bravery award.
‘Have you ever checked out the auctions they do at the D’Arcy Centre?’ I asked Harrison. ‘I never knew that kind of thing happened.’
‘What kind of thing?’
‘Well, er… selling awards.’ Harrison didn’t seem to be listening to me. ‘Is there something on your mind?’ I inquired.
‘Janice and I have decided to give it one last go – actually, I’ve decided. Janice never knew about my bit on the side. I’ve finished with the solid girl, but as far as Janice knows, things are fine and always have been. I’ve decided to live that lie.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I guess that would weigh on your mind.’
‘That’s not what’s weighing on my mind, you idiot! I’m fine with that. I just thought I should tell you, that’s all. What’s weighing on my mind is that I can’t recall where the typical image of the orchestra conductor comes from. Is it from a specific film? A cartoon? You know what I’m talking about: the old man with mad scientist hair, wearing a bow-tie and tails, conducting classical music furiously. Is it Disney? It’s really bugging me.’
‘I don’t know,’ I answered. I was finding it increasingly difficult to follow Harrison. I almost craved his useless facts because at least I knew where I stood with them. The previous Sunday I sat and listened to him talking about the benefits of eating placenta for about half an hour.
‘I saw a man in the street who looked like a mad conductor and it’s been bugging me ever since.’
I had placed my bravery award on top of the fridge. It felt good to have something there to take attention away from the face seeping out beneath. The little man looked very heroic standing atop the fridge, as if he had risked his silver life to scale it. Harrison didn’t even notice.
To make conversation I decided to tell him about all the animal deaths I had seen recently. Being in the meat business, I thought it might interest him. In the space of three days I had observed a fox being run over by a car, a kamikaze pigeon flying into a pane of glass and a fly keeling over and dying on my windowsill. My mind felt like an abattoir.
‘Did you know that you’re more likely to be killed by your fridge than win the Lottery?’
‘You’ve already told me that one, Harrison,’ I said. ‘You’ve finally run out of facts.’
I am back in the kitchen with only my inner monologue for company.
I finish my whiskey and stand up. Walking over to the fridge, I stretch my arm out towards the statue, but before I get there my foot comes to rest in a puddle of greenish water seeping out from beneath the appliance. A huge bolt of electricity darts up my leg like a metallic weasel and comes to rest with its teeth around my heart. I am being electrocuted. I am being electrocute. I am being electrocut. I am being electrocu. I am being electroc. I am being electro. I am being electr. I am being elect. I am being elec. I am being ele. I am being el. I am being e. I am being.
I think I’m lying on the kitchen floor now, level with the face, but I can’t be certain. Time and Space have become two fat old women gossiping behind my back and it’s hard to hear what they’re saying about me. I do know that the shock sent me flying backwards, so it’s probably safe to assume that my body is now on the floor and that I hit my head in the fall.
On getting no answer when ringing my doorbell this Sunday, Harrison will most probably peer through the letterbox and see my corpse on the floor. As he cared so little about the death of his son I’m not holding my breath for an outpouring of grief over me; I just hope my suspicion about where he gets his meat from doesn’t turn out to be true because I’d like my body to be buried in one piece. My body will be taken away, but I will remain here forever in essence, hanging in the air like a ghost’s cardigan.
I wonder what Deanna is doing. I never got round to asking her out.