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Affluence and Effluence
Neil Wills
Trapped like a rabbit I hesitate. Which way to run? It’s pointless of course but I try

As one door closes another one opens.
When the first one closed on me the whole lot took their cue. Bloody frenzy of slamming wood. Every hole in every wall sealed up and I was left with a bunch of redundant keys.
Some might think I deserved this, indeed, saw it coming but then that’s my wife. She’s great with ‘I told you so’. Plans, ideas and half-formed ambitions were atomised and scattered to the wind in the space of a few months. Perhaps my chagrin has amplified the drama because, Ok, there were a couple of doors left unlocked but, doors into cupboards allow only a couple of steps before you hit a wall. Narnia doesn’t exist.

So here I am alone in the internet café. Can’t really afford the hot chocolate with cream but, hey, in for a penny and so on. I pay with a five pound note. Not that I haven’t got change. I have but, probably not quite enough to cover the cost. I could scrabble about in the thin, torn pockets of my suit but, that would lend credence to that which I deny. Broke.
I’ll continue the illusion as long as possible. At least outwardly. I suspect the waitress is aware of the truth. She smiles and adds an extra dollop of cream unasked for. My gratitude wells up and almost trickles out. Coughing, I turn away.

I approach the screen in the window seat. I should really be limping. Crippled and hopeless. Cast into the world of the unwanted. I don’t even belong there. Is there an under-under class I should apply to join? I think of Groucho Marx’s disdain for any club which would have him as a member. Yeah.

‘Are you alright’? A voice enquires. It hits me hard. Am I so visibly pathetic? Do the Samaritans stalk cafes looking for trade?
‘Do you want me to log you on’? The voice persists. I turn to see the waitress smiling at me. I smile back and the bristles on my face feel stiff. Unused to changing their positions.
‘No, I’m fine thanks. Just working out where I’m going first. You know, stock market, investments or holidays. That sort of thing’. Involuntarily I duck and weave my head with the words. I must look like a wide-boy.

I did indeed used to be wide. My suit bears witness to this. Recently I’ve deflated like a cheap inner tube. The weight has left me along with my comforts. My eyes flicker to the side to see if anyone’s watching the exchange. She speaks again. ‘Log you on’. I agree it might be a good start. ‘Surf’s up’ she smiles. ‘Let me know if you want more time’. ‘Thanks’ I say and watch her as she takes her leave.

I log onto my e-mail provider. As I wait for the algorithms to chatter and the electrickery to function my stomach tingles. ‘Welcome’ I read. That in itself is depressing. Computers are the play things of the affluent. I’m effluent.

Luckily the boxes don’t differentiate. Politeness is written into the codes. Nice. Guess I’ll hang out with computers then. See if I can replace the woman at the DHS with a box. Come to think of it, the doctor, the solicitor and the wife. Turn her into a box. Box. Put her in a box. A spark of passion fizzes weakly to the front of my mind but I manage to dismiss it.

I scroll down the list of messages and tick the box for delete all. Debt counsellors. cheap print cartridges, casinos. Anti-virus software? No need, I have a quilt for that. Thin and ragged with a 70’s geometric pattern in brown and gold. Helps keep my kidneys warm.
No, as I expected. Nothing of interest. No invitations to interview. No consultancy needed. My finger hovers over the mouse as I take a final gander and then…. See it, saw it. Back and forth. Who has sent that? Who knows my name?
Hey, TT. Open me up.
TT. That’s me TT. My abbreviation. Who knows that? My heart beats fast at the thought of Docklands again. The light railway. The lift to the heights of corporate technology. I am being called again. Tarquin Tebbit. Your ship has come in. Triumphantly my finger stabs the button and my eyes greedily devour the fantastic news.
Alouitious Haydock.
What? What’s that mean? Who the hell is Alouitious Haydock? I scroll down quickly looking for the detail.
IT director? Head hunter for technology group? Nothing. My mouse drags and clicks in all directions. That’s all.

I stare out of the window until the door bursts open and a group of youths fall in laughing. I’m not sure I want to share my space with 16 year olds who have more money than me. My thoughts interrupted I read the message again and exit without deleting. The cream has sunk into the chocolate making each mouthful exquisite and I long for a fag. Pity internet cafes are so PC. Reluctantly I leave, pausing only to smile in the direction of the waitress. She isn’t looking. Effort wasted, I wander and wonder to myself.

Throwing the quilt from the sofa I stretch out and turn the state-of-the-art TV on. Digital in so much as I change the channel with my finger, it flickers into life with a vitality to match my own.
My wife says ‘Things happen for a reason’.
I reflect upon this as I eat my coco-pops. These own-brands aren’t half bad. The brandy gives the milk a fresher feel and helps disperse the curds. Shuttering light plays across the bare walls as the cars pass by. Commuters hurrying home to loved ones. Dinner on the table. Gentle conversation and wrestling with the kids. A world of light years away. Things happen for sure.
Hey! Volvo. Recognise the light clusters. Wouldn’t be surprised if this next one’s a ….Mondeo. Bloody right again. Should have a quiz show. I’d win it hands down. Head down. Shoulders bowed. On my knees. Steady Tarquin. Steady. Lighten up man. Get a grip. Things’ll change. Pop up to the local and have a chinwag. See old ….. Well, mebbe not eh? Can’t afford it anyway.
I wonder, do they still refund money on lemonade bottles? Been years since I’ve done that. Always a nice little earner at 11. I’ll nip out later. See if I can find some. Singles of fags or, ‘Five Park Lane please hen’ I’d ask. Casual, confident in my Jock accent. Illegal but I’d get them. Always.

White and sterile save for darkened windows into the inner room the design is stark, functional with no deference to comfort.
Through the window light is dimly seen. A matrix of neon green, violet and red boxes hang in the dark. They are still but if you were able to look closely you would see each line is moving, rolling and spinning around itself. From time to time a section of colour flips out and dies. It is soon replaced and the harmony of the shape restored. Occasionally a crackle breaks the silence.
‘OK Philo. Got the reclaim grid?’ A shadow moves. The beams are broken as he walks through them. They reform after he has passed. Philo nods and grins. It is plain he is enjoying himself. His baggy trousers are slung low in the fashion of the time. His hooded head and sunglasses complete the image. Surf or Nerd. There is no board visible. The voice speaks again as Philo consults the metal tablet. Light faintly glimmers as his fingers fly. ‘Philo we’re going at the low grade stuff today. We’ve had some interest from our sponsors in usage patterns and tail off. They’re looking at competition and the effects on the business usage and cycles’. Philo taps his board again. ‘Alright Mr Vader’.

‘Philo. Don’t piss me off with that old film crap. We’re paying you and your pal good money for enjoying yourselves. Don’t push it’. Philo’s voice drops lower. ‘Sorry Mr Bader’. Bader’s voice assumes the calm timbre of the scientist. His hand strokes a pad on the wall next to the window. The hole is filled with a pale and gently moving mist. Colours flood the hologram and paint in the delicate shapes and forms of a control panel. Briefly seen through the diffused light Philo plays with the superimposed icons. As he turns to the matrix floating behind him he hums a tune. With a flourish and a gentle skip he presses the pad in his hand and watches. A thin white light springs from the control and meets one of the segments above him. Slowly it tracks the grid until a junction makes it veer away on another route. Philo’s sunglasses reflect the patterned screen in his hands. He mutters to himself. He turns to look at Bader through the hologram. ‘Ready for burn’. With a gleeful smile he points his gloved hand at the screen. ‘Rock and roll’!

My coat is pulled close around me as I glide from shadow to shadow. Like Zorro, light forms no-go areas for me and the bag is awkward to carry. Shh! Bloody bottles. I grin in spite of myself as I remember. Tanner a bottle. Inflation must’ve increased that. I relish the thought, the jingle of coins in my pockets. I am rummaging in the bags at the back of the building when I freeze. There is a snap and rattle of chains not 5 feet from where I lurk. With a jerk the door swings back and a trembling falsetto breaks the night. ‘Who’s there? Come on I know you’re there. What do you want?’. I don’t move. She won’t see me if I stand still. I have forgotten about the light from the open door. Trapped like a rabbit I hesitate. Which way to run? It’s pointless of course but I try. My legs flap at and slap the rubbish bags which, like the shallows of the tide try and hold me. I grimly struggle toward the alleyway. My shopping bag clanks and rattles in my wake. I am almost there when I my leg connects with the edge of something sharp and I fall beneath the sea of waste. As I hit the ground profanity eases my pain. ‘Bugger.
Bollocking, buggering bollocks.’

Blood is soaking through the suit. Cost me £600 Two years ago. Shit. I look up at the door but no-one is there. Thank God for small mercies. I’ll sneak off and that’ll be that. ‘Bollocks’ I spit. Mostly at my stupidity but also, at least a little, at the buggering, bollocking world.
‘There’s no need to be quite so rude’.
Shit. I look wildly for the source. She’s right next to me. In the shadow I can just make out the blonde edges of her halo. Clusters of curls ring her head and her dark eyes study me intently. She reminds me of something. Alien. Grace.
Calmly she stares at me. Not at all frightened now. She has bearded the Monster.

Philo lifted his hand in greeting as he trotted down the spiral, chrome staircase. The chrome floors and chrome walls disrupted the shapes and images of the punters hovering in groups around their selection screens. Diggy rested high in his chrome armchair directing response to selections and transactions. A mini holo hovered half a metre from his head. His fingers pushed and pressed the coloured frames and icons and the punters collected their holo-discs in their carriers.

As Philo advanced toward the back wall of the store he allowed his hood to slip off revealing curly blonde hair. His baggy jeans and top echoed the dress of some of the other shoppers but most of the kids wore the latest carbon basket threads. The colours spun and changed according to the settings embedded in the weave. He shook his head as he walked. What d’you expect from airheads and kids? Philo ignored the critical looks while acknowledging his fellow-travellers. The congnoscenti. They knew the score. What was really important.

A door, as though embarrassed to be seen in such a wall, grew faintly visible. He stepped through onto the rubberised floor. Light was replaced by darkness and music. Real music played by real people, artists. He paused, grinning, as he soaked up the atmosphere. Rock and Roll.
In the gloom he could just make out the stages hovering a few centimetres above the floor. On one, a white clad figure gyrated his hips while the rhinestones on his wide belt glittered. An adoring group of youths jigged and jumped in response to the image’s pointing finger. Elvis, clearly, is not dead. And, as Philo glanced at another stage he saw that in fact he had multiplied. From Viva Las Vegas back to Rock-a-hoola all at the same time.

In the distance and through an archway he could see tables and the bar but his interest was swayed to the flash of a start-up. As the stage began to take form and the colours above it began to build he stood transfixed, smiling broadly. In excitement he watched as the band began to perform. A bit on the early side for his taste but still worth the watch. Quickly he identified the girl responsible. She was new. Dark and slim with short hair. She was very pretty, wore straight leg jeans and T shirt and boy, was she into the music. Perhaps he might try 1969 for himself. Quickly he moved to her side. Completely lost in her selection she ignored him. ‘Maximum R and B’ screamed the poster behind the group. The drummer was mad for it.
‘Cool’ said Philo. She glanced at him then back at the stage. ‘Shh’! He tried again. ‘Who is it’? She frowned and repeated. ‘Shh! I’m listening. I’ve only paid for a shorty’. ‘Sorry’. Philo folded his arms and watched. He was impressed by the energy and the wild banging cyclical strokes of the guitarist. The singer’s hair shone and the sweat stuck strands to his forehead. ‘Hope I die before I get old’. Good lyrics thought Philo. The holo began to fade and the sound diminished until all was dark again. Philo was relieved but also disappointed. He could now ask her. ‘So. Who…’?
Brusquely she answered him then looked him up and down slowly. ‘That’s right. Didn’t think you’d like them. You look too ….er baby retro’. He glanced down at his jeans. ‘Baby retro. I’ve never been called that. What’re you then? Retro-Chick’? She looked scathingly at him. ‘Retro-Chic. New boy. Get an education before you come in here again’. Her teeth were white and neat and her lips glistened as she spoke. Nice. Before he could riposte she pushed past him and strode toward the exit. Philo stared after her. He removed his sunglasses and stooped to rub furiously at his calf. The itch was starting again.
I notice the large and heavy torch in her hand. I suppose just in case I get uppity. ‘Get up’. her voice is smooth and clean. I like it. I nod manfully but grimace as I try to rise. My trouser leg is flapping open. The blood looks black in the half-light. ‘Come inside and I’ll see what I can do. Do anything wrong and I’ll break your arm. Understand’? I smile weakly and hobble after her. It’s as if the bag-sea parts for her only to close for me. I still grip my bag of gold.
‘I’m sorry for startling you.’ I try. Just to break the ice really. She is behind the counter switching switches and unboxing a box of plaster. I see her place a bandage on the espresso machine. I hope she isn’t going to heat it up first.
‘Want to tell me what you were doing’?
If I do, it might diminish any grandiose claims I may have later on in the conversation. She lifts the torch and stares into my face. I mumble.
‘Gonna sell the bottles’. She looks up from behind the machine. Is she smiling? Smirking? I’m not too sure but she continues. ‘Wouldn’t you rather tell me the truth? It may stop me involving the police’. I cannot bear to look her in the face. If my leg didn’t hurt so much I’d be rubbing my toe back and forth across the tiles as I answer again, head down. ‘Gonna sell them ….at the newsagents’. She snorts and I look up. She is laughing which makes her blond curls fall forward. She reaches up and throws them aside as she looks straight at me. Still laughing she asks. ‘How much for each bottle you get’? I shrug and admit I don’t know but we used to get a tanner each so with inflation …… She interrupts me. ‘When did you last try’? I grin. ‘Thirty years ago’.
Her hands are slim and well formed. Smooth and strong but delicate. The nails well manicured sport clear varnish. Her cuticles are ….well, cute. I like hands. And teeth. They hold my leg. The hands that is. She cleans the long, deep, moon-shaped fissure in my flesh while I struggle not to whimper. As she applies the bandage she looks up at me.
‘What do you do’? She asks. ‘When not recycling lemonade bottles or sitting in cafes’?
Clearing my throat I go for honesty. I don’t think she’ll be taken in by any concoction of mine. Maybe on a good day when I’ve a belly full of food and a hefty consultancy contract in my pocket. Not today though.
‘I have my own company’. The hands stop. She stares at me then ‘What does this … do’? Bugger! ‘To tell the truth, nothing. At least yet. It does exist but I’ve yet to source the funding’. ….’Honestly’. She continues. ‘Were the bottles part of the funding plan’?
‘No. They were to buy cigarettes’.
‘Can’t you get another job while you are setting up the business’?
‘I have one. I work at the concrete factory’.
‘Can’t that fund the project’?
‘That funds my wife. ….Ex wife’.
He set off for the selection tablets, hands thrust into his pockets. With a backwards glance he saw she had gone. A sense of disappointment stayed with him until the selector switches glowed under his hand. Responding to the prompt he searched the lists until he found it. The headings were split into decades. His finger stroked the 1970s icon and the index grew into focus.
There it was. He’d planned and saved for this for a while and now the time had come. The code presented, he waited. With the customary fizz, the stage began to form in front of him. He was aware of other shadows joining him. A familiar voice called. ‘Philo, Hi’. The stocky shape of Tigger came into his peripheral view. He would not take his eyes from the holo. Didn’t want to miss a single second. The voice carried on ‘What we got today? Something obscure, exotic’?
Philo acknowledged him with a short response.
‘BeBop Deluxe’.

The huge, steel-framed canopies tower over the dirty floors of the factory. Panels of glass high up over the workers allow some light in. They are streaked and filthy collecting a yellow film which in turn attracts and clutches to itself any passing particle of dust. The sunlight is choked. Shut out for good. Freezing winds out of Russia screech across the North Sea and batter the towers of the installation. The sheds stand open to the elements at one end like giant metal windsocks, inviting bitterness and resentment to flourish. Us and them. The workers and the office staff. Secretaries. Bosses. Toiling in the dirty, dusty, cement covered landscapes. A Land of Mordor. Orcs. They make decisions affecting us from within their cosy burrows. Hobbitt hegemony.

There is also me. I push my barrow around the site. Dirty white stained boots splash through unevenly formed puddles of filth. The shift stretches endlessly increasing the misery of physical labour. Wind batters me. Rain spatters me. Closing matters to me. I am in sales. Was in sales. Want to be back in sales. I am a ‘cubie’. I work in the laboratory testing concrete strength. No white coat or comfy surroundings. Laboratory is a misnomer. Dirty shed is more apposite. We test the concrete strength then throw the cubes away. Mind numbing. The guys on the shop floor think it’s cushy for the lab boys. We all think it’s cushy for the office workers. Everyone thinks it’s cushy for the bosses.

The walls of the ‘rest area’ are papered with papers. Newspapers. More exactly page 3s from newspapers. The toilet walls are evidence of time warp which transports sinister, juvenile poets and artists in at night to decorate.
I sit here and listen to talk of sport, women and, strangely, in this filthy building, fish and birds. Aquarists and ornithologists talk with passion of their recreation while others pore over the day’s racing fixtures. A moment of portent is looming but I do not realise it. A word half-heard reaches me through the babble and smoke. Where have I heard it before? My mind scans back and forth through jumbled images looking for the thread. Alouitious. What was that again? I focus upon the man with the sports paper and tune in to his discussion. Five to one. I begin to lose interest. They are talking of racing. I continue my solitary thinking waiting for the whistle to blow. Inevitably the lonely howl signals us back to the shop floor.

We lever our weary limbs off the benches and head for the doors. The man in front is the sports paper reader I had listened to. I can just see the black type-face jutting from under his armpit. The word I can see is familiar too. A wild, stupid thought occurs but the weight of my barrow chases it away.

The damned wind is battering me as I struggle with the bike. Multiple layers of clothes are pressed hard against my sweating skin as I wobble and push on towards home. I have a day-glo vest to warn the car drivers I am on the highway. It billows and snaps like the canvas sails of a man ‘o war. I hate the wind. It speeds me to work but impedes my escape. I hate the winter. I hate the bloody bike. The pedal snatches and jerks as the rusted gears choose. Everything is against me today. As each car passes me there is a small respite. The slipstream seems to nullify the wind’s power for a micro second allowing me to progress a bit but, it returns with fury as though irritated by any diminution of its malevolence.

Was that a finger held up? Bastard! Cosy and smug in his sad little car. ‘I used to have a bloody Saab…you bastard!’ . A horn is blowing somewhere behind me in the line of cars. I ignore it. If I turn around I’ll lose momentum and have to push the bike. Grimly I redouble my efforts. The long hill stretches ahead. I hate this bit. My trousers rub against my leg and the bandage feels wet. I press on. With sudden resignation I lurch into the lay-by and stop. Just in case the passing drivers think the hill has beaten me, I theatrically examine the wheels and gears. No not knackered. Just got a technical problem. I pant with the exertion of looking.
Shit! A car has joined me. I don’t look up just rub my stubble. A technician faced with an interesting fault. I frown and bend down as I hear the car door open. ‘Hello, I thought it was you. Problem?’ Reluctantly I shift my gaze to the voice. It’s her. The café angel. The curly whirly girly. The wind tries to defeat the curls but they just whip around her flushed face. Her eyes glance at the bike.
‘Yes, gears playing up.’
‘Nothing to do with the hill then?’ …’Or the awful wind?’
I grin. She does something to me.
‘Want a lift?’
‘Sure’ I say after a decent pause. ‘That’d be great. Thanks.’

My bike projects through the hatchback. It has been secured by string and now bounces happily up and down as we progress through the gears. I sit turned towards the rear of the car in order to make sure it remains where I placed it. This also gives me the opportunity to steal glances at my helper. She is beautiful. The perfume she wears is light and contrasts heavily with my own work stained, sweat stained, concrete spattered odour. Surreptitiously I sniff my arm. Her curls lie gently on her collar. I quickly look toward the bike as she turns her head slightly.
‘How’s the leg? Did you go to the doctor?’
‘Bit sore. I scraped it at work.’
‘What did the doctor say?’
‘ Didn’t have time. I needed to work.’
‘You really should get it seen too. What about tetanus?’
‘Yeah, I guess you’re probably right. Tomorrow’.
‘Why not now? We pass the hospital.’
The nurse has cleaned the wound and a gleaming white bandage now clamps my calf. I watch as she reappears. My hands twist the pale blue paper on the trolley bed. The paper sticks to my wet palms as she draws nearer. She waves a small papier-mache tray. It holds my gaze. I am a cobra spellbound by the fakir. No. Shouldn’t call her that. She is only trying to help. She doesn’t know I don’t like needles.

I limp out from behind the curtain aided by the nurse. My Samaritan friend stands. ‘Everything ok?’ The nurse smiles and praises me for being brave. They exchange looks which unite them in sisterhood. I know what the look translates into. We turn and walk down the corridor together. I feel I should say something. She beats me to it. ‘Where can I drop you ……er …’. I leap in. ‘Tarquin. Tarquin Tebbit, er, my friends used to call me TT’. She laughs as she speaks. Her curls toss and sway as she swings her head to look at me. Her eyes pierce me. Brown. No. Yellow. I’m not too sure now. They seem to change in an instant. I can’t hold the gaze. I hold my breath in case it contaminates her.
‘I’ve found you rummaging in my bins, taken you into my premises late at night, and now picked you up in the middle of nowhere and brought you to hospital. I’m not a risk-taker by nature. Just opening the café scared the living daylights out of me. I must be going mad’.
I interrupt her. ‘Maybe you are mad. Buying back the very bottles that I took them from your bins.’. I laugh in order to indicate no offence meant. I don’t need to. She giggles and then whacks me. It feels nice but on the downside, I bite my lip. It’s my injection arm.
I begin to unfasten my bike from the car while she watches.

Affluence and Effluence by Neil Wills. © Neil Wills 2001-2002

First Chapters of a completed novel by Neil Wills enquiries to


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