Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Insensitive

The two female voices above my head gently volleyed their subject back and forth. Short strokes passing turn to the other, neither the questions too probing nor the answers too comprehensive, like a heartbeat. Systole. Diastole. One of the voices was my wife, I think, but I wouldn't swear to it, neither was overly-concerned. The slow regular metronome beeps of the heart monitor seemed to punctuate their conversation, each beep a bullet-point of my life waiting for details to justify its existence.
I first became aware of my condition, as it were, one day at Frinton-on-sea or Southend or somewhere. Charlie, my youngest, was splashing in the water, emitting shrill giggles of pleasure. The wife was beside me, sunning herself behind huge dark lenses. The wave rolled in and lifted him before pulling him down. I saw it all happen, even watched for a while, like a YouTube video.  The events developed behind a sheet of glass. Running, mouths open, arms flailing, a limp child. Then I had to drive. Fast. The wife’s mouth was wide open, her eyes streaming. I focused on the road. At one set of traffic lights a Citroën pulled up beside us, the new one with the windscreen that goes up over the roof. I was involved with the campaign. Fabulous visibility if you want to look up, otherwise it was like driving a greenhouse. The hospital carpark was quite empty so we found a space in no time; it’s the little pleasures, eh? They took the kid in really quickly, say what you like about the health service but there’s nothing like a four-year-old with purple lips to get them in action. I took the opportunity to go out and check my emails.
When the doctor came out he said it had been touch and go. He was still pretty shaken up but he would be fine. I could have told them that; the waves had shaken him like a martini. I was probably relieved. The tide had taken him quite deep and he had taken in a lot of water. I knew then that it was the first time I was aware of it because I knew that it wasn't right, something was missing. I realised that I should have felt something but I couldn’t focus on what it should have been. I looked around and did my best to emulate the faces of the people around me. There was a buzz in my pocket, Facebook. I told myself it wasn’t important and checked the faces of my wife and the doctor before pulling the device from my pocket; a puppy meme. Puppy memes are the new cat videos. Their faces changed but I couldn’t mimic this look. Something had changed. I still remember the events but I couldn't tell you what it was.
That night the wife stayed with the boy in the hospital and I took the remaining one home. I explained to him that mummy wouldn't be coming home for a few days because his brother had nearly died and mothers like to be there when these things occur. He took it quite well, but why wouldn't he. I ordered pizza and let him play on my tablet until long after his bedtime.
When the kids came along life changed its soundtrack from laughter with friends at the pub and cosy nights of quiet bliss to noise. Crying from the baby, screams from the wife. I tried to make things right. I bought teething gels, employed babysitters, bought her lingerie but the lingerie gathered dust, the nights out were spent waiting for a crisis call and the baby continued to scream.
I started to live a permanent state of fury, losing my temper for reasons I couldn't explain. The wife told me I wasn’t being sensitive enough to her needs. I could have argued that I was too sensitive to her frustration. Love amplifies pain. When someone you love has forsaken happiness for obligation, the only viable act of self-preservation is detachment.  I started drinking to muffle the pain but that just made things worse. Alcohol allows you to say things that an otherwise active part of the brain would filter. The same part of the brain that is wholly underdeveloped in bigots and zealots and people who speak too loud on public transport. Thing is though, once things are said they cannot be unsaid and women collect pain, like dogs collect fleas ready to be shared on contact.
Our childless friends stayed away. Babies evoke jealousy and sympathy in couples but mostly a fear of contagion.
My days became a cycle of flying cutlery, apologies and a cold back growling 'fuck-you!' before snoring back into the next loop.
Work required one-hundred and ten percent. The wife demanded undivided attention, the kids needed complete care. I got what was left.
Thankfully, the fatigue brought with it a warm muffled haze of exhaustion. The pressure of work became a haven, the relationships were similar but at least I wasn’t supposed to care about any of them.
I think in the beginning it was a conscious thing, I actually turned down the volume and the more I did the more it stayed down. 
I worked in marketing and I was very good. Advertising requires a finger on the pulse, an understanding of the Great British consumer. Empathy. I had that in spades in the beginning, I always knew what people wanted but as the time went on, I lost it. I used to be able to walk down the high-street and pick out anyone from the crowd, I could tell you their drivers, their desires and where I could seduce them into sales. Then they became faceless mannequins, units of consumption. Curious thing was that I got better at my job. When you strip down all the frilly edging, people just want. They want new stuff, they want what you have, they want what you can’t have and they want more. I, on the other hand had trained myself not to want, not to need.
As the kids grew up, the wife grew old and I wore my ties a little tighter. When they went to school she went back to work. After bedtime stories she told me about the flaws in her colleagues and I did my best to say the right things before she left me on the sofa to wait for the alarm to signal the beginning of another cycle.            
The room is empty now, just me and the slow regular beep of my existence. I open my eyes, a slight change in light but little else. I remember events in spartan detail, step by step like history revision notes. Some of the events bleed into others but mostly just bullet-point information.
Work was still going well. It was me that came up with the “Buy these biscuits, they’re better than the cheap ones!” campaign. It became a cult classic, people said it was post-ironic. I couldn’t see it myself. A big faceless company wanted to sell more biscuits so we got some celebrities to tell them to do it. Simple. 
My trips to the doctors began after an incident one Sunday, I could tell you the time and date as well but that would be showing off.
The kids were protesting about something and the wife was trying to out-protest them when a blue Hot Wheels car came flying over my shoulder and landed with a plop in the chip pan. I first looked down at my shirt, one of my favourite Fred Perrys. Then an explosion of tears from the youngest boy and the realisation that the car was bobbing around with the potatoes, slowly sinking. I plunged my hand in and snatched at a potato but eventually grabbed the car, its plastic pieces were a little soft but it appeared undamaged. Fortunately, the screaming stopped. I turned holding the toy in my outstretched palm to see the wife and kids staring. I couldn't remember them looking at me like that before. No yells, no demands just silence. I followed their gaze to my hand and the car. The oil was running down my arm and dripping from my elbow onto the floor. I had saved the car and now she was going to bounce on my balls for a couple of drips on the kitchen mat; fucking typical. The eyes followed my hand as I put the car down on the table. I remember thinking that some of the red paint had transferred to my hand but it was blue. The black plastic of the wheels had begun to harden on my fingers, some had fused. I looked up at them all and offered an empty apology and intention to replace the bloody thing. The Fred Perry would come right in the wash.
All feeling evaporated like sweat replaced by a refreshing anaesthesia. Food and sex lost their flavour and watching films and reading books was an indifferent waste of time but I found myself absorbed by documentaries so it wasn't all bad.
At some point walking became an issue. My relationship with the earth became tenuous until one day I took a tumble down the stairs. Some bones had articulated beyond normal tolerances and one was making its exit through my forearm. Getting up had been impossible. I pulled out my phone with my good arm to pass the time. The kids started playing video games in the living room the moment they came back from school. I was reading an article on the Guardian online about interest rates when the wife got home. She made a terrible fuss. The kids were sent next door to the neighbours. I didn't get to finish the article.
The ambulance crew kept asking me where it hurt which became a bit of a pain. They seemed to be a bit preoccupied with huffing, calling control, huffing some more and asking me where it hurt again. I managed to finish the article before we arrived though.
That began my residence of the University hospital as an object of interest and research. The doctors were a little baffled, they tried dozens of cocktails of drugs for the pain; to cause it. They gave me so many cat-scans that I felt like I was stuck in a drain.

There were so many theories, acquired congenital analgesia, late-onset autism, early-onset Alzheimer’s, Asperger’s. My favourite was one who believed it to be a rare bowel disorder that had caused my pain receptors to overload, I actually laughed. Because as the beep turns to a long flat tone, I don't give a shit.                          
This is the second part of my Love and Marriage Trilogy a dark and harrowing study of what it means to survive the til death doing us part. 


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Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Episode 40: A New Hope?

You know me. You followed me around the country. You loved me on the TV when I had you in stitches with jokes about my penis. You followed me in the tabloids, you supported my charitable works. Then you didn't. I don't know why. You just stopped. Now, I have people who love me again. So much that they made me their mayor. This is my new story, From Under Dark Clouds.



She didn’t like it, not at all but I was unfamiliar with her approach. She didn’t shout and she limited her expletives to moderate and non-personal.
“I can’t have a camera in my face twenty-four-seven. I can’t do that again, not now, not with the boys.”
She was right, of course. This was about me and the campaign not her and the kids.
Jude and Roni were downstairs, I couldn’t be sure that she wasn’t recording this conversation. Maybe that explained my wife’s temperance. I went down to lay some ground rules to find Roni with her camera following the kids playing with their Lego.
“Stop!” My demand had immediate affect on the kids but not a twitch from the camerawoman. “Put the camera down, NOW!”
She did but looked up at me with bemused eyes.
It took more than an hour to come to an amicable agreement. She wanted access to me but negotiated like the girl with the golden ticket. Exposure was, is my business and she seemed to understand that like I couldn’t. She would get a couple of interviews with the wife, some shots of the boys, pixelated and with no interaction from her and I would have power of veto on interviews with anyone else. The last one was the hardest. She claimed the right to retain journalistic freedom. I gave her open access to me and the campaign. She agreed.
The narrative would be my fall from grace and subsequent rise.
“And whatever happens after that…” she added.
We wrote it all down and signed it with Jude and the wife as witnesses.
“Well, that’s that in order. What do we do today?” Jude enthused.
“Sit down!” the wife barked. “Same goes for you!”
We wrote out the same conditions, adapting some for copy journalism and signed. Roni relished her loopy signature planting a heavy full-stop at the end.
The local coverage of the attack waned a little until, maybe due to a dearth of real news, the channels all picked up on the foreign interest. The number of Youtube views of the English version of the campaign video was a prominant part of the story as well as one of Jude’s articles in The Cerberus. He beamed. The news was that our news was big news in their news. The attack, the campaign video and even the kid with the bouzouki went ballistic. Just as and when Mike had predicted. That reminded me. I needed to speak to him, he was getting weird… weirder.
My phone buzzed, not its usual ringtone, it just buzzed. I swiped and put it to my ear. Nothing. Looking at the screen, Mike’s avatar appeared. “Hey Boss! The Youtube videos are going viral worldwide but domestic stats are showing significant engagement with over eighty-four percent watching the whole clip. Ninety-six percent, excuse some rounding of figures, are watching more than seventy-five percent of the clips. I have planted a script on all GD and sympathiser sites that phishes all their data when they log in. I am in the process of analysing the emails and PMs as we speak. All online communication, forums, facebook, twitter etc that refer to you, or them, are automatically modified in our favour. Persistence invokes the phishing script.”
“Wow, good work, Mike.” I looked round. Jude and Roni we plainly eavesdropping.
“Oh! And Boss.”
“Yeah, Mike.”
“You have no need to worry about me. We are fine.” The image shrank to a dot and disappeared.
I turned to the journoes. “Wow what they can do, eh?” They stared at me. “You heard that, right?”
Jude looked at Roni. “Just heard like white noise.”
“Me too!” she replied.
I got Yiannis Galtides on the phone and told him to meet me at the town hall. He wriggled tried to schedule for the coming week. I needed to see him now, while I still had the ideas in my head but he was preparing for a tech startup conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. I told him that I was considering him for a consultant or even ministerial position but I need to find out if we were on the same page.
“One hour in the conference room.” I told him.
He agreed.
I grabbed the Vespa keys from their hook. “Get your stuff, you got some journalism to do!”
We stood round the scooter. I looked to Roni and Jude with their flight bags and back packs. “This is not going to work.” I stated the obvious.
Fortunately, they had rented a car but suggested following me on the Vespa. “Who’s that guy in South America somewhere with the VW?” Roni asked.
“Yeah, Uruguay, the president.” He squinted. “Jose Mujica. Drives an old original Beetle. You know he was offered a million for it?”
“Nah!” she regarded the Vespa and pulled out her camera. “Awesome narrative motif!”
It started on the forth kick, with a little choke.
Whether Yiannis and I were on the same page remained to be seen, but we were definitely not in the same time zone. He arrived nearly two hours later with a little girl in tow.
“I needed to see you alone.” I motioned to the child.
“She’ll be OK, she has her crayons.” He looked to her and she nodded. He turned to the journalists.
“They’re with me,” I assured.
Roni pulled out a piece of paper and told him to sign.
I picked up the phone. “Mike, I need a computer game for kids.”
“Language?”
Roni was filming Yiannis signing the paper.
“English,” I looked to the girl, Yiannis looked up and nodded.
“Gender?”
“Age?”
“About eight, nine?”
“I’m eight,” the girl confirmed.
“Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Workstation three, secretary’s office.” Mike instructed.
I turned my back “Oh! And Mike. Keep an eye on her, please.”
“Face registered, surveillance activated. She’s safe, Boss.”
Yiannis took the girl to the door, raised his arm and directed her down the hall.
“What are your ideas for turning this economy round when we get into power?” I asked Yiannis.
“When?”
“When!” I repeated.
“Well, we need to rebuild the entrepreneurial infrastructure. Build a new generation-wide mindset through tech startups and cross-border commerce.” He leaned back in his chair, rubbed his hands together and smiled broadly.
I looked up at Roni who was flitting around the room with her lens trained on us. “Did you get that, sweetheart?” She smiled and gave a thumb-up. “Now, Yiannis. What do you think we can DO to turn this economy around?”
“We need to expand the Startup Shed ideology to encourage young neophyte ventures to grow into viable value propositions for the world market and encourage international investment.” He dug into his backpack and pulled out his laptop. “Look! I got a powerpoint which outlines the strategy we proposed to Socrates.” He connected a cable to the machine and searched behind the wall-mounted screen for somewhere to plug it in.
“Mike, how’s the little girl getting on?”
“Level three, two upgrades and a bonus. She drank juice.”
“Shut it down at the end of the next level and save all her progress, please.”
Who doesn’t love a good powerpoint? But I was sure he had a lot of preparation for Sofia tomorrow.
At the door, I asked him how many of our accelerator teams had received seed funding.
We had some interest from some major VCs.
“Interest enough to put capital on the table?”
He nodded heartily, “Not yet.”
I wished him a safe trip.
“And Yiannis. Look after that little girl.” She took his hand and lead him out.
I closed the door behind me and wandered down the hall into the secretary’s office. Her head sprung up. She asked me who the little girl was. The screen where she had been sitting was still flashing an animation of Kim Kardashian saying “You are a STAR!” I answered without thought, “A business partner.”
I asked her to arrange some coffee and sandwiches. And, some tea for the Brits. With milk!
Back in the conference room, Jude was tapping away and Roni was reviewing her footage.
“See, investment in the youth is the answer. A new generation of entrepreneurs to bring this country into the twenty-first century.” They each looked up and smiled agreement. “Can’t argue with powerpoint!” I added. They both swung their heads over their laptops.
When the refreshments arrived, Roni peeled back the bread and recoiled. “Anything without meat?”
I picked up the phone and called the secretary. She apologised and promised immediate rectification. I passed this on and she smiled, stirring a third teaspoon of sugar into a liquid milked to a pale ecru. “I need you to get someone on the line and patch them through to my mobile.
“Of course, Sir. Who?”
“Panayiotis Karaletsos.”




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