This short story (6,000 words) initially appeared in Funemployment Vol. 1 in May 2022.
“How’s this one?” The assistant stands back, leaving me monopolising the mirror in the men’s section of Taylor & Sons’ on Goodstonestreet.
The side view’s alright. The suit-jacket’s sleeves expose half-an-inch of shirt-cuffs. That’s the right length, I hear. I face the mirror, fingering the collar obstinately askew. I imagine dressing every morning, assessing myself with other people’s eyes. A shadow, like fog drenching a mountainside, drenches my mind. All my future smells of this shop: pungent polyester and rose-lemon room-freshener constricting my lungs. I drop my shrug. The fabric follows, pulling and bunching – the shoulders are overlarge.
“Our tailor can adjust that.” Has the assistant just waited for me to find the fault? Commissions are only conditionally contingent on honesty. Her milk-chocolate-brown eyes beam.
Even I know shoulder adjustments are tricky. “Maybe as a last resort, Pamela.”
I’ve not had to ask her name, and she’s not had the right to refuse it. Economists find that sales conversion is higher when reps are name-tagged, employee attrition lower when coworkers are name-tagged. So everyone’s name-tagged, for everything the economists say goes, for humanity’s ailment is economic.
“May I see another?”
Pamela’s face falls. Nothing else in my budget. Could I stretch a little? Well, no harm looking. Striding sharp-heeled through the harshlit shadowless expanse of steel racks and parquet flooring, Pamela finds me a less plasticky-feeling jacket. But my eyes wander to a suede jacket, misplaced on these low-middle-range racks.
I’m gliding into the suede jacket. The lining’s cool silk. It fits me like my skin. I hug it around myself, not minding looking effete. Her eyes in the mirror betraying her admiration, Pamela tells me about EMIs: easy-monthly-installments. Pay a little every month and you can buy the sky.
I meet her gaze. “Today’s my last day of freedom,” I blurt. I tell her I’m going to prison tomorrow for the first time.
“Oh.” Pamela looks me over, lips pursing. I’m forty, and look thirty; today, it’s a rare twenty-five-year-old who’s never been to prison – even if he’s been to penitentiary and hidden there as long as they’ll let him. Professionalism reclaims Pamela’s face. “I’ve heard about this backwards trend. Good on you, keeping free so long! This jacket would set you up.” Unless you’ve done something hideous, modern prisons let you bring your own clothes.
I shrug and twist and row. The suede jacket works with me, quiet and self-effacing, like a healthy organ. I picture entering prison in this. They don’t care who you were outside, only who you’re going to be inside. This jacket would set me up to be somebody. Pamela’s eyes glisten of cocoa over a winter fireplace. I picture coming home on prison furlough in this jacket to a pretty woman.
The blood rushes to my head and blinds me and pours down my forehead in sweat. Stance cowboyed to keep upright, I fumble out of the jacket. I mumble Pamela an apology. I stumble out of Taylor & Sons’.
Sunlight. I throw my shoulders back and readjust my trousers-waist but still can’t catch my breath. I walk. My steam-engine heart slows. P. B. Shelley’s west wind fans from me the panic of winter coming.
I raise my face cloudwards. Where they face the sun – or face you, the sun’s day-guest, through the airplane’s double window – the clouds are chiselled marble. Gilt-edged, coma-white, articulated like BBC accents. To us down below, the clouds present an unfinished gray-blue: the slum-facing backsides of splendid-fronted mansions. We down below always get the backsides.
Feet steadying, I lean outside the café where I realised last September I was going to prison. No, I didn’t do anything wrong, I just did what I had to, what lots of people do. But why should you believe a convict?
A towheaded toddler runs through Grove Park, dragging a log on a rope. His maniacal squeals of laughter as he makes the log rattle are exclamation-points cluttering the October morning’s austere prose. The log is an innocuous corpse dragged behind a chariot-racer who’s yet to learn that winning is everything. The sun weaves between leaves to grope the child’s matted head. He pauses to catch his breath and I finally catch mine. This, I remember, inhaling the crisp morning, this is the real world. The chestnut that’s kept its green long past its mates sheds a few crimson tears in perfunctory sympathy with summer’s mourners.
Next January, Grove Park will be locked up; only residents in a mile’s radius will get keys. People waved banners and chanted slogans. Now they rush about their work and their leisure under the blue sky, past life crimson-mustard-brown-and-green.
I must go back and choose a jacket to wear to prison tomorrow. My heart races again.
I turn. Clive comes striding downstreet. Hands in trousers-pockets, jacket-skirt bunched artfully negligent. His suit’s fine linen, the colour of oatmeal: warm and soft like when you were a child, like when all the world was your book of dreams. But the suit’s cut is sibilant-sharp. Clive’s girlfriend has taste.
It’s Clive who hailed me, but – hands still pocketed knotting into fists, lips pursing – he regards me like a crack in the pavement that’s tripped him. My shirt’s unironed, my hair’s unbrushed, my skin’s tanned, and my comfort prickles Clive. I say how-d’ye-do. He nods, whiplike. His mouth opens and I lean in to catch his 180mph monotone. “Errands – care-to-join?”
Clive knows I’ve always time for a friend, but he always asks. I’ll pick a jacket later: I’ve twenty hours of later left. Clive marches off, as if rushing away from me. Half-jogging, I keep up.
Clive’s on furlough. He’s spent nineteen years in a prison very different prison from where I’m going. Now he’s got errands, then a few hours with his girlfriend, then back, nose to grindstone. I know the grades of Clive’s rushing and this one is joyful anticipation: parole, then wedding. He likes to time his own good news, so I wait to congratulate him.
Humanity’s plague is debt, so they’ve reinstituted debtors’ prisons. Marshalsea gave Dickens his trauma and the world Dickens. Debtors’ prisons today are humane: no shame, only the opportunity to work, produce, and get debt-free. They don’t just let you work – they make you. Our prisons are record-breakingly productive and humanity’s hurtling towards getting debt-free.
“How-come-up-and-about-so-early?” says Clive, his feet rushing, trying at one step per syllable. Clive still hasn’t learned you can’t stride both long and fast. “Aren’t you scheduled to nap in the library, or chat up an MFA at gallery-of-the-month?”
Clive’s got a sense of humour: he knows I rise early and detest naps. I glance at the corner where, behind tinted glass among fragrant shelves under gold lights, sack-dressed women balance gobletfuls of spirulina coolers and hardbound books heavier than themselves. “The library’s a First Folio now, Clive. A top-end bookshop wouldn’t admit me as I am.” As for art, ever since I watched Martin in Bhutan, artists fascinate me. “I am catching an opening at the Chisenhale this evening. But now I’ve got errands too.”
Clive meets my eyes briefly. “I know. I’m glad I ran into you.” He quickens his pace. Has he come just to see me off? We swing into a Halkine and I know he has, for there’s a Halkine by his flat.
A youth, name-tagged Paul, with eyelashes so dense I wonder if it’s eyeliner, shows Clive professional coffee-makers. Clive tells me I should’ve attended penitentiary with him: “then you wouldn’t be heading to that hellhole now.”
Many people voluntarily attend penitentiary when they’re young, so that when they stumble later the authorities know they started out meaning well. I shrug. “I didn’t fancy squandering my best years. Now it doesn’t much matter where I go.”
“You’re-barely-forty!” Clive cries. “Don’t-you-even-care-about-your-own-future?” He shuts his eyes and deep-breathes. Anger saps productivity, so anger must be shut-eyed-and-exhaled away. He bears down on me. He knows my warden, he says. “Chap owes me a favour – his son who’s with us lost his head last year. The usual ailment. I interceded… I’ll put in a word for you.”
“No, Clive, I made my own bed, I’ll lie on it.” Clive’s cannon-hole gapes as he loads another missile, inhales the espresso Paul’s brewing to demo a machine, and shuts itself. “Remember,” I tease, “Those instant coffee sachets you’d down back in sixth form?” That was after Clive’s grandpa died. “Now you’re shopping gourmet coffee-makers. When did you acquire a palate?”
Clive sighs. His eyes dart around. Paul discreetly retreats. Clive mutters, “I’d live on mac-and-cheese if I could. But I’ve important people walking into my office now.” And aloud, “Listen-Elef. If-you’re-too-proud to accept help – fine. But buckle down. You could do well in there, pull yourself out and get transferred somewhere respectable.” I’ve nothing to say, so I merely look mild, so Clive continues lecturing. Freedom is overrated, he says. “It’s work that makes us human.”
What can I say? Prison has become Clive’s real world. He enjoys life inside – but methinks he protesteth too loud. Besides, we’ve had this debate before. So I admire aloud the glossy brushed-steel gizmos bristling with enough nozzles and knobs to manufacture a mini-Martian. A quarter-hour comparing criteria, wearing the connoisseur’s frown, then Clive picks the most expensive machine, and leaves lovely-lashed Paul his shipping address. Then back outdoors, still lecturing: I’m a child, discipline will make a man of me, etc.
A whistle and a clap. I turn and wave back to Mahesh behind his pakora-and-chaat cart. Clive stares, nodding tentatively. Seventy meters off, all these months later, the gash across Mahesh’s face shines sick, like a rare steak. My stomach churns and I can barely meet his eyes.
We three grew up together. At eighteen, when Clive left for penitentiary, I spent a year helping Mahesh with his food-cart. We developed batters that’d work with his makeshift tawa. We customised spice mixes for his market segments: morning commuters, after-school adolescents, and tourists who seek in Indian food purgatory from ears to anus. We doubled Mahesh’s net profits; he wanted to treat me to dinner at Silver Spork; I said the treat I wanted was for him to take the weekend off – for overwork was making him snappish. Over milk-tea in Mahesh’s dingy rooms I learned about saris, for that’s all his mother wore after forty years in Britain. I was Mahesh’s best man. I learned how to engage his children in the kitchen without half-pulped strawberries seedily anointing the ceiling. When Mahesh upgraded to a food van I taught him to drive. And last year during his divorce I put him up and fed him and listened – he’d always been taciturn and now began a lifetime’s whingeing. He was untidy and irregular and utterly selfish in his grief, which the lawyers were drawing out like a blockbuster’s unplanned sequel. Month by month Mahesh wore my patience to a gnawed-off thumb, raw red with the white poking out. The evening before the final custody hearing, he snapped. ‘What have you to show for your life?’ he demanded. It was he who’d struggled always; it wasn’t he who should’ve lost everything. His family, his little investments, his chance at early parole. Laughing, I reached for his vodka bottle – my bottle, and he’d stopped asking ‘May I’ and stopped offering to pay. He kept the bottle and kept abusing me, feet steady, eyes cold, waving the bottle. A fifth bottle, thick strong glass and I couldn’t stand it anymore.
Before returning to his customers Mahesh calls me an invite to a last dinner: in his dingy old rooms, back where he started 23 years ago. Clive shudders as we turn away. Well, Mahesh has forgiven me. Friends forgive one another, but society would collapse if it let offenders walk free.
At Brocade & Spacesilk, Peter with eyes flickering multi-green, like a willow-shaded algae-grown forest pond, shows Clive neckties. We contemplate in the mirror Clive’s dexterous fingers, knotting ties, all cravat-wide this season.
The gold globe of the ceiling light shatters into a constellation at Clive’s feet. The marble floor’s so smooth I’m afraid I’ll slip standing. The air smells of perfume so finely blended, I can identify no ingredients but money.
A microfibre tie, cobalt fleur-de-lis embroidered on pearl-gray, monopolises Clive’s attention and interrupts his lecture. This tie must be for his wedding, which his girlfriend’s been planning. Soon he’ll be free, gliding around in his new Mercedes. Standing behind him, in my clothes suddenly shabby, surreptitiously finger-combing my hair, I wonder if I really have got it backwards. If I’d buckled down at 18, I’d have my own car, girlfriend, flat, and coffee-maker now. I picture the cobalt-and-gray tie around my throat, the suede jacket that Pamela showed me – the misplaced secret jacket, the jacket that’s still there if I want it – and Pamela on tiptoes smoothing my shoulders. I’ve been good all these years: I’ve earned the suede jacket. I’ve failed myself after all these years: the suede jacket is all I deserve. What if Pamela’s sold it to someone else?
Panicking, I turn on Clive. “And you, Clive? You haven’t told me when you’re getting free and getting hitched.”
Clive’s fingers fumble briefly, then jerk the knot into place. “Those’re both off… Pick your jaw off the floor, don’t pretend you’re not thrilled.”
“Why would I be thrilled at your bad news?”
Clive peers at me. “No I was wrong. Forgive me. I’m used to being inside. All vultures inside, cackling and flocking if you so much as stumble.” To Peter, “Any metallics?”
“But what happened?” Last we spoke, this summer, Clive was all paid off, had his nest egg, and was preparing for parole.
Clive shrugs. “Can’t stay paid off. Got promoted… I swear they sniff out when someone’s about to get free, they reel him back in… Not gold, for god’s sake, Peter – got any pewter?” To me again: “Got the corner office. And I’m walking into rooms. The world’s top companies, Clive, the men who have those names, I’m across the table from them.” He pauses. He refuses to say it, and I see it: he’s put off his parole. I try to keep my face neutral. “I couldn’t get out, don’t you see! Surely you’re not colour-blind, Peter! This is bronze, not pewter.”
Peter apologises, turns the rich yellow light off, the unglamorous white light on. The bronze tie turns pewter. Clive looks stricken – perhaps that he’s been rude, perhaps that he’s been caught red-handed as a shopper inexperienced with colour constancy under top-end shop-lights. But of course he can’t apologise to an assistant.
“But your girlfriend, Clive? She was so excited about the wedding.”
“Too excited – couldn’t wait. Tired of waiting for me to get free. Wanted a wedding – must’ve found someone to stand in my place… Yes Peter, this will do.”
Clive strides counterwards. “I’m sorry,” I call, half-jogging after him. A coffee-maker and a necktie, however fly, don’t set you back enough to keep you in. Either Clive really enjoys his work as much as he protesteth, or he’s burying his heartache in it.
“Don’t-be-sorry.” The register’s ring jolts Clive upright. He turns on me imperious eyes. “Listen, I’m getting you transferred out of that dump. Wager I could get you in with us. You’ll work your way up, and I’ll mind you.”
“No, Clive, thanks.” Prison’s prison, I remind him.
“How-can-you-say-that!” His fist slams the counter, and the counter-girl starts, but Clive’s bought a necktie that’d feed a family for a month, so it’s she who looks apologetic. “How can you take things so lightly, and you a – and your” – he searches my hair for white, my skin for gray, my eyes for clouds – “Still living in your parents’ house. Don’t you want something to call your own? What’ve you got to show for forty years on earth?”
Clive into Mahesh morphing, my fists clenching, is that a bottle I see before me floating, I turn away trembling, begging, “Let’s not do this.” Clive continues berating me. I walk away. This startles him enough that he follows.
I wait for him by the arcade of advertising columns that used to be a bus-stop. Revenues weren’t enough, and anyway the prisons run their own buses, so the city decided buses and bus-stops were profligate. Now women clutching bare throats and pouting beestung lips lure us downstreet.
“I say!” says Clive, and – striding forward, eyes fixed on me, seeing nothing but his target – almost steps into Martin’s cartoon.
“Whoa.” Martin rises from his squat, putting out his arms. Clive steps back. Martin transitions from protector of his pavement art to promoter. “Could I draw Your Majesty’s attention to the shameful nexus between democracy and liquid gold?”
Poor Clive, from Uppington where the pavements are mirror-shiny and smooth as dermabraded skin, studies Martin’s pavement cartoon goggle-eyed. An Arab prince, naked except his headdress, is buggering our P.M., who ogles the gold-bags on his nightstand.
Clive recoils. “‘Shameful?’” he echoes. “It’s this libel that’s shameful!” He looks around for a constable.
“Hands down, Duke,” Martin laughs. “We’ve still got free speech. It isn’t libel if it’s true – haven’t you heard about the treaty they’ve just signed in the desert?”
Clive tries to look well-informed; Martin doesn’t hold Clive’s ignorance against him. People inside pride themselves on working distraction-free, ignorant what’s happening till it punches them in the rambutans. Whereas Martin makes his living chalking out a new cartoon every hour of daylight, laying the news under our feet before it cockily climbs the airwaves. Martin’s been a watch-where-you-step political commentator since Clive and I were toddlers. Much of Goodstonestreet’s foot-traffic is courtesy Martin. He moves around every hour to keep us alert.
The years have manhandled Martin. Finally Clive recognises him and sheepishly says how-d’ye-do. As Martin and I catch up, Clive furtively surveys Martin’s weather-worn face, his box of coloured chalks, and the foot-passengers who slow down to offer his scatology the tributes of leers, grimaces, and coins. The coins clink into the porcelain urinal that’s Martin’s collecting-hat-cum-claim to kinship with Art. Already at 10am his urinal’s half-full of metal. But Clive shrinks from the unwashed masses and from Martin. Forty years on the same old street.
Martin’s 68. Twelve years ago, when he was teaching me to draft figures, he confessed he was preparing a proper exhibition. ‘I know it’s bollocks, fame and four walls and fancy folk. But the trinket-loving child in me has hankered after an exhibition all my life. It’s time to choke it to death with what it wants.’ Martin had been making proper paintings, and saving money, and was planning a self-sponsored exhibition in a private gallery. I felt sure he’d succeed, and get vacuumed into Art. But I doubted he’d enjoy that as he enjoyed this: just drawing and exchanging jeers with viewers. Then a delivery-truck, speeding, because there’s never time, killed his friend, and almost killed him. Martin went funny and decided he was off to Bhutan. I couldn’t dissuade him, so I went with him. We left his money and paintings with a mutual friend. Well: my friend, whom I’d introduced to Martin. We spent two years in Bhutan and Nepal and Tibet, teaching English to strange fifteen-year-olds: rosy-faced like infants, curious like five-year-olds before school chokes joy in the cradle, and earnest like young fathers fending for their infants. Our students lived in paradise but wanted to learn English then programming and move their parents to the metropolis. I ‘neutralised’ their accents and taught them Python, which I’d picked up from a freelance video-game-debugger. They taught us to scale the mountains bootless. Martin perched up there, painting, and I learned to read the wind to say when it was time to go. I was earning my own way, but this trip was Martin’s idea, so Martin decided where we’d go and when we’d move on. I always went along, so he never asked me, ‘Okay?’ Only on our way home did I realise this had bothered me – when I was ringing my friend, the custodian of Martin’s property, to tell him we were coming. Back home, I was of course with Martin when he discovered my friend had absconded with his assets. Martin got down in the dumps, then remembered his near-death life-affirming experience, and clambered back up. I was feeling so guilty I was afraid I’d betray myself, so I gave him my savings from Bhutan. So here he is, doing at 68 what he was at twenty. And, fear not, just reader, my destiny found me too.
“Well sir, if you’d like to stand and stare,” Martin tells a black-suited man knotting his brows at Martin’s cartoon-of-the-hour, “Perhaps you’d like to drop a little something in my ceramic stand-in for a bank account… Yes ma’am, certainly the street’s a public space, and your child looks a right angel – but I doubt she’s seeing anything she hasn’t before. Well, darling? Ah, the secret’s out… No sir, don’t tuck that note back into your pocket and grope your groin for change. I’m a tax-exempt charity, believe it or not. I’ll relieve you of that note and here’s a receipt. I know you’d rather pay for quality art than for that airport they’re proposing midcity.”
It’s hard to pity Martin. He thrusts in people’s faces the truth that a prisoner could not print, and he entertains them while he’s doing it. He speaks no longer of the fame-craving child he must choke to death. Besides: he’s forgiven me. He sees I acted in everyone’s best interest.
“Look after yourself, you stinking sloth-ball,” he calls as Clive marches me on, “And if ever they let you out, come count coins for me.”
I know which jacket Martin would pick for me. Martin never wanted to send me to prison. But, then, Martin’s never been a ladies’ man. He’s never been tempted by all that the right jacket can unlock. I’ll have to pick my own jacket and my last day is running away from under my feet.
Past the ten-storeyed Neverland-looking shopping-mall where the public swimming-pool used to be, Clive strides towards the auto showroom. His lips and brows draw into two horizontal lines trisecting his face as he marches me away from Martin. It upsets Clive to see people stuck.
“What’re we doing here? Thought your Mercedes was all paid off.”
“It was,” says Clive. He thrusts open the door, I gentle with my fingertips the door’s return assault, and we stand inspecting the pewter panther revolving under the silver shower.
“Was?” I repeat.
“Sold it. Course-I-had-to-sell-it.” Clive doesn’t meet my eye. Fists in pocket, he nods. “Now I’ve one of these.”
I examine the pewter panther. “A Mazda?” No wonder Clive begged off early parole. I open my mouth, watch Clive frowning shoulders hunched at the slowly swirling siren, and abort my interrogation.
I smell her before I see her. Her geranium perfume, which breeds with the fossil-fuel fibres of her close-fitting suit to spawn a Janus-faced smell: now flowery, now vomity. This one note of Penelope’s bouquet conjures another: the delicate coconut of her dandruff. I’m too far off now to smell her dandruff – for that I’d have to get my nose in her hair, or in the comb I stole from her. But the smell of fresh-stale geranium-polyester goes with coconut dandruff, and they both go with Penelope, and it’s Penelope, folder in hand, striding towards us.
Heart thudding behind my eyes, blinding them with green-gold half-suns cresting the horizon, I slip off among the rows of cars.
Three years ago, when another friend brought me here to get himself another car, I met Penelope. The zest of independence and a first job, radiating from her, made her irresistible. We began dating. Three years later, clinging to another precipitous high in the roller-coaster of our relationship, we flew to Greece, Penelope squandering defiantly her accumulated leave, which she’d saved to find another job. In Greece she spent her days studying temples, her evenings swimming far out into vermin-infested waters, her nights strolling through seedy streets. I tagged along, learning to distinguish columns, administer jellyfish-bite first-aid, and negotiate with scruffy-chinned thugs. Penelope wanted to live like a local so I learned to haggle over produce, shell and de-gut ten shrimp a minute, and find the best room for rent within hours of reaching a town. Back home Penelope had been a star employee, whalebone-corseted, desperately good – but for six weeks in the Aegean she tried to catch her death. She ran short of money so I spent our last week as a tour-guide, dodging the wrath of the regulars, getting good tips, getting asked for my business-card.
Working out there all day, working for Penelope and me both, I fantasised about being with Penelope always. She had get-up-and-go to spare: perhaps she’d make me want to work hard enough to deserve to be the man in her life, not just the man on her madcap holiday. We took turns serving breakfast in bed, deciding which way to head out. I was always planning little surprises, picturing her response – for, in love, I was no longer enough for myself to plan for, to tend to, to enjoy the world as.
It was when we returned from Greece that I realised I was headed to prison. The vacation had been Penelope’s goodbye before she dumped me. I had one last stratagem to stop her. A shameful deed, and I knew it’d make matters worse. But I had to do it.
Now hiding among the cars, I wonder: What if I got a car? Here’s a cosy little Hyundai disarmingly blue. Penelope has barely registered my shameful deed. She dumped me before that – because I wasn’t ambitious. Well, now I’m going in, they’re going to make me work, will-ye-nil-ye, and Clive says he’ll help me up. How often have I stood here watching other men trade up, put cash down, take on more debt? Clive says that’s what a man does. Penelope wants a man? Here I become.
Eventually I step out. Penelope’s reef-blue eyes glisten with the polite pleasure of meeting an old, slight acquaintance. My heart sinks kneewards in relief. Under her drive she’s an old-fashioned lady: things have taken their course, and she probably believes that to reproach me for what I did would humiliate her too. Clive, clueless, relishes this meeting between acquaintances that his errands have engineered. Thank God for Clive’s blindness, the blinkered blindness of the prison. Anyone else would’ve gasped for air in the butter-thick atmosphere between Penelope and me, and called the police on that evidence alone.
Back under the October noon, the chiselled clouds fragmenting in the wind, Clive says, “I renegotiated my EMIs.” My surprised glance he doesn’t meet, but answers, his voice rising: “It’s been a slow year for everyone… That’s precisely why I had to get the Mazda. You’ve got to stay ahead, spend money to make money.”
“Stop-it-Elef, stopping ‘well’ing me,” Clive snaps. “You’ve got your head in the clouds, but even you must’ve heard that our recovery’s slowing. Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but the high-ups say they still can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.” He stops short and squares on me midstreet. “You’ve got one chance to do things right. Who knows what’s coming. You’ve got to build yourself up. Understand? And damn your pride, I’m going to help you.”
Inside, he’ll have power over me – of course he’s going to wield it. But in his light eyes his pupils are tiny and intent and boring through me. This is getting even. But what for? It’s not as if I’ve lorded it over him out here. His stare flickers and I understand.
Softly I stab him: “I’m sorry you had to put off parole.”
He turns zombie-pale, then apocalypse-sunset-red. “You and your parole and your prison and your penitentiary! You’ve got it all backwards.” He’s sputtering. “You’ve never seen anything straight in your life. Now you’re going in there and you know what? You deserve it.”
“Curious choice of words,” I observe. “I ‘deserve’ it? It’s not like prison is a punishment. Is it?”
He looks like he’s going to punch me. He turns and strides away. He’ll forgive me. We always forgive one another. We come from the same place.
The thrill of a task unfinished tickles my spine: the kind of sick tickle that sometimes runs up your spine when your skin is fever-inflamed. I need to go back and choose a jacket. I still don’t know which jacket. I stand staring after Clive.
Would his parents recognise him now? They died in the same plane crash as mine, when we were five. My parents left me a small fortune; my aunt moved in to raise me. Clive’s parents left him only debt, so his 66-year-old grandpa was sent back to prison. Grandpa had collected books of poetry, and cream-leaved handmade notebooks in which he was going to draft his own collection someday. Clive followed Grandma around her garden, making music with the shears, screening pretty weeds from her eye, composing in his head verses to scribble in one of Grandpa’s notebooks on the sly. Grandpa wasn’t paroled till 75 – with so much work, there’s always some for a septuagenarian. Grandma welcomed him home with a tiered red velvet cake. Free at last, Grandpa sat down in the outhouse confronting his bucket list: neatly printed decade by decade behind the sun-faded, wallet-softened receipt for his starter car at seventeen. ‘Publish a chapbook,’ urged the receipt. ‘Make Clive an adjustable easel.’ ‘Take Daisy to Spain.’ Grandpa took out a second mortgage, but their holiday kept getting postponed. Grandma was preparing his one-year-free party, packing for Spain at last, when she brought tea to the outhouse and found Grandpa rotating gently from the ceiling, like an R-rated upside-down child’s spinning top. ‘Sorry,’ said the note paperweighted to the neat stack of still-empty notebooks. ‘I spent sixty years yearning for freedom. Now I’ve sat staring at the blank page for a year.’ It was after the funeral that Clive quit his shear-music and verse-scribbling, took on his grandparents’ debt, and began bolting instant coffee straight from the sachet. He was fifteen.
In the half-minute it’s taken me to remember, Clive’s become a speck in the crowd. How fast must he march, how loud must he protest that he loves being inside, to outrun his own heritage? You can build all your life a wall of success, keep your nose to the grindstone, and still at seventy-five vanish, not-quite-vanish, leaving twelve stone of evidence that the world defeated you. From yourself there’s no escape. There’s only always running.
That’s why I never argue with my friend Clive.
I stroll past the Tuscan restaurant that replaced the recreation centre. For penitentiaries, which have their own rec-rooms, protested: if people get recreation for free why would they pay for penitentiary? Behind the restaurant’s tinted windows, longskirted tables coy their ebony ankles, and low chandeliers glare unblinking, waiting to decapitate with a Murano shard of light a speeding waiter.
The restaurant’s back wall is fuzzy-sharp rainbow layers of graffiti, the pavement strewn with the festering skins and root-ends of onion and fennel and garlic, alive with shabby-coated but genteel-mannered rats deferring to my right of way. A teenage couple have jammed the scullery door shut and are going at it. The girl’s back pounds the door from the outside, a worker’s angry fist from the inside. Downstreet, a man in an oversize olive-gray sweatshirt looks me over to see if I want to buy some fun. A quarter-mile away, he’s a better judge of my means than Pamela, Paul, Peter, and Penelope put together – he turns away. My heart falls. A drug-dealer has judged me too poor to break the law.
I resolved when my parents died, and again when Clive’s grandpa died, that I’d never live beyond my means, never get into debt. Still, at forty, on the threshold of prison, my ego waylays me.
I turn around. I stroll back the way Clive brought me. At Taylor & Sons, Pamela honey-eyed in the sun leans chatting with the counter-girl. Her brows rise, surprised I’m back.
“I’d like the jacket, please. The first one you showed me.” My heart’s throbbing in my throat, choking my voice, but squarely I meet her eyes. “The cheap one.”
Pamela’s glance of contempt – ‘I was right about you the first time’ – she quickly veils, for this is still a sale. Pamela’s contempt is the medal I carry away, along with the cheap jacket under my arm, as the sun shines on me for the last time.
I stroll past the café where I realised, last September, as the maples were yellowing, that I was going to prison. Penelope and I had returned from our holiday, I knew she was preparing to dump me, and looking into the café after six weeks in Greece I noticed how expensive everything was. Coffee with fifty ingredients for fifty pounds. I found the small bag of roasted beans for sale: even homemade coffee had slithered beyond my means. That’s when I realised I only had enough money for one last year as a free man.
I conferred with Mahesh, whom I’d ejected from my parents’ house that evening last May, who’d stumbled through the streets and traded his wallet for a gash across his face. By the time I returned from Greece, Mahesh had forgiven me for having wasted my life, for having gained nothing and lost nothing. I conferred with Martin, who’d forgiven me for having introduced him to the man who’d robbed him of his dream. This man had robbed me, too, years ago, of six months’ food-money. Later he’d come back and promised me that he was in a twelve-step programme, was a new man. I’d wanted to believe him, so I hadn’t told Martin his past, and I’d let Martin trust him: I’d let Martin blindly stake his future on my desperate hope for my friend’s reform. I told Martin afterwards, and Martin forgave me. I’d choked the child for him, he said, and he could always imagine he’d’ve been a successful Artist but for my cockup.
Mahesh and Martin told me to go do what I had to. So I went to see Penelope. At the door she said we were done. I asked her why, though I already knew: she’d decided I was a worthless person because I’d never been in in prison. But she invited me in and explained nicely: ‘We want different things.’ That’s when I did the shameful thing. I grovelled. Don’t dump me, let’s take another holiday, let’s burn through what remains of my money – the fire approaches, let’s leap in. I wouldn’t mind immolation, I wouldn’t even mind working if you were beside me telling me you loved me. Penelope listened very nicely then said goodbye. I returned to Mahesh and Martin. They helped me plan how to stretch out my money. And they told me a snob like that, consummate blue-piller, would’ve been no life-partner.
This August I began looking for work. There wasn’t much I could do, not having attended university. Why spend your best years gassing, then decades staggering under student loans? Tomorrow I begin my job at a call centre. Fourteen hours a day, because there’s too much work and not enough people, because the birth-rate crisis has sapped pension funds and eroded retirement. Had I attended university I could be spending fourteen hours a day in a nice office, giving orders instead of receiving them. I’ve lived my life backwards and if I’ll be lucky to see the sun again when I’m 75. Well, they’ve taken my life away, but tomorrow I’ll go in to work in my shabby jacket. They shan’t make me forget that all this is rubbish.