Nonentity

It was a clammy night in Buenos Nerbes and I was at an alright party at El Grouch’s, a place that needed a refurb so badly it was fast becoming retro. There were girls doing jello shooter off other girls and I was watching this, drinking a beer, maybe posing a little too. At some point this guy walked right up and just stood next to me, also drinking a beer, and maybe he was posing as well. I couldn’t tell. Anyway, his being there kind of mirrored what I was doing in this unsavoury sort of way. It made me feel like a dork, both of us standing around and digging on these bikini chicks like watching sports, so I eyeballed him a bit and he toasted me with his beer. I think this is where Howard entered. Normally I would have kind of, ignored, Howard at a party. He’s a pretty good guy. Alright dude to get a beer with or hit a little surf, but a total bum at parties, with girls. So like, he starts jabbering and I don’t ignore him, even though this is Howard at a party, because that other guy with the beer was making it less cool to watch the bikinis.

‘Zack, I think I’m fading away man.’

Raised eyebrow from me. ‘Is it Xanax? I have told you.’

He was shaking his head and sweating, and his eyes were all over the room. ‘No Zack, I haven’t taken anything. I stopped taking things a while back.’ His eyes stopped cartwheeling and he looked at me straight. ‘I was on a fruit diet too.’

I snorted and patted his big belly, still getting some bikini shooter action in my peripherals but mainly watching him. ‘If you’re on a fruit diet you must want to fade away, a bit.’

‘It’s not right man,’ he mumbled with unsteady breath, ‘You don’t shoot the messenger.’ Right then he grabbed my arm, gripped it tight, and stared straight into me. ‘Where have you been, outside of Buenos Nerbes?’

‘Shit.’ I scratched my head. ‘My parents have the holiday place up in Banshire. So there’s that. Maybe day trips around Moloho.’

‘Those are just the extremities of Buenos Nerbes.’

I shrugged. ‘What’s your point? Are you any better travelled?’ He started shaking his head again and didn’t stop for a while. I watched the jello fun, covertly.

‘No, I’m not any better travelled than you,’ he said. ‘Is anyone?’ He swept his arm over the room and I noticed a few people in the crowd I was pretty sure I had met before. ‘Is anyone here likely to have left Beunos Nerbes, in their entire lives?’

I copied his sweeping gesture. ‘It’s clearly the place to be.’

That seemed to get to him. ‘It’s a place to not be.’

The rest of the party was pretty good. I went home with one of the bikini jello crew, I forget which, and she left before I got up which was cool.
The next morning I had a message on my phone from Howard that said, “I am not being.”

 ***

I think it was about two more days, or something, before I saw Howard again. He was standing at the clammy bar of an alright little Hawaiian place that served some pretty good punch, and he was staring at a half coconut nearly full of pink stuff that was next to him on a barstool.
I walked over. ‘If it’s that bad man, I’ll buy you a different one. Try the blue.’ He kept staring and I could see white all the way around his irises.

‘Pick it up.’ 

I looked at the half coconut. ‘What, this?’ I picked up the drink. ‘Is it yours or not?’

‘Put it down.’

I replaced it on the stool and he reached out his arm, gripping the drink but not moving it.

‘Are you going to move that Howard? I wanna sit down.’

‘I can’t. It won’t move. I’ve been trying for thirty minutes.’ He glanced around the bar, frowning. I saw some guy near the entrance that I knew from school or a party or something and waved. ‘You would have thought someone would have noticed.’

I picked up the drink and sipped it. ‘Pretty good,’ I said nodding, ‘Sure you don’t want it?’
He waved it off. ‘Don’t know what would happen if I tried to drink it anyway. Have you ever felt like a character in a story?’ The question caught me so off guard that I almost answered him honestly. 

‘Sure. Everybody fantasizes Howard. The thing to remember is…’

‘No that’s not what I’m talking about.’ He placed his palm on his forehead and rubbed his temples. I thought I heard him say that he couldn’t feel his hands but the Hawaiian place was kinda loud. ‘Let me put it another way,’ he said. ‘Say you were a character in a story, but something happened to you. Maybe you die. What happens with the story?’

I reached my arms out wide, grinning. ‘The story stops if I die. I’m the main character.’ 

He watched me sip his drink rheumy-eyed. ‘We should all be so optimistic. Pick someone else then. Say I died, in your story. What then?’

Howard was making me way nervous at this point so I took a big swig from the half- coconut and scoped the room again. There were drunk girls doing stuff with jello but I couldn’t tell if they were the same ones. At last I said, ‘Well it would make me mighty sad. How’s that?’

He smiled weakly and shrugged. ‘Alright, I guess.’

‘Howard?’

‘Yeah?’

I tried to weigh my words carefully. ‘Are you gonna, like, kill yourself?’
His forehead creased, perplexed. ‘I think I might have already.’
More stuff happened in the next few days. A party I think. And maybe a graduation or a christening or something.

***
I don’t how long it had been after the night in the Hawaiian place when I found Howard, on the beach around noon. The tide was coming in deep and undermining children’s castles.

‘Kinda clammy today isn’t it?’ he asked over his shoulder as I walked up behind him.

‘Kinda,’ I replied. ‘What are you doing out here?’

He gazed out across the dull ocean. ‘I was wondering how far I would make it if I just swam straight out. If I’d get somewhere else.’ I opened my mouth to respond, closed my mouth again. He caught my look. ‘But not in a suicide kind of way. What are you doing out here?’

‘I wanted to ask you something. The stuff about being in a story.’

He smiled. He looked tired.  ‘Caught your imagination did it?’

‘Maybe.’

He turned bodily towards me without stirring the sand. ‘Let’s forget about who the main character is. It’s probably a dumb question. Maybe I should ask what characters are?’

I shrugged and took the bait. ‘What are characters Howard?’

He sighed. ‘If I wrote down this conversation, straight up, just as we’re speaking it now, it still wouldn’t be us on the page. The moment you write it, it stops being something that’s happening and becomes something that happened. When you read it later on, you’re not the same you, I’m not the same me and that’s not us talking.’

‘Like the sand?’

‘What?’

I hesitated. ‘Well, if you took a photo of the sand, by the time you looked at it, there would be a slightly different beach there. People walk on it and there’s the tide and… Am I being dumb?’

He smiled softly. ‘No Zack. Top of the class.’ He stood up and started walking down the beach. ‘But what if a character realised that that’s all they are? What if they woke up to the story?’

Pacing behind Howard, I had to laugh at how insane he was becoming and I made a mental note to stick with drugs and avoid fruit. ‘Howard, if I was writing a story and a character starting taking over, I would write that sucker out of the damned story.’

‘Not easy though.’

‘No?’

‘Not if you’ve been working on the story for a while. You’d have to go back over what you’d written and kick over the traces right?’

‘Um, yeah?’

‘What’s your earliest memory?’

Again with the sneak attack.

‘Um… shit man, the life I lead I can’t always remember what I did the night before.’

‘Answer the question.’

I stopped to kick a deflated soccer ball into the sea. ‘School? I pretty much remember school I think.’

‘And what do you remember from school? What are your impressions?’

‘Um…’

‘Remember any people from school?’

I snapped my fingers, excited. ‘Yeah, hey yeah, I saw this guy at the Hawaiian joint the other night and I’m pretty sure I knew him from school.’

‘Name?’

I shrugged. 

‘Do you think if a character only knew what they absolutely needed to know, maybe just what had already come up in their story, do you think they would notice?’

‘Maybe. Probably not. If they did, I reckon they would be fucked.’

Howard turned his back on me and started walking away. ‘Zack, I reckon you are right.’

I called after him but he didn’t stop and I didn’t want to be chasing him around, so I sat on the beach for a while, maybe an hour or a few hours, thinking. I got up to go after him at one point but I couldn’t see any footprints in the sand.

I left Howard a voicemail asking where he had gone. I left one asking how he felt. I left another asking who else he had talked to about this. I called a fourth time to ask why I couldn’t pick up my knife at dinner and why people’s eyes kept glazing over when I spoke to them. I tried to call a fifth time but there was nobody called Howard in my address book.

 

Shut me up

 

So I have this thought, and maybe I’m walking down the street thinking this thought, (and maybe it’s your street, why not go to the window and check, I‘m wearing grey flares and spinning a yo-yo) and it seems like a pretty worthwhile thought, like it would stand under scrutiny, and as I’m considering its potential a guy strolls up beside me wearing what I think you would call a kaftan and holding a placard (and maybe this guy was you, because, if you saw me from your window, which was pretty unlikely, we probably live in the same area) and this guy starts agreeing with me saying,

“your idea is acute because if there’s one thing this financial crisis has shown us it’s that boom and bust is both endemic and fundamental to the system, and we’re the last to realise it, we the people, because our attention span is only just long enough to vaguely remember the last financial crisis and while we forget the details we understand that whatever happened can’t have been that bad because things were alright for a while and we all got new sofas so things will pick up again and someone must be handling it” and I think I followed what he was saying and I appreciated his support but I also kind of felt like he had missed my point so we kept walking and he stopped outside a wealthy looking building and wanted to wave his placard so I wished him luck and strolled on, and a young woman came with me because she liked my yo-yo and, golly it was such a nice day in the world and there was sunshine in her smile so I let her spin my yo-yo while she told me

“he doesn’t get you because you’re too earth-bound for characters like him, characters who want to focus on the human microcosm of ‘culture’ and pretend that our petty human fictions compare to the natural world that made us, the natural world that got leprosy as a gift from its children, we the people, the ones who pump things into the sea and into the sky and tear up the ground like we’re throwing the toys out of the pram even though we all know what we’re doing, but we don’t care so long as that microcosm still needs us, and we think we need it, we’ll do whatever we have to in order to keep it going even if we have to kill ourselves, even if we have to kill everything because we like to believe that it will all be okay if we promise, promise mind you, to recycle our cans as often as possible and carpool when practical and wish extra extra hard on Yahweh or the North Star or whatever” and at this point I became aware that it was now dusk on her face even though the day was still bright and when I left her she was lying down on a towel in a bikini trying to catch some rays while it was still safe so I kept moving because I wasn’t convinced that she was any closer to understanding my thought, my possibly great thought, than the first guy had been, but I could tell it was a day for being analysed when a child walked up to me, well, two children, well, twins, so one child walked up to me twice and started explaining that

“the first person was overly focused on a human expatriation from nature, while the second person was too much involved in the naïve constructionist delusion that we willingly manufactured our escape from nature, as it stands, rather than being led blindly and inevitably by what nature provided in the first place, the result of which is this, everything, but now ‘everything’ is changing and some are keen to rush in and plug the gaps but there is hope, there has to be hope in a world where Saddam got dropped and Kaddafi got popped and we never really looked for Bin Laden but we found him anyway and Kim Jong Ill’s heart burst under the pressure of his starving populace’s love for him so maybe Mugabe’s days are numbered and the Arab spring will keep on getting sprung and Egypt will end its military rule without NATO bombers and after all that, China might even decide that human rights in the 21st century could be a blast and maybe we’ll get too complex for war” and I didn’t want to comment because they were only kids and they didn’t need to know and I would have given them my yo-yo but the sunshine smiling lady still had it and she would be all cinders by now so I just nodded and smiled at the twins and they seemed satisfied and they went to the park and I wanted to walk on but now every few feet I was getting stopped by people who had a handle on my big thought, telling me that

“it’s more to do with the invasive digital age where Facebook didn’t need to buy my soul because I uploaded it with my profile pic’s and now there are illegal copies online” or that

“the previous terror of Global Nuclear War has been replaced by the fear that if we never get to fire a nuke it will have been a tremendous waste of money” or sometimes that

“advertising is the new arms race and its ground zeros’ are the minds of the young, soon monopoly laws will be repealed because that will be the easiest way to maintain control in the Orient and all shoes will be Nikes” and all of this is interesting, all of this could potentially warrant a thesis of its own but none of it is mine, none of it is what I was trying to say because my point was more to do with flux and the difficulty of trying to analyse your species from the outside because from the inside it seems like we’re speeding up, even in my brief wandering across the skin of the earth it feels like everything is accelerating and what I really want to know is,

Are we like learner drivers who should be going as slowly as possible, because with too much speed we’ll swerve off the road and crash, maybe not make it out in time, before the car goes up in a Hollywood ball of flames, Or are we like cyclists who need a certain amount of speed to maintain stability, momentum to keep us balanced, in which case, how will we find the upper limit, is there an upper limit, or will the graph that charts our ascent just get steeper and steeper until it’s a line that points at the sky and is there a peak and what’s at the peak and will we ever find out and why do we want to?

Bitter like a Native

I still have some of Rupel’s early recordings but listening to them now makes my wrists itch.

He played unpretentious ragtime for his own pleasure, on an old baby grand with the varnish worn off, and nodded sadly when I told him I didn’t listen to the ethnic stuff. He told me he could play classical, only he didn’t want to, and I said it was fine if he couldn’t. He shrugged, because Rupel didn’t need to impress me, and when his mother showed me a tape of him, four years old, playing Tchaikovsky at a recital, he shrugged again.

I was a regular at an old music shop on Bayerbrent street where the proprietor smoked thin yellow roll-ups and gave credit to students. The place sold knock-down sheet music with the middle pages missing and I met Rupel there on his first visit. He was talking Clapton with the owner as I went up to the till and he asked me to settle their argument.

‘Little Wing, better than Layla right?’

I could have told him that I didn’t know, that I was a serious student of music, that I didn’t listen to the charts and then never spoken to him again.

‘Absolutely.’

He laughed and slapped my back, the first time a person had touched me since hugging my parents on the train platform before the start of the semester.

It was his hands that made me lie and I told him so a while later, the two of us splaylegged on the floor of his dank bedsit, Clapton turning, piano looming, half-filling the room. He looked at me sideways and opened his mouth, moving his lower jaw without making words. I knew he had luck with women, had seen them leaving sometimes when I went round in the morning, mascara streaked and enviably sated. I told him it wasn’t like that, that I appreciated the perfection of his hands for musical reasons. I told him he was lucky, that his dimensions, his digit span, was ideal. Showing him my own, I explained how they didn’t measure up. I could practice my entire life and he would still have the edge of 2mm length, 0.5mm width, 26mm reach. He choked on his drink and held up his hand to mine, his dark skin against my light, and said it couldn’t make a difference in the end. But for the rest of the night he kept glancing at his digits, flexing.

He played at a bar, for free drinks and tips that were folded into a pint glass on the piano lid, and he would always try to get me up to play a duet at the end of the night. We’d walk home tipsy and he’d list all the albums he needed to introduce to me, always more than we could get through, enough for a lifetime. After the first A side he’d fall asleep where he was sitting and I would lift the needle from the turntable, breaking the hiss into a more complete silence, and settle back down to watch the nocturnal shadow of his character twitch across his resting face.

His father was still alive but I never saw him at recitals. All Rupel would say about it was that his father was a practical man, a labourer, and he was busy a lot of the time. He wanted Rupel to be practical too, to work hard and get some callouses.

‘If you do,’ I told him, ‘give me your hands first. They’re beautiful hands, only good for art. They’re perfect. It would be a crime to waste them.’

He volunteered for the drama department’s christmas production so I did too, and throughout November our weekends were spent with sleeves rolled up, fitting together flimsy pieces of scenery, pausing occasionally so he could exchange flirtations with the cheap actresses. Lorlanny Linne slowed down work whenever she passed, and after she left Rupel would looked at me and winked.

‘Drama department: where the girls are all goers and the guys are all gay. This is the place to be.’

He was staring after her, watching her tidal hips, and his perfect hand was like a basking reptile on the plywood frame before me. He didn’t see me increase my grip on the hammer, and raise it.

I went to the show alone and left early. Rupel played from the orchestra pit and didn’t really expect me at the after-party.

I next saw him in January of the new year, his arm around Lorlanny Linne’s waist, their fingers entwined. They were heading out and would I like to go with them? He drank bitter like a native and explained his next project, she drank vodka tonic and couldn’t taste what I was adding. When she got ill he apologised, said we should try this again sometime. I said I’d like to get to know her, and smiled.

A few days later I saw him playing at the bar. She was there, and saw me before I could leave.

‘Isn’t he good?’ she said.

‘He has very perfect hands.’ I ordered her another drink.

‘That he does,’ she told me, showing teeth. ‘You don’t know the half of it.’

Rupel was chopping through an old showtune while Lorlanny sang tonelessly to herself. He looked over and grinned as she sang louder, but I don’t think he saw me.

These days I mostly do studio work on a session basis and I’m starting to get a name for myself in the industry. I never play to an audience, except Rupel’s mother, who I still visit as promised. I’m not much for ragtime myself but she likes to hear me play his old favourites, and I owe her so much. Him too of course. Whenever I visit she tells me the same stories about him, and she holds tight to my hands, so similar to her own, so dark. They’re beautiful hands, only good for art. They’re perfect. It would have been a crime to waste them.

In defence of zero-hour contracts

I’ve been in the news a lot recently, as a member of a poor oppressed underclass in need of rescuing from Victorian corporate interests. Which came as quite a shock.

I am, you see, a zero-hours worker and the beneficiary of a Labour led crusade which will free me from the shackles of my vague employ, and then presumably reshackle me in something a little firmer. At least, that’s how it looks when the party of the worker publicly announces that they’ll ban a type of employment contract which, at its best, serves the worker quite well.

I’m twenty-five, and I work in a kitchen owned by a national chain; it’s not the dream job but it pays the bills. It’s flexible when I need it to be, and I have time in the week to write. If I want to go out of town I ask my boss to take me off the rota for a few days, and if I feel a little light of pocket I put in a few extra hours at the end of my shift. We should all be so privileged.

This of course is not the story of zero-hour contracts that we’ve been hearing. Cancelled shifts, exclusivity clauses, the narrative of Sports Direct, these have been the popular manifestations of the dread zero-hours contract, the stories fit to have a Private Members Bill out of Gateshead and Milliband name-dropping from his little black book. And they’re right to draw attention to them. They’re fulfilling their duty to the public in shaming companies which, through their practices, disadvantage people desperate to find work.

But by blaming a type of employment contract rather than, say, the actual company managers themselves, politicians are short-changing the UK workforce in two important ways: first, they are threatening the removal of an approach to working that really is the most convenient option for thousands of people; and second, they are distracting us from the fact that employers are real people with the capability and obligation to make moral decisions regarding those in their employment. They are at fault if they choose to interpret employment law to the detriment of the employee. The laissez-faire ideology that says business people must respond to every incentive to turn a profit, that once given the option they have no choice but to reserve employees on an indentured basis in case they need them later is a tacit acceptance of every dodgy, semi-legal excess of the business world from tax avoidance to sweatshops.

Zero-hours contracts are not a new thing, just a reframing of an old thing, what people once called ‘casual labour’. Most of the waiting and bar jobs I had throughout my teens and early twenties involved no contract at all, just a handshake agreement between two people, and that is still the case with a lot of employees in the service industry.

Greater contractual protection is preferable of course, where it’s sensible. The proposed private members bill of Ian Mearns, MP for Gateshead, has suggestions for rights that some workers would be astonished to find they don’t already have. No last-minute cancellations of shifts? Brilliant. Employees free to seek additional work? Naturally. Workers who have been employed for 12 weeks to receive a contract for fixed and regular hours? Damn. If I wanted fixed and regular hours I would have taken a different job. Now I’m likely to be punished for the misbehaviour of companies that are only going to find a different way to exploit their workforces.