Teeth

The new thing is interdental brushes, brushes for getting in between the teeth.

‘But I already floss,’ I told my dentist, causing him to snort derisively.

‘Floss? Tell me friend, would you clean your car with waxed string?’

‘I don’t own…’

‘Your oven then, would you clean your oven with waxed string?’

I shook my head.

‘Of course you wouldn’t. That would be crazy. You’d use a brush.’

I considered this. ‘Or a sponge.’

He leaned all the way forward, forcing me back in the reclining chair.

‘You wouldn’t clean your teeth with a sponge.’ He pressed two packets of the tiny brushes into my hand and smiled. ‘Pay at the desk. See you in six months.’

A google search of ‘Most Common Nightmares’ shows that teeth crumbling, popping or otherwise cascading from the mouth is a fear that haunts the sleep of many people globally. This must be a spectacular boon to the dental industry, and in the waiting room I kept a lookout for advertising that might be employing some kind of subliminal effect. I suppose I was hoping for posters with slogans like “dream of white teeth” or the kind of optical illusions that look innocuous enough at first glance but turn into hideous death masks in your peripheral vision. But, nothing doing. Mainly the advertising showed women, twenty-somethings smiling coquettishly, thirty-somethings minding children, older women drinking coffee without difficulty. One, two, three, the stages of woman; young, mother, elderly. It’s hard not to infer the supposed trajectory of the average woman’s life from these images, and I’m left wondering at what age the painless consumption of high temperature drinks will become one of my chief concerns.  

I paid for the appointment and my new interdental brushes at the desk. The receptionist tried to add some impulse purchases to my basket, but her pitch was less effective than the dentist’s. Partly it’s her lack of formal training that lets her down; she can’t replicate the impression the dentist gives, of having been burdened with terrible knowledge, but also it’s her teeth. They’re too white, too straight. They’re so artificial that they look inexpert, like the kind of spray-tan that leaves the skin melonoma-orange. Maybe in California, where citizens are blinded by overbright sunshine, maybe there she could get away with teeth like these, but here, in Britain, her teeth are whiter than anything else we have around. Teeth like these make Britons realise that what we’ve been calling white all this time was actually a pale grey, and it’s this woman’s fault; she’s showing us up. But what really gets me worked up is that she’s obscurely proud, acting like she’s achieved something. She has the bearing of those lost souls who get addicted to body building and parade their hideous disfigurements as if they were something you should want, as if they were sex-symbols. I see them at the gym sometimes, watching me doing mild cardio and laughing at my skinny arms, while they sweat and hydrate, looking like a foreskin full of marbles.

On my way out of the clinic I hold the door open for an older man who’s clearly in for the works. His head is in a wrap-around brace, lips held in a stiff snarl by foam padding and hooks. Each one of his teeth to the molars is visible, streaked with rust looking stains, but worse than the colour is the texture; they’re porous, clearly porous and seemingly unrooted, sitting on the surface of the gums as precipitately as a lilo floating on the surface of a swimming pool. I can’t imagine what combination of smoking, red wine and sugar is required to do this to a set of teeth, but I note that he’s reasonably well dressed. He doesn’t look unclean. No strong odours. Can a lax brushing habit really get that bad, I wonder? Or maybe he’s an alcoholic? I’m suddenly gripped by an urge to accompany this guy to the dentist’s office. I want to point at the suppurating hole, with its tooth stumps and what I imagine will be a rigid and flaking tongue and ask, how? Exactly how? Could this be me? Was this preventable, or did this guy just fall foul of the Gods? I brush before bed, and I quit smoking; I have my mouthwash, I have my interdentals, I’ve got, god help me, the toothbrush that could double as a sex toy- tell me that this couldn’t be me.

But obviously I don’t do any of those things. This guy has it bad enough, without strangers using him as a yardstick for decay, and if I go back up there the dentist will use his condition to sell me more chemicals and even tinier brushes. I content myself to believe that the man was a plant; he’s the subliminal message telling me to keep shining my pearly whites, and he’s the nightmare creature who coughs handfuls of chipped and bloody enamel into all our outstretched palms at night.

Crisps or Chips: the Atlantic Question, or, Mythological Potatoes

It is hard to imagine a company selling a product and making no effort to distinguish itself from its rivals. This is true even for products like electricity where the quality doesn’t vary, and in those cases it is the brand rather than the product which bears the weight of marketability. While a cleaning product can claim to make whites whiter, or a parcel service can offer next-day-delivery, an electricity provider cannot promise to supply better electricity than any of its competitors. In lieu of quality product it must offer quality service, better customer support, lower prices or perhaps more environmentally-sound sources.

Similarly, there are products which can vary in quality, but only by very tiny margins. Consider crisps, or ‘potato chips’ as they are sometimes called; there are many competing brands vying for a stake in a lucrative market where costs are low and mark-up is high. The product itself consists of thin potato slices either baked or fried in a savoury flavouring, often high in salt but also embracing meaty ‘umami’ flavours. Every ingredient and aspect of production is cheap, a standard bag of crisps containing less than one potato, and selling, in the UK, for around seventy pence.

The reason then for any manufacturer with a ready supply of potatoes to enter this market is clear, but how to differentiate one crisp brand from another when there is so little room for manoeuvre in production? Well-established brands often introduce new flavours, usually with some sense of novelty humour about them, but these seldom last long, and are more likely an exercise in brand awareness than research and development. Other standard variations in the formula include the thickness of the crisps themselves or the way the potato is sliced, i.e. ‘ridge’ or ‘crinkle’ cut, but it’s probably fair to say that the mould has been cast for crisps.

made to last?

made to last?

There is a degree of stratification with some brands, ranging from extremely cheap crisps which are perceived to be low quality, to luxury crisps. This kind of stratification exists to a greater degree with bread, another product that is cheap to produce, and most supermarkets offer a range starting from a very cheap form of bleach-white, dough-textured bread that costs a fraction of the price of the loaves that contain seeds or use specialist dough. This range of quality has to exist in the market, and probably owes less to the actual cost or difficulty of production than to the presence of consumers who will buy the cheapest available product regardless. Which is to say, generally, cheap products exist to be purchased by consumers who want to spend less; expensive products exist to be purchased by consumers who want to spend more; everything else is a measure of the consumer’s ability to discern value.

Crisps however, due to the overwhelming cheapness of production and the status as a ‘snack’ rather than a ‘food’, cannot support quite the same complexity of stratification. Bread constitutes a comparatively substantial part of the average diet, and its quality and price can be linked to the relative nutritional value of the ingredients, while crisps are non-essential, often listed with chocolate and carbonated drinks as items the conscientious parent may want to keep out of their child’s lunchbox.

So, as with electricity, it falls to brand differentiation to enable companies to claim a stake in the market. There is a growing trend to increase the caché of a given flavours supposed ingredients, exemplified by Walker’s decision in 2006 to rebrand its ‘Beef and Onion’ crisps as ‘Steak and Onion’ crisps, without significantly altering the recipe. More recently Walkers have introduced a new range, ‘Market Deli’, that deviates from their traditional product in several ways pertaining to presentation, and few pertaining to product. They use low pastel colours in the packaging instead of the usual garish palette of a Walkers crisp packets, and a handwritten font to denote craftsmanship. Their claim to Mediterranean ingredients, which they stress by unnecessarily translating them into Italian- even though this product isn’t available in Italy- suggests time and effort went into sourcing them. They even attempt to reinforce the reality of these ingredients with a photograph and a drawing of what those ingredients might look like.

pictured: authenticity

pictured: authenticity

The new name also cries out to be seen as something separate from other Walkers offerings, the marketing executives having chosen two words- Market and Deli- which, when connected to food, signify wholesomeness, awareness of quality and perhaps a sort of middle class fussiness. Delis in the UK are places to buy food if you enjoy greater than average free time and income, the benefits being a certain exoticness of produce, and a higher quality than the supermarkets. Markets meanwhile generally denote locality in their produce, and value for money, which may be why the two titles Walkers have picked sit together so uneasily. Somewhere along the design process it seems that they have recognised this themselves, and acknowledged it by putting the word ‘Market’ in a sensible, erstwhile, sans-serif font, while the word ‘Deli’ is a boisterous, looping handwritten scrawl.

Tension between locality and exoticness may even be a central issue to the Walkers company, which, though having started in Britain in the 1940’s, and carrying many British associations, became a part of the American Frito-Lay brand in 1989. It may be as a result then that this product, though likely to be described as a bag of ‘crisps’ by the consumer who will purchase it, has become a bag of ‘potato chips’ according to its own packaging. Perhaps this is a part of the advertising of Market Deli as a wholesome and continental treat, rather than a working man’s pub snack or something for a child’s lunchbox, an attempt to boost potato chips into the realm of ‘proper food’, to differentiate between potato chips and crisps, two separate categories of food and not-food. This of course is likely to fail, partly because there is no difference between the two categories, but also because there already exists in the UK a potato based foodstuff called chips, that which an American would call fries.

chips or fries? Never Surrender

chips or fries? Never Surrender

For Walkers to successfully manoeuvre Britons into calling ‘crisps’ ‘chips’, they would also have to get Britons to call ‘chips’ ‘fries’, a move that seems highly unlikely to occur.Then again, the American Kettle Chips are well established in the UK and only ever refer to themselves as chips in their marketing. Open a bag and you may well offer someone a kettle chip, but only as long as the association with the brand is present- pour them into a bowl, and they turn into just crisps. Tyrell’s insist that they are crisps, and probably consider it a matter of national pride, keen as they are to stress their Englishness. Lesser known brand ‘Burts’ are not as bold, choosing Britishness over contentious Englishness, despite their Devonshire mailing address; but have perversely decided that they make ‘potato chips’ too.

It’s unclear why Walkers have chosen to include their own branding on the front of a package that is clearly trying to distance itself from their other products. The Walkers logo, another font in a dizzy mess of contrary fonts, is reminiscent of the Pepsi logo, PepsiCo being the owner of Frito-Lay. This is another message, one of international brands and giant corporate interests, that strongly conflicts with the connotations of both Markets and Delis, those bastions of small independent businesses. It would make more sense for Walkers to shy away from their involvement in Market Deli as much as is possible, in the same way that the coca-cola corporation is less than upfront about its involvement in certain other soft drinks that might be damaged by the association.

he-hem

he-hem

But instead Walkers have chosen to highlight the connection, in a move that does at least as much to expose the farce of this rebrand as the silly name, or the false continental association; as any well-travelled consumer will be aware, crisps are not as popular in other parts of Europe, and Walkers doesn’t operate outside the UK.

So, are Walkers participating in a general effort to help crisps shift their emphasis from being a potato conduit for salty or meaty flavours, to becoming like meals in themselves? Potato chips with Balsamic Vinegar of Modena does sound a lot like a starter in an Italian restaurant. Consider Tyrell’s, Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar. Both Salt and Vinegar are cheap, abundant commodities, and require qualifiers in order to carry any value. Cider vinegar is one option, and we’ve seen balsamic vinegar, but there’s also the more homely malt vinegar for the down-to-earth, football supporting McCoys. Another Market Deli flavour is Potato Chips with Flame Grilled Spanish Chorizo with Roasted Onions, which is the full restaurant-ready package; You have ingredients, Potato, Onion and Chorizo, literally forming meat and two veg; you have the place of origin, Spain; and you have methods of preparation, roasting and flame grilling.

spot the difference

pictured: not crisps

Kettle Chips are more vague about their method of preparation, telling me that they are hand cooked by chefs, which adds no obvious benefit to the experience of eating them but does act as a qualifier for the humble potato in the same manner that the words ‘Sea’ and ‘Cider’ improve ‘salt’ and ‘vinegar’. Tyrell’s are not only hand-cooked but include a serving suggestion, “perfect with a bit of battered cod”, although it’s unclear if we are supposed to take this seriously. On the back of my packet of balsamic vinegar crisps, I find tasting notes, telling me that the slices of potato are delicious, cut thicker and cooked longer, with the delicate sweetness of Aceto Balsamico di Modena for a rich, velvety and smooth flavour. It seems here that Walkers are drawing less on the vocabulary of food and have now started to borrow from that other great middle class signifier, wine. There is in fact an entire snack range produced by the company ‘Tayto’ called ‘Velvet Crunch’, erroneous juxtapositions be damned. Why potato products should benefit from being thought of as velvety or smooth, the prime marketing adjectives of toilet paper, is a mystery; how dried potato slices could achieve this is mysterious as well, although it does say on my packet of Market Deli, that they need to be tasted to be believed. They are not wrong.

Arcadia

Sometimes, but not often, I get to work on the counter. I like it. I like to sit. If you’re not on the counter you’re expected to keep busy, and if there’s nothing to do, you’re expected to walk around. Just walk around, round and round, waiting for somebody to a have a problem for you to solve. People get coins stuck in the machines, that’s quite a common one. Quite often people think a machine should have paid out when it didn’t, and I have to give the thing a shake to see if anything falls out. I try to do it in a way that customers won’t notice though. We can’t have them shaking the machines to see if anything falls out.

Sometimes that doesn’t work and I have to go behind the counter and get keys, like, twelve keys, because over the years different machines have turned up with different locks, or locks have been replaced. I must waste ten hours a week trying out keys to get machines open, while a stranger stands by, and watches. If I ran this place I would order one huge batch of locks that all had the same key. I keep saying that I’m going to colour code them some day but so far, no.

If a punter says they’re owed a payout it could just mean the hopper’s empty, and once refilled, it will give them what they’re owed. Most often the coins are stuck in the pipe, or just fell into the wiring because the machines are old as hell, and I have to root around. Pro-tip: always ask them exactly how much they’re owed, because then if you find more, you can keep the extra. That’s not arcade policy of course. Just something I do.

If a regular says that a machine owes them money I give them the benefit of the doubt, and I just hand it over, even if I can’t find any evidence. I really have no reason to think that they would lie to me. I don’t believe they would cheat, because they’re not addicted to money; they’re addicted to gambling. If they were addicted to money, they wouldn’t be here.

Sometimes the regulars want a tip, what machines have paid out recently, which have been popular, that sort of thing. They like to think there’s a pattern to follow, or some kind of code. There’s really no useful information I could give them, even if I wanted to, partly because I’m not paying that much attention, but mainly because it’s arcade policy. Come to think of it, I don’t suppose it is a pattern or a code they’re after; more like a superstition. When they ask me for a good tip, I always say the best tip is at the counter, and it’s flashing right before their eyes. Nobody’s figured out what that means just yet, but I like to be enigmatic.

Mostly the regulars aren’t too bright. Easy to sound judgemental, me a student at the University and all, but it’s the fair truth. The regulars are all addicts to some degree, mostly unemployed, some with real and noticeable learning difficulties. Some have young children who’ll get bored over three or four hours in a pushchair while the parent plays the slots. If they cry or fidget they get told off, or, if the parent’s doing ok, they’ll give the kid some money to go and play one of the kid machines. That’s the next generation of customers I suppose. In business terms.

People say it’s rigged, and I hear the phrase ‘daylight robbery’ a lot. It is rigged of course, it’s all rigged, but not in the way they seem to think. The house always wins right? That’s how gambling works. The idea that we fiddle with the machines, or that… well, suffice to say, we just don’t need to. Why would you rob somebody who’s already giving you their wallet? When someone gets angry, gets convinced that there’s something dishonest going on, I take them to the counter, and I point to the gambling license nailed on the wall. We’d lose that, I tell them, if we were ever caught breaking the law. We’d lose that and we’d never get it back. I’d be out of a job to boot. And that license, that costs £80,000 per year. They usually widen their eyes then, whistle through their teeth. They have a better idea of what they’re dealing with, and they feel more comfortable in the arcade. They go back quietly to their gambling. Which confounds me. Didn’t I just tell you, I think to myself, that this dingy little place makes over £80,000 per year? What else do you need to know?

I just stand there, by the counter, right next to the best tip in the place. A neon sign flashes:

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

CHANGE

Man of Mystery

I once went into the corner shop outlet of a national chain and tried to buy a four pack of brand lager. I was twenty-two, but a young looking twenty-two, the kind who usually gets asked for ID when buying alcohol. The woman behind the counter, an older lady, probably nearing retirement, squinted at me through inch thick glasses and asked me how old I was. I said I was eighteen, as I’d been briefed to, and she smiled and said that was fine, and bagged up the beer for me. Not much of a story in itself, but that old lady probably got a severe reprimand from some pimply area manager the same age as me, once I reported her. They paid me £5 for that job, and I got to keep the beer. This is what it is to be a mystery shopper.

Another time I had to attend the regional office of a building society and go through the motions of setting up a high interest savings account with a recording device taped to my chest. The practicalities of the assignment meant that I had to pretend to be rich, so I wore my cleanest suit, styled my hair to look designer casual and practiced an air of unconcerned prosperity. All of which turned out to be unnecessary, as the manager of building society was disappointingly willing to believe whatever I told him, presumably on the basis that nobody would wander into a building society and go through all the rigmarole of documenting their previous five addresses, just for the fun of it. Pretty soon I forgot all about wearing the wire, and I got quite invested in the role, expanding my story beyond the requirements of the brief.

‘My fiance is in Lebanon at the moment,’ I told the manager, studying my nails and sipping at the macchiato they’d brought me, ‘doing lord knows what to my credit cards. But that’s what you get for dating a…’ I searched for an appropriate role for my fake future wife. ‘…a Kardashian.’

He smiled and nodded.

‘We spent last winter in Versailles, teaching English to the natives and helping them erect crude housing,’ I continued. ‘You’ve got to give back what you can, am I right?’

He continued nodding as I finished my macchiato, and asked if I’d like another.

‘Please,’ I said, passing my mug to his secretary, ‘and a biscotti if you have it.’

I got £30 for that one, a good haul for an hours work, although the tape marks on my chest took about a week to heal. I sent the recording device back to head office with a detailed report, knowing full well that I was James-Goddamned-Bond.

Most of the work was small-time stuff and I didn’t get to use an alias or wear a false moustache as often as I would have liked. The last job I did before cutting the whole industry loose was an investigation into the practices of a driving school, where a dozen or so people per day would go to take their driving theory examination. My mission was to be one of those people, and take my driving theory test- to take the test, and to cheat.

I was pretty excited- this represented a step up in my play-acting job, taking on a role where I was not only lying, but lying about cheating. Thrillingly, I didn’t hold a driving license at the time and hadn’t even taken any lessons; I had no business whatsoever being in this sparse waiting room with these poor anxious people cramming last minute from the The Bumper Book of Traffic Law and Driving for Dummies. There were nine of us there, most about my age or younger, all sick looking beneath the dim strip lighting. When a door opened at the end of the hall, real, natural light blinded us and a figure, invisible in the doorway, invited us to enter. The group moved sluggishly and looked like captives being shepherded between cells, but I sprang up and strolled to the front of the crowd and into the room, settling in a front-row seat where I’d be clearly visible.
The examiner went between tables making sure we all had enough pencils and that nobody needed to use the bathroom, before standing at the front of the room, palms outward in a moment of silent contemplation. He was about two feet in front of me so I had the choice of craning my neck uncomfortably skyward or staring directly at his crotch.

‘Before we begin,’ he said, ‘a few things to run by you.’

He introduces himself as Ian and explains how long we have to complete the test, how to make corrections on the paper, what to do if any of us need to use the bathroom. He makes a joke relating to stopping distances that gets a nervous rumble of laughter from the room but which I don’t understand.

Finally, he tells us we’ll begin exactly on the hour, and all eyes turn to the clock; forty seconds.

‘Oh,’ he adds, ‘and if any of you forgot to leave your phones at the front desk today, please turn them off and hand them to me now.’
I feel for the secret phone in my pocket and get a prickling sensation under my arms.

‘No?’ Ian waits a long moment, making eye contact which each of us in turn. I smile toothily. ‘Then you may begin.’

I wait for my moment, feeling the conspicuous bulge of the wire I’m once again wearing. I’d complained to my handler at the agency about the tape marks, and she asked me why I’d thought it necessary to tape it to my chest in the first place. I didn’t have a good answer to this, besides saying that I’d never seen a crime movie where the narc didn’t have the wire taped to his chest. She advised that I simply put the device in the breast pocket of my shirt, so I’d compromised by hanging it around my neck on a chain.

After five minutes it’s time for me to make my move, but I choke, seemingly unable to do what I’d been sent here to do. Maybe it’s fear of drawing attention to myself during an exam, like all those dreams where you can’t read the paper and then soil yourself. Maybe it was that Ian seemed like a nice guy who didn’t need this kind of hassle. Another five minutes passed and I started to picture the people from the agency sitting outside in a van, listening through headphones and sweating through their wife-beaters, revolvers hanging loose at their sides.

‘Now look, what’s your guy playing at?’ the one who looks like Bogart in Key Largo asks, ‘I thought this rat would squeak?’

‘Jeez I dunno,’ replies the other, played by Robert Mitchum, ‘let’s cut him loose before he brings the heat down on us.’

As their imaginary van tears away, my skin starts to tingle and I stare into the wood grain of my desk. If Ian has noticed, he probably thinks I’m stressed out on account of having so little knowledge of UK transit law. I look up but he’s engrossed in a paperback. According to the clock we’ve had half of our allotted time- half- and I know that it’s now or never. I reach into my pocket very, very slowly, and take out the phone. Ian immediately looks up from his book, like he’s been waiting for this, and he frowns with his head set on one side like a faithful dog that doesn’t understand why you’re shouting at it.

He stands up, crossing over to me in a single stride. The movement distracts the other students and they stop working as Ian hunches to speak softly in my ear. They can’t hear what he’s saying to me. They just see me nod, and put my phone back in my pocket. They see gestures of explanation from him, restrained to reflect the solemnity of the room. They think he looks almost apologetic, confused too and more than a little angry. They see me blink away inexplicable tears, and those who didn’t notice me get the phone out wonder what the hell is going on as I silently pack away my belongings and leave the room.

A Sam at every table

The first people I told about Sam’s death were a married couple sitting in the bar of the hotel where my girlfriend worked. I’d gone in to meet her but she was running late, and when Mr and Mrs Jones saw me sitting alone without a drink, they bought me one. Mr Jones was a gregarious Welshman with a profound love of the band ‘Joy Division’, as evidenced by his Unknown Pleasures shirt and a key fob. Mrs Jones was significantly younger than her husband and even more Welsh. She talked at length about their journey to Aberystwyth from Newport. I’d been to Newport once to get my passport renewed last-minute, so when she asked if I’d ever visited I said no, because I’m a firm believer in keeping silent when you’ve nothing nice to say.

We chatted for a while about their holiday, and my experience of being an Englishman living in Wales, but conversation dried up pretty quickly and, not wanting to seem aloof, I offered up an explanation for my reticence.

‘I just found out my oldest friend killed himself yesterday.’

Delivered without preface it probably seemed blunt, but the prevailing euphemism- ‘committed suicide’- just sounds too much like something you’d read from a scroll of parchment for me to take seriously. They gaped when I explained that I had received a call at work just a few hours before, and Mrs Jones welled up. I was unprepared for tears; I didn’t cry when I found out, and during the funeral I was too self-conscious, my doubt crippling me in the same way that erectile dysfunction compounds itself over time.

‘That,’ she said, dabbing at her eyes, ‘is absolutely bluddy traagic that is.’ I bit my lip to avoid laughing at her accent, an action that Mr Jones mistook for an internal struggle with churning emotion. He laid a powerful hand on my shoulder and asked me how it had happened. When I told him he nodded sagely and said, ‘Just like Ian Curtis’.

I’m not sure why people ask how it happened. It’s not that I don’t understand the curiosity- if Noah hadn’t told me over the phone I would have obsessed over it- it just surprises me that people are comfortable asking. As someone who doesn’t always have the keenest social instinct, it makes me wonder what the appropriate level of detail is when discussing death. If you were to tell me your Aunt died recently, I’m allowed to ask how. But if you told me she died in a car accident, can I ask you how fast she was driving?

This skein of morbid curiosity holds true for the note as well. As few as 25% of suicides leave a note, and although Sam apparently left three, I don’t know what any of them said. I think I expected to find out at some point but I’m not sure by what medium I was imagining his parents would distribute them. When a friend of mine first mentioned the probable existence of a note, I had a visceral reaction, like a cord tightening between my stomach and my temples. For some reason I panicked, thinking, ‘What if he mentioned me?’ A second later I felt it again as I thought, ‘He almost certainly didn’t.’

The funeral was a traditional affair held at the church where Sam’s parents volunteer. He had an eclectic taste in companions, and there were any number of dreadlocked, tie-dyed acid burnouts in the congregation along with the jobbing musicians, semi-professional jugglers and gypsies. Sam had been evasive about his own religious sympathies, but it’s likely that there were more pagans and wicca in the Church than Christians, so when the priest invited us to pray with him, there was a moment of nervous shuffling as we looked at one another as if to say, ‘Is this mandatory?’

Amens were thin on the ground.

When it finished, the family went to the crematorium while the assembly piled into a large hall with a bar. We disected the last times we had seen Sam and how he had behaved, if there was anything especially morose that should have given it away. We got drunk and made one another promise to say if we ever had suicidal thoughts. I received an undeserved share of attention and sympathy from people who remembered how close Sam and I had been at school. I counted the people who would be invited to my funeral if I died tomorrow and was disappointed by the number I came up with.

We told stories about Sam from his early teen years, and on the next table they told stories from his University years. His family reminisced about his childhood and we all recounted different plans we thought he’d had for his future. I had a vivid picture of Sam as I had last seen him, drinking from the bottle at a christmas party, sitting with us and listening in. Mid-teens Sam was across the room with some girls who remembered him as their first boyfriend while the musicians recalled a longer haired Sam patiently teaching them the chords for his latest eight minute metal ballad.

We drank steadily for as long as the bar was willing to stay open, and one by one the different groups left, taking their ideas of Sam with them. There was a book that people were signing, and I hung around waiting for inspiration until I was the only one left. Eventually his parents came back to clear up, and I scribbled the kind of nonsense you’d see in a highschool year book, before leaving and taking my last, fixed idea of Sam with me.

Waiting for the man

I used to buy my pot from an enterprising teenager called Ian. I suppose any self-employed teenager is enterprising really, but Ian was different to the other teenaged dope-slingers I patronised, in that he cleverly tried to franchise me. After a few months of meeting him in a parking lot between the nice side of town and his side of town he came to understand that, unless I was a particularly high-functioning drug addict, I must be supplying a small group of friends and acquaintances. I’m sure this is the norm everywhere; every group of pot smoking friends includes at least one person who knows what number to call, what password to use, which parking lot to wait in. For my group of friends that person was me, and so once or twice a week I’d receive a few of calls, I’d make a few of calls, and I’d head across town to meet some guy, usually Ian, and buy everyone’s pot. I would often arrive home after one of these jaunts to find my extended friendship group in my living room, waiting for me to distribute wrapped presents like an unseasonal Santa Claus.

‘Ho ho ho. For you Jasper, an effective sedative for your chronic back pain. For Nathan, a temporary escape from a life you didn’t choose. For Sarah, the only means by which you can sleep! Ho ho ho, merry Wednesday!’

Over three years of concentrated activity I estimate that I walked back and forth from that parking lot two hundred times- about one hundred and fifty miles- carrying a kilo and a half of Cannabis. When another dealer I used, a guy from school called Tom, ditched his moped for a used Fiat Punto, my flatmate and I did the maths and realised that between us we’d paid for the upgrade.

None of this made me any money of course. Aside from the occasional courtesy joint it scored me, my wanderings were strictly pro bono and it was this fact that Ian picked up on when he attempted to make me an outlet for his brand.

‘All you’d have to do is what you’re doing already,’ he’d tell me, seemingly reasonable, ‘only, you’d be making money out of it.’

When I asked him how this was possible I felt like the wide eyed patsy you see in infomercials on late night TV.

“Gee sir,” some hopeless schlub says to a pastel suited presenter with shockingly white teeth, “I’ve heard of people earning good money, working from home while they sleep, but I don’t know how it works”.

“Well,” says the presenter, adjusting his mask which slipped momentarily to reveal the poisonous lizard beneath, “all you need is a cellphone and a pragmatic attitude to your colon”.

I wasn’t earning great money in my legitimate job back then, so the idea of becoming a freelance drug dealer on the side held some appeal. I was working at a local supermarket, where I held the illustrious title of ‘Chief Dressing Agent’. This mostly involved putting toys and sweets at child-eye height so they’d bug their parents to buy them, or hiding the toilet paper at the back of the store so you have to walk past every other product before you can buy it. We put smaller tiles on the floor in the meat section so the clacking of the wheels of your trolley seems faster and you slow down. That fresh bread smell near the bakery? Are they baking bread all day or did some clever person bottle the smell so we could pump it out? I was sent on biannual training days where, after the name tags and the ice-breaker questions, we had to declare how often we completely changed the layout of our store.

‘Disorient them,’ we were told, ‘spin them round until the only thing they can remember is the word “buy”.’

 The deceptions were manifold.

All of which is to say, there was no moral component to my descision making process at the time. I figured that if it was permissable for me to double the price of selected items and then half them the following week in order to honestly advertise them as ‘half price’, then selling pot to those that wanted it was, at worst, morally grey.

I don’t know what Ian does these days. If this was a dramatic story, he’d have worked to the top of a cocaine empire by now, and if there was going to be a moral he’d be dead or in jail. Probably it’s neither. Probably he quit when the clientele in that small town got too much younger than him. At least one dealer I knew went to University, leaving the business in the hands of his younger brother. Another put her profits towards a little coffee place where you can get a free latte if you intimate darkly what you know about her past.

I didn’t start selling pot on Ian’s behalf, because I didn’t like the hours or the idea of having a quota. It was a hobby that I didn’t particularly want to monetise, and I’m glad I kept it that way. I was strictly pro bono.