Alex stayed in the car. He was all right, he told himself. He had to be all right but his breath was coming out in short gasps, his forehead glistened with sweat. He checked his phone. No text. Mum, he’d written, I feel like I can’t go on anymore. I just can’t, I don’t know what to do.
It made him feel small when he was ignored, small and stupid, he couldn’t help it, he just did.. he stared morbidly out until his attention was caught by a homeless man who was traipsing hopefully from the subways towards the sliding doors – one look at the guard and he retraced his steps muttering, swearing.
Fuck yer’, he was growling, fuck yer’ all.
But he daren’t go in, not when the guard was scowling, chewing gum, legs apart, standing arms folded, bile in the back of his throat at the sight of him. Not so a few months ago. A few months ago there was a smile, sometimes even a nod and a spare bit of cake from the cafe. Not now. First sign of drunkenness and you were turfed out. The friendly guard had soon changed his tune under new management, thought Alex. Later the homeless would vent their fury by throwing eggs at the windows, but how could the guard explain his hostility was a result of having to carry out actions he didn’t agree with?
Alex was shaking. He felt sure he had diabetes.. he was always tired, faint, weak- weren’t those the symptoms?
Mum, doesn’t diabetes run in the family?
What dear? The signal’s bad.
The breakfast that morning at the B&B. Soggy croissants, tiny yoghurts anyone could buy from Sainsbury’s, old fruit, granulated coffee. The B&B was full of men like himself, barely saying hello, eyes glued to Breakfast News before disappearing off into the world beyond to goodness knows where.
What do you do? Someone asked him once.
Ugh, he responded. I’m Pic n’ Mix man, Doing his Marvel impression.
But Pic and Mix was lost on the ordinary workingman, it was far removed from his consciousness.
I go round to various retail outlets checking the pic and mix stands, making sure they’re clean and displayed properly.
It sounded like something out of Amelie, he thought, only his life wasn’t like the film. At nights he returned back to which ever B&B, threw the pillows over his head to block out next door’s TV and tried to sleep. He almost always didn’t. Instead he lay awake, thinking of her. Always her until it became unbearable to think about her anymore, until he became irritated at himself for having such feelings which could never be fulfilled, until finally vacuousness settled and he didn’t feel anything. Eventually the anything would change again into the intense longings and then the cycle would begin once more. He couldn’t get out of it. He was so far down this road he couldn’t remember why he’d taken it in the first place.
Alex, why do you insist on doing these types of jobs? His mother asked once, but only once. He needed her to ask more, he needed a discussion but she did not pursue it.
He’s old enough to make his own decisions, she said.
But when is anyone old enough? Thought Alex.
How could he say it was because of love? That thing everyone warned you against but encouraged you to indulge in nevertheless. And anyway it was ridiculous to say it now. I was in love with her. He tried it out in his rank B&B room. It sounded hollow, stupid. Meaningless. I was in love with her, I loved her.
He’d lost his confidence. He felt even the mirror laughed at him and his doleful eyes.
How differently things were for them both. She was ‘achieving’ as his university friends said, she was working for a top think tank. Achieving was a favorite word amongst his friends. It meant nice clothes, free passes to important parties; good looking educated young men, holidays. She was using her politics degree. But he. He didn’t think politics was the way to change things now, no, if you wanted change you became an uber journalist, going round to protests, filming them, tweeting, writing on your ipad, you received death threats and the such.. or you were a protestor, you knew which journalists and newspapers to contact to affect change. And was he doing that? He wasn’t doing anything. He was too self-conscious, not fitting in, he read the NS and the Economist like everyone else and pretended he was knowledgeable. But when it came down to real action, he just couldn’t do it. Like with her. Watching her over and over and willing her …longing for her.
That’s not love, people said. People who’d divorced or split up from people said that. What did they know, Alex thought.
What it was was he couldn’t achieve a balance between retaining his thoughts sufficiently and then knowing when and how to act upon them. He suffered from terrible angry silences. Like last night and his neighbour playing his TV loudly till the early hours. He wanted to shout, bang doors or walk angrily out of the B&B. Every time he got up to ask the man to turn it down he went back to bed afraid and unable. This went on for 30 mins. He simply couldn’t ask, it came out as an angry apologetic whimper. He was caught between fight or flight syndrome. He is playing the TV at an unnecessary volume, yes but he is allowed to watch TV, but not if it is in the early hours and disturbing those who have to rest because they are working the next day, you’re being a bit OTT, what he is doing is illegal (it actually was, he checked it on the internet). Actually, it was torture. Wasn’t it a form of abuse at Guantanamo? What it boiled down to of course was being afraid to ask for what he wanted in case he was belittled, turned down. It was easy to belittle Alex. All it needed was some bullying confidence. When Alex finally asked the man he apologized for asking and that made it worse, he returned to his room, tail between his legs- the man complied but rudely, reluctantly- it did not occur to him to apologize of course..
Well, he thought, that’s exactly why she doesn’t want me, I’ve no grit.
The new manager was talking to him in rapid sentences, working his mouth as though chewing a particularly sticky toffee.
This and this was wrong with the pic and mix, he said, your company needs to sort this and this.
Alex watched him, focusing on his gold tooth at the back of his mouth. He wondered how anyone could be so obsessed with pic and mix. He suddenly realized the manager had finished and was waiting for him to speak. He was giving him a hard stare and Alex realized that not any of the staff had greeted him that morning. No introductions, no hellos. He felt miserable; it wouldn’t take much to look someone in the eye and give them a smile would it? Besides, he hadn’t actually had a conversation with anyone yet and it was already 11am. That fact depressed him. He opened his mouth to speak, but what was the question again? Alex blinked, he felt the backs of his eyes burn and he saw scorn on the other man’s face, scorn and exasperation.
Idiot, Alex said to himself. I’ll pass the comments on, he said out loud, hoping that sounded all right.
But the guy was watching him, he narrowed his eyes as if trying to seize him up..
I don’t want to be patronizing but the way you were banging those pic and mix containers was so aggressive. I don’t want to tell you how to do your job but they are very delicate.
Alex thought for a moment he was talking about the health of his own child, or some priceless bone china, not the containers for some noxious sweets made in a factory where the workers were paid the minimum wage and were on zero hours contracts, and the sweets were sold for £1.50 per 100gram to poor families and depressed business men. Alex slouched, his energy hit the floor. Looking at this manager, he knew he’d get reported this time.
Not motivated! Fire him, I would!
He could hear it now. Alex looked at the manager, past the tie and expensive shirt. Neo Liberal no doubt, company man through and through. He accosted another lower ranking manager.
Anything we can do about the homeless men selling the Big Issue in the subways?
The two men walked away talking and Alex was left on his own. He turned to look at the pic and mix. He was supposed to take out his camera, take some pics, upload them and send them off to the company. His briefcase was slung on the table near by but he couldn’t move his feet. He had dreams where he found he couldn’t run or walk but now it was really happening. The manager had settled into a seat in the corner of the room and was watching him. Oceans apart, Alex thought. How silly. How silly, the two could just go for a beer, swap stories, talk about football, have a laugh. Realize there’s more to life than pic and mix. For a moment Alex thought he saw compassion on the other’s man face and he felt guilty. May be he’d got the guy all wrong? May be his authoritarianism and briskness masked a gentle soul, one who knew the cruelties and hardships of life and what it was like to have to stay in lifeless B&Bs all the time? But the manager was on the phone and pointing at Alex, Alex knew it was his company.
You’ve got to create your own space you know.
There was a voice beside him and Alex turned to a Hispanic man in his late 20s.
I don’t have any space, said Alex dumbly. I live in B&Bs.
I mean for your soul man, hissed the young man. For your soul. Otherwise!
And the man drew his finger across his throat.
I do it by listening to Beethoven’s 9. You get me? You heard it? No?
He was at the CD player and sliding in a CD. Alex watched the manager nervously.
It’s like this- ta da da da da da da da dah dah dah da da da dah!
The boy did a trill in front of him and almost seemed to fly through the air. He looked at the manager with bright daring eyes and then switched off the music.
That’s what you’ve got to do babes, show ‘em who you are! That’s what frightens ‘em see. They can’t get you then, if you know how to be yourself, they can’t touch you.
The manager was walking over to him now, arms folded and the young man disappeared down the stairs. Alex looked at his briefcase waiting for him. At the same moment an over weight, red faced blue shirted man ran up the stairs and clawed at the pic and mix, throwing the sweets in a bag, filling it to the brim. It would cost £10 Alex guessed. The man went to the counter and picked up a beer too. There he was, the modern businessman, sweets in one hand, beer in the other. The manager was triumphant.
That’s what I like to see, that’s what I like to see! He said.
But the man’s unhappy! Alex was loud.
No one responded so Alex said it again, louder. Still no one appeared to have heard. His phone was ringing. The company. He put it on the table face down. Then he opened his briefcase and cleared it of his personal belongings.
There you are, he said to the manager. You take the photos yourself. I’m through.
In the car he thought what he might do. He’d go to her and say that which he’d always longed to say. Then. Somewhere. Anywhere. Just not to a life like this and being with people like the manager.