The Wax Factor
When Toby Barnham awoke he was curled in the foetal position. It was Sunday morning and his bed was saturated with that fluid released all too easily by either a full bladder or refined terror. The October sun lunged through the slats in the sunroof stamping his torso with a bright white grid. His brow was moist, his eyes wet and shining, his throat raw. Clearly he had been screaming. Why? It took him only a second to inwardly answer, as once again he was transported back to relive his ordeal in all its gruesome clarity.
Toby had just undergone the most insane nightmare. His vacuum cleaner - a top of the range Dyson - not content with trying to strike up a conversation about spiralling property prices in Sheerhaven had then proceeded to rape him. With gentle flirtation at first, it had stroked its nozzle under his chin before launching a frenzied and unprovoked all-out sexual assault. This steel and plastic predator was then joined in his campaign (one can only presume it was a ‘he’) by others; the kettle, the cruet set, the ipod, the Apple Mac, the LadyMantron. There was no way Toby could fight them all off, even with every ounce of the strength packed into the 170 pounds which comprised his pumped, primed, chromatically gleaming 6ft 2 bulk. So he surrendered – to an indescribable pain and humiliation. For the first time in his life he had wavered and ceased to be what he had always been: that rare specimen of modern English manhood – The Alpha Male. He might never be the same again.
Rolling his head onto his left shoulder he caught sight of the culprit hiding behind the slats in the storage cupboard. He was seized by a murderous rage and sprang from the bed towards it. Then he stopped, realising the absurdity of his murderous impulses: after all it had only been a dream. He looked away in shame. Even though Toby never used it – he hired an Iranian woman, a refugee from the war, at the minimum wage for that – he would never look on this humble machine with the same naïve eyes again.
Toby still felt a twinge of violation as he willed his now limp but not un-Olympian 39-year-old torso to the huge bay windows which gazed out upon the world like the eyes of some mutant bug . As he approached he extracted a fresh white towel from the steel and pine dresser. He tied it around his waist and pressed a button. The tinted black glass rose to reveal the sun-bleached shingle of Sheerhaven seafront now slowly being invaded by a force of fashionably attired human (and in some cases posthuman) termites. Beyond them loomed that dirty sapphire expanse co-mingling the exotic and mundane: the English Channel.
He pressed another button. The window lifted and he shuffled onto the balcony. This time his chin didn’t jut out towards the sun in its daily homage to Benito Mussolini. Several times he inhaled and exhaled the salty tang of the fresh yet warming morning air. After this he walked to the kitchen, filled the Gaggia with finest Columbian coffee beans and padded towards the bathroom. He turned on the taps, splashed water on his face and walked towards the windows once more. He felt unclean, his tension an unwanted guest outstaying its welcome. Once again he glanced at the Dyson. Then he caught sight of the kettle, the ipod, the Apple Mac. He felt claustrophobic. He walked towards the glass dining table to pick up his cellphone. There were three missed calls. All of them were from women, none of whose names were familiar. Cattie, Hannah, Kelly. Conquests from last night’s party presumably. He smiled – his sense of self reviving.
It was then he noticed it. A spasm of electricity pulsed through him.
It lay on the table, fleshy and inert, a perfect square about one inch high and five wide. It resembled wax but was the colour of Caucasian skin. Appalled yet fascinated he prodded it with a biro lying nearby. Dimpling slightly it emitted an almost imperceptible squeal.
“Calm down, old son. You’re still in the nightmare,” reasoned Toby. He hadn’t woken up yet. After all it wasn’t uncommon to dream oneself in the process of waking only to find oneself still caged within the catacombs of the subconscious.
Toby closed his eyes. Then he opened them forcefully as if willing himself back to consciousness. But of course, he already was awake and had been for five whole minutes. And the thing – whatever it was – was still there on the glass, lying foul, fat and complacent, tremulous with an almost vulvic majesty on the glass. He prodded it a second time. It dimpled again but this time remained silent. Carefully rolling up his latest copy of the Erotic Review he scraped it down the mouth of the makeshift tube, where it momentarily hung, limp and labient, before he summoned up enough rage to hurl it against the wall. Now it most definitely did make a sound: another marrow melting squeal, louder than its first, before rolling onto the floor.
Toby approached it with a feline furtiveness. What was it? Ah that was probably it! Some prank devised by the kids in the apartment below whose voices sometimes penetrated his floorboards. A giblet from a Waitrose chicken fitted with a sound chip. He’d go round there. Yes, that’s what he’d do. Go round there and present the parents with the foul evidence of their ‘little darlings’ warped ingenuity. The Gaggia whistled. Toby rubbed his hands and poured it into the cafetiere. He took a white china espresso cup and poured the cafetiere into it. Inhaling deeply he proceeded to take a sip, feeling himself melt like a sugar cube into the coffee.
Once again Toby felt content. He looked at the strange waxy interloper again. But even his near-perfect eyesight had failed to detect that it had grown in diameter by another centimetre.
After he had showered Toby went downstairs and rapped on the heavy pine door. No answer. He tried again. His ears were roused by the sound of giddy laughter deep within the apartment. Teenage girls? Funny he didn’t recall that girls lived here. But come to think of it he had no idea who the people next door to him were, let alone underneath him. Maybe he’d have to pop round more often and use the excuse that he was out of sugar. Hadn’t his parents employed a similar ruse back in the 1980s when they began their courtship? They had got the idea from some coffee advert. This had always tickled him. Anyway, as long as the girls were over sixteen there was no problem. For Toby was nothing if not scrupulous. He had his plastic surgeon’s license to think about.
He waited: more patient than ever now, his fingers drumming against his thigh as he tensed the knuckles of his other hand ready to rap them on the door again. Before he had a chance to do so the door flew open.
A nymph, no more than 16 - her blonde hair unravelling like a wicker basket, stood before him. Her blue eyes – almost level with his own - smirked. Sheerhaven’s answer to Botticelli’s Venus tiptoed over the threshold of her all mod cons seashell and demurely covered her breasts with her left arm. Toby smiled suavely. The girl was lithe and mildly tanned. She stood there for a few seconds appraising him.
“Yeah?” she enquired arching her eyebrows like an unusually full-on receptionist at a Home Counties Holiday Inn. He was thrown.
“I…I’m sorry…can I speak to your parents ?”
“Parents?” she squealed, tossing her head back with a snigger and leaning back against the door frame. She carefully secured her breasts with her slender fingers while rubbing a bare, pink heel against her left calf. “Is that the best chat-up line you can come up with?”
“Who is it?” trilled another girl’s voice.
“Some granddad asking about parents”
Another peal of mocking laughter split the mausoleum silence of the corridor. For the second time that morning and probably ever, Toby felt mortified.
“Tell him we don’t keep any here!”
The girl smirked and raised her eyebrows at him again.
“Does that answer your question…….sir?”
Toby’s confidence was beginning to revive.
“No it doesn’t. I need your help with a little problem.”
“Uggh! Dirty old sod!” she cried. “There’s doctors for that sort of fing!”
The voice from inside the apartment shrilled out again.
“Granddad still there?”
“Unfortunately,” sniffed the girl in distaste.
“Why? Is he fit or something?”
The girl gazed upwards at him, a somnambulant puppy, under her unkempt
“Well? Are you?”
Toby knew he had already won. His eyes could trace the outline of his victory in
the faint curves tilting upwards at the corners of the girl’s mouth.
“I might be. But the real question is… are you?”
A pair of bare heels slapped up the corridor. Then another semi-naked
nymph – this one a brunette – launched her head with an expression of trout mouth-pursed incredulity over her friend’s shoulder.
“I should say!” she exclaimed. Without warning a hot bejewelled little paw shot out and grabbed Toby by a fold of his shirt. The blonde protested at her friend’s recklessness, “Shell what are you doing?”
This indignation was ignored. The door slammed behind Toby as he stumbled over the threshold of the apartment with the amazement of a visitor at the portal to another world. Already he had quite forgotten the strange waxy substance deposited in the hip pocket of his Levis.
Since the anti-Aids pill had been introduced onto the open market at prices affordable to the average, affluent consumer, assignations like the one just enjoyed by Toby had ceased to be relics of the 1960s and once again become the norm.
This suited men and women of all ages equally: now they could all indulge in the guilt free fuck without fear or restraint. Combined with the perfecting of sex drugs, compulsory sterilisation for couples with more than two children and huge advances in facial and body morphing (which rendered octogenarians youthful and sexually desirable once more) and of course the introduction of human cloning, which had dispensed with that axis of evil: childbirth, marriage and the family, Western civilisation was now experiencing the greatest sexual boom in its history. And if you were inadequate – and even if you weren’t - you could console yourself with the LadyManTron which simulated the sexual experience by projecting a 3D holographic ‘body’ of your choice which you could see, touch, smell and fellate. This body even had the added advantage of not answering back unless you classed orgasmic moans as such. All very well, as long as you could afford the price tags for these and similar gadgets.
Not that any contemplation of the devices of sexual desperation (nor the new form of social exclusion created) was troubling Toby’s mind this glorious Sunday morning. As Toby piloted his car along Sheerhaven pier towards the East Saxington road he felt that slight wave of inexplicable tenseness returning; a sensation fostered by the silly nightmare, that the tectonics of his psyche were slowly shifting deep below his smooth, polished ironclad demeanour.
This morning he could console himself by meeting two of society’s ‘have nots’: his brother and sister-in- law on their smallholding in East Saxington. Currently they were fighting to prevent their house and organic smallholding, which rarely turned a profit, from being bulldozed by developers who wanted to build a new town, involving the construction of some 50,000 new homes. Such visits, involving the manufacture of much anti-establishment bile on the part of his brother, Davey, always amused Toby, rendering him more contented about his own circumstances. The misfortunes of our nearest and dearest invariably do. He could however gladly forego the grizzlings and crawlings of his nephews and nieces – all four of the snot-nosed little toerags.
As he swept above Sheerhaven pier his car was bought to a halt by a police cordon blocking the main road. Some fifty feet below a demonstration numbering about 20 protestors was taking place. From the banners, bearing slogans such as: “A baby is a human being, not a designer label,” Toby could see that it was a protest by The Royal Society for the Protection of the Human Being (RSPHB). They seemed to be marching towards the Conference Centre and Grand Hotel, where – Toby now remembered from last night’s news bulletin – the annual conference of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was gathering. The police were grouped in menacing formations behind their riot shields, electro batons and police dogs by their sides, across the road. Yet it was a show of force which could not actually be deployed – not against members of a Royal Society.
Recently new laws had been passed by Parliament (with enthusiastic public support) lifting all restrictions on human cloning. The drafting of these new laws had of course been greatly assisted by consultants from the Society.
The RSPHB meanwhile – ferociously hostile to Government policy - had little to flex in the way of muscular influence. Their supporters, although numbering only about 20,000, were largely respectable and harmless Catholic middle class folk, although some militants had penetrated the organisation and a drive had been launched to root them out. These agitators were often prone to acts of unspeakable violence: the trashing of parthogenic farms, the slashing of tyres on cars belonging to geneticists – that sort of thing. Toby naturally was all in favour of the reforms.
Further down the pier another crowd – this one handpicked from the civic dignitaries of Sheerhaven’s ruling caste - was gathering around a gleaming, sparkling, new steel and glass building. They were waiting for the Work Flexibility Minister who was due to open this pioneering institution: England’s first compulsory Employment Motivation Centre. This was where the poorest members of society would be compelled to acquire new skills and engage in profitable work such as peeling shrimps and potatoes for Sheerhaven’s sprawling leisure industry as an alternative to staying at home on benefits. In return for working a 50-hour week for a three-year period, they would be housed, fed and given an allowance for clothing which would be enough to splash out once a month at Oxfam. Junior Work Motivation Centres were also now being extended to ‘catch’ the children of these unfortunate members of society – in which they would also be given basic tuition in the three Rs. The noble aim of the scheme was to break the ongoing generational cycle of welfare dependency and wind up the morally corrosive welfare state. Indeed recently tougher requirements for had been drawn up for those intending to “batten off the state.” These included giving 9 points on driving licenses as an automatic disincentive to would-be claimants, community service, a lie detector test and automatic police questioning under caution.
Now the regime was about to be overhauled again. From next April if people didn’t consent to surrender their benefits in return for a place at the Work Motivation Centres then they would be evicted by their landlords who would then prosecute them for loss of rent. Arrests would then follow and indefinite detainment at the Employment Motivation Centre after being fitted with a microchip - which would track their movements for a thirty-year period and banned from wearing hoods – forced to pay on-the-spot fines to the police for the expense incurred. The media, schools, banks, solicitors’ practices, constabularies and prisons throughout the land were naturally delighted by the plan as were the public who were now reassured that their taxes would no longer be going towards subsidising scroungers. There was, of course, a large role for the private sector. Of course a few do-gooders claimed that it was a return to the Victorian workhouse but the Minister of Work Flexibility had hit back with earnest assurances that “it is our aim that no citizen is thrown on the scrapheap.” Another policy suggestion also being mooted was that income tax be scrapped for those earning over a million a year as a reward for their entrepreneurial spirit, but raised to 40 per cent for those earning below the average wage as an incentive to work harder to climb out of poverty.
A helmeted traffic cop on a flyped, an officious wasp in fluorescent yellow chevrons and black overcoat, approached Toby’s door and drummed his heavy leather gloved fingers on the window. Toby pulled down the window.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to turn back sir! This road is closed for the next
several hours.” he said in a dark monotone.
“But I’ve got to get to East Saxington!” spluttered Toby.
“I’m sorry sir. May I suggest you take the A23 and then cut onto the B1273?”
Toby took this advice good-humouredly.
“These pro-human headbangers running your boys ragged are they, officer?”
The traffic cop didn’t smile. “Something like that.”
Toby reversed and swung round his car at a right angle onto the road towards the seafront. As he did so, he felt something throb in his jeans. He remembered the waxy interloper. Winding down the window he extracted it and nonchalantly let it fall from his grasp as the wind rushed past. He then grimaced and wiped his fingers on his jeans and continued on his way. Neither he nor anyone else heard the scream as it hit the tarmac. Nor did he notice the two policeman outside the Employment Exchange beating the life out of a solitary demonstrator with steel-tipped electro coshes, who had appeared wearing a placard stating “Queen Victoria would be proud of you.” A crowd of fashionably dressed daytrippers with trendy haircuts laughed and clapped in between taking frenzied slurps of their takeway Frappacinos.
“That’s it! Show the dirty hippy what for!” yelled one Amazonian blonde woman in riding boots and jodhpurs, a riding crop dangling by her thigh.
Toby was still gripped in a vice of mild shock half-an-hour after his arrival at Davey’s. For the hundredth time he stirred his black organic coffee in a state of mild catatonia, in the spartan and homely, but to Toby’s fastidious supra-postmodern eyes, down-at-heel living room of his brother’s 17th century English farmhouse, which they had bought with an inheritance from Granny Barnham. Old enough to remember the Summer of Love she had disapproved of Toby’s profession and lifestyle. “Louche” was her sniffy verdict. Davey meanwhile had found favour with his liberal, sandal-wearing veggie wholemeal bread baking affectations.
Davey and Lola observed their guest wryly. Fortunately, the kids had been packed off to his parents in Leatherhead leaving the geese, the pigs, the chickens, the goats and organically grown vegetable plot to provide a surrogate form of entertainment.
His journey had indeed been a shocking one. Where there had once been countryside now there was nothing but a twenty mile bottomless chalk pit spanning the distance between East Saxington and Sheerhaven. Trees, fields, meadows - all had simply been ripped away like pastoral wrapping paper. But Toby didn’t have far to look to find the cause of this erasure. In every direction there were diggers, arranged in neat formations, like tank battalions.
This didn’t trouble Toby all that greatly. He was no lover of country walks or equestrian pursuits - let alone the isolation of rural life. Yet the icy fact that a vast tranche of the countryside had literally been swallowed up was psychologically disorientating; even to a townie like him. His brother’s house was now sitting at the base of this hollowed out pit and required a huge ladder to climb out of.
Toby decided it was a good moment to lance the silence with a judicious lie.
“Fine cup of coffee this. Organic beans I presume?”
“Naturally. They’re from a friend who lives in the Dordogne. The climate’s now so hot there that they can sustain a coffee plantation. So… no more flying in beans at massive cost to the environment and the exploited coffee pickers from South America,” shouted Lola smugly.
Toby looked up from his coffee cup at his sister-in-law in her Victorian rocking chair some 100 yards away. Both parties were separated by a narrow makeshift tarmac flyover which spliced the farmhouse neatly in half, started at the front door and linked one side of the bottomless pit with the other. It hadn’t been officially opened yet - fortunately for the inhabitants although that venerable ‘survivor’ Kate Moss had been called upon (for a considerable fee) to cut the ribbon in a few weeks time.
Toby mused on Lola’s utterance for a second before a thought struck him.
“If the indigenous peoples of these countries aren’t being exploited then that raises a serious question mark over their future? I’m not saying exploitation is justified you understand, but surely…..it’s better than dying.”
Lola scowled. “I should have guessed you’d take such a stance. Then again you always were the Arch-Globaliser of the Barnham family, weren’t you?”
Davey, mild and affable, non-confrontational Davey, merely averted his eyes from the grenade his wife had tossed into the flowerbed of an otherwise serene Sunday family afternoon.
Toby gently put down his coffee cup and smiled at his accuser with razored lips. “And I should have known that you’d react to my suggestion so….” He paused here for emphasis. “….petulantly.”
“How dare you, you of all people call me petulant!” Lola erupted. “At least I don’t drive a carbon-spewing Jag to the newsagents, every time I want my latest copy of GQ. At least I don’t make a living feeding the sex-fuelled dreams of sad, shallow ageing playboy millionaires with an infinite supply of money and cocaine combined with a strictly limited supply of humanity. And at least I don’t strut around town chasing the skirts of girls barely out of their teens like some has-been second division footballer.”
And still Toby smiled – ever the suave, unruffled charmer. “Actually I’m lucky enough to be able to pay for GQ to be delivered to my door. As for chasing skirt I am privileged in having numerous opportunities to lift them.”
Lola was rendered silent by these Wildean retorts, allowing Toby the space to slyly glance at his brother as if to ask, “And what is your take on this big brother?”
Davey cast his eyes down even further – deep into the very fibres of the fine but worn old Moroccan rug, now trampled with the dirt and chalk of the hollow in which all three of them were now sitting.
“I do wish everything didn’t have to be reduced to some petty philosophical or political squabble in this family,” he said sorrowfully.
“He started it!” shrieked Lola.
“And I’m finishing it!” Davey roared with the ferocity of a Force 8 gale. Lola burst into tears. Almost immediately Davey regretted his outburst and rushed to embrace his wife.
“There, there Lolly. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to.”
“I know, I know. But you did didn’t you?” Lola wailed back softly.
“Shall I make some more coffee?” offered Toby diplomatically, struggling to be heard above the cacophony of frantic sobbing and hugging.
“You say that this house’s electricity needs are now met solely by wind and solar power?” asked Toby suspiciously, as he inspected the white revolving micro wind turbines that now dominated the endangered half acre square of land which comprised his brother and sister-in-laws entire existence.
“Indeed I am!” beamed Davey. “This is a 100 per cent carbon neutral household! Not only that but all the food we grow here is organic and goes nowhere near Wallmart or Tesco. We only supply the best, and at very competitive prices, to delicatessens, vegetarian restaurants and health stores.”
Toby sniffed the air as if something noxious was taunting his nostrils.
“What about the heating? What does your boiler run on?”
“Finest rape seed oil.”
“It can also run on potato oil,” reminded Lola, her composure now somewhat improved.
“Yes,” murmured Toby letting his apathetic eyes trail over this Elysium of environmentalism. “But will it prevent all this from being swallowed?” he interjected, waving his hand over the smallholding.
Davey’s face darkened.
“It’s a fair question,” he sighed. “We’re going to give it a fucking good try. We’ve been given assurances that we’ll be safe for the next 10 years.”
“And you buy those do you? Maybe you haven’t noticed but they’ve driven a link road through your living room!”
“Yes I think we might just be aware, but they assure us it’s only temporary and we don’t have much choice but to believe them, do we?” snapped Lola. “We’ve both served 18 months between us for a breach of the peace trying to save this place. 18 months spent in Wandsworth, locked up with murderers and rapists. And what did it achieve? Our babies left without a mother and father for the two most formative years of their lives? Three protesters, good friends of ours, crushed under the wheels of JCBs for which the culprits each received a 2-year suspended sentence. But I suppose when the company you work for has two board members who are ministers – one at the Ministry of Justice– the threat of doing time for corporate murder is miraculously removed.”
The geese in the kitchen quacked their agreement. Toby eyed them sceptically.
“Still at least the kids will soon be able to play with the kids on their back doorstep!”
“Perish the thought!” shivered Lola. “This place will be Chav City Central before the year is out.”
Toby couldn’t resist another swipe. “But I thought you were all for social inclusion.” he smiled. Davey winced in expectation of another confrontation but this time Lola retained her dignity.
“There are limits. Such as five year olds selling cocaine with sub machine guns as they do in Hackney. Even I am not ashamed to admit that, social inclusion is not always the best option,” she crisply answered with a flawlessly fastened smile.
Toby smiled back. “Full marks for admitting it! Although I’m sure it won’t come to that down here in green and affluent East Saxington. My dear Lola! It’s heartening to hear that you’re well on the way to becoming a fully paid up member of my tribe. The glossies call us a new social sub group.’ The Pragmatic Nihilists.’”
“Sounds like the name of a Chav Rock group,” she replied contemptuously.
“I suppose in a sense we are!” laughed Toby.
Lola raised her eyebrows and looked at Davey. But already he was gazing up at the darkening sky, floating deep in his own fathomlessly unthinking universe.
Upon his return to Sheerhaven Toby, feeling unaccountably restless, reverted to that default mode adopted by most of his fellow restless souls: shopping.
Parking his car at the vast open air skypark suspended high above the 10 storey globular Tower Shopping Village, he took one of the glass bullet lifts, which span him in a spiralling tube shaped like an epiglottis, down to the third floor, where a bewildering multitude of clothing outlets - all selling only the faintest variations of the same lines - had nonetheless established a colony in what was now the alimentary canal of Sheerhaven itself.
Although it was 6 pm the mall was overflowing with shoppers. Internet shopping, despite its intense popularity some years earlier, had recently experienced a sharp decline. Quite simply people yearned to be part of one huge collective experience which could not be provided solely by the Internet or its infinite blogs forever.
For many – mainly men – the hunger was fed by football, whether in the pub, the stadium or the living room. For women though (but also a not an inconsiderable number of men) it could only be met by shopping. It interstitched the very synapses of the British psyche. Without shopping, it could be asked in inverted Bonapartean fashion, what else did Britishness mean? And although one could equally say the same of Frenchmen, Americans, Italians, it must be admitted that the word shopping has always held a special magical, if not semi-mystical resonance for the British.
Like most of his fellow seekers of the peculiarly postmodern grail of the 75 per cent reduction, Toby was not shopping for anything in particular: he too suffered from this irrational desire to be part of the one and only remaining truly open society which had taken root in the shopping malls, a society which flourished without all that much interaction beyond the grunting pleasantries of plasma card transaction and the hushed, awed whispers activated by spotting a new bargain.
Toby became aware of the volume of people surrounding him, all dressed in the most expensive labels, their slender arms all weighted with the identical ballast of carbon neutral brown paper carrier bags, all madly gabbling with collagen lips into the tiny headsets attached to their morphed or botoxed faces, many of which he and his colleagues probably had steady hands in designing. An unaccountable sensation, at once cloying and depressing drifted over him: a sort of existential dizziness. The crowd seemed to be getting faster and younger, as if time itself was speeding up, and one collective sibilant whisper seemed to rise like an invisible cloud from them. “Got to have it! Got to have it!”
Toby peered through the windows of the Rolex shop. Then he looked down at the one attached to his wrist. It seemed inexcusably shabby. He felt a gathering urge to buy another. From the window he picked out the flashiest and checked the price. One Hundred Thousand pounds. He could afford it easily. Students remortgaged their flats for a birthday bash at the Grand for such paltry sums; a sum he could make easily within a fortnight. He had just crossed the threshold of the shop and was about to be pounced on by a breathlessly grinning blonde salesgirl with the airbrushed face and silicone charms of a Playboy centrefold when he was suddenly struck by the folly of what he had embarked on.
“Can I help you sir?” drawled the girl in an accent pitched somewhere between Medway and Massachussets.
Without even answering her Toby turned and fled. Down he fled on the escalator. Down past the giant inflatable robotic golden sculptures of those ageing but not forgotten icons the Beckhams, down past the Shopper’s Temple where an obscure Buddhist sect exhorted its followers to chant for Porsches and down into the roseate, jazz infused bosom of the Pacific Heights Wine Lodge.
He stumbled towards the bar. Then to his horror he noticed the girl behind the bar was the same as the one who had just attempted to serve him in the Rolex shop.
Toby’s head swam again. So this was what it was then: losing one’s mind. He had always dismissed sufferers of mental anguish in the past with a pitiless Darwinian logic. Was it time to apply such mercilessness to himself?
He did so. Somehow he managed to snap his disordered senses together like bamboo shutters on a grimy window.
The girl seemed neither to notice or acknowledge her customer’s confused state.
“Can I help you sir?” she gushed with the same antiseptic smile she had served up to each one of her day’s thousand and one customers –whether they were the most shamelessly leering 60 year-old obese businessman or the young thrusting middle manager on the make.
“Get me whatever is the most expensive drink on the house?”
“Well…that would be the Mustique, sir?” the girl purred in a soft Massachussets.
“What’s that when it’s at home? An island?”
“Why yes so it is sir! An exotic island cocktail which stimulates all to the senses and desires!” she answered as if reeling off a script.
“Yeah, yeah! But I’d prefer something to knock me out. Not stimulate me. Nobody wants stimulating anymore! Except for their erogenous zones.”
The girl was at a loss how to respond.
“It’ll do!” scowled Toby. “How much?”
“Twenty thousand pounds sir!”
“Fuck a goose!”
The smile vanished from the girl’s glowing cheeks.
“Sir! Please restrain your language!”
“ Forgive me. I didn’t mean it literally of course, enchanting though you are. But what’s in it to justify such a price tag? Liquid gold bullion?”
“You’re not far off, sir! There’s a generous sprinkling of 12 carat gold leaves blended with finest Louis XVI brandy, champagne, tequila and cranberry juice to create a unique and subtle refreshing beverage showcasing the latest advances in drink design.”
“Rrrright!” said Toby, his eyes shooting off with wonderment into the sky before gently re-entering the atmosphere. “Sounds deliciously revolting! Suits me fine! he whooped slapping the bar exultantly.
The girl squealed - momentarily dropping her guard. “You’re the 10th customer to order this drink today.” That means I get a one per cent commission!”
“So that works out as…ooh….3,000 quid. Add another two thousand to that and let’s make it a cool 5,000, shall we? But shh! Don’t tell anyone. They’ll only take it off you!”
The girl bit her lip and glanced round warily. Her eyes shining in the spectral scarlet glow swerved back to Duncan. She burst into a nervous giggle.
Toby smirked and raised his eyebrows suggestively as he gave her his card.
She took it gently from him.
“Coming right up sir.”
Toby’s eyes followed the girl’s arse as it wiggled towards the ice bucket. He chuckled. Yet despite the return of his good humour he still felt more restless than ever.
Toby didn’t need to wait long for the explosive effects of the cocktail to register deep within his stomach. Soon he was scrabbling his way onto the spindly walkways, elevated like spacestation gantries jutting far out towards the seafront. It was getting dark. Just in time he managed to find a quiet corner to empty his guts – which he did so several times. But as he raised himself back up to his full height – he was astonished by the sight before him. Surrounding him were at least three hundred shoppers, teenagers, young mothers with toddlers, couples (its almost banal to mention the total invisibility of anyone over forty five not that you could accurately tell in every case) all of whom like him were violently retching into every illuminated fibreglass flower pod, every biodegradable carrier bag - many of them stuffed full with their day’s bargain purchases- everything in short that vaguely resembled a receptacle, including empty prams; some of them still containing writhing little bundles of flesh.
“Surely not all of them could have been drinking a thirty thousand pound cocktail,” mused Toby, confounded and not a little crestfallen. If so, then he had ceased to be one of the elite, the select few who could afford to blow their money so extravagantly and not care a damn. Of course, he didn’t for a moment pause to consider
that more potent forces, other than the bleep of plasma tills, might be at work in the larger world, a world beyond himself.
When he arrived home Toby, still traumatised by his strange day, had severe difficulty opening his door. No matter how many times he inserted the key card and punched in his entry pin or pushed at the heavy pine door it simply wouldn’t budge.
Eventually he went looking for someone to help him on the floors below. No matter how many doors he knocked on all of them remained defiantly shut, despite loud music or laughter emanating from several of them. Possibly out of sheer terror that some maniac had managed to breach the security compound at the entrance to the exclusive apartment complex, people chose not to answer.
He returned forlornly to his door. This time Toby’s unnatural calmness deserted him. He decided that the only option left to him was to break down the door.
This he succeeded in after only a half-hearted effort. Despite his deceptively slender frame Toby was a broad-shouldered big man whose days on the rugby pitch at Eton were not all that far behind him.
The door splintered, jerked off its hinges and crashed to the floor. Wincing at the damage Toby stepped over the threshold and felt something sticky attach itself to his soles.
He peered at them and was shocked to discover the same sticky, fleshlike substance which had so badly jolted him that morning. Worse still it wasn’t merely covering his shoes but the entire entrance to his flat: the door frame, the skirting boards, like a pink tide of candlewax.
Toby stared and as he did so, he felt that strange sensation of everything in the world compressing itself towards him, that zoom lens effect so beloved of Hollywood thrillers. Now he knew that it couldn’t have been some prank. How on earth could someone, or even some sort of gang, have invaded his apartment? There wasn’t the faintest sign of forced entry and he hadn’t given anyone a spare key card. He didn’t trust anyone enough for that and besides it was strictly forbidden by the apartment committee. And in any case, why would they leave something which was a cross between a poultry massacre and an exploding tallow factory? To unsettle him? To express some kind of cryptic comment on his profession? It made no sense. He had only made people happy during his career, not embittered. At least not to his knowledge.
He approached the window and checked no one had entered. It was as resolutely locked as he had left it. Below him, the super casinos, clubs and bars of the seafront glittered with somnolent sleaziness.
He went to the surveillance unit with which each apartment was fitted and rewound the digipod on which the whole day had been recorded. Again nothing! Everything beneath his epidermis, each sinew, each muscle, each gizzard, each blood vessel seemed as if it had been sprayed with water which instantly turned to ice.
His frozen frame felt as if it was cracking and about to shatter into a million shards. But it didn’t. Once again Toby’s snake eyed rationalism saved him.
Without caring about his open apartment, his very life, he raced off to where he would feel welcome.
Toby felt unease’s foetus gestating within him as he mounted the steps of Camelia Templeman’s whitewashed Regency townhouse in Rhodes Square and standing inside the portico pressed the doorbell. The sounds of braying laughter, chinking glasses and a digital orchestra in the conservatory striking up an electronic rendering of Wagner’s Ring Cycle crystallised in his ears as he peered through the frosted pane and the dim, intimate lights growing in luminosity within. Toby had been feeling edgy, even nauseous, all day and the shock at the state of the apartment had merely bought it to a head. It was a little like the sickly feeling induced by a caffeine overdose, yet he didn’t feel wired. Rather he was infused with an all-consuming ennui as if nothing could ever be new, fresh or exciting ever again. Yet he was determined to push it away for now. He would deal with whatever had caused the mess in the morning.
The last time he had seen Camelia was when he had performed a successful all-over-body-morph on the heiress to the leather and fur fortune. A severe but hypnotically beautiful woman she was now approaching sixty, but looked thirty and had lost none of her sexual power or serpentine ability to coil round everyone who came within her orbit, scheming, flattering, charming, squeezing the very freewill from them like some glamorous feathered boa constrictor.
Yet it wasn’t this demonic woman who unsettled Toby. Of all her social circle she probably had the least effect on him because as with everyone in his life including himself he refused to take her seriously or let anyone draw close. Of course she intrigued him: far more than the sycophantic vampires who flocked to her, to the point of contemplating an affair with her, which fortunately for his own mental well-being he had just about managed to avoid sucking himself into. No, what was biting its jaws into Toby was contempt of a sort he couldn’t define. As to what it was directed towards – if indeed it was directed towards anything - he simply had no idea.
A butler answered the door, about fifty-ish, droopy eyed, with a scarlet veinous face, diminutive stature and world-weary countenance, looking for all the world like a put-upon bloodhound. He clearly didn’t have the salary to employ Toby’s services.
“Yes, sir?” he enquired in the classic mellifluous voice all butlers should possess.
Before Toby had the chance to reply, the hostess herself appeared as if from a parallel universe and placing her talons delicately on the butler’s jacketed shoulderblades turned towards her guest with the insatiable leer of a hyena.
“That’s okay Portman,” she purred in her velvety cruel voice. “I’ll take care of our guest. Go and serve our guests what we discussed earlier.” Here she fixed him with her most knowing stare before turning it on Toby.
Toby felt a surge of excitement concealing powerful undercurrents of pride and fear as he surveyed the apparition in front of him.
Camelia was dressed in a shimmering sequined low cut gown that displayed her lithe yet Junoesque proportions to their utmost. Her hair was a fastidiously sleek blonde bob, so pale it was almost platinum. The aquamarine Medusa paraboles which masqueraded as her eyes were almond and unutterably catlike and topped with quizzical pencil thin eyebrows etched with sheer malevolence. Her nose was waspish retrousee and ended in a perfect point, whose slight redness suggested indulgences of a more illicit variety. Camelia’s mouth was full and lustrous and twitched salaciously. She wore make-up but only a discreet amount – enough to show up the contours of her cheekbones and the glazed porcelain finish of her skin. All in all she was the most terrifyingly beautiful woman most men – had they been blessed with such a vision – would have set eyes upon. Yet this Clara Bow/Marlene Dietrich hybrid wasn’t entirely of Toby’s contrivance. For Camelia hadn’t overdone the surgery. She had too many former friends who acted as visual warnings of what could go wrong if one’s insecurities were allowed the upper hand. Toby had simply taken the physical assets his wealthy patron – a modern day Lucretia Borgia to his Michaelangelo - was fortunate enough to have been born with and delicately retouched them as she had directed him, the way the Master himself might have restored his own frescos.
“Toby. Darling,” Camelia gushed and approached him extending her arms as if about to consume him. She embraced him and pecked him with sensuous efficiency on both cheeks before planting a kiss square upon his lips. She tossed her head back and held him away from her with her powerful pectorals, surveying him for a moment like a lioness would her cub. She was twenty years his senior, if not more, and in a sense he was as much her creation as she was his. She clutched at his arm. “Now the question is are you here as my escort or am I going to have to be yours.”
As they entered the lounge, Toby was assailed by a scene of bacchanalian frenzy. Everywhere figures of indeterminate sex were engaged in acts which would not have looked out of place in Caligula’s court. Mercifully though there was no blood. Everywhere men humped and ground, women writhed and lolled, both sexes pausing only to moan orgasmically or take time out to snort that ubiquitous white powder chopped up neatly on the art deco glass topped coffee tables with gold acanthus leaf encrusted legs.
Toby – although in no way a prude or moralist – felt mildly disconcerted. Even for him this was too much. Maybe his discomfort was the last death pains of a christian upbringing. Then in the midst of this writhing sea of alternatingly alabaster and bronzed stockbrokers, lawyers, actors, accountants and fashionistas (some of whom were major public figures) his eye fastened on a simultaneously thrillingly welcome and unwelcome figure sitting pristine and elegant and repelled yet somehow fascinated by the goings on around her. Camelia wasn’t slow in spotting her too.
“Poor little Greta Garbo!” she purred lasciviously. “And there she was thinking that she’d have to spend the night alone. Little did she know that her own John Gilbert would come to rescue her.” She fixed Toby with a warning glare and two slender bony fingers which she placed lightly across the bend in his forearm. “Jennifer’s not your type my dear,” she spat. “Far too nice! But then again you’re not exactly good for her either! How we crave the things which will make us ill!”
And with that she fell into the hulking torso of the 6ft 8 naked model, wearing nothing but a an American football crash helmet, whose presence Toby had only been dimly aware of. He looked on, wearing a heavy overcoat of conflicting emotions, relief and jealousy sewn into its fibres, as these two phantoms of the Sheerhaven night disappeared into an ante room.
“Pimms sir!” enquired a sonorous voice. To his astonishment Toby found himself looking down at a naked eunuch dwarf in a bodily painted collar and tie.
“Ye…es!” Toby spluttered. “Propping his glass unsteadily in one hand he made his way through the copulating couples to where the dejected object of his desires sat. His attention was so magnetised that he didn’t notice the leering Roman soldiers officiating as two naked fat men wrestled in a pool of raw liver, while people sipped their cocktails without comment. Neither did Toby notice the two shuffling white sacred cows covered in rose petals lowing in distress, nor the mysterious girl with long dark hair floating down to her waist carrying two giant crabs in a Perspex tank towards a man chained to a pillar, his genitals exposed.
She looked up at him and smiled. Without waiting for an invitation he sat on the couch beside her.
“I know it’s hardly an original chat-up line “but I’m going to ask it anyway….what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” he asked glancing around him and now catching sight of the strange goings on.
“I could ask you the same question if you were nice but of course we’d be fooling ourselves wouldn’t we?” she said in an elegantly fluted voice.
She smiled tenderly, appearing incongruously serene against the frantic backdrop, dressed in a light summery peacock pashmina and sarong. Her honey blonde hair was charmingly swept back into a ponytail behind her tiny cottonbud ears.
Toby and her looked deep into each others eyes but try as hard as they might they could find nothing in the other’s pair.
She looked away sadly and smiled with mild distaste at the scene engulfing her but the truth despite her disgust was that this ‘nice’ girl was hypnotised the lurid and decadent and degraded by it. And yet another part of her was longing for the life of a quintessential English romantic, the cottage in the Cotswolds, kids, granny and granddad popping round for Sunday dinner – she was after all an RE teacher at Roedean. Yet such yearned after fantasies – belonging to a past age – were likely to remain just that for this perverse and lonely young woman.
Duncan extended his hand towards her bare, lightly tanned arm and traced his fingers gracefully across her silky skin.
“Shall we go somewhere a little more….savoury?” he whispered.
“A splendid idea.”
And with that they rose, scrupulously avoiding the distressed cattle, the fat men writhing in the pool of liver, the cruelly laughing Roman female soldiers, the advancing woman with the crab, the couples copulating on coffee tables and against palm trees, the naked chubby little city stockbrokers snorting industrial amounts of cocaine, in search of a more salubrious and prosaic destination.
After a delicious interlude they decided to just lie there, enjoying the warmth of each other’s bodies.
She looked at him with a genuine emotion she had never felt for anyone before other than him. He looked at her and then he knew. He felt an absence of anything for a second but then two emotions filled him: pride and power. She sensed them and drew away.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me not to be so incurably romantic aren’t you?”
“Something like that.”
“Why?” she exclaimed. “Is it wrong to want something more than just a casual screw. We’ve known each other for years. We went out with one another for three! It got pretty intense at times – or maybe you’ve chosen to forget that?”
He rolled over in the sheets and raising them to his jawline looked wistfully into space. “Maybe I have….or at least I should.”
“What are you afraid of? Me? That I might enslave you somehow, trap you, tie you down. Like some spider woman?”
“What physically or in terms of commitment? I can only cope with the physical.”
“Then… that pretty much nails it,” she murmured.
She sighed and raising herself up in bed reached for a packet of Gitanes on the dresser. She proffered him one. He waved them away with a wrinkle of his nose.
“Do you want to be alone when you’re older. Do you want to be an ageing, sad playboy?” she probed.
“Who said anything about ageing?” he sneered. “You seem to forget what my profession is.”
“Have I? I think I’m pretty much reminded by your choice of profession every time I look at the faces of Camelia’s guests.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I think you’re not content. That you see through all the artifice as much as I do?”
“And all I need is a good woman to make it right?”
“I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that. But you do need sincerity in some pocket of your life. Everybody does.”
Toby turned to face her. “I’ve never been so insulted in my life! So you think I’m merely ‘everybody’?”
She tilted her head back onto her pillow and exhaled a wreath of smoke which shrouded her face like either a bridal or widow’s veil – depending on your point of view.
“Yes, in your own way you are. You’ve got a body, a soul, feelings. You just refuse to admit it.”
Toby disliked this riposte because it was the truth and if there was one thing in life guaranteed to make him, in common with most people, feel twitchy - it was that. He rose from the bed and walked towards the window. A perfect clear moonlit night had taken hold in Sheerhaven silvering everything with a spectral sheen.
“Let’s stop this philosophising and get back to what really matters.”
And with that he crawled back into bed and commenced ravishing her all over again. She did not in any way resist.
Toby was the first one to be jolted from his sleep by the sirens wailing from the seafront and when he awoke, soon after dawn, it was from a sleep both tormented and menacing: dark, tangled visions had once again penetrated his rest: an image of him in an exercise yard being thrown between an army of former patients without faces.
Jennifer – who, by contrast, had been enjoying a delicious, uneventful slumber – was jolted awake by her partner. They both ran to the window to identify the source of commotion below. It was then they noticed it. The buildings of the street in front had disappeared – encased within blocks of solid flesh coloured glistening wax. Everywhere people had poured onto the streets running aimlessly; pointing at their homes in dismay.
“What is it?” wailed Jennifer.
“My god! It’s come here also!” exclaimed Toby.
“What?” demanded Jennifer.
Toby ignored her and - still completely naked - rushed towards the TV, hoping for some clarification. He was greeted by the solemn face of a news reporter standing in some supposedly famous part of London: it was difficult to determine which. Then, as the camera panned slowly round from wax covered building to wax covered building until it alighted on what resembled an unusually tall candle reaching high into the sky
Toby now realised it was Nelson’s Column.
“Reports of the wax have come from as far north as Edinburgh and as far south as Sheerhaven.” Here the camera flicked to footage from those exalted places, including the very street Toby and Jennifer were in.
“In St Tropez, home to the rich and famous, the famous seafront has literally vanished under 20 feet of wax. In downtown Manhattan, the Empire State Building has been completely encased in the mystery substance. At this stage it is only fair to say that meteorologists, defence experts and biologists are united by one thing: they are at an utter loss over how to adequately identify what the substance is or how it got here.
Neither is it known whether these appearances are manmade or why they have occurred in the most affluent areas of the countries they have been reported in, all of which at this stage seem to be among the richest nations on Earth. One thing is certain. Initial tests show it is not alive and it is not extra terrestrial.”
Toby looked on in horror. “Fuck me! It’s everywhere!”
Jennifer screamed and gestured towards the foot of the bed. Toby rushed to her side and looked down. There at the foot of the bed the whole carpet was coated in the livid, translucent, flesh. And in contrast to the news reports it was breathing!
At that moment screams erupted from downstairs. Seizing Jennifer by her diaphanous hand, Toby attempted to open the door and rush onto the landing but the door was jammed with the substance. Wildly, like some enraged beast just captured, he wrenched at the door: eventually it opened with a mournful creak.
He looked down the staircase that seemed to spiral infinitely, down to the underworld itself. What he saw astonished him. There, pouring from every room, every chamber and making for the front door were the guests from the party, each madly jabbering and raising their cupped hands to their incredulous mouths, each dressed or undressed as outlandishly as they had been. But something had changed. None of them any longer possessed anything remotely resembling a face. Each one had been erased; melted. Each guest – most of whom he had known on a physical intimate basis (either through work or play) for years and could still identify from their bodies and clothes - was indistinguishable from the next. Not only that. In front of each and every one of them Toby noticed a gathering accumulation of wax.
Toby felt something fundamental within him crack and splinter. Then he heard another scream from the bedroom. A strange, crimson pall was slowly flooding the room. Strangely detached and somehow omniscient he floated to the stairway window. The very sea had turned to a blood red tide of wax and the sky itself was starting to fall.
Leon Brown © 2009