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The Fiction Issue 2010

Master WLTM Slave

Andy is the landlord of a pub. It’s a young people’s place, and if I’m with him, those who recognise him look at me respectfully, but if I’m in there by myself, I feel as inconspicuous as an old man in a school uniform.
Κείμενο Matthias Connor

ndy is the landlord of a pub. It’s a young people’s place, and if I’m with him, those who recognise him look at me respectfully, but if I’m in there by myself, I feel as inconspicuous as an old man in a school uniform. It’s the sort of pub that, while employing the façade of a normal boozer, everybody in there is under the age of 25. I’m alright if I’m with Andy, because they recognise him as being the landlord, and therefore I must be his mate. I’ve been telling him over lunch in the pub about my idea for a night there. He listens attentively but seems unconvinced by my enthusiasm. “A night out for manic depressives?” he asks. “Who’d go to that?” “Other manic depressives,” I say. “What kind of music will you play?” “Really, really depressing music.” “But there have already been clubs that have played only sad songs, remember? There was that one in Scotland, read about it in The Face once. What was it called again?” “Club Misery,” I say, my voice rising in frustration, knowing where this was heading. I was being talked out of it and I had to fight back. “It was called Club Misery, but you knew they weren’t really miserable. They were having a good time, getting rave reviews in style magazines. I bet they even had groupies! How depressed could they have been, tell me? Listen, I’m really depressed and I want this club to be really depressing too, for other people who are also really depressed, so we can all be really depressed together. People who pretend to be depressed because they think it’s cool to look tortured only make those who are depressed even more depressed about their situation. You only have to open a copy of any magazine these days to read about how the latest member of the in-crowd photographed who, week in week out, is having the best time of his or her life, is actually suffering from depression. I bet they bloody are! They’re the same as top-ten pop stars wanting indie credibility. How do you think that makes someone who is actually depressed feel? That someone, having that good a time with their whole life in front of them, is also ‘depressed’ like me? I tell you it is this shallowness, this lack of sincerity in what people do, how no one genuinely believes in anything these days, apart from looking cool, which is what makes people like myself depressed. I’m a sensitive guy, you know? Being depressed is all that some people have left to call their own.” I knew he had given up. He had a wife and children as well as the pub to run. I was one of those old friends from his past that he’d been able to shake after he’d straightened himself out. “I tell you what, I’ll give you three weeks,” he conceded in defeat, “but it’s got to be a Tuesday and do you think you’ll be ready in three weeks’ time?” “Perfect,” I said, remembering the phrase “Terrible Tuesdays”, and what Tuesday, not Monday, feels like when you’ve been up all weekend. “By the way,” he said, “have you got a name that you want to call it yet?” “Depressed Beyond Tablets,” I told him. “Half Man Half Biscuit,” he acknowledged in recognition of our ages. As a 14-year-old, if you had told me that I would be pretty much the same now as I was all those years ago, but with more records, I would have high-fived the future and exclaimed, “Way to go duuuuuuuuuude!” There was a poster advertising Black Flag’s seminal album My War looking down at me when I woke each morning, a can of Stella always within reach, the new Richard Kern book open on my bedside table, more cool sneakers than sensible shoes, a spliff smouldering in the ashtray, bookshelves crammed with books, and a choice of skateboard shapes leaning against my wall. I had recently reached the conclusion that if I had the courage to take my life into my own hands and end it like I often fantasised about doing, I would also have the courage needed to embrace living life from day to day. Unable to do either, this growing awareness had left me helpless and finally depressed. A week before meeting Andy for lunch I had been to see my doctor. “Well,” he began, after listening to my complaints, “I would recommend first of all that you begin by addressing a few of these issues before we decide if we are to put you on any further medication.” “Further medication?” I said, somewhat confused—after all, I had come here because I had run out of my old medication, not because I was seeking further medication. “Further medication—what do you mean?” “Further medication than the alternative course of medication that you’ve already been prescribing yourself for this long already. It’s obviously not working, otherwise you wouldn’t be back here again, complaining about how you feel depressed. Drinking to excess, smoking, little or no exercise, a poor diet, the use of recreational drugs without due consideration for their long-term effects, no current meaningful relationships to speak of. Tell me,” he paused to consult his papers again, “do you masturbate?” I admitted, somewhat sheepishly, I had little choice but sometimes, yes, for relief. He concluded by asking me next to try to cut back on my drinking and smoking, to exercise more frequently, improve my diet, and then see how I feel, before returning in six weeks. He didn’t mention masturbation again. Maybe I would be in a steady relationship by then, I could hear him thinking sarcastically. I had been a DJ at Andy’s pub before, hand-picking gems from my original vinyl collection to cue up on the decks. Since the advent of the iPod I’ve struggled to keep up with people half my age who’ve downloaded in a single afternoon records I spent years looking for. “They just want to dance, get off their head and have a good time—don’t take it personally,” Andy had said to comfort me when I turned up to find I’d been replaced by a skinny streak of a girl with a Bay City Rollers feather cut who might as well have stepped from one of the Richard Kern books on my bedside table. “You didn’t enjoy it much anyway, did you?” It was true, the lack of appreciation for what I was playing depressed me. I’d play the mighty Verve from Wigan and they’d ask me if I had any Horrors. I wanted to tell these people that I’d once been in my twenties like them, that I had believed I was indestructible, but nothing had prepared me for feeling like this. Just like them, I once believed that I could fly, that I was going to write a great novel and have conversations with angels, but then, a few years ago, in my thirties, I had to settle for being the author of an unpublished unauthorised Verve biography instead. Sometimes I pictured the book sitting unattended, half price, in the music section in my local branch of Cheap Books Inc. It wasn’t how I imagined my novel would look when I had first begun writing it. Instead its floppy, lifeless, textbook form resembled the sort of book about caring for goldfish that you’d find in a pet shop. Andy suggested a Facebook page, but I didn’t have one. Facebook was one more phenomenon that I blamed for my feeling disconnected from the world. How could anyone have 300 friends? Thinking that I was missing out, I had once tried to join, but two weeks later my life was exactly the same as it had been before. In frustration, hoping that the few friends I had would notice my absence, I deleted my profile, except, as I was to find out one day, it was impossible to do this, which would make me feel as if my identity had been stolen by my computer. I now knew I shouldn’t have joined, but the impulse to be as happy as others appeared to overcome me. But now I knew it was a sham, and that’s why I told Andy I wasn’t on Facebook. Never mind, he said, we could still advertise the night in the toilets. The flyer was a photographic depiction of Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I already knew that its author’s tragic end and the story’s maudlin sentiments would appeal to certain people more than others. I would leave them wherever I had noticed others like myself in the past. Spending too long in bookshops, on Craigslist, in libraries, wandering aimlessly in parks. On Sunday evening, among the meals for one and the wine in the Tesco Express. Wherever I went I saw others like me. They were the lonely, the ill-fitting, the anxious, the depressed, the slightly neurotic, the invisible; they seemed to be wherever I went. Singing too loudly to themselves as they went about their business, twitching, itching, biting their nails to the quick, checking their mobiles one too many times, cracking their knuckles behind me in the matinée at the local cinema. After all, I was one of them, but until now I always sought to avoid them because they reminded me of myself. I wasn’t sure if the regulars would get it. After all, they were young and they brushed failure aside like crumbs off their jeans, whereas I felt as if I was plastered with failure. They smoked because they had their whole lives in front of them, so they could spare a few years, whereas every time I lit up I felt like I was living on borrowed time, and those younger than me appeared to view me as someone who by now should care, but didn’t. Someone like me, as far as they were concerned, was a bit of a loser. The problem was, I wanted to tell them when I imagined having this conversation, was not that I didn’t care, but that I cared too much. The first week wasn’t so bad if you counted the bar staff as also being there. Andy brought me over a pint. His wife tried to force a smile. They had got the babysitters in because, as Andy had told his wife, even though I wasn’t invited to their house for dinner, we still went back a long way. I was sat behind the decks. I had also brought a bottle of gin, which was stashed with my records because I was fearful that, even if I got free drinks, they wouldn’t be enough. The bottle remained hidden as Andy spoke to me. He looked at his watch. There was little chance of it filling up now that the pubs had been closed for over an hour. “What’s this you’re playing now? I explained that it was “Tonight I Am King” by Blue Eyed Soul, an alias of the 60s songwriter Billy Vera. “When a place is empty, it has a real quality that I think cuts straight to the heart of what it means to be alone. It’s about someone who, as long at they are out there on the dancefloor, feels like a king.” The three of us looked out at the empty room before I broke away to line up the next record. “‘Dancing Queen’?” asked Andy. “Imagine if you’re a ballet dancer and you’ve recently lost one of your legs in a car accident,” I said. “Just imagine…” said Andy as he stared out at the handful of figures in the bar. “Has anybody tried to dance?” “I caught one fellow nodding in recognition of a song earlier.” “What did you do?” “I told him to stop or he’d be forced to leave.” Andy raised his eyebrows. The second week the night was busier, but when, after a few hours, people began to wobble in time to the music, I became distracted. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. In retaliation I played Whitehouse at half-speed. A Smiths fan cowered in the corner, as if he had been audibly impaled. When I tried to turn it up, the bar manager asked me what the hell was I doing. I asked him if he was the landlord, and he gave me a look that said he thought very little of me. He knew that the only reason I was there was because I was a friend of Andy. In one corner sat a man in an Eminem t-shirt, wearing a pair of chunky headphones. The sight of him nursing his pint pleased me. As did the sight of the guy sat on his own, who, judging by his dress, had been expecting me to play more country. I lined up the next record and watched him flinch: “Waiting For a Girl Like You” by Foreigner. After that it was to be “Little James”, Liam Gallagher’s first songwriting contribution to Oasis, a tribute to his stepson James, Patsy Kensit’s child with former husband Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. Increasingly I found myself having to reprimand those trying to dance. It wasn’t that sort of place, I explained, and while the hapless dancer might claim that he was dancing for joy because finally, after all these years, he had found a club that would have him as a member, I told him to consider the plight of the others in here. I wanted him to understand that a room full of people all having a good time would soon attract the attention of all those who regard being happy as something that should be taken for granted. And if that became the case, we’d soon be back where we started. Covering what otherwise might have been the dancefloor in tyres was a precautionary measure, but it worked. Now, if anybody tried to dance, especially if they’d had a couple of drinks, they’d risk injury. Three weeks later, the bar was packed, and the centre of the room was a large grid of tyres, each one occupied by a different person trying not to lose their balance. Sometimes I played an uptempo Smiths song just to agitate the more excited of them and watched, bemused, as they fell over each other. Bouncers not normally employed on Tuesday nights were, by now, operating a one in, one out door policy. Outside, the queue stretched down the road. Inside the mood was still sombre, but it also contained a warmth, because all those gathered knew that, as alone as they might feel on a Tuesday, they would now be less so. Requests weren’t welcome, nor were complaints. While couples weren’t welcome, I needed to make it clear that it wasn’t a singles night either. From my position behind the decks, observing the room, I could reprimand anybody I viewed as enjoying themselves too much. People arrived as soon as we opened our doors to take up their position in the tyres, as if standing there was the equivalent, in other, happier clubs, of standing on stage for those who wanted to pose and preen. There was a core of people who’d been coming since the beginning, and, since it had moved to Saturday from Tuesday, had been disappointed with the way the club had been going. One night they cornered me. In this group was the author of the unauthorised Oasis biography (a biography that had been authorised before he was ceremoniously evicted from the band’s inner circle), the guy who’d originally come thinking we’d play more country, the guy who would sit there with his headphones on, and a gothic-looking middle-aged lady from the Balkans with tears tattooed on her face and a taste for Blink-182 and Crazy Town. On her wrist she had a serrated line tattooed with the inscription “Cut Here”. It’s just not as depressing as it used to be, they complained. The night had become a victim of its own success, and I knew that many of the people frequenting it now were also the people that would desert it tomorrow when it was no longer cool. “So what’s the problem?” I asked, by now sick of their moaning about how it wasn’t as miserable as it used to be. If it wasn’t as depressing as it used to be, I suspected that was because I wasn’t as depressed as I had been, but I couldn’t admit this without looking like a fraud. But in running the night I had found a purpose, and I wasn’t about to give it up just like that. I had met a girl, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter. I’d even given up smoking. Recently there had been talk of a clothing line, a compilation album, and a tour of northern satellite towns. Was I meant to throw all this away just because a couple of regulars claimed it wasn’t as depressing as it used to be? I accused them of not being as depressed as they claimed to be, but, one by one, they were adamant they were even more depressed in the wake of the night’s continued success. It was a terrible scene. Someone climbed onto the roof and flung themselves into the street below. True, I had opened the fire escape because it had been so hot that night, but I didn’t push her. And yes, I had been playing the new Pink single, but, as I explained to the investigating officers, none of this had been calculated. After being advised by my lawyer, I admitted that the night was just a bit of a laugh, that we weren’t really advocating depression. They accepted this, but it was harder to convince the tabloid reporters doorstepping my house who’d labelled me “Britain’s vilest man”. “I didn’t push her!” I raged at them as I made my way up my garden path with my new girlfriend, her pale face obscured by a pair of vintage Chanel sunglasses, both of us weighed down by armfuls of yellow Selfridges bags. It was to be the club’s one-year anniversary, and I had organised a coach trip. Tickets were available on a first come, first served basis. We were going to Blackpool. The trip had been advertised as the most depressing day trip you’ll ever have the misfortune of taking, and I intended to keep my promise. That week I had already had my portrait taken by celebrity fashion photographer Richard Terry, propped up in bed in a psychiatric unit, surrounded by grinning patients, below the headline, “The man who made depression cool (again)”. It was the Monday morning after the clocks had gone back. I’d already warned those boarding the bus that there would be no toilet stops, and the journey was scheduled to take seven hours. Those coming brought sandwiches for the journey, and dinner was to take place in a Wetherspoons overlooking the frozen beach, before we made the slow journey home again. Somewhere near Birmingham we took a wrong turning and soon we were an hour behind. The cries for a toilet stop were relentless. I asked Phil the bus driver, a heavy-set Geordie with fading prison tattoos, to turn up the music, the Verve’s greatest hits, to drown them out. Looking behind me to catch sight of those on the trip, I realised just how much being surrounded by such a depressing collection of people all the time had been getting on my nerves. Their gravitation towards failure was infectious, and, for the first time, I understood why those who have tasted even a bit of success might want to surround themselves with others like them, to remind them of who they are. It was the reason I had spent my years avoiding people I viewed as similar to myself, before I had the idea for a night. Sometimes I just wanted to grab them by their shoulders and shake them until they woke from their stupor. By now there were pathetic boos of derision, but I told the bus driver to press on. I’ll give them depressing: wait till we get to Blackpool on an overcast afternoon in November. They’ll be begging me to take them back to Hackney without stopping. I had already entertained the idea with Phil of accidentally leaving one of the vulnerable ones behind to see how they’d fare. By now I could feel an arm tugging weakly at my Opening Ceremony sleeve. I pulled away with the force one uses to brush off a fly. But then I felt the same hand grabbing at my arm again. This time I turned to face the agitator. It was Emily, a poet with a chronic stoop and an intolerable lisp. “You have to stop the bus,” she begged. “I can’t stand it any longer, I’m going to…” I couldn’t bear it any longer either, surrounded by these people. It had been a year since the night had begun and I snapped: “Piss yourself!” It was the wrong thing to say, and I could tell by the way her expression recoiled that, this time, I had gone too far. But instead of feeling sorry for her, I felt a shiver of delight watching her trying to regain her composure as she stood there shaking. She spoke again, her voice by now a quivering wreck. “You’re not depressed, you never were, I know what you are,” she said. And standing there, looking down at her, I was suddenly all ears for what she had to say. By now I knew I wasn’t depressed, but I wasn’t sure what I was either, and it was this not knowing that caused my discomfort. By now I realised that depression was a blanket term for all manner of ailments I’d been hiding behind for years. Recently I had reached the conclusion that, if these people were depressed, then I wasn’t. Was I going to let this poetry student tell me what I was? I had nothing to lose, so I let her. She let loose: “You’re a fucking sadist!” As I stood there on the coach, looking down at her, I appeared nonplussed by what she’d called me, but in the nights that followed, when I lay in bed, I couldn’t stop needling myself that maybe that’s what I was. I looked back at the history of the club and the pleasure I had gained from running it. If I was a sadist, there had to be an easier way for someone like me to get his kicks then running a weekly night in a pub in Hackney. .