Freedom From Money
She passed one day and a container had landed in the space, red and ribbed metal faded by seawater and rain, marked with an assortment of weights, lengths and logos, none of which meant anything to her. Pointing in the direction of the road, two massive doors were locked shut with a silver pole running from the ground to the roof. She didn't give this a second thought, but wondered whether someone on the road might be about to carry out an extension. Two weeks later it was still there but the grass leading to the doors had been worn down. A burnt patch shone like a dark brown sun in the pale green of the grass.
A few days later Lily changed her routine, altered her walk to the public house where she worked evenings. There was something about the container that fascinated her.
She could see the queue from quite a distance, and the smell of meat in the air. Behind the gathered crowd, the door to the container was open wide enough for a small man to get through. That small man stood behind a converted oil drum, concentrating intently on turning the steaks in front of him at just the right time. The fat from the meat stained his wrists but it didn't seem to bother him. His eyes continue to focus on the sizzling meat, feeling the perfect time to serve. He flipped a steak onto a plastic tray, then a second, scooped up a creamy white spoonful from a tub on the small table next to him, and handed the plate to an outstretched hand. Then he picked up a bag of coal and placed it under the table, for it looked like it might rain. He smiled at the woman and flicked his head to the next customer, who held out a tray of cans of soft drinks. The man took them and placed them inside the container and almost had to run back to pick the steaks off the cooking surface, repeated the scoop of creamy food (was it a salad?) and passed the plate to the man.
Lily was aware that she was positioned about twelve feet away from the cook, just standing still in the middle of a town street, the occasional passing of a car and the hum from the queue combining with the spit of the meat and the clink of utensils. But she continued to watch as customers exchanged items for their meals; packs of plastic trays, bottles of salad cream, a large bottle of a vibrant green cleaning fluid, even a cheap pair of shoes. Finally a group of four women wandered along the road with a large pack of raw meat which they exchanged for their meal. Immediately the man stashed the meat in the container. As the time moved past eight, she realised she was late for her shift but so engrossed was she in what she saw ahead of her she could not move. She had to watch.
Finally, the queue was gone, the grill was empty, and the young man was taking the cooking equipment to pieces, carefully cleaning each component, wrapping unused food, sealing bags, placing some in an icebox and others in a large canvas bag. The smell of the cooking meat still hung in the air. She walked forwards.
Lily wasn't the type of person to make mistakes, and when she spoke it was calculated and friendly. 'Have you finished for the night?'
'Yes' replied the man in an accent that Lily could not place.
'Have you done good business tonight?' She slowed her speech in case the man did not speak English well.
'Yes, it has been very good. I have enough for tomorrow.' He smiled broadly, happy with his evening's work. Perhaps happy with his life.
'Do you always cook the same meat?' she asked, looking for a sign as to whether the question was sensible.
'It's what I used to cook at home,' he replied. 'Lamb. I have a good supplier.'
Lily thought back to the women who had brought the raw meat to him. She wondered how he had found them. How had he started?
'Do you like this area?' she asked casually, hoping the man might volunteer more information.
'I don't know the area,' he replied, laughing slightly. 'I know I am in England. But I don't know anything about this town.'
'Don't you go out?' asked Lily.
'No, I never leave this place.'
'I left it when I first came here, to buy meat. I brought everything else. On the ship. It was a huge ship. I could get out and walk around the ship. The sea was so big. The sky went on forever. I did not get seasick, although it was a very long voyage. I wanted to come to England. Here I am. I am in England.'
'But you never leave this place?' and Lily clearly indicated that she meant the small fenced area and the container contained within it.
'No, I never leave this place. I am happy in England.'
By the time I reach the park it is early afternoon. The sun, high in the sky now, pours across my shoulders, down the ridge of my nose; it drips through the trees, rolling off the pointed ends of their leaves. My shadow crouches, shrunken, by my feet, clinging to my legs like an embarrassed child, afraid to be splashed by the light. She crawls along the path below me as I approach my usual bench and sit, squashing her out. Sat now, I take a closer look at the disk in my hand. I had pressed it so firmly into my palm as I was walking that it left a little circular mark. I bring the coin close to my face, examining its dull golden colour and the script embossed in an arch across it in thick, demanding letters. The edge is ridged; it feels satisfying to the tip of my finger which traces it the whole way round. Facing upwards is a lady’s profile, scratched into the silver centre. I say lady, though she is a woman, and quite old, with tight wrinkles at the corner of the eye that peers out and the thin lips that give way to her plump, round cheeks. She is no doubt a lady, nonetheless, her posture straight and rigid. I wonder where she was a lady of, how it was that her face became plastered on this coin. I straighten myself to match her, suddenly aware of my slouch. She doesn’t notice though, her stern gaze passes me by, fixed on something to my left of evidently far greater concern. I turn her over. On the other side is a man, wearing a tall hat and a sombre expression. Was everyone in those days so miserable, so stern? I don’t remember being, though they insist we were. My memories are more like pictures, still shots of scenes, people. It is hard to compare a feeling gone with the feeling that takes its place though, so maybe they’re right, maybe we are happier now. I flip the coin. The man’s face is replaced by the lady’s, then she disappears and morphs into him, before he becomes her again. They take turns like this until the coin lands back in my palm. I cover it quickly and guess which face will be on top. I am right, it was the man’s. His face, the coin’s face. Faces on faces, four in total, five if you count mine. That was something they didn’t like about the old time, all of the faces. They said we were corrupted. Faces of makeup, such a focus on appearance, but everyone was. Two-faced we’d say when someone betrayed us, spoke about us behind our backs. But we were all the same in this duplicity. I look back at the coin, now at the woman’s face. She will have been duplicated too, there will have been millions of people with her face zipped away in their bags, or tucked in their pockets: another face to use. Above her head is a curve of numbers, like a halo, a wreath of wealth. A 1 stands there proudly next to three zeros, three ‘oh’s. Oh, I had said in surprise, as my fingers brushed against the coin at the end of the drawer earlier in the day as I was reaching back for a pair of socks. It is still fairly common to find coins around, though there is no use for them anymore. Most people toss them away though there are some collectors, who will exchange things in return for a trinket to add to their collection. This one is so common though, there is no point taking it to one of them. It is not completely useless though: it still brings me delight to find coins like this, or a bank note, scrunched up in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans. There is nothing to do with them, but examine them. And I like to examine them, these coins and notes. They really are notes, little pieces of paper, with scrawls all over them, a message from another time. Little, worthless souvenirs.
I close my eyes and tilt my head back to face the sun, feel it warming my skin. My eyelids are pinkish, then a deeper red, bright. Yellow sun spots speckle them. I try to focus on these spots, these freckles, but every time I do they jump to the side; I am never able to catch up. As I concentrate they fade to green, first mossy then more blue. Most are not perfectly round, and many are clumped together; they appear like waterlilies on a shallow pond. The pond. Across the pond we would say. America. I had never been, but I watched their movies, saw their shows on the TV until they were cut off. The americans were the worst they said, so bound up in their materialism, slaves to their lust for money. The tiny figures inside my television seemed content to me, as did their audiences, who I rarely saw but sensed were there, out of frame somewhere, by the sound of their laughter. We were being freed, we were told, as the government seized our money, drained our bank accounts. They would trade on our behalf, so that we could focus on regaining an honest life, so that we could see what really mattered. We were free from money. This freedom isn’t as easy as they said it would be. It’s hard not to miss the things we used to have, simple things even, chewing gum. Now we trade in favours, and the meagre rest is provided for us. I re-open my eyes, and look down again at the coin in my hand. Getting up finally I walk towards the fountain at the centre of the grass rectangle. Jets of water shoot up, out of its core, falling continuously in bubbling streams. You used to throw coins into fountains like this, make a wish as they sunk. The blue tiled bottom before me is empty however, someone has stripped it bare. They should know that that’s unlucky. I take my coin, and get ready to throw it, preparing my silent wish. What, it occurs to me, should I wish for? My family are healthy, we are all safe, at least so it seems. With everything else stripped away, what else is there that I really want? I have everything, I believe, as I am told to believe. Yet there is something gone, not an object but a feeling, a sense, of the time before. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but there is something missing, I feel its hole beneath everything else, I feel its loss. It’s not just money that they took from us, it is our power. They said they were freeing us from money, from our money, but that our is important. Money was a freedom, when it was ours. We had the ability to choose, who or what we wanted to spend it on, where we wanted to go and how we could use it to take us there. When they freed us from money, they took away that freedom.
My girlfriend Trudy thought it would be tremendously funny if she bought one of those old cathode ray tube televisions off Ebay. The ones that are nearly square. And that was fine, as a stop-gap, but it wasn’t long before we noticed something wrong with it. It was broadcasting things slightly out of sync. This happened back in the tenties, before the last of the analogue TV transmitters was switched off, but we’d get transmissions from years before. We’d turn on the box and a newsreader would say, “Good evening, the headlines at six o’clock. Two homosexuals were spotted in Banbury, Oxfordshire today. Police beat them up and arrested them.” We’d change channel and Jimmy Savile would be assaulting a teenager live on Top of the Pops. We’d kick the TV and sometimes that would work but more often than not, rather than showing us broadcasts from our past or present it would show us our future.
A weather girl would be telling us it was going to be 32 degrees in Scotland in April, but not just that, she was an ample and curvly size 18. Or we’d see a holiday programme with men on the beach wearing ball-kinis, strange swimming trunks with holes in the lower-groin area.
I suppose someone really should have taken it to a repair shop, but money was tight, so we just put up with it. After a while it seemed not to matter that the news was out of date. One terrorist attack or breakdown in peace talks was similar to another, whatever decade it was happening in.
Then one day things really took an unusual turn. Trudy was chewing some gum and making a daisy chain when she looked up at the screen suspiciously.
“That is some haircut.”
“Ah yes,” I said, confidently. “Probably from the 1990s.”
“No, I think you’ll find it’s 1990s.”
“What does it say in the TV guide?”
I was about to answer when I noticed a large comet streak through the sky behind the news reporter. It was hard to say how far away it was, but there was an explosion, a mad panic and within seconds the transmission was lost.
“I think that was mankind getting wiped out, live on television,” I said, offering Trudy some of my cheese and onion. “Thankfully it’s not ‘live’ live.”
“What channel is this?” Trudy asked, pressing the sixth and last button.
“That just takes you back to BBC 1,” I said. But there was only static.
“Shall I whack it?” Trudy asked.
Trudy smacked the television.
Sure enough, it tuned back in, this time to something fairly contemporary, albeit several hours ahead of schedule. We caught the tail end of Match of The Day. Southampton had beaten Manchester United 1-0 and we saw the goal scored by their new signing in extra time.
“Well done Trudy. Looks like it’s on time. Well, near enough.”
We switched off and on again to test it. It was showing a black and white wildlife documentary. Trudy thumped it again and the transmission jumped back to the sports round up.
“Hey, this hasn’t happened yet, has it?” Trudy said. “Supposing we put a bet on Southampton. It should win, right?”
“That would be against my principles. Can you do it?” I replied.
We went to the local betting shop, heaving seven carriers of spare coppers into a room smelling of disappointment and screwed up betting slips. I’m sure the teller would have okayed the transaction, but the manager tapped him on the shoulder.
“Let me have a go, Wayne?” he said, like an older brother showing his sibling how to jump over a puddle on his BMX.
“Hello, I’m Mark.”
“Hello, I’m Trudy and this is trouble.”
Mark raised his eyebrows. “Come to my office for a sec?”
We were shown to an office some might call a broom cupboard.
“I see you want to place a bet.”
“That’s right. Is there a problem?” Trudy said, slightly anxious. Mark smiled, non-committal.
“It’s always amusing seeing punters liven things up a bit by paying for bets in loose change-and in fairness many find themselves reduced to such extremities- but when there’s that much shrapnel it does cramp our style a bit.”
“Sorry, we just thought we’d bet some money we found around the house. Won’t happen again.”
Mark looked at his watch and frowned. “This is more than than my job’s worth...Alright, just this once, okay? By the way. Have you seen our offer in the window? 10-1 on Man City and Liverpool winning by 2 goals.”
“Well, actually we need odds for something specific. Agoala to score with a header in the last minute of extra time, with an assist from James Dribbly, who volleys a corner kick, and Saints to win 1-0.”
Looking askance at us, Mark emptied his drink into a plant pot.
“At Old Trafford?”
I nodded, Mark blew out a stagey breath of I-wouldn’t-chance-it-if-I-were-you.
“I need to ring my boss.” Mark’s colleague walked by, a smirk spreading across his face like a snake chasing a mouse. Mark made the call, put the receiver down, nodded.
“So what’s your favourite style of South American dance?” Trudy asked. There was a copy of The Rough Guide to Latin Dance on Mark’s desk, and a half-eaten digestive.
“That’s like choosing between children.”
Anyway we got our odds, a rather stingy 10,000-1. But in fairness, it took an hour to count the money. We were just in time to place our bet before the match. Someone approached as we were doing the necessaries. A man in shades and suit, carrying a white stick.
“How about hedging your bets? 1000-1 on Agoala scoring, or 1000-1 on your goalkeeper to score at anytime? Score 1-0 to Southampton,” the stranger suggested. Mark kept his poker-faced counsel.
“You just never know,” said the man, tapping his nose. Always best to hedge your bets.”
“Er, yeah. Go on then, who’s counting,” I said, flustered because the match was starting.
“You won’t regret it.”
Trudy elbowed me afterwards. “You’ve just lost us thousands.”
“I’m sorry, I’d no time to think. He just sprung it on me, that man,” I replied.
“Well, at least it looks less suspicious.”
Then we went and killed time in Smiths and the library. In the country’s favourite newsagent all was unique yet normal. A man took a sneaky snap of a picture in Shotgun Magazine with his smartphone. A phone rang on its default ringtone. A pensioner bought a scratchcard and complained that he never won anything anyway. Trudy and I wandered around surmising what we’d do with our winnings.
“What are you spending yours on?”
“I’d like to have a plaster-cast of my vulva made and have it mass-produced as a sex toy.”
“My vulva. Your ears need cleaning out.”
“Well you do have a Volvo.”
“Well I’d like to open a Jeremy Clarkson museum. This town is crying out for one.”
“Good idea. Which Jeremy? Not the television presenter, I hope.”
Back at the betting shop Mark looked liked he’d seen a ghost.
“So. Did we win?”
“Did you win? Don’t tell me you haven’t been watching.”
“Our television’s playing up and it gets a bit lively in the Fox and Hounds.”
“You won alright. My office?”
We followed him to his closet.
“We can’t give you the money here. Meet us in the car park round the back of Frankie’s Nightclub?”
“It’s fine, trust me.”
So we went to the car park. It was quite stony, with plenty of room. Our cane carrying tipster from earlier was there with Mark. Strangely, he was holding a baby. We walked to the centre of the car park, looking around nervously.
“I’m Terry. Can you wait a minute.”
Terry looked at his watch and was silent so we had a quiet word with Mark.
“You must be pissed with us,” I said.
“No, I’m pleased for you. Not pleased for myself, though. I’ve lost my job. No idea what I’ll do now.”
“Don’t worry, Mark,” Trudy said. “This could be a new beginning. There you were in some dismal town trying to earn enough to pay your ex maintenance cheques when you could have been dancing merengue in some seedy South American bar, running your hands over the ample body of some sexy conchita,” she supposed.
“I know where I’d rather be,” I added, tapping my nose.
The moment a woman pulled up in a hatchback with a skid. She took a briefcase out the back and handed it to Terry, who gave her the baby. Then Terry gave us the briefcase.
“Scram,” he said to us. We cleared off.
“What do you want for dinner?,” I asked, my voice fighting the sound of police sirens.
We stopped off at Burger King and went home and had a TV dinner. Jimmy Savile was on again. The wonderful harmonic shifts of the theme tune giving one the sense that all was right in 1980s Britain.
The television was really playing up now. A late 80s programme about HIV somehow blended with a 1990s show discussing different music formats.
“Heterosexuals listen to compact discs, whereas gay men and lesbians listen to records,” a woman with a large perm and red lipstick advised.
“What about bisexuals?” her male co-presenter asked, in received pronunciation.
“Research shows that bisexuals listen to minidisc,” she replied, with a faint touch of East Midlands.
“Digital compact cassette. But remember,” she said, turning to the camera and assuming a serious countenance. “Whatever format you listen to, AIDS is a danger to us all.”
Then I turned on Points of View. It was a Czech pay-per-view teaser, showing a model doing a softcore striptease. But as the woman slowly divested herself of clothes she read out letters from disgruntled television viewers in a Slovak accent. Some were complaining about the Aids programme. It was on too early. It was inappropriate. It ignored sapiosexuals.
I switched to something political.
“This is a historic day that wouldn’t have happened had we not had cross-party support for at least one MP with Down’s Syndrome. I think we have that support because, let’s face it, they’re nicer than people with only one 21st chromosome. Also, 1 in 600 babies has Down’s Syndrome and there are 600 MPs,” a woman on a sofa said. Then someone rang the doorbell.
It was Terry. “Mind if we have a look round?” he asked.
It’s a surreal fact of life that even when a gun is being pointed at you you notice things like what’s on television. It was one of those budget early 80s adverts in which a 45 year old man in a brown suit stood in front of a car hectoring the viewer.
“Three years anti-corrosion, three years break down recovery and a five speed gearbox. You won’t find a better deal,” he said. Then he opened the boot, which was full of cocaine. “And that’s a promise.”
“The Austen Allegro Party. Talk to your dealer about a test drive,” went the voice-over.
The woman came back downstairs. “Got it. It was under the mattress.”
“And I want the Ipod and the hair curlers.”
“What about the television?”
“Are we free to go?” Trudy asked. The man smiled.
“When someone unties you, yeah. You’re free to go. And free from all this lovely money.”
Our friends disappeared, I changed back to striptease Points of View with my chin.
“I’d like to apologize on behalf of the BBC. Sapiosexuals listen to cassettes,” the dancer said, one breast al fresco. And if anybody’s interested, those bi-curious listen to digital audio tape. And non-binary are rather partial to streaming services. Don’t have nightmares,” she said, and winked. Then a man came on wearing a ball-kini, and showed us his balls. Trudy tutted. “What about asexuals?”
“8-track, I would think.”