Last January, I spent three nights working at a well-known, up-market department store on Regents Street (Liberty, obviously) sticking new labels to all their products in preparation for the rise in VAT. I was therefore one of the first people in the country to feel the financial benefit of the tax hike. Anyway, I sent the following message to a friend while I was working there, and I just came across it again. It tickled me, and I hope it might tickle you too.

I was waiting till the madness took hold; after 7 hours of sticking labels to confectionery I think I’m there.

It’s a bit like being in a prison; but a nice prison, like the Shawshank Redemption but with less anal interference and more sweets and soft furnishings. If Willy Wonka and Laura Ashley got together and ran a prison, this would be it. And we are the wool hatted Oompa-Lumpa’s, but taller. The security guards watch us the whole time, lest we should attempt to smuggle out a box of Mint Thins in our socks; and they escort us to the toilets and the break room so that we don’t attempt to steal a jumper, or a lampshade.

After this long peeling and sticking, your brain starts to come unstuck. You start hearing things: there can’t really be a chocolate bar called Lavender Rapist can there? Maybe there can. You start thinking that seconds are actually stickers, and that if you stop sticking then time will stop ticking so you stop for a bit just to see, but time keeps going because stickers aren’t seconds, that was just in your wake-addled mind.

I hope it will end like the scene in Shawshank with all us men on the roof, watching the dawn break over London as we sit back and enjoy a box of Champagne Truffles kindly allowed us by the guards; but I know it will end with a bus journey home and, quite possibly, with me falling asleep and ending up in North Finchley, which is not a scene from any film I know, but is a scene I have played before, one too many times.

Until tomorrow, when I shall be reporting from the beauty department, this is Neil signing off.

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Lofts

January 10, 2011

There is this smell that I just discovered, or maybe just rediscovered, or maybe just realised I’d forgotten, which comes from the cardboard sleeve of an old album you bought in a charity shop; and it’s the same smell I remember from my father’s old Subbuteo collection we used to play with in the loft of our house. To smell it properly, you have to stick your nose into the sleeve and inhale. It’s cardboard, slightly damp and musty from all the boxes and lofts it’s been kept in down the years, but it’s also alive: alive with the excitement of all the hands that have ever touched it, and pulled the vinyl from it and turned it over and over to marvel at the images and words that grace both sides. It’s the smell of the past, reborn and waiting to be found again; it’s the smell of a memory that you thought you’d lost, or whose significance you’d underestimated; it’s a smell that reminds me of being at home, in the loft – not now, but as a child. And I found it just now by accident, and I realised it had never left me at all; I had simply lost track of it somewhere in the midst of all these new sensations. And to find it again made me thankful and hopeful all at once; to know that it was still there, and that it would always be there, it just made me smile.

Stare

November 19, 2010

I look at her and I see…I just…see everything. All of it. I hear every moment of the most fleeting conversation; I feel the faintest pressure from the lightest of touches; and I see a past that I’m sure once was, but which I know never existed. I see every strand of hair falling in and out of place. I see her teeth, and I see the tiny bit of food stuck in her teeth. I see her hands, which she tells me are not model’s hands, but all I see are beautiful, perfect, untouchable hands; hands that I wish would just reach out for me. I see her legs, which I’d hoped to see – because I think she has beautiful legs – but which she usually keeps covered. And I see her stroke them absent-mindedly, and I see that my mind is missing too, for all I can see now is her face, and I can see what she’s thinking but not what she’s saying and all I am really aware of is a desire; a desire to tear her carefully, ever-so carefully, from this world and paste her into a scrap-book land, where everything combines in a perfect collage, madness as it truly should be. A land where I see her every day, and see her smile and keep it just for me, and see her never grow old and see the photographs we’ve not taken and all the places we’re going and the lights and the stars and the whole world aligned for us and us alone. Alone. Alone is the one thing we are not. Tonight we are not alone. For he is here. And my gaze is paralysed. And the memories I had imagined become dry and slip from between the pages, lost.

Tube

November 19, 2010

They kissed. On the cheek but with lips a little too close, and she stood up, waiting at the door. And as the train slowed he watched her, taking in all he could. A final farewell, a keep-in-touch and a see-you-soon and she was gone. As the train pulled away he pulled his headphones from his pocket, held them in his hands, and as she faded he waited; allowed himself a final moment of floating in her wake, letting her echo gently rock him for a few more seconds before lifting the music to his ears and letting it carry him off, down the dark and tunnelled tracks.

Sometimes it takes forever. Sometimes it was never even there. And sometimes it was right in front of you the whole time.

Tonight, in the midst of this utterly charmless company, amongst these girls who talk and talk without ever visibly admitting breath and these men who will never, not in a million years, be wrong in their own minds, amongst this swirl, this hurricane of nonsense, in the centre of all this was you: fair Lady of restraint. I could see it on your face, not etched there, just perched effortlessly, the patience with which you listened without judgement but with just the slightest frustration shaded in the faint crease between your eyebrows because you are better than this, better than them, but far too good to ever let that show. And I was with you, sitting with you in the stillness. And as I watched you, the strangest thing happened. You grew old. Or rather, I started to see you as old – I saw you as an old woman, right before my eyes. But it didn’t seem strange. It fitted. The age suited you, or maybe you suited the age. Then you seemed young, you seemed to me a child. You were at once young and old and every age in between and you were perfect. I saw you in a hundred ages through a hundred thousand years and in every one you were beautiful. Eternal. And you will achieve great things, then you will ascend greatness and leave it far behind you on your journey to forever, but to me you will always be that moment. The moment that I felt the past at my back and the future before me and the world perfectly poised between the two. The moment it all made sense. The moment you grew old and I knew.

Wrote this a few years ago, and I assume I was reading the Red Riding quartet at the time.

On the train. Nearing the station. Waiting to get off. Guy in front of me. By the door. Waiting to get off too. Half-eaten lunch in a plastic bag. Suit. Businessman. Ipod so loud I can hear it over mine. Wanker. Train slowing down. Tap tap tap. Train stopping. Tap tap tap. Stop tapping the door release. Wait for it to light up first. Wanker. Eager to get home. Hard day at the office. Wants to see his wife. Nice guy. Family man. Tap tap tap. Door opens. Finally free. Doesn’t dash off though. I step past him. Walk on by. Turn to look. He’s stopped. Lighting a cigarette. Hard day my arse. Waiting to light-up. Wanker.