A Punch in the Mouth
“Two for one night at Bacchus; we should go down,” George proposed; her eyes bright with anticipation. I however, wasn’t as enthused. I was working another shift in the morning and I’d have to walk again, as I was skint. The five quid in my pocket had to get me through the three remaining days it would take for my paycheck to arrive. Even when it did come, it was already spent- on food and my portion of the rent. In short, even if I could go, I didn’t have the budget for recreation. This was my life since I left Trinidad.
“Can’t, I have work in the morning.”
“Again? Not a great way to spend the summer.”
“A necessary evil.”
“You can still come. Bo will be there” she added, hoping to coax me.
“She not on me,” I offered damply.
“She real like yuh,” George responded. In the year we had known each other, she made it her mission to master Trini dialect. I played along, exaggerating my natural tone.
“Ah have tings to do.”
“Like what hoss?”
“Just tings,” I said as I turned toward my laptop to continue my job search.
“Alright mate,” she replied in defeat, her East London drawl returning.
“Have one for me, right,” I offered in consolation.
“No scene,” she replied.
Soon George left for her night of Bacchanalia and I retreated to the kitchen. There, I set about trying to make a potato, (the last edible thing I had in the cupboard), resemble an actual meal. As I cut it in half and placed it in the oven, I wondered if I had indeed gone mad. I was on my way up: good job, nice car, parties, women- the things they say every young man wants. However, I remained unconvinced that that hollow lifestyle was for me. Somewhere between the debauchery and my desire for meaning, came the decision to give into my film demon. Perhaps within that medium, I would find the fulfillment I sorely lacked. Where I came from though, there were no film schools or even an industry to speak of. I had to leave to live the dream.
London became my destination mainly because the residue of Colonialism made my academic qualifications compatible. Besides that, the independent scene of Europe held more appeal to me, than glamour of Hollywood.
“Why yuh doh try to settle down instead?” was my mother’s reaction to my plan, her desire for grandbabies overwhelming all else.
“Real girls when yuh reach over there.” was all Vic, my regular drinking partner could see.
Neither of them knew that I had spent a year preparing for my move. If I sold the car, cashed in the insurance policies, got that student loan and saved all I could, I would have enough for my ticket, student visa and two of the three years of tuition I required. To finance my final year, I’d find a part-time job. Surely, if I worked and saved as much as humanly possible -a two year buffer would be more than enough to secure the cash I needed. Thus far though, I had saved a grand total of zero.
My train of thought was interrupted by the smell of a burning potato.
After a minor rescue operation involving precision scraping and daubs of margarine, the charcoal flavoured spud became something palatable. “I should be grateful,” I thought. After all, there were folks in the world with nothing. At least I had a roof over my head and a morsel to quell the rage within my stomach. I still had hope. In a few years, I’d undoubtedly look back and smile at how far I had come. “Hunger is just part of the process,” I thought as I took my first bite.
My stomach rumbled in agreement.
The loud moaning and rhythmic thuds against my wall indicated that George’s night was only just beginning. I couldn’t be too mad really- she did agree to have one for me, and I didn’t make it clear that I was talking about beer. As she asked God not to stop, I pulled my pillow tight over my head. Based on my own experience with alcohol fuelled relations though, there was equal chance of her stud lasting till the sun came up, and him falling asleep mid coitus. Maybe I’d get lucky and they would both pass out soon. Whatever the case, I had to be out of the house by seven if I was going to get to the bookshop on time.
As I lay there, I wondered if she understood the opportunity she had by way of birth. It wasn’t that government assisted tuition gave her an advantage – we had that back home. In fact, in becoming an international student I was giving up my subsidy. What was lost in a financial sense though, was gained in the range of academic choices that were suddenly available. I suppose that colonial wealth and social problems that didn’t include a spiraling murder rate, afforded this society time for trivial matters like film or Medieval Studies. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t naive enough to think that the streets of England were paved in gold, but I knew that here, it was possible for me to at least study what I really loved.
That was the narrative I sold myself at least; and as it circled around my head to the tune of the drunken lust, I found myself aroused-and very jealous. I mean, if I was going to have a shitty day at work due to sleep deprivation, I might as well be having sex. Of course, I could just walk over there and ask them to keep it down – but my growing bulge would only make that awkward. Soon my hand had found its way into my pants.
“Well why not,” I reasoned.
To anyone who has not had a good night’s rest, the sound of an alarm is the most annoying thing in the world. To anyone who had to work in retail after such a night, it is the most aggravating, rage inducing sound in the cosmos. It is with these things in mind that I had earlier made the decision to slap the clock off of the bedside table. At the time, I didn’t think much of the splintery crash. Now that I was a half hour behind schedule, I was beginning to regret my impulses. My remorse came to a head when in a hurried attempt to get into my work trousers; I landed on some of the shrapnel. As the blood began to seep through my nylon sock, I didn’t feel any pain. Instead, I remembered something my mother would always say:
“More haste, less speed.”
She was seldom wrong about these things.
A wet wipe, a bandage and ten minutes later, I was limping toward the front door. It was there that I saw George’s stud attempting to make a stealthy exit. As he tugged and tugged at the handle, he did not seem to realize that he needed a key. Although that in itself was disturbing, I understood his urge to leave. In the not too distant past, (but perhaps less awkwardly), I too had done the navy seal- get in, conquer and get out, never to be seen again. Not something I was particularly proud of in truth.
“You alright there pal?” I asked.
He spun around with a start as I raised a judgmental eyebrow.
“Er…sorry blud. I’m George’s mate… didn’t want to wake her as I left,” he explained nervously as he stepped on some mail that had been gathering beneath the slot in the door. The way the envelopes lay strewn about the hallway, one might conclude that George and I were building some kind of a nest.
“I’m sure.” I replied as I held up my keys.
His face lit up.
“You’re a legend, mate.”
“So are you from what I’ve heard,” I mumbled, as I opened the locks.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, just thinking aloud.”
A few seconds of awkward silence followed as I released the locks and pushed open the door, offering him the freedom he craved.
“You off to work?”
His fraudulent interest in my life made me dislike him just a little bit more.
“Not a great way to spend the Summer.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
With that, he jumped into his waiting car and sped off, leaving a wake of exhaust and obnoxious music behind. Meanwhile, my attention turned toward the trampled mail at my feet. Amongst the solicitous junk, there was one envelope that seemed important, the words “Date Sensitive Material” stamped on it in red ink. I broke the seal to reveal a letter from the University.
When charged with collecting, counting and dispensing tender, one can see just how much money the business makes during the hours one spends working. With a few simple calculations, if one were so inclined, one could then extrapolate just how much the business has made from one’s labour in a week, a month, a year and so on. Thusly, as one stands at the till, one cannot help but feel, quite literally, short changed. It is for this reason I reckon, that of all the jobs in the overworked and underpaid world of retail, cashing, is most akin to hell. Today, after receiving that correspondence from the University, hell was particularly hot.
“Three pound twenty?” The frumpy middle aged woman asked incredulously, her seasoned frown mirroring a salted prune.
“Yes ma’am” I responded, blankly confirming what she already knew.
“Can’t believe that price,” she muttered as she handed me a fiver.
“I can’t believe it either,” I thought, as I took the bill to make change. Of course, I was not referring to the price of stationery, but to the whopping fifty percent increase in tuition that I was suddenly faced with. The news had reduced my long walk to work to a desperate exercise in number crunching. Regardless of how I spun the figures though, it was painfully obvious that I would not be able to continue my education. In one move, my plan had been derailed.
And yet here I was…
facing these customers…
to the fading embers of my dream…
As the absurdity of it hit me, I froze, dropping the fiver on the counter.
“Are you alright?” the frumpy woman asked, undoubtedly disturbed by my sudden change in demeanour.
“Hoss, I real good,” I replied with finality, before making my way to the door.
The look of shock on the Manager’s face as I limped out onto the street did not matter. The only thing that was of consequence was the epiphany that I was having- that in my search for meaning, I had ended up trading one shitstem for another. While they were both different, they were also the same, demanding me to know and take my place. Maybe over the last year some kind of inferiority complex had allowed me to reconcile the hunger, the debt and the shifting goalposts I faced by being here – but now my eyes were wide open. Unlike Lord Kitchener, London was not the place for me.
The crowd at Bacchus was thin, even for a weeknight. I didn’t mind though, it gave me a chance to actually check out the place I had heard so many stories about. It was a bit of a dive in truth- but amidst the chatter, punk rock and cigarette smoke, I found a strange calm. I began to understand why she liked coming here.
“This is where you met him?” I asked, perplexed that the high strung stud would frequent such a place.
“Nah, found him at The Mill,” George explained.
“You should have left him there too,” I insisted.
“So you don’t think he will call then?” She responded, the irony in her voice unmistakable.
“If he does, run- run like the swiftest wind,” I advised in my best Shakespearean tone.
Our laughter soon dissipated into a somber silence. After a moment of deliberation, George broke the deadlock.
“So when do you leave?”
“Dunno, maybe the end of the month,” I replied.
“Honestly, I don’t blame you. This place kinda sucks.”
“I had a plan though,” I offered meekly.
“Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth” She offered in return.
“Who said that?” I asked, amused at the crude but incredibly apt philosophy.
“Mike Tyson,” she laughed.
“Well, he eh lie.” I concluded, as I raised my pint to hers.