On Friday Jacek buys himself a chocolate indulgence cake, which is a fake bargain at £3.70, and throws in a few Rosies as an afterthought. The wired kids are not queuing for their chips yet. Anything can happen, anything. And if nothing does, who will know? Certainly not those bastards in the office. If their life is so good, what are they doing there in the first place? Fortune 500 were too square? Headhunters too pushy? Money too dirty? Perhaps with so many opportunities to choose from, they said to themselves: no, fuck it, I’m not going down the well-trodden path. I am too special to do what everyone is expecting me to. Won’t it be a laugh if I wind up as an estate agent? Won’t it be a laugh?! I better write that rejection letter to Oxbridge right now, who cares if they feel shafted?
Well, it was in the paper the other day. Apparently, in some offices they make you stand in front of the whole class and tell a tale about how smashed you got over the weekend, and what valuables you lost, and who you got to fuck (you get extra brownie points for tough language), and all that. And then presumably the wildest colleague gets the first prize – a few pats on the shoulder, a bit of throwaway respect. What would they do if you told them how much smack you bought, how the crackwhore you were with used clingfilm instead of a condom? Would they pat you on the shoulder then, now, would they? Hypocrites, every one of them. Sunny day sailors.
Pushing open the gate to the communal corridor, Jacek registers a pile of torn up paper on the carpet. What is that? Some chancer clearly opened a parcel that had arrived for Jacek, found no valuables and scattered the remains all over the place. And there it was, on one of the steps, an AC/DC t-shirt, new without labels. Stolen, rejected and discarded. Jacek feels raped, mutilated, like a big dog just came and pissed all over his territory, saying: oh yeah? What are you gonna do? He’ll never wear that t-shirt in the end. It will be the loneliest t-shirt, rocking in a council skip all by itself.
Jacek moves on very slowly as the light bulb is out on the second floor. The landlord has been promising to change it for two weeks now. It is slightly embarrassing to ask a landlord to change a lightbulb. Technically, it just needs a chair or a stepladder and a bulb. It’s like having one of those Strada waiters grind pepper on your food with a giant pepper mill. You should be able to do this yourself. It’s disgusting not to. It’s certainly disgusting of the landlord not to change it at once and to make you go through the embarrassment of asking again. Jacek has called twice, now.
That’s how degradation happens, says Waldek. You turn around one day and you’re a goner. You could plausibly end up like one of those people who call themselves young professionals without a sense of irony. The next thing you know you’re running a B&B in Kent with your girlfriend; oh, oh and when you are on holidays? Oh yeah, then you treat yourself to the hotel’s butler service. Because you’re worth it! Unlike that goddamn butler, fuck him.
That’s what Waldek once said while Jacek was being silent into his beer. Waldek always knew how the cookie crumbled. What goes around comes around, he used to say. And: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Sometimes it was best to be silent.
Now what happens after that is that Jacek climbs up the dodgy stairway, t-shirt in hand, scratches about with his key and makes it to his flat. There is a lot that could be said about his flat, but it just doesn’t need a description – you know what it’s going to be before he even opens the door. Bachelor’s apartment, some people call it. That’s a rather grand turn of phrase for a few scrunched up cans, a battered fake leather sofa, a plastic TV stand.
It’s one flight of stairs up. Downstairs there’s number 54A where a fat Jamaican woman lives and at number 54B there are two of the temping poor. The latter two will often leave notes on the hallway wall. ‘Let’s not leave rubbish in the corridor :)’ they say. And: ‘Let’s be QUIETER after 11pm’. A penis with wings was once drawn on one of these notices. Jacek suspects the Jamaican woman.
Kumar lives two streets down. The houses here are perhaps uglier from the outside, although some people would say that they are nicer. There is a neat whitewashed arch framing each front door, complete with two Doric columns and symmetrical evergreen bushes. These houses have driveways, and people park their fat-bottomed cars in them. Kumar’s front gate is framed by a wall with two ziggurat shaped statues. On top of each ziggurat there is a round whitewashed ball, on which a whitewashed lion rests its paw. At the moment the only pedestrians in sight are walking undersized dogs and crippled hounds. There were other pedestrians, earlier on. In Lycra.
Also, a few days ago a couple passed by, having taken the wrong shortcut, and the girl pointed at the wall. They were sharing a can of lager and they laughed unkindly at Kumar’s guardian lions. What they could not see were the six garden gnomes in the back yard, by the paddling pool, that Kumar and Rose got for their kids a few summers ago. Three of them are taller than the others, and all of them are arranged in a line with their heights alternating. The kids took to the gnomes immediately and before long were waterboarding them in the paddling pool. There’s other stuff too, like B&Q flower labels with pictures, a doorbell that sing songs a sweet melody, that sort of thing.
This is where Kumar lives, and he is rather proud of it, having made what he had with his own two hands - sort of. Every morning Kumar drives off in his practical car and spends the day imposing his breath onto people who might just rent one of his properties, complete with a fake leather sofa and a plastic TV stand. So workwise he is a bit like Jacek, except that Kumar owns his properties and so is a step above in the estate agent pecking order. Starting from the morning, he forces himself into the personal space of three students, an indignant couple, a polite female. None of them want to rent his flat, which is understandable – he comes across as too sleazy, too off-putting. But he will find someone eventually, of course. In a big city there is always someone who is just desperate enough, and so everyone can make a living.
Jacek and Kumar never meet. While they eat their gammon and chips in the same café, Kumar pays a few quid more to be able to be seated at a small table with a grubby tea candle. Jacek, on the other hand, sits on the cheap side, on one of the long benches by a communal table. But mostly he just buys chips to take away. He eats them in the car park outside, sitting on the pavement edge in front Kumar’s car.
So the two of them never meet, and long after they’re both gone a dirty fox scutters over the car park concrete and sniffs at a limp, vinegar soaked chip. The fox is disappointed.
One day Jacek comes to Waldek’s house and says that he wants to talk. Waldek responds that he isn’t much of a talker.
‘I’d rather walk the walk than talk the talk, if you know what I mean.’ – he says.
Jacek knows what Waldek means, he’s heard him say this many times now. Their friendship stretches this far back. When he visits, he brings six for five. Or he used to, nowadays he brings four for six.
‘Used to be fair and square’ - says Waldek - ‘but now with all the people coming in it’s dog eat dog’.
Jacek sits on the sofa when prompted, and does not open his mouth much while he works through his beers. By the time he leaves, he has taken away something from his interaction with Waldek, something to mull over, something to give meaning to what he is going through. This one time, Waldek said
‘It is the continuous continuum, know what I mean.’
And - nothing ventured, nothing gained. And, when someone stole his bike’s front wheel - what goes around comes around.
In his cyclical view of life Waldek has a touch of an eastern mystic about him, in as much as an eastern mystic can be envisaged in grey tracksuit bottoms and a pair of Nikeys. His sense of mission finds many different outlets, but his latest undertaking has been to bake communion wafers using hash oil. He has been at it for a few weeks by now, and his upstairs neighbour Peter has been employed to hand-carve bread stamps with religious imagery: a chalice, a dove. A pair of hands put together in prayer. Peter is most likely Chinese and doesn’t speak English, but his dextrous, pale hands are perfectly suited for the delicate art of carving. Now it’s not strictly true that he is employed to do it – money never changes hands – but Waldek is living in the real world, and so is Peter. His full name is Peter Jones.
‘For him’ – Waldek points at the ceiling – ‘to be useful is a reward in itself. What can our thanks give him? Or a few quid, for that matter?’
Then it turns out that Waldek has to look for a new flat, because the landlord has put the rent up again and is eating him out of existence. Waldek lights up and looks thoughtful through the veils of stink.
‘I saw this flat the other day, looks okay, a bit on the pricey side, but ok. So I call this guy up, he’s one of your lot. And he says to me, what is your name, how much you earn, where do you work, all of that. So I just told him, nevermind how much I earn or where I work. I haven’t even seen your flat, I know nothing of it, and I don’t even know if I want it. It probably has nasty grease stains. Let’s view it and then we can look at the formalities. And the guy shrank back, of course. Gave way. You can’t let these cunts get the better of you, or they’ll take the whole arm.’
He stops for a moment, then repeats: ‘You give them a finger, they take the whole arm.’
Jacek looks at his friend wearily.
Yeah, cheers for that, he says.
‘Don’t take it personally’
But it is getting late now, and Jacek has to wake up early for work. If he oversleeps and has to skip breakfast, he feels sick on the bus. He thinks about things this far ahead, because life can be complicated.
A few abandoned umbrellas are sticking out of the rubbish bins, and there is crap spilled all over the sidewalk. 5p bags are up in the air, dancing the bargain shuffle for the few pedestrians that braved the streets on a day like this. And few they are. From the safety of his pimpmobile Jacek scans the empty streets and sees an occasional unemployed stray, out for a beer. The rest of the people evidently stuck their broken umbrellas into the bins and cleared out. Or perhaps they are at work, discussing the weather (‘ooh, look at that’, ‘oh, isn’t it crazy’, ‘oh yes it is, haha’). What can be more fun than the weather?
Jacek goes around in a circle for the second time, spots a huddled up couple on the pavement and parks the car. Irish drunks are singing on the stereo about pastures. They do not sing about them because the pastures are green, or pretty, although the song is about that too. To the Irish imbibers the pastures only carry value if they are long sold, stolen by the English or burned down to shit. Jacek switches the radio off and looks at the unfriendly street outside. A bunch of yoofs are hanging out on the corner with their yob dogs. Tyson, Bully and Killer resist the temptation to roll on their backs and beg for treats.
Jacek steps out on to the kerb and waits. Then he unbuttons his bomber jacket to reveal the shirt and tie. The couple comes with their hands outstretched.You will be Jason, says one of them.
Jacek shakes the hands and smiles without showing his teeth. He motions (‘after you’) towards the house tucked in at the end of the street and follows the prospective tenants to the door. Here the couple part to let him through to the door. They step over a pile of brown-envelope letters.
‘So, uh, this is it. Feel free to have a look around, guys. The kitchen is just there’
A nod to the left.
‘And the corridor leads to the reception, bedroom and the bathroom’s somewhere there too.’
The couple look sheepishly at one another, but then start sniffing about very methodically, flicking light switches that aren’t working and poking their noses into cupboards that have nothing in them. Projecting their books on the shelves, whitewashing the walls in their dreams.
‘Excuse me,’ – the girl sticks her head out of the kitchen, - ‘I turn the tap, but there’s no water.’
And again: ‘No water comes out when I turn it.’
This is not a question, and Jacek waits. Perhaps he will be left alone. The girl waits too. Then she asks:
‘Is there water?’
‘I don’t know’ – he says defensively.
Now the guy is here too.
‘Where is the electricity meter located?’
‘I don’t know’ – Jacek shrugs again. They don’t pay me to know, he might have added. Skin shivers along the nape of his neck and he thinks of being in bed. At this point, he wouldn’t even take the shoes off, just dangle the feet over the edge. Make a cheese toastie. Hug a hot water bottle in a fake fur cover, like a living cat.
This is not going well. The girl’s confidence is waning and they stop pissing all over their territory. They have doubts now, as to whether it really is their territory.
‘Is the council tax included?’ – this is a test question.
‘I don’t know’, - Jacek says again, stupidly.
After that the couple stop asking questions. They politely walk about the rest of the empty flat, take in the ripped mattress on the floor, the breadcrumbs on the cheap kitchen worktop, the black mould flowers blossoming on the ceiling. And then they are done.
‘Thank you, we will be in touch.’ – says the guy, shaking Jacek’s hand.
‘Thank you so much’ – echoes the girl with emphasis.
They are off.
Jacek locks the flat and steps outside. The yobs and their dogs are mocking him and the ever increasing wind, mocking them from safety in the eye of the storm.
Kumar is on the phone with Promise Chukwu. She has three children, low earnings and an anxious manner. He refills his glass with Red Bull and continues the interrogation from his ergonomic chair.
‘Mrs, Mrs, now calm down now. How much in savings?’
In his big boss-sized office children are raising hell. There is a damp Red Bull stain on the carpet already, and the wipe-down sofa is full of toasted corn. His cleaner is gonna moan about this. Although she doesn’t speak much English, her manner is very much of this country: when he apologises, she will say that it is not a problem, no problem at all. Then later he will find a post-it note, and on it, in capital letters: I AM NOT YOUR MAMMA!
‘Mrs, I told you already that you can’t have a two bed with a deposit that small. It is definite. I need to do business. I cannot do business with you.’
He moves his Blackberry away from his ear:
‘Gimme a sec’
The children cut it out, sit down and shut up, but keep hitting each other behind their backs. Kumar turns his attention back to the phone.
‘Ok, ok. Ok. Ask your sister for another four hundred and you’ll have the deposit and the first month’s rent.’
He waits for a few minutes while Promise is striking a deal. Which isn’t very good, because he says:
‘No no no, no can do. Mrs, Mrs. Deposit nine hundred. Rent one thousand three hundred and fifty. Yes, one and a half month’s rent in advance.’
He sloshes his Red Bull in his mouth and gargles it with his head bent back, which elicits a squee of joy from the children. The cheaply bought happiness of the innocent never ceases to move him. Then he says to Mrs Chukwu:
‘Yes, but that is rent in advance. Two hundred agency fee per person, that’s you and three children, eight hundred. One hundred check in fee. Fifty inventory fee. Fifty contract drafting fee. Twenty reference checking fee. Twenty contract photocopying fee.’
He finishes triumphantly.
‘That’s three thousand two hundred and ninety, and that is without the check out fee’.
The conversation is over, over and out.
‘You kids want to run to Mackie D’s?’
When he comes back, he will give his missus some money and he will send her out to do her hair and nails. He is not a bad guy. He buys a poppy when they’re available by the tills.
“This crazy son of a bitch is going down” – Promise slams the phone down, then pulls on the cord and the BT plug pops out of the wall. She isn’t taking shit from nobody now.
“Oh yeah, what you gon do?” – her sister is paring her nails with a plastic Swarowski encrusted file. She is unmoved. Promise always stirs shit up for nothing. All Chukwus stir shit up, continuously.
“He think sun shine outta his ass, I’ll show him better. You understand?”
The nail file goes back and forth: could be a saw, could be a violin. Devine is quiet.
Promise can’t stand her sister smirking like that, as if the bastard estate agent got the better of her. Well, maybe he did.
She rips the sheet off the bed and kicks it, entangling her foot.
‘Son of a bitch!’
The kids come in to see what’s going on, two of them, the third one don’t give a shit. Then they start screaming, and there is a whole morning choir going now. Devine drops her nail file on the bedside table, she has had enough.
“Mamma gone clean crazy, scaring the bejesus out of us, we’ll take her money and go for specials.”
That works. She has their attention.
Promise stops tearing about and drops on the bare bed.
“Yo wait a minute”
She points her stubby finger at the three of them.
“If I find out you’ve been acting like you’s rich, pissing it up the wall, I’ma kick your ass good. You understand?”
But Devine is already pushing the kids out the door. They will go to see Mr Softee, perhaps the sun will come out from behind the cloud and the beads on her bracelet are going to glisten like so many diamonds.
Kumar goes to sleep in a super king sized bed and dreams of nothing. In the morning he wakes up very early, as is his habit, and is now trimming his toenails on a kitchen stool. Maria wakes with him although she doesn’t have to, bless the woman. They aren’t talking, or not at first, because their mouths are still full of dead mice and their bodies are moving on autopilot. So they fumble about slowly like a couple of geriatrics, fighting small irritations, until the coffee is ready and the day starts rolling.
“Good morning” – Kumar says in a conciliatory tone, although they weren’t arguing.
“Yes” – she affirms.
“The money situation is not good,” - he says. His perfume smells like a car air freshener, because a real man smells like a vehicle.
“Can we talk about this later?”
“I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
Kumar stretches his shoulders, taps on the mug with his fingers. Scratches above his eyebrow.
“You’d think that if there is one place to be in the world, it is the lettings market, but I can tell you for a fact that it is not.”
“I don’t want to alarm you unnecessarily”
Then Kumar taps his fist on the table, gently enough not to upset the coffee, and swears with feeling.
Then just the tap, drip, drip, drip. Maria opens the TV guide.
Neither can eat this early in the morning. At eleven or so, Kumar will have something from the vending machine in his office – a Snickers, or a triangular sandwich. But by then his breath will already smell bad from all the coffee.
The kitchen is carpeted.
By about six thirty in the afternoon everyone is out of the office, and the ass imprints in the chairs have already grown cold. Except for Jacek’s.
There hasn’t been much commission lately and the heating is eating through a fortune. A hard day’s work needs doing, and then some. There was a birthday in the office earlier, and everyone wrote “happy birthday” and “hope you have a really good day” in a card that was passed around. Jacek was browbeaten into contributing a fiver for Amazon vouchers. That’s no peanuts for most of us.
The couple who had viewed the flat gave Jacek a made up number and never got back to him. However, all was not lost, as someone is coming in later to see him. Might be the guy from last week who didn’t have a deposit because his previous landlady hadn’t required one. Wonder what he’d done. If you are being priced out of London you’ve got to make some tough decisions: sell your kidney or get the fuck out to Cheshunt. There they still have racism and the prawn cocktail.
It is already pitch black outside when a woman walks in, a wild, feral tornado bitch. Drunk, perhaps. She kicks over a few chairs in the open plan office, then walks up to Jacek. Instinctively, he shrinks back into himself. The cyclamen on his desk wilts.
“How can I help?,” – he asks lamely.
Wrong. This seems to send the lady visitor over the edge. She whacks Jacek hard in the face, spits on his desk and leaves. Her back looms while she waits for the automatic doors to make way for her. Crushed into the carpet lies a slice of birthday cake that has been left for Jacek by his colleagues.
Jacek covers his mouth with his hand and sits in his chair perfectly still for a few minutes.
I’m on a highway to hell, he says finally. Sure as hell. Hell, hell, hell.
At the front of the room hangs a whiteboard, and on it are some employee names and some sales figures. Above them the writing says: “Unleash your Excellence”. And also: “Star ninja of the month is ________”. It is not going to be poor boy Jacek.
Kumar is sitting in an underground car park, looking at his face in the rear view mirror, feeling his throat slowly with one hand. It is dark here.
Jacek is slumped in his chair in the office with his feet on the keyboard and his arms hanging over the sides of the chair. It is dark here too.
But Promise is with her babies and the room is bathed in splendid light. Babies are overlapping on the sofa, watching the Silence of the Lambs in peace. Promise thinks: they don’t know nothing, and that’s how it is going to stay. Mama’s going to take care of everything. In a world of bad governments, bad letting agents, bad men everywhere it takes a good woman to sort things out. You understand?