The Insomniac Booth
The Insomniac Booth continues many of the themes that first emerged in Clive Gilson's earlier collection of short stories, The Mechanic's Curse. This second collection continues with the investigation of magical realism and the glories of traditional folk and faery tales, and, as ever, these are intimate tales, focusing on broad but subtle themes and personal recollections.
FANCY AND THE FLUTTER
“BLOODY TESCO. BLOODY RAIN. Bloody, bloody, bloody…”
November’s dim witted cudgel was flailing at the world with all its might, smothering life and expectation under a blanket of grey cloud. The world existed only as a collection of cold, dank, fetid streets. This was the inevitable killing time in the gardens, the woods and the fields of this watery land, the dreaded days that heralded the arrival of Christmas.
Goodwill to all men? Not as far as Cat was concerned. It was pissing down, she couldn’t find a space anywhere near the covered walk way, and that meant the place would be heaving, and worst of all, heaving with angry, frustrated, miseries being induced to enjoy the miracle of marketing. The immaculate conception had nothing to do with any God. It was something dreamed up by the Devils of this world - the run up to Christmas. Cat hated the whole thing with a vengeance.
Cat reached over into the littered passenger side foot well of her battered blue Ford hatchback to fish out her trusty little fold-away umbrella but a sudden, unwelcome and chilling realisation hit her squarely in the chest. She’d used it this morning when she’d brought the bins in and it was still sitting, dripping puddles onto the parquet in the back lobby of her compact stone cottage in the outer, now leafless suburb of Cheltenham where she lived. Cat screamed internally. She took a breath and with seemingly nothing left to fume about Cat opened the door, pulled the collar of her jacket tight around her neck and prepared to brave the elements. Right foot first. Splash. Ankle deep water, cold and oozing November’s scum of oil and decaying vegetation, soaked through the sole of her boot.
The rain fell in a curtain drizzle, neither hard enough to be impressive nor light enough to be shrugged off as a minor inconvenience. This sort of rain persisted, becoming an oppressive shroud on the world, especially in the late afternoon dusk, when Cat felt like a caged mouse. She scurried across the car park as if it were the exposed wood shaving floor of her tin cell yard, feeling as though she ran under the baleful yellow eyes of a thousand feline predators all lined up just beyond the bars, waiting for the catch to drop, for the cage door to spring open, and for dinner to be playfully served. By the time she reached the covered area by the main doors she was drenched and bedraggled. Her hair, always long and black and quietly coiffured, now curled impossibly and stuck to her forehead and cheek. Her right foot felt cold and clammy from the puddle by the car. The first shopping trolley that she womanfully tried to haul towards the bright inner sanctum of the modern retail experience was, of course, buggered. Cat mouthed another expletive, using the unmentionable word with a venom that would have turned hearts instantly to stone had she dared to say it out loud. Things could not get any worse.
No worse that is until having found a trolley without a wonky wheel, having negotiated the log jam of the entrance, and having pushed her way into the aisle with the stationery, books, CDs and housewares just to escape the murderous melee taking place around the vegetable racks, Cat found herself pushing her empty trolley towards a grinning man dressed up like a riverboat gambler. The dreaded promotional geek. It was most definitely time to turn and flee, to dive deep beneath the turgid sea of morose fathers and screaming brats down by the frozen ready meals.
Except that she couldn’t. From nowhere a mother and daughter combination, two trolleys strong, laden to the gunwales with Christmas crackers, wreaths of tinsel and a thousand other essentials for the great day, had blocked her only escape route. To cap it all they appeared to have stopped mid aisle for a chat about Dad’s forthcoming bunion procedure. The riverboat Dapper-Dan could not be avoided. Cat steeled herself for the moment, for the delivery of her cold impregnable stare towards the far end of the aisle, and set off towards her nemesis. He stood quite still, letting the grin fade to a thin, charming little smile, then cocking his head slightly as if to say, “I know, I know”, and slowly he moved aside.
Cat looked into his eyes. It is always a mistake to do that, she thought, remembering the weekend before and the chap in the bar with the rugby pectorals and the deep brown smoulder that, by the end of the evening, turned into nothing more than a misguided drunken fumble. Leopards and spots came to mind. Once again she was lost in the jungle undergrowth where you only see the predator’s eyes for what they really are in that instant before the beast leaps towards you. As ever, the first words were both inane and laced with hidden undercurrents, suffused with that sparkle in the eyes of the hunter and the hunted.
“If you’ve got a moment”, he said softly, smiling again to reveal perfect white teeth.
“Not really. Very pushed for time.” replied Cat summoning up her finest hard-pressed housewife look.
Still he smiled, ignoring her attempt to fend him off.
“It’s just that we’ve got a little promotion going on. It might interest you. Certainly better than this Hell”.
He looked over Cat’s shoulder at the mother and daughter combination further down the aisle.
“That’s what it’s about, really, changing the shopping experience. Changing you and the shopping experience. It doesn’t cost a penny, just a few club card points, but in return you get…well…heaven, really.”
“Heaven?” Cat asked, incredulously. The man was clearly stark raving mad. “Heaven in Tesco? I know the buggers are taking over the world but that’s just a little far-fetched, isn’t it?”
She had broken cardinal rule number one. Instead of smiling sweetly, staring at the far wall and pushing on past the gambling man, she had responded. The hook had been taken and Cat knew instinctively that he was about to play the line.
“I don’t mean Heaven and Hell, not in the biblical sense”. He rested one hand on Cat’s trolley. That smile again. She melted just a little. Such a warm and forgiving smile.
“I mean”, he continued, “we all know that’s a load of hocus-pocus dreamed up by our less than bright cave dwelling ancestors, don’t we?”
Was that a wink?
“Truth is, Heaven and Hell are entirely human things. And I could tell by the look on your face when you walked in here that this may well be Hell for you. And think of those starving kids in Africa or the poor maimed sods in war zones. That’s human Hell. Nothing beats it, not even Old Nick. No, what I’m talking about is heaven with a small h. The real thing. Or hell with a small h, of course. Small print and all that.”
“Yeah…” Cat mumbled, more to herself than anyone else. The feral air amongst the shoppers seemed too thin around her. She didn’t quite understand. The pitch was interesting but hardly your average bit of foreign cheese on a cocktail stick. She focussed on the situation. He edged a little closer along the trolley, brushing a display of disgustingly twee kiddie birthday cards with his shoulder and knocking both cards and envelopes to the floor. They fell in slow motion.
“You’re for real?” she asked. “I mean working for Tesco? Not just some chancer with a bit of patter?”
The smile faded. Hang dog. Big eyes and a slightly mocking downwards curl of the mouth.
“Pretty much. They know I’m here, let’s put it that way. Can’t really miss a bloke dressed up like Fort Laramie, can you. You certainly didn’t.”
His hand moved to Cat’s elbow. He gently pushed the trolley away and she let go. She ought, she thought, to be banging on about invasion of her private space. She ought to be calling security, but none of that mattered. He was close. She could smell his male musk. Those eyes of his were so bright, dancing almost, rich and dark and endless. He moved her with a firm but gentle pressure out of the aisle with the still falling cards into a section with row upon row of discounted DVDs. He was close and hot and fecund. This was no Saturday fiddler. Cat felt as though she was being lifted out of time itself.
He paused, looked directly into her eyes, and said earnestly, “It’s about choices. Taking a bit of a risk. Having a flutter, as it were. Walk away now and you stay in Hell. Stay with me, take a moment to dance with me down these aisles, and I guarantee that shopping will never be the same again. Whenever you walk into a supermarket your heart will lift. Raindrops will be your dancing partners, puddles will become oceans for paper boats again, just like they were when you were little. It’s a simple question. If you believe that Heaven and Hell are here on earth, what have you got to lose? What do you say?”
Cat had never sailed paper boats in puddles, but she got the gist of it.
“It’s not like any promotion I’ve seen before. And why club card points? What do you get for those? How many do you want?”
That smile again, burning a thousand fold. “Actually, I lied about the points. I don’t want them. This is about you. Instead of grumbling about the world, instead of living with continual resentment, rather than looking at the old man most of the time as though he’s a moron, why not lighten the load, free your mind and spirit, let loose your soul? One dance is all it takes.”
As Cat pondered on that last statement, the noise of twenty-four hour bustle under the ever ticking clock-face of consumer excess faded out completely. There was no old man at home, anyway, only the dog, and Cat never thought of her as a moron. Actually, she did, but in a sweet way. Now the aisles were suddenly and miraculously clear of traffic. The cavernous roof with its harsh strip lights folded into starry night. There were palm trees over by where the wine used to be and Cat was sure that she could hear the gentle break of surf on golden sand. The shelves and racks were dotted with candelabra, and on their vast, open surfaces were displayed sweetmeats, butter biscuits, tarts dusted with cinnamon and so, so many other sugary trifles and temptations. Over the public address system there came the first strains of a waltz, low and hazy to begin with but building slowly and surely to the point where Cat would have to dance.
Cat stopped in front of a long oval mirror that had suddenly plopped into existence. She felt, then heard and finally saw the metamorphosis. She was dressed in the most fabulous red velvet ball gown, suffused with diamonds and adorning her neck, ears and head were jewels beyond the imagination even of Tiffany or Faberge. She was tripping. She had to be on some mad hallucinatory spree. The gambling man was standing in front of her now in a Fred Astaire pose, arm outstretched, calling her into the rhythm and the pulse of the dance. Cat tried to think. What had she eaten? Tinned soup for lunch. It couldn’t be that, could it? She felt hot and faint and exhilarated all at the same time. The music was in her bones, was in her blood, cascading around her mind like a red-hot fury.
“I don’t even know your name”, she gasped, as she took his hand and was twirled into his firm embrace. His mouth was inches away from hers. His breath was almost feverish. She melted once again into his gaze.
“I’ll be whoever you want me to be”, he whispered. “Just dance.”
He spun her round, stepped towards her, took the lead, and off they sped, twisting and shimmering in brilliantly mellow candlelight. He was divine, a gazelle, lithe and firm. For Cat, who had never accumulated any sort of ballroom skill in her thirty years on the planet, the spiral and the vortex were all consuming. Her feet and body moved of their own volition in perfect time with her beaming beau. With every step, with every heartbeat, through shampoos, down cat food lane, up to where the toilet rolls should be, they skipped and floated on the very fabric of the universe. The cares of the mortal world simply fell away, and all that Cat could feel now was the unending cycle of life portrayed in the music. She thrilled at the touch of this creature who could charm the stars into existence as though he were dressing a Christmas tree. She felt utterly and divinely fantastical. Her heart raced with the pure emotion of this wondrous and amazing gift from a stranger for whom, right at this moment, she would give her life.
Minutes sped by. The waltz continued without time, almost without end, but as with all perfection, it can only ever last for the briefest moment. The gambling man slowed his pace, drew close, pressing his body into hers and as the music faded he kissed her. There was no blinding display of fireworks. There were no marching bands, no ticker tape parades, no gushing fountains of love. There was just the warmth of his lips on hers and the definite imprint of his being there.
Slowly Cat unwound herself from his embrace and stepped back a little from him. The stars twinkled out one by one to be replaced by a flimsy, whimsy of strip light. The aisles filled again with every kind of produce. The hustle and bustle of the two-for-one offer resumed, and through it all Cat breathed hard and fast. Her dress faded back into her everyday clothes and the jewels sparkled once more, briefly, before drifting out of this world. Only he remained, holding her hand, squeezing her fingers gently to ease the pain of the parting.
“Oh my God…Oh my God,” panted Cat. She could say no more. Behind her the mother and daughter were carrying on the bunion conversation as if nothing at all had happened.
The gambling man released her hand and quietly but firmly manoeuvred Cat’s shopping trolley back into position in front of her. He smiled and then frowned, shaking his head as he said, “See what I mean. You found Heaven. Shopping will never be a chore again. There is one little thing, though.”
Now he looked ever so slightly apologetic.
“The small print and all that. I probably should’ve mentioned this at the outset but, well, you know how it is. You get a bit carried away with it all, and you being so lovely.”
That million candle smile.
“The price. This is Tesco, after all. We never discussed the price, did we?”
Cat tried to think, but she really couldn’t remember. Her head was still spinning with the waltz, her blood still racing with his touch. She looked at him blankly but happily.
“No…no, I don’t think we did”, she whispered.
“Not much, a trifle really”, he said as he backed away towards the aisle with the potions, lotions and vitamins. He turned to walk away, looking back over his shoulder and grinned again as he said, “A soul. Just one tiny little soul.”
With that he was gone. Cat tried to make sense of his words. Did he mean her soul? That couldn’t be right. She pushed her trolley down the aisle and turned into the one that he had disappeared down but there was no Clark Gable look-a-like perusing the ginseng. Her soul. She felt a moment of terror flood through her, but then, just as quickly she thought about their conversation, thought about what he had said to her at the beginning. Heaven and Hell were human. What on earth could a soul cost, then?
She began to laugh, quietly at first but with every tremor, with every rib tickled, the laugh grew until she let forth a cannonade of mirth right in the middle of a knot of grim faced mothers. It was worth it after all, she thought, as she pushed her trolley at the lead woman of the pack, turned on her heel and marched out of the store. She was going to the pub.
“Why the bloody hell not!” she said out loud to a sour faced septuagenarian by the entrance, and as she did so the public address system roared into life. Against a soundscape of Johannes Sebastian’s finest Viennese swirls she heard a familiar voice.
“And just to say a real thank you, Cat, my darling, I’ll make Dad’s bunion operation really, really painful. Be seeing you, babe…”