Michael and Rochelle collided by the magazine stand, she was in her usual hurry and he was in another world, his usual detached and alienated self.
“After you” he said, the refinement of good breeding simply oozing from him.
“Ta” responded Rochelle reaching across to the middle shelf, grabbing a glossy mag.
Michael eyed the girl as unobtrusively as fine manners could allow. He liked the look of her, nice eyes, figure, a terrific smile.
“Yes, very attractive” he thought trying not to make it obvious he was checking her out. “What a pity she’s so common”.
His assessment continued, he made a thorough job of scrutinising the attractive female going about in in the same way a critic might analyse a piece of art. Looking for flaws as much as for perfection. He noted her jewellery – fool’s gold and plenty of it. There must have been at least two dozen iron-pyrite rings and studs inserted through those previously immaculate ears. Michael dismissed any attempt to chat her up.
Her choice of magazine only reinforced his prejudice. When he noticed her going for the middle shelf she had gone down a notch in his estimation – the earrings plunged her down a few more.
The middle shelf was where all the “numbers” literature was kept but he did not call it literature. His eyes swung away momentarily from the girl as he surveyed the row of worthless publications which lay spread out across the middle shelf.
Glory of Numbers had an ecclesiastical ring to it, the cover was all stained-glass and churchly looking.
Number Magic was another, and Numbers to Live By and World Numbers – and more trashy testaments dedicated to the power of numbers. He hated this worshipping of numbers, it was just one irritation among many that made him want to get away from the island – away from the crass environment in which he was forced to live.
Rochelle left the shop with her copy of Love and Numbers and, followed by Michael’s gaze until she was out of sight, walked passed the street market stalls looking this way and that for inspiration. Her attention was soon caught by some great looking jewellery, stepping up to the stall she could hear the vendor call out in her direction.
“Holy cows on sale here – come an have a look at these darlin’ – next big thing these are”
She had heard from the girls at work about a new craze for the Golden Calf symbol.
“ Can I have this please”? She held out an orange and pink fluorescent card onto which a gilt trinket was attached.
Back at the newsagents Michael was buying his daily newspaper. Rows and rows of folded newspapers lay side by side in a repetitive black and white pattern, their design had not changed much over the years. The date on the top right-hand corner read December the sixteenth 2038. Michael bought a broadsheet and left the shop.
His only sanctuary was his home, an apartment decorated in muted shades of brown, green and gold with sturdy wooden bookcases lining the walls. His only link with the world outside was a telephone and a TV, but it was a tiny set which was hardly ever switched on. He sat down on his antique leather sofa with a Scotch whisky in his hand and reluctantly switched the set on to pass the time until he went out again. Michael was finding it hard to relax, he was sorry he had agreed to meet his colleagues at a wine bar for a Christmas get together.
The TV screen threw intrusive primary colours into the room. Michael took in the images of New Camelot with a grimace as he swallowed the contents of his glass in a oner and poured himself another.
“What do they know about Christmas, they’re all heathens”?
He watched the new elite with disgust partying at the exclusive resort, the place where lottery winners invariably found themselves when their numbers came up. There was no royalty by right of birth now, royalty was gone – swept away by a tidal wave of nouveau riche money. He observed the tiny screen wincing as a couple of fledgling millionaires emerged unconvincingly from a vintage Rolls Royce. He watched as the pair entered the foyer of Guinevere’s deluxe apartment complex and cursed inwardly as they wandered obliviously past an exquisite landscape by Camille Pissarro and then a Picasso still-life. It was obvious these people were unaccustomed to the finer things in life, such wealth was wasted on them, all the money in existence could never endow them with even the most minute level of refinement and good-taste.
“It’s the same with the people at work” he reflected, automatically swallowing another drink. Every last one of them lived for the day their numbers would come up “and, for what purpose”?
He thumped his empty glass down onto the coffee-table in frustration. Michael knew only too well that good-breeding was something money could not by, he knew that alright. His own family tree haunted him. The name remained, the pedigree intact but the family fortune was history and here he was nothing more than fodder for the micro-chip industry.
“Off” he snapped an irritable command at the little television.
This was the only word he enjoyed saying to it so he always made the most of it. He poured himself another drink feeling in less than a party mood but sadly aware that he would have to go back out into that nightmare world and socialise with a bunch of plebeians.
The Ape and Grape wine-bar was holding a Millennium night which was not unusual, the common people celebrated the New Age endlessly because, for them, it was when things had begun to change. Michael’s mood had not improved, he knocked back whisky after whisky and spent his time despising the décor. The focal point of the cavernous bar was a scaled-down model of The Beagle and the Darwinian theme was followed through by the synthetic creation of a tropical island complete with wild-life noises, pungent-smelling exotic fruit trees and frenzied, savage looking go-go dancers.
His attention shifted from one glass-cased replica of an extinct species to the next causing his morale to sink even lower. Christmas had to be catered for too so a disorientating combination of the tropics meeting the frozen north made him feel as if he was attending a party in an insane asylum. The artificially generated sunshine of a desert island beach turned, without warning, into a chilly, synthetic snowy grotto and monkey chatter competed with jingly bells music while waiters scurried by dressed alternately as a chimp or an elf.
But, worst of all , the lottery draw was about to be broadcast on a massive surround-sound television screen at the opposite end of the vast room. Michael has consciously tried to sit as far away as possible from it but, even with all the distractions, it was the numbers game which dominated the constantly evolving chaos that was the Ape and Grape wine-bar.
With head in hands he was just upright enough to see Vince Gallagher make his way towards him. He looked at the overweight little man with eyes that could hardly bear to stay open, he loathed Gallagher because he was always so cheerful and in tune with his surroundings. Vince was drunk.
“Come on Mike baby, you’re gonna miss the draw”.
He was standing uncomfortably close now and Michael was starting to lose it.
“Fucking numbers mumbo-jumbo” he managed to spit the words out of his mouth – “pagans that’s what I live amongst – pagans and fucking riff-raff running the country – whatever happened to the divine right of kings”?
“All right, all right, keep your shirt on” Vince was visibly wounded by the verbal attack and a little surprise to hear his normally mild-mannered colleague swear.
“And, don’t give me all that royalty crap either” the small fat man was becoming annoyed, “they had their turn now it’s ours – life’s a lottery mate – take it or leave it”.
Michael closed his eyes tightly to block out everything but opened them in time to see Vince mime a low curtsey and say with a sneer, “begging your leave your fucking majesty”. He kept watching as the short fat man wobbled back towards the massive television screen.
He was trying to leave when he heard the sound of laughter miraculously rise above the cacophony, it was coming from the direction of the TV screen. He just had to look because, somehow, strangely, the sound had pleased him. It had an inexplicable attraction like the sound of a golden saxophone amongst an orchestra of tinny penny-whistles.
Rochelle was jumping up and down and embracing her friends. Michael felt shock-waves permeate his otherwise alcohol-numbed body when he realised it was the girl he had bumped into at the newsagents. He surprised himself even more when disappointment made him think that she would not be interested in him now – not now that she had won the lottery.
Someone was saying “Hi”.
He took his head out of his hands and, raising it slowly, the first image to hit his bleary eyes was a lovely neck circled by a chain with several tiny, shiny golden cows dangling all the way round. Rochelle noticed his fascination with the necklace.
“It must have brought me luck tonight” she smiled her terrific smile in his direction. He was speechless but she persisted despite no effort on his part to converse, “just celebrating my win on the lottery” she said leaning across the bar trying to attract the attention of a chimpanzee impersonator who was selling drinks.
Michael was unable to draw his attention away from the lovely neck and the jewellery he would normally have found so offensive, yet on this neck it did not seem sacrilegious it seemed harmless, beautiful almost.
“I suppose you’ll be celebrating Christmas in New Camelot this year now that your numbers have come up”? He slurred a drunken sentence together still obsessing over the sacred cows.
“Hardly” laughed Rochelle. “I only won forty quid, anyway, I don’t give a toss about money and I wouldn’t want to spend half-an-hour in that place”.
His eyes were raised now and he could see her face was alive with laughter and he felt like he had never felt before, he felt like he belonged somewhere.
“What’s your name anyway” she asked him “Michael” the word came out as clear as a Christmas bell.
“Well Michael can I buy you a drink, see if we can cheer you up a bit”?
“Thanks, make it a Scotch” he was saying as he watched her scribble something onto a yellow drinks mat which looked, smelt and felt exactly like a flat banana.
He stared enlightened as digit followed, digit, he never realised that six numbers could be so sublime, so full of possibilities. Rochelle handed him his whisky and the flat banana and waved.
“Ring me soon” she said and disappeared into the crowd.