The Free Market (Part 1)
- 543 reads
A clothed orgy every morning.
Hell. Zone 1.
If Picasso painted bodily odours…
Christian Weaver enlivened his morning commute by inventing USPs — unique selling propositions — for rush hour on the London Underground. A difficult brief, even for a man whose marketing talent was the stuff of fable.
His viral campaigns, it was often said, could sell fresh air.
One hand high on the central pole, above the knot of fingers — male, female, bare, beringed — he wondered if sweat was showing through the armpit of his white shirt. Then wondered why he cared. Someone’s halitosis was eating through his mucous membranes. Gusts of perfume incubated thoughts of chemical toilets.
An old man squeezed on at the next stop, oozing through the chyme of commuters. His ingestion was watched with blank dismay by those left on the platform, unable to board the packed train. As though the gates of heaven slammed in their faces, thought Christian derisively. Christian budged as far as he could — about four inches — to let the old man join the human pinwheel spoked around the pole. As soon as his papery hand was on the pole, the man slid a book from his pocket and held it in front of his face — and therefore in front of Christian’s.
If a man, at the time of death, concentrates his mind upon the form of the personality of Godhead, and while so doing relinquishes his body, he at once enters the spiritual existence of the antimaterial world. For it is written: ‘That upon which a person meditates at the time of death, quitting his body absorbed in the thought thereof, that particular thing he attains after death’…
Christian read against his will, the words as unpleasantly imposed on his attention as if the man were exposing himself, or murmuring erotic endearments into his phone. It wasn’t the text itself that he found offensive (the usual mumbo-jumbo), so much as the performative way the man was reading it. Everything about him was a demonstration: his ostentatiously shabby clothes (that once orange tee-shirt had been through as many cycles as his Age-of-Aquarius beliefs), his severe, unsmiling face, the fact that he was holding a book instead of a smartphone like everyone else, and not only holding it, brandishing it, wielding his scripture as a kind of shield against the unenlightened materialism he was forced to go amongst. Of course Christian haad no problem with people selling themselves. That was pretty much the meaning of life — inasmuch as life had any meaning. What he found galling was the pretence that spiritual marketing was not marketing at all, that a life spent wallowing in cod-Eastern mysticism, burning incense and pretending to commune with this or that godhead, was something other than an attempt to stand out from the crowd, a saffron robe to hold up against the grey mass of urban normality.
The train rocked, sardined commuters swayed. Advertising screens watched their pendulation from the angled panels above the windows.
Christian looked away from the book, only to find himself glaring at the side of the man’s bald head (had he once sported one of those island-in-the-sun ponytails, before he went cueball smooth?). Too close to properly focus on, the hairless scalp was a blur of blemishes, moles and liver spots and blanched patches. Like a globe, Christian thought, a dirty old globe with the continents wrong. He turned back and inadvertently glanced at the book again:
This vast universe is a wheel, the wheel of Brahman. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth, death, and rebirth. Round and round it turns, and never stops…
He stared down in disgust. What is it about the human mind that compels it to attend to useless things? At the next stop a few straphangers wriggled off and he claimed one of their spots before a fresh tide rolled in.
All lower case. Lightly serifed font. And a full stop: that was important. We need to talk about ethics. Full stop. Printed in large white text on a plain black tee-shirt. At first decapitated by a man-bun and a wristwatched forearm; then reattached to a girl with bright pink hair. Christian sighed. It was clearly his day to have other people’s half-baked beliefs shoved in his face. This piece of moral propaganda at least had brevity in its favour. From a single word — ethics. — he could instantly decode a whole system of pseudo-values: veganism, feminism, Marxism, gender-non-binarism, too-left-for-the-Guardian-ism. A perfect piece of copywriting. The trouble was, of course, that every element of that system would deny to the death its involvement in anything so tawdry as advertising. Well maybe not its own death, but at least the death of an innocent animal or oppressed person that could be laid at the feet of The Patriarchy, The Machine, The Man. It was a tee-shirt, for god’s sake, a product (stretched, he had to admit, over a tautly consumable torso: Marxbait). Why couldn’t people just accept the world for what it was: a marketplace, where everyone comes to hawk their opinions, buy what they want, sell what they’ve got. Or better, he thought with a smirk, sell what they haven’t got. Why not admit that there are no ethics, only strategies; no heaven, only success. If we shed our delusions and lived life on the terms it is offered to us, then who knows, we might actually enjoy it.
When the pink haired girl's face next emerged from the jungle, he shot her a glance; she remained immersed in her phone.
His own phone was out of juice, there was nothing to distract him but the adverts on the screens above. The same four commercials played in an endless loop: sunglasses, holiday rentals, a chain of care homes, a dating app. It pained him to watch them. The images that cycled by on the bright and coarsely pixellated grids were the most generic imaginable: a happy family playing on a beach; another enjoying the view from a lakeside villa; a contented old duffer with luminous teeth. Only the ad for the app showed any sign of ambiguity; the briefest hint of pre-date nerves, instantly whitewashed by a fairy tale of urban romance. Hadn’t the so-called creative directors realised that the polish of fantasy requires the grit of reality; that beauty can’t sing until ugliness snarls; that perfection, like Medusa’s face, can never be shown directly, only bounced past the viewer’s defences with humour, surprise, misdirection?
For all his scorn, Christian remained in thrall to the adverts, watching them over and over as he swayed on the strap in the claustrophobic carriage, backpack penguin-nursed between his feet. He barely registered the teenage boy beside him. No-one did, though the boy’s hands were shaking wildly, and the hooded top he was wearing seemed too full for his skinny frame. No-one was aware — because the boy had no interest in making them aware — of the image of perfection that burned in his eyes, imminent and unadulterated. As the train approached the next stop he reached into his pocket and triggered his explosive vest.
- Log in to post comments
Intense, interesting, brilliant read
- Log in to post comments
I enjoyed this. I haven't
I enjoyed this. I haven't been on the tube for years!
- Log in to post comments