The wind blows hard enough to whip up discarded papers and other rubbish, making a simple trip to Mr Chauhan’s more hazardous than it should. When they wrap around my shins I stumble and curse. Still, the walk back will be easier; the wind will be blowing behind me.
It is ’tea-break’ at the rubber glove factory where I work and I have realised I’m out of cigarettes. Before you start preaching I know it is a horrible habit but then it’s a horrible life. Just look at me; I’m twenty eight, have a 2:1 in history and I’m boxing up rubber gloves for a pittance. And I’m not even the best educated there; Keith has a Masters and has reached the dizzying heights of section supervisor. If my parents were still alive they would be so proud. I was being sarcastic, just in case you didn’t pick that up.
The factory has been on the site in the middle of this run-down part of town since god-knows when. Mostly brick-built with cracked and once-clear corrugated plastic fixed over where glass windows have been broken, which is most of them. The roof is asbestos sheet apart from the section where some kids climbing across it for a dare fell through. That part was repaired with heavy-duty marine-ply which has still managed to rot over time. The kids? No repairs for them I’m afraid. Two died and the third will never walk again. Fucking high price to pay for peer pressure.
The whole area looks deprived because it is. The irony is that those who could afford to buy a house here don’t because it stinks. You know how a new pair of rubber gloves smell? Not pleasant is it? That’s the finished product and it’s just a pair. Imagine the stench from the tens of thousands of the things made everyday. The malodour from the rubber and PVC solutions are enough to make you retch, if one didn’t get used to it. You wouldn’t want to live next to the factory either. Some people, of course, have no choice. Many have lived here for years and life hasn’t got any better for them. Most are too poor to move yet too poor to stay. A lot of the houses are derelict, several are squats. It is bad enough here that even developers can’t see any potential and no-one can be arsed to evict the squatters. Why bother? If they didn’t live there then there would be just another load of derelict houses. At least they bring a sense of community.
The other problem with the factory’s distinct fragrance is that it clings onto and penetrates your clothing, your hair, your skin. Even at home you cannot escape it. Washing helps a little but the perfume remains. You will not be surprised to find that I am single. You may also understand a little more why I am walking to the local newsagent for cigarettes; I try to mask the factory ordure with tobacco smoke. In this I am not terribly successful but the fags give me a short buzz and a welcome distraction.
There are few cars parked in the street; a combination of a low local populace and the fact that many around here can’t afford to own one. Of the dozen or so vehicles spaced out along either kerb line most are over ten years old and two are burnt out, the tarmac under them charred and melted. Thousands of shattered windscreen shards lay scattered across the road and footway. A sheet of newspaper comes bustling towards me on the wind. It feints left, then right. I try to anticipate its next move and fail. It wraps itself around my chest and face. I stop and peel it off, thankful that it doesn’t smell as though it has blown through anything unpleasant before it got to me. I begin to screw it into a ball but something catches my eye and I open it back up again. I have to fold it over and over again to stop it flapping around in the wind and start walking, slower, reading as I go; break time isn’t very long after all. It is an article titled VoxTV tight-lipped about new game show which tells me, or anyone else for that matter, nothing that we didn’t already know. Basically one of the big tv companies may be about to launch a new game show but it will not confirm one way or the other. It’s a half page article of speculative drivel and I’ve just wasted two minutes of my life reading it. I don’t even know why it caught my eye and why I bothered reading it; I don’t watch tv. I don’t even have a tv. When you’re short on cash it is a question of choice. In my case it’s fags or telly. I choose fags; both are addictive and will kill you. It’s just that I find fags are marginally more enjoyable and at least are up front about the fact they’re going to kill you. No one will admit that tv will do the same but it does it by stealth. It draws you in so you sit there night after night or, round here, day after day as there is fuck all else to do, and slowly, by degrees, you turn into a fat bastard. A vegetative fat bastard who has whatever messages the tv gods want to tell you or sell you rammed down your throat whether you like it or not and whether you are even aware of it or not. Yes, I’ll stick to the fags thank you.
Anyway, I digress. Feeling slightly irritated with myself for having bothered to read the article I recommence screwing it up and I toss it away. And before you point your finger accusingly, sneer and condemn me for littering I suggest you take a look around. It’s another piece in a litter-strewn street. Besides, it was already part of the street before it hit me in the face. I’m just helping it to get back on its way. Releasing it into the wild if you like. If we’re lucky, once a month someone from the local authority will spend half an hour trying to clean up before they realise it is a lost cause and they go away again. A month later someone different will arrive and repeat the whole charade.
I have reached Mr Chauhan’s local shop which is the only one open in a rank of four. The rest are boarded up and covered with so much graffiti that it is impossible to tell what each tag or piece of street art is supposed to be. As I said it’s a lovely area. Just the kind of place you would want to raise kids.
I press the buzzer and look up at the camera. After a few seconds a green light next to the camera lens comes on and there’s a heavy clunk as the electronic lock releases. I push the door open and step inside. Apart from the thick grills over the windows and door it is pretty much how you would imagine a small convenience store; approximately twice as deep as it is wide, with Mr Chauhan guarding over his miniature empire from behind a counter by the door. A rack of chiller units line one wall, with row after row of magazines and papers stretching away to the back of the shop on the other. In between is a long shelving unit sparsely stocked with foodstuffs and toilet roll. None of which I’m interested in as what I’m after is locked away behind the ever-vigilant shopkeeper.
“Morning Nirav,” I mumble through a sudden coughing fit.
“Hello my friend. Usual is it, sir? Ten cancer lites?” A joke from the Indian proprietor. The same one he makes every time and yet he seems to have no moral hang-ups about selling cigarettes whilst happily informing you of the potentially fatal consequences of your purchase. Still, got to make a living haven’t you.
“Yes, Nirav. Ten White Ladies. As usual.” I wait, patiently whilst he unlocks the cabinet, lets the roller door snap up, and then reaches for the correct blank packets amongst a wall of blank packets. Unbranded packaging? Fat fucking difference that makes. I still want a fag. The whole operation would be quicker but for the fact there is another customer in the shop and Chauhan’s gaze is trying to be two places at once. The first rule of shopkeeping; trust no-one. This minor delay gives me time to idly cast a glance across the the counter. To my left is the till and beyond that a small plastic stand loaded with scratchcards and lottery adverts. Okay, it’s a con. You know and I know it’s con designed to part us from our cash with the false hope of the riches of Croesus falling into our laps but, hey, fuck it; I’ll have a few quid left over from a twenty after the cigarettes. Why not? What else have I got to spend it on? And I could do with the thrill, however short, that you get from rubbing off the foil in wide-eyed anticipation. Yes, for once in my life I’m going to say bollocks to prudence.
“Anything else, sir?” says Chauhan already ringing up the cost of the cigarettes on the till.
“Ah, yes. I’ll have a couple of scratchcards please.” This genuinely catches him by surprise. Every weekday, come wind, rain or shine, the routine is the same. The unbroken ritual of tea-break cigarette expeditions, complete with pathetic joke every time, has today been shattered by the simple expedience of an additional purchase.
Mr Chauhan is so stunned by this change in routine that he actually asks “Are you sure, sir?”
“Very sure. Living wild, me. Feeling lucky you know,” I lied. I tear two cards off the reel and slap them down on the counter whilst Chauhan voids the till and re-enters my purchases.
“They are sure to be winners, sir,” he says, grinning like a loon.
“Oh I’m sure. Everyone’s a winner,” I reply sarcastically, smiling back. That grin is infectious. How does he keep that up all day whilst simultaneously believing that every customer may be about to stab him and empty the till? I pocket the cigarettes and examine the scratchcards. Chauhan stares at me expectantly. “I think I’ll wait, savour the moment,” I say. The grin momentarily slips. He seems disappointed by this news. I guess he would love to see my hopes crushed in front of his face as I reveal no prizes on both cards. Or maybe he’s just waiting for that little win that is like the worm on a hook. A little win that would tempt me to take a bite of the worm, a little nibble on a hope that will rip into your soul. Reeled in I would buy more cards: scratch, win, spend, scratch, don’t win, buy again because the next one will be the big one, scratch, don’t win, it’ll be this one, spend, scratch, small win, and so on. I deny him that little victory. I am a mug but I not that much of a mug. I pocket the cards as well and, with a friendly wave, I turn to the door. Chauhan reaches under the desk, pressing the button. There is a loud buzzing as the door unlocks and, without looking back, I open it and step out into the street.
The wind has got stronger, if that is possible. If this was autumn there would be leaves swirling around and a nostalgic longing for the summer past in the air. But this is February; there are just crisp packets, newspapers, icy drizzle and the scent of hopelessness. I trudge back towards the factory, the wind pushing my coat into the small of my back. A billboard proclaims Life outside the box: It’s coming. Keep Watching Vox in peeling strips. Life outside the box? Any fucking life has got to be better than this.