Chapter 1: The package
I paced up and down the hallway, tapping my fingers against my thighs. The sense of anticipation was overpowering. When would it arrive?
‘Julian, are you nearly ready for supper? It’s Lamb Shank. Your favourite’.
I ignored my mother’s question. My mind was elsewhere.
All of a sudden it edged its way through the letter box.
I stooped down to pick it up. Was this the package I had been waiting for? If it was, it was bulkier than I imagined. I felt it and, as I did so, sweat poured down my face. I can’t tell you how excited I was. Inside was the answer to all my problems.
‘Any mail for me?’ shrieked my mother.
‘Come on. Don’t keep me waiting now. I hate it when you and your father let the food get cold.’
She appeared at the doorway. ‘Do you hear me?’
Reluctantly I trudged into the kitchen – the package placed in my trouser pocket, its sharp edges cutting into my thighs.
‘Make sure you have plenty of broccoli. I am just putting the gravy in the gravy boat’.
Do I really give a shit?
‘Do you hear me?’
‘Yes, I fucking do!’
‘Julian, your father and I have warned you about your inappropriate use of expletives. We will have to book you in for another psychology appointment, if you continue with this behaviour.’
‘Now you are being flippant. Dr Argyle is very distinguished!’
‘Very distinguished and a pile of shit, if you ask me.’
‘I give up.’ Mum stormed out the kitchen, like a warrior on a mission.
I felt the package again, caressing it, like a long lost lover. It bulged in my trousers. I wondered about sneaking up to my room.
‘I told you not to let it get cold, didn’t I? Can’t you do just one thing I ask?’ Mum shouted as she made a dramatic re-appearance.
Sometimes I wished my mother was a DVD player. If she was I would get great pleasure pressing the pause button. No such luck. Instead she proceeded incessantly and my ears strained themselves.
My heart beat faster and faster. I tucked into the Lamb Shank, creamy mash and the conscientious broccoli.
I took the package and its contents up to my bedroom, shut the door and took a deep breath. It had been a real torment waiting for it to arrive. The last few nights I had hardly slept. I had been edgy and irritable at school and had even shouted at my best friend, Rebecca.
I decided to lock the door. I felt that this was a necessary precaution. I didn’t want Mum or Dad to come in – or Fido for that matter. Fido was a good companion, but he did have the habit of coming into my room at awkward moments.
I slid the bolt. I needed something sharp to open the padded envelope. I looked for some scissors. Where the fuck did I put those? Aargh! How annoying!
I hurled clothes around, as I searched for the elusive scissors. Why was my room such a fucking mess? Mum had stopped cleaning it, when I got to sixteen. Dr Argyll said that ‘it would be therapeutic for me to clean my own room.’ What a fucking arse that bloke was!
‘What are you doing up there? Are you coming down for trifle?’ Mum shrieked from downstairs, although the volume would have indicated that she was right next to my ear drum.
‘In a minute!’
‘Hurry. I want to get all the dishes cleared. Nicholas Parsons is on at 7.’
Fuck Nicholas Parsons!
To be honest as well as being incredibly untidy my room really ponged, as I had been wetting my bed since I was a kid. Dr Argyll thought that this might be anxiety-related.
The scissors were incredibly elusive. My search wasn’t helped by the fact that books were stacked up everywhere in piles that defied architectural credibility. What had I done with those fucking scissors? I could sense the tension in my muscles.
At last I found the fuckers!
Under my fucking pyjamas! I grabbed the scissors and pierced the package with real fury. Then with my nails I mercilessly tore the package open. My heart was beating rapidly and I very nearly pissed in my pants.
It fell out. A strange little device – a tiny tube. Where the fuck was I meant to put that? The website had been fairly scanty with information. They had only wanted £100, which was a small price to pay, if it did what they claimed it would.
After rummaging around in the box for a few more priceless seconds I found an information leaflet rather like one you would find in a medicine packet. The instructions said: ’Insert carefully’. Insert where?
I fumbled with the leaflet, scrutinizing it with a Sherlock Holmesian precision. Eventually I found a diagram.
I approached the mirror on my wall. My whole body was shaking. The light was poor, so I reached down to the bedside lamp and switched it on. The diagram seemed to depict a poorly delineated giant nose with a massive arrow that suggested very strongly that I should insert the little motherfucker into one of my nostrils.
I was perspiring as I pushed the device up my left nostril. It was incredibly uncomfortable. The top bit tickled the inner lining of my nostril and I started to feel really nauseous. I waited for a few minutes as the device intruded.
There was no effect. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was and angry. I kicked down a pile of books in frustration. For fuck’s sake there goes a hundred big ones and a place at Oxford. I’d end up at Bristol like my sister and with a boring life of mediocrity.
Chapter 2: The Interview
‘Son, it is 8am. Time to get up. You have your interview today.’ Dad’s voice was a persistent, intrusive monotone into my world of warm and comforting grogginess.
Aargh. Fuckin’ ell. I was desperate to get into Oxford after that idiot, Stean, wrote off my chances. And so I’d spent £100 on that dodgy device off the internet. My friends at school had told me that it was a scam. I should have listened. Anybody with any sense would have known that it was a scam. That was why no one had ever heard of it before. As Mum used to say, and she was never wrong: ‘If it’s too good to be true, it is too good to be true’.
‘Son, I am going to de-ice the car. Your mother has the coffee percolating for you. Hurry up!’
Oh God! That Dad of mine – he is a good Dad, but if only he could be a bit less bouncy at 8am in the fuckin’ morning. I guessed that I would have to shower. The Oxford dons weren’t exactly going to let me in if I reeked.’ I tumbled out of bed.
While the car sped along the M4 I contemplated my future. Would those snobby fuckers really give me a place? OK, Stean had given me a good grounding in the Classics, but even so, however good I was, who was to say that the next person wasn’t going to be one step ahead of the game? Maybe they had read Plato, Aristotle and Sextus Empiricus. Homer and Virgil were about my lot.
Dad dropped me off outside the college.
That afternoon I wandered round Oxford looking for a greasy spoon. Surely this famous city could allow the students this sort of indulgence.
There it was! In St Giles – a horrible, dirty, scummy little place, promising a ‘full English breakfast’. I wondered to myself: would anyone want a breakfast that wasn’t ‘full’? I congratulated myself on this sharp observation and descended into the quagmire of eggs, nasally-stimulating bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and, if it really was going to prove to be my day, the much-cherished hash browns.
The place was a hive of debate: students discussing anything from Marxism to geo-physics. One table was even discussing the latest episode of Neighbours, which I thought was rather shameless. OK, everyone loves to watch Neighbours, but to admit that in public seemed to me to be a betrayal of everything that makes this country great.
My food arrived. My ‘full English breakfast’ was the most extensive breakfast I had ever witnessed: a plethora of breakfast items and a side plate of bread and butter to boot. I had about half an hour to polish this lot off, before doing battle with the cerebral heavy-weights.
Later on I waited patiently outside the office of the Classics tutor at Keble: the eminent Adrian Hollis, who was a world authority on Ovid. I can remember sitting there and staring at the red walls. Why had they painted the walls of the waiting room this dark, hideous red? Was it to freak me out before I went in and confronted the dons?
If only that fucking device had worked, I would have had a fighting chance. I wasn’t going to get in, relying on my own intellectual resources. OK I had dressed to impress. The old dear had bought me a smart suit from John Lewis, and my tie, embellished with the picture of a lovely bright orange duck on it, was the required fashion accessory of the moment. Mum had shined my shoes the night before – that would have fucked Dr Argyll off. That silly fucker wanted me to be ‘independent’, but having to shine my own shoes would have been pushing things too far.
I felt nauseous. Oh My God. I had never met an Oxford don before and wondered what they would look like or whether they spoke in a particular way.
The door opened and out popped this grey-haired man, who would have graced Back to the Future.
‘You must be Julian Skanky?’ I wasn’t convinced that his voice had actually broken.
‘Come right in.’
I went in, my heart beating and there before me was a strange looking woman and a chap who looked rather uncomfortable, possibly due to extensive constipation.
‘Professor Stephanie West, Lecturer in Greek Literature, and Dr James Griffin, Lecturer in Ethics and Medieval Philosophy.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ I mumbled. ‘My name is Julian Skanky’.
I wanted to yell ‘laxatives’ at the top of my voice, but wisely decided that this would be inappropriate.
I sat down and Professor West leaned forward: ‘Mr Skanky, in what sense might it be argued that Aeschylus is the least accessible of the Greek tragedians?’
The old cow was definitely playing hard ball. Straight in there – she hadn’t even bothered with any intellectual foreplay. Fuckin ‘ell. How was I going to answer that? She’d gone straight for my middle stump and I was going to be out first ball. How fucking nauseating! My legs started to shake frenetically. My mouth went dry. My thoughts raced around like manic bumper cars. Then I started to speak:
‘Aeschylus’ language is richer, his themes are grander, and his ideas are much more complex. The plays of Sophocles and Euripides are easier to comprehend. Euripides in Helen, for instance, even descends into melodrama. Aeschylus’ trilogy Oresteia, on the other hand, is a rich blend of effusive verse and rich interplay between the central characters. Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan War is a pulsating, epic moment that may be unrivalled in Greek literature…’
‘Nicely put, Mr Skanky.’ Professor West seemed impressed. Had the device kicked in at the vital moment?
Then Dr Griffin leant forward: ‘I’d like to hear your views on a just war, Mr Skanky’.
‘Well, it is all to do with the ends justifying the means, Dr Griffin.’ I nearly added ‘and all that bollocks’, but wisely decided that that would be inappropriate. That is all I remember of the interview.
A few weeks later Adrian Hollis called me at my home in Esher.
“Hello, is that Mr Julian Skanky?”
“Yes it is.”
“It is Adrian Hollis from Oxford University. We would like to offer you a place at Keble to read Classics.”
“I’d like to accept.”
“We look forward to seeing you in September”.
“Thank you”, I replied and at this point I started to hyperventilate.
The device had come good. Everything was going according to plan. I jumped up and down, ecstasy searing through my veins.
Chapter 3: Skanky at Oxford
I want to level with you – the first few weeks at Oxford went swimmingly. I moved all my stuff into the college rooms, put my books on the shelves and prepared myself for academia. I socialised in the bars, night clubs and coffee shops and met lots of weird and wonderful people.
However, nothing prepared me for Rosalind. I first met her through a mutual friend at the college in the student bar.
‘I am Julian Skanky. What is your name?’
‘I’m Rosalind. You can call me Roz. I’m not at the University proper, but rather the one up in Headington.’
‘That’s right. You brainy people don’t usually talk to us second class citizens.’
‘I wouldn’t call you that. You have a lovely manner and a beautiful smile.’
‘Well. Thank you, Mr Skanky.’
‘That’s a pleasure. Can I get you a drink or something?’
‘What would something involve?’
‘Something normally follows a drink, but if you want to skip the drink, that’s fine by me.’
‘I’ll have a vodka and orange, please.’
One afternoon we went for a picnic in one of the local parks. I marvelled at all the stuff she had expertly packed into her basket: pork pies, French bread, cheeses (in the plural), grapes (red and green), several cans of Vimto, and a few books of poetry.
The sun shone and the grass glistened. She spoke with a lovely melodious tone:
‘You must be very clever getting into Oxford, Julian’.
‘That’s very kind.’
‘No, I really mean it. Your Mum and Dad must be very proud of you!’
‘I guess they are in their own way.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Well, I was a difficult child. I had ‘behavioural problems’.’
‘Aspergers. Mum always joked that if she’d had a receipt she would have taken me back!’
Pizza, Curry, visits to the cinema and then that epic moment:
We were sitting in the restaurant, eating pasta and drinking wine and I felt like a diver about to jump off a high board. I had been going to this church and they’d taught me how to listen to God without any confusion. I felt the nudge.
I leant forward, looking deep into her eyes.
I could feel my heart beating.
‘Roz, you make me feel really good about myself. How about we get married?’
Her eyes flashed in astonishment and she gulped audibly.
‘I’ve only known you a few weeks, Julian. You are rushing things. You are becoming intense, which takes the fun out of things.’
‘We always have a great time, Roz. You laugh at my silly jokes. You understand me. You are the first person who has made me feel normal.’
‘Julian, I need a break from you.’
‘In fact, you need to get some help.’
‘What sort of help?’
‘What the fuck?’
‘Look, you’ve become erratic. You talk about the bible all the time and God seems to direct your every move. You are heading for trouble and you need help.’
‘I don’t understand’.
‘You never will understand. You are so caught up in your own little world. Why did you have to tell my Mum and Dad that you wet your bed?’
‘I thought that they needed to know.’
Help, for fuck’s sake!
OK I made a bit of a dick of myself proposing to Roz like that, but I was hooked on an illicit drug – religion. I don’t mean common or garden Christianity, I mean the heavy duty shit: healings, demons, power, dancing in the aisles and lots of other euphoric nonsense. OK, it was a bit random giving Roz that proposal, but I thought ‘the governor’ had told me to do it. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I guess that the governor has better things to worry about than my love life. Also, I think he respects the dating process. You don’t need him prodding you, briefing you, telling you what to say, like some kind of ventriloquist.
OK – it was a bit random. I feel bad, because it made her cry. She was a mate: we used to do drama, go for pizzas and she loved my jokes. She thought that I was a cool dude, but freaking her out like that didn’t help matters. It induced an awkwardness; the awkwardness led to depression; the depression put me off the radar – so bad the shrinks wired me up and tried to shock me.
When I say ‘it wasn’t my fault’, I don’t want to shirk responsibility, but I do want to say ‘it feels bad’. Roz was cool. She seemed to giggle, almost like a dribble. It was contagious – she would bring a lovely sense of fun into everything. I miss her. It really was a complete fuck up. Being with her made me feel alive – almost normal.
I would have loved her to ring and say: ‘Jules, it is OK. I forgive you.’ It never fucking happened, because she cut me right out of her life, like I was an infection or something.
When she did that I stopped feeling normal. In fact she made me feel like I was a Nazi at a war crimes trial? Of course they used the same excuse: ‘We were acting under orders’.
The college doctor was a right Charlie.
‘You proposed to a girl that you’d only known for a few weeks?’
‘In your notes it says you wet your bed. What is that all about?’
‘It means that I pee in my bed at night.’
‘Don’t be a smart arse with me, young man!’
‘I am very down, Doctor. Can you help me?’
‘Yes, I can. I am sure the wonderful Dr Holton would be delighted to see you.’
‘He is a specialist for … How can I put it diplomatically? For what society calls ‘undesirables’.’
At this point the college doctor was lucky not to have his head thrust up his back passage – the silly fucker!
Chapter 4: The wilderness years
Shortly after seeing the college doctor, I was put under the care of the eminent Dr Holton, who was a psychiatrist based in Epsom near to my family home. He insisted that I have ‘a break from my studies at Oxford’ and assured me that I would be ‘fighting fit in no time’.
Hospital admission followed hospital admission. Mum and Dad didn’t want me at home and my only solace was a double espresso at Starbucks and a game of chess at Kingston Chess Club on a Monday night. However, disaster struck one night when an old lady who could hardly move the pieces checkmated me. Fuckin’ ‘ell, I felt bad.
My world had become desperate. My flat was so dirty that the Housing Association were determined to evict me. I had no one to turn to. Most of my friends had deleted me off Facebook and I had run out of funds to order another memory-enhancing micro-chip. What was I going to do? Hopefully, Dr Holton would come up with something. He normally did. Even another visit to the dreaded day centre would be better than nothing.
It was meant to be a routine appointment. I had been visiting Dr Holton, my psychiatrist, every three months for the last year to review my medication. I felt the usual weariness as I sat there in the waiting room.
‘Come in, Julian. Take a seat.’ Holton’s voice boomed through the speaker in the waiting room. It had a clean, robotic quality about it.
Holton had started to meet me as a green hologram to save time and conserve money for the much-maligned and over-stretched NHS, but as always I was slightly taken back to see the tall remote form of Holton as a hologram seated comfortably behind the desk.
Why not make the desk a hologram as well rather than that cheap shit from Homebase?
‘How have you been feeling?’ asked Holton, leaning forward in a way that might be construed as empathy.
‘OK, thanks, Dr Holton, although, I must say, the tranquillizers are making me feel like a zombie and my libido is non-existent.’
‘Oh well – at least you are not hallucinating, having bizarre thoughts or getting hostile.’
‘How is it going with your Mum and Dad?’
‘Not too bad.’
‘Are you still reeling from Rosalind’s rejection at Oxford?’
‘Kind of, but the meds take the edge off it. They kind of numb the pain.’
Dr Holton lent back and smiled. A hologram smile had a menacing quality to it.
‘Julian, I have a proposition for you.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I can’t go into the details, it is all very hush, hush for the moment, if you know what I mean – but it would give you a better life, Julian, a function, a purpose in life. The last few years, you’ve been sitting in coffee shops, drinking Starbucks dry and this new form of ‘therapy’, although very controversial, might be just the tonic that you need.’
Holton went on and I listened intently.
Dr Holton had enthused about the new ‘therapy’. I would be the prototype of a new man-machine hybrid, a kind of Terminator for the real world, a bionic man. Holton’s enthusiasm for the project had brimmed over. I had caught the bait, hook, line and sinker.
Holton had told me that I would be admitted to ‘the transition ward’ at Springfield Hospital in Tooting on Wednesday morning of the following week. Despite an increasing sense of excitement, I felt frightened. I looked around my flat, my home, my fortress and my eyes fixed on the grubby, blue sofa, where I had learned to do my Buddhist meditation. Meditation had made my persistent anxiety tolerable and was the only ‘weapon’ at my disposal.
I dreaded ringing Mum. How was I going to tell her? I started to cry. I had had high hopes. I had been in love with Rosalind but after her rejection I had descended into madness. I missed her desperately. Life had become tedious and uneventful. I had been out of work for a long time and each day seemed to go on forever. I knew that Holton’s proposal was worth a shot. What did I have to lose?
The following Wednesday I woke up early and had a nasty panic attack. Adrenaline pumped through my veins. Reluctantly I got up and staggered into the bathroom. Underneath the shower the warm water soothed my frayed nerves. I towelled myself down, put on a bright pink T shirt and my black Primark jeans. I arrived at the train station early. Springfield Hospital was a short train ride from Kingston station. When I got to the hospital, I asked the large lady behind the desk at reception for ‘the transition ward’. At this point a couple of heavies approached me, forced me to the ground, yanked down my trousers and inserted a sharp needle into my arse.
Chapter 5: Brave New world
‘Look, Holton. What did you actually tell the kid?’
‘He’s hardly a kid. He was at Oxford a year or so ago and can read Homer in the original Greek. I just told him that we could make a few adjustments to improve his life.’
‘He’s deadwood, Holton. He thought he was a spy on his last admission and it took three months of expensive, antipsychotic medicine to bring him round. Not to mention how much it costs to keep freaks like that in an acute psychiatric ward. Look, Holton, you didn’t tell him it was ethically dubious, did you? We have to keep a lid on this. If the media gets hold of this…’
‘Don’t worry about that. He doesn’t know half the story. I didn’t even tell him that we’re going to lop off his balls.’
‘Well, they weren’t exactly of much use, were they, Holton? Girls were hardly queuing up, were they?’
‘No buts Holton! We’ve given you a hefty advance and the bank is going to help you out with your debts. Also you don’t want your gambling addiction getting out, do you, Holton? A psychiatrist with an addiction – it is a bit like a vegan having shares in Burger King. Come and see us again when Julian has been transformed into something more useful. Always a pleasure Dr Holton – you can see yourself out.’
Holton got up and, as he made his way to the door, he didn’t even look back at the Prime Minister.
The next thing that I was conscious of was Dr Holton’s impressive beard.
‘Hello Julian or CP32817, as you are now called.’
I spluttered something in reply.
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Do robots have feelings?’
‘Oh yes. A red light means that you are angry, blue means that you are in love and yellow means that you are content. We call them ‘emotional traffic lights’. Vanessa will be monitoring your emotions and general efficiency.’
At this point the shapely Vanessa appeared. She had a smile to die for. My blue light started flashing. She laughed nervously.
Fucking hell, I thought. She can read me like a book – an e-book more like.
‘The operation has been a success. You need to rest now.’ Holton had an annoying, patronizing voice that seems to be a pre-requisite of psychiatrists.
‘What is going to happen now, Dr Holton?’ I asked insistently.
‘What indeed? The banks have been complaining for a long time about the impersonal nature of cashpoint machines? They believe it is the chief cause of the current recession.’
‘What has the recession got to do with me and my mental illness for God’s sake?’
‘Well – we now have the technology to turn redundant human beings into empathic, interactive cashpoint machines …’
‘What the fuck do you mean?’
‘Calm down, Skanky.’
‘Don’t tell me to calm down, you piece of shit.’
‘You are getting hostile now. I may have to sedate you.’
My red light started flashing.
He rarely got pissed, but seeing that young lad, Julian Skanky, encased in a cashpoint machine, had really turned his stomach. He walked past the local park where he and Debbie had used to walk their border terrier, but Debbie had run off with the car mechanic of all people. What a bastard that Wayne was, but what could he do? Wayne was built like a professional boxer and had charmed the pants off Debbie – quite literally.
Feeling bereft after Debbie’s departure, he had started going down the bookies, betting on Barnsley FC every week, and soon his debts had mounted and then his mood had plummeted. His GP had suggested antidepressants of all things, but thankfully Psychotechnology UK had sought him out with this cashpoint business and money was now much less of a stress.
Then the PM and his team had started e-mailing him regularly. They wanted ‘guinea pigs’ and who better than Julian Skanky? Only Starbucks in Surbiton would miss him and maybe the local chess club, but other than that Skanky was a supreme waste of space and time.
But conscience is a tricky customer and to deal with such a customer Holton had prescribed himself a few vodkas at The Albion. Seeing Skanky like that ‘in the flesh’ had been a real eye-opener for Holton. Psychotechnology UK were taking humans (albeit complete losers) and turning them into something never seen before, except in films like Avatar, but this wasn’t Avatar, this was reality. This was Skanky – without bollocks, without a human identity, without autonomy – about to be ‘housed’ in the centre of Kingston opposite a busy night club. Holton was having serious reservations about the whole enterprise.
‘Those fuckers at Psychotechnology UK have dreamt up this idea of amalgamating humans – that are ‘past their sell by date’ – and turning them into machines: cashpoints, hoovers, microwaves, interactive diaries.’
‘What’s that, Tony?’ Belinda asked. Her breasts had a lovely way of bouncing up and down.
‘I’ll have another, ‘nother vodka, Belinda.’
‘You’ve had your lot, Tony. We don’t want you falling in a ditch, now do we?’
Holton stumbled out the door of The Albion and walked along the busy road with as much control as he could after several double vodkas and an eyeful of Belinda’s breasts.
At this point he collapsed in a ditch with the cars whizzing by.
Oceana is a busy night club in Kingston. Outside mingle the droves of young people in their skirts and their shirts, smelling of sweet fragrances. Alcohol fuels their passions, releasing them from their neuroses and propelling them to their artificial intimacies.
I observe the nightly ritual with its nauseating predictability.
I crave the nutrients, which arrive punctually every six hours and always perk me up. I have acute vision and hearing and never sleep. I am always on hand to convince customers to buy mortgages, insurance, superfast broadband and I can also provide complimentary orange juice and condoms. In bright yellow on my exterior is the slogan: The Feeling Bank – Taking Cashpoints into the Future.