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One of the funniest things Marie has ever seen was a man who manipulated his testicles so that they resembled The Elephant Man, John Merrick. She was seventeen at the time and pissed on cheap cider at a crowded house party. Later that night, a brunette nurse from Wigan made a pass at her. Marie refused, but ended up having her arse fondled on a half-lit stairwell by the testicle manipulator, who said he was a photocopier salesman from Whitstable. She thinks about him every now and again. Especially when she hears John Hurt’s voice. On the adverts. On television.
‘DON'T FOLLOW ME, FOLLOW JESUS' are the words scrawled in spidery black ink on the back of a white coat worn by a grey-haired man who carries a small Yorkshire Terrier in one of his pockets as he hobbles along the beach. Marie likes to be beside the seaside. In the summer, she gets up early and drives at eighty miles an hour along the motorway to Broadstairs. When the sun is out, she sits on a deck chair for hours, before the crowds arrive, watching the seagulls soar high above. Minding her own business. Listening to the glistening sea.
Marie lies in bed. Her eyes are closed. She plays back images of the things she’s seen on her morning journey into work. An Irish man wearing a brown tweed jacket and silky blue tracksuit bottoms waiting sheepishly in a bus queue. A black girl with a tiny head and big white eyes sat on the filthy floor of a piss-stinking underground tunnel, forlorn collie dog resting its head in her lap. A fat woman in a Celine Dion T-shirt, holding a banana and a small carton of sugar-free orange juice. The newspaper headline HEADMASTER’S NOSE FOUND IN TOILET CISTERN.
Once a month, Marie visits the zoo. Strolling around concrete enclosures containing incarcerated gorillas, depressed elephants, teary-eyed giraffes and apathetic meerkats reminds her not to take her liberty for granted. Freedom's an increasingly worthless concept at the moment. Legions of idiots offer themselves up for mindless reality television programmes like Big Brother. As she stands in the rain, watching a screaming child wail through a window at a sleeping tiger, Marie wonders how much more entertaining television might be if the big cat was let loose in the Big Brother house for five minutes. That would be talked about television.
"Let's see. Sunshine gives us moonshine." says the optician, switching on a blinding white light. "This one magnifies ten times. The other up to forty. I see your deepest darkest secrets. Are you a good individual? Ah. Yes. Highly commendable. Now, look at the green light. You are on stage singing. Or maybe a stand-up comedian. Now, a look at the retina, where we see a record of the lies you may have told…". Marie's eyes move quickly. She sees the words, TAKE CAT OUT OF FREEZER written clearly in red ink on the back of a pale white hand.
"I'm very, very pale because I'm half Irish" says Gavin, the anorexic hairdresser, who smiles and winks at Marie through a heavily-bruised black eye before rinsing her soapy hair beneath a hand-held shower. "Mind you, I would have loved to have been a footballer but I was never good enough. I found it hard to last the full 90 minutes. I'm not a natural athlete. I'm not a Brazilian. Or Nigerian. So I became a butcher. Then I mended televisions. For the disabled and older people... Is that water too hot for you darlin', or would you like it colder?"
Marie's fingers smell of garlic. On the top deck of a 52 bus, she reads a magazine article about missing persons written by a journalist called Romeo Quirk. When she was a child, Marie's father had a running joke. At the mention of somebody with an appropriate surname (like Bottom), he would raise his eyebrows, smile and say "Hello Mr Bottom. How's Mrs Bottom and all your little Bottoms?" As translucent raindrops spatter against the bus window, Marie wonders where a 32-year-old plumber from Nottingham might disappear to, before thinking about Mr Quirk, Mrs Quirk and all their little Quirks.
Marie walks sheepishly into a dingy church hall to give blood. Men and women lie on beds in various states of recovery. She moves slowly along a row of chairs as donors take their places. When she gets to the front of the queue, she notices a commotion. A nurse rushes to a woman with a drip on her arm whose eyes roll as she violently sucks in her cheeks. Screens are pulled around her. As she sinks into her bed, Marie notices a big white sticker on her denim jacket BE GOOD TO ME - I GAVE BLOOD TODAY.
Most mornings when she wakes, Marie hears a seagull cry outside her bedroom window. She likes to think it’s lost. One day, she will write a story and call it ‘The Seagull That Lost Its Way’. She’s no idea what the story will be about but can be sure it will have a great title. Once, on a trip to Ireland, Marie stopped her car near Galway on the edge of a breathtaking bay. A massive seagull hovered in the air, inches from her face. It looked her in the eyes. Hovered a moment longer. And then slowly flew away
“I picked up one woman at one o’clock in the morning” says the Irish taxi driver. “Wanted to go to Gypsy Fields. I told her 25 quid. She said ‘It can’t be that much'. So I took her to base. Controller said ‘25 quid. And we’ll have it up front.’ She gave him 20 quid. Said a businessman would give her the rest. Anyway, we arrived. She goes in. Comes out. Hands me a note and says ‘Here’s 20 quid.’ I give her 15 change. I check it on the way back. See she’s given me a 10 pound note.”
“Mum and Dad and chips and peas. Mum and dad and chips and peas.” squeals a small girl with a pink dress and a black eye patch. Marie pushes a stainless steel shopping trolley along a deserted supermarket aisle. The trolley contains five mushrooms, two red apples and an underarm deodorant. The smell of fresh-baked ‘French’ baguette lingers. A boss-eyed man in an ASK ME ABOUT HOME DELIVERY T-shirt passes by. As she wonders what to have for dinner, Marie spots a shelf filled with tins of ‘Dolphin Friendly’ Tuna Chunks. Good news for dolphins. Bad news for tuna fish.
“DARYL… JOHN… HALL… OATES… THE SONG… MANEATER.” booms the radio DJ. Marie sits in gridlocked traffic. A silver Range Rover sits in the next lane driven by a woman with a fake tan. As the traffic inches along, the woman uses an electrical device to massage her face. In the back seat, a small boy sits staring out of the window. He wears a Spiderman mask and a silver party hat. Marie hits ‘Search’ on the radio and a deranged Scottish woman laughs “I may not know how to cook Risotto, but I do know how to have an orgasm.”
"Why are you into violent games?" says the man in the pink silk turban to a boy in a mint green suit. They sit in the seats behind Marie in the darkness of a cinema. "Because we live in a violent world" replies the boy. Lights dim. Ads play for fast cars, strong drinks and super hold hair gel. David Lynch's ‘Mulholland Drive' begins. As the film rolls, Marie becomes incredibly bored. Her blue eyes drift absently around the cinema. In a moment of great epiphany, she realises that the word TOILETS is an anagram of the words TS ELIOT.
Marie sits in the Royal Albert Hall wondering how many holes it would take to fill the space in front of her. Earlier today, a man called Ernest phoned to say she'd won a ticket to see the English National Ballet perform Swan Lake, "a classic, the one and only, a once in a lifetime opportunity". Now she's in a box. On her own, with a group of nine champagne-swilling rich people. Someone coughs. Champagne is sipped. Furtive glances are exchanged quietly. Marie becomes transfixed. By a tiny ballerina's delicate silhouette. Frozen in the silvery-blue glow of an automated spotlight.
Marie stands alone in pouring rain without an umbrella. Across the road, outside a shop window, eleven different coloured Wellington boots stand in line in order of size. When she was a girl, Marie’s father would always carry a bright yellow umbrella around with him. Whenever they travelled together on the tube, he would pull strange faces in the reflective glass of the carriage and pull tongues at Marie before pointing the umbrella’s steel tip at the long thin maps above their heads to show her which station they were at, where they were going and what they might see.
Late at night, when she finds it hard to sleep, Marie flicks through the television channels without any volume. It’s better than staring at the ceiling. Tonight, a fat man plays trombone, a cricketer does his best to dodge a hurtling red cricket ball and Hilary Swank waxes on and off for Mr Miyagi in the movie ‘The Next Karate Kid’. Sometimes, if sleep remains a stranger, Marie finds her scissors and cuts out headlines from newspapers. Things like 'I SAW SAS MAN UNDO BELT THEN JUMP OUT OF PLANE' or 'DUTCH WOMAN HELD FOR STEALING CAT’S EYES FROM MOTORWAY'.
FIGHTING 4 PEACE IS LIKE FUCKING 4 VIRGINITY reads the graffiti on the wall at the end of Marie's road. Marie lost her virginity in the back bedroom of a house in Oldham. It was quick. It was awkward. She was 19. He was a saxophone player from Burnley. His pinky white tongue flicked out of his mouth whenever he talked. He seduced her by saying "Do you know you can only fold a piece of paper eight times?" He claimed to have played the solo on ‘Careless Whisper'. She knew it was a lie the moment he said it.
Whenever she's depressed, Marie boards the Heathrow Express and hangs around different airport terminals. She has no air ticket. She takes no flight. She sits for hours watching people. Fat people. Thin people. Bronzed men in vests with spider's webs tattooed on their elbows. Sunburnt women carrying bags filled with cheap cigarettes. Sometimes, she stands by the arrivals gate where groups of car drivers wait for their passengers. Occasionally, she holds a piece of card in front of her which has the name TOM CRUISE written on it and watches the weary travellers perk up as they pass her by.
Marie has never rode a motorcycle. Or tasted sushi. She’s been in a hot-air balloon but has never been to France. She’s stood in a red-hot shower with a man and miaowed like a pussycat but has never laid on a waterbed. She saw the Duke of Edinburgh drive past Hyde Park Corner once, on a sunny Sunday afternoon but has never seen the Queen. She’s had stitches in her head but not in her knees. She’s been arrested but never charged. Once, she saw a woman lying in the road who later died but she never knew her name.
A pigeon pecks at a pool of freshly spewed vomit. A young man in a blue T-shirt bearing the words I GOT MY TAN AT FRAN’S walks close by, talking into a mobile phone, oblivious to its presence. The smell of fried onions fills the air. Marie leans against a brick wall. Crowds of people flow past on the corner of Oxford Street and Regents Street. Sirens wail. A police car speeds to an unseen crime and a memory flashes across Marie’s mind: shooting stars flying past the planet, in the dead of night, far above the Australian desert.
Marie wants to remove the phrase ‘y’know’ from her vocabulary. Too many people use it too often. A man on the radio talks about a La Tigre concert and a kid called Dale who dressed in green trousers and a yellow NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS T-shirt. Conversation turns to Chicks On Speed Records, Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill and “a whole other world of bands that don’t want to be noticed’. The words ‘y’know’ are used many times more. Marie quickly becomes irritated. A DJ asks “What about Joan of Arse? Have you heard them?” Marie sighs and turns the radio off.
Marie knows that the toasted fried egg sandwich will later be deemed to be a mistake. Still, she’s unable to resist the temptation as she stands in the queue in the motorway service station. Behind the glass counter, a teenage boy with tousled hair and a badge bearing the name BRENDAN prods at the spattering edges of a double-yolk egg, frying on a spotless stainless steel surface. Marie takes the egg sandwich and walks away, to where a fat man in a suit says to a woman behind a till “Two cups of tea and a cheeky bacon sandwich, please.”
At the age of eleven Marie had trouble spelling the word awkward. Even though she would often spell it correctly, it never quite looked right. One autumn day her father bought her a little black book and told her to write a new word in it whenever she discovered one. It’s something she has continued to do. Words like ‘adumbration’, ‘suspirant’, ‘recondite’, ‘plangent’ and ‘diurnal’. Rarely has the opportunity arisen for Marie to use these words in conversation but this doesn’t seem to matter. Now she collects words just for the hell of it. Words like ‘purling’, ‘crespuscular’ and ‘orgulous’.
Every night, a tall old man with a white beard stands on the corner waiting for his wife to come home from work. Sometimes, when Marie waits to cross the road, she inhales stray smoke from his cigar. The smoke is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It just is. Marie must have seen the man over a hundred times but she has never said hello. Likewise, he has never acknowledged her presence. The bus arrives. The man's wife is dark skinned, smartly dressed and small. When she disembarks and greets him, he bends over and kisses her softly on the cheek.
DIRTY SELFISH MOTORISTS KILLING THE PLANET reads the message sprayed in black aerosol paint across the large rectangular billboard advertising a sleek new BMW sports car. Beneath it, a man sleeps on a mattress, with a tatty pink blanket pulled across his head. Marie wonders what the thousands of motorists must think when they pass the billboard and the sleeping man every day. Most people probably wish that they owned a sports car. Others wish they’d stayed in bed for another half hour. Marie wishes she could find the remote control for the television that’s been missing for two days.
Marie hears from a neighbour that the bald tattooed man in the house across the road is a member of a well-known rock band. Earlier in his career he had been one of Britain’s leading flugelhorn players but fate intervened. Now he plays bass guitar in front of screaming crowds in sports stadiums across the world. Early one morning as she sipped tea, Marie saw him ironing clothes, naked from the waist down, wearing nothing but a bright blue t-shirt. She lied to herself that she was looking at the television, but managed to steal a couple of sly glimpses.
“Look at my muscles Daddy!” shouts the boy to a man in the pinstripe suit. Marie stands in an Indian newsagents, reading front page headlines; MANIAC PRIEST KILLS EIGHT, MY SHOE SHOP HELL. From a small black speaker in the ceiling, an instrumental version of ‘The Baby Elephant Walk’ plays. Spiced food smells drift in from a small room at the back of the shop where an Alsatian dozes. Half asleep, Marie moves slowly around the shop. Her bleary eyes rest on a greetings card with the message “IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO BE WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE BEEN”
On a daytime television show, Marie watches a housewife from Glasgow tell how she lost thirteen stone on a strict diet of kidney beans and traditional lemonade. The only luxury the woman would allow herself, she says, was a plate of seven or eight bull’s eyes every Sunday night which would “help see her through the week” The studio audience look upon her with a mixture of admiration and disbelief. The woman smiles from ear to ear and Marie wonders silently whether there has ever been a creature whose eyes could truly be said to be bigger than their belly.
“Frank this is Liz.” says a drunken voice on Marie’s telephone answering machine that’s just about audible above the sound of John and Yoko Ono singing ‘Give Peace A Chance’. “I’m at the party. Do you want to come? There’s only ten of us. Mairead decided to do away with the idea of fancy dress. Nobody told Gillian who’s turned up as Eminen. It’s about ten o’clock. The night’s still young. Sorry not to call earlier but it would be lovely if you can come. If you do, bring a gun. Bring a gun. Bring a fuckin’ gun. See you!!!!”
Marie is woken at 4.40am by a blaring car alarm. She lies in the darkness. Minutes pass. Silence resumes. Marie drifts back to sleep. The car alarm blares out again. She fidgets. Tosses and turns. Eventually she falls asleep. She dreams. In the dream she sits in bed watching a ginger cat drive around the room in a blue children's car. A hole appears in the floor. A dazed man emerges in an oil-stained overall, wearing a pair of large black rubber gloves. He stands eating carrot cake. The dream dissipates. She wakes thinking of the words ‘Sugar Plum Fairy'.
The Tip Jar