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The fourth story from ‘Empty Vessels‘, inspired by these photos.

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I wish Harry didn’t call me ‘Ass Burgers’. It’s ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ for a start, and I’m not even diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum anyway. Not that he’d care for the conclusions of carefully conducted psychiatric examinations. In either case, I don’t feel as if I need a label to explain away my eccentricities. My idiosyncratic flashes are… just so, though they’ve mellowed (outwardly at least) over time. When I was five or six years old I used to lock myself in the bathroom, unscrew the light bulbs, smash them on the edge of the sink, and flush the broken glass in the toilet. I’d take my toy torch and shine it in the bowl, delighting in the dancing light refracting amongst the curved shards and rapid, swirling water. I don’t do this any more. Remnants from my early phases of obsessive learning include a working knowledge of tropical fish, dinosaurs, and African national anthems. I’ll be damned if I can kick a ball with my left foot, but I can croon a rousing rendition of ‘Oh Uganda, Land of Beauty’ to any fellow fruitcake that should so request it.

I’m sat in a clearing in the woods next to my hometown with a group of mostly not quite friends, a little drunk and rather stoned. I’m not sure what Harry’s taken but he’s doing press-ups and sit-ups on the forest floor in a cynical bid to attract female attention, and I take some pleasure from the fact that with regards to this particular pursuit, unusually, I have him well beaten. I’ve got the girls. Well. Two of them. And another male. We’re sat on the old sofa I inherited from my grandfather, limbs tangled, passing a smouldering baton of malodourous ash between each other. Lauren inhales hungrily, the smoke sucked through tight lips like krill down the bristled mouth of a blue whale. Not that Lauren resembles a blue whale, or a whale of any sort for that matter. Rather, she possesses the kind of ineffable girl-next-door beauty that was all the rage through my early pubescence. Blonde hair, unbrushed and tangled with dark golden roots so conspicuous they simply must be deliberate. A freckled glow that radiates humour and happiness, and heavy smoke rings that form halos about her head. She projects the unattainability of a girl who works in a gallery, or a coffee shop, or (heaven forbid) a waitress who works in a gallery’s coffee shop, and it’s this distant intimacy that has kept me so rapt in the months since she came back from her year abroad. It’s hence with nervous trepidation that I look for signals of fleeting affection; the awkward eye contact, the fingertips that brush when she passes the joint my way; the fact that my leg’s going dead because her stoned calf lies like a wrought iron beam across my thigh… But my brain isn’t wired for this kind of empathetic foreplay, I tend to decipher meaning from actions that have none, yet miss it entirely when it flashes like Japanese neon.

I nearly swallow the spliff when, quite from nowhere, she asks me to follow her home.

“Did you see them?” she asks as we leave the clearing, “Chick and Yan, all over each other, in front of everyone!”

I don’t really want to talk about the fact that we all just witnessed two of our friends blasted on shrooms try to have sex with each other on a mattress at the edge of the clearing, though Lauren persists.

“Does he really think no one’s going to tell Danica?” she talks as we walk.

“I don’t know? Maybe?”

“Some people are just so…” she pauses and, to my horror, she starts to cry (though she’s still incredibly high and her tears are intermittently interspersed with incongruous giggles). “They just don’t know what they have, you know? Not until it’s taken from them…”

I have literally no idea how to react beyond a timid pat on the shoulder, an action I almost immediately abort upon recognition of its stupidity.

“Edwin,” she stops walking and turns to face me, “I can trust you, can’t I?”

I reply (with no real choice) in the affirmative.

“What I tell you now,” Lauren goes on, “Has to stay secret. Can you promise me you’ll keep it secret?”

I nod nervously, my heart swelling like so many tarred black balloons in exquisite anticipation. She’s making me feel ever so special out here on the tarmac – me, an empty vessel stood ready to be filled with spates of her secrets. I know, however, that she’s taking advantage. She knows that I can’t lie. I’m renowned for it. From ten-year-old Harry making me spill all my careless crushes, to Mother making me tell her exactly what we do in our woodland clearing… I wish people would stop taking advantage…

“Yes,” I say, “I can keep a secret,”

Lauren waits a moment as she forces the words out of her mouth against their will.

“I have money…”

“Money?”

“Yes. A lot of money. But…” she falters,

“But what? That’s good. Everyone wants a lot of money,”

“But I didn’t acquire it through skill, or toil, or competition, or even luck…” she falters and laughs, “and just being in possession of it reminds me of its origin, and makes me…” she falters and laughs and cries, “Well I can’t tell you what it makes me think and do,”

“You can’t?”

“No. It makes me do… odd things,”

“Odd things? I used to flush smashed light bulbs down toilets,”

She leaks adorable laughter all over my admission, before staring me down with sweet strawberry milk eyes, and telling me why she’s brought me with her.

“Edwin, how do I spend my money?”

This apparently simple question had been rendered complex by a number of factors. Firstly, I’m the only person other than her mother and her mysterious benefactor that knows about the aforementioned money, so we can’t choose anything too ostentatious as to raise suspicions amongst friends. Secondly, unlike the digital treasure hoard sitting in its electronic vault getting fat on interest, the purchase should have no mental association with the circumstances by which she came to acquire the money in the first place. Further to which, she’s as yet unwilling to divulge either the amount of money, or how she got it. And a charitable donation, which I suggest fits her criteria precisely, is instantly disregarded. Faceless organisations, she mutters dismissively, can’t be trusted, no matter how benevolent their aims are at face value.

“Especially not medical research!”

I want to berate her logically inconsistent constraints, though between our respectively high humours and my desire to stay in her company, I remain silent and think. We’re approaching her house by the time I make any progress worth vocalising.

“What you need,” I begin, “If you want to choose something with no associations is someone independent to choose for you. Something, even… Like the flip of a many-sided coin, but with things you can buy on the sides in place of heads or tails,”

We share a temporary quiet that Lauren breaks.

“Adverts… Hell, Ed, that’s brilliant!”

“Adverts?”

I follow her over the threshold, in as much that she fervently pulls me into her hallway by the wrist.

“We watch an ad break,” she starts, “Whatever comes up last before the programme starts again is what we spend the money on,”

I barely have time to admire her methodology’s admitted elegance before she’s hurdled the back of her sofa and turned on the television with a nearby remote in one deft fluid action. She tells me to sit, and something strikes me.

“Whatever comes up last before the programme starts…”

“Yes?”

“Is what we spend the money on?”

“Yes?”

“We?”

“Yeah. You can have half,” an utterance she emits with such nonchalance I feel ignorant for ever thinking Lauren wasn’t going to give me half of her ‘a lot of money’.

“Then you should at least tell me how much money you have if you’re actually going to give me half?” I demand, suddenly guilty at the prospect of personally benefiting from a few thousand of her best English pounds. She ignores me.

The first advert comes and goes.

“Count yourself lucky,” Lauren says as the banal family scene melts through a sting of the channels insignia into something new, “You could have just landed yourself a million pounds’ worth of washing detergent…”

I double take.

“Two million pounds?” I cry, “This… this is fucking insane!”

She turns to me, but keeps one eye on the television in front of her.

“Do you like leather sofas?” she asks wryly. We’re only two adverts down, so we both know that this particular staple of retail parks nationwide (and their eternal sham of a seasonal sale) won’t be benefiting from our perverse, bloated custom. Even so, the idea of blowing quite so much money on something so ridiculous starts to bite, and my initial enthusiasm for her plan has died a frank and sudden death.

Through the volume of conflicting emotions I’m ill-poised to deal with, I start to notice how completely and absolutely thoroughly stupid some of this stuff actually is. Maybe it’s the thought of abruptly acquiring a million pounds worth of retina screened tablet computers, or quadruple-ply quilted toilet tissue, or Academy Award winning actress endorsed fragrance, or payment protection insurance, or crossover compact SUVs that makes you question the consumerist monster we contemporary Frankensteins have created. Particular derision is reserved for the motion-sensor activated soap dispenser that removes the need to touch the venomously dirty pump, but apparently ignores the fact that the first thing you do after touching the bacteria-laden soap dispenser is wash your fucking hands with the antibacterial soap you just fucking dispensed.

How am I still so high?

“Lauren,” I say to the rigid angel sat on my left, “You do know you don’t have to go through with any of this, don’t you? Just because I’m here as a witness, that doesn’t make it legally binding.”

She tells me to stop worrying, though sweat’s dewing on her upper lip and I’m afraid she’s going to start crying again, and the extended momentary blackout that signifies the end of the advertisement break and the end of this peculiar ordeal stubbornly refuses to materialise.

“But you can’t actually want any of this stuff?”

In response, Lauren informs me that I am missing the point of this whole exercise, and insists that the plan is still a good one.

“We’re coming up to five minutes,” she says, checking a clock on the wall, “You know this next ad could be the one?”

It starts.

The first person point of view shot shows an impossibly well turned out airhostess, all scarlet and wingpins, leading the camera by the hand up a flight of airport truck-cum-staircases and into the fuselage of her gleaming airborne vessel. It soars dramatically through azure before penetrating bleached cumulus below. The airhostess leads the camera by the hand again, this time along a tropical beach, white sand and crystal waters flowing between manicured toes, the sun beating an impossibly sumptuous glow upon her conspicuous dark golden roots as wild wind-beaten palms part to reveal a runway… The jet takes flight for a second time, before landing in striking orange dust, which could well be Arizona or Utah or Colorado, or anywhere as arid yet simultaneously beautiful. The airhostess takes me by the hand. I follow her across a rope bridge that traverses a deep ravine, a glistening river shimmering in the gulch two hundred meters down. She stares me down with sweet strawberry milk eyes, before tying the harness around her tight red blazer, and clipping the bungee cord to both our waists. With the flash of a smirk, she throws us off the edge, and the vertigo and fear that should surely be shattering my frozen innards is instead complete and utter exhilaration as she smiles hard and wide. The bungee’s elastic throws us up back towards the bridge, which we narrowly avoid, and the airhostess’ plane catches us at the apex of our flight ready to take us to a new destination. The sun is setting over our final flight, throwing up all manner of alabaster marbling and blood orange from the horizon we fly so hard to chase, and by the time we land the sky is completely pitch. Lauren now pulls me by the hand through a city of sheer electricity, the neon hiragana script gaudy and enchanting, my guide’s shoulder blades exposed by that black summer dress she’s worn so much recently…

Between tropical islands, yawning canyons and charged oriental buzz, the plan is suddenly looking much more appealing…

Lauren is holding my hand. Not 30,000 feet in the air, or in some distant foreign land, but here, on her sofa in her house in our lamentably placid hometown. She’s taken her eyes off of the television for the first time in the last five minutes and looks straight into my pupils. And for the first time (probably in my entire life) I actually know what another human being is feeling, and the excitement of this makes me shake. I know that she wants the same as me. She wants to be the girl I follow across the world. The name of the advertised airline emblazons itself across the screen.

“Please,” I mouth, “Please,”

We look back at the television. The picture freezes. Then fades to black. One. Two. Three…

Today is evidently meant to be a day of experiencing new emotion. My mother often warned me about the risks of disappointment, often in the context of my father, and perhaps it’s because I’ve never before wanted anything as absolutely as to follow Lauren around the world, that the present advert extolling the virtues of a high street bank’s new high(ish) interest current account kicks so very, very hard. The orchestrated attempt at humour plays out (for added injury, I actually quite like the comedian that narrates this marketing campaign) and it’s with a special kind of irony that Lauren informs me that this particular bank already has her custom in the form of a two million pound deposit. But there’s a glint in her eye that counters my welling tears.

“Of course,” she starts, “None of this is legally binding…”

She stands and holds out her hand. As if I ever doubted her.

“Follow me.”

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