It started on my way home from work one Thursday evening, travelling on the Northern Line. The train rattled to a standstill at Camden Town and the doors crashed open.
“…that Mrs M, she knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” I caught a snippet of conversation before the voice mingled with the humdrum of station noise. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but it stirred something in the back of my mind. I grinned and hopped down. Thought for the day; everything must surely have a price, but does nothing really have a value?
Happy, relaxed, on my way home. The escalators rumbled up into the bright North London afternoon. I even gave fifty pence to the hairy, multi-layered tramp sitting in the corner, wedged between the ticket barrier and the snack shop. After all, he has nothing, right? He frowned at me from beneath his tangled beard, matted with beer and yesterday’s supper, and mumbled something that could have been “Thanks,” but sounded more like, “Tea costs £1.50.” I wondered if he understood the value of nothing.
It was a radiant afternoon, so I took a detour down towards the lock. Past shops, into the off licence – as well as being a curious kind of being, I am also very compulsive and my mother believes that I will either die of liver failure in my forties or lung cancer by the time I reach fifty – out of the off licence with a large bottle of Jack Daniels and twenty cigs.
I have a pest who lives next door to me named Keith, who believes it is his mission in life to rid me of my compulsive habits. He has taken me out a few times and thinks that gives us kind of “going out” status. He is a PE teacher and leaves his grubby football boots outside his front door. I wouldn’t mind, but Mrs Marble’s cat, next door but one, slinks down the hall and pees all over them. Then she scratches all the dirt off which spreads across to my front door; must remember to have a word with Mrs Marbles and Mr Pest.
He does have his moments though. In his quest for a healthier new me, he has taken to leaving a carton of fresh orange juice outside my door. Which is quite nice and makes a refreshing change to Jack Daniels when topped up with vodka and left overnight in the fridge.
I walked on past the local SavaStore and doubled back when I caught sight of a sign in the window, which read “For value for money, nothing beats SavaStore”. There you go, nothing is value for money. I chuckled and was about to walk away, when another bold red lettered sign drew my eyes. “Nothing for £2.99”. I thought it might have been a joke, or maybe someone had missed out a word and meant to say “Nothing for over £2.99”, but that didn’t make sense either. I couldn’t resist going in and I needed to get some things for supper anyway.
I was at the checkout with my basket full of junk for the sad “we live alone” type, wondering what had possessed me to go in there in the first place. You know how it is when you are standing in the queue and every time you look around you can sense the people averting their eyes from your basket. You can just imagine what they’re thinking, how they’re sizing you up according to the contents of your basket. I know, because I do it myself, for want of something better to do when standing in line like good British citizens. The till was being managed by young Indian woman, rings from her fingers to the tips of her ears, who felt it her divine right to comment on the diet of a sad “I live alone” type with nothing but junk food to offer her despairing body.
I shuffled my feet. She ran the microwave meals and choccy biscuits past the scanner and tut-tutted in time with the blips, gently chiding me as the price was totalled. I knew I wasn’t going to get out of there without some kind of comment. It was like that wherever I went. There were people like Indian Lady and Pest Next Door just lining up to tell me how I ought to be living my life. I attracted them, like dog hairs to a pair of velour hot pants.
“You need eat more vegetables, dear. Nice greens. Okra, very good for you. Lady fingers. Good for digestion, no?” Never liked it much myself. I stared back at her, sullen, like a kid that’s just had her hand slapped. She cast me a disapproving look, then reached under the counter and produced a large white tub. It looked like it could have been an ice cream tub, but there weren’t any scrummy pictures of ice-cream scoops on it. “We do special offer, £2.99 for two litre tub. Very good for you, much better than this crap.” She waved at my shopping. I looked blankly at the tub.
“What is it?”
“Is nothing. No added sugars, colours, additives. Is nothing. Very good for you.” She smiled and I stood still, unable to quite comprehend what she was on about. Then I remembered the sign outside. “Nothing for £2.99”. I looked back at the people waiting in the queue behind me. They were all nodding encouragingly. “You try. Is very good. We do special offer, two for price of one.” Then she produced another tub from beneath the counter, identical to the first and pushed them towards me. £2.99 for 4 litres, I thought. Well… if it’s got nothing in it, then it must be good for you, right? I stood staring at those white tubs, trying to think of a good reason not to spend £2.99 on nothing.
“I’ll take them,” I said, pulling out my purse before I changed my mind. There was a gentle murmur of appreciation behind me, as the people in the queue put their palms together in a little round of applause, heads tilted to one side in unison. Perhaps at the time, I thought they were barmy, but no barmier than me for buying two tubs of nothing. I hurried home in meek anticipation. I was on the brink of a discovery and nothing would change my life so irrevocably.
I will always remember my very first tub. It was small, clean and white. Like nothing you could imagine. As I gently prised open the lid, not knowing what to expect, there was a little pfhutt… as nothing, vacuum packed and delivered intact, escaped into the filthy polluted air of my kitchen. With a vacuous snort of disapproval, nothing scuttled into the nearest corner and lurked with intent. On all fours, I crawled towards it and reached forward with one hand, like a curious child, testing the feel of something new. With an innate forgiveness, nothing enveloped my hand and laced itself between my fingers. It felt cool, like a refreshing breeze that cuts across the stifling heat of a city in summer. It led me by the hand and showed me its real meaning, the true value of nothing.
Thump, thump, thump. “Hello?”
I opened one eye then closed it again, blinded by the light coming through my window. My eyeballs hurt, even with my eyes shut.
“Hello? Are you there, Kate?” Thump, thump, thump.
What was that noise in my head? Is that why my eyeballs hurt?
“Kate, open the door.” Thump, thump, thump, thump. Mr Pest.
How can it be so loud? How could my bed be so hard? I rolled over, looking for a pillow to hold over my ears and cracked my head against something hard and metal that looked suspiciously like a dustbin. I looked down at the floral pattern underneath my body and realised that unless I had recently laid a lino in my bed, I was on the kitchen floor. I sat up. The clock on the microwave said 9.20. 9.20? The last thing I remembered was… I scrambled around on the floor, looking for something, anything. There was not even an empty tub. Nothing. Then I remembered it all and jumped up feeling a little unsteady. There on the kitchen table was my second tub. Sitting patiently. Waiting to be released. And sitting beside it, one full, unopened bottle of JD and twenty B&H. This had to be a miracle for me.
“Kate, if you’re in some kind of trouble… let me in, yeah?” Thump, thump, thump. “I know you’re in there, I can see movement. Open up or -”
“What?” I threw open the door. Keith was standing there, red-faced and rustic, full of good intention, fist poised for another crack at my front door.
“Look, I just wondered if you were OK,” he said. “Only, I noticed you hadn’t touched the orange juice I left for you yesterday.” I looked down at the carton of juice, left fermenting on my doorstep. Was that there last night? I didn’t remember seeing it there when I came in. He looked purposeful and athletic in his tracksuit and trainers, like he was about to whisk me off my feet and take me for a five-mile run. I’m allergic to exercise, so I was eager to get rid of him before he tried anything in the least bit athletic. I reached down for the carton of orange.
“Thanks,” I said. “I really must be going now. I’m late for work already.”
He frowned. “Didn’t think you worked on Saturdays. Actually I was wondering if you’d like to come out with me tonight?” Hold that thought. Rewind. I stared, unable to utter a syllable beyond Sat… “Are you all right?” He reached for my arm as though I was about to fall over. The blood ran from my face. I was all at once hot and cold.
“I’m fine,” I said in a squeaky voice.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing… nothing.” I managed to fall back into my apartment and shut the door.
“But what about tonight?” I heard his muffled voice from behind the front door. “Pick you up at eight, then?” I didn’t reply, not trusting my vocal cords to string two coherent syllables together. Saturday? What had happened to Friday? Somewhere, somehow, I had lost a day. And there was still a full bottle of bourbon on the side. I hadn’t misplaced this much time since the last year I went to Glastonbury. Not bad for £2.99 a tub.
I looked in awe at the second tub of nothing on my kitchen table, not daring to touch it. I opened a packet of cigarettes instead. After all, I hadn’t had one for at least 24 hours, which must have been a record in itself. I lit up, inhaled deeply and felt instantly nauseous, so I stubbed it out and felt a lot better.
There were about six messages on my voicemail. Two from work, three from the Pest next door and one from Mum. I sat in contemplation of Jack Daniels, wondering what to do next. Shot of JD or a tub of nothing? Somehow, nothing seemed more appealing. Keith would be back at 8.00pm and I couldn’t think of any better way of avoiding an evening out with him. I opened the fridge to put away the orange juice and there were three identical cartons lined up side by side. I stuffed it into the bottom and sighed. This really was going to have to stop. I had tried desperately not to encourage him, but indifference was obviously not enough. I should never have agreed to that first date. Now I had a distinct problem multiplying in my fridge. I glanced at the innocuous looking tub, wondering what magical things it had in store for me. The corner of my kitchen where I had opened the first tub had an empty feeling to it.
I pottered around my kitchen for a while, not really knowing what to do with myself. I opened cupboards, looked at the food shelved there and tried to think about eating. But I didn’t feel hungry, which was out of character enough for me even without the strange disappearance of a day.
Carefully, I lifted the tub, carried it at arm’s length and placed it on the floor in front of the fridge. I opened the fridge door, sighed at the orange juice again and carefully prised the lid off the tub of nothing. Then I shot out of the door, grabbing jacket and keys on the way, trying not to slam it shut. I didn’t want to make Keith suspicious that I was about to jump ship on his date.
I bought a bag of chips from the chippie on the corner, hoping to re-awaken my appetite, then crossed the road and went down the steps leading to the canal. The tow-path was peppered with paper cups and empty crisp bags. The chips were greasy and made me feel sick, so I wrapped them back up and gave them to the bag lady, who lives under the bridge. She looked confused at first, then smiled at me through blackened teeth.
Camden Lock was heaving with life. People lined the gates of the lock with their fast food and plastic pint cups of beer from the pub on the corner. The air was thick with the smell of petulie, coffee beans and weed. Music, acoustic and taped, shouting and singing, all drifted and mingled on the breeze. I wandered around, not really looking at much and ignoring the pleas from various stallholders vying with each other for my business. I was trying to think of a way I could let Keith down gently, without hurting his feelings. He was evidently taken with me and I ought to have been flattered by his attention, but instead I felt irritated.
I let myself be carried by the throng of people moving steadily up Chalk Farm Road. The Crowd began to thin out as we approached the top of the road. I stood for a moment, tube station on my left, off-licence on my right. Home left, oblivion right. Or nothing at the SavaStore next door.
I jumped, looked over my shoulder and saw the hairy tramp sitting on the steps of the station like an abandoned heap of dirty laundry. His hair was matted to his skull and a stray chip hung limply from his bushy beard. He was holding something in both hands and offering it to me, nodding and smiling his gummy grin. It looked like a tub of ice-cream, but I knew I wouldn’t find any colourful pictures on its side. I knew instantly what it was. Without question I went to take the tub and he snatched it back to his side as though protecting some dark secret.
“A fiver,” he said in a gruff voice.
“But I can get two for the…”
“Last one.” I fished in my pocket and found a suitably grubby looking note. He gave me the tub and shuffled off towards the off-licence. I watched him go, thinking that my life could be a whole lot worse. Then I turned down Camden Road, holding the tub at arm’s length as if it were a bomb waiting to go off.
When I got home, my fridge had disappeared. Nothing hovered in the kitchen, threatening to engulf my sink unit. Aw heck, I never did like washing up anyway. Gently, I closed the kitchen door, not daring to step into the empty space that was forming there. Soon I would have to eat or drink something. I could feel the ache of hunger gnawing the lining of my stomach. And yet, I still felt nauseous and overwhelmed by a sense of displacement.
I sat in front of my computer thinking that perhaps Google might be able to tell me what to do. All I managed to glean was a list of sites more ridiculous than my own predicament; “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” – big deal. “Nothing else matters” – yes it does, actually. “Money for nothing” – how about £2.99 for nothing? “Nothing compares to you” – Mr P notwithstanding. Wait, how about this one… “Nothing Butt Thongs: 15 new thong pictures for all you butt lovers out there” – no comment. “Buy nothing day (24 hour moratorium on purchasing in the interest of drawing attention to rampant consumer spending)” – evidently no one told these people that we were in a recession.
Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Not a thing that really related to nothing. And all the while that presence in my kitchen crept ever closer to the door. I tried to save my search results and got a message that said I had performed an illegal operation, then the ISP chucked me off the system. Well, thanks. Annoyed and betrayed, I stuck my tub of nothing in front of the monitor and lifted the lid. I left nothing to deal with my electronic handicap and on my way out, sneaked a look at the kitchen. The table had gone and most of the cupboards. There was my single bottle of Jack Daniels sitting alone in the middle of the floor. I sighed, almost relieved that it did not have a thirst for alcohol, closed the door and let myself out the front.
“I was just about to knock for you.”
“Ahh.” I stood face to face with Mr Pest, who had his fist raised and ready to knock the living daylights out of my front door.
“Great timing,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels. “All set?” Great timing indeed.
He took me to a small Greek restaurant not far from home, with cheery waiters and a Greek singer playing an acoustic guitar that badly needed tuning. I just hoped that they didn’t start smashing plates. I didn’t think my nerves would take it.
“What’s the matter,” he said. I looked up at him and sighed, then continued to push an olive around my plate with a piece of pitta.
“I don’t think I should see you anymore,” I said.
“Why not?” He looked a little abashed, though not entirely convinced.
“Because I don’t like you,” I said. He thought about it for a little while, then shrugged.
“Perhaps you’ll grow to like me, in time.”
Unbelievable. I stared at him. The olive rolled off my plate, across the table and stopped in front of him. He picked it up, popped it in his mouth and smiled at me.
“Excuse me?” I said. “Am I not horrible enough for you?” He shrugged again.
“I know you haven’t been yourself lately. You’re struggling with some deeper issue, I can see that. It’s written all over your face. Just take a little time and have a good long think about it.” Right. After that, I couldn’t take anything he said very seriously. He dropped me home and tried to kiss me on the doorstep. I turned my head just in time, so that all he got was a mouthful of my earlobe.
When I got inside, the living room had a kind of empty feel to it. Predictably, the computer had gone. The desk it had sat on was wavering with the intent of going somewhere else and the white tub lay on its side on the floor. I picked it up, stuck my head inside and took a deep breath, trying to capture the essence of something. But there was nothing. Just a faint buzzing in my head and an overwhelming desire for another tub. So I slipped quietly out of my apartment and all but ran down town, towards the tube station.
The tramp wasn’t where I expected to find him, so I bought a ticket with the intention of taking a ride. It was about eleven o’clock. Few people around, just the echo-rumble of escalators carrying nobody nowhere. The lights flickered, trying hard to keep their eyes open. The mini-earthquake beneath the ground signalled an oncoming train and made my feet vibrate. What was I doing there? Chasing the need to feed a compulsion I neither understood, nor desired to encourage. And yet, there I was, walking onto a deserted platform.
“Ah, I know just what you need.” I swung around. There was a man in a pin-stripe suit with a white tub on his head. I didn’t know whether to laugh or run, until he took it off. There was an empty space where his head should have been. Just nothing. He had no head. I wanted to scream but the sound just stuck in my throat. “Want to know how I do it?” The voice was coming from the tub, but I wasn’t about to stick around and find out.
I turned, stumbled and nearly tripped over something that lay sticking up out of the ground. Seemingly weaved into the structure of the concrete platform, four human fingers and a thumb made an OK sign at me, then pointed in the direction of the southbound platform. In my haste to leave, I nearly knocked over a wailing old lady, blathering something about a lost dog. The pain in her expression was acute and the tears, very real, ran in torrents down her wrinkled cheeks.
The acid in my stomach was stirring up a cocktail of bile and barely digested Greek meze. The air was alive with shrieks and the clash and rumble of tube trains. As the hum of a departing train diminished, I dared a peek at the other side. There was a kid, fifteen years old maybe, wheeling a shopping trolley up and down the platform, brimming with white tubs. He was dunking them onto unsuspecting passengers. Some ran screaming, while others just slumped to the floor in a trance-like state.
“Wheeee,” the kid said, as he scooted the trolley down towards me, scattering people in his wake. He stopped in front of me.
“Can I have one?” I said. He frowned at me, but I was feeling desperate. “I really want one.”
“I want doesn’t get,” he said, sounding like my mother.
“Please,” I said. “Looks like you’re giving them away anyway.” With a disdainful snort, he started to turn the trolley away from me, so I reached out and tried to snatch a tub. He grabbed the bottom of it before I had managed my getaway and we stood wrestling over nothing with a shopping trolley between us. People stopped what they were doing and stared. The trolley rolled away towards the edge of the platform and I could hear the faint rumble of a train approaching.
The wind began to pick up and the rumble turned into a roar. My fingertips were starting to ache and yet I still hung on to that tub as though my life depended on it. My hands were sweating and I began to lose my grip on the shiny plastic. In a last dash hope as my hand slipped away, I hooked my fingertips under the rim of the tub. There was an audible Pfhutt… as the lid popped off and the kid went tumbling backwards.
The tub flew over the top of his head into the path of the oncoming train. The kid landed on his backside, inches away from the edge of the platform, as the tube roared through the station. There was nothing between the train and the open tunnel ahead. But the tunnel remained open and the trained hurtled headlong into nothing. Carriage after carriage raced to catch the first, as though entering an invisible hole. The final carriage raced to meet its destiny and all we were left with was a silent station and an empty tub, gently steaming on the tracks below.
The kid jumped up and waved his arm across the space into which the train had disappeared, but there was nothing there. Dazed and bewildered, the people left on the platform began to applaud, as though it was some kind of magic trick. Giving the trolley a wide berth, I joined the queue of stunned travellers waiting to exit the station. Outside I had to shield my eyes and squint back the pain of a bright sunny morning.
When I got home, there was something on my doorstep. It was a carton of fresh orange juice with a note attached by a rubber band. I picked it up and went inside. First thing I did was open all the windows, including the kitchen window, which was easy to reach now that my sink unit had gone. Then I started to shoo nothing out into the early morning air. It didn’t need much encouragement and lusted after its freedom. Then I sat down in the middle of the kitchen floor with my bottle of bourbon, packet of cigarettes and the carton of orange juice.
I uncurled the note. “Hope you’re feeling more like yourself soon,” it read. My eyes smarted and a lump rose in the back of my throat. I traced the curve of his handwriting with my fingertip and took a swig out of the bottle to quell the tears that were building. I’d had enough of nothing in my life, perhaps I was ready for something. So I sat and watched the things in my kitchen slowly re-appear, drank myself silly and cried for nothing.
Bio: I live and work in London, UK and have previously been published in a variety of magazines: Crossing the Border, Monomyth, Legend and Scriptor-3. Most recently, my short stories have appeared in online magazines: Liquid Imagination, Aurora Wolf, The Lorelei Signal, Mystic Signals and forthcoming in Bewildering Stories. Catch up with me on my blog: www.francesgow.com