"We who are forbidden space must spread freedom as best we can." Joan of Arbury, no saint.
There's only one way out. There's only one way in. And in the eternal present, a million years of hindsight takes a second. Keep your mind open: the space will close. The great acceleration of humanity propels us towards the vortex. Check-out is nigh! Time has come to be blasted into the Histon Road. Next customer please. Ready or not!...
Purposefully, raucously, primally, I open wide and scream the scream of the anthropocene!!!...
Oh! No! Look out! Exclamation marks all over the place. Like husky shit in the Arctic. On the floor! Up the aisles! Across the shelves! Special buys! Limited stock! Permanently low prices!! Swap, save and enjoy with Aldi...
But that's the least of our worries. They've got plans to extend the opening hours, and keep us working and shopping for longer, to make us buy more, and think less, to consume with envy, as they steal our freedom for profit. Meanwhile in Aleppo/ Halab, the idea of liberation has been unthought and undone.
My ears sting. My forehead throbs. An older man humps over his trolley and gets feedback through his hearing aid, or is it a transistor radio? Cash registers and scanners form a cacophony of bleeps; a tinnitus of shop noise that accentuates anxiety and strews confusion. I breathe. To contain my concern, I smile. Like a seagull at a scrap of bread, the older man seizes it. My smile broadens. His narrows and fades. I take down my hood - not as if I'm getting out anytime soon.
Coleslaw! 49p!! I head towards the fridges where, sniffing an extra mature through the re-seal pack, is the Colonel, another old stager avoiding the vortex of check out at Aldi...
- A word.
- What's up, Colonel?
- Seen the warrior today?
- No. He had a freshly sliced head over by the real ale yesterday though.
- I know. Brazen. Waving severed heads around. This is Aldi, not Facebook.
- Man alive. Hacked off heads myself in Malaya, back in the day. Carved up the insurgency we did. Poor beggars. No, I mean to say... at Real Ale Corner. Enough to put a chap off his porter. Fiend has no decorum... Fancy a drop of the black stuff later?
- You've been out? You went through the vortex?
- Not bloody likely. Pay pub prices when they've got a perfectly palatable Black Bible ale. Special buy this week. Nice drop.
- But where're we...?
- Made contact with personnel beyond partition, enunciated the Colonel, slowly but quietly.
- How? Who?
- Hey ho. Strictly need to know... Meet at Real Ale Corner, just before lights out.
- It's on, added the Colonel in a whisper.
The old soldier shuffles off in his slippers. It's a long way to Tipperary and ages before lights out. I'm hungry and thirsty in this age of austerity. As Real Ale Corner approaches I hear faint gasps and panels shake. I lean in. Either torture or sex, or both. Hard to tell. Been so long since I left the Aldi. This eternal present. This endless containment. This inconspicuous consumption. Non-stop shopping. The Conquest of Bread. This week like every week it stagnates at 69p!! You finish it off at home in the oven. Half-baked like government policy.
IDS launches a bombshell. The precariat duck. Bombay duck. Three for 59p!! Half-smiles, semi-nods and sideways stares shuttle to and fro nosing for bargains. Freedom of choice. Free to consume, to serve, to die. To check out never. Hotel Californication. Supermarket alienation. Precarious degradation. Other rhymes are available in green wash! Shopping will set you free. Arbreit macht frei. Fat chance combat pants. We have chosen EXIT stage left.
I come across the warrior and his latest decapitation. A redhead who once directed me to the oreGANo, though he'd said oREGano. Now his tongue is contorted and squirts sputum out of the left side of his mouth. Seems like the warrior prefers the stress on the third syllable too.
I pale. I suppress nausea. My Adam's apple rasps. Blood splots onto my shoes. I open my lips. The warrior motions sword across neck. I shut mouth.
- I permit you to speak at my pleasure. Halab, you dog! Halab. Shop I say, shop!
Backing up, I bump into the humped man's trolley. His transistor broadcasts the distinct elocution of an ex-public schoolboy: "Let me be absolutely clear: there will be no clarity, only obfuscation and evasion." Fortunately, reception is patchy. I clear my throat and breathe deeply. The propaganda pollutes. Pungent skunk smoke attacks my nostrils. From beyond the panelling? An E-vaper wafts past. Displacement therapy. Afraid of the freedom from addiction. The best of friends; the worst of friends. Resilience thrives on the sustenance of solidarity, says Joan of Arbury. I hear her behind the freezers. I straighten my ex-NHS specs and reach for a packet of Eccles cakes from behind a short elderly woman in a mac.
- Osteoporosis, a shopper says to a young, tall woman with curly hair, an opened can of energy drink in her hand.
- Shame about your bones Maureen. Need to get you out. Get some Vitamin D.
- What about you?
- Me? Doing much better since I started voluntary work. Thinking about it, all work should be. We all should be willing. They call it charity, but really it's solidarity. We are all in this together, even if they're not.
Joan of Arbury, no saint, must be. From a neglected side issue, to central plotter, she has been working out. On the weight-lifting bench, no doubt. £79.99 Limited stock! Special buy!
The warrior sweeps past again.
- Halab, you dog, halab! Shop. Shop!
Two members of staff appear. The warrior lifts his kilt and moons down the aisle. They don't flinch. They get political. In Aldi, on a Tuesday afternoon. The men want to talk macrocosm. It soon gets personal.
- Victory in the Middle East is now so improbable, why do you persist barbarian?, asks the chief of staff.
- Restrain your opinion, shop walker. We shall annihilate the upstarts and their lapdog lackeys!
- The peace process...
- It's a war process. You perfumed wage slave!
- I am no slave. I am a partner in this...
The warrior snubs his thumb. He steps across to the fresh produce and with his sword, spears a white cabbage and shreds it to pieces. Little need for carrots, onions or mayo...
- Hey ho, it's the Colonel. Coleslaw. Joan's up for a drinks violation. Darios is laying down the law like the civilized barbarian he is.
We watch, as in one fell swoop, Darios, the store commandant, snatches Joan's can and crushes it. His first talisman of the day. He rubs his distended belly. Joan is unintimidated.
- You cannot deny the right to a drink. You can't franchise the right to think, she sloganizes, one of her better ones.
- By the sacred fire of radiance, says Darios improbably, what prompts this girl to think she can flout the health & safety regulations? I am of a mind to banish her to Iceland.
- Go on, banish me then. At least I would be out of here.
- Silence! Cross me again Joan of Arbury and I shall make you work here. There is a position for you at the meat counter... £7.20 an hour.
- £7.20! I won't get burnt at the steaks... I want a living wage, insists Joan of Arbury, no saint.
The pantomime over. The shoppers drift back to shopping. Joan spies one of her sisters over by the cereals. She plots a course past the tinned fruit and the must-be-sold this week lawnmowers. Opportunistically self-directed, she is a missionary of solidarity intent on authenticity and empathy. Even the Colonel's customary sociopathy has been tempered. Hope springs in the eternal present, brothers and sisters.
Joan of Arbury has made a pact with the warrior, who has agreed to behead people only as a very last resort. Maureen stays.
- She's stricken with rickets, says the Colonel.
- Who is our contact?
- A barrista.
- A barrister?
- Shh! Walls have sausages.
Out of camera shot, we crumble cheese into our mouths and share an Eccles cake.
- Wish we had sausages.
- We must get a shift on, my man.
A pair of plotters brandish their Costa lattes over by the organic olive oil. One sips coffee through the sit. Too hot! He presses the side of his forefinger against his burning lip. She has muddy knees visible through ripped jeans. Two clear signs.
- We are only nine days from anarchy, she says.
That's it. We go. We check for staff. Costa clear! All four of us push the freezer to one side sharply and the Colonel and me get down into the shaft. We slip round into the tunnel proper and crawl towards Costa Express, distributor of the world's #no.1 recreational stimulant. Along the tunnel wall, I make out graffiti. Aldi sucks. Sod Darios. Stuff courgettes.
Shop. Work. Spend. The End.
Eventually, we get through, brush ourselves down and place our order.
- One extra regular and one super grande? repeats the barrista.
- That's right. And er... how do we get out of here?
- There's only one way out. There's only one way in.
We have escaped the vortex of post-modern consumption. EXIT is no longer proscribed by the arbitrary imposition of the class narrative. For now, we must chaperone our over-sized status symbols out of Costa Express on the Histon Road and return to our allotted social spaces: the Colonel to his; me to mine. There is no conundrum. Mars is being invaded by alien robots, the Arab spring has long since sprung a leak and the rich have abolished life for the poor. I think about fear and hope and breathe.
I look up at the shop across the street. SCOPE. Joan of Arbury, no saint, she works there. Scope for solidarity.