By Matt Holland
Mark sighed and poked his fork into the food on his plate. Why even bother taking a bite? The first bite was with the eye, or so they said, and the filth on Mark’s plate made him wish he was blind.
The steak was supermarket grade, the mashed potato was piled on without a care, and there were green bits in it. Not to mention the salad. It looked like it’d come out of a bag.
Why couldn’t kids these days cook properly? It’s not like it was hard. Mark watched cookery programmes and ate in the best restaurants all the time, he knew how food was supposed to look.
He never cooked for himself though. That was for common people who couldn’t afford a reservation at The Square.
The room itself wasn’t giving Mark much of an appetite either. It was clean enough, you know, for a student flat. But everywhere Mark looked he found something new to to turn his stomach.
Their hostess, a strange girl named Abby or Amy or something, was an artist. There were examples of her work were festooned on every wall. Horrible paintings that looked like the inside of a bowel. A bissected department store mannequin stood in one corner, ribbons of gooey string pouring out of its split-open belly. In the other corner a wall-sized billboard covered in life-like drawings of insects eating plates of money.
Like the food, it was all so tasteless.
But the worst thing by far was that thing on the table by the door.
No, not the CRT television. Although, it was 2017. Who couldn’t afford a flatscreen in this day and age? According to the papers, even those useless benefit cheats were wallpapering their houses with flatscreens; all at the expense of decent, hardworking taxpayers like Mark Mailer.
The thing next to the television was disgusting. Mark didn’t want to look at the it, but every few seconds he found his eyes drifting over. It was like a car crash or a TV screen at the doctor’s office. You knew it wasn’t going to enrich your life in any way, but you couldn’t help yourself. You had to look.
It was a hand. A dessicated, leathery hand with long, spidery fingers capped with filthy fingernails.
Mark pushed his plate aside and tried to catch the hostesses attention. If only he knew her name, it was either Abby or Amy. He was sure of that much. If you thought about it, it was really her fault for not speaking up when she introduced herself to him. He didn’t even know the first thing about her, just that she was an artist and one of Becky’s friends from university.
Abby-Amy, whatever the girl’s name was, was sitting at the head of the table blathering away to the other guests about some unimportant tripe or other. She was dressed like she was attending a funeral and she spoke like a continental, all grand, expressive hand movements that made the bangles on her forearms clatter together like loose change in a coffee jar.
Becky kicked him under the table just when he thought he was getting Abby-Amy’s attention. Mark looked over and his girlfriend gave him an exasperated look. Poor girl was jealous, and who could blame her? He was the richest, and therefore the smartest man at this table.
He was also the only man at this table. Aside from Becky and Abby-Amy, the other two were mere boys.
Becky blinked her eyes and looked back at Amy-Abby, pretending to be interested in what the weirdo was talking about. God bless that woman, always trying to please the lower orders.
Mark let his gaze linger on her a little while longer. She was a scorcher alright, he’d done alright for himself. Mark was fifty-two years and he’d managed to pull a woman like Becky. Twenty-one years old, she was. And he’d made it last nearly a year. All the other blokes at the office hated him for that.
They hadn’t liked him much before either, but now they had a real reason instead of just being jealous of how smart he was.
The only downside was being dragged to all these excruciating dinner parties full of all these kids playing dress-up. Putting on make-up (sometimes even the boys!), doing their best impressions of adults, and playing house together. None of them could cook or source decent local ingredients or knew the difference between a cabernet and a sauvignon. They couldn’t even hold a decent conversation.
Just listen to what the blighters were on about now:
“Just ask her out, dude,” said Abby-or-Amy to the six and a half foot beanpole of a lad, sitting next to her. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“I will ask her out,” said the beanpole. “I will.”
“You won’t,” said the last of the dinner guests. He was Mark’s least favourite, and that was really saying something. This one was fat and had too many teeth and he was from the north. And he didn’t seem ashamed of any of it. “You’ll go into your lecture, sit next to her and talk about Pokemon for an hour.”
“She likes Pokemon,” the beanpole said. Mark wanted to go over and slap the petulance right out of that whiny voice.
He didn’t even know what a Pokemon was. Probably some kind of new drug.
“Does she like you, though?”
“Don’t be a prick, Darren,” said Abby-Amy. Mark winced a bit at the language. He didn’t mind swearing at the dinner table, he’d had more than a few boozy business lunches full of four letter words. But a lady swearing? Next she’d be drinking pints. “I think it’s sweet how Cassie and Gareth go off for lunch every day.”
Mark saw Becky glaring at him across the table. He must’ve been staring at their hostess again. Fifty-two years old and his twenty-one year old girlfriend was getting jealous. It was adorable.
“I mean, I like her an’ all, I just dunno if she likes me, likes me, y’know?” mumbled the beanpole.
At this point, Mark had all of this that he could stand. He slammed his palm down on the table, shaking plates, ringing cutlery against glasses, and knocking the bottle of wine he’d brought (and drunk!) this evening.
“Tosh!” he said. “Bilge! What utter rot!”
“Excuse me?” said the northerner, Darren. He had the temerity to make eye-contact. Well, Mark Mailer was no coward. He looked straight back.
“You heard me,” Mark said.
“Heard, yes. Understood, no,” said Abby-Amy. “What’s your problem?”
“Mark…” Becky hissed under her breath, in a way that implied that there’d be sex later if he kept this up. Mark knew his woman far too well.
“In a minute, darling,” Mark said. He jabbed at the beanpole with one of his fingers. The scrawny bugger leapt up off his chair like the devil himself was trying to goose him. “You, what’s your name?”
“Gareth,” said the beanpole.
“Ah yes, you look like a Gareth,” Mark said. Fortunately nobody asked him to follow up on that statement, so he didn’t. “Look, my boy. If you want something in this world you have to take it. Isn’t that right, Becky?”
Becky seemed to be trying to slide under the table.
Oh-ho, Mark thought, definitely sex then.
Mark went on. “Take me for example…”
“I wish someone would,” muttered the northerner.
“Now listen here you little toe-rag…” Mark started. The northern lout sat up a little straighter and smiled. Actually, now that Mark was looking, this northerner seemed rather large. Better not risk making eye contact anymore.
“Okay, keep it civil,” said Abby-Amy in a tone that implied she was in charge. Just because it was her house, she had cooked, and she had invited them. How much did she earn in a year? Probably not much from the looks of her ‘art.’
But Mark didn’t remind her of her place in the world. For one thing, he wanted to spare the northerner the embarrassment of being dragged out into the street by his ear.
“All I’m saying,” Mark went on, “is that you need to have courage, beanpole. I mean…what was your name again, son?”
“Gareth,” the beanpole repeated. “Mate, I’ve got no problem asking her out. I just want to make sure she’s into me first, y’know?”
“That’s the problem with your generation, always waiting around for someone to fix your problems for you,” Mark said.
“Our generation?” Abby-Amy said, quite rudely Mark thought, since he didn’t remember actually addressing her.
But Mark smiled. This was his mastermind special subject. He’d read all the papers, seen all the Channel 4 documentaries, he knew exactly how to argue this point.
“Back in my day we didn’t just get medals for turning up to the race…”
“Nobody ever gave me a medal,” said the northerner.
Mark looked at the northerner’s protruding belly. “Clearly,” he said, and congratulated himself for his wit.
By this point, Becky was actually underneath the table.
But Mark pressed on. “There was no participation medals for us, oh no. I had to pass the eleven plus to get into grammar school then I worked my way up from office junior to Vice President of Mailer and Gibbons Consultancy. I didn’t just wait around for Father Christmas, or my parents, or the government to help me out. I earned what I have, boys and girls.”
He looked around for Becky, but she was out on the other side of the table now, going through the coats on Abby-Amy’s bed.
Probably looking for condoms. Clever girl.
“Isn’t your last name, Mailer?” said Abby-Amy.
“So you worked your way up to the head of a company with your own name on it?”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant,” Mark said. And he smiled, he had her now. “And besides, I didn’t say I was head of the company. I said I was vice-president. Father is still alive, so there.”
“Oh christ,” Abby-Amy said putting her head in her hands. Defeated, by his supreme logic. Just like everyone else who crossed swords with Mark Mailer.
“For the last time,” Gareth said, “I’m not afraid to ask Cassie out. I just wish that she liked me the same way I like her.”
As he spoke, every light in the house went out. Mark and Becky both screamed in unison. And in the darkness, whispers. Little voices hissing into Mark’s ear.
“Stop that this instant!” he said.
The lights sprang back on, as if by his command.
“What was that?” Becky asked.
“Fuck me,” said Abby-Amy. Mark was about to tell her that he would do no such thing (although, after a few more drinks, who knows?), but then he saw where she was pointing. “Look.”
That grisly hand, the one on the table next to the TV, had folded one of its fingers into its palm.
Past grievances were forgotten, and not just because they were all afraid of tussling with Mark again. Another bottle of wine had been fetched from Abby-Amy’s pokey little kitchen (bloody students always had money for wine didn’t they?) and they were gathered around the strange, leathery hand that they’d placed in the middle of the table.
“I’ve heard of these,” said the northerner. “Monkeys paws, they’re supposed to grant wishes.” He looked up at Gareth with a wink. “Looks like you’re getting your end away after all my son.”
“Bilge,” said Mark. Everyone turned to look at him. “All of it; bilge. No such thing as magical wish granting monkeys paws.”
“Where did you get it from, Angela?” said Becky. Mark wondered who she was talking to for a moment, until Abby-Amy spoke up.
Ah, so her name is Angela, Mark thought. He was close at least.
“Oxfam, I thought it looked cool is all. Does it really grant wishes?” she asked the northerner. He just shrugged. “If it does, I wish I was rich.”
Everyone held their breath and waited.
“See?” Mark said. “I told you…”
The lights went out again. Mark’s ears popped like he was on a plane that’d just taken flight. This time there were no voices.
When the lights came back, the monkeys paw had folded another long finger towards its palm. It now looked like it holding up a grotesque peace sign.
They were obviously playing a trick on him. Credit where credit was due, it was a good trick. Mark didn’t think millennials could be this smart. But smart trick or not, Mark didn’t like it at least. Nobody, nobody at all, made Mark Mailer look foolish. He stood up, grabbed Becky by the arm and dragged her off towards the door.
“Come on darling, we’re leaving,” he said.
The three simpletons at the table were still gawping at the hand, they didn’t even notice Mark hauling Becky towards the door with both hands. He pulled, but Becky was stronger than she looked.
“I wish I would lose weight!” said the northerner, he’d grabbed the paw with both hands.
Mark couldn’t resist throwing one last boot in. “We all wish you’d lose weight, tubby.”
“I said get off!” Becky tore herself free of his grasp and slapped him across the cheek just as the lights went out. Mark didn’t hear much of anything this time, too distracted by the stinging pain on his face.
He couldn’t believe it. The gall! Nobody had ever hit Mark Mailer before.
“You jumped up little tart!” Mark said.
“Fuck you, pompous arsehole!”
The lights came back on and Becky slapped him again, this time across his other cheek. In this, like in so many things, Mark Mailer was a lot like Jesus.
“You know what I wish, Mark? I wish we’d never met!”
The lights went out again.
The lights came back on and Mark was drunk in a room full of strangers and horrible artwork. Mark had woken up in stranger places amidst stranger people, but he recoiled at this scene. Three members of the great unwashed were sitting around a cheap table with a hand in the middle.
Mark assumed it was some kind of sex thing.
He might’ve made a comment, or slunk off towards the door, if it wasn’t for the gorgeous redhead standing in front of him.
Might as well try his luck.
“Mark Mailer,” he said. “A pleasure, I’m sure.”
“Piss off, old man,” said the redhead.
“Now there’s no need to be rude, miss,” said Mark. Just as well, she was a bit on the chubby side. Mark could do better. “I think I’ll be going.”
“Wait,” said the dark-haired girl at the table. She sounded drowsy. Probably from smoking pot, the dirty heathen. “You’ve still got to make a wish.”
“A wish?” Mark chuckled. “That’s the trouble with your generation, my girl. All you do is wish. I wish everyone in the world could be as smart as me, then we’d actually get things done instead of waiting for handouts. Now, I’m leaving this…whatever this place it.”
He turned and walked out the door.
Just as well. The lights went out as he left. Silly little young people, too busy buying pot and wine and severed hands to pay their own electric bill. No good could come from being around people who were so willingly common, what if someone saw him? Best just to get the tube home and forget all about this confusing evening.
But the next morning, Mark couldn’t forget. Mostly because those three scallywags at the table were all in the paper.
It was just as well that he’d left the house. Apparently the girl at the head of the table, the one with all that fancy arm jewellery, it turned out she was a money launderer if you can believe it. They had arrested her that very morning and were charging her with every white collar crime Mark had always aspired to.
This generation. Always wanting something for nothing.
That skinny lad with the puppy dog eyes, he’d been crushed to death in some kind of violent orgy. A hundred women had apparently climbed on top of him and smothered him. Weird thing was, all the women were called ‘Cassie’
This generation and their wild sex parties.
And finally, that fat lad with the big teeth? According to the paper, he’d vanished entirely. He’d apparently gone to some kind of dinner party and never come back.
Probably off on some drug-fuelled adventure or other.
No mention of that tasty little red haired strumpet. But someone as rude at her would get their comeuppance soon enough. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise Mark if she suffered the worst fate out of all of them.
It didn’t matter. Mark didn’t know them at all. There were other young red headed fillies to play with, blondes too, and brunettes. All the women in the world, and they all wanted him. Every one.
He stepped outside to see if he could meet one of them. He almost certainly would’ve done, were it not for the fact that the street outside his house looked like a war zone.
Most of the buildings on Mark’s street were on fire, belching out thick black smoke that made Mark’s eyes water. Across the street, a car had ploughed through the front window of the Sainsbury’s express. Men and women were scurrying in and out like plague rats. Funny thing was, they were all dressed up like they were about to attend the opera, and they weren’t stealing anything except for the wine, cheese, and cigars.
One end of the street was cluttered with smashed cars piled on top of each other spilling exhaust up into the reddening sky. There was a broken down bus with no wheels parked up opposite, a man in a bus driver’s uniform was lying fetal by the door as a half dozen men in bespoke suits kicked at him and laughed.
As Mark watched, a fat man in a bowler hat and nothing else came sprinting past, giggling and twirling a stolen bra over his head. Mark watched the spectacle with a mix of amusement and horror as up ahead, the first plane dropped from the sky and disappeared somewhere near Hyde Park.
Then he remembered what he’d said as he’d left that strange house last night.
I wish everyone could be as smart as me.
He realised all the things he didn’t actually know.
He didn’t know how to drive a car.
He couldn’t wire a plug.
He couldn’t build a house.
He didn’t know how to farm.
He didn’t know how to perform surgery.
He hated young people, foreigners, bus drivers, women, and anyone who wasn’t smart enough to earn more than a hundred grand a year.
And as another airplane dropped down on his head, he had just enough time to think.
This generation is doomed. And it was all that bloody redheads fault.
— Matt Holland 28/06/17
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