His daughter, Haley, was to blame. Haley was only three, however, and it is generally considered unreasonable to blame a three year old. Michal had been watching the cricket with Haley on his lap. She had been restless and so Michal had bobbed her up and down on his knee to subdue her. She had struggled, bobbing away, like a rider whose horse is going in the wrong direction. She had eventually fallen into him and, through all the drama of Alastair Cook marching into bat, Michal was conscious that her squirming, searching hands had found his wallet. Michal indulged her, as she carefully emptied the wallet and scrutinised all of its contents. She was most captivated by his driving license, with its stiff mugshot. It only resembled Michal in passing, rather as a second cousin would.
Later, she was established on her tricycle, wobbling around their tiny garden, pedalling away in little spurts of blind fury. This was supposed to tire her out. Michal volunteered to be the policeman who had to check her driving license. Lying exquisitely, she insisted that the photograph of the heavily middle-aged Michal was really of her.
His wife arrived home from work and Michal strolled over to the LetsGo store on Holy Corner to buy a bottle of wine. Michal and his wife were getting old – they now got through a whole bottle of wine every evening, and they had usually recovered by the next morning. The LetsGo “Metro” store is always so full of customers that the staff sometimes joke about using tear gas to disperse them. The surrounding shops are always roundly empty. The citizens of Bruntsfield complain that LetsGo is spoiling the character of the neighbourhood, when it actually comprises the entire economy of their neighbourhood.
Michal had to queue for twenty minutes with his bottle of wine. When he reached the checkout, the girl on the till asked to see his ID.
Tucked up in bed, dreaming that she was a princess on a white pony, Haley was still clutching the driving license tightly. When she reached her castle, a handsome prince bowed with a flourish and demanded to inspect it.
“Um, no I don’t have it, I’m afraid.” Michal looked up at the girl on the till in useless appeal. Perhaps they would be conspirators together, against the system. But the girl had suddenly turned into a robot. Indeed, he thought that he heard a soft whirring and the faintest of bleeps as she turned to face him.
“I’m sorry sir, but we cannot sell this to you without valid proof of age.” The wine was withdrawn.
Exhilaration! Euphoria! Amazed at how brilliant he was, Michal realised that his first driving license was still somewhere in his wallet. His fingers dancing, he retrieved the license and showed it to the girl. The world was back to normal.
The girl frowned. “I’m sorry sir, but this does not resemble you.”
Michal froze. “Well, the photo was taken when I was nineteen. My head was a lot smaller… thinner then… and obviously, I now have the beard. Try to imagine me without a beard.”
The girl shook her head. “I’m sorry sir.”
You will stay calm, a little voice in the back of his head pronounced, as he began to slide inexorably away from a place of calm. He felt a little sick as the world accelerated around him. But the wine was his, it belonged to him. “Imagine me without a beard,” Michal demanded. He was now speaking in his stony, serious voice.
The girl on the till glanced about for help. Michal imagined ripping out his beard with his bare hands and brandishing his raw chin at the girl. But then he was being led away. With dull astonishment, he became aware that a security guard was explaining, in a kindly voice and with his eyes twinkling like those of a mother, that Michal was now banned from the store for violating their alcohol policy. He had broken at least five of the latest laws and they were obliged to inform the police.
As those automatic doors glided shut for the final time, Michal suddenly appreciated the true depths of the old myth. The splendid garden still nodding in the sunshine, peeping for the last time around a final corner, whilst the angel fended off the excruciatingly naked humans with his flaming sword.
The next day, Michal and Haley had to walk an extra fifteen minutes to reach the second nearest LetsGo store. Michal thought it best to wait a few days before he made another appearance at the LetsGo on Holy Corner. But they had scarcely collected their basket when the store manager approached them.
“I am sorry sir, but we have received notification that you are barred from all LetsGo stores.” She smiled with pleasure at Haley, noticing her for the first time. “I’m sorry sir, but there’s nothing we can do.”
Michal had to buy Haley’s dinner at a corner store which was watched over by a portly Pakistani man with a hammer protruding from his tracksuit pocket. The packet of pasta was caked in dust and it cost three times as much as it did at LetsGo. Haley was already turning up her nose at it.
Michal conferred with his wife and they came to the reluctant decision that she would now have to buy all of their groceries. Even Michal thought that this was unfair, as the shopping was one of the few domestic chores that he could attempt with any confidence. That evening his wife was as faraway as a mountain, and she would not respond to his kisses. Once she was dozing in her armchair, Michal slipped out to the local pub. There are actually no real pubs in Bruntsfield, because this neighbourhood contains no straightforward working people, but let’s pretend that Montpeliers is a pub.
Michal perched himself on a bar stool and happily ordered a bottle of Tyskie. But there was only more bad news.
“I’m sorry pal, but we’ve received an email about you from LetsGo. You’ve violated the licensing laws…”
The tidings were repeated. It transpired that Letsgo pooled information about offenders amongst all of the other license holders in Edinburgh.
It was useless to argue. The barman just kept saying that it was “policy,” as if this was a card which trumped everything else. It was also “policy” in the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Links, and Cloisters. Completely defeated, Michal had to buy a can of Coke in a fish-and-chip shop and drink it on a bench in the Meadows.
Michal had reached the point where he was able to view his predicament coldly and with detachment, as if he was looking down on a king which had been painstakingly checkmated. It was all too plain – there were no moves, no options, and no hope. The next morning, Michal emailed the Edinburgh district manager of LetsGo to arrange a meeting. He readily accepted that the law would give him no protection or assistance, but he was prepared to surrender anything to the manager, any amount of money, if he could just have his life back.
He had expected to enter into a protracted correspondence, concerned with agreeing and confirming dates, but he instead received a mere four words.
“Tell Me About Yourself.”
Warily, Michal composed a brief synopsis. Married. Lived in Edinburgh for a decade. Self-employed. Three year old daughter.
The next email was even more bewildering.
How could anybody reply to this? Michal was wondering whether to try and make contact with a more accommodating LetsGo suit, when he received a second, terse email. He and his daughter would present themselves at the Holy Corner LetsGo store at two in the morning. He would not tell anybody about this meeting, not even his wife. If he failed to comply, then all of the money would disappear from his bank account.
Michal awoke at half past one and pulled his winter coat over his pyjamas. He was able to scoop up Haley from her bedsheets without waking her, and he snuggled her inside his coat, against his chest. She began to stir once her face was in the cold night air. Bruntsfield was like an underwater city, sunk at the bottom of the deepest of silences. The LetsGo store appeared to be deserted. Yet when Michal approached the automatic doors, they glided silently open.
Inside the store, he had to stop and allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
“Where are we Daddy?” Haley asked sleepily.
Michal had prepared for this. “You’re dreaming!” he declared, in an inappropriately jolly voice.
“Really?” Haley reflected upon this and she seemed to conclude that it may be plausible.
“Doesn’t seem like a dream,” she remarked to herself pointedly.
“Wibble, wobble! Stinky-poos!” her father replied.
They were wandering around the aisles, like shoppers without any money. Suddenly, there was a gaping blackness in the middle of the floor, with a wet floor sign in front of it. Michal instinctively stopped to look at this hole and he decided to wait for something to happen. In the moonlight, it looked like an open trapdoor. His heart seemed to shrink to a dot as a shapeless figure rose out of the trapdoor. And then another, and another, and another. They were dressed in long hooded robes and their faces were concealed from the moonlight.
A strangled cry broke the silence. “Y’ha-nthlei!” Michal shuddered at this shrill jarring voice, which sounded oddly like the yell of a goat floating over wintry fields. Yet the crescent of hooded figures echoed it solemnly.
This seemed only to wind up the first voice. “Y’ha-nthlei!” it screeched. The speaker clawed at the air and as the moonlight caught a bit of his face, Michal recognised him as the manager of the LetsGo store.
“It is a dream,” Haley admitted.
The manager’s haggard face and wild voice seemed to have flowed seamlessly from appealing to missing staff over the tannoy system to presiding over this lunatic ritual. The figures were chanting and Michal found himself retreating from them until they had all arrived at the self-service machines. The store manager gave a final deranged bellow, with such passion that Michal thought that the man’s heart would well up and drop out of his mouth.
One of the self-service machines suddenly hissed and then it broke open with a great wet plop. Something which looked like a gigantic fried egg was erupting from the bagging area, a gleaming black eye swivelling in the moonlight. A slimy tentacle was looming up and twitching to life. The manager spun around to face Michal. “Offer her! Offer the girl bride!”
Michal was almost indignant. “Hardly the most sensible…” But the manager seemed to reel at some yawning error in the timing of the spectacle, and he impatiently tore Haley from Michal’s arms.
The tentacle wrapped itself around Haley’s stomach and it lifted her high into the air. The hooded figures fell to the knees and began to chant “Y’ha-nthlei! Y’ha-nthlei! Y’ha-nthlei!” Michal could only gaze at them, transfixed with embarrassment. The air was heavy with incense. Somebody was pounding on a tambourine. Haley was squealing with delight as the tentacle waved her around in the air, brandishing her little body in triumph.
Finally, a sort of sphincter opened in the yolk of the creature and it emitted an unearthly gurgle. At this, the robed figures fell silent and they bowed their heads. Michal grew aware that he was expected to do this too and so he nodded curtly at the creature. A tentacle slapped the floor in approval. When he looked up, Haley was hanging in front of him. He took down her body, wiping the thick slime from his hands on his trouser leg.
With a deft flourish of tentacles, the creature slithered back inside the self-service machine. The machine fell together into its old shape again. A globule of slime was trailing down the side of the machine until it began to recite in a bland voice, “unexpected item in the bagging area.”
The robed figures were dispersing, some staying behind to exchange pleasantries. The manager was approaching Michal with a clipboard. “Sign and date here and here please. Terms and cons.”
Michal studied the clipboard. “So can I now shop in LetsGo again?”
“Certainly. The ban is fully rescinded. But remember to bring some valid ID next time.”
As they walked back home, Haley told him what a lovely dream they were having, but she complained that her pyjamas were all sticky. Michal told her that everything was her fault and that she had got what she thoroughly deserved.