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The Queen is Dead
copyright © Roger Smith 2000
Martha lived for the moment, but in a desperate way.
Like so many at this godless point in history, her only religion was to enjoy what time she had, and for this she clung desperately to every passing second with a pre-meditated recklessness, a fixed smile and a grim determination to squeeze everything possible from the moment, just everything she could hope to take, knowing all the time that it could never be enough.
Always searching for new experience, always wanting to have the feeling of being alive, she crushed every moment dry until there was nothing left but a dry, empty feeling of yearning and disappointment. It was only to be expected, I suppose.
She came from an uncertain background, her parents weren't wealthy, but then they weren't coal miners or whippet-breeders either and she had never felt truly comfortable with either middle class or working class people - she hated having to make the distinction even, but it seemed somehow unavoidable.
She was never sure where someone like her was supposed to fit in in the world and, since her parents had been dead these few years past, she had been rudderless, drifting from one dead-end to another, living her life day to day and thus managing to avoid thinking about the future. One of these days it would creep up on her, but not yet.
Not yet. Twenty-one years of age, she was still young enough and idealistic enough to believe that if she just did what she thought was right, followed what she believed in, then everything would somehow work out Ok.
If you just believe in the moment then everything will be Ok. Things weren't really Ok though. Staggering up the stairway, bags in each hand, after a day of cleaning tables, washing up, and taking shit from people so much crueler and uglier than her, she was tired, she was depressed, but she wasn't selfish enough to believe she deserved better. For the moment, this was just fine.
Bob lived not for the moment, but for history. He just wanted to be in a history book somewhere, he didn't really care why, and in any situation he acted thinking not of the immediate consequences, but of how posterity would see it. He felt the weight of history pressing down on him like so many leagues of water on an already sunken ship.
He would walk up and down busy streets and see a million people just like him, millions of clones all desperately clutching for individuality with no possible way of differentiating himself. It depressed him more than words.
Since leaving school, he'd taken a succession of low pay jobs in bars, shops and restaurants and waited to see how long it would take him to get fired. In this respect, his last job, working in a small vintage clothing store, had proved more difficult than most.
For a week he had turned up variously drunk, stoned, hours late and not altogether clean and the owner hadn't batted an eyelid. The next week he hadn't turned up at all and still he couldn't get the sack, so he'd decided that maybe the job was meant to be and from then on he had made a point of being punctual, polite and even - hold your head in your hands and gasp - smart, or at least not looking like he'd just crawled out of a skip.
But just when he was getting used to the routine of getting out of bed in the morning, the shop had gone out of business, the owner finding there was less money in flares, old baseball tops and Hawaiian shirts than he had previously suspected. This had finally given Bob the excuse he needed to claim unemployment benefit, but he had found unemployment just wasn't the same when it was through necessity instead of choice. The taste was different.
Bob had decided some time ago that his teachers were right when they said he'd never amount to anything and that the only way his worthless life would ever stand out amongst the unceasing advancement of worthless names and faces, without luck, talent or wealth, was if he were to kill somebody famous. The Queen perhaps. Or the Prime Minister. Or the Pope, though he wasn't particularly religious.
He'd spent some considerable period of time mulling this over and for both political and logistical reasons had decided that the Queen was best. For the past week he had thought of nothing else and had been studiously plotting his motives, justifications and defences.
He'd even gone as far as writing to Buckingham Palace asking when would be the best time to carry out the assassination, and was eagerly awaiting the reply. If there was one thing was for certain though, it was that he would pretty soon tire of the idea and decide instead to do something equally unlikely, like becoming a rock star or writing the great Scottish novel or maybe just going for the Pope instead.
So, anyway, Martha lived for the moment and Bob lived for history, but in day to day terms the way they lived their lives was the same. The only difference was Martha did the shopping, Martha always did the shopping.
He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of his room, which since Martha had been thrown out of her flat and couldn't afford the deposit on a new one was now their room, next to this huge boat of a sofa that just seemed to have washed up there.
The carpet never looked clean even when he hoovered it, which wasn't that often anyway, but it was hard to tell as it was covered in papers, clothes, CDs, and, dominating the entire room, a massive 7ft tall cardboard cut-out pterodactyl that Bob had found outside a shop the day before. There was an open book in front of him, a masterpiece of world literature, no doubt, but the pages didn't seem to have moved much since Martha had left for the supermarket.
He was trying his best to look engrossed in it though as Martha booted the door open, dropped the shopping onto the dirty looking carpet and then, released from the weight of the bags, started to bounce around the room, waving her arms around. She ducked under the wings of the cardboard pterodactyl and stopped bouncing to survey it for a second.
'So, what are you going to do with the chicken?'
'What am I going to do with it? Nothing, I was just going to leave it there.'
'Oh, right, so it's the three of us now, I don't know how I feel about that...' Martha said, looking as if she didn't feel too damn pleased about it.
'Well, I'm sorry, but Terry's staying.'
'Terry? Oh, it's Terry now is it? I thought it was supposed to be a girl.'
'I'm not too sure actually.' Bob said, looking doubtfully at the space between Terry's thin, scaly legs. 'Anyway, I couldn't think of a better name.'
'Terry the pterodactyl? God, Bob, you're so original, how'd you manage to think of that one?'
Bob just shrugged.
'Hey, do you want to go clubbing tonight?'
'Nah, I don't feel like it.'
'C'mon, it'll be fun, this is the first night off I've had in ages.'
'It won't be fun, it'll be smoky and expensive and claustrophobic and I'll only end up getting too drunk and spending money I don't have.'
'We don't have to get drunk...' She said, coyly rolling her eyes at him.
'No, we've been taking too many drugs as it is. Besides, I don't have any money.'
'C'mon Bob, everyone else will be going out...'
'So? I hate your friends, you know I hate your friends. They're so shallow and pretentious, all they care about is how fucking cool they think they are. There's no way that I'm voluntarily spending my free time hanging around with those people.'
Martha sighed and slumped down on the sofa, as if she weighed around, say, 500 tons. She was disappointed, although his reluctance to get loved up and go larging it with Glasgow possť was only to be expected.
In fact she had met him in a club where it was his aloofness and grim resolution not to have a good time that had interested her. Watching him sitting in the corner, hating everybody, she had thought he might prove to be an interesting person and she felt she should be going out with someone who was at least interesting.
Her own shallow, pretentious friends were about as interesting as the pages of some poor quality, permanently out of date fashion magazine, this much was true.
'Well,' she said, 'we could go out with your friends if it wasn't for the fact you don't have any.' 'I have friends.' He said defensively. 'I have friends, they're just not the type of friends you go clubbing with.'
'Oh? Then just what is it you and your imaginary friends do together then?' 'We do... other things.' He said, slightly irritated to be reminded of the fact he had no real friends, the kind you go clubbing with or otherwise. It was one of the job hazards of being a full-time misanthrope. He decided to change the subject.
'Did you get the paper?' Bob got up and walked towards the huddle of shopping bags, now beginning to spread outwards, as tins and packets gradually worked their way out of the bag and seeped slowly across the carpet. 'Yeah, it's in one of the bags.'
He rifled through the thin plastic sacks for a moment, then pulled out a little bundle of newsprint that was sandwiched between two packets of stores-own-brand cornflakes. He looked at it for a second with a puzzled expression and then burst out in what he hoped was righteous indignation.
'Jesus, you got the Mail! I thought I told you to get the paper.'
'The Mail's a paper.'
'No it's not, it's a tabloid, and it's not even a proper tabloid. I mean if you're going to get a tabloid at least get The Sun or The Star or something that at least doesn't have pretensions of being a serious newspaper.'
'Look, it's a paper, it's got News in front, sport in back and the TV in the middle - it's a paper. When I get a broadsheet you never read half of it anyway.'
'Well, that's because only half of it's worth reading, but at least half of it's worth reading, what's worth reading in the Mail? The horoscopes? I mean, Jesus.' He held up the copy of the Mail between two fingers as if it was a piece of faeces.
But, worth reading or not, he opened it up and began scanning through it, flicking disdainfully past a couple of trivial kiss-and-tell stories he'd read later and looking determinedly at an article about the current situation in some obscure eastern European country. He wasn't the slightest bit interested in the current situation in some obscure eastern European country, but he wanted to be seen to be reading something important.
He stared blankly at the page for about thirty seconds as Martha lit up a Regal King Size and then, fully briefed on the political situation in Eastern Europe, he put the paper to one side and began eyeing up Martha's cigarette.
Bob was somewhat in two minds about smoking - on the one hand he was vaguely aware that lung cancer and emphysema weren't really good things, but on the other hand he had always felt that smoking made him look cool and devil-may-care. So it was no contest really.
'Give me a cigarette.' He said.
'Ok, but only if you can catch it in your mouth.'
'Oh, c'mon, you did this last time.'
'No catch, no fag.'
'Alright, alright, but throw it underhand this time, don't just chuck it right at my face like you're trying to take one of my eyes out.'
'You've got to stand up.'
Bob stood up and pushed his lips out like he was trying to do a crude Mick Jagger.
'Ok,' she said, 'you ready?' She wound her arm up and tossed the cigarette into the air in a large arc, but it fell short and Bob had to run at it as it descended towards the carpet. He almost made it, but at the vital moment the small white cylinder crashed off his nose and fell to the floor. He threw himself to the ground after it.
'Hey, what are you doing?' said Martha as he lifted it up, rolled over, and took a zippo lighter with the words BURN, BABY, BURN on it from his back pocket. 'You're not allowed - you've got to catch one first. Hey!' she flung another cigarette in his general direction, but by now the first projectile was already lit. He arranged himself in a cross-legged position on the floor once again, took a long drag from the cigarette and then flicked the ash into the neck of an empty beer bottle that just seemed to be lying there.
'I've been thinking...'
'Oh, Jesus Christ Bob, no. Stop right now. Go ye no further.'
'I was thinking about all those people who go on killing sprees and then commit suicide. Do you think that they were going to commit suicide anyway, and figured that while they're at it they may as well take out as many other people as possible, or do you reckon they decided to kill the other people first and then realised that once they'd done it the only way out was to commit suicide?'
Martha sighed and sank deeper into the sofa. 'Well,' she said, 'either way it amounts to the same thing.' 'Yeah, but it's interesting to know who they wanted to kill most, themselves or other people. It's interesting to know who's life was more important to them.'
'Well, who do you want to kill most then, yourself or someone else?' 'I don't particularly want to kill anyone. It's not the Queen as a person I want to kill, it's what she stands for. It's more symbolic than anything else.'
'But you're not talking about killing a symbol, you're talking about killing an actual real, live person. A real live person with a big hat and silly glasses.'
Bob took another drag and blew the smoke out of the side of his mouth. 'The Queen's not a real person,' he said, 'she's a caricature, an invention, she doesn't go to the toilet, she doesn't have periods...' 'She's too old to have periods...' Martha broke in.
'Yeah, but she never did have periods, she just didn't. She somehow forced herself not to, it would have been unregal to have all that mess and bother a few days every month. She's not a real person, she's a robot.'
'She is not a robot,' Martha said, for some reason incensed, 'she's just some sweet old lady.' 'Ok, for starters, she's not just some sweet old lady, but even if she was, there are thousands of sweet old ladies who die every day and no-one gives a shit about them, why should the Queen be any different?'
'Because she's the Queen.'
'Exactly, and that's why I want to kill her, because she's the Queen. I don't want to kill her because she's some old lady I want to kill her because she's the Queen, because she's important and famous and useless. It's quite impersonal really.' 'Well, I don't believe for one second you're going to go through with it anyway.'
'Yes I will, I will go through with it and then you can say you knew me first, you knew me before I was famous and you always knew I was going to be a psychopathic killer.'
Martha got up and walked across to the window, staring out at the swarm of people buzzing out of the underground station on the street below. 'So are we going clubbing tonight or what?' she said. 'No, I told you already.'
'Well fine then, I'll just go without you and pick up some sleazy guy while I'm there.' 'You do what you want girl, I ain't a-gonna stop ya.'
Martha pressed her forehead up against the glass and sighed again. 'God, I'm bored. Well let's at least do something. Jesus, you should do something else on a Friday night other than sit around plotting ways to commit regicide. It's just not healthy.' 'We could watch TV.'
'Watch TV?' She said, spinning round accusingly. 'This is Scotland. We're poor. Apart from getting drunk or watching TV what else are we supposed to do to entertain ourselves?' 'I don't know - something.'
Bob frowned, as if in deep concentration. 'We could go to the cinema I suppose, there's a good film about child abuse I was wanting to see.' 'A good film about child abuse?'
'Yeah, I read a review in the paper, it's supposed to be really poignant and thought-provoking and all that sort of stuff.' He finished the cigarette and slipped the filter into the beer bottle, where it slid slowly down the side, before getting stuck halfway.
He jiggled the bottle until it came loose and slid the rest of the way to the bottom of the bottle, coming to rest in a brown sludge made up of the ash and a couple of mouthfuls of stale beer.
'Well, I don't think a movie about child abuse is really going to be very entertaining.' 'You didn't listen to me, it's not supposed to be entertaining, it's supposed to be poignant and thought provoking. I think they may even have used the word compelling. Or maybe it was challenging, I forget. Anyway, I'm not going to see some corny Hollywood crap, that much is for sure.'
'Well I'm not going to see something that's depressing.' 'What do you want then, light entertainment? You want everything to be lightly entertaining? Life's depressing, Martha, this much you will have to learn.'
Martha pouted, ran her hand though her hair and said, with a casual air. 'Hey, I know what.' 'What?' Said Bob cagily, half expecting what was coming next.
'We could go and have sex somewhere exciting. Somewhere outdoors.' 'Martha, it's cold outside. I'm not doing anything like that when it's cold outside. Aside from anything else I'll never get it up in these temperatures - you'll have to find some sleazy bloke in a club if you want anything like that.'
Martha gave Bob her best I-just-might-do-that pout, but they both knew this wasn't very likely, Martha had picked up enough sleazy blokes in her time to know it was over-rated.
So Martha sulked, Bob picked up the paper to read his horoscope and there was a silence between them. Not the awkward kind of silence where you can hear yourself breathing and have to talk about the weather just to cover it though, only a momentary lack of anything to say.
Seconds passed, the room silent save for the sounds from the next room, Chris and Roger smacking each other's arses with ping-pong paddles, the familiar thwack of rubber against buttock.
'The Queen must die.'
Bob blurted this out loudly, with conviction, and apparently out of nothing. 'God, what is it with you? What is it with you and killing the Queen?'
'I've told you before, this is the only way I'll ever achieve anything significant. It's the only way I'll ever be famous. It's like Morrissey says; in our lifetime, those who kill, the newsworld hands them stardom...'
'Don't quote Morrissey at me!' Martha glared at Bob to show she meant business, but he launched into a rendition of Last of the Famous International Playboys anyway, just for the hell of it, and started swanning around the room and swaying from side to side like some miserable Mancunian who's just too literate and sensitive for his own good.
'I never wanted to kill, I am not naturally evil....' He moaned. 'Bob, cut it out!'
'...such things I do just to make myself more attractive to you. Have I failed?' 'Bob, I'm warning you...'
'Ok, ok...' He said, cutting it out. 'But, seriously, killing somebody is the only way that someone like me will ever be famous. I've got nothing else going for me. I mean look at Lee Harvey Oswald, Charles Manson, Gavrilo Princip, Mark Chapman. Do you think that anyone would have remembered them if they hadn't killed someone? The only....'
'Ok, Ok,' said Martha, cutting him off. 'You go kill the Queen then. But what about tonight, what are we going to do tonight? We have to do something.'
Bob looked lethargically out the window, a bored expression on his bored face. 'Well,' he said diplomatically, 'if you can tell me one thing truly worth doing. One thing. Then we'll do it, Ok?'
'One thing worth doing?'
'And we have to do it?'
'No matter what it is?'
'Yeah, but it has to be really worth doing, it has to be something that makes us better people or makes the world a better place or something. Not just something that passes the time.'
'Ok.' She said.
She thought about it. Thought about her wildest fantasies, her craziest notions. All the things she wanted to do, but never had, all the ridiculous notions of having a good time. Then she thought about having no money in Glasgow on a Friday night. She couldn't think of one thing.
'Anything on TV?' She said eventually. 'Yeah,' said Bob, a little too quickly, 'there's a programme I was wanting to watch on Channel 4 just now. I marked it on the TV guide.' He handed Martha the glossy little magazine, already turned to Friday's TV.
There was a little cross next to a programme on 4, and after that a series of crosses spread amongst the channels marking out the rest of the evening's entertainment. Martha looked at it, horrified. 'You had this all planned out already, didn't you?'
'No...' Bob was all innocence, but there was half a smile as he turned on the little ex-rental TV and slumped into the sofa. 'I mean, if you can think of anything better to do...' His voice trailed off.
Martha sighed. In reality she didn't have the energy. After running around after other people all day it was all she could do to put her feet up and watch TV. The thought of going out depressed her. The thought of staying in depressed her. The thought of doing anything depressed her. She sank even deeper into the sofa.
'Good, it's just starting.' Said Bob, forgetting all his assassination plans as he positioned himself in front of the idiot box. 'I haven't seen this in ages,' said Martha, reconciling herself to the idea, 'I used to love this show.' 'There's another one on afterwards as well,' said Bob, 'it's a double-bill.'
'Oh good.' Said Martha, without irony.
'You get any beer?' Said Bob.
'Yeah.' Said Martha.
Bob got up, took two tins of beer from the bag and then snuggled back down into the oversized cushions next to Martha. Martha stretched her legs out and re-positioned herself so she could see the screen better.
Martha scratched her nose, Bob opened a beer, and the pterodactyl stared down, omniscient, omnipotent.
And, sitting there, under Terry's protective wings, in the flickering glow of a TV double-bill, it was hard to tell which one was living for the moment and which one wasn't.
© 2000 Roger Smith
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