By Alan Green
Two flies crawled across the ceiling. George watched them make their slow progress across the nicotine stained landscape. They struggled over the canyon like cracks. One of them crawled on top of its partner. He scowled and thought about crushing them but it seemed like too much effort. He tried to laugh at himself. Things were pretty bad when you were jealous of a fly’s love life. Still it was pretty inconsiderate. They should get a room. George wasn’t really in the mood for laughing at himself or anything else.
He dragged himself out of bed, pulled on his old brown dressing gown and headed into the kitchen. His answerphone was flashing but he ignored it. It would only be his landlord pestering him about the rent. If he was lucky it would be his mother phoning up to tell him how great all her friends kids were doing. Why didn’t people phone him up for nice reasons anymore? Who was he kidding, he had never been at the top of anyone’s invite list.
George chewed on his toast and marmalade, gulped down his coffee, glanced unseeing at the morning paper, threw on his suit and headed to work. As always the traffic was a nightmare. The radio blared out monotonous pop songs, with cheery messages of love and people having a good time. George ignored them, as always he only really listened to the traffic warnings. His mind was busy mulling over the best way to get to work and how much he would it hate it once he got there.
It was quarter past ten when he pulled into the car park at Atsons & Jones Accountancy. The grey office block where he had worked for the last seven years. For once luck was with him, his boss wasn’t in yet so he managed to reach his desk without being yelled at. He sat at his desk and started to work through some tax returns. The clock ticked agonisingly slowly. The minutes passed like hours and the hours passed like days. The occasional cup of coffee stopped him from actually falling asleep.
Just before lunch time he heard a strange noise. He was so unprepared to hear anything unusual at work that he didn’t recognize it at first. It was only when Sue the boss’s PA ran into his office with fear in her eyes that he realized it had been a scream. He was about to ask her what the problem was when the problem burst into his office. It was Robert from personnel carrying a shotgun and muttering to himself. George froze. He was terrified but a part of him thought finally the end. In a moment all this would be gone. His lousy job, his dead social life and his even less lively love life. The pathetic mess he had made of his existence would all be over. Robert aimed at Sue and let lose a shot. He narrowly missed. The window behind her shattered and glass rained onto the car park beneath them. She dived under the desk and tried to pull George into her shelter but he didn’t want to escape. He felt a wave of sympathy and love for Robert. He hadn’t felt this close to another human being since he was a child. Robert reloaded his gun and aimed at George. To his intended victim’s great disappointment the potential killer then fell to his knees and started crying. The beatific look of acceptance on George’s face had brought him back from the edge.
In an act that couldn’t have been more out of character George went up to Robert and hugged him. Silently thanking God for this strange miracle Sue crawled out of her hiding place and phoned the police. The two men were still hugging when the law turned up to take Robert away. He went meekly with tears in his eyes.
George remained sitting on the lino floor of his office grinning madly. Nervously Sue edged closer to him and asked if he was OK. “Sue, I have never felt this good”.
She wasn’t at all reassured but she was too shaken up to think of the right thing to do next so she went to get their boss. He marched into the room trying to look like a man who dealt with this sort of thing all the time. He stood in front of George and told him he should take the rest of the day off. George burst into joyful laughter. “I’m taking the rest of my life off. I quit. Have fun here and remember to invite me to the Christmas party”.
His boss tried to calm him down. “Steady on. We all know you’ve just had a horrible experience but there is no need to do anything rash.” George tried to explain. “It wasn’t a horrible experience. It was beautiful. I died. My old life is over and my new life is going to be completely different. All the decisions I made in my old life were wrong, every single one. From now on I am going to do everything differently. Every time I have to make a decision I will ask myself what the old me would have done and I will do the opposite”. He delivered this momentous speech in joyful tones. He had daydreamed about quitting for years but in his head it had never been like this. He had always pictured himself giving the management hell and then storming out of there but he didn’t want to do that any more. As far as he was concerned the George who had silently loathed his boss for years had just been killed. Cheerfully whistling to himself he grabbed his coat and walked out of the office into his new world.
He emerged blinking into the sunlight still grinning manicly. He paused for a moment to listen to the birds and watch a squirrel playing in the branches of a tree. Then he turned around and walked back into the office. He walked up to his old office where Sue was busy telling the police what had happened. He politely said “excuse me officer” then he grabbed Sue and kissed her passionately. She was too surprised to resist. Once he had finished kissing her he gazed longingly into her eyes which were wide open in horror. Holding her body, which was frozen stiff, he asked her if she would like to have dinner with him in the evening. Hardly knowing what she was doing she nodded almost imperceptibly. It was enough for George, he let her go and said “Great I’ll meet you at the Italian place on the high street. You know that fancy one. Nothing but the best for you. See you there at six”.
Leaving Sue and the police officer unsure about exactly what had just happened he returned to the outside world. He strolled up to the highstreet and made a reservation for his romantic evening with Sue. God knows what they were going to talk about given that she obviously thought he was mad but he was really looking forward to it.
The initial euphoria was beginning to wear off. His life changing experience had given him the courage to finally make a move on Sue; a woman he had admired from afar for a long time but was that enough? He was supposed to be behaving completely differently. Granted the old George probably wouldn’t have asked Sue out but he might have worked up the courage eventually. If he had had enough drinks at an office party he probably could have managed to ask her out in a fumbling embarrassed kind of way. No, he definitely hadn’t gone far enough. It was an OK start but if he didn’t move further away from his past life the terrible gravity of inertia and habit would drag him back into his old ways. What could he do? What would the man he had been in the morning never do? Lots of things. Practically everything really if you thought about all the things it was possible for a person to do. That didn’t really help, if he sat and thought about it he was never going to get anything done. A lack of spontaneity was certainly a characteristic of his old self so he would get around the problem of having an almost infinite number of options by being nice and spontaneous. So what should he spontaneously do?
He wondered the streets for hours his mind circling round the same dilemma. He was like a prisoner who had been inside for so long that when he was finally released he had no idea what to do. At least ex-convicts are surrounded by people who have the same freedoms as them, it’s just that everyone else is used to life on the outside. How many other people ever get shocked out of living according to habit and routine? How many people face the terrible freedom he was facing?
Eventually George made a decision, it wasn’t a great decision by most measures but it didn’t have to be, it just had to be a decision that he wouldn’t have made a few hours ago. He walked into a joke shop and bought a clown mask and a replica gun. Then he walked into his local bank wearing the mask. Security ran towards him but he pulled out his gun and told them to “get on the floor now”. The bank was fairly empty. A handful of customers cowered whimpering in the corner. George’s stomach turned when he saw that a couple of them were mothers with young kids. What the hell was he doing? Was this who he wanted to be? It was too late now. He yelled at the girl behind the desk. She looked familiar. Even more worryingly she didn’t look at all scared. Suddenly she burst out laughing. “Hey, you’re George Jones. Quit mucking about. You’re scaring people”. He decided there was only one way to deal with this. “I don’t know what you are talking about. Go and get the money and nobody will get hurt”.
“Yeah right, you’re George Jones. You live in my block of flats. Is this for a TV show or something?”
For a split second he seriously thought about shooting her. After all it was him or her but then he remembered he was using a fake gun, so he decided to accept the unlikely escape route she had offered him.
“Congratulations. I’m from the hit TV show Clowning Around. You’ve won one thousand pounds”. The security officers got up and dusted themselves off they gave him a dubious look and said “Hit TV show? I’ve never heard of it”.
Running on nervous energy and high on adrenaline George laughed heartily. “Boys, you haven’t heard of Clowning Around? Have you been living on Mars? It’s the coolest show on the box”. The customers had come out of the corner. To George’s surprise a couple of them claimed to have heard of Clowning Around.Imply that only really sad people aren’t fans of something and people will claim they’ve loved it for years even if you made it up two seconds ago. He turned to the imaginary hidden camera and said “that’s all we’ve got time for folks. This young woman has just won one thousand pounds. Remember to look out for our pranksters and you too could be a winner. Until next week keep Clowning Around”. He told the counter girl to give him her name, address and phone number then he gave out a couple of autographs and told them he had to go and talk to his crew. Once he’d got round the corner he started running. His attempt at a life of crime hadn’t been very lucrative but it had definitely been different. He wasn’t in great shape so it wasn’t long before he was leaning against a lamppost panting like a dog.
He glanced at his watch. It was half five he really had to get to the restaurant. By the time he got there he was a little bit late and Sue hadn’t arrived yet but he wasn’t worried. He was feeling confident. He ordered a bottle of their most expensive wine and waited for her to show up. The time passed pleasantly enough. He sat at the table enjoying the wine and entertaining himself by imagining all the witty and brilliant things he was going to say to Sue. By the time he had finished the first bottle of wine he was too busy trying to decide what he would make her for breakfast to worry too much about the fact that she still hadn’t turned up. He dismissed the nagging thought that she was now stupidly late by telling himself that she had probably been held up at work. Once he had finished his second bottle of wine the nagging thought was beginning to yell at him.
George ordered some Pizza. By the time it had arrived it was half nine and he was still alone. She’d stood him up. His new vibrant, interesting, charismatic self was still completely repulsive to women. Maybe he was deluding himself. Maybe it was impossible to change. He had always been a failure and it looked like he would always be a failure. After three bottles of wine and two pizzas his head was reeling and his stomach was feeling a bit queasy. His new life had led him nowhere, one farcical attempt at a life of crime and one lonely meal.
He paced the streets for hours, not really knowing where he was going and not really caring. As if responding to his mood a heavy rain began to fall. He was so wrapped up in his own melancholy thoughts that he didn’t notice that he was being followed until he felt a hand on his shoulder. A gruff voice said “give me your money”. The stranger was holding something sharp against his back. It could have been a knife but then again it could have been his finger. George wasn’t really in the mood to find out. He was beginning to feel that the universe was picking on him. Pulling his wallet out of his pocket and about to hand it over he realized that he was acting exactly how he would normally have acted. Staring into his attackers coldly calculating but nervous eyes he realized that he had a choice to make. With a loud smack his fist smashed into the mugger’s face. There was a satisfying crunch as his enemy’s nose seemed to collapse in on itself. George had never really hit anyone and despite himself he felt pleased with this effort. As far as he could tell it had been a fairly powerful punch. The mugger seemed to be in a bit of a daze. It was possible that he simply couldn’t believe what had happened but that wasn’t the point. Realizing that he had to press home his advantage George kicked the dazed criminal in a very painful place and then he made a run for it.
Feeling much better about himself after his little bit of very uncharacteristic crime fighting George decided to have another look at his situation. He had just been stood up, it was pouring with rain and he was now miles from home. On the upside he was out and about in one of the world’s most exciting cities (or so he had been told) and he was armed with a whole new outlook on life. Things could be worse.
He walked past a train station. It had been closed for hours but it would do as a landmark for a taxi. He popped into a phone box and called for one. Desperately trying to shelter from the rain and the biting wind he began to wonder what he should do next. When the taxi finally turned up he collapsed onto the back seat and told the driver that he wanted to go somewhere where he could meet beautiful women and have a wild and exciting time. To his surprise the cabby responded to this by saying “OK mate, I can get you there in half an hour”. It didn’t occur to him to ask where “there” was. It seemed reasonable to assume that it would be warm and out of the rain and right that second that was all he really wanted from life.
He hadn’t really been expecting anything but their destination still definitely wasn’t what he had been expecting. The taxi driver dropped him off in the middle of a high street and pointed him towards a door sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and a pet shop. As he handed his fare over he tried to find out what was behind the door. “What is this place?” “Exactly what you asked for” replied the cabby. “Can I get a drink in there?”
“Sure, sure, no problem. They are very friendly”.
OK, thought, George it’s some kind of illegal after hours drinking den. Common sense and caution told him to get the driver to take him somewhere else, but he had given up listening to them.
As George approached the dingy little door he realised that the taxi driver had got out of his car and seemed to have decided to join him. The driver knocked three times and a very short man with a squint and a cigar hanging from his lip came and opened the door. Their host said “Hi Joe. How’s things with you? I see you’ve brought a friend. Isn’t that nice. Hi stranger. Any friend of Joe’s is a friend of ours”.
He seemed to find this extremely funny. He chuckled to himself as he led them up the stairs into the bar.
The tiny drinking hole looked like something out of a carnival. All the seating was covered in bright red satin. Gaudy gold paint had been plastered over anything that didn’t run away but it was beginning to peel off revealing the ancient wood beneath. Weird little gargoyles leered at George out of the darkness. He reassured himself that whatever else it might be it absolutely definitely wasn’t the kind of place he would usually go to. That fact wasn’t actually all that reassuring in any normal sense but it did make him feel better. At first he assumed that Joe and himself were the only customers but then he saw two gorilla sized men playing cards in the corner. He spent a pleasant but mildly surreal hour or so getting fairly drunk and listening to Joe tell him about his brilliant idea for a movie. As he understood it the planned film was going to be a cross between Mary Poppins and The Terminator with a bit of Die Hard thrown in for good measure. It sounded like an Oscar winning blockbuster to him but the Vodka might have clouded his judgment a little bit.
Joe was explaining how the film’s big finale could be filmed for much less than you would think considering all the stuff that he wanted to blow up when he was interrupted. Eight women processed into the room. George wasn’t sure where they had come from, it certainly wasn’t the entrance he had used and he hadn’t noticed any other doors. They seemed to have appeared out of nowhere but he wasn’t that bothered about that. The thought only had a quick sprint through his mind before being replaced by more enjoyable ones, which stayed to stretch their legs and settled down for a good time. The distorting lens of vodka, sexual frustration and the fact that it was dark transformed the newcomers into alluring goddesses. Here was another opportunity for his new personality to shine and this time it really would dazzle the ladies. Sue might have resisted him by cunningly not showing up but that was her problem.
Joe, put his hands in the air and said “ladies, I have no time for the menu tonight. My usual please”. A pretty, vaguely Mediterranean looking woman giggled, smiled at Joe and then came and sat on his lap. George wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. It seemed that he had been hanging around in the wrong bars. Joe began fondling the girl’s breasts and whispering in her ear. After a while he snapped his head up and turned towards his guest. “Well don’t just stand there drooling George. Pick one”.
“Pick one?” George found that he didn’t feel quite as drunk as he had done a moment before. Nagging voices of doubt echoed through certain underused parts of his mind. Other parts of his mind, which had close links to a certain underused part of his body, told them to shut up. He had a good look at the seven remaining girls. Trying not to leer and hoping that he wasn’t really drooling he tried to decide which one was the sexiest. He caressed each body with his eyes cheerfully thinking that this was something his old self never did.
The accountant within, who he was trying to slay, wondered if the prettier girls were more expensive. “Talking of money…” said their dwarf like host startling George out of his pleasant reverie. He was reasonably sure he hadn’t said anything out loud and he went red at the thought of someone knowing what he had been thinking. Thankfully the host was talking to Joe.
George was about to choose a long legged, large breasted, tall blonde when he remembered his new philosophy. She really was a fantastically unoriginal choice. He tried to rationalise making an exception. His old self never would have gone near a place like this. Hadn’t he already gone far enough? They all seemed good-looking, he couldn’t see anyone there who he wouldn’t have chosen yesterday. He had another good look at the girls largely so he could reassure himself that he had at least tried. Fate quickly punished him. Right at the back of the little group there lurked a fat greasy haired woman who kept wiping her nose with her hand. He looked from one to the other for a long time. He really wanted the first woman with every part of his being. She seemed more irresistible with every passing second but on the other hand the second woman was definitely the one his old self wouldn’t have chosen. The host was standing on the bar, jumping up and down and yelling at Joe in what should have been a very distracting way but George barely noticed. Each moment seemed like an hour of agonising mental torment. After a while he thought sod it, “what am I, some kind of fanatic” and gestured at the leggy blonde. She walked towards him, her agile swaying body promising unimaginable pleasure. At that point the dwarf hit him round the head with a fire extinguisher and everything went black.
The darkness of deep oblivion faded into the white noise of his troubled mind, which slowly tuned back into consciousness. Someone had moved him into the gents. He could practically taste the piss on the grimy floor. Disgusted he tried to struggle to his feet but it was no use his arms were chained to the toilet. While he was busy fighting the urge to retch their host came in and looked down at him squirming on the floor of the gents. The pimp snarled with revulsion. “Hey freeloader. Were you going to take out a tab as well? Your wallet was pretty empty. Not as empty as it is now and not as empty as your buddy Joe’s but still pretty empty.”
Apparently feeling that he had said everything that needed saying he stubbed out his cigar on George’s head and walked out.
It is said that being alive is like being tied to a wheel. The wheel takes you up, once you’ve got to the top it goes right down to the bottom but then it begins to climb again. Ups and downs such is life. If life is good accept that it will one day turn bad again. If you do so you will be able to face that day with serenity. If life is bad reassure yourself that the wheel is still turning. As he lay on the floor George found himself thinking what a load of rubbish that was. If you want a metaphor for life picture a man tied to a toilet with his face in a pool of piss, picture George. For a while he had thought life was going well but it seemed that it had all been a delusion. The high points of the so-called wheel were illusory but its low points were very real.
What had gone wrong? Was doing the opposite to what you had always done simply a stupid idea or was he not doing it right? He quickly rejected the idea that he was completely mistaken. Sure it wasn’t going very well but this wasn’t something he had just made up. This was his epiphany, it had come to him like a message from God and it had at least got him out of the office.
Irrationally he found himself wondering if things would have been different if he had chosen the fat girl. Things had been going OK until he had let it slide and made a choice he would have made before. As these things do that passing thought gradually grew into an absolute conviction. He was being punished. It was obvious. Once he had started on that train of thought there was no going back. What else could he be being punished for? Maybe his choices hadn’t been wild enough. The possibilities were limitless. He could have done so much more. Yes that was probably partly it but there was more. He had been selfish. A message from on high belongs to the world not just to the person who hears it. The city was full of people who were stuck in the same old routine. Day after day of the same dull jobs. Making the same mistakes again and again because they always made the same choices. At last he understood that it wasn’t all about him having a good time. It didn’t matter that right this second he wasn’t having much fun. That wasn’t important, he was on a mission from God. He was going to save all those people.
While George was lost in these deep thoughts a huge man came in unchained him and lifted him up. Before he had time to say thank you his new friend had thrown him into an alley. A pile of rubbish broke his fall and he narrowly missed a scrawny cat, which shrieked off in a huff. It hissed at him as he got up and dusted himself off. He pondered carefully before going home to get cleaned up. It was what his old self would have done but he realised that it couldn’t be helped. He had work to do and it was important that he looked the part. Apart from anything else he was going to need a new replica gun.
After he had tidied himself up a bit he went back out into the world. At some point in all the chaos it had begun to get light. The birds were breaking into their morning song. Apparently a beautiful sound for those who wake to it but for people who have been up all night it means that now is the point to give up any hope of getting any sleep before the day begins. Unless you count being knocked out, which is a grey area, George hadn’t had any sleep all night but he didn’t feel tired. He had that strange kind of narrowly focused energy that comes from a sense of purpose. The aimless wanderings of the day before were gone, replaced by the stride of a man who knows exactly where he is going.
The security guards at the radio station barely glanced at George. He had accidentally found the flaw in the station’s security, in most places security in fact. If someone really looks like they know where they are going no one will challenge them. Once he was past them everyone assumed he had a valid reason to be there because he must have been cleared by security.
Startled, George spun round. He smiled at the young woman with the clipboard who was looking at him quizzically. His smile was meant to be reassuring but he wasn’t sure if it was working. She repeated her question.
“Are you Mystic Marcus?”
It didn’t sound like the name of a producer or someone who was there to fix the photocopier. It sounded like the name of a guest and that meant that this was exactly what he was looking for. His smile became even broader.
“Yes, I’m Mystic Marcus. Am I late?”
“Only a little bit. The show has already started but don’t worry your slot isn’t until later on. Nobody wants to hear their horoscope before they’ve had their corn flakes. What if it was bad news?”
“Horoscopes?” said George instantly regretting it.
“Yeah horoscopes. That is what you do right? Peoples’ star signs? If those idiots in research have got the wrong person again I’m actually going to have to kill them. Tell me you do horoscopes”.
He hastily improvised. The young woman had seemed effortlessly professional when he had first met her but a few seconds in his company seemed to have frayed her nerves.
“Of course I do horoscopes but I don’t like the term. These days it makes people think of tabloid hacks who make it up on the bus to work and cover celebrity scandals the rest of the day. I’m a professional. I read the fates of men in the divine handwriting scrawled across the dark slate of the night sky”. George was surprised at his own eloquence. Remember that he had until very recently been a man of few words. He fancied that his new friend was also impressed but she was trying to hide it.
“Well that’s great but we don’t really want anything complicated. It’s a breakfast show. Keep it simple and keep the listeners happy”.
George had set out with the absolute confidence of the man who sincerely believes he has God on his side but even he was surprised by how easy it had been so far. The young woman led him right into the studio. The two DJs were padding out their show with one of those inane games they play to avoid playing as many songs and thus save the network a few quid on royalties. It seemed to involve one of them pretending to be a monkey impersonating a celebrity. Once someone with too much time on her hands had phoned in with the correct answer they went to a commercial break and relaxed. Noticing George and the woman for the first time the fat jolly DJ welcomed them to his little domain.
“Hi Anna. How’s it going girl? And this must be the famous Mystic Marcus. Nice to meet you M.M. You can go on after the break if you want. We were hoping the monkey game would last longer”.
His colleague looked at George intensely. After staring at George for a while he pointed at him and said in a menacing tone What’s going on? That isn’t him. Who is this random weirdo? I’ve seen pictures of Mystic Marcus. He’s a huge man with a moustache”.
“No, no” stumbled Anna. “He is Mystic Marcus. You must have made a mistake.”
“Well decide people” interjected the first DJ “because we are about to go back on air.”
“We could always play a song” snarled the second one.
“Don’t be stupid. This guy can do the stars. Look mate even if you are the wrong person you should be able to do star signs. Just tell everyone their going to meet the man or woman of their dreams and or make lots of money. That’s what people want to hear. We are back on in five. Five, four, three”
The fat DJ was about to launch into some banter when George pulled out his gun. He felt much calmer than he had done in the bank. Maybe threatening to kill people becomes easier with practice. It helped that this time George knew it was all for the greater good. It might be hard for Anna and the two DJs to appreciate what he was doing but he really was there to help. He ordered the three of them into a corner. He would have liked to order them out but they might have pulled the plug on his show. Hopefully concern for their safety would stop anyone else from interfering.
Apart from a couple of shrieks the station had been broadcasting deadair for a couple of minutes now so it was time to get the show going again. George took a deep breath and began to talk to the waking city.
“Good morning London. My name is George Jones. I’d tell you that I’m sorry to interrupt your morning routine but that would be a lie. Actually interrupting your routine is exactly what I’m here to do. Yesterday I nearly died. A colleague of mine was driven mad by the tedium of routine and went on a rampage with a shotgun. Don’t worry nobody was hurt. In fact it was the best thing that has ever happened to me. My life had become small and shallow. I don’t think I’m alone in that. So many of us are trapped in tedious jobs we hate. We all keep making the same mistakes again and again. We read the same script. Play the same part. Why? Why can’t we break free? Why do we keep following the same patterns? I know the answer. I have found the way out. We are trapped because we always make the same choices. Now whenever I am faced with a decision I think about what I would have done in the old days before my awakening and then I decide to do the opposite. It is time to see what happens if we make the other choices.”
There was a shattering noise behind him. The police had been called and they were smashing the door down. He waved his gun at them in as menacing a way as he could manage but they just swore at him. Either they thought he was bluffing or they knew it was a fake, probably the latter. There wasn’t much time left.
“I want you to join me. Just try it. What have you got to lose? If you’re happy with your life then ignore me but if you’re not then you should try the other choices. Just try it for one day. See how it goes. Just do the opposite to what you would normally do. I can’t promise you happiness but it will at least be different.”
With a roar of triumph the police broke through the door and grabbed George. He was placed under arrest and unsurprisingly he spent that night in a cell. To the immense surprise of George and hundreds of Londoners who had heard him arrested live on the radio he was back on the streets in a few days. The police decided that they wouldn’t be able to make the charges stick. He was obviously guilty but any half-decent lawyer would be able to get him off on a plea of temporary insanity so the police reluctantly decided not to press charges.
His time behind bars hadn’t given George many opportunities to make any unusual choices. Part of him guiltily thought that it had been a pleasant break from the pressures of originality. He felt refreshed and ready to get back into his new routine of rejecting all routine. More importantly he wanted to see if anyone had been inspired by his speech. Was anyone else in London making the other choices? If they were would he ever find out? Would they somehow be able to recognise each other?
Looking back he had to admit to himself that it hadn’t been the greatest speech in history. “See how it goes” was never going to be up there with “I have a dream” or “our finest hour” but he still hoped that it would have touched at least one or two people. If a few people got the hang of it, really made it work in a way that so far he hadn’t quite managed, maybe then the idea would spread. Slowly but surely until everyone in the world was making the opposite choices to the ones they were making now. Who could doubt that that would make the world a happier place? On the way home from the prison George decided to take a short cut through a park. He was surprised to find the usual sounds of a city park on a sunny afternoon drowned out by a cacophony of music. There was a group of people practicing tangoing by the duck pond. A steel band was entertaining the children in the play area and the people sitting outside the Café periodically launched into show tunes with great enthusiasm. The park was definitely livelier and noisier than usual. Oddly the band stand seemed to be the only place that wasn’t alive with the sounds of music. Instead it was playing host to a group of people wearing animal masks who seemed to be having an orgy. This seemed unlikely so George reasoned that they must be acting, it had to be some kind of performance piece. Above him hang gliders soared on the rising thermals and in the distance a parachutist fell to earth.
As he walked out of the park gates he heard a woman screaming. She yelled “oh come on don’t take it too far” at a running figure who was disappearing into the distance. She turned to George and shrieked “he’s got my handbag!”
George was about to give chase when her attacker stopped turned round and walked back towards them. The mugger had apparently had a crisis of conscience. He gave the woman her handbag back and said “sorry, I just wanted to know what it would feel like.”
The have-a-go criminal was a short gray haired man who was wearing glasses and a dog collar. As the mugger headed off into the distance the woman turned to George and said “you’d think he would know better really, wouldn’t you? You were just about to rush to the rescue. That’s sweet, thanks.”
She smiled and walked off. After a few metres she turned back to George and gave him a mischievous look.
“What the hell” she chuckled “if you can’t beat them join them.”
So saying she walked back towards our hero, kissed him and then wandered off again.
By the time he had turned into his own street he was ready to crash onto his sofa and veg out in front of the TV. The short walk from the police station had provided plenty of originality for one day. Tomorrow he would start making some really wild choices but he was entitled to a day off to get his thoughts in order. Even a short spell behind bars is an unsettling experience. Perhaps that explains why he failed to make the obvious connection. Even when he saw the Carters at number 42 sitting out in their front garden completely naked enjoying a barbecue and listening to Wagner it didn’t quite click. The pack of dogs running around loose barely registered. He wisely avoided the wrestling match by the phone box so he didn’t see who was behind the masks. If he had that might have done it. The herd of cows grazing on his neighbour’s lawn also might have done it but by that point he was more worried about the crowd of people in purple robes surrounding his block of flats.
There were about twenty of them. Some of them seemed to be meditating in the lotus position, others were practicing tai chi, others were singing strange songs and still others had abandoned their robes and were fondling each other in the bushes. Some kind of weird cult had taken over his block. Honestly you go to jail for a few days and the neighborhood goes to pot. On the other hand they would give him lots of chances to make interesting choices. How would his old self have dealt with this? His thoughts on that essential question were interrupted by a familiar voice.
“George! Everybody, this is him.”
He had seen some strange things in the last few days but this was the only time he actually doubted what his eyes were telling him. It was Sue. She was pointing at him and talking excitedly. Like all the others she was dressed in a shimmering purple robe.
He tried to say “hi” but she was busy addressing the crowd.
“This is him. This is the messenger, the liberator, the awakened one. This is George Jones.”
They all stopped what they were doing. They stared at him expectantly. Their eyes shone with the penetrating intensity of those who think that something truly pivotal is about to happen, something that will change their lives forever. All George could find to say was “Hi. I’m George Jones. Who are you?”
They didn’t seem disappointed. They started murmuring among themselves in awed tones as if this was the most profound thing they had ever heard. Sue answered his question on their behalf.
“We are those who have listened to your message. We are those who have chosen to reject routine. We are the Church of the Other Choices.”
“COC?” inquired George.
Sue looked deflated.”Yes I know. Sorry. I’ve never named a cult before.”
Remembering the crowd of true believers she pulled herself together and put on a happier face.
“Anyway you must be tired after your ordeal come inside.”
“Thanks” said George irritably. He was feeling disorientated and he felt vaguely annoyed about being invited into his own home.
Sue ushered him into his flat. As he settled down on his sofa she hurried off into the kitchen to put the kettle on. The flat was looking much cleaner than it had done when he had lived there. Someone had been looking after the place. That was nice to know. He wasn’t so keen on the purple drapes and the weird paintings but it could have been worse, much worse in fact. Arguably he was lucky no one had burnt the place down or smeared faeces on the walls. As Sue came back into his living room carrying two steaming mugs of tea and smiling he decided to get the most awkward question out of the way first.
“What happened to our dinner date?”
She went a shade of pink that clashed hideously with purple.
“Um. Yeah about that’ she stammered “I know this sounds feeble but to me that seems like a long time ago. So much has happened since then. I’m a different person.”
On the one hand it did sound feeble but on the other he had to admit that she had changed since he had last seen her just a few days ago. He decided to diplomatically change the subject. “You know I didn’t picture it like this. I didn’t mean to start a religion. I always saw it as a very individual thing really. Not something people would do in groups and definitely not something they would need a uniform for. What is the point of all the purple?”
Sue looked sheepish. “I just like purple. What’s wrong with purple?”
George had no answer to that so he carried on looking at her expectantly in the hope that eventually she would start making sense.
“Don’t look at me like that. Don’t act like I’m corrupting your precious message. You suggested we should all try making different choices. Well I’ve never chosen to start a cult before, so there you go. This is me making one of the other choices.”
He had to admit that that made a certain kind of sense but it left an important question unanswered.
“What about your followers?”
“Lots of people have never joined a strange cult before. They are making one of the other choices as well. This was your idea, you can’t complain now. It’s not just us, it’s not just my little sect. People all over London are doing things that they have never done before. You’ve started a craze.”
The flame of certainty in George’s heart had almost spluttered out in prison but it was ablaze again now. He once again had the kind of faith that bosses mountains around. This was going to work. The world was going to wake up and throw off its chains. The down side was that he hadn’t meant to start a craze any more than he had meant to start a religion. A craze sounded like something fleeting and superficial, a passing fashion. If he wanted it to be more than that he was going to have to work hard.
Sue was a much better high priestess come publicist than she had been a secretary. Starting a cult was a very good career move for her. Within hours of his return home George found himself on national T.V. falteringly sharing his message with the country. It wasn’t much of a performance. He lost his train of thought several times and he spilt a glass of water all over the presenter but it struck a chord. It was the first of countless interviews. A week or so after his release from jail Britain had become a very different place.
Muggers helped little old ladies across the road. Little old ladies stole cars and went joy riding. Cowards went base jumping. Writers burnt books. Weather forecasters admitted they make it up. Withdrawn people threw wild parties. Outgoing people became hermits. Policemen dabbled in armed robbery. Politicians told the truth. Workaholics pulled sickies. Misers threw money out of helicopters. Stroppy teenagers did the washing up. Well-behaved kids burnt their houses down. Soldiers refused to kill. Pacifists went on rampages. Fat people fasted and trained for marathons. Health freaks gorged on fast food and hit the bottle. Environmentalists bought sport cars and took up Fox-hunting. Fox hunters found Buddha and decided that it was bad Karma to so much as step on a fly. Cautious people bet their houses on roulette wheels. Rash people learnt to look both ways before crossing the road. Burglars left expensive presents in their victims’ living rooms. Airline pilots did loop the loops and pretended they were about to crash.
George looked at the world he had created and found that he was unsure if it was good. Was this paradise or bedlam? The nation was debating the same question. People were bitterly divided about George. Was he a genius or a madman? He wasn’t sure himself so how was anyone else supposed to know?
C.O.C. had quietly driven away all of his neighbors. It hadn’t been hard; very few people wanted to live on top of a cult that idealised unpredictability and apparent insanity. His block had slowly become a temple to the other choices. Pilgrims and the simply curious came from all other the place. They expected to see the famous George Jones but he was desperately trying to avoid them. He was getting used to talking to the media but he didn’t think he could look people in the eyes and pretend that he had all the answers. Naturally his followers saw this aloofness as proof of his enlightenment.
As crowds of acolytes and pilgrims chanted random nonsense George sat in his room meditating on the pointlessness of it all. What did they think they were doing? For that matter what did he think he was doing? He couldn’t save himself so why had he decided that he was the right person to save everybody else? He took another swig of tequila, gulped down some pills and desperately stabbed at the TV remote trying to find a channel that wasn’t talking about the monster he had unleashed. Guilt was beginning to devour him. The death toll from all the inexperienced people trying out extreme sports was bad enough. Cowboy operators were rushing to cash in on the new breed of adrenaline junkies. Add in the skyrocketing crime rate, the broken families, the drug overdoses and the occasional suicide and you can see why he was beginning to have trouble sleeping at nights. On the other hand lots of people seemed to think that he had helped them. Making the other choices had liberated countless people from dull stale lives.
George’s musings were interrupted by a young girl bursting into the room. She was probably about sixteen but her face looked older. It was a face that had seen too much of life too soon. The effect wasn’t helped by her complete baldness. Probably a style choice she’d never made before. Her spiritual leader glared at her hoping that she would get the message and go away but she didn’t. She just stood there staring at him, shaking slightly. Feeling very put out George asked her what she wanted. Her answer failed to cheer him up.
“I want to kill you”
“What?” said George rather stupidly but he can be excused in the circumstances.
“I want to kill you. Well actually I don’t really want to as such but that’s why I’ve got to do it. You understand that right?”
He was far too busy trying to spot something he could use as a weapon to even think about trying to understand her but she pressed on.
“I mean it’s your philosophy. You’ve helped me more than anyone else ever has. Actually you’re the only person who has helped me. Killing you would be the last thing the old me would have done. The old me would be pathetically grateful and let you treat me like dirt. So I have to make the other choice.”
George could feel the room spinning around him. The drink and the drugs and the intensity of the situation were combining to make him feel a little unsteady on his feet. His chances of fighting his way out of this one were slim so he decided to reason with her. After all he was practically her God and she was only a kid.
“You don’t have to kill me. There are lots of things your old self wouldn’t have done. You don’t have to rush into something as drastic as murder.”
She wasn’t impressed.
“To be honest there aren’t as many things my old self wouldn’t do as I’d like and I’ve done a lot of them since I found the other choices.”
“What about all the people that are still trapped in their old routines? What about all the people I won’t be able to help if you kill me?”
She pulled a large knife out from some hidden recess in her robes. The glare of the TV danced across its shiny surface.
“That’s a really good argument. Normally that argument would win me over but I can’t possibly do what I’d normally do. That would be betraying everything we both believe in. Anyway your message won’t die with you. This will help. This will make you a martyr.”
A terrible thought flashed through George’s mind.
“Did Sue put you up to this?”
The potential murderer looked genuinely shocked.
“No of course not.”
For some reason it was at that moment that George suddenly realised that he was going to die. It wasn’t fear or a prediction, he simply knew that this was it. The worst part was that he wasn’t that bothered. He had lived two lives, which is more than most people get. Whatever their flaws the other choices had given him a second life he owed them some kind of loyalty even here at the end. He was doing what his old self would have done in this situation. He was trying to escape. What would his old self never do? He smiled at the girl and said “OK, kill me.” He smiled his old beatific smile and she drove the knife through his heart. The girl stood over his struggling body and stared at him. Her impassive face showed no emotion but she was horrified by what she had done. Horrified by all the blood spurting from the gaping wound she had made.
George no longer cared about his body or his blood. A glorious light engulfed him. He stared into its heart and started to complain.
“What was all that about? What kind of epiphany was that? It was a stupid idea. Actually while I’m on the subject what kind of life was that?”
He fell into a sulky silence and glared at the light half hoping that it would answer him but not really expecting anything. After what seemed like and might well have been an eternity he broke the silence.
“I suppose you are going to say there are better ways of breaking out of a dull routine. I suppose you are going to say that I should have left saving people to you.”
For just a moment he could have sworn that the light was gently laughing at him.