“Crikey, a customer who actually said ‘thank you’. That’s an effing first if ever I heard it.”
Victoria Lucas was sitting comfortably in her place of work as she vented to her supervisor, Mr Patel who maintained his rictus smile as he stood with his back to the window of this smaller version of a well-known supermarket chain in south London. The immediate post-work rush of office-bullied customers had now subsided to a steady trickle as they traipsed in and out on this dry but chilly winter weekday evening.
“It’s like we don’t count as it seems to me everyone looks down on us working where we do at the checkout,” she continued wondering what to say next.
Mr Patel had moved towards Victoria and stood beside her, perhaps a little too close and she caught the familiar waft of alcohol on his warm breath as he spoke barely above a whisper, “It’s nearly 7.15 love and looking quiet. So, why don’t you slip off a little early.” He nervously adjusted his collar and darted a glance to where she was sitting, “Do you want a hand, love?” She felt uncomfortable as he continued to stare at her legs. She looked down and noticed that her poxy brown uniform skirt had ridden up again revealing too much of her thighs. She restored her modesty quickly and allowed her eyes to flash anger at his phoney concern.
“I am not a helpless female and don’t call me love," she hissed.
His smile faded for a second then returned like a switch as he turned to chat to another young female member of staff he had sidled up to. She was pretty and had long slender legs. Victoria envied her sexy stride.
But Victoria was truly glad to be finishing a little earlier than usual on this evening shift and signed off from her till. She unlocked the brake on her wheelchair and then with a series of precise, well-practiced movements, exited her specially-adapted checkout cubicle and made a beeline for the small staff room at the back of the supermarket. Fortunately, the room was deserted at this hour as she texted her father to collect her. Victoria always enjoyed precious time like this on her own for a few moments at work regaining her inner strength after the almost daily grinding down by the customers she had to deal with. God, it was hard sometimes and she had come to dislike the stale air of this windowless, enclosed space but she was glad the management took disability seriously as getting around her place of work was easy. Victoria ignored the full-length but grubby mirror opposite figuring her distinctively-groomed black hair and the dark eyeliner would have survived her spell at the checkout. To complete her unique appearance, she had pierced her nose and left eyebrow with small, silver-coloured studs. She had a pale, round face and beautiful blue eyes. As she was thirsty, she opened her locker and rummaged in the debris of contents that filled her handbag. Victoria found an orange juice and drank quickly.
She had got herself ready and had been reading the Evening Standard for what seemed only a short while when there was a familiar confident knock on the door and her father burst in. His face lit up on seeing his daughter. He was still a handsome man despite the hint of a tummy and some grey hairs that suggested premature middle-age. But it was his ready smile backed up by a self-assured poise which was his most endearing trait and since she had been a little girl how she wished she could emulate him. “Hi Victoria. By chance, I was in the area when I got your message. Luckily the traffic was non-existent.” Her expression hinted strongly of a quick getaway.
But Mr Lucas looked at her for a moment and shook his head, “I still wonder about this unusual Goth fashion statement of yours, young lady. Is it designed to attract or what?”
She frowned at this familiar rumination of his sighing, Oh, Dad, please. I’m knackered. Home is where I want to be.” Mr Lucas then took this as a signal to avail of his special privilege: he was the only one permitted to push her and so he gently guided her wheelchair back through the store. The strip lighting was flickering in the tinned foods aisle they passed through casting a weird yellowy stroboscopic effect around them. Mr Patel caught Victoria’s eye just before she exited the supermarket, “See you tomorrow, love,” he said smiling shyly. She gritted her teeth and wasn’t even sure if she said goodbye.
Father and daughter made their way to the waiting MPV outside – adapted for wheelchair use. It was quite close in a disabled parking bay. A cold breeze blew right through her clothing and she shivered. As if by instinct, Mr Lucas threw his coat around his daughter’s shoulders as he assisted her into the vehicle asking, “I think your boss might fancy you, did you ever consider that”?
Victoria recoiled from the prospect of being intimate with Mr Patel. Come to think of it she could never tell if he was married or not as he did not wear a wedding ring but had the air of a man well-cared for as if by a woman. “Maybe he’s a mummy’s boy. Maybe he’s gay or has a secret wife”, she muttered absentmindedly. “Mr Patel is slimey and a right alkie. His breath always smells of whiskey."
But her father ignored her as he was preoccupied with moving off and merging with the flow of traffic heading towards the South Circular. Mr Lucas usually did not talk while he was driving.
Victoria put on her iPod and the Doors played. She opened her handbag furtively and sought out the small inner zipped section. She found a small plastic packet inside and opened it. Out spilled six small LSD tablets into her left hand. She put them all back except one and broke it in half putting it in her mouth swallowing quickly. It went down easily as it was so tiny. She would save the remaining half as a treat for later after dinner. She glanced at her father but he hadn’t noticed a thing as he was concentrating on the road ahead. She pulled his coat tighter around her so that she felt snug.
While approaching the Wandsworth Gyratory, a small white van cut in front of them and her father swore loudly. Victoria suddenly recalled her car collision while at UCL three years previously where she had been preparing to sit her finals in philosophy. Her spine and both her kidneys had been seriously injured resulting in a life-threatening situation where she had had to withdraw from the course without a degree spending the best part of the next eighteen months in and out of hospital. She was told by many that she was fortunate to be alive. But to Victoria her future once filled with excitement and hope had been reduced to an existence of despair. She had survived but was now serving an outrageous and unjustified eternal punishment caused by two disabled legs. This memory always flashed into her brain with a merciless stabbing sensation unleashing a deep sense of failure along with smouldering anger at being sentenced to life in a wheelchair. But she somehow clung on and she was grateful for the small mercy of having this mediocre job in retail. In a way, it was the right kind of place for imperfect people like her. "But why me, for fuck's sake? Why me?" was the dull refrain that bored into her consciousness with the unwelcome regularity of tinnatus. And without her father being there for her always had stopped her losing hope but she knew that she was weak and needed something more.
Slowly, she felt the familiar buzz of the drug take effect and Victoria made herself more comfortable on the back seat. She pulled the old red car rug over her lifeless legs. Feelings of happiness threaded through her and the mesmeric tune of ‘Riders On The Storm’ cascaded over her tired brain. All of a sudden, it felt as if she was floating on a current of warm air out of the car and then soaring up into a rich and bright powder blue sky cloudless with dazzling sunlight. Her mind drifted to wondrous images....
Victoria somehow knew she was no longer in dreary London in winter and found herself taken to a faraway place standing beside a splendid swimming pool on a private estate with a large single-storey house nearby in a hot, dry place in what appeared to be a desert location. It could have been Mexico or Morocco. She didn’t care where it was as she peered down at the smooth water and saw the reflection of her voluptuous naked body. She noticed that her legs were strong with delicious curvature. She scanned her surroundings to catch sight of another living soul but she was completely alone. She looked at the glistening blueness of this vast pool and dived unthinkingly into the inviting water soaking up the raw heat. After a languorous swim, she got out and lay down to dry off but she was feeling edgy for some reason. Then, she understood. She longed to have electrifying sex as this world of pleasure had been denied her as a young woman for more than three years since her near-fatal accident. And Victoria found she could propel this incredible fantasy of hers in this sensual direction. It was so thrilling. But all of a sudden, her attention was drawn to a tinny jingle sound as it rang out: it was her laptop under the shade of an oversize parasol signalling email received. Victoria strolled over to her computer and just at that moment it packed up.
She smirked as she picked up the forlorn laptop and tossed it carelessly into the pool, “What a piece of shit”, she said feeling reckless. She watched it disinterestedly as it floated for a moment and then the laptop abruptly slipped from view. Victoria became aware of the unforgiving hot sun that beat down on her exposed body.
“I’m done with this sunbathing in the nude lark,” she mused. She turned to go back inside the enormous bungalow on the edge of this hot wilderness as she now craved the sensuous feel of the air-conditioning as she knew it would caress her smooth, supple skin. In her dreamlike state, Victoria recognised that she was not wheelchair-bound anymore but was in a very different place that was exhilarating and where her legs and her body were complete, agile even sexy. She could walk again and found herself fantasizing more and more about making love to her former boyfriend, Geoff their bodies locked in the heat of illicit, youthful passion at home when her parents were away on summer vac during her first year at uni. Her whole body zinged with the memory.
In her dream, as she walked through an open French window of the expansive property somewhere in this weird desert location, Victoria heard a strange crackling noise from behind her as if a whole load of electric wires were all shorting at once. She spun round bewildered and saw a menacing rainbow of bright lights arcing from the pool which was no longer calm but now heaving in great waves as it overflowed its sides.
Water gushed about alarmingly and still the ghastly luminous display played upon her senses. Victoria felt a rising sense of alarm. Suddenly, from the depths of the violently-swirling waters, emerged a terrifying monster that seemed to be all metallic. It was gigantic and towered over her. For a moment, Victoria could not quite understand what she was looking at as she craned her neck upwards irresistibly drawn to gaze at its wretched face. Then she knew.
It was as if the ill-fated laptop she had discarded moments before had somehow miraculously morphed into hideous giant-sized proportions, sprouted arms and legs to match and was now seeking revenge on the person who had consigned it to a watery grave.
Victoria was rooted to the spot as the repulsive entity, a sickly grey and yellow colour which was half-machine, half-animal emerged threateningly and silently from the pool dripping wet. It was utterly repellent but it had bright, flashing imagery of iconic figures Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and others pulsating graphically all over the surface of its body as an eerie guitar and keyboard riff played. The monster stood there before her on thick giant legs and Victoria screamed as it stretched out its revolting arms to grab her.
The next moment, as if transported by some magical device. Victoria found herself now safe and sound in a cavernous but sparsely-furnished bedroom in another part of the same low-lying big house in her exotic desert location. Although the air-conditioning was on full, she was damp with perspiration and breathing hard. What a nightmare that had been. She was unable to work out exactly how she had escaped the clutches of this weird digital monster as she glimpsed sunlight filtering through the net curtains. But Victoria was thankful to be alive. She turned to her bedside table and saw the comforting presence of a near-full bottle of whiskey. She smiled a self-satisfied smile as she sat on the bed and poured herself a double raising an enormous heart-shaped glass to her lips muttering, “Suckers of the world unite!”
Victoria’s world greyed out for a moment and as she blinked she felt as if she was enveloped in something that felt like ice but without the chill factor. Where was she? Was it England, south America or the North Pole as 'The Doors' played on and then her mind drifted to other wondrous images....
All of a sudden, Victoria was walking through a flurry of snow as it eddied about in the gentle but chilly breeze that must have come from Siberia. Lights in offices and buildings were flicking on in response to the darkening sky. People scurried by. She tried to get her bearings and guessed she was in central Europe perhaps Vienna or Budapest mid-winter.
Victoria was anxious to make her 4.15pm appointment with the vet so she took a short cut through the majestic gardens near some huge and over-decorated palace. Her pet cat, Karl Marx was due to be neutered though he purred contentedly in her arms wrapped in a thick blanket completely unaware of the fate awaiting him.
From the near distance, Victoria thought she recognised an old friend of hers – his characteristic wavy hair and jerky gait – coming towards her. They drew level. Of course, it was Ludwig Wittgenstein. They had met at his birthday bash last year which had been the social event of the season where he had been the life and soul of the party. Singing country and western songs on the karaoke was Wittgenstein’s speciality.
He politely doffed his Stetson hat, “Hello Victoria”, he said in his unmistakeable husky tones as he adjusted his holsters holding six-guns on his hips. “I see you’ve got Lenin with you today. How nice”. He took off his thick leather gloves and gently stroked the cat. Victoria caught sight of the dark fur lining of his gloves and it matched the soft coat of her cat.
“No, Ludwig , I think you are confusing Lenin with Karl Marx”, Victoria was nervously attempting to correct this pillar of Austrian philosophy. But he raised his bared right hand to silence her.
“So, you think I would fail to tell the difference between Lenin and Marx. Come, come my dear lady, even a simple philosopher such as I could differentiate between these two towering figures of the communist world.
“No, Ludwig. What I was trying to say was that my cat is Karl Marx and my dog is Lenin. And in any case Marx is for the snip today. He’s being neutered”. Victoria adjusted her leopard skin coat nervously and felt ill at ease in her bright red micro skirt in front of this wunderkind. She knew she should not have worn her fake Jimmy Choos and the large jangly ear rings.
He took a moment to reply as he eyed her carefully, perhaps a little too carefully, “But that’s terrible. Why do you want to cut off the reproductive bits of a great revolutionary”?
Victoria could tell that this was going to be one of those days with the great man.
Vienna or Budapest or wherever this European city was dissolved from her vision as her dream-filled mind in company with her favourite music accelerated to other wondrous images....
It was one of those blustery grey February afternoons where London was weary from an interminable winter. Arch-sleuth, Victoria Holmes was dozing by a blazing fire after a solid lunch of toad-in-the-hole when Dr Watson rushed in to their lodgings in Baker Street.
Victoria perked up as the good doctor shoved a note into her hand. “Aha, I see it’s from our rat-faced friend, Inspector Lestrade of the Yard and it seems he’s in a bit of a lather about cross-dressing politicians in our blessed British Museum. Needs my help. Come, Watson, come. The game is afoot”.
Outside on Baker Street that seemed to have gone back in time to the 1890s, the intrepid duo hailed a horse-drawn cab and within minutes they were in Bloomsbury. Even though she knew she was dreaming, Victoria could carefully observe the complete vista around her and take in the fashions and the style of living from more than 120 years previously. It all seemed so crystal-clear and weird as if floating between differing eras of time simultaneously. As they drew near to the familiar classical columns of the BM, they noticed a large mob outside. It was very boisterous and a threatening atmosphere prevailed.
A well-dressed, middle-aged lady devoid of make-up and with seriously short hair passed by in a man’s old-fashioned pinstripe suit and saw the bemused look on the duo’s faces. “Don’t worry, love. We all have to do it. It’s the new law. If we pass the ‘Y-Factor’ audition we are permitted to carry on with our lives but we must cross-dress from now on”. Holmes and Watson exchanged confounded glances as they elbowed their way forward. But it was true, as Victoria saw that all males were wearing girls’ and women’s clothing while females had adopted male attire.
The arch-nemesis of this spectacle, Simon Bullinchinashop appeared on a raised platform in the middle of the front courtyard of the Museum to widespread applause and announced the appearance of his government. His government? A great roar went up as Prime Minister David Cameroon and the Cabinet were led into the performance area. Victoria could not believe her eyes as this sorry group looked as if they had been kitted out in flash outfits from more recent times – it looked like the 1960s. David C. looked fetching in a mid-length tweed skirt and twinset with pearls. But the high heels and the handbag were sensational. His makeup and coiffure was perfect and due to the smoothness of his skin, one could be fooled that his cross-dressing had been a complete success as his feminine side shone through. Home Secretary, Theresa Mayo, on the other hand, was so macho in a lumberjack outfit, hob-nailed boots and the bright red braces went well with the check shirt.
Lestrade pushed through the crowd joining Holmes and Watson. He was shouting to make himself heard above the noise of the crowd as they cheered, “The Revolutionary Guard of the British Museum have taken over the running of the country. Simon Bullinchinashop is in charge and are requiring all citizens of this fair land of ours to submit to these auditions. It's the law now so everyone has to be a celebratory. Seems they are starting with the politicians first”. Lestrade’s bewilderment was palpable.
Dr Watson, looking perplexed, managed to utter a question barely audible above the noisy jostling throng, “But why are all the men dressed as women and vice versa?”
A flustered Lestrade wearily replied, “Because one of Bullinchinashops’s first edicts as Grand Protector of ‘Y-Factor Land’ as our country is now officially called decreed that all people including children must cross-dress from now on to demonstrate gender balance in our lives. But the challenge is how to get all members of the public to comply."
Even this was going to be a tricky one for the world’s leading consulting detective, Victoria Holmes to grapple with.
As the surreal imagery dissolved all of a sudden, Victoria shook her head and became aware that her father was turning the MPV slowly into the driveway of their house on Spencer Park, near Clapham. She was grateful that these majestic Victorian properties of this prosperous enclave south of the Thames were built well back from the road. A healthy mid-sized plane tree and some strategic hedges added to their sense of comfy seclusion within this urban setting. She reluctantly edged back into reality putting away her iPod as her father helped her out of the vehicle and into the hallway with her wheelchair, “There we are, young lady,” he said gently stroking her hair. She blew him a kiss and immediately headed for the sanctuary of her bedroom on the ground floor. Although the effect of the acid would linger for a while, before her door banged shut behind her, she heard, “Dinner ready in two shakes of a lamb’s tail”, as her father called out, “it’s your favourite tonight, spag bol with all the trimmings and even some good old-fashioned cheddar instead of that puke cheese as you call it.” Victoria laughed out loud, a luxury she rarely allowed herself. It was just father and daughter in this vast echoing house now as Victoria’s mother and brother had perished in the same road accident which had crippled her. Geoff had been driving on that wretched rainy day and although he had survived with minor injuries, her boyfriend had spiralled into depression committing suicide nine months later.
In her own private space, Victoria marvelled how dreamscapes took on an eerie logic of their own that seemed perfectly normal where she was regularly endowed with a stunning, healthy physique where sex was within easy reach and where she moved in high social circles charged with wondrous, exciting capabilities albeit with bizarre results sometimes. She had noticed that wheelchairs or disability never made an appearance in her fantasies.
But Victoria felt the inevitable cruel return of those familiar signs of her interminable sentence of possessing useless legs. Always the appearance of that knot in the stomach as the dread of reality hit her cold on being roused from these enticing acid-filled adventures. Always. And those same effing questions would batter her relentlessly like an angry tidal sea: “Will this ever change? Can I be strong like my father? Will I live past the age of 27? Why?
Then, she heard her father again cutting into her thoughts, “Your dinner awaits you, Victoria.”
She steered herself out of her bedroom, through the hall and into the dining room and saw that he was already serving. As always, he had made a big fuss of the evening meal which looked mouth-watering. Along with the spaghetti bolognese, there was a heaped mixed salad and a small plateful of grated cheese. Cheddar of course. A small vase of flowers was positioned in the centre of this feast. Her father looked up smiling and met her gaze as she approached the table where two large glasses of red wine had been poured. With her handbag on her lap, she was now seated at her place and had locked the brake of her wheelchair. Victoria tasted the first delicious mouthfuls of food knowing what dessert she was going to enjoy afterwards.