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The queue was so long, so meandering that Frank could not see its beginning or end. The Germans hit the nail on the head with Warte Schlange, a waiting snake. The noun was not only sharply observed in terms of the literal shape of the bodies, but hinted at a certain foreboding; as if somehow the behemoth might wake up, lose its patience and devour everything – but what? Apart from the human snake, there was nothing except a vast empty car park, disused, with tired whitish lines that had somehow evaded the elements.
“Have you just given our baby Xanax?”
“No. Not Xanax just. It’s nothing.” Karen rummages in her bag sheepishly.
She peers up at him with the recalcitrant caution of a chastised child. He holds his palm towards her.
She pulls the draw-string on her bag, retrieving a box of tablets which she places in his palm. No, it wasn’t Xanax, it was Zanex, a cheaper and probably less regulated, and therefore more dangerous knock-off.
“She’s teething honey and you know children when they’re teething, they cry like – like I don’t know what.”
He can tell she wants to swear, to say motherfuckers or little bitches. She thinks twice, it is their baby they’re talking about after all.
“Frank, don’t you remember Jenny?”
Jenny, their first, sits cross-legged on the tarmac, playing with a piece of –
“Jenny put that down, Jenny.”
Jenny is playing with a cigarette butt. Where did she find that? No one smokes cigarettes anymore. Bubble-gum stinkin’ Vapes, yes, cigarettes no.
“Of course I remember when Jenny was teething,” he says, matter-of-factly, though he can remember very little from that time, except a certain cloying smell of regurgitated food.
“No you don’t, not like I did, try having three of those incisors latched around your nipple day in day out, I bled for three days straight –” he knew Karen well enough now to have exacted what he called the Karen hyperbolic equation: take any numerical figure, divide it by 10 and add 1. So she had been bleeding for 1.3 days. Made sense.
“I’m struggling to see what this has to do with –”
She begins to rock the now purring baby against her hip, wrapped like a chrysalis in the cotton blanket they once draped around Jenny that smells permanently of baby and marshmallowy nostalgia. She inches towards him, huddling close to his chest with the baby to sweeten him – how cute, how innocent, how could we ever fight? Though the irony here was that this little 19 pound peace offering was really an advert for a highly addictive and worryingly inexpensive tranquiliser. Karen signals towards a sign, a cartoon baby with an aggressive red X impaling the skull. Children under three had been banned from the Queue. The crying gets to people – activates the primitive part of the brain involved in fight-or-flight, or some shit like that. So they’d been hiding her for the past three days beneath heaps of clothes, hoping no one would find out. They couldn’t find a babysitter, almost everyone was in the Queue. They’d heard about it on social media, it was meant to be fantastic, a once in a lifetime opportunity.
They rock the baby together, their hands meeting at the base of the baby’s spine, rejoicing in its abundant warmth. Jenny, noticing that she is missing out on some clandestine activity, begins to warm her hands on her little sister-come-miniature radiator. They begin to hum.
“What are you singing?”
“We’ll meet again, I don’t know where, I don’t know when.”
“Are you crying?”
“Maybe…it’s the hormones –”
“Babe, that’s the mother, not –”
Jenny reaches up on her tiptoes to her father to wipe a tear away with her chubby palm, which only incites the tears to gush more freely. His mother once sang the song as she was chopping veg, her voice quivering on the precipice of tears. His father hadn’t been drafted. He had scoliosis. She was crying for another man. He knows that now. She said it was the onions. And now he’s crying too, it’s the onions, it’s the onions he laugh-cries. Karen doesn’t get the in-joke, but she laughs anyway, though he has sequestered her from a part of him that will forever remain in the infidelity of his mother’s tiny kitchen somewhere in 1971.
They had been unfortunate about their place in the Queue. Behind them were a family of strawberry blondes, identical like a family pack of Tesco quality controlled angel slices. They were clad in matching knock-off beige Juicy tracksuits, the kind you find at market stalls selling for a tenner, in between the ersatz Rolex and homoeopathic herbs and a stone’s throw from the Yaka and custard apples with what look like bullet holes rotting their acrid skin. They sang ABBA songs all day long to distract them from the cold. What got under Frank’s skin most of all is that they were so damn catchy, that he finds himself singing S.O.S. under his breath as he fiddles with his shoelaces or as he flosses his teeth.
The ABBA family had been far more organised. They had made the Stevens’ look like a real shit show. The kind of family who get stuck into school projects and vegan fetes – baking GF cup-cakes so pristine, they cried to be motor-boated. And he had imagined that, doing obscene things to these cakes, for everyone to see, causing a foray, but feeling the martyrdom of having made some ambiguous political statement. They even had fold out chairs (which doubled up as beds), chargeable batteries, microbead travel cushions, thermals, rainware and provisions to last a wartime. And they guard them jealously. The wife, mother, lady, didn’t hide the fact that she counted off each bottle of San Pellegrino and each Kit Kat before dark. They sang songs together, played board-games, told ghost-stories and when the parents dropped off, they were happy for their children to stay up, guarding the fort, their faces spectral with the luminescence of their Nintendo screens.
“Psst, psst,” Frank nudges Jenny awake. She opens her eyes groggily. “It’s time.” She inches forward on her elbows. She was cut out for this shit, her body moves with the surreptitious caution of a real snake. He’s a klutz, Karen too, their daughter has evaded the doom of genetics. They’ve been scheming for the last six hours, there’s a box of sandwiches just there, in that coolbox. Jenny would have to do it. At six, she is young enough that if she were to get caught, he could claim ignorance, that she acted on a whim, independently, and he was very sorry.
The mission was a success. They swiped the food (he would be lying if he said there wasn’t something especially sick and triumphant about stealing home-made goods), divvying it up between them to devour quietly. It was the most stressful ham sandwich he had ever eaten in his life and he could hardly savour it through fear they would wake up and have him kicked out of the Queue.
“Daddy,” Jenny whispers, after she has gulped down the last of the claggy bread, “I know what it is.”
“At the end of the Queue.”
He can tell that she wants encouragement, to be seduced into sharing her theory.
“A monkey eh? Well maybe, maybe you’re right. Now go to sleep.”
“Yes, darling,” he replies, letting his head roll on his neck.
“I don’t think the monkey will be alive,” she muses, curling up at his knee. “That’s right, the monkey will be dead.” She releases a mammoth yawn and begins to snore. He will not sleep for the next three hours. He will ruminate over his daughter’s hypothesis, then the connection will strike him. The queue was like a snake. She had been studying primates at school. She’d shown him a picture in her textbook of a South African python coiled around a dead velvet monkey, supine on the desert floor.
“Daddy look, look.”
When Frank glances up from his kindle, he is faced with a sizable gap in the Queue. So this thing is alive and moving.They had been waiting for three and a half days, and the Queue had shown no discernible progression. They jump up and down on the spot – giddy with excitement. He pats little Jenny on the back as if it had been her doing. He is encouraged. Nevertheless, not anticipating that they would be in the Queue for this long – Frank had joined unprepared. With their current provisions, they would only last a few more days, five tops if he stopped chomping on the girl’s snacks. Fruit winders, Ribena, Nik Naks – not exactly stuff you took up a mountain. They would have to start rationing, it wouldn’t be easy. Initially, sponsors tended to the queue-goers’ needs with complimentary bottles of mineral water and snacks, as if they were partaking in something noble. Then the sponsors, like any true capitalist, realised they were missing a trick and started selling the water. Prices soared. Mineral water was going at £10 a bottle. More than that, the general public grew impatient. They wanted to see the end of this thing. The rise and fall of the Queue. Now and again, someone slipped them something. Waters started selling on the Black market – but the Queue was closely guarded and any malfeasance led to instant banning and any ban from future queues. But Frank knew already – this would be the last queue he would ever stand in.
They have reached their last item of food: a strawberry fruit winder. Frank unravels it between shaky palms and places it down on a sheet of newspaper, producing his tape measure. It is exactly the length of a school ruler. They will have 3 inches each. They have found a way to make it last – to rest it on their tongues and to compete over who can resist chewing for the longest. Frank gives in first. The sugar spikes his veins. He falls back on his elbows, his head almost hitting the tarmac. Momentarily, he smiles with synthetic joy.
“What’s wrong Karen?” Frank shuffles over on his arse like a baby-pre-walk.
“Mummy’s sad.” Jenny muses, crouching towards her mother as she offers a straw to her mouth.
“Not sad, just tired.” She leans her pallid head towards her daughter’s oafish caresses. Jenny unzips her mother’s coat, wrapping her hands around the baby’s body vibrating with warmth.
“You sure you’re not coming down with something?”
Almost synchronistically, they each look up at the sky – which is zapped with streaks of electric purple and pink, with dizzy swathes of white cloud stretching across the vast desert. For a moment, they forget – beneath this canopy, they are safe. Frank feels like praying. But he doesn’t know any prayers, only Amen. When he looks down, Jenny is rocking her mother to and fro like a baby.
“Hey Psst.” – Frank turns to find a man of similar age kicking a bottle cap on the asphalt. “I don’t mean to eavesdrop but I heard your kid. She holding out for a monkey? Good guess, I guess.”
“Yours is as good as mine.” He knows the man is hankering for human interaction. He will offer only curt replies in order to avoid drawing out the stranger’s loquacity beyond no return. Guilty, he gestures to the empty space beside the man.
“They went home. Lost heart,” he replies, inflating his trouser pockets with his hands to indicate the enormity of his loss. Frank, starved of any words of reassurance, hands the lone man his vape.
“Cheers. It’s pretty dog eat dog out here.”
“Pretty? Looks rather ugly to me.” Frank gestures to the human flotsam sprawled out on miles of ragged tarmac, wincing at his own suitably bad dad joke.
“Right. Ha.” The stranger was right. It was dog-eat-dog. There was no leaving the queue to use the bathroom, which left singletons particularly vulnerable. Family members weren’t there to watch your space. You really had to piss into a bucket or wear a human diaper. And there was strictly no queue cutting or “saving a space for a friend”.
“You didn’t follow them?”
He shakes his head. “It’s been so long, I couldn’t you know, go back now.”
“I know, the longer you stay, the harder it is to leave, and yet –” but Frank doesn’t know how to finish his sentence, his logic has been eclipsed by a grey cloud.
The next morning, Frank wakes to a chant which bears the primitive intonations of those once sung by hungry school kids in the canteen. WHY ARE WE WAITING? WHY ARE WE WAITING? He had fallen asleep sitting, waking to dead legs. Karen and Jenny prop him up like human crutches.
“What’s going on?”
The Queue appears to be vibrating en masse; slinking around like a real living entity. They speculate about what it might be. The little one has her ideas. They’d seen pictures of people’s reactions on social media before their phone batteries had died – people who had allegedly reached the front of the Queue; ranging from ecstatic delight to blind terror.
Then a scream. Chaos. A woman with a bloody nose.
Karen bolts up, looks ahead, all of them do, except the baby who is out for the count. Frank wonders if she’ll ever wake up, if she is not just a toy doll, one of those porcelain antiques you can buy in second hand shops for barren mothers or the senile. He once knew a lady in his hometown who wandered the streets day in and day out pushing a ratchety pram carrying a kilo of Demerara sugar wrapped in a filthy cotton comforter. He catches the woman with the bloody nose up close, he knows her, she used to help out at Jenny’s after school club.
He’d last seen her handing out raffle tickets for alcohol-free wine.
“Bitch stole my place!”
“Bitch,” Jenny giggles.
“I meant the girl dog.” She smirks.
“Anyone got any tissues? She’s bleeding like – I don’t know what.”
Karen huddles close to Frank, sticking her hand into his pocket and pulling out a wad of burger king napkins with the flourish of a magician retrieving a string of silk kerchiefs.
“Who knew vegan could be so easy, so accessible?” She mimics him.
The woman wipes her nose, Jenny looks on, transfixed.
“Look she’s really bleeding. That’s a lot of blood, a lot, do you think she will die?”
“No honey,” he rubs her shoulder, “I don’t think she will die.”
“Oh. Maybe not die. But maybe she will get brain damage.”
“Brain damage, where have you heard about brain damage?
“Granddaddy had it.”
“That was Alzheimer’s, honey.”
“I liked granddaddy, he kept giving me sweets, forgetting, and giving me more.”
“I don’t think she will get brain damage, it was just her nose.”
“But the nose leads to the brain – everything leads to the brain.”
Frank is chilled by the unexpected wisdom of his daughter’s pontificating. When had his daughter become so, so blood-thirsty? She trails off with her new stick whilst Karen and the baby purr with sleep or in a sleep type slumber. He knows that he will not sleep tonight. It is very dark and in the distance he can hear the tinny trains shaking the bridge as they rumble through the city. He feels more lonely than ever.
He begins to reminisce about the different queues of his life. That time he queued up for sixteen hours to get a record signed by his then favourite rock band, only for a stand-in to wield the pen because the lead was too hungover, which only ossified his status as a legendary bad boy. That time when all the shops were closing for the weekend for the funeral of that Disney child star whose name now evades him, and everyone was stocking up on Andrex bog roll. And he had a broken arm and had to pack his shopping one handed (the self-bagging had recently been introduced, which coincided with his breaking his arm when assembling a precarious IKEA shelf). Then a woman helped him and he remembered her fondly as a modern-day heroine.
And, most cherished of all, the queue for the toilet that time at Reading Festival, when people started pissing in the mud, streams of urine colliding like gold rainbows from muddy wellies, but Arctic Monkeys were playing and he had just caught eyes with a girl who shared his hippie wonder at the moment in which they found themselves. And then he would watch her barge her way into the men’s urinals and he would follow her and they would pee beside each other as she told him to keep his eyes to himself and stop comparing D-size. He would fall in love with her there and then – maybe not then, but some fuzzy time after, you could never tell when it was happening, love was like fainting or falling asleep, it hit you unawares, until you were in it and stuck in the wings of a Venus fly trap. That would be his favourite queue.
When Frank wakes up, he finds the car park nearly completely empty. Vast swathes of tarmac surround him, strewn with the debris of what looks like a looted supermarket. From faraway, he can make out the calls of his family with the distorted nostalgia of a memory.
“Daddy! Daddy, come!” Pirouetting on his heels, he finds himself face to face with a narrow door much like a portal. Jenny is standing precariously close to the edge, her little mitten flirting with the precipice.
“Come back!” He calls, regretting the wavering in his voice. “Where’s Mummy?”
“Mummy’s inside, with baby.” She is laughing frivolously, even, could he say, satanically?
“Come on Daddy!”
“I’m coming,” he says, unmoving, watching his daughter disappear through the hole. And then he remembers another picture in his daughter’s science book – beside the supine velvet monkey – an image of a snake eating itself. That’s right, a snake could eat itself whole, though it will die trying. And then, he too begins to laugh, reckless and with giddy abandon.
“I’m coming,” he repeats, though no one is there to listen to him. “I’m just going to wait one minute longer.”