According to The Naked Scientists (2000), “There are now at least 25,000 Elvis impersonators around the world, compared to only 170 in 1977 when Elvis died. At this rate of growth, experts predict that by 2019 Elvis impersonators will make up a third of the world population.”
From his desk Jim surreptitiously stared at Maxine as she refilled the photocopier, keeping his head pointed at the screen while his eyes strained to see her shapely buttocks as she bent forward to fill the tray with fresh paper. She was wearing a ’76 Egyptian jumpsuit, clearly tailored to cling to every curve, and through the thin white material he could see a black G-string framing her soft cheeks.
“Hey, hey Comeback Boy.”
Cheeseman had sauntered over to his desk and was leaning on it, an obnoxious grin on his stupid face. “Keeping busy?” His pompadour was freshly dyed, his sideburns neatly trimmed. His gut strained through his modified ’77 Rainfall jumpsuit. Trust that slick, overpolished arsehole to not only have a Rainfall, but to have one with far too many rhinestones cascading down his chest, an overwide belt that looked more like a Boxing Championship than anything the King himself would have worn and exaggerated flares that continued to flap around his calves even though he was no longer walking.
“Someone has to.”
Cheeseman clicked his fingers then winked and pointed his finger at him. His lips curled into an Elvis-sneer that was way too flashy to be considered natural. “That’s the way,” he said. “Keep it up and you might be able to afford a proper jumpsuit,” (he looked down admiringly at himself as he swept his hands from chest to hips) “instead of that leather-boy Blue Oyster get-up you’ve got on.”
“The Comeback Special was a defining point in the King’s’ career. It….”
Cheeseman smirked and used his thumb and fingers to mimic a jabbering mouth. “Blah, blah, blah,” he said. “Vegas baby!” He did an inflexible karate-kick and half-kneed himself in the gut as he did so. “You guys are stuck in the dark ages. Research shows that Vegas was the best. Why do you think everyone wears this?” He flicked the extra-wide lapels with his fingertips. “Except those Memphis-nutters,” he said. “And you.” He turned and stated to swagger away. “Get with the program, Jimbo,” he said over his shoulder.
Maxine had turned and Cheeseman pointed at her, quickly swivelled his hips then struck a pose at her. She giggled and blushed.
Jim shook his head and turned back to his spreadsheet. How the Hell could she be impressed by that prick? Anyone could stuff themselves with burgers and supersize peanut butter and jelly subs before squeezing themselves into an oversized romper-suit. A natural endomorph, Jim had to watch what he ate and do regular cardio to keep his lean, mean Comeback Special look respectable. The tight leather trousers and open-chested black leather jacket were unforgiving on most men but he struggled so hard to maintain it as he felt, like all true connoisseurs, that ’68 was a look that conveyed raw sexual energy with a hungry desire to succeed, an image he himself wanted to convey. It was too easy to substitute that with rhinestones and lapels. But then as he looked at his colleagues at Monbiot & Mann, shuffling from desk to desk, listlessly jabbing at keyboards with pudgy fingers, he wondered if that was why the Vegas-look was so popular; no work required, just dress and eat. And while he spent 30 minutes of each day ensuring his pompadour was neat and perfectly-gelled, he seemed to be surrounded by acres of glittering white cloth, rhinestones sparkling under the fluorescent office lights, jumpsuit after jumpsuit after jumpsuit as they answered phones, sent emails and swivelled and kicked around the water fountain.
At some point, he wasn’t sure when, there had been a change. It didn’t seem that long ago that wherever you went you could see all sorts of Elvis. Vegas had always been popular of course, but back then you could look around and see all sorts – Comebacks, mainly in black leather but some all in black save for a red cravat, or wearing the less well-known white double breasted suit, even Memphis Elvii, in suits and ties or slacks and gold lamé jackets. But now Comebacks appeared to be a disappearing breed and the Memphis Elvii were in many quarters utterly reviled, regarded as dangerous extremists. When he was chatting on forums late at night he couldn’t believe some of the abuse and invective that were hurled their way. And come to think of it, he hadn’t seen a Memphis for a long time. He knew they were still out there as he saw their posts and messages on comment boards. But it would be a brave man nowadays who stood up and actually admitted to being one. It was the sort of supposed radicalism that could lead to losing your job and being ostracised by the polite elements of society. Indeed, there had been calls for it to be made illegal as there was no place for such small-minded regressivism in the modern world. Society had moved on, so they said.
Bored, Jim clicked his mouse and scrolled disinterestedly through the stories on BBC Online. The usual stories about supposed celebrities, interchangeable reality show Z-Listers, attending weddings and premieres or releasing exercise DVDs and yoga selfies. A few stories about foreign wars and Westminster plots, arrests made at a Memphis demonstration up North. He clicked on a story about how some Tory backbencher was being crucified for his stance on Comebackism. The picture of the MP showed a man in his fifties, black leather jacket open to the navel, his hips surprisingly slim in his black, leather trousers. The Comments below the article excoriated him for his dangerous, extremist views and accused him of being in the pay of Big Leather, of being a dangerous dinosaur who was unaware that there was a consensus on the King and that all debate had been settled. Then multiple posts that appealed to authority, stating the infamous “97% say…” lie, a myth that had been debunked multiple times on Comeback.com. Jim rolled his eyes and typed “www.comeback.com” into the search bar. The face of the beleaguered politician stared out from the screen for a few moments before the new page loaded, blank save for the message, “Site blocked – Access to this website has been restricted. Reason: Your organisation’s policy restricts access to sites categorised as Extremism/Hate Speech.” He checked the address bar to see if he had made a mistake, but there was the address, correctly typed, clear as day. Strange, he could open the page at work last week.
The door to the conference room opened and Mr Monbiot came out with his secretary, behind him the Senior partners. He was wearing a ’76 Egyptian, obviously feeling that the swathes of glittering gold that shimmered on his chest would not only denote his status as the boss but also distract from the unconvincing jet-black wig that was perched uncertainly on his head. Monbiot saw Jim and after a few words with his secretary, waddled over to his desk.
“Hello, Jim. How are you keeping?”
“Very well, Mr Monbiot. How are you?”
“Fine, fine….” Monbiot’s voice trailed off as he looked uncomfortably around the office. He hooked his thumbs in his white leather belt as he seemed to ponder what next to say. Finally, he coughed then turned to him. “Look Jim, we’re all very impressed with your work here but I think it’s best if we don’t keep you in suspense any longer. About the interview for the Senior Accountancy post….”
Jim sat forward. “Yes?”
Monbiot coughed again as he seemed to be searching for the right words. “Well, I’m afraid after much consideration, it was decided that you weren’t quite ready for the job yet.”
“Oh. I see.”
“As you know there was a lot of competition. A lot of exceptional candidates to choose from. And I’m afraid you just got pipped to the post.”
Jim nodded. “Right….”
Monbiot stood in silence for an uncomfortable few moments, then straightened his jumpsuit which had started to slip under his gut and then said, “Well, okay then!” He coughed again. “So there we are!” He smiled but as he turned to walk away, Jim said, “Mr Monbiot! Can I just ask who did get the job? Was it an external candidate, or….?”
“Well, it was felt that Keith performed better in the selection process overall….”
“Well.” He shrugged. “Better luck next time, eh?” He smiled weakly then lumbered away.
Jim sat back in his chair. Cheeseman?
He looked around the office and saw Cheeseman perched on the edge of Maxine’s desk. He was leaning forward and was stroking her cheek while apparently trying to show her how to apply a fake sideburn. And as Maxine, giggled, her lapels shaking in synchronicity with her breasts, Cheeseman turned to him and winked.
* * *
“I almost didn’t agree to come out on a date with you.” Sam smiled and gently swirled the Pepsi in her hands, the ice tinkling against the sides of the glass. “She was wearing a ’74 Orange Sunburst, the rhinestones flowing down her breasts, drawing in at her waist before exploding out from her hips, accentuating her hourglass figure. Her fake sideburns were freshly applied but the hints of red roots at the base of her slick, black pompadour suggested that she wasn’t lying when she said that getting ready for their date may well have been a last moment decision.
“So why did you?” He stared at her hair. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a redhead. Or a blonde for that matter.
“Oh, I don’t know.” She smiled coyly. “I’ve not had the best of luck with men. I always seem to go for the bad boys. And that never ends well.”
Jim stifled a laugh and momentarily felt proud that he had somehow managed to not show his incredulity. Cool maintained. But a bad boy? She did know he was an accountant, didn’t she? And while he was more wordly-wise than most of the people he had met in his profession he was hardly a rebel, a lone wolf kicking out against the constraints of society. In fact, as he’d gotten older and his look had become harder to maintain, he’d gradually shifted from drinking Pepsi to Mountain Valley Water, from eating plates of cheeseburgers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to just pork chops and burned bacon, some of the posters on Comeback.com saying that keeping the carbs low could ward off the paunch he had started to develop as he’d hit his thirties, enabling him to main the look. And as he saw some of the others in the restaurant out of the corner of his eye, the other diners, the waiters, white flares flapping as they rushed from table to table, cheap plastic rhinestones glistening in the candlelight, the barman, exposed gut hanging over a large, gold buckle, he realised that compared to everyone else here he was in great shape, despite being ten years older than most of them. Still, the controlled diet, the early morning cardio and the daily 9 to 5 grind with two weeks holiday, year in, year out was hardly the stuff of uncontrolled hedonism.
“Well, I don’t usually do the dating thing myself, either.” And he kept it at that. He knew it sounded mysterious and played up to whatever image she had of him. But despite that it was actually the truth. He hated dates and hadn’t been on one for a couple of years, and that had been with a hot 23 year old that his friends had set him up with. That said, as much as he hated dates, that one was easy enough. They had just met up in a bar and just got wasted together on her stash of Dilaudid, Quaaludes, Percodan, Demerol, and cocaine hydrochloride, or the “King Cocktail” as it was advertised on TV. Unsurprisingly, they’d had a great time and she was a freak in bed, although when she had slurred, high on pills and sex, that she was actually a closet Memphis, that just a bit too freaky for him, so when he left the next morning he gave her a fake phone number and had never seen her again. Since then he had just concentrated on work and on vicarious letching of Maxine and some of the other girls in the office.
A waiter came to the table and disinterestedly asked, “Ready to order?” He was wearing an ill-fitting ’70 White Cossack jump suit, popular with lower-earners because of its dearth of fringe, chains, brocade or stones and there were food stains on his hips from where he had obviously wiped his hands after carrying dirty dishes.
Sam sat up straight, her cleavage impressive under her suit. “Peanut butter and banana sandwich, please. With extra grape jelly.”
He was going to order the pork chops and bacon as he usually did, but felt as if he was getting somewhere with Sam so didn’t want to ruin the image she obviously had of him. “I’ll have the same.” He smiled at her.
He’d just do some extra cardio tomorrow to burn it off.
* * *
The rest of the evening was a bit uncomfortable, extended silences, obvious gaps when they both obviously struggled to make conversation, and while she clearly didn’t want to get wasted as the closet Memphis had, she didn’t seem to mind him popping pills (although he did surreptitiously help himself to a few extra on the few times he went to the toilet), so by the time they ended up in a Club, dubstep remixes of “That’s Alright” and “A Big Hunk O’ Love” wobbling and dropping so loud and distorted he could feel it his core, the ‘ludes and Percodan had started to kick in and she ended up sat on his lap, slowly grinding as she brushed her lips gently across his face and then sensuously kissed his ear.
“I’m so horny.” Her voice was thin and almost lost in the sea of bass, but he could feel her body against his, so loose and open, her eyes half-lidded, her lips open, and he pulled her ear against his mouth and said, “Okay. Let’s go.”
She smiled and pulled him to his feet, then lead him by the hand through the bumping, heaving throng, through the students and the slack-jawed boys, wasted on too much Cocktail and the under aged girls, pretending to be 18 through too much make-up and over-coiffed pompadours, partying hard before they swapped gossip with their friends the next morning at school. Sam turned and looked over her shoulder and smiled, and he could feel her palm hot in his own as she lead him through the club. And as she saw the others dancing and kicking and striking poses around him he suddenly felt very old and out of place here. But he didn’t just feel old. As the crowd pushed and jarred and swelled against them, a sea of white and gold, sapphire, rubies and emeralds strobing in the darkness, he realised that he was the only one there dressed in black, a blot inthe ocean of Vegas. He was the sole Comeback in the entire place.
Sam squeezed his hand as she lead him out into the cold October night.
* * *
The so-called “Public Health professional” on Newsnight tried his best to look deeply concerned as he reported the findings of yet another study which showed clear health implications to non-Vegasism. It was yet another BBC interview – very little questioning of his assertions, a tacit acceptance that what he was saying was right. The only questions Evan Davies seemed to have were about just how harmful non-Vegasism was and how draconian the necessary regulations, that were of course just accepted as being necessary, should be.
The spokesman or Doctor or quangocrat or whatever he was, was typical of his kind. Spouting nonsense about Public Health while his jowls hung over the lapels of his ’76 Egyptian, his gut taxing his oversized gilt buckle to its limits. Of course this study had already been debunked on Comeback.com, the amateur scientists on there trawling the journals and literature to find a hundred studies that disproved these latest, supposedly ground-breaking, findings. Then again, Jim wouldn’t have expected to see a balanced critique of the study on the BBC; a Freedom of Information request had long ago demonstrated that they had adopted an editorial stance on not showing other points of view as the “science was settled.”
The idiot’s flabby breasts juddered under the white nylon as he proclaimed that 40,000 lives could be saved if non-Vegas behaviours could be curtailed and he repeated his claims that only a ban on non-Vegasism in public places could curtail the rise in this apparent “public health crisis” that no-one had seemed to be aware of until now.
Jim sat back, taking comfort in the familiar squeak of leather against leather, as he sipped an iced Mountain Valley water. It was clear they were using what was known as the “Non-Vegas Control” template on Comeback.com. Back in the ‘80s, if someone had even suggested that not wearing the Jumpsuit caused ill-health, they would have been widely derided and ignored. Now State-funded quangos and fake charities repeated lie after lie, announcing the results to studies they hadn’t even conducted, while a credulous public and churnalising media just lapped it up. But that was how the “Non-Vegas Control” template worked. Start with a minor demand, something so trivial it couldn’t be refused, like the demand for bigger seats to fit their enormous, flabby buttocks on long-haul flights. Then start demanding bigger seats for short-haul flights. Then find some junk scientist to show that the cleaner-living Memphis Elvii were more prone to mental illness because of their lack of ‘ludes and Percodan, then fund studies to show that being slim in the now compulsory over-sized seats lead to greater risk of death in the event of an incident, before finally making it a Public Health concern by somehow proving that even the most minor collision could lead to slim Memphis Elvii hurtling around the cabin like bequiffed Exocet missiles, slaughtering whatever righteous Vegas was in their path. The fact that this hadn’t happened once in the decades prior was irrelevant; the public believed it and the politicians, credulous and slack-jawed, legislated against it. Now, even as a Comeback, when flying Jim had to put on a heavily-padded jumpsuit – he had a white ’69 Cossack two-piece – the cheapest he could find – which he begrudgingly put on whenever he had to fly, before desperately changing back into his comforting, form-fitting black leather in the airport toilet as soon as he landed.
Then came the ban on TV advertising – those glorious ads of the 80s and early 90s that showed square-jawed, beslacked or suited Elvii racing cars and flying planes before a beautiful woman slid her hand under an open gold lamé jacket, were a thing of the past. Then came the ban on magazine advertising then Billboards, then sales of non-leather suits and jackets in shops, slice, slice, slice, bit by bit. They had long ago “denormalised” (a word he found abhorrent to see being used openly, without an outcry, on TV and in the Press – who were they to say what was “normal” or “abnormal”?) the Memphis Elvii and now they were clearly using the same template against the Comebacks. Advertising for all Comeback-related material had also been banned a few years before, as had a ban on leather goods in shops, so that now he was in the position of having to buy his clothes online, using a secure age-verification procedure. Comebacks weren’t as deeply reviled as the Memphis, but the powers-that-be were clearly working on it and he was increasingly aware that Comebacks were being casually lumped in with the Memphis Elvii in their supposed non-Elvisness by the various State-funded charities and quangos that seemed to work ceaselessly in creating divisions and restricting freedoms. He could remember the days (Hell, they weren’t that long ago!) when it was a non-issue – you could like Memphis Elvis but just prefer the music and look of The Leather.
Now there seemed to be a war on Comebacks and no-one seemed to see anything wrong with it, the moaning, dissenting voices on Comeback.com, with their studies and their evidence and their research into corruption in these organisations, just lone voices crying into a void.
Jim walked into the offices of Monbiot & Mann with a distinct spring in his step. As it was his birthday, Sam had stayed over the previous night and they had woken early, both horny, and she had screwed his brains out. Although he was a bit disconcerted when, laying there in a euphoric post-coital glow, she had run her hand over his abs and murmured how she wished he had a proper gut.
On his desk was a large envelope with his name scrawled on it in blue biro. As his computer started up he sat back in his chair and tore it open. Inside was a birthday card, a close up picture of white sequinned, flares. He opened the card and saw the printed message “Flappy Birthday!” and birthday wishes from the rest of the office. Of course, he knew how these things worked; there was a spreadsheet with everyone’s birthday on it and the admin team bought a card out of petty cash and then sent out an email reminding everyone to sign it every time someone’s birthday rolled around. Then, when you had to go over to admin for whatever reason, to fill out an expenses sheet or complete a pay form or whatever, they’d hand you the card so you could write something inspired in it like, “Hope you have a great birthday!”, or whatever. For the hundredth time. Maybe, if you wanted to personalise it a bit, you’d add, “Don’t drink too much!” and it looked like that’s what pretty much everyone had done here. For some reason he found himself looking for Maxine’s message, eventually finding it squeezed in the top-right corner. “Kisses and hugs on your birthday today!”, a little heart drawn in over the “I” of Maxine.
He looked over to her desk. She happened to turn as he did so and their eyes met. She smiled and waved at him. He looked again at her message. Was it flirty? Was she flirting with him? Or was it just a standard friendly message. He looked over at her again. She was reaching for something in her desk-drawer and he caught a glimpse of side-boob.
“Hey, hey Comeback boy,” said Cheeseman as he rapped on Jim’s desk as he walked past. “Keeping busy?”
Jim nodded. “Yep, as always.”
Cheeseman was wearing his ’72 Eyelet suit, complete with thigh length, red lined cape, custom-made with additional sequins running along its inner edge. “Bummer of a day for you, eh?”
Jim typed in his log-in details, hoping Cheeseman would get the message and leave. “Birthdays are birthdays,” he said. “I can take them or leave them.”
Cheeseman looked confused for a moment before a broad grin spread across his face. “You mean… you don’t know? Oh man. Better read that email from Human Resources, bud.” He clicked his fingers then pointed them at Jim like a pistol. “Time to join the 21st Century, my friend,” and then swaggered away.
He saw Cheeseman grinning and clicking his fingers at the junior accountants out of the corner of his eye as he opened his emails. He scanned down the messages searching for one from Human Resources, eventually finding one with the Subject Heading, “Important Change in Company Policy.” He double-clicked on the message and yawned.
“To all staff,
Yadda yadda yadda …. following recent Court ruling on Productivity and Health & Safety in the workplace….. important changes in Company Policy….. yadda yadda yadda….. Henceforth a new company dress code is implemented. The following items of clothing are now forbidden in the Offices of Monbiot and Mann.”
There then followed a bullet-pointed list of prohibited attire. There was the usual – jeans, T-shirts, suits, ties, then …. clothes of a black hue* (he scanned down to the footnote at the bottom of the email) *except Black brocade jumpsuit, Black Cisco Kid jumpsuit, Black Flames jumpsuit, Black Pinwheel jumpsuit, Black & Silver Phoenix jumpsuit, (he returned to the main list)…. and all leather items unless part of an approved ’69 – ’77 ensemble.” Then there was some guff about “creating a progressive, pleasant and tolerant workplace environment for all colleagues” and a date from when the changes would come into force; the beginning of next month. Less than two weeks.
It took a moment for what he had just read to sink in. Then he read it again, this time focussing on each word as if he had somehow misread it or misinterpreted its meaning. But no, there it was. They were implementing a Vegas clothing policy. He’d heard of places in California implementing them, or some of the loonier County Councils, but he never thought somewhere like Monbiot & Mann would go down that route. He sat back in his chair and dumbstruck glanced around the office, at Fire Suit and Arabian and American Eagle, as they answered phones and tapped at keyboards and carried folders from desk to desk. As it was, he was the only Comeback there, so it was hardly surprising that no-one else seemed to think it was particularly noteworthy or exciting, as they disinterestedly photocopied receipts or filled in expansive Excel spreadsheets.
He sat staring at his screen for a few minutes, unsure of what to do. He considered going to Monbiot’s office to thrash it out with him. But he knew that Monbiot wouldn’t change his mind and that as wound-up as he was he’d only end up losing his temper anyway, so he decided against it. He briefly considered making a forlorn post on Comeback.com but then remembered he couldn’t access if from work anymore. Dejected, he sat back in his chair and resolutely decided to do nothing, as the minutes slowly, ever-so slowly ticked by, until he could go home.
Eventually, after what had seemed like an eternity, the day ended and Jim finally found himself walking through his front door, the aroma of freshly cooked bacon drifting through from the kitchen. Sam rushed across to him and hugged him tightly, before kissing him on the lips. “Happy birthday,” she said and smiled.
He’d had such a shitty day he’d completely forgotten about his birthday. “That smells delicious,” he said.
“Bacon. Uncured, apple-smoked. With lightly roasted crunchy peanut butter and organic bananas all deep-fried in extra virgin peanut oil.” She looked proud of herself, eager to spoil him.
“Smells fantastic,” he said.
She lead him to the sofa, plumped the cushions, and made him sit down. “Now you just relax and take it easy. No more work for you today.”
He sat back and loosened his jacket.
“Oh, before I forget!” she said, and she rushed away to the bedroom. “Just wait there!” she called back. “Relax!”
Moments later she was back, a large, carefully wrapped present in her arms and a broad smile on her face. “Happy birthday.”
He took the parcel from her. “Sam, this looks great! Thank you,” and he started to pull at the neatly-tied ribbon.
“I hope you like it. I spent ages trying to find the right one.”
He threw the ribbon to the floor and tore open the paper.
“Well? What do you think? Do you like it?”
“It’s….. great.” He forced a smile. “Thank you.”
She kissed him. “I knew you would. Better than that tatty old thing you’ve got.”
She rushed through to the kitchen. “Now you just relax. This sandwich will blow your mind.”
From the kitchen he heard the clatter of plates and the sizzle of the oil as she lifted the sandwiches from the fryer. In his hands he held her present, torn wrapping paper and stick-on bows, and within, the folded white polyester and azure and gold embroidery of his new ’74 Arabian.
Jim pulled at the waistband of his leather strides, the top button resolutely refusing to reach its hole. A roll of flab hung over the tops of his trousers and he sucked his gut in hard as he tried to do up the final button. Still inches away he gave up and decided to leave it undone and use his belt to cover it up.
Sam was watching him from the bed, the duvet cover pulled tight up to her neck. “I don’t know why you bother. You won’t be able to wear that at work soon anyway.”
Jim ignored her and set about trying to make a new hole in his belt with the prong of his belt buckle.
“I mean, why do you never wear that Arabian I got you?”
He finally succeeded in pushing the prong through the leather and then set the belt over the top of his trousers so it covered the undone top button.
“Don’t you like it?” she asked.
Jim turned to her. Without make-up she somehow looked more vulnerable, unkempt jet-black locks hanging over her eyes. “Of course I do,” he said, trying his best to sound convincing. “It’s just I like the Comeback look. That is more….” he paused, trying to think of the right words. “….More for special occasions.”
She looked up at him, unconvinced. “I’ll get breakfast,” she finally said and then threw the covers off and left the room. He wanted to go after her but what could he say? In the last few weeks there seemed to be a growing distance between them. There was no fun or spontaneity anymore, they just seemed to eat together, talk about their days and then go to sleep, his occasional attempts at intimacy being rebuffed with a shrug of the shoulder and a muttered, “Not now.” Of course, he suspected that the easy solution would be to just put on the damn Arabian. She’d bought it in a big enough size, after all. Even with his recent weight gain it would probably be baggy on him. Yes, that would probably set things right. He could imagine her skipping over to him and admiring his expanding gut swaddled in white polyester, his manly flares demanding respect. She’d probably be all for getting together with her friends, going on night out after night out, instead of sitting at home in the evening as if ashamed to be seen with him, watching crappy makeover shows where people from Tipton attempted to Graceland their home with a micro-budget and a small pile of MDF.
But why should he? It wasn’t just the element of coercion he despised. It was the quicksand foundation upon which the claims of Vegas superiority were based. He liked Comeback Elvis. What was so wrong with that? Why could no one see that all the quangos and fake charities and sock-puppet consumer advocacy groups were just fascistic puritans with an agenda, all their studies into impending catastrophes, public health dangers and irreversible tipping points just examples of the worst kind of junk science? Why couldn’t everyone else be as laid back as him? He liked the Comeback King but he could listen to the Sun Studios recordings and the later pop stuff, too. Hell, he even liked a lot of the Vegas material until recently. Some of those lunatics had even started calling Comebacks and Memphis Elvii, “Elvis deniers”, in a deliberate attempt to further smear them and invalidate their position. And it was this lying that he objected to. A few years ago he may well have worn the jumpsuit. But now it was being forced on him, and for the most spurious reasons, too…..? Now he felt entrenched, as if he had to make a stand.
The smell of burned bacon drifted through from the kitchen.
Jim went into the bathroom, splashed on some Brut then made his way into the living room. The TV was on, Breakfast News covering some unrest in the Middle East somewhere, US military in their camouflage jumpsuits attempting to hold back a mob of baying locals. As he sat down, the top of his trousers dug into his belly and he wriggled and pulled at the roll of fat to ease it over them. He briefly toyed with undoing another button but did not want to admit defeat so easily.
The News cut back to the studio, the newsreader’s impossibly coiffured pompadour almost the same height as his head. “And in further news today, the University of Bath has announced results of a study that show that not wearing jumpsuits causes Alzheimer’s. It is believed that polyester provides a protective barrier to dementia-causing environmental contaminants. Roger Harrabin reports.” Jim knew what was coming next. Cue cut to Memphis and Comebacks walking the streets followed by, yep – there it was – footage from a dementia ward then bespectacled Vegas Elvii stood at test tubes. Then the inevitable soundbite from some sourfaced overweight harridan in a custom-designed jumpsuit, calling for “the next logical step” and demands for further restrictions “to protect the children.”
Jim groaned and went to the kitchen. Sam was stood at the hob stirring a pot with a wooden spoon. He watched her for a moment as she ignored him. “That smells nice.”
She smiled weakly at him and then continued to stir the mash. He felt he should say something but he couldn’t think what. Finally, he was just about to leave the room when he saw something in the sink. He squinted and stepped forward a little. “Are those…. potato peelings?” he asked.
She nodded as she cut a large slice of butter and dropped it into the pan.
“You know I only eat cauliflower mash, don’t you?”
She turned, a blank expression on her face.
“I mean, I have to watch the carbs.”
“Yeah, but that’s horrible. It’s got a nasty aftertaste.”
“Yeah but…. Hang on. How long have you been doing this?”
She turned to face him, a defiant look on her face. “Doing what?”
He pointed at the pot. “Doing this.” He paused for a moment. “Wait, are you trying to get me fat?”
She shook her head and resumed stirring the mash, violently, the spoon clattering on the edges of the pot.
“You are! You’re trying to fatten me up!”
She flung the pot down on the hob, and clattered against the splashback. “And why not? It’s not good for you to be all slim and stuff. Why do you have to be such a weirdo!?”
“Oh yeah, right.” He pulled at his belly. “Well that certainly explains a lot.”
“Oh just make your own fucking breakfast, then.” She forced her way past him and stormed across to the bedroom. “Why can’t you just be fucking normal, like everyone else?” She slammed the door behind her, knick-knacks on bookcases briefly rattling, leaving him in silence save for the gentle sizzle of burning bacon and the hum of passing traffic carried on the frosty, October air.
Jim turned off his computer and tidied the paperwork on his desk. He could see Cheeseman chatting to Maxine on the other side of the office and wanted to get away home for the weekend before he saw him. In the intervening weeks, Cheeseman had become even more intolerable, taking a profound glee in the approaching company clothing policy deadline. Even though it didn’t affect him in the slightest, it was all he seemed to think about, when talking to Jim at least. Hey, Comeback Boy! Time’s running out, eh? he’d say. Not long to go now, Comeback boy! Better savour it while you can!
Jim threw some loose pens and pencils into his desk drawer as his computer finally stopped humming and the screen went dark.
“Hey, Comeback Boy! D-Day on Monday! We going to see you dressed like a normal human being?” He punched him playfully on the shoulder and leaned his face in uncomfortably close, so Jim had to lean back to get some space. “Don’t know if we’ll recognise you. It’ll be like having a new guy starting here!” He was speaking loudly, so the rest of the office could hear.
Jim forced a thoroughly unconvincing smile, picked up his briefcase and made his escape from the grinning Cheeseman. But as he descended the concrete steps to the building’s foyer, it suddenly hit him. This would be the last time he would ever be able to fully be himself at work. The next time he would be here he would be climbing these same steps, swaddled in that ridiculous Arabian that Sam had bought him. And there he would be, sat all day in thin polyester, sequinned flares getting caught in filing cabinets and desk drawers, not even being able to be himself at his lunch break or on his way to and from work.
The cold October air hit him as he came out onto the street and he was grateful for the thick leather jacket that he could do up tight and pull tightly around himself. It was getting dark and there were hints of an early-Winter chill in the breeze. The streetlights were just coming on and the rush hour traffic was thick, a procession of near stationary headlights that receded in the distance, exhaust fumes thick in the air.
He walked past a launderette, row after row of machines washing white jumpsuits visible through steamed windows and made his way past a small group of Rastas, their mullets, oiled pompadours at the front and dreads at the back, hanging down over sequin suns, firebirds and waterfalls.
Even though there had been plenty of notice about the change of policy, he still couldn’t believe that he’d essentially only be able to be a Comeback at home. Indeed, he’d spend more of his day waddling around in his white and gold romper suit than he would in the leather. It just didn’t seem real but now that the change was upon him, the inevitability of it finally hit home.
A bus pulled up at a bus stop ahead of him, its engine roaring and coughing diesel fumes into the air, and a group of young Vegases got off, shouting and swearing and playfighting as they did so. He saw them nudge each other and grin gormlessly as he approached. “Wanker!”
Jim stopped and turned. They were laughing and one walked towards him, his flabby chest preposterously puffed out.
The young Vegas got in his face, leering. “Wanker. Fucking Comeback twat.”
Jim unconsciously clenched his fist and took a step towards him, but then saw the Vegas’ three friends walk up behind him. He felt confident he could take the one but not all three. So he quickly turned and made to continue up the street when he felt a sharp pain and an explosive slapping sound in his right ear. He groaned and turned only to see all four of them coming at him, the kicks coming at him out of a tumultuous wave of white polyester. Before he knew what was happening he was off his feet and all he could do to defend himself was curl up in a ball and try and block the blows with his arms and legs. Eventually, after what seemed like far too long, the kicks stopped and he opened his eyes and through the haze of what was either tears or blood, saw the group swaggering away laughing and congratulating each other as they did so.
He tried to lift himself up off the pavement, the tarmac rough and cold on his palms, as a sea of Vegases walked past, unconcerned, unhelping; businessmen in their best Mexican Sundials simply walking by ignoring him, old women in their Conchos and Fringes, staring at him askance as if he had deliberately decided to simply lie on the busy pavement to get in their way. Finally he got to his feet and, pushing his way past rushing Chain Suit, Brocade and Blue Mirror he made it to a shop front and supported himself against it. His head and jaw throbbed and he could feel a sharp throbbing in his arms and legs. Already his one eye was starting to swell up.
After catching his breath he picked up his briefcase from where he’d dropped it and slowly made his way home. When he got home, Sam was sitting watching TV and it took her a few moments to see him.
“Jesus! What happened to you?” She rushed over and prying his case from him and dropping it in the hallway, guided him over to the sofa. “Oh my God. Do you need an ambulance? What happened?”
She lead him over to the sofa, where he crashed down with a groan. “Shit, Jim! What happened?”
He eased himself back into the soft cushions, inhaling sharply as he got comfortable. “I got attacked.”
“What? Why? Did they get away with anything?”
“No. They just didn’t like my suit.”
“I think they beat me up because of how I was dressed.” Sam shook her head angrily. “I mean, there were three of them, if that makes it any better?”
Sam sat down next to him and put her arm around him. “Oh, fucking scumbags.”
He smiled, exposing bloodied teeth. “Maybe I can report it as a hate crime.”
“Oh shush, you know it doesn’t work like that.” She paused for a moment thinking. “Do you think there’s any point reporting it to the Police? I mean, they’re probably miles away by now. Did you get a good look at them?”
He winced as he shifted himself further back into the sofa. “Yeah, top description. Three blokes, white jumpsuits, black pompadours. They’ll get them in minutes.”
She held his hand and kissed him gently on the cheek before, resting her head on his. “True,” she said quietly. “And the Police would probably just say you brought it on yourself anyway.”
She nuzzled into him, the faint scent of her perfume on her hair. “Hmmmm?”
He pulled himself away from her and, with a grimace, sat up straight. “What do you mean “brought it on yourself”?”
“Well, you know. Walking around. Dressed like that.”
He gestured down at his bloodied leather. “What’s wrong with this?”
“Well, you know. It’s just….. provocative.”
“Well, anti-social. You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t! When the Hell did this happen? One minute it’s all perfectly normal, something that’s been going on for years without anyone saying something, and then suddenly putting on the Leather is like setting off a bomb or something.”
“Don’t be so melodramatic. It’s just things change. Time moves on.”
“Man, I should have seen this coming when I saw what happened to the Memphises….”
She stood up, annoyed. “Oh no, I’m not getting into that conspiracy bollocks again. Just leave it. I’m not in the mood.”
“But it’s important! Everyone is being controlled, manipulated. All this stuff pushing Vegasism is all made up bullshit. It’ll be something else next and people will just sit back and swallow it like they did with this.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just leather. Who cares?”
“I care! Besides, it’s the principle of the thing. It’s this now. It’ll be something else in the future.”
She raised her hands and shook her head as if trying to keep his insanity at bay. “I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to bed,” and she stormed towards the bedroom. “And I’ve had your Arabian pressed for tomorrow,” she called back. “Not that you’ve ever worn it,” and then slammed the bedroom door.
Jim could feel his right eye starting to swell shut and it throbbed and pounded along with his heartbeat. He could taste the blood in his mouth and he felt a sharp stab of pain in his ribs whenever he moved. So he slowly wormed his way down on to the cushions until he lay on the sofa in such a way that there was no pressure on any of the few parts of his body that didn’t hurt.
The TV chuntered away in the corner as he thought about what had happened and about how he could possibly get Sam back. She seemed to loathe him more with each day and it took next to nothing for her contempt for him to rise up to be on full display.
He turned to the TV, unable to focus on it with even his good left eye.
“And now on the BBC a shocking report on the social and economic costs of non-Vegasism…..”
He groaned. “Oh for fuck’s sake….”
That morning he had stood in front of his freshly-pressed Arabian for several minutes, as Sam gently snored in bed. Through the window it had seemed to be a day like any other – the winter sun shining through the pane of glass, the sounds of traffic and roadworks outside. Two birds were sat on a branch in a tree outside the bedroom window, their song still audible over the revving of car engines and the occasional chatter of jackhammers.
And yet, there it had sat – the Arabian – its white polyester shimmering in the early morning sunlight, its folds seemingly already crackling with static electricity. Finally, he had come to a decision and so now he was stood outside Monbiot & Mann, the usually-comforting black leather feeling strangely alien on his skin. As he walked to the lifts across the lobby he ignored the receptionist who waved for his attention and out of the corner of his eye caught sight of others nudging their companions whilst others stared at him open-mouthed, literally swivelling on their heel to stare at him as he walked past. Once he got to the third floor he entered the office and sat at his desk, the chatter suddenly stopping as everyone stared at him, slack-jawed as he waited for his computer to load up. He could feel their eyes burning into him and as the machine slowly whirred into life, he could see Maxine staring at him from her desk, an undisguised look of disgust on her face. Eventually people started to return to their work but there was an undeniable tension in the air and whenever he looked away from his monitor there was inevitably someone staring at him, with either a look of disdain, shock or even horror etched onto their faces.
Eventually, Monbiot’s door opened and he appeared, momentarily scanning the office until his gaze rested on Jim. Then, as Jim tried to ignore him, out of the corner of his eye he could see Monbiot take a deep breath as if girding himself for what was to come, before he strode across to his desk. Monbiot didn’t look Jim in the eyes but instead stared away towards the back of the office as he whispered, “Jim, can I have a word with you in my office, please?”
Jim stopped typing and sat back in his chair. “What about?”
Monbiot continued to stare away into the distance, and snorted. “My office. Now.”
“Look, I know what this is about, I just don’t see….”
Monbiot turned to face him suddenly, making Jim reflexively recoil back in his chair. His face was red with fury and while he continued to speak in a whisper, flecks of spittle flew from his lips as he spoke. “What the Hell, do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are turning up to work like….” His lips curled in disgust. “Like that?”
“Like what? I’ve been dressed like this for years! I can’t see why everyone is suddenly making such a big deal out of it!”
“Go home and get changed,” Monbiot said, enunciating every word deliberately as if trying to contain his anger.
“Why? What’s the problem? It’s been completely normal for years then suddenly it’s like I’ve turned up and raped someone’s puppies. It’s absolutely ridiculous….”
“Go home and get changed or don’t bother coming to work here.”
“You heard me. We can’t have this sort of behaviour here. Abide by company policy or you’re sacked.”
“You can’t be serious.”
Monbiot turned and glared at Jim and simply nodded slightly as if to emphasise his point.
They stared at each other for a moment and then Jim saw the rest of the office, looks of disgust and horror on their faces, as they observed what was going on. “Fine!” he said, standing up quickly. “Fine, I’ll go. This is just unbelievable, though.” He picked up his carrier bag that contained today’s packed lunch of deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and strode towards the door. He bumped into Cheeseman as he left, who deliberately didn’t move out of his way. His face was contorted with hatred. “Fucking scum,” he said loudly as Jim shoulder-barged his way past.
When he got home, Sam wasn’t there. He wasn’t even particularly surprised to see the note she had left on the Arabian, that was still neatly folded by the bed. It was barely 11 in the morning and already he had lost his job and he had lost Sam. He couldn’t believe it. How could the world change so much in such a short period of time? The sun was bright but lay low in the winter sky. Outside things were as they always had been, workmen digging up the road, their jumpsuits stained with mud and dirt, small groups of women in white, rhinestone-encrusted hijabs floating down the street like Vegas ghosts.
Yet Sam had gone, his job had gone and he was left alone in his flat still fighting a war that he had resolutely lost. He knew that it was the right thing to do to fight such oppression, especially based as it was upon lie after lie by self-interested, fascistic pressure groups. But was he really willing to lose everything for what was right?
He slowly made his way to the Arabian and after staring at it for a moment lifted it up. It was lighter than he expected, its material thin yet rough in his hand. He inhaled deeply, placed it on the bed then took off his leathers. Then he was stood alone in the bedroom, his newly-developed gut resting proud of his white Calvin Kleins, his pompadour tousled from the events of the day. Slowly, deliberately, he picked up the Arabian and placed each foot into it before lifting it up over his legs and waist, an absurd romper-suit, infantalising him as he forced his now pudgy, pink body into its folds. After lifting the top half over his shoulders, he did up the handful of buttons at just over navel height and then wrapped the belt, three inches of thick, white plastic, rhinestones shimmering in the October sunlight, around his waist. He stood there for a moment, its coarse polyester alien on his skin and then regarded his reflection in the mirror. He exhaled deeply. “Fuck.”
Depressed, he turned on the stereo and hit shuffle, then sat down on the edge of the bed. A few rolling piano notes sounded out before a chirruping piano and electric guitar riff filled the room. Then there was the King. At his best.
There’s no joy in my heart, only sorrow
And I’m sad as a man can be
Through the window he could see two birds, seemingly staring at him through the glass, their song inaudible over the King.
I sit alone in the darkness of my lonely room
And this room is a prison to me
He could feel his gut straining against the plastic belt, his Comeback leathers lay crumpled in a pile next to Sam’s note.
I look at my window and what do I see?
I see a bird way up in the tree
Tears started to well in his eyes and he wiped them away, oversized white polyester cuffs flapping round his wrists as he did so. Through the window, he could see the birds had gone, the bare branch now empty.
I want to be free
I want to be free
like the bird in the tree
Inhaling deeply and wiping the tears from his face, Jim stood up and left to see if he could salvage his job at Monbiot & Mann.
© James Burr 2021