No 170 - 2002
The Hole Shopping Experience
Martin spent most of the week after Lucy had gone slumped on his sofa, gazing at a hole in the front of his boxer shorts and reflecting on her absence. He’d come to the conclusion that there was a problem in the way we thought about absences, since we tend to treat them as qualities in their own right rather than just something missing. Like darkness, or silence, for example. Similarly, it was not Lucy having gone that bothered him so much as the way her absence remained, hanging around the place like a morbid acquaintance who had outstayed their welcome. Its silhouette lingered in the light patches where she’d removed her paintings from the walls, its weight made a palimpsest of the armchair and its phantom warmth made the bed cold beside him. When he took a shower the trace of its fingerprints even appeared in the condensation on the bathroom tiles. By Friday he had decided that it was high time he found something to put in the place of this nothing.
One of her magazines was lying on the coffee table. He pulled it onto the sofa and flipped through it idly, passing over an article on female circumcision in Africa to leaf through the glossy fashion shots that came after, then dawdling a while over the problems page. Then he turned to the usual questionnaire at the back. It was entitled ‘Are you letting the real you shine through?’ and he noticed that for some reason she’d gone through it twice, ticking one set of responses in green pen and then another in black. At the end she had circled the results. Ringed in green he read:
0-50: You are a hopeless dreamer, an inert fantasist! Grab yourself by the scruff of the neck and take some bites from reality. Start making those dreams a spur to real success.
Then circled likewise in black:
850-1000: There’s no stopping you as you roar along life’s fast lane... but pull over and take a break now and then. Give time to your spiritual side, or maybe treat yourself to a little shopping therapy.
Martin contemplated this for some time, waggling his finger through the hole in his boxers like she used to, sometimes. It seemed a very odd thing for her to have done, since she was never one to be unsure of herself. Then he wiped his nose along the back of his wrist and rubbed his eye with the heel of one hand.
Maybe what he needed, he thought, to begin with at least, was some new underwear.
He pulled on some reasonably clean jeans and drove into the city centre. There he wandered aimlessly for a while through the clogged arteries of the city’s labouring heart, gliding up and down escalators and peering in through seductively lit store windows. He gazed at lines of empty suits that hung from racks like cadavers. He peered at a display of dummies in casual wear, their stiff limbs positioned in poses of relaxed bonhomie but with blank orbs instead of eyes, reminding him of sleepwalkers unadvisedly woken. He moved on to vacillate a while in the doorway of a large chain store, his wallet beginning to weigh heavy in his pocket, but he just could not face the ordeal of battling through the crowds inside, and began to think longingly again of the peace and security of his sofa.
With a defeated sigh he headed back out to where his car waited mournfully in the rain. He was just about to climb inside when he noticed a damp flier stuck under his windscreen wiper. He tugged it out and glanced at it.
Does shopping take away your will to LIVE? Looking for a REASON to buy but finding yourself lost? Come to a place where shopping has meaning. THE HOLE.
And then there was an address at the periphery of town, on his way home, more or less.
The store occupied an austere redbrick building with a small bell-tower at the apex of a slate roof and a date-stone over the doorway that read A.D. 1910. It was probably a converted chapel, Martin thought as he sat peering out through the streams of rainwater that ran down the windscreen. Below the bell-tower was a little circular window that perhaps once had stained glass, like a tight-lipped nod to the great rose windows one sees in the cathedrals of Europe, but there any ostentation ended. This place was more like a barn to shelter a shivering, non-conformist flock from the city’s perennially industrial-strength weather. An illuminated sign hung beneath the window: THE HOLE it read, with the centre of the o punched out. Martin sat for a while in indecision, watching shoppers flow in and out of the store’s revolving door like souls being sorted on judgement day. Then he sniffed, and went in too.
As he stepped inside the ambience of the place washed over him like a Pacific wave. A subtle, pinkish light suffused the interior and a gentle, sighing sort of music hung in the air around him. He paused by a sign peppered with those little brand orifices wherever there was an o. Become part of the Hole Concept, it said. Ground floor: The Hole Outfit (clothing). First floor: The Hole Place (household). Mezzanine: Hole Entertainments (media). Top floor: The Hole You.
A man appeared beside Martin. He was wearing an elegant suit and was accompanied by the mist of an exotic aftershave. Only a tiny, perforated badge revealed to Martin that he was an assistant.
‘Need help, sir?’ the man said, and gave a wry smile as he glanced over Martin’s slightly shabby attire.
‘I... think so.’
‘Yes, indeed. Clothing, to begin with, perhaps? I think that when you try out The Hole Concept You’ll find it makes perfect sense.’
‘Well, I was just looking for maybe some underwear...’
The man’s grin broadened as he gestured amiably into the store.
There were no dummies, but lots of subdued spotlighting and dark wood. All the clothes were neatly folded on tables, behind which stood peacefully smiling assistants as immaculately styled as the first. As Martin browsed he realised that shopping here was really going to be very simple. There appeared to be only one style of everything - one kind of pullover, one T-shirt, one cut of slacks - and it all came in black, grey or tan. He fondled the sleeve of a pullover and the fabric felt cool, soft, giving a pleasant sensation of quality and substance. He picked up the pullover and scrutinised it. It looked good, perfect in fact, almost as though designed with him in mind. There was no label inside, nothing written on it at all: just a single, discrete little hole sewn into the left breast. He had just decided to buy it when an assistant appeared and with a friendly smile put another in its place.
It took him half an hour to replace his entire wardrobe with two of everything in the Hole range, in black, grey or tan, and it was only as he was standing in the line to pay that he realised he hadn’t checked the price of anything.
‘That’s alright, sir,’ the cashier said as Martin peered anxiously at the cash-till readout. ‘We won’t make a hole in your bank account.’
Martin shrugged, then tossed a little bottle of Hole Person unisex lotion into the basket, too.
In the office that week his new look prompted a few surprised glances and wry comments, and he felt awkward about it at first, like a sham. But whenever he caught his reflection in a window or mirror his new clothes comforted him. They magically remade him somehow, inside as well as out, their simple lines suggesting a self-assurance that left no room for his usual doubts and anxieties. Half-heartedly he tried to make sense of this, but couldn’t. The clothes simply were that way, and he was wearing them. Perhaps it was true, he told himself. Perhaps clothes really do make the man.
But then the week was over. On the Friday evening he leant back to click shut his apartment door and looked across his dark and silent lounge. A single frond of their yucca plant waved softly in the breeze, and the red light on the answering machine winked mutely in the corner. The empty weekend ahead began to bear down on him and it began to feel again like her absence was everywhere he looked. He turned the television on loud, and then stood under the shower with the water roaring in his ears and its jets needling him all over. He lay awake most of that night, wondering if he was ever going to feel right again; normal and complete.
The morning post brought a catalogue from the store printed on paper with a small hole in the centre. Inside he found a letter informing him that he had been selected, if he wished, to use The Hole Client Card (enclosed), which would afford him considerable discounts. He flipped through the catalogue and then paused over the household section.
He knew immediately what he had to do. He drove back to the store, singing along to the radio as he went, and with the help of a coolly pretty assistant on the first floor he ordered everything he needed, and then a few extras he’d always wanted but never had, like a real drinks cabinet (in a dark, heavy wood that whispered quality in a subdued sort of way) and a pair of CD towers. Of course he then needed some new music to go in the towers, so made the short climb to the mezzanine floor. He picked up a CD at random, feeling crisp cellophane between his fingers and gazing at its mysterious artwork and obscure title, then moved along picking up more as he went, skirting other thirty-somethings who plucked boxes from the racks and read the track listings listlessly. Each disc sent a little jolt of anticipation through his arm, an electric shock of promise. Perhaps this one would speak to him about the secrets of his soul, or this one sing out a eulogy to him for all his neighbours to hear. And if this one, then why not that? Or that? It all seemed so easy, and he couldn’t imagine how he had done without these things before. No wonder he had felt that his life was lacking something.
Finally, somewhat resignedly, he made his way to the checkout. He pulled out his wallet as a girl dropped his CDs into a black plastic bag with a transparent hole in the centre, then he handed her his client card. ‘Plastic begets plastic,’ he thought to himself, then frowned, because that was the sort of thing he used to say to her, when she forced him to go shopping.
On the way out he paused by a stairway that lead to the second floor. There was a small sign on the wall that stated simply, ‘To The Hole You.’ He craned his neck to peer up the stairway, which curved gently to the left as it climbed, but all he could see were multiple reflections of his face in the mirrors that lined its walls. He looked pale, he thought. He was suffering more than usual from the winter greyout.
The pretty assistant from the furnishings floor appeared beside him, smiling sweetly.
‘Can I help you with those bags?’ she asked.
He turned to look at her, and found himself snared by her large, dark eyes. She held his gaze for a long moment, and then nodded up the stairs.
‘The second floor is exclusively for our Hole Person Privilege clients,’ she murmured. ‘Perhaps you would like to go up next visit?’
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Perhaps.’
It seemed strange to be ringing the bell of her own apartment. Lucy rang twice, but when there was no answer she decided to let herself in anyway.
The curtains were drawn in the lounge. On opening them it took her some time to absorb all the new furniture in dark hardwood, the muted tans of the upholstery and the elegant greys of the rugs and curtains. The answering machine was still winking to itself in the corner.
‘Hello?’ she called out.
There was no answer, but she noticed that a new stereo system in the corner was switched on.
‘Martin?’ she tried again. ‘I was worried. You haven’t answered my calls...’
She looked around with growing bemusement at the meticulously tidy apartment. ‘New things, new man, huh?’ she muttered sardonically. She felt as though she had walked into the pages of a catalogue, the sensation only heightened by some clothes that lay, slightly rumpled, on the sofa - a grey pullover draped over the back, tan slacks lying on the seat, some socks drooping out from a pair of black boots on the floor. But Martin was nowhere to be seen.
Paul Morris has spent the last few years trying to combine writing, teaching and travelling. He has spent time in Manchester, Mexico City and Madrid but now lives and works in Paris. He is currently working on a novel but still writes occasional short stories. His stories have appeared in various journals and anthologies.
Pictures by Robert McAulay
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