Dave Fox was swirling a teabag around the only mug he owned wondering if the murky brown liquid inside was brewed. There was never any instruction about how long to leave a teabag in, especially if you’d already given it a squeeze.
Squeezing was a universal habit of all tea drinkers but the tea companies refused to acknowledge such a habit existed. No tea box printed instructions on how many squeezes one should give a bag, no tea advert on television ever alluded to it even happening. It was a great unspoken reality that they had all decided to ignore, a bizarre cult like pact of ignorance, a hyper normality that they had used to veneer over the truth. A round teabag here, a pyramid one there, none of it mattered. Everyone squeezed.
Fox pushed the bag against the side of the mug, scooped it out and threw it in the bin under his chipped beige worktop. He poured in milk, swirled it around and then rolled a cigarette, lit it and stared out his equally beige window and took in a long, slow drag of Golden Virginia tobacco.
The branches from the tree outside tapped the glass gently in the breeze. Perhaps this hyper normal veneer expanded to everything. Perhaps, Fox considered, the tea companies were a fractal look at a wider issue, a clue that hinted at a greater truth, repeated on a macro level too encompassing for him to see. Or maybe it was just tea.
Yet what he couldn’t see he could at least sense, because he had lived through so much change. There was a falseness to the world around him that hadn’t once been there, noticeable only because he was able to contrast it with what came before. Yet when he tired to pinpoint this change, he could get no mental purchase on it. There was no cultural or political revolution to bring about the shift of social attitudes that Fox had witnessed in his life. There wasn’t a decline in living standards that stood as a testimony to there being something wrong with the nation. If anything living standards had considerably approved. To Fox, the only change he could identify is that there used to be differing opinions and now there was not.
The hazy memories of his youngest days, seen through a marmite lens, with Chopper bikes and boot cut jeans, the Musical Youth and Ford Cortinas, he remembers debate. He’s sure of it. Watching the news on a wooden boxed television, seeing protests and marches, industrial strikes and men with big sideburns and comb overs angrily sabre rattling into the camera. He remembers that upheaval.
But now, there seemed to be nothing. A bland utopia of agreement, a decision to never squeeze the teabag, a consensus of tea-making methodology. There were politicians, there was a government, heckles were still heard in parliament as one side sat opposed to the other. Yet as Fox took the final drags of his rollup, he couldn’t recall one major point that anyone actually disagreed on.
Was this right? Was he just ill informed? Where were the protests? Where was the fighting? What became of those angry, sideburned men? How could it be bad that society was more harmonious? It was possible he knew too little and these musings were merely a cry of nostalgia rising from his gut, a yearning for a yesteryear that could never return. Here he sat, in the slums, without a job, not contributing to the London that had changed around him. Maybe he was the problem. Or perhaps his thoughts were taking him to a place he had no right to ponder. Perhaps he was at the edge of his abilities, and the best he could muster was he knew that he didn’t know?
He took a mouthful of tea. Too hot. No, no, he remembers a time when there were trade unions so where have they gone. This wasn’t nostalgia, this was fact. Then doubt crept back in to Fox’s thoughts again. Maybe they did exist and he just didn’t know. He can’t be angry at a system he can’t understand. He felt stupid and small again and took another draw of his rollup.
He remembered when London things just quietly receded from view, no fanfare, no anger, just change. He had friends who were angry at the political upheaval, but Fox was a young gun, distracted by life and his own problems. Like girls, music and not much else.
Fox scrunched up his eyes and tired to remember. The orange light through the kitchen window seeped in through his eye lids as he flicked through the mental rollerdex of faces from years ago. He remembered his art teacher, a badger haired man in his late 50s stopping a class on stippling to have an angry rant about the government during the decade long programme that has since become known as the Big Tweak: A period when anything deemed inefficient or hindering productivity was ironed out or removed. He remembered that much. The underlying levels of disquiet. The grim faces and angry outbursts of adults around him. Efficiency is still the watchword of the London Consortium today, touted about and fetishised by the politicians and the press. Everyone seems to like it.
In fact he now recalls it was the press that coined the phrase The Big Tweak in the first place, after the Prime Minster at the time used it in his party conference speech. Trade unions dried up during the tweak. They were swept away in a wave of reforms, and Fox can’t recall exactly what that sweeping away entailed. But no one seems to miss them.
There were other things too, tweaked into oblivion. Public holidays went. Keating had to seriously concentrate and screw up his face and pinch his eyes shut to remember. He wasn’t even in school when they were scrapped so it was difficult to feel they were missing when he never had them in the first place. Booking annual leave for Christmas Day was just something one had to do at work. Not that Fox ever really had a proper job. Still, there’s a vivid memory of his father, sleeves rolled up, paint on his forearms, sitting at the pine kitchen table of their family home angrily ranting about the headline of the paper. Yes, it’s coming back now. The headline quoted some extortionate extra amount of money the country would make if public holidays were removed. His father sat there, tea in a white mug, two slices of buttered toast on a blue side plate, pointing at the paper, voice raised. Fox couldn’t remember exactly what he was saying, but he does remember the multiple of colours on his father’s forearms from the paint flecks. He didn’t always understand his father’s anger but it was rarely directed at him and mostly at the paper. He remembers him often talking about money. “It’s not everything” is what he always said. He would, in more lucid and calm moments tell Fox that happiness and money aren’t related, and not to be fooled by the illusion that they are, yet in other times would be drunk and furious with the world, hitting that same pine table with his hairy fist and shouting about money being the root of all their problems.
Fox unscrunched his face and saw his father clear in his mind’s eye, standing by the table, his white mug next to the squeezed bag still cradled by the spoon.