‘Too much rice,’ said Dave. He set down his knife and fork in a five o’clock position on his plate. ‘That’s where you went wrong.’
‘What?’ asked Ed, wiping his mouth. They had been at the Chinese restaurant for only twenty minutes, but had both managed three mountainous plates from the buffet and a soup on top.
‘You took too much rice,’ said Dave, and picked up his last spring roll. ‘Bad value. Going to a buffet and eating rice is a classic mistake. That’s how they keep the business alive. They hope you fill up on the rice, the fried veggies, and whatever other cheap trash they can think of, and then you won’t have room left for the stuff that’s actually worth the money. Think about it.’ He pointed to his head with his index finger. ‘Smart thinking. Logic. Use your head before wasting space on your plate next time.’
‘What the hell are you talking about,’ asked Ed, and set down his cutlery. ‘I like rice.’
‘You like rice?’ asked Dave. ‘Haha! Nice one.’
‘It’s nice when it mixes with the sauce. I like the texture. And the sauce is too spicy without it.’
‘Well,’ said Dave, shaking his head, ‘if getting value for your money doesn’t matter to you, it’s your loss.’
Ed crossed his arms across his chest. ‘How about I just eat whatever I want? You know what, next time I might just eat a main of rice with a little bowl of more rice on the side.’
‘No need to get upset,’ said Dave, sitting back on his chair. ‘Just telling you how it is. If you don’t use your brain, you are going to get cheated. Don’t let them make you feel bad for only taking the good stuff. It’s what you pay for.’
‘Whatever,’ said Ed, and shook his head in return. ‘When does the movie start?’
Dave glanced at his phone. ‘Ten past six, so we’ve still got a few minutes. I’ll get a coke from the shop. It’s less expensive than in the cinema. You want anything?’
‘I’m good,’ said Ed. He stood up from his seat and stretched his arm. ‘But I do need a piss. You go ahead to the shop and I’ll see you outside.’
Dave put on his coat and walked out of the restaurant, giving the waiter a nod on his way out. He walked down the road until he reached the square in the middle of town. When he turned around to cross the square, he stiffened his nose in disgust. There, on a bench by the large oak, right in the middle of the square, with his ragged clothes and his red face, with his nasty little dog beside him, sat a homeless person. A beggar. Without any shame, there he sat, in the middle of the square, demanding the attention of all passersby. Right between Dave and the Co-op. In his way. Dave walked around the flower pots on the edge of the square through to the other side, not looking at the beggar, not coming close enough for the man to say anything to him. He would not let himself be affected. Just when his day was starting to seem alright, he would not let it be ruined.
Inside the shop, Dave went straight to the chilled drinks aisle. He reached up his arm to grab a bottle of coke, when he stopped halfway. Coca Cola, 500ml, £1.25, read the label. £1.25. Not £1.09, but £1.25. The sugar tax was here. He could not help a little sound, a little puff of exasperation, leaving his lips. How anyone could accept this was just inconceivable. What world was this where people could not be expected to make even the littlest of decisions by themselves? Where even the tiniest thing that still gave him joy had to be ripped away from him? Taxed to the very end? Dave’s arm shook as he grabbed one of the overpriced bottles of coke, and walked down to the till.
The cashier was serving another customer, casually scanning and bagging up bread and cauliflower and orange juice. As if she was completely oblivious to what was happening in her store. As if it didn’t matter to her that her customers, her regular, hard-working customers, who had no obligation to support her little shop instead of going to the large Tesco down the road, would now be paying 16p more for their bottle of coke. Yes, 16p, that would be, what, 70p, six times seven – 42p – £1.12 more per week, assuming he kept buying a bottle of coke every day. Over a pound more, more than the original price of the bottle! He would be buying eight bottles a week, but only getting seven. A drop of sweat streamed down his forehead. The cashier told the customer to insert his card in the reader, and watched the computer display as she waited for him to enter his PIN. She probably hadn’t even done the math on how much more coke would now cost, had she. There she stood, with her blonde hair and empty smile, probably thinking that the sugar tax would help kids stay healthy or some other bollocks like that. If she even thought of it at all. But that’s what it was, wasn’t it. Kids. The whole world revolved around them, protecting them from reality, from having to live with their own choices. Instead of telling the chubby little brats to go play football or at least taking away their fast food and telling them to toughen up, parents’ response was to ask for the absolute joke that was the sugar tax. Punishing hard-working people, and letting the children run amok. This was how soft the country had become. A nanny state, completely done away with any sense of rationality, now ran simply by emotions.
‘Can I help you?’ asked the cashier, with a smile. How could she? When the country had fallen into this state, when even coke was being ripped from his hands, Dave simply could not comprehend how someone could just smile and ignore the reality of the situation. His face went red. He would accept no more of this. It was time to stop giving in. It was time to not let the world be run simply according to people’s feelings.
‘Actually,’ he stated, ‘I’ve changed my mind! I will have none of this!’ He walked back to the chilled drinks aisle, and firmly deposited the bottle of coke back where he had taken it from. Even as he felt the dryness of his throat, and saw the bottle glimmering in the chill of the cooler, he knew he had to live with his decision. He walked back through the store, past the cashier who was now casually browsing through a magazine, out through the doors, nose held high.
‘Were they out of coke?’ asked Ed, stood outside the doors.
‘No,’ said Dave. They started back through the square. ‘It was the most ridiculous thing. You’ve heard about the new sugar tax right? Well I grabbed my bottle of coke, and then I just realised – Ed?’
Ed had stopped by the bench, where the homeless man sat. He reached into his pocket – no, there was no way – he reached into his pocket, and pulled out his wallet. He opened it, drew open the zipper of the coin compartment, picked out a handful of coins, and deposited them straight into the homeless man’s cup. The homeless man grumbled a thank you. Ed then reached down, and touched the dog, petting its little brown head. Without any regard for the smell, without any consideration of the fact that this dog had probably not bathed or been indoors in weeks, if ever. Dave stood still, and opened his mouth, then closed it again. He turned around and decided to wait until this whole display was over, not wishing to extend it any further or to make a scene.
‘You were saying about the coke?’ asked Ed, as he caught up to his friend. He pushed his wallet back into the pocket of his jeans. They walked a little further, around the corner of the square, and then Dave stopped. His face was red, and his hands were clasped into fists.
‘Ed! What was that?’ asked Dave.
‘You gave the – the,’ Dave drew in his breath, ‘the beggar. You gave him money!’
‘Yeah, I normally do.’
‘You normally do? Normally? You mean you have done it before?’
‘Yeah, sure. I don’t know why it’s such a big deal?’
‘Big deal! Of course it’s a big deal! You’re supporting him!’
‘Well,’ said Ed, and couldn’t stop a little laugh from leaving his lips, ‘that’s sort of the point, isn’t it.’
‘But he’s just going to keep doing it if people keep giving him free money! Don’t you get it – he’s never going to stop! He’s going to keep coming back, again, and again, and again. Preying on peoples’ generosity – he’s even using his dog to make people feel bad! And – and anyway, you do realise that he is just going to use the money for drugs? The only thing you’re feeding is his drug habit!’
‘You could be right Dave, but I just can’t walk by every day without at least trying to help. And that little dog of his, it’s clear he loves it. Poor little thing. The man probably feeds it before getting food for himself. It’s the only thing he has left in the world.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Dave, and threw his arms up in the air. He could not take it anymore. ‘Just listen to yourself speak. For heaven’s sake, use your brain and stop letting your emotions control you!’
Micke Ahola, 2018.
I originally wrote this story as part of my module The Art of Emotion at the University of East Anglia, as part of a discussion about how emotion and perceived softness are used to dismiss ideas and arguments that we don’t like. Lack of compassion or ‘softness’ doesn’t equal logic or rationality – but merely an inverse type of emotion.