Breakfast At Epiphany’s

“So – on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is ‘awake all night’ and 10 is ‘slept like a log’, how would you grade last night’s sleep?”

She was sitting on the chair by the open window wearing Ollie’s Destroy Rock ‘n’ Roll T-shirt and bumblebee socks, her red hair pinned back in a secretary’s bun with Liv Tyler glasses to complete the fantasy. Despite all this, she wasn’t his usual type at all. Even the fact that she was awake before him was out of the ordinary. It was just after 8am, and somewhere in the city a lorry was reversing.

Ollie’s first thought – beyond trying to remember who she was, where they’d met, any clues or prompts at all from the previous evening’s adventure – was that she must be joking. Something witty to offset the embarrassment of waking up in a stranger’s flat. He recognised that of old, and was about to respond in kind (“I just discovered the scale goes up past 11”; this was no time of day to be striving for originality) when something in her expression, or perhaps just the way she held the clipboard at a serious angle from her knee, put a finger to his lips.

“Please take as much time as you need to consider your answer, we’ve got all day after all.”

“Erm… a 7?”

“A 7, good.” She marked it down, her eyes flickering from the clipboard to him then swiftly back. “Now – thinking about the amount of alcohol you consumed last night… would you say that was below average for a Friday, about average, or considerably above average, based on what you normal imbibe–?”

“Imbibe?” Ollie wasn’t sure whether the headache that was scratching at the inside of his skull with a penknife was related to last night’s imbibing or this morning’s inquiry – but he had a fair idea.

“To consume liquids, orally – drink. Would you prefer it if I simplified the language of the questions as I go along? You did register a university-level education in the preliminary—“

“Yes, I went to university – no, I don’t need you to define the word ‘imbibe’. I was just… playfully questioning your word choice, considering what I thought was all a bit of lighthearted… I mean, to overcome any awkwardness that might… since I’m assuming neither of us remembers a great deal about how we ended up back here last night, or what might have occurred in the… erm… interim.” God, now he was doing it. Since when did he use words like ‘interim’ this early on a Saturday morning?

“That’s interesting, Oliver – though you are kind of skipping ahead to question 3: Again, considering the amount of alcohol you… drank… last night, how much would you say your memory of the evening’s events has been affected? I’m guessing we’re somewhere between options 4 and 5 – considerably: that is, you don’t remember much; and entirely: you don’t remember anything. What do you think?”

What Ollie thought was, ‘Oh no – not again. Not another one. Not another nutter. Why do I always end up with the nutters?’ The frustrating thing was, you couldn’t ever tell by looking at them. Often they were really hot, they were the hottest girls he met – but maybe that in itself should have been warning. After all, if they were that hot, why didn’t they have a boyfriend, husband, or significant other? There had to be a reason. Women who looked as unconventionally fantastic as… whatever his interrogator’s name might be… they weren’t just waiting round to be picked up in a bar. Common sense dictated: if they were single, there had to be a reason. And when he was sober, Ollie could pick up on that reason within five sentences. The clues were always there:

“It’s a moon rock pendant, blessed by the goddess to bring me happiness and good fortune all year round…”

“Thankfully, you don’t look anything like me ex… you haven’t got any tattoos and you’re not carrying any visible weaponry for a start – ha ha!”

“Oh, did you see that one film with Tom Hanks…?”

But while some men’s beer goggles blinded them to falling into bed with supermodels who woke up looking supernatural, Ollie’s worked a slyer kind of duplicity. His own brand of inebriate eyewear made the nutters seem normal. At least until morning. So there had been Annabelle, the aerosol junkie, whom he found in the bathroom snorting the gas from his shaving foam. She’d wasted half a can too; there was foam everywhere. Then there was… Mandy? Mylene? Something with an M – the one who wanted to exchange views on responsible parenting prior to any exchange of bodily fluids… just in case… And what about the one who went all hufferty because he didn’t have any Coldplay? She couldn’t do it unless she had her Coldplay. Ollie managed to find one track on a compilation, and put it on repeat – but hearing ‘The Scientist’ eight times in a row had a detrimental effect on his own performance, and then even the CD player had thrown a hissy fit, spluttering and hiccoughing until it finally tripped into the next track: the Stereophonics – and nothing killed passion faster than a head-on blast of whiney Welsh dad-rock. He’d given that CD to the Oxfam Shop the very next morning. It was still in the window six months later.

“Ollie…? Can you focus, please? We’ve got a lot to get through today…”

It was no good – chivalry and good humour be hanged, Ollie had to put a stop to this right now. Rip off the plaster, take all the hairs with it.

“I’m marking you ‘4’ for the last question so we can move onto—“

“Stop it.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Please. If this is a joke, you’ve rode it into the ground – and if it’s not a joke…”

“It’s not a joke, Oliver—“

“Then you’re scaring me very, very much.”

“But… you agreed to participate.” She got up from the chair and went to fetch her Bradley bag from the dressing table.

“I’m sure I did – but as we’ve already established, my inebriation last night… due to all the imbibing of the intoxicating… I’m sure I’d have agreed to anything if I thought it’d get you back here to—“

“And you signed the consent form,” she said, handing him a folded A4 photocopy, “which I’ve already faxed back to the office so I can’t… I’m afraid it’s a legally binding document…” Her census-taker’s detachment was crumbling now, the contract shaking as he took it from her and read…

I, the undersigned respondent, having been carefully selected from a nationally representative cross-sectional sampling, agree to participate in a 24 hour–

(“24 hours!”

“It’s only one day.”)

–in a 24 hour qualitative and quantative lifestyle, behavioural, and psychographic research survey under the scrutiny of sociological statistician LISA BLAKE—

(Well, at least he had a name for her now.)

–who will, throughout the course of the observation period monitor all aspects of my day-to-day individuation, especially as it applies to areas such as cultural trend response, brand equity recognition, primary and secondary segmentation positioning—

And so it continued, for a further three pages, without pause for semantics or common sense, hardly even so much as a full stop. Ollie skipped the rest, figuring he’d already read far more than the last time he’d seen this document – the time he’d scrawled his cockiest of signatures on the dotted line at the bottom of the final page.

“This is ridiculous,” he said, wanting very much to strengthen his argument by standing up, but suddenly aware that he wasn’t wearing anything at all beneath the squabble of sheets. “It can’t be a legally binding…”

“I’m afraid there have been a number of test cases where the judgement has – I mean, precedents have been set…” Lisa sounded almost apologetic now, but something else too. Worried? Frightened? Ollie didn’t like the idea that he had that effect on any woman, certainly not one he’d spent the night with (though the exact definition of that term was still to be ascertained).

“But still,” he said, with a little less bluster than his earlier protestations – verging on the whiney in fact, “I was drunk… I can’t be held responsible for…”

“Really, Oliver – show me the court where drunkenness is a valid defence for anything…”

Of course she had a point, but that wasn’t about to win him over.

“Well – I’m just not doing it. You can’t make me.” He folded his arms and jutted out his bottom lip till she could have hung her clipboard from it, fully prepared to sit like that all day if he had to. OK, so he still had to go to work (it was Saturday, but he’d promised he’d pop in to help finish up the Hudson account), have lunch with his brother, take back his DVDs, drop off his mum’s birthday card… but none of those things were essential. He could call in sick, makes excuses to his family, pay one more day’s worth of late fees – if it came down to that. He didn’t think it would. Give it an hour, he thought, an hour at the most just sitting here, saying nothing, answering none of her stupid questions, doing nothing at all that she can judge in any kind of behavioural, sociological or psychological manner… she’ll soon get tired and leave me alone. She’ll see that it’s a waste of time. She’ll have to. Just sitting here, doing nothing, waiting her out…

That was when Lisa started to cry. And if there was one thing Ollie couldn’t defend against, it was this. He could be a bastard with the best of them, but crying women were his kryptonite. Part of him thought maybe they’d all emailed each other, a mass communiqué going out to 52% of the population, so that in the end every one of them could trump him if they chose to play the one particular card that made him putty, that made him servile, that made him wimp.

“Please don’t… Please… Look, I suppose…” Toga-ing a sheet to his waist, he stumbled across the room and crouched beside her. “I mean, I suppose I could answer a few questions… before…”

“I’m sorry,” she said, pulling up the shoulder of his Destroy Rock ‘n’ Roll T-shirt to dab away the tears. And as she lifted her glasses, Ollie caught a glimpse of another girl hiding beneath. She wasn’t a nutter; he was certain of that. He had good instincts about these things (when he was sober), preferring intuition to inquisition, always. That hadn’t steered him too far wrong as yet, had it? Had it?

“I’m sorry,” she said again, “I feel really… it’s just… People are always doing this to me, agreeing to participate and then dropping out at the last… and my supervisor, he says if I lose one more this month I… I shouldn’t bother coming back in. I hate to… I mean, I don’t want to be a nuisance or get in your way… it’s just – when you signed the contract last night – you seemed so willing…”

Oh, I’d have been willing, Ollie thought, feeling grubby and guilty and suddenly ashamed of all the urges that made him bloke. (Not a feeling he was accustomed to.) For a girl who looked like Lisa, he’d have been all kinds of willing. And so he was left with little choice. That almighty one-two of crying girl compassion and penitent goatishness had him beat – besides, he really needed the loo.

But it wasn’t long before he found himself regretting the decision. It wasn’t just that the questions seemed never-ending – it was that many of them were worded in such a way as to defy logic in much the same way as a floating horse defied gravity. They were, in short, the uttermost bollocks.

“So for your breakfast, you chose Munchy Wheat Porkstrips…” Lisa was fully dressed now, in her own clothes – a stiff pleated blouse and dark grey pencil skirt with black tights. Ollie wondered if this was what she’d been wearing when they met last night, or if she always carried a change of clothes when she was on the job. She didn’t allow him the time to consider it for long. “Would you say that this is a choice you make on average A) Every Day; B) Every Other Day; C) Once or Twice A Week; D) Once or Twice A Fortnight; E)—“

Ollie chose C), afraid that the alphabet did not contain enough letters for all the options she might want to present. Lisa made a tick on her clipboard, sipped her Sunlight Delight, and smiled across her glasses with the satisfaction of someone who’s just solved a particularly testing crossword puzzle.

“And how strong do you think is the relationship between you as a consumer and Munchy Wheat Porkstrips as a brand?”

“The relationship?”

“In terms of brand-fidelity…”

“You mean… would I eat around?”

“Ha ha, yes, very good,” her words said – though her expression didn’t bear them out. She took this very seriously, she expected him to do the same. “Would you say you’d only ever buy Munchy Wheat Porkstrips – or would you be swayed to another brand of pork-and-bran-based fried breakfast product by… a price point? A promotional giveaway or competition? An entertaining advertising message? More attractive packaging?”

“Well…” He’d been about to dismiss the question entirely until he remembered that only a few months back, he’d regularly eaten Porkabix, swayed entirely by the fact that the packaging featured a lithesome model in a skimpy red bikini. When Porkabix redesigned their packaging, Ollie swapped to Munchy Wheat Porkstrips, which featured a cartoon pig. It wasn’t the same, but as none of the other brands featured swimsuit models, his tastes were now more honestly dictated by taste. Still, he could hardly admit this to Lisa.

“Maybe,” he said, “if another brand had those little plastic toys you used to get in cereal boxes when you were a kid… or transfers – I used to love transfers…”

The phone rang and Lisa gave him the ‘you want to get that?’ look, but he waved it away. It surprised him how easily he did that. He couldn’t be enjoying this horseshit, could he?

Fortunately, the answerphone kicked in and saved him from having to consider this question further…

“Hi, erm, Oliver… this is Simone… from the – well, hopefully you know which Simone, there aren’t too long a list of us in your little black book! Ahem… anyway, just checking that everything’s still OK for tonight… I wondered if we could meet at 8-30 instead of 8 as I’ve got a few things I need to… I know the restaurant isn’t booked till 9, so that should still give us plenty of… If there’s any problems, give me a bell – otherwise I’ll see you at 8-30. Looking forward to it, byeeee!”

Shit. He’d completely forgotten about Simone.

“You have a date tonight?” Lisa asked, shooting him a look over the frame of her glasses that reminded him of high school French lessons, of not having done his homework and being asked to stay behind. He wondered if she was questioning their night together in light of this new information, but as he couldn’t remember any of what their night together had entailed, and as Lisa now showed little enthusiasm for any relationship beyond that of researcher and subject, he instead fell to thinking how he actually didn’t want to spend his Saturday evening with a woman who ended her phone conversations with an extended ‘byeeee!’, even if she did look like Charlize Theron’s younger sister. Did that make him shallow? Or was it shallower to set such concerns aside because of how she looked? Why was he asking himself so many questions all of a sudden? This wasn’t like him at all…

“We’ve got to stop this,” he said, heading to the bin to scrape away the fatty dregs of his breakfast. “I’m sorry, I tried to help, but I can’t do this anymore.”

“Because you have a date? You don’t have to worry about… I won’t let the research interfere with your social commitments, Oliver.”

He couldn’t see her face, had specifically positioned himself so as not to let that influence him, but he could still hear it in her voice. The quiver. No, he had to be strong.

“It’s nothing to do with… it’s just…I don’t see the point. All these questions – I don’t see what they achieve.”

“They assist us in targeted marketing programmes, product development, consumer profiling… all kinds of different… The information we correlate helps us build a specific picture of the typical customer base for thousands of leading products—“

“But that’s just nonsense,” he said, daring to look at her again (her voice had soon regained its confidence once she returned to her script). “People aren’t just statistics – we’re unique. I mean, look… take my CD collection…” He crossed from the kitchen to the shelves behind the sofa. “Johnny Cash, The Wu Tang Clan, Miles Davis, The Flaming Lips, Crass, Billie Holiday… Kylie! What sort of profile does that fit? It doesn’t – see? Because I’m an individual, I’m—“

“Thirty-something male, lives alone, spends between fifty and one hundred pounds a month on music-related products and services. Reads two to three of the major glossy music monthlies – Cue, Jomo, Cutup, Noun – and is heavily influenced by the articles therein. Regularly watches Jools Holland and VHV music documentaries, doesn’t listen to the radio anymore now that John Peel has died. Prides himself on having ‘eclectic’ tastes, and not being bound by genre snobbery. Keeps the Kylie CD, a present from a woman, to further illustrate this, and because he knows he wouldn’t get anything for it on eBay. Has a range of music-related anecdotes which he often shares with male friends, including one or more regarding an embarrassing escapade at the Glastonbury Festival, and others of a romantic or sexual nature that actually go to further demonstrate his superior and sophisticated musical tastes at the detriment of his partner in said…”

Then finally, Lisa’s circumspection caught up with her exposition and she blushed, a shade more purple than red. “I mean… that’s just one specific interpretation, and I’m sure it doesn’t necessarily apply to your own—“

“It doesn’t,” he said, pushing CD cases straight and flush on the alphabeticized shelf. “I wouldn’t ever buy Cue…”

“Since they published an overly critical article on a favourite artist from your youth – the Smiths, the Cure, My Bloody Valentine… or cover-featured an artist you didn’t feel worthy of their time… Dido, Phil Collins, the Pussycat Dolls—?“

“I think you should go now,” he said.

“But…”

He pointed at the door, refusing again to look at her. Instead his eyes fell on the bookcase – Tony Parsons, Nick Hornby, Roddy Doyle, James Hawes, Jeremy Clarkson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez… and an inexplicable wave of self-loathing juddered through him.

“OK then. I’m… I’m sorry if I offended you.” She didn’t cry this time; she didn’t have to. All it took was one sad sniff as she picked up her bag – that was enough.

“I don’t understand why you can’t just make up the answers,” he said, words that in any other language might have come out ‘don’t go’. “I mean – you’re obviously a pretty good judge of… nobody would ever know.”

“They’d know.”

“What, they give you all lie detector tests every time you bring back a completed survey?”

“They don’t have to. They’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have. They don’t even need to ask the questions any more. All they do is look at your face…”

“But if they’re such experts in human behaviour, why do they even need you…? Surely they know everything they ever need to know.”

“The data has to be continuously updated. Even the smallest fluctuations in social trends and behaviour patterns must be tracked. If we don’t keep current, our competitors will, and then–”

“And then… tragedy! I’ll be eating somebody else’s Porkstrips next week!”

He expected her to be annoyed by his flippancy, or at the very least laugh. Instead she just nodded. Her eyes were full of questions, but none of them were about him.

“The truth is… I hate this job,” she said. “I hate what it’s made me into. The way it makes me think, the things I have to do to manipulate people into answering my questions—”

“Like sleep with them?” Did that sound hypocritical, he wondered, given his own history and reputation? Then again, would that question even have occurred to him before this morning? Hypocrisy hadn’t been his intent… but he had been waiting for an opportunity to pose this question all through breakfast.

“Oh, you might as well know,” she said, “we didn’t… though obviously I was more than happy to let you go on believing that we had, as long as it somehow made you beholden to… That’s exactly what I’m talking about. See?”

“Oh.”

“Anyway,” she added, “I sincerely doubt you would have been able to, even if… I mean, you did… imbibe… an excessive quantity of alcohol last night…”

Under other circumstances, Ollie thought, he’d have been unable to let such vilification of his virility go unchallenged. (No – he was doing it again!) He’d have gone out of his way to demonstrate that he could still perform, even under the highest levels of intoxication. It would have been a matter of pride, nothing else. Yet under these circumstance, he didn’t say a word. He was far too relieved. Another entirely unprecedented response – and not because he didn’t want to sleep with Lisa. Quite the opposite. But not like that…

“So quit,” he said, steering the conversation back to safer ground. “Do something else.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Oh,” she smiled again, and he realised now how much he preferred that expression to the puppy-eyed look of before. He wanted to keep that smile on her face. Whatever it took. “A) I’m scared to? B) I don’t know what else I could do? C) The only skill I have is asking questions? D) Nothing else’d pay me half as much as this… Tick as many as you like.”

“The… pay’s good then, is it?” How he wanted to get those glasses off her and see the girl underneath. Not her clothes – her glasses. How strange.

“Are you kidding? I work for some of the world’s leading brands. Don’t you think they’d pay whatever it took to maintain that hegemony?”

Wow, Ollie thought. ‘Hegemony’. When had he ever spent time with a woman who used and understood a word like that? He didn’t even know what it meant himself. OK, he had a rough idea – but he wasn’t going to embarrass himself.

“Then don’t quit,” he said – and suddenly the answer came to him. A solution to both their quandaries. “Just find a way to make the job work for you.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, it strikes me – you’re looking at what you do as though the only value it has is to the people who set the questions. But what about the people who answer them? What about if… if you structure your questions in such a way as to make them re-evaluate their own life? Make them look at things in ways they’d never even considered? Find the… synergy…” (He was showing off now.) “…between strategic marketing and self-improvement.”

“Do you… do you really think that’s possible?”

“Well,” he said, steering her back towards the kitchen, “I’m not entirely sure. I may have to take some time to consider that question… but that’s OK. We’ve got all day, after all…”

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Rol Hirst was the first man in space from Huddersfield. The Russians still beat him up there.

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