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He-Man

I am lost in a Wickes. I do not belong here, wandering the aisles cluelessly in the hunt for a dust sheet. All I need is a dust sheet, but the layout of the store makes no sense: it’s an Escher design of endless rows leading on to more endless rows, of towering plywood boards and cans of paint, each a marginal variation on Barratt Home cream, and trolleys stacked with drills. Everywhere is Simply Red: why are they playing Simply Red? Why would anywhere play Simply Red? The laws are too weak in this country.

There is a whole row for pickaxes, for the heads of pickaxes and the handles of pickaxes. Who knew there was so much variety to the pickaxe? A Man picks up three, carrying them over a single shoulder. On the other he has a bag of sand. He stares at me, pale-skinned and clad in a Watership Down t-shirt and hobbling slightly because I stubbed a toe, witheringly.

This is where the Real Men are. All around they roam, bastions of testosterone, gathering the tools of manliness upon their hardened frames. I’m hiding from their gaze in the lightbulb section but they know something is wrong, that some intruder lurks amongst them: they sniff the air, their faces wrinkling accordingly. Few are wearing tops: one man, buying a hammer, has a tear down the front of his, the feeble stitching no match for his awesome power. Even over the Simply Red the grunting echoes clearly, the drumbeat of Real Men exercising their muscles in feats of carrying.

I cannot find the dust sheet. The terror rises as I realise I’m going to have to ask someone. Still hiding amongst the lightbulbs I select the feeblest of all the workers, an acne-ridden man-child who looks as though he was intended to be a blowjob before his parents changed their mind at the final moment. Surely he will be merciful.

He is not merciful. He announces my weakness across the public address, my needs mingled with the chorus to Fairground as a manager, massive and scathing, comes to assist. Is this all you need?, he spits, angry at having to look at me. Yes, I reply. Please don’t hurt me.

In the queue for the checkout the two Men in front and the Man behind all have heavy sacks and some kind of blade. I have a Value Range polythene sheet. The woman at the checkout banters with each, visibly aroused by the muscles and the sweat and the sheer He-Man of all of them, but not with me. Are you trying to paint a wall?, she asks, fighting the bile in her throat. No, I reply. It’s for a costume. Fancy dress. A friend’s party.

Oh, she says, no longer even looking at me. Some sort of fairy?

Patrick Bateman, from American Psycho. It’s a book. And a film, but the book’s better.

The Man behind, no longer young, his head effectively a liver spot with eyes and holes for breathing, grunts derisively. This isn’t a costume shop, he growls.

He’s quite right. This isn’t even really a shop. It’s a petri-dish for 80s action heroes, for people pushed out of a city centre lined with artisan coffee houses and wine bars. It’s Fight Club. I shouldn’t have come here, with my iPod playlist of fey indie anthems and my pockets full of throat sweets and Balsam tissues. I am UnMan. Hear me sneeze.

As if in confirmation the automatic door refuses to open, the sensor having found me wanting, and I have to wait for another Man to trigger it. He’s carrying three tins of paint in one hand and texting with the other, a picture of himself. A moment later his phone beeps. Fuck’s Sake, he says. Sent it to myself. He shows me: it’s him on a beach, pretty much Bane in swimwear. An object that size surely has its own gravitational pull. For the birds, innit, he clarifies, laughing. The birds love it. And then he leaps into the back of a flatbed van, two other identical Men already inside, and a girl – her eyes fixed on all three of them – stumbles into me, knocking my final Halls Sugar Free Original from my hand and into the road.

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