I took a table on the terrace of the reopened bar and ordered une pression from the waitress. ‘Back to normal, thank goodness,’ I ventured to the chap sitting alone at the next table. He was staring at the half-inch of lager remaining in the bottom of his glass. The cheapness of his clothes and the loneliness enveloping him like a caul was contradicted by his youthful glamour.
‘Normal?’ he said. ‘Normal doesn’t work. You can shove your old man’s normal up your backside.’ My sociable, celebrant spirit recoiled from the aggression. ‘I only meant that it was good to see the bars and shops open again,’ I said lamely. He reconsidered his anger and his contemptuous withdrawal from the world in the light of my humility, then reluctantly agreed with the smaller picture that it was indeed a blessed relief that the bars had reopened at last. The waitress placed a beer before me. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind bringing another for my friend here. When it came, he lifted it in my direction and said, ‘To you, Mr Normal.’
A not unfriendly silence elapsed between us, which I broke with: ‘So you don’t like normal then?’ He looked pityingly at me. ‘Of course I like normal. I like fake news. I like this turbo capitalism that is destroying the tundra, the rainforests and the oceans and makes a handful of people rich and everyone else poor. I like porn delivered to my hand-held device by 5G. I am very happy for you that you have an iPhone with a lithium-ion battery containing cobalt hand-mined by child labor in Congo. I like not having a job or money and eating shit and being infantilized by advertising and patronized and lied to by the media. What is not to like, Mr Normal? One day I hope to afford a pair of reality-augmenting glasses so that I can see it all better.’
To express his gratitude for the unsolicited beer, however, he sociably asked me where I came from. I told him, adding that our Churchillian Prime Minister has told us to go out and shop for Britain to set the turbo spinning once more. He asked me what I did. I told him. His immediate reaction was an involuntary snort of such violence that some snot flew out of his nose. ‘I know,’ I said. ‘I’m a despicable trafficker in lies and false consciousness that is put in the spaces between the advertisements.’
He looked appraisingly at me. ‘You believe that, Mr Normal?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes and no,’ I said.
‘Buy me another drink,’ he said. ‘Your round,’ I said. ‘Bourgeois imbecility,’ he said. ‘My money is worth more to me than yours is to you. The value of money differs according to how much of it one has. If I bought you a drink, the cost to me would be the equivalent of your buying me 20 or 50 drinks.’
I ordered two more to go on my tab. ‘And freedom of speech?’ I said. ‘Will you be regularizing that too within your new society?’ ‘Freedom of speech in your old, moribund society is a shibboleth. Speech can be free only when the people are free. Until then speech must be educative.’ ‘I see,’ I said.
Now he was joined at his table by another down-at-heel young man. This newcomer he introduced with bourgeois good manners as Emile, and himself, while he was at it, as Didier. Didier introduced me to Emile as Mr Normal. Emile had the face of one who had stared into the abyss at the exact moment when the wind had changed. Emile had money but only enough to buy a drink for himself. The waitress returned his attempt at familiarity with emphatic indifference.
‘Mr Normal?’ said Emile, suspecting a joke. ‘He says he is glad that the bar is open and things are back to normal,’ explained Didier. ‘Likewise,’ said Emile, exhaling relief and sitting back in his chair as if he were on holiday. Didier indulged him with a fond, exasperated glance. ‘I told him I wasn’t interested in an old man’s destructive nostalgia for unbridled capitalism and a dying planet and he bought me a drink. Then he bought me another because I am so poor.’ On hearing this last bit Emile stared into a deeper part of the abyss that he hadn’t noticed before.
‘I’m surprised that you are so poor,’ I said to Didier. ‘You are the first leftist I’ve met in many a moon who isn’t wealthy.’ Now Emile stared at his friend in undisguised astonishment. ‘Leftist?’ said an equally astonished Didier. ‘But how dare you misrepresent me, Mr Normal. I am to the right, not the putain left! Emile the same, if the idiot knew what it meant. ‘Ah,’ I said. ‘Same again, chaps?’