(published 18th June 2018)
Robert Coleman was a man. No one could take that away from him. Neither could they credit him with much more.
You’ve probably passed a face like his dozens of times today alone. It is without flaw or charm, symmetrical – set unremarkably against his shortly cut dark hair which is pushed up at the front.
Often when people met him they felt a strong sense of déjà vu. To the extent that some would swear blind they’d met before, if only they could place where. Rob inadvertently abetted that impression as he talked: a pure expression of the pop-culture hive mind, he spent social occasions discussing the same video games, superhero films and TV box sets with the nearest other Rob-types.
Invariably the hipsters recoiled at the lack of obscurity – muttering to themselves about Budweiser beer and the Missionary position. But no one ever truly disliked Rob, because dislike would require a lasting impression.
For most of his early twenties his accidental formula for a life free from disappointment worked for him (do not strive for anything, never once show ambition). Yet even the most apathetic of twenty-six year olds will eventually realise there is tragedy in working a minimum wage job on a supermarket till, and going home to mother’s house.
Sincerely resolving to advance in life, Rob applied for an ambitious job working in a media company and was pleased to receive pre-interview over the phone. The first question asked was easy – ‘why do you want to work for a video gaming magazine?’ Rob could’ve talked for an hour about the impact video games had on his life; full of confidence and brimming with enthusiasm, he kicked himself for not acting sooner. The second question however bought reality crushingly in.
‘Thank you Mr Coleman, now can you cite one occasion in your professional capacity when you used initiative to successfully resolve a problem?’
His immediate answer wasn’t even words, just a mumbled string of sounds while he raked through his last six years of memory.
‘To be honest, till just goes beep’, he eventually offered.
The woman at other the end didn’t even deign to reply, the line simply died.
A learning curve can be bittersweet. The lesson hinted to Rob what a significant head start other people his age had on him, but it also offered a solution: initiative. All he had to do was find something unique about himself, to find the one skill that he could do better than anybody else in London. After a week’s deep thought he admitted, in other words, he was fucked.
Every third weekend the rotas allowed for a weekend off. As usual Rob planned to spend Saturday afternoon catching up with old friends watching football in the pub. Only one of his friends responded positively to the invite: Pat got high most days and accepted most chances to leave his dingy living room. He was decent enough company, but if you told him to meet you at two you’d be lucky to see him by three.
Rob arrived, ordered the cheapest lager and took a small table at the edges of the bar. His team were playing but the game was a dud, and after a few minutes he found his attention had wandered to his phone where he vainly tried to beat the level of Candyland that had thwarted him for a fortnight.
Between rounds of the game, Rob found his eye occasionally drifted up around the bar. He couldn’t help but notice a woman sat at the bar, who sipped from a glass of something fizzy and clear. Rob read little into it at first, but a second look confirmed that she stared straight at him. A third check gave her the opportunity to look away if she wanted, but she continued her gaze. At these moments every man will indulge his inner peacock. Rob made himself look as attractive and cool as a man possibly could while sitting alone in a pub, playing a child’s game on his phone. He looked back up a fourth time to offer a smile which he sincerely hoped was on the right side of the line between seductive and lecherous.
Their prolonged glance gave him a chance to assess her properly: she was older than he was for sure – mid-thirties perhaps. She was beautiful, possibly some Spanish or Italian heritage to get such thick black hair and eyes that piercing; she smiled back, but that was faint and melancholic. The woman stood and finished her drink before she began to approach Rob. At this point panic began to take hold. Flirting was something he hadn’t attempted in years, did it matter that she was older? At the very least he felt sure he had just enough time to lock his phone, hiding the prancing doughnut prince – the vast majority of women would not be turned on by such a sight, and the ones that are should seek help.
‘I’m sorry to stare at you,’ the woman started in a quiet voice. ‘You must think me very rude.’
‘Not at all,’ Rob replied as he waved his hand regally for her to take a seat. He instantly regretted that decision, a proper man would’ve stood and pulled out the chair for her. It didn’t matter, she shook her head politely.
‘That’s OK; I won’t keep you from your little game very long. It’s just, oh; I hope you don’t think this too pathetic. But you look just like my Sean did.’
‘My fiancé. He served in Iraq. Sadly he died, during a bombing, in 2006. He would have been… Can I ask how old you are?’
‘Yes that’s about right, Sean was 25.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Don’t be. He died a hero. Because of Sean an entire unit of men are alive today.’
The woman looked through Rob. There was sadness still in her eyes of course, but nearly a decade of grieving had dimmed the rawness. There were other emotions – loneliness perhaps, longing – mainly though there was pride and admiration. Admiration and pride that Rob had never come close to earning in his entire life.
The moment was spoiled by Pat shouting over from the bar. Rob looked over to see Pat had arrived with red eyes and a dopey smile. Pat mimed the suggestion of a pint and shrugged; Rob gave him a thumbs up and turned back to the woman.
‘I see your friend’s here,’ she stated, ‘I’ll leave you to it.’
‘Sure. Just one thing before you leave – do you have a photo with you, a photo of Sean?’
She nodded and after scrolling through her phone she produced an image of her and him some time ago. As suspected Sean only slightly looked like Rob, about a 70% match if that.
‘Well,’ said Rob after taking the face in, ‘it’s an honour to resemble such a brave man.’
‘Thank you for indulging me, I truly hope I haven’t ruined your afternoon.’
‘Not one bit, it’s a pleasure to meet a woman with such dignity – thank you.’ Rob replied, trying hard not to look over to the bar where Pat was thrusting his pelvis in a gratuitous display.
Once the woman left Pat took the seat opposite and pushed over the lager and declared ‘MILF! Shouldn’t’ve let age put you off man.’
‘She wasn’t interested in me for that.’
‘That’s no shocker mate, she’s still a solid nine out of ten, while you belong under a bridge, bothering the goats that pass you by.’
‘For sure, you’re a generous three at best.’
‘No mate’ Rob replied, unable to stop the grin from spreading across his face, ‘dictionary definition of a five.’
The rest of the afternoon passed impatiently as an idea had taken hold, he couldn’t wait to go get started.
2. A Great Idea
The next day Rob woke charged with decisiveness; there was no way that any of this was a bad idea. He ate a bowl of porridge before he made his way into the town centre with a £150 start-up fee. He visited Primark and bought a range of clothes: a suit, a tracksuit, a leather jacket, a hoody and a beany – things that had no business being in the same basket.
The bored checkout girl was curious enough by his selection to look up at her customer – there was the standard flicker of recognition before she asked: ‘Are you… did you like shout “pigzilla” at my mate Charlene on Friday?’
‘No. Not me. Must be someone else – I’ve just got one of those faces.’
‘Bollocks mate, whatever. She cried for an hour after that.’ Rob shrugged and apologised to her regardless and made his way out. He had some other shops to visit, the fancy dress shop on Albany Street, a counter-culture shop on Chalton. He went a little over budget and bought so many things that he was forced to take a bus back home.
Once back, Rob shut himself in his bedroom. It took some playing around with his digital camera but he figured out how to take some decent shots of himself. From there he spent a good hour or so dressing in different styles, different fashions, different costumes. He practiced smiling, looking sad, looking engrossed in thought. He then shaved off his beard and repeated the process clean shaven. After he had tried every combination he could think of he reviewed the portfolio and settled on the best twenty pictures for his website. Afterwards he made a cup of tea and wrote the advertisement that had swirled around his mind for 24 hours:
Do I remind you of someone you once knew? Perhaps the boyfriend that got away? The best friend who moved abroad? The brother you lost to cancer? I can be all these things and many, many more.
Simply email me at the address below your notes: name, age, background along with anything further that can assist in the simulation. I am happy to wear any old clothes you might have, call you by old pet names or to play along to any role-playing scenario of your choosing.
I am open-minded and keen to help give you the final memory you deserve, but never got. Closure can be yours for just £200 a night*
(Fee negotiable, dependant on client requests and booking times)
Rob posted links to his new site in every place he could think of. He then set up his company email and went to make a sandwich. He told himself that there would be at least a day or two before anything came in, yet still he found himself refreshing the page about twice a minute. Later when his mother returned from her day out she noticed that he seemed distracted and distant, but for the first time in years just a little excited.
Around six that evening Rob found the first emails coming in: the junk messages, a few telling him asking him how he could sleep at night exploiting vulnerable people this way, detailing their own miseries. Rob calmly deleted until he found his first client.
3. Closure Inc
Rob’s first booking came from Simon, aged fifty-three, from Croydon.
Barbara Streisand was due to play at Wembley that Thursday. Simon’s sister was due to accompany him, but had been forced to cancel due to work commitments. Simon intended on attending alone when he had happened upon Closure Inc. via Craigslist. The advert immediately reminded Simon of George Bergel – an old lover whom he had left in the early nineties, the decision later regretted.
It had been a while since Simon had thought of George, but by happy coincidence, one of their last memories together was a holiday to Vegas, where they had attended a concert by Ms. Streisand. After much soul-searching Simon had concluded that this would be a nice way to honour the memory of an old flame.
Rob read the notes excitedly; for the first client, no effort would be too much. He watched videos of Barbara Streisand performing; learnt lyrics to Evergreen, and Happy Days are Here Again. He studied an old photo of George and concluded that he was a well-dressed man who held himself closely and looked a little camera shy. When Thursday came Rob sent a message to the number given that said ‘can’t wait till tonight – George.x’ After about twenty minutes the reply came ‘it’s been too long.x’ The notion occurred that Rob should reply further in this vein, but he held back, instead inviting Simon for a pre-concert drink. Simon politely declined the invitation, stating that they might struggle for conversation after so much time.
Rob put on his suit and polished his shoes in the breakroom after work, while his colleagues sang Smooth Operator around him. He met Simon a few minutes’ walk from the stadium and noticed with a tinge of jealousy that Simon was wearing a much nicer, much more expensive suit than himself. ‘George, darling – lovely to see you,’ he said, kissing Rob on the cheek. He was well spoken, if a little overly-courteous.
‘Likewise, Simon I see you’ve aged with class – like red wine or an Audrey Hepburn film.’
Simon smiled a little sadly at the effort and ushered them inside.
Barbara sang for a punishing three hours: the cheesy pop songs and melodramatic show tunes quickly grating.
The encore severely tested Rob’s professionalism.
Still he endured with a polite smile and applauded her efforts with feigned enthusiasm. Simon mainly watched the show, but occasionally sent little loving glances at him out of the corner of his eye. When Barbara announced that this was her last song – Happy Days are Here Again – Rob decided it was time for the Oscar. He took Simon’s hand, the older man flashing a look of confusion until Rob began to softly sing along. The intended result was achieved. Simon cracked into a flood of tears, collapsing on Rob’s shoulder for the full song. Rob gently patted him on the back and counted down those final few moments.
When it finally finished, Rob walked Simon to the taxi, arm in arm. They stopped as Simon reached into his wallet for payment, plus a twenty pound tip for the unexpected length of the show. When Simon spoke it was little more than a whisper.
‘Thank you for doing this; unorthodox perhaps, but you’ve made a sad old man feel a little less alone tonight.’
Rob smiled back at him and decided against requesting a written recommendation for the website at this moment. Just as the taxi departed Simon opened the window and shouted back to him, ‘If only we were both twenty years younger!’
Leaving Rob with more than one odd looks as he counted his cash.
One week and four bookings later Rob was presented with the first explicit request. This was inevitable sooner or later.
Rob had decided he was open to it, with a policy of case-by-case assessment. This client offered a financial bonus, which definitely helped and, crucially, they were female. Rob asked how much she was prepared to pay, and was offered £30. The amount affronted him at first, but he privately conceded that he was a little rusty. £30 he concluded, was probably about a fair valuation of his service. Besides he had taken £20 for three hours of Streisand last week, and this must be surely preferable. He accepted the offer and awaited his brief.
Rachel, twenty-nine from Camden, had broken up with her boyfriend of seven years. Although Rachel told friends the breakup had been mutual the truth was that her boyfriend cheated on her with a colleague outside of their social circle. He confessed and announced his plans to move away together. Out of hurt and humiliation, Rachel had preferred the lie ever since; but now realised that she had not dealt with her feelings properly and had some issues to work out on Rob.
‘I want make-up fuck, then I want to dump your ass,’ she wrote, to clear up any confusion.
Rob was sent an old tee shirt and a can of the deodorant that this doppelganger exclusively wore. That night he was to answer to the name of Calum, and if possible, speak with an ever-so-slight Aberdeen accent. After recording his voice back he informed Rachel it was probably best not to try it, given that she planned to get intimate, and that he could only manage a substandard impression of the Mrs Doubtfire voice.
Rob approached her door and for the first time since in his fledgling career, he felt nervous. When Rachel opened the door for him he was struck firstly by her good looks, secondly by her hand, hard. ‘You absolute FUCKER,’ she shouted at him, sobbing hard before she pushed him against the wall. For a moment Rob wondered if he was about to find his kink; aroused and empowered by the extremity of the fantasy, like a fledgling dominatrix. But as Rachel pulled back she slapped harder a second time, and again, and again. Far from getting turned on Rob realised he might not even manage to perform.
‘Tell me you’re sorry,’ she demanded with a fifth slap.
‘Sure, OK, I’m sorry.’
‘Tell me it’s over with that tramp from the office.’ She demanded with her sixth.
‘Fine, it’s over – please, that’s enough.’
‘Tell me she’s dead – tell me she got crushed by a lorry or something.’
‘Really? Does she have to… can’t I just say – I made a mistake Rachel, it’s you I want. I couldn’t even hear that girl speak anymore. Instead of her words all I ever heard was: “I’m a mistake, I’m a mistake”…’
Rachel broke into a smile, but it wasn’t a nice one, or a friendly one – more like a smile a cat makes when it’s pinned something down for good. She tore off her top, and teased a glimpse of the nothing she wore under her skirt. She then raised a finger to usher him. Rob was relieved to see it didn’t take much stimulation after all as he followed her deeper into the house…
As he exited Rob looked in the mirror. A black eye was forming and there were highly visible bite marks across his neck.
‘You could have held back on me a little. I didn’t actually cheat on you, or break your fucking heart.’
‘So what?’ Rachel shrugged back. ‘That’s your own bed you’re lying in.’
Rob’s ninth booking – Aysha, twenty-four from Hackney – was an education. She wrote in to say that she her childhood friend Sam had gotten deeply involved in drug use at an early age and was a proper wreckhead by seventeen; then he ploughed through alcohol, amphetamines and depressants daily. By twenty he was using heroin. His story did not have end happily. Aysha still thought about him every day though. Rob was to meet her at their old favourite bar for one last session together.
Rob replied to her message asking what Sam was like, how he dressed, how he carried himself. He received some photographs and noted that, for once, they actually looked remarkably similar. He was also told that Sam had been quiet and very introverted. Rob decided to wear a hoodie and baggie jeans, and for the extra realism when playing the role of a fiend, he decided to forgo showers for two days and to get Pat to saturate his clothing in marijuana smoke. Before he left that night he found himself staring into the mirror, practicing introspection. For many reasons he felt best left unexplored, Rob began to wonder just who was staring back at him.
He was to make his way to the bar at seven, but it felt in-character to run a little late. Rob left his mother’s house at five to, making sure he arrived for around quarter past. Aysha was sat at a table at the back with three empty shot glasses along with an empty beer glass and two full pints around her. Sam made his way towards her with a sheepish grin.
‘Bit late, sorry about that.’ Aysha just stood up and hugged him with a deep wordless intensity.
Sam sat opposite her and took up a pint, ‘this one mine yeah?’ The girl nodded with a sad smile. ‘Well yeah, you never have any dollar, do yer? Ya fuckin’ sponge.’ She had clearly been drinking hard, her words were slurred and she seemed on the brink of tears.
Still, free beer though. Rob struggled for something to say in character.
‘It’s been, bare time. What you been up to?’
Aysha took a big drink from her glass, ‘shit I don’t know, same old. Working back at the shop now, Ryan’s still a bellend… hey Fi’s stopped trying to jump him – so that’s something, I guess. Besides that we just keep doing what we’ve, I mean, I’ve…’ The girl trailed off and looked into her glass. It felt natural for Rob to lay his hand on her, but instantly regretted it. Aysha looked up as her face cracked.
‘Shit Sam, I’ve missed you so much.’
She started to cry uncontrollably at such a loud volume that everyone in the pub stopped and turned. Rob gave a cursory wave to signal that these were good tears and no one need step in. He took a drink while he marshalled his thoughts, ‘Aysha – it’s okay. I think about you too you know. Whatever darkness I felt, you were always a beacon through it… If it makes you feel better, I have found the peace that I never found in life.’
Sam was interrupted by the sound of someone clearing their throat behind him.
‘Aysha, the fucks going on? You alright? Who’s this guy?’
Sam turned and saw a group of three concerned women. He tried to smile, but wining new friends over with a young girl obviously distraught and drunk in his company was beyond his capabilities. They helped Aysha to her feet and steadied her as she continued to cry on one of their shoulders. ‘What is this?’ asked one the girls, ‘what were you saying to my friend just then?’ Rob sighed; there was very little chance they were going to understand.
‘I’m, kinda an actor – people pay me to help them get over people by…’
He didn’t get to finish his sentence as one of the women threw his pint over his face as they stormed out.
Rob sat there for some time afterwards, drinking alone, drying out and thinking hard. He chose to learn two things from this: firstly bookings should not be held in old haunts or areas local to the client; secondly all bookings should be paid for upfront.
4. Tear money
As the months rolled by Rob found that regret and grief proved to be powerful tools for persuading people to part with their money. Closure Inc. had the potential to be a highly successful venture. He paid for a full professional website to be designed, and found that even the modest amount of traffic it received converted fantastically into business.
Generally, if he chose to, Rob could take bookings five or six nights out of seven. He adjusted his tariff to £300 a night and still people were eager to pay. On a good week he was bringing home over £1500, enough to quit his job and move out of his mother’s house. It occurred that he could expand the enterprise: take on other doppelgangers, other genders, other ethnicities. Apart from anything else it would give him a much-needed break from it all. Every night Rob was dealing with powerful, raw emotions and frankly it was getting exhausting.
Most dates wanted him to drink with them, and it was often necessary to drink even after few that didn’t. Rob was drinking so often now that life was one constant hangover: nauseous mornings, migraine afternoons and an acidity that burned constantly from his stomach right up his throat. He was getting sex regularly too, but that wasn’t as enjoyable as perhaps hoped what with all the crying and screaming. In fact it was all becoming one depressing, dangerous and unprofessional blur.
Rob was sometimes forgetting the particulars of his briefing. He started getting his clients names wrong. One woman had even walked out of the date for that – well that and he had showed up late and just a little tipsy – but none of it stopped the cash from flowing.
Still, for certainties’ sake he double-checked the brief for tonight. Ignatius Macabre, 38, whatever that meant. She wrote to say that she would like to book a service on behalf of her boyfriend who wasn’t with her any more… etcetera… Didn’t get married because of blah… She would Rob to propose to her so she could experience the rush of someone declaring themselves exclusively to her and feel the sincerity of devotion – Yadayada. This man’s name was Jesse and they had not seen each other since they divorced. No further notes were provided regarding dress or temperament, just an address and a time.
Rob threw on a shirt and trousers before he made his way down. That seemed an appropriate level of smartness for whoever she was. He hadn’t seen this area before: the shops were strange and uninviting, the pubs long-closed and boarded up. Rob’s phone told him he was very nearly at his destination so he took the next stop.
His client lived in a terraced house with an overgrown garden covered in old carrier bags, the curtains shutting out the evening light. Rob knocked on the door and waited for a few moments. What was her name again? When the door was pulled open he saw a woman staring back at him with wide, unblinking eyes. She had short black hair cropped short but with silver tinsel tied to the ends. She wore make up, but not discretely, and not well, the red lipstick smeared across her the teeth of a mouth fixed open in a grimace that masqueraded as a smile.
‘Hey, Ignatius – is that right?’ Rob tried after a prolonged silence.
‘Sorry, what?’ the woman came back with.
‘It’s me, Jesse, I was just in the area and I just had to see you.’
‘Jesse. You are Ignatius, right?’
‘Once. I go by Titania Macabee, for now, and for always.’
Rob shrugged, ‘well Titania you wanted Jesse, you asked him to come here and propose to you, so do you still want me?’
The woman squeaked out a high pitched laugh and clapped her hands ‘Propose? To me? Of course, just follow me inside.’
‘You want a drink’, she asked. Rob felt it was the only way to endure the next couple of hours and nodded. Titania disappeared into the kitchen before she returned with an open bottle of wine and two glasses poured out. Rob took the drink offered and after a long sip asked what she wanted from him that night.
‘Nothing darling’ she replied ‘you’re here and that will do for now.’
Rob politely smiled but the silence stretched on and on, he found it easier to down his wine than to look too deeply at her gurning face.
Titania refilled his drink and pointed through the living room.
‘Do you want to wait there? I just need to change clothes.’
Rob nodded and walked through. He hoped to god she didn’t want sex from him, objectively she might not be ugly per say, but the thought of those piercing eyes staring into him, and watching that tinsel bouncing up and down made him feel genuinely odd. Very odd actually. Perhaps it was the hangover but Rob felt a rush of intense weariness and felt shaky on his feet. He tried to put his wine glass down but missed the table. The glass smashed against the floor but Rob found himself just staring at it. He’d pick it up when he regained his energy.
Rob tried to call out to Titania that he had broken her glass. But shouting was a draining experience and he only got halfway through the sentence. He shuffled over to her sofa and collapsed on it with his head swimming, this date would have to be cancelled with a full refund, this has got to be his body telling him to call a taxi and take a break. He shouted out one more time ‘Titania, I’m tired… I think I might just… go home… now.’
Rob heard someone descending the staircase as the woman shouted back, ‘It’s okay Rob, you can rest here a moment.’
Rob nodded as his eyes drew close. Wait, ‘Rob? I’m not Rob’ he muttered opening his eyes in time to see the woman walking back into the living room. She had changed into an apron with a hairnet and plastic gloves. In her hands she held zip ties and a saw.
‘Whats that darling?’ she asked.
‘I’m… I’m not Rob, remember? I’m Jesse, your husband.’
The woman closed in, leaning over him as she smiled. ‘Now don’t go telling lies, getting me all confused. I never had a husband. Well, not before now.’
She reached for his hands, Rob tried to resist but found he was entirely devoid of strength. He wanted to ask what she was doing, what she had in her other hand but he was simply too tired and couldn’t stop his eyes from closing.