Branded for Life

Mum cried when she saw me yesterday. It was the hair I think. I always had floppy blond hair she could stroke, glide her fingers through. Or it could have been the bandages. Or the shame. Doctor’s just taken them off, the bandages.

She said she didn’t want to come today. Said she wouldn’t drive me home. I never accustomed mum to shame. Just pride; swiftly placed and vicarious. Angelic choir boy, cricket field smiley, head boy heart-throb. She wasn’t prepared for this.

My face hurts so bad. Find me a mirror. Christ.

I could so easily not have met her. I’d been on my internship at The Brand since a week, met Sam, Head of Fun Outreach, he was cool. He took me to a gig, some indie pop group. A bar I’d never been to. Checked in of course, posted my selfies, paid my dues. Hashtag lovemylife. Thanks to #TheBrand, as per. Big smile for the photo, straight dazzle-you teeth. Kudos to The Brand’s dental plan. Oh the Brand loved my smile. Loved it so much they gave the family extras; tickets to Wimbledon, holidays in France. Mum loved me big time back then.

It was really clichéd. Totally like a movie scene. I swear it was all in slow motion when she turned round and saw me. The stage lights flashed on and off her face, revealing her beauty in appetizer portions of red and pink and blue. And we just stood there, holding our drinks and our ‘phones, smiling at each other. Real time kicked in and I stepped closer. We talked a bit about uni and our favourite bands and then before I knew it Sam was leaving so I was too. She took a selfie as she kissed me goodbye on the cheek. Can’t remember anything about the ride back, I was loved up in a pink fuzz, eager to get to the privacy of my room and caress her profile.

I saw she was sponsored too, by The Label. Thought nothing of it. I should have. Hashtag Ilovethisguy IloveTheLabel.

You don’t have to publish every day, they always said that. But it’s in your contract.

A contract I didn’t sign by the way, and I guess that’s why I’m here with my face busted. Mum signed the contract. She always took care of the paperwork, dad left her to it, like he did for everything; the mortgage, the car insurance. She was still pregnant when she signed, tied me up before I was even born. I understood her reasons, before I met Jessica that is. Mum and dad didn’t earn much really. They’d bought a nice enough house near Maidstone so my dad could commute. ‘A leafy suburb’ as estate agents say.  Neat hedges and balanced kids on bikes.

They could have scraped by without The Brand, for sure. But mum wanted the best for me and she just couldn’t afford it. The Brand could. The fancy school, the play sports like YOLO health-care, the new clothes every season, the constant tech upgrades. Mum loved The Brand and The Brand loved me. I wish she had thought it through, you know, just a bit. She liked to brag that she’d got one over on the ruling clarses, that she’d found a short-cut to privilege. That my great-grandfather would be proud. He was a steel worker. I don’t think he would. ‘Cause none of the really privileged kids need sponsorships. They grow up knowing what privacy means, and they protect it as carefully as their trust funds. If they post something it’s ‘cause they want to. Me though, I’ve been tagged since before I could walk; smiling click bait for everything from baby milk to cars.

If I hadn’t met Jessica I wouldn’t have got so angry. I wouldn’t have lost it. And Jake would still have that stupid bloody smile on his face.

I’m ready to leave the hospital now. Dressed, got my shoes on, got my jacket folded on my lap. Feeling a bit woozy but that’s normal I’m told; they were pretty strong pain killers. No ‘phone to worry about forgetting. Got rid of that last night. Shuffled through the corridors until I found an incinerator shaft.  The phone technically belonged to The Brand, but you know…fuck The Brand.

There’s sunlight and a smell of cheeseburger in the back of the cab. Feel a bit nauseous. I can’t text Jessica now, and she can’t text me. Hope she’s okay. We must have sent each other a zillion messages. When The Label told her she couldn’t see me anymore we laughed. We laughed until they brought her contract out and presented her parents with a five thousand pound fine.

Art. 43. Sec.17: (…)The sponsee shall have no interaction with sponsees from competing brands or agencies. Limited interaction will only be tolerated for the needs of school or college clubs and associations. Selfies with competing brand sponsees are prohibited. Social callouts including, but not limited to, likes, hashtags, photo tags, video tags, retweets, biopings, favs and shares referring to competitor sponsees, or pertaining to competitor sponsee content are prohibited. Romantic liaisons with competitor sponsees are strictly prohibited.

Jessica’s parents couldn’t afford the fines any more than mine could. Bottom line was we’d have to stop seeing each other. She was heartbroken. I told her I’d find a solution. She made me promise we’d be together. So I gave her an engagement ring. She said yes.

My contract’s on the kitchen table with mum’s specs and the last of a vodka tonic. She’s been going through it again, worrying. When a contract is broken before term, the family has to pay The Brand pro rata temporis. I’m almost twenty-two. Three years of sponsorship left. That’s why mum is so nervous. She’s really no reason to be, not now. I studied law at uni, subsidised by The Brand of course. Ironic really. The contract is thorough but it’s not watertight. Especially if you get creative. The people who write these contracts, they can’t account for everything. They can’t imagine everything. They can’t imagine the crazy shit.

Little sis comes running in, stops like she hit a wall.

“Jake!”

“No sweetie, Jake is dead. I’m Adam.”

 Mum appears, hides little sis’ face against her belly, shouts at me over her wails.

“Why are you talking like that? And look at you! Oh my God I don’t recognize my own son!”

That’s kind of the point I want to say. I do feel bad about making my sister cry, but she’ll get over it. They both will. I go to the fridge and drink some juice from the carton.

“Don’t do that!”

She never had a problem before. Mum doesn’t like Adam. I put the carton back, wipe my mouth and head for the stairs.

“Stop looking at the contract mum, it’s all good. Jake Taylor doesn’t exist anymore. It’s over, they’re screwed.”

I push open the door to my room. It doesn’t feel like my room anymore though. What space on the walls isn’t taken up with Star Wars and Arsenal posters is crammed with photos of Jake, grinning at me. Jake aged 18 in Malta with all those hotties. Jake aged 10 preparing to tee off. Jake aged 7 cleaning dad’s new car. Photos are pointless. They’re all lies – awesome lies. Three seconds after a photo’s taken, that’s real. When the smile drops and you hit a crappy drive. When the group hug dissolves and everyone goes back to their profiles.

I take one down off the wall – I want to trash them all. But then I think of mum and I put it back. This room is going to become a shrine.

My console’s full of Jake too. Plus several clouds full to bursting. It’ll take me the whole evening, but I have to get rid of them all. Let it rain. I closed all my social accounts three weeks ago. That was the beginning of the end for Jake. Then the deed poll certificate came through and Adam Darlington sent Jake into the ropes with a posh sounding uppercut. Then the hair, and the surgery. That was the coup de grace.

While the last of Jake goes to virtual trash I walk through to the bathroom, stand at the basin and look at myself. Short back and sides, dark brown. That was simple enough. My face is so bruised and swollen it’s hard to say what I’ll look like. I won’t look like Jake though. That was my only brief, to look different. They did some work on my nose and the shape of my eyes. My chin, cheekbones. Sold my car and emptied my savings for these bruises. Could have used The Brand’s medical plan, but then they’d have owned this face too. The pain has me feeling something like regret, but then I remember that Adam Darlington has zero followers and the sweetest fiancée, and I give him a crooked smile in the mirror.

I sit on my bed and try to feel sad for mum. But all I feel is glad for Jake. This is what he wanted, deep down, since a long time. It took Jessica to make him realize how much, that’s all. I lie down and look up at my ceiling screen as he jumps off a cliff one photo at a time. Sure, he looked happy with life whenever mum or whoever pointed a camera at him. But then there were those moments – during the big power cuts of ’31 or ’35 – when he questioned it all, when he wondered who the hell he really was. When he wondered if he could keep it up until his contract ended. If he could keep smiling.  

Everyone’s still asleep. I check my rucksack one last time, close the door on Jake’s room, and tiptoe through the dark house, down to the garage. Jessica will be here at six. The garage door swings up and I wheel my bike out under a dark blue sky. A couple of stars are trying to shine on, but they’ll soon disappear. It’s a brand new day.

It’s ten past and she’s not here. I turn to my left; the road I’ve gone down so many times – a gentle hill that’ll take you all the way to the bus stop with one push of your board if you skate it right. The sun’s starting to rise over there and I can hear a bike behind me. Clink of a gear-chain, brakes. She’s here.

“Jake?”

Her voice is small and I don’t turn around. I wait, I can wait, we have plenty of time ahead of us now. We’re going to cycle across to Bristol, hang out there a while, then on to Wales. Autumn in the Brecon Beacons. It’s going to be beautiful.

“Adam?”

That’s me. I wheel my bike around in a circle and stop, heart pounding, facing her. I try a smile. It’s too painful. Is she smiling, or frowning? I can’t really tell, there’s a streetlight above her, highlighting nothing else but her long blonde hair. I guess she had to have long blonde hair. Jake was The Brand’s fairy tale prince; he had to fall in love with a fairy tale princess.

I step closer to her, she leans back, steps back. Her eyes are a blur.

“Are you scared of me?”

“A bit.”

I take her hand, lightly. Finally she looks me in the eyes.  Tries to recognize.

“The swelling will go down. The scars will disappear. I’ll look different.”

“I know.”

“Where’s all your stuff?”

She vaguely shakes her head, noisily sniffing back tears. Delves into her bag and brings out the puny ring, puts it in my hand. And now she’s gone with all her sorrow, pushing her bike back up the road, and I don’t follow her. Jake would have.

Just one turn of the pedals sets me gliding down the road into the orange dawn.

You’d think I’d be gutted right now, but.

I hope I’ll see some wonderful places, meet some interesting people.  I’ll take lots of pictures.

I’ll never share them.

Branded for Life was a PinDrop/Royal Academy award finalist.

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