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.


“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.


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.


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.


You have probably never heard of Provincia, for this tiny republic nestled between France and Italy counts only seventeen thousand, three hundred and twelve souls. It is a peaceful place now, but not so long ago it was, for a brief moment at least, the Most Dangerous Place in Europe (source: Violence had become so sadly commonplace that the everyday life of a Provincial citizen was rhythmed by outbursts of verbal and physical aggression.

The President of Provincia sought advice from his most esteemed sociologist, Hervé Schmütze-Schmurtz. Unfortunately, Schmütze-Schmurtz was unable to offer any plausible analysis, going so far as to suggest causation between the violence and the country’s recent rise in working poor. There seemed to be no solution.

One morning, after a fight with the postman, the President opened a letter from the illustrious Belgian philosopher, André Klump. The philosopher wrote that he was convinced that the increase in violence was directly bound to the stupidity of his citizens. “Civilisation” he wrote “is the fruit of intelligence. When intelligence increases, barbarism declines. Knowledge is the key to our salvation”.

The President liked this theory very much, and the two men worked together to find a way in which to instruct the citizens of Provincia. However, sending thousands of adults back to school was tricky, and not a little expensive, and so Klump came up with the idea of an educational television channel. It would replace all other channels, effectively being the only thing available on TV. It was a daring idea, but the President gave it his full support.

After a couple of months it became clear that people preferred to cease watching TV altogether; which left advertisers out of pocket and Provincia’s national broadcasting company bankrupt. (This also gave rise to the legendary battle of Studio 3 which lasted a week and resulted in dozens of casualties and also later a screenplay written by 17 year old intern, Gaspard Frugal entitled ‘Hell is Other People’ , which would go on to scoop several awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002).

The President eventually came to the conclusion that he would have to oblige his citizens to better themselves whether they liked it or not, and one evening after a heated game of chess and a few bottles of Roussillon, his friend Klump had a new idea so brilliant that he fell off his chair. It was this: He would add general knowledge questions to all forms of access codes. Thus, the people, his people, would be obliged to answer correctly in order to pursue their everyday activities. It would be seamless. It would be organic. It was, they both agreed, A Beautiful Idea.

The President implemented the plan without delay. The people of Provincia no longer only punched in a code to access their apartment buildings. Now, in order to get home and put the kettle on, they had to correctly answer questions such as ‘In which hemisphere is situated the city of Vladivostok?’.

Instead of simply entering their PIN number to withdraw cash from a machine, they also had to give the atomic number of oxygen.

But the system was flawed. Those who were already intelligent were able to respond quickly and go about their daily tasks practically unhindered. Those less well read found themselves having to cart around huge encyclopaediae. Those who were not so clever but well-off bought pocket-sized electronic ones.

Despite this fundamental unfairness the system seemed to function, and one afternoon at 3.14, the President sighed in relief. The questions were changed every four hours, and the citizens of Provincia became so focused on answering them correctly that they forgot to stab each other and set fire to cars.

People began talking to each other, exchanging knowledge. Perfect strangers shared the correct answers. Smart beggars sold answers to stupid wealthy people. And some people went as far as helping intrepid tourists by translating the questions for them.

The transformation was stunning. And though the country was not euphoric, it was definitely preoccupied. The number of violent acts plummeted, and the ensuing calm was such that children were able to play in the streets once more.

The President was of course delighted, but he was also somewhat anxious. His educational system was proving so efficient that the questions were becoming too simple for his citizens. They were starting to have time on their hands anew, and it would only be a matter of time before they started up again…

He was made acutely aware of this when a brick came shattering through the palace window and landed on his desk. The brick was wrapped in a sheet of paper, upon which someone had written, in fine italic script ‘Decent living wages for all! Your people are only just about surviving!’.

The President felt instantly humbled, and so very stupid. He now knew what he had to do. He gathered his leading professors and charged them with creating a new series of much, much more difficult questions.

Provincia came to a standstill. Supermarket check-out queues ceased to budge because in order to pay by credit card one had to give the past participle for the Norwegian verb to grate when applied specifically to the action of grating cheese not potatoes. Old people wandered the streets, unable to go home for want of the chemical composition of polystyrene. The already ailing economy collapsed and a new black market emerged based on the buying and selling of answers.

A small minority of citizens became extremely powerful. Their knowledge gave them access to everything, and they took advantage. One evening, the President, who was less intelligent than he fancied himself to be, found himself locked out of the Presidential Palace after three incorrect answers to the question ‘Who invented the fictional place called Cloud Cuckoo Land ?’ His position as head of state was rapidly overthrown by Stephanie Kahn, winner of Provincia’s popular TV quiz show ‘Raise Your Hand If You’d Like Lots Of Money’, whose first act was to declare that she saw no necessity in changing the system.

Railways ceased to function, roads were rendered useless as people simply gave up on finding the correct answers at toll booths and left their cars and trucks where they stood. Hospital workers were fined for whispering answers to patients seeking medical attention. Heretofore eradicated maladies reappeared, and the former president who was now living incognito in a car park was one of the many people who contracted tuberculosis. The country was on its knees.

A revolutionary cell formed, led by the sociologist Hervé Schmütze-Schmurtz. His main demand was equal rights for non-brilliant people. Day after day, hundreds of citizens joined his cause. He told them to stand and fight for their right to be moderately intelligent.

The people became violent once more. This time however their violence was focalized not on one another, but on the all-knowing elite. The uprising was shocking in its brutality, the auto proclaimed rulers seized from the palace before they could even finish their game of Risk, and taken away to be tortured. Their tribulations included having to read The da Vinci Code, then talk about it at a cocktail party without mentioning any of its scientific incoherences.

An election was organized and Schmütze-Schmurtz won in a landslide victory. He abolished the question system for all access codes, then got to work implementing country-wide reform based on his theory of years earlier…ensuring that the hardworking people of Provincia had enough income to retain their dignity and their fists.

Hervé Schmütze-Schmurtz became a much loved president despite a few critics who published books suggesting that he himself must have been very smart to have so easily solved Provincia’s economic woes.

As for the ousted President, he was sent to a sanatorium in the mountains overlooking Provincia, where he lived out his final years. At the very end of his life no one could budge him from his window seat from where he stared down at the Palace, eyes wide and mumbling the same word, over and over…




The fish now solitary pressed on, head perfectly balanced on a plumb line to a point B as body and tail did their own disarticulated thing.

It dipped and dropped a foot or so, slipped into a ribbon of cooler water.

It slowed down. It was darker here at the sea bed, but the fish was not scared. It was the happiest it had ever felt from fin to fin, because at that moment, for that time, the water temperature was perfect.

The fish came to almost a complete halt, maintaining now only the smoothest of tail actions to keep it from being swept backwards in the current.

For want of eyelids the fish closed its mind to better relish in the sensation, the absolute pleasure of being neither too hot nor too cold, at being perfectly tepid all over.

It wouldn’t last, it couldn’t. The current would turn warm and it would lose its ability to think so clearly; or icy cold and it would lose the energy to swim. If only this could last forever.

The fish opened its mind, pivoted 90° to a clean vertical, and sped to the water’s surface.

They had made love before breakfast. Lazy and non-committal. It felt required of them; the boat rental was expensive and it was their last day.

It was almost 8 and the sun had risen over the calm sea for another unfiltered day. Up on deck now, he was a little too warm, and her coffee was already cold.

The fish shot up out of the sea, skywards, on a seemingly star-bound trajectory, a trail of crystal droplets falling away from its tail.

She took a sharp intake of breath and held it, eyes riveted on the silver projectile.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi, and then gravity played its minor chord and the fish felt the pull of the Earth.

“Wow” he said unzipping his hoodie.

She poured herself some more coffee from the pot in the hope it would be warmer.

“I wonder why they do that.”