Chapter 5 – A Cosmic Joke
Elixium Pharmaceuticals HQ was situated in a large science park, surrounded by woodlands. Tom took the bus there every day, his heart sinking each time he rolled up to the colossal black glass pyramid.
In the office, he grabbed some tepid brown sludge from the coffee machine and logged into his computer. After murmuring a greeting to his colleagues, he slouched in the chair, hiding his face behind the computer monitor.
A job advertisement for a manager on the wall saddened him. They’re recruiting for Larry’s job, he realised. Larry was a weak-willed man, prone to fits of anxiety. Elixium scapegoated him when a drug scandal hit the headlines. Epzipirone was intended for patients with chronic pain, but the drug, like any opioid, had addictive properties. Larry falsified data to downplay these risks. Not his own idea, of course. Reuben Fenwick made known his dissatisfaction with the trial results. Under pressure, Larry removed the younger subjects from one particular trial, who had the biggest addictive risk.
After only a few years on the market, Epzipirone, or “Epsy” as they called it on the street, became the number one abused opioid across the globe, causing thousands to die of overdoses, not to mention untold social devastation. Lawsuits were filed, and Elixium’s team of diabolical corporate lawyers swatted them down one by one like flies, but litigation was eventually successful and Larry got the blame for everything. Security escorted him out of the building, a broken man, in tears.
Harry, his colleague, asked, “are you going to apply?”
Tom shrugged. Usually, he said he preferred his ‘trained gorilla’ job, numbing his boredom with alcohol and drugs. Drifting at these lower levels, at least he could keep a clear conscience. He helped run the trials, analysed data and submitted reports. The corruption happened higher up the chain: cherry-picking, fishing expeditions and dodgy statistical procedures. But today, his father’s words lay heavy on his heart and his visit to Venom Empire stirred his ambitions. If he applied for the job, could he change the company from within?
After his heavy weekend, Tom kept a low profile and did some mind-numbing data entry, listening to The Prodigy’s Music for the Jilted Generation on his Discman. The beats almost brought him back up—drugs lingered in his system, and, if he closed his eyes, he could easily imagine being back at the club with strobe lights and dancing silhouettes of ravers all around him.
At midday, Tom ate lunch in the canteen. As usual, he sat alone, away from the crowded benches of staff. Their humdrum conversations irritated him.
He’d nearly finished his steak and mash when Reuben marched into the canteen. At thirty-two, Reuben was already a multi-millionaire, cloistered by his father’s empire. He was a creature of the old boys’ network—upper class and public-school educated. His favourite pastime was shooting grouse with a rifle. He was tall with gangly limbs and brown hair slicked into a side-parting. He wore a crumpled shirt, tight black trousers and no tie. His scruffiness differentiated him from the rest of the workforce, who faced suspension for the slightest deviation from the dress code. Reuben jumped the queue and helped himself to salad. Unlike most senior executives, he ate with the grunts, ostensibly to show camaraderie, but Tom suspected he enjoyed gloating over his minions.
Adding an apple to his tray, Reuben ventured towards a table where two women from HR sat eating, but then stopped, changing his mind. Tom’s heart quickened. He tried to duck, but Reuben’s wide eyes locked on to him. He had a freakish stare and never seemed to blink. Please God, not today, after spending the weekend off my face!
“Everything okay, Thomas?” asked Reuben, pulling up a chair.
“Fine,” said Tom, hoping he might change his mind and find another victim, but Reuben smirked, sat down and started his salad. “I’ve been meaning to have a catch up. You look tired. Burning the candle at both ends?”
“You know how it is with my dad.”
“How is he?” Reuben asked, a rivulet of salad cream oozing between his lips.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Genuinely, I am.”
Tom knew sociopaths like Reuben have no genuine feelings for anyone but themselves. He gritted his teeth, and for a second entertained the thought of driving his steak knife into Reuben’s throat.
“You don’t fool me, Thomas.”
“Did you have a good time on Friday night?”
A greasy smile widened across Reuben’s face, and Tom’s heart pounded. Did he know about Venom Empire?
“Acid house? Do they still call it that?”
Tom arched his eyebrows.
“I’m not a total square, you know. 1989, second summer of love? Fantazia, ’92, I was there. Good pills?”
“I don’t take drugs.”
Reuben chuckled. “Oh, please. It’s written all over your face. Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. Your performance is, as always, excellent. But something about you troubles me. You seem jaded, when you should be excited about the future. I know you have the ability, but do you believe in this company and our vision for the 21st century? Be honest, you don’t, do you?”
“What vision? We’re making money from people’s misery.” Shit, why did I say that? The words slipped out of his mouth. It must be the drugs still in his system.
Reuben pointed at him, making him nervous. “That’s what I love about you, Thomas. We have over three thousand employees—most are office drones who question nothing. But you see things differently. You stop and ask why. We need smart, out-of-the-box thinking to skyrocket Elixium into the new millennium. Together, I think we’d make a great team…” Reuben stabbed a piece of tomato with his fork. “…once we change your perspective.”
Change my perspective? Whatever he has in mind, I don’t like it.
“Don’t you see, Thomas? We don’t cause human misery, God does. We live our sad, lonely lives, trying to survive, knowing it’s futile, knowing that one day we’ll grow old, suffer and die, just like all our friends and family. How can that be right? We’re the butt of a cosmic joke, when we should be touching the stars! I believe we can change our destiny, Thomas, and this company, at the cutting edge of science, is forging a new path. Some may question our business decisions—”
“Like why we manufacture Primazine?” From talking to the scientists he knew the ‘new’ drug was a sham, a molecular mirror image of an anti-hypertensive drug the company already produced called Permazine. Primazine was exactly the same as the old drug, except Elixium dyed the tablet pink to market the product to women.
“Permazine nets us two billion a year in profits, but next year, once it comes off patent, every manufacturer in the world will produce it cheaply and our profits will be next to nothing. If we don’t take action, our stock price will fall through the floor. That’ll mean redundancies and pay cuts across the board. We need a big profit margin to encourage innovation. Think of all the breakthroughs and medicines we’ve produced in the past, Thomas.”
He has a point, thought Tom. Despite their money grubbing ways, Elixium had contributed to the health revolution of the twentieth century. But who were they innovating for these days? The super-rich, according to the Grandmaster.
“We’re on a path to total market dominance and this will allow us to advance medicine in unimaginable ways. I believe that the goal—the ending of all human suffering—is a possibility in our lifetime. So my advice to you, Thomas, is to stop taking drugs and focus, focus, focus. Make peace with the company and our mission, and you’ll be rewarded.”
“What if I’m happy being a grunt?”
“But you’re not. You have a remarkable ability with numbers. An Übermensch, right here at Elixium.” Reuben smiled, shifting his empty salad bowl to one side. “There’s a junior management position opening next month, and if you apply, you’ll get the job. I’ve left the forms on your desk. The fields we’re developing will blow your mind. And I want you to help guide the decision-making process.”
Great. Maybe I’ll get to choose the shade of pink for our next pill. He thought about asking whether the management position would require smart out-of-the-box thinking, but decided he better not. Reuben nodded and left him alone.
After his cynicism faded, he grew excited. Reuben’s speech roused him, and he still longed to make his father proud. It would also wipe the grin off his brother’s face, who’d built a successful security camera business from scratch.
Yet Reuben’s comments about ‘the fields’ they were developing disturbed him. Was he referring to what the Grandmaster had spoken of, a cure for dementia? More to the point, could he trust Reuben? For all his lofty promises, wasn’t he just a con merchant?
He rushed to the nearest bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. Are you going to change things, Tom? Or are you going to become Reuben’s lapdog? He imagined himself with a new car and a nice house. He could be happy. If he shut his mouth and followed orders.
In his mind, he put his fist through the mirror, shattering the reflection into a million pieces. An idle fantasy; the mirror remained intact, framing him as a coward. He craved a cold pint or a fat spliff, anything to make him senseless. He wanted to double drop some pills and get rancid. Or even better, another dose of that eye drug he’d taken at Venom Empire, Metanox.
Tom caught the bus home and got off a stop early, hoping the walk would clear his mind. He hadn’t decided yet whether he’d apply for the management position, but took the application form home with him to weigh up his options. As he turned the corner into Montpelier, he could hear Brown Paper Bag by Roni Size blasting out from a nearby car stereo. The infectious bass reverberated against the squats and low rises, as students, mothers with prams, suited workers and even the beggars seemed to move in time with the beat. He could smell fresh fruit from the corner shop and marijuana—a black man leaned out of the upstairs window of one of the ramshackle houses, smoking a reefer and grinning at the people below. Across the street, two teenagers ambled along with beer cans, one of them knocking over a wheelie bin and spilling bags of refuse into the road. A passer-by shouted, and the kids ran off down an alley, laughing. The city looked like shit, but it had a soul. He loved the carefree carnival atmosphere—the people, the music, the parks, the buzzing pubs and cafes, the sense of community.
Reaching the end of the street, he saw fresh graffiti and nearly fell over with laughter. A naked picture of Reuben Fenwick, oversized head and maggot dick, bent over as a scientist in a white coat prepared to insert a suppository. “Welcome to Elixi-bum” was written above. It was signed by ‘Osiris Bitch’, a notorious anti-capitalist graffiti artist whose work was all around the city—despite police appeals, nobody had worked out the guy’s identity. Tom touched the wall. The paint was still fresh. He thought of Isla, didn’t she say she did graffiti? Pondering some more, he remembered from history lessons at school that Osiris’ wife was Isis. Isis, close to Isla. He grinned at the possibility. Surprising himself, he still felt a yearning for her. She deceived him, but he understood why; she must really hate Elixium Pharmaceuticals.
When he got home, his housemates Pete and Laura were in the front room. Pete was playing Mario on the N64 while Laura watched, smoking weed.
“Hey man,” said Laura, passing him the bifta. “You want some of that?”
Tom snatched and smoked the joint, pulling so hard it crackled and hissed as he filled his lungs.
“Someone had a bad day.” scoffed Laura.
“Oh,” said Pete, stopping the game. “I nearly forgot. Someone called Hayley rang for you.” Pete went back to Mario—ground-pounding a giant swimming dinosaur.
“Yeah, or maybe it was Holly. Anyway, I think she was a nurse or something.”
Tom gasped. Holly was a staff nurse at his father’s care home. He rushed to the phone. The receptionist at the care home told him his dad had a fall and was now in hospital.
Tom ran to his car, fearing he’d be too late. He sped through the city, jumping red lights and skidding around corners.
At the hospital, he sprinted through the corridors to the Intensive Care Unit.
A nurse took him inside. His dad breathed noisily through a respirator, his eyes closed. Tom stroked his dad’s thin grey hair and held his hand. Open your eyes, Dad. He longed to hear his voice, even if the words were “who are you?”
Tom’s dad passed away a few minutes later. It was quick and effortless; there was no fighting or gasping. He sighed as his lungs relaxed, then his skin slowly blanched as the blood settled.
“Time of death, seventeen forty-eight,” said a doctor.
“I’m sorry, Mr Toombs,” said the nurse, squeezing his shoulders. “We did everything we could.”
At 2 a.m., Tom ate in the loneliest fast-food restaurant in the world. It stayed open 24 hours a day, serving drunks, druggies, weirdo exhibitionists, and the occasional lost truck driver who left the motorway too early.
He gave his order: double cheeseburger, fries and regular coke. The girl at the counter said they’d run out of fries and apologised for any inconvenience, but it was clear from her tone that she only apologised because she was obliged to by her manager.
He sighed. “Just the burger and coke then.”
While he waited for his food, he looked up at the photo of the glistening burger and his mouth watered. What he received bore almost no resemblance to the picture. The burger tasted hollow and rubbery. He sucked down some of his coke, but it was flat and lukewarm.
A ratty-looking druggie approached him. He walked with a limp and had a festering sore creeping up his neck like bougainvillaea. “Alright, man? You’re into raves, right? Seen you around.”
Tom nodded, not recalling him and hoping he’d go away.
“You know where I can score Epsy? Drier than an Arab’s fart out there.”
Fucking Epsy, thought Tom. “Nah, sorry.”
“What’s in the box?” The druggie pointed out the shoebox resting on the uncomfortable orange plastic chair beside Tom. “Are you holding, dude?” Seized by an uncontrollable compulsion, the druggie itched the sore on his neck, then laughed nervously, displaying his sharp canine teeth.
“My dad’s belongings. He died today.” The words felt strange on his lips. A nurse had packed the box, folding the clothes neatly and protecting the photographs of Tom and his brother that his dad kept on the windowsill with bubble-wrap for the journey. He expected sadness and tears when this day came. But now that it had finally happened, he felt nothing. Nothing at all, except a faint nausea, which might just be the terrible food.
The druggie’s yellowish eyes burned on his skin. “And you’re… here?”
Maybe it was wrong to be eating in a fast-food joint, but his hunger needed satisfying, and nowhere else was open. Why shouldn’t I sate my desires without shame? Embrace hedonism, squeeze every drop of pleasure from this wretched world before I grow old and die.
As he ate, the druggie approached the shoebox. His dirty fingers pried open the lid and searched the contents.
“Get the fuck off that!” shouted Tom.
The druggie held his hands up, “S’alright, man.”
Tom stood up tall and squared up to the druggie. He felt his face redden. The druggie tried to back away, but Tom grabbed the lapel of his trench coat and launched him across the fast-food restaurant. He landed badly on a table; flipping over trays of leftover food and wrappers.
“Fucking psycho,” shouted the druggie. “I’m gonna sue you! I’ve got a bad L3!”
The manager—a bald, brick shithouse of a man—ordered them both to leave. Tom fled with the shoebox under his arm. The druggie lingered, insisting the manager dry-clean his ketchup covered coat.
Outside, Tom clenched his fists, his nails digging into his skin. His anger grew as he thought of Elixium Pharma, lying and conning people. He thought of the Grandmaster, and his claim that the corporation withheld medicines. He pictured Reuben with salad cream oozing between his lips, saying how genuinely sorry he was about his father.
The lust for revenge jammed the circuitry of his brain, sending lightning bolts coursing through his body. He knew exactly what to do.
Shortly after 3 a.m., Tom visited the payphone by the garage, the same one Isla used on Friday night. He lifted the receiver, dialled Venom Empire’s number, waited two rings and then hung up, just as Isla had instructed.
Almost immediately, the phone box rang, jolting him. Tom lifted the receiver, put it to his ear, but heard nothing but silence.
“Tell the Grandmaster I’m in,” he said.
A deep male voice replied. “119 Queen’s Road, Clifton. Be there in one hour.”
The line went dead.