Amongst the Litter By Mark Colbourne

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At the point when they’re about to sign, I’m always gripped by the strangest feeling. It’s a rush, I suppose. A chemical release; the flood of endorphins. There are moments when we are all teased by that quintessentially human impulse of self-destruction: the irresistible urge to do something detrimental, simply to see what will happen. My client will be sitting there with a pen clutched in their trembling hand, the nib hovering above the paper – a sickening centimetre of uncertainty, the quivering gap of opportunity, that pinch of pregnant air where it can all go wrong. And every single time – despite all the work that I’ve done, despite every ounce of hard graft and unbowed effort that I’ve expounded into coaxing them into this very position – I actually pray that it will. Come on, my internal opposition will plead and whine and beg, screaming and shouting and banging its pots. Maybe just this once, just this one time… let this sad, senile sack of shit here be the one who gets away.

But, naturally, they never do. They’ll pause, of course. Perhaps to ratify in their own minds that this is their decision; perhaps even to convince themselves that they actually understand the document cradled in their hands. It isn’t, and they don’t, but none of this even matters. Within sixty seconds the signature will inevitably follow. A spidery scrawl which always culminates with one ridiculous flourish or another – a dot or dash or circle or swipe. They’ll look up to me and smile, pleased as punch with the mistake they’ve just made, and the self-defeating belligerence that briefly rose in my soul – that voice daring me to jump from the cliff edge – is silenced. I wonder if Neilson feels it, too? Jesus, I wonder if Neilson feels anything?

“Thank you, Mr Handley,” Neilson says, whisking the contract away to seclude its pages – and the possibility of any eleventh hour scrutiny – within a black leather folder. Neilson betrays nothing, demonstrating only the veneer of an acute and absolute professional. Mr Handley, on the other hand, has already begun to slump and shrink, that buoyant air of merely a moment before having escaped through a sudden spearing puncture. Is this deflation, I wonder, an abrupt realisation? Perhaps even a suspicion? When things appear too good to be true, it’s almost certainly because they are. Has the recognition just arrived that none of this will end well?

Although, regardless of his current condition, I couldn’t claim that even on our arrival Mr Handley was a vigorous portrait of health. We have now sat in this close front room of his bungalow for over three and a half hours. We have collectively drained two pots of tea and chomped our way through a packet of chocolate bourbon biscuits. Neilson and I have presented facts and fictions in an idiom which swerved between the lanes of legal and financial. We have detailed possible scenarios through a series of documents and leaflets burdened by unbroken paragraphs and enlivened with meticulously carved imagery. We have talked and coerced and confided until Mr Handley was ready to ink his name beneath any agreement that we cared to put before him, simply to shut us up.

How many of these rooms have I sat in? How many times have I had this same conversation? Plodded through the same plotted process? The rehearsed routine? Hemmed in by sun-bleached pastel wallpaper and perched upright on one half of a two-piece suite. The net curtains. The bulging glass of a dated television set. Ornaments frosty with dust on a mantelpiece over a flame-effect fire. How many hours have Neilson and I wasted straightening our ties on the doorstep, waiting to be led into these interchangeable homes?

“No, thank you.” Mr Handley speaks with a wheeze. “Thank you for spending all this time with me. I don’t get many visitors. Not now. Not anymore.”

“Well,” Neilson beams. “Now you’ll be getting some extra money each month, maybe you could start going out a bit more. Enjoy yourself. See people. Spread your wings.”

A cautious smile creeps across Mr Handley’s face. The creases and folds of his skin are absurd. Lines upon which you could trace a lifetime of hardship and disappointment. They catalogue years of setback and failure, of betrayal and misgivings. They are a book which any fool could read. His gratitude is entirely genuine and entirely misplaced.

Neilson’s eyes meet mine. We both know that it’s time for us to leave.


I honestly don’t believe that I’m a bad person. It’s not like I’m physically hurting anyone. Legally, I’m not even committing a crime. Or, at least, not a crime that most courts would be ready to recognise. Certainly not on a busy day. My job is a possibility which extends from a loop-hole. An inconsistency open to exploitation; an ambiguity to be exercised by the keen. After all, everyone needs to earn a living. That’s the bottom line. That’s a stone cold fact. And this – this – is how I earn mine.

“What a fucking mess,” Neilson says the second we drive out of Mr Handley’s cul-de-sac. “Did you see him shaking? Fucking hell, his skin was hanging off in folds. The man’s got weeks left. We’re doing him a favour here.”

I’ve worked with Neilson for just under a year now. We are, apparently, a solid partnership. Month after month, this is the view that our figures substantiate. The Management believe that our individual attributes are complimentary. Together, we present a viable customer proposition. We are a united front. A credible entity. Neilson is thirty-seven years old with one divorce behind him and a son that he never sees.

“Honestly,” he says. “It’s getting worse with every pitch. One of these days someone’s going to drop down dead. Right there. Right in front of us. I mean, they’re getting older. Have you noticed that?”

“Occupational hazard, I guess.”

“But what are we supposed to do? You know, if one of them does actually croak it during a visit? Are we just going to sit there twiddling our dicks till the ambulance arrives? Start talking to the police about what happened? What if the family show up?”

“I don’t know,” I sigh. “Slip out the back door. That’s probably what management would advise.” Straightening my leg, I pull my phone from my trouser pocket and start checking emails.

“Have you got the postcode?” he asks.

“Where for?” I say.

“The hotel. Where‘d you think?”

“Already? It’s only four.”

“Well there’s no more appointments till tomorrow. What you want to do? See the sights? Catch a movie? Park up in a lay-by and romantically pull each other off while we watch the sun go down?”

“The sun’s already down,” I say.

Outside, dusk consumes the car like a fog. We leave the trifling village where Mr Handley’s bungalow is nestled amongst what little industry remains, driving out and away into the countryside. In the expanse ahead, grey hills merge into the sky, their definition smudged by clouds.

I scroll down my list of emails to find the booking confirmation from the hotel and read the postcode aloud. Neilson drives with his right hand on the wheel as the left attempts to punch the postcode into a SatNav, a process laboured with cursing, mis-keys, deletions and false starts. I don’t offer to help, as I know it’s an offer he wouldn’t accept. Eventually, a passive voice claims that our route is calculated.

“An hour?” Neilson reviews the expected arrival time displayed on the screen. “Fucking hell, where exactly is this place?”

“I don’t know. Probably in the middle of nowhere.” I look out the window into the night. “The people we’re seeing tomorrow are pretty rural, I think.”

“Rural? Oh great. It’s farmers, isn’t it? Of course it’s going to be farmers. It always is. We’ll be sat in the kitchen with some backwards bitch who’s got a loaded shotgun hanging above the door and two meathead sons slaughtering pigs in the barn. Who booked this in?”


“Sandra. I should have guessed. What a fucking cow. She couldn’t give it to Barry, could she? Nope. That’s not going to happen. That’s unthinkable. Barry couldn’t have one day out here where Broadband and a Starbucks are the stuff of a lunatic’s dreams. Barry couldn’t have one day dealing with the mentally undressed. Barry couldn’t ruin his shoes having to wade through a sea of puddles and cowshit. Oh no. None of that’s for Barry. And do you know why not? It’s because Sandra wants to suck Barry’s tiny little cock, that’s why not.”

“I’m really not sure that she does.”

“Then why isn’t Barry driving to a guest house in the back of beyond so he can spend all day tomorrow trying now to get murdered by inbreds?”

“Maybe Barry hasn’t got our finesse?”

“Maybe you want to suck Barry’s tiny little cock as well.”

I shake my head and reach forward to turn on the radio. There’s little point in trying to argue with Neilson when he’s in one of these moods. Although there remains – it pains me to admit – a diamond of substance glistening in the rough of his bullshit. We aren’t a big company – by the very nature of our business, a restricted headcount is a policy of prudence if not an act of existential necessity – but even so, the visits that lay a little further off the beaten track are always the ones that seem to fall to the two of us. Shielded in Neilson’s perfectly anonymous Mondeo, we have traversed the outer reaches of this country mile by mile. Provincial towns and pastoral hamlets. Council estates and country homes. Decaying seaside resorts and a multitude of villages which are all but forgotten. We pass through these places as a fleeting presence. There is neither fanfare nor celebration. We do not stop to see the sites nor consider the local attractions. We make our pitch and then slip away, comforted by the knowledge that it will be many, many years before we ever have to return. Now: I know that it’s our job. I appreciate that this is how our bread is buttered. I understand that I am in no position to question the drive and decision of my superiors… But, even so, it’s getting harder not to feel that someone’s got it in for us. I suppose the natural next question is who? The Management? Sandra? Perhaps even Barry and his tiny little cock?

You’d think a company like ours would bypass those office politics of the conventional workplace. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. All we seem to do is politics. Every single day is a circling, snake-pit of distrust and treaties, of alliances and stitch-ups, of buck-passing and back-stabbing and ball tickling and bum-kissing. Sure, we may not argue about who stole the milk from the office fridge (although, thinking about it now, we often do) but those similar games are continually played, just for far higher stakes. It’s not inconceivable that, in the not too distant future, some of us could potentially go to prison. Perhaps for what we do at on the frontlines; perhaps for how the money is cleaned and where it ultimately disappears to. If we ever pissed off the right person– someone with tenacious, powerful relatives, someone beholden of legal expertise and a righteous mind – the whole house of cards could come tumbling down and one or more of us will be packed off behind bars to the approval of wider society. Who precisely that would be, I suppose, depends on how careful we are today. Each conversation and decision. Every email sent and paper trail endorsed. The depths to which we allow ourselves exposure, the plausibility of denial. The company we keep, the enemies we make.

Outside, the night swallows us whole. Against the overpowering dark, the lights inside the car – the radio, my phone, the dashboard display – reflect in the windows above, their images distorted by the curvature of the glass. Neilson hums along with the song being played beneath his breath – a song which sounds familiar but that I cannot seem to place. I rub my eyes, suddenly aware of how tired I have become. This job drains me, I think. The performance, the lies, the misdirection. The travel, the people, the long-distance lifestyle. This country is littered with the lonely and the lost, and it seems that I cannot help but to find myself amongst them.

“I’m due a holiday,” I say. It is a statement; a recognition. I am not particularly seeking a response.

“Well we’re going to a hotel right now,” Neilson replies, despite or in spite of my intention. “What more do you fucking want?”


Mark Colbourne

Mark Colbourne is a 40 year old writer from the West Midlands, UK.

Other stories:
I am Having a Good Time –
Elements –

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay


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