Truth is, I was always a bit of a waster. It’s not that I was dim, or lacking energy. It’s more I just couldn’t be bothered.
My old mum used to despair of me. She’d poke her head into my fuggy bedroom, and wring her hands like she was squeezing out her customers’ washing.
“Al, Al… What’s to become of you? You can’t expect opportunity to fall in your lap!”
I’d shrug and turn over. I was sure something’d come along.
It did in the end.
It called itself my long lost uncle.
He was a sharply-dressed gent; smart suit, slicked-back hair, really pointy shoes. Mum was delighted to see him. “Al, he’s going to take you on! You’re going to be his new apprentice! Like off the telly!”
She was practically dancing. She loved all that reality TV guff.
“Didn’t even think I had an uncle. You told me Dad was an only child.”
“Oh, what tragedy! What dark and hideous woe, to think we might’ve been estranged forever!” The smart gent got to his feet, and placed his cold hands on my shoulders. “What joy to think we might now be together every day!”
“Doing what, exactly?” I was thinking he was more Alan Carr than Alan Sugar, if you get what I mean.
“Picking up unconsidered trifles. Buying low and selling high. A merchant’s life, you might say.”
His eyes slid over my t-shirt, tracky bottoms and beat-up trainers. “There would of course be a generous wage. And a clothing allowance…”
He handed me a small silver card. “Put it on account. Go wild.”
“Anything I want?”
“Anything at all.”
I grinned. “Pleased to meet you, Uncle.”
“The pleasure’s all mine,” he said.
The next morning, I was up early, all togged out in my new clothes.
“So you can get out of bed.” Mum moved round her neon-bright laundrette, topping up the dispensers, shaking coins out the machines. The constant whir and clank of those washers had been part of my life for too long, like a soapy tinnitus.
“Guess I just needed something to make it worth my while, didn’t I?” I said smartly. A black BMW honked outside. “There’s my ride.”
She caught my arm as I swung open the steamy glass door. “You were right. You don’t have one. An uncle, that is. You never did.” She bit her lip. “I don’t know who he thinks you are, Al, but he believes you’re special. It seemed too good an opportunity to waste.”
“Bit late to tell me now, eh?” I muttered, unable to meet her eye.
“Just be careful. That’s all I ask.”
I should’ve listened.
We drove for miles in his BMW, gliding past frozen fields on the motorway as if we were flying. He took us to a closed-down retail park, out in the middle of nowhere. There were no other cars, just a group of trolleys huddled together like penguins seeking warmth.
“Now my boy, the first task I have set you is simple. It requires only the slightest touch of your hand.”
“Oh yeah?” I gave him a dubious look, which he seemed to ignore.
“Do you see that dreary little shop?” He pointed at a great barn of a place, all shut-up like the rest. The sign said “Cave of Wonder” – or had done, back before half the letters had fallen off. “It has a surprisingly resistant lock, one that has so far spurned my advances. But it may yield to you…”
“Let’s say I have a suspicion.”
I shrugged. What had I to lose? We set off across the car park, him slipping and sliding in his daft pointy shoes.
“Here goes nothing.” I pressed my palm to the electronic pad. And guess what? It worked. Like magic.
The sliding door wheezed open, nowhere near wide enough for Uncle, but just enough for me to slip through. The inside was dark, and stacked high with shadowy boxes. It smelled of spices, and decaying rubber, and the sort of oily crackle you get from dodgem cars.
Uncle’s eyes were bright and eager. “You will see all kinds of interesting things in there. Touch nothing.”
“You don’t want me to leave prints? I understand.”
“Something like that.” He smiled slowly, baring gold-capped teeth. “Somewhere there will be a small black laptop. Rather old, and rather battered. An Illuminos 3. Bring it to me. That, and that alone.”
The stuff inside the ‘Cave of Wonders’… Well. I’m not sure I should tell you. Put it this way, I’m not surprised the shop was shut. I’m amazed it was ever open. A boy could get pretty distracted, you hear what I’m saying?
The laptop was there, right enough. A knackered, rubbishy old thing. God knows why he wanted it. I slung it under my arm, and headed back to the door.
“Do you have it? Do you have it?” Uncle’s bony fingers were sticking through the gap, wiggling away like creepy seaweed.
“Relax! I got it.” I started to squeeze back through, but the sole of my smart new puffy trainer got caught. I swore, and tried to twist my ankle free. “Gimme a hand. I’ve got kind of stuck.”
“At once, my boy, at once.” Uncle licked his lips. “But hand me the laptop first.”
You know how sometimes you just know something? I could tell as soon as I gave him that old computer, he’d be off. And I’d be left stuck here in the middle of nowhere, wedged half-in and half-out a sliding door.
I got stubborn. I said ‘No’.
He didn’t like that at all.
I’d been in the dark in that tacky and alluring Cave of Wonders for about fifteen minutes before I thought to turn the laptop on. My mobile had no signal, the door wouldn’t budge, and I’d given up shouting. I figured I could use the light from its screen to have a good look round, see if I could find some other way out.
Chug, chug, chug.
Chug, chug, chug.
Chug, chug, chug.
The screen was blank while it booted. When the desktop finally loaded, it had this really cheesy backdrop. Some buff middle Eastern lad with his shirt off, his arms folded across his chest.
I sniggered. I’m sure Uncle would’ve liked him fine.
I was about to put my plan into action when a little chat window pinged open, headed ‘genie’.
‘Command me,’ it said. Nothing else.
I figured it was some daft app, or a virus trying to get a hit. I tried to ignore it, but the window kept popping up.
“Ok then, if you’re so smart,” I snarled.
I typed: ‘open door’.
Which door, Master?
‘this door u idiot’
There was a hiss, and swish, and cold winter daylight seeped in.
That wasn’t the only door the laptop would open. It was just the first.
“I knew this apprentice thing was too good to last,” Mum sighed. “But Al, it hasn’t even been a day. That’s a record, even for you.”
I paid her no attention, and went up to my room. Once I got that mad laptop online, there was no end to the things it could do. Any website you wanted, anything at all, you could go through checkout without putting in a credit card number, and it’d work. The transaction would go through.
No wonder Uncle wanted to get his nasty fingers on it! I kept on testing its limits, but it didn’t seem to have any. Clothes, takeaways, DVDs, furniture, holidays, entertainment...
I had some entertainment, let me tell you.
Soon I was popular in a way I’d never been before. Money, girls, rides, laughs... It all came my way. It was easy. Problem was, there’d only ever been one girl I wanted.
She only went for proper rich guys. But that was me, right? I could do anything.
Even with all my new bling, her Dad was unconvinced. He sat behind that huge desk of his like a bloated toad.
“You’ve made something of yourself.” He let out a blue cloud of cigar smoke. “But you’re still small fry. A minnow compared to me.”
His fat eyes swivelled round his showy office.
“Tell you what, Al my lad. The day you have a house bigger and better than mine, that’s the day you can marry my Princess. Do we have a deal?”
I nodded. “I’ll do my best, sir.”
“You see that you do.”
If I mucked things up, he’d gobble me up, and spit me back out.
Can you believe some people sell their houses online? You don’t need lawyers, and proper bank accounts. Just an electronic bid in an auction. I had to wait and watch for the perfect place, but when it came up I was right in there.
Me and my old Illuminos laptop. Nothing could stop us.
Even the Toad-father had to admit I’d delivered the goods. Everything he had, I had gone one better: bedrooms, bathrooms, staircases, home cinema and gyms. Just enough to win the point, not so much to make him mad.
Princess skipped around the corridors, her eyes bright and shiny as she threw open doors, and found new and exciting things.
“Yes, I can see my little girl could be happy here.” The old man patted his face with a silk handkerchief. “But if you let her down – I’ll make you rue the day you were born.”
Mum came to the wedding, all glammed up to the max. She’d never given up her laundrette – she was convinced my good luck would disappear, just as mysteriously as it had arrived – but she tried to allow herself one day of happiness.
“I’m proud of you, son,” she whispered, as I kissed the bride. “Not many people get a happy ending.”
Maybe she was right? I don’t know… It could’ve been happily ever after – if my bloody Uncle hadn’t shown up. I was out at my club, hanging with my new posh mates, when he drove by the house in his beamer. He’d fixed a megaphone on the roof, and was crying out this slogan, “New laptops for old! All models accepted! Miraculous upgrades! New laptops for old!”
How ridiculous was that? And my Princess fell for it!
She’d seen my miracle laptop in the study. It must’ve irked her somehow – it was the only tatty thing in the whole gleaming house.
You never get something for nothing, do you? She hadn’t worked that out.
Neither had I.
Never did tell Princess the story of the laptop. Wanted her to think I done it all on my own, not using some daft hacking program.
Pride, you see. Wanted her to think I was smart.
So when Uncle came to the door, with his “New Laptops for Old” scheme, she didn’t think twice. She scooped the Illuminos up and ran out, waved it at Uncle. Begged him to have it.
I can just see him now, his wicked eyes all a glitter. “Oh, I’ll take that terrible old dinosaur off your hands, my dear. Quite happily. And you can have the very latest ipad. How would you like that? Any one you choose. Isn’t that a good deal?”
Away went my fortune, my luck, my power; in exchange for a shiny toy.
He must’ve laughed as he got back into his car, his prize in his hands at last.
“I’m sure your dear husband will love it!” he called, as he sped away. “I hear they’re quite the fashion…”