Note: the names have been changed for the sake of privacy.
This story is about Marcus Brown, but first, I need to tell you about coffee shops.
The next time you visit a coffee shop lay on the ground. Don’t offer any explanation. Just lay there for a solid 30-seconds, stand up, and carry on as if nothing happened.
That was the first time I’d been introduced to the idea of a comfort challenge. They’re a way of confronting the things that make us feel uneasy and anxious. However, when inspected, we realise our mind is making tigers out of kittens.
Laying on a coffee shop floor, however, is stupid. It was the brainchild of some sensationalist podcast guest who wiggled into my feed when I was 22.
While I suggest staying away from the sticky floor of your Starbucks, do run into the feeling conjured up by the thought of doing this. You know, the no-I-couldn’t-possibly-do-that-alert that the sensible part of your brain uses to keep you in check.
It’s a conflicted part of the brain. It both keeps us safe but has the habit of going too far, bubble wrapping us with boundaries that, if we break, allow us to start living richer lives.
Maybe it’s overcoming your insecurities. You just want to take your top off when lounging in the park on a sunny day. You thought people would leer or vomit, but instead, they react with apathy. Liberated, you can now enjoy the heat on your skin and the grass on your back.
A more difficult one is the coffee challenge. When queuing for your morning coffee, offer to buy the person behind you a coffee too. Just say it’s your good deed for the day. I’ve only ever had good results; the person is usually surprised and delighted. Sometimes we’d chat or they’d insist on getting me a pastry. Other times they’ve been having a terrible time of life and the gesture brightened their day.
You’re mad, Jamie. Yeah, a little. The comfort challenges are meant to be uncomfortable, but conquering these little challenges makes it easier when you have to do something uncomfortable in real life, like telling someone their fly is down.
The latest two challenges I’ve been working on are talking to strangers and five-star hotels.
Five-star hotels manage to be simultaneously the most inviting and excluding of places. They promise visitors the height of hospitality but terrify many because they feel like outsiders amongst the opulence.
An obvious secret about five-star hotels is that you don’t have to be a guest to go inside them. Suffering from cabin fever, I decided to start venturing outside the flat to work once the pandemic restrictions lifted at the end of 2021.
Thinking about where to go, I considered what the nicest place is I could go, be left to my own devices, and not worry about having my things stolen.
That’s when I remembered five-star hotels have lobbies.
For the price of a cup of coffee, you can spend hours sitting by the glass fireplace, enjoying the fantastical art and plush chairs, while observing the many eclectic people that revolve through the hotel’s doors.
The other price I had to pay was overcoming feeling like a fraud when I walked in. Confronting the discomfort, I realised worrying about being thrown out was foolish.
The truth is, the lobbies are usually dead quiet. Too many people are put off by the decadence, so the staff are more than overjoyed to see a new face.
‘Hey babe, you’re looking mighty fit this morning.’
I’m not sure why, but it’s an accepted fact that people video calling next to you are more annoying than people having an equivalent conversation in person. Scientists are mystified as to why, as the decibels involved are the same, so most attribute the anomaly to the same forces behind the Bermuda Triangle and however non-stick pans work.
Looking across from my notepad, I saw the man who broke my bliss. He was in a luxury tracksuit and flip-flops with thick white socks. He’d decided to accessorise with a Rolex, baseball caps and, despite it being a whisker past midday, a vodka and something. That was when I decided to eavesdrop.
To catch you up, the woman on the phone was his date from last night. ‘Why did you just disappear after dinner?’.
‘Because you got drunk and passed out on the bed’.
‘So, did anything happen?’.
‘No, of course not. What do you take me for?’, she replied in a rich Iberian accent. The staff member bringing his replacement drink overheard and giggled.
‘Oh, okay.' He sounded disappointed.
He changed his line of questioning.
‘What are you doing for food?’.
‘Well, I just woke up, so I’m making a pasta dish’.
‘Nice. Spaghetti I hope.’
‘I’m not sure. I asked my chef to put something together’.
I wondered if asking your chef to make your lunch should count as cooking. That’s when he looked at me.
‘Mate, I’m so sorry. You’re here, like, doing writing and we’re being loud. Is this alright? We’re not disrupting you?’.
‘No, no. It’s fine,’ I lied. What did you expect me to say? I’m British. Plus, I’d hardly seen anyone during the lockdown, so part of me was buzzed about being able to interface with another human.
‘You embarrassed me so much last night. Every time the waiter would come over, you’d tell them how fit you thought I was and how I’m too good for you. Then you’d start singing whatever song was stuck in your head.’
‘Yes, you can’t keep saying things like that’. This was the giggling hotel staffer from earlier. She had returned with some snacks and decided to chime in. I learned that she had been on duty last night too and witnessed the car crash of a first date.
His date’s pasta was ready, so they said goodbye. Hanging up, he turned to me again.
‘Don’t you think she was fit? Did you see her?’.
‘Umm, well, I didn’t really see her but I’m sure she was’. This was my moment. The last time I made myself uncomfortable by speaking to a stranger in this hotel, they turned out to be an NFL player. Perhaps this guy would have a similar story.
‘What brings you to London?’, I ventured.
He revealed he had seven children. All girls. He calls them his seven dwarfs, though some of them are quite big now. In fact, his eldest was studying in London, which was why he was in town, to offer her some retail therapy.
‘Oh, but you can’t meet good women nowadays’. We’d moved on to dating. ‘I just want to meet a nice wholesome lady, you know. Like her, if she wasn’t already snapped up’. He pointed at Chloe, the staffer who giggles. It turns out they’d become friends the previous night; she told him to visit more country pubs.
’That’s where we all hide. Working in the country pubs. I’m only here because I wanted a change of pace’, she explained.
He made a note of the pubs Chloe recommended and then told me his name. It clearly carried weight, ‘I’m Marcus Brown’.
The conversation turned to me. I explained the whole situation of losing my job during the pandemic and deciding to start my own company. That’s when he told me how he made his money.
The train rocked; a 20-year-old Marcus searched the carriage for somewhere to sit. A young man clacking away on his laptop caught his eye. He wondered if the seat next to him was free. It was, so history was made.
A bold Marcus got chatting: why was his new neighbour clacking his keyboard? What kind of code was he writing? Computer science? Oxford? Building an app? For what? Sending money? The cogs in Marcus’ mind turned.
A year later, the two men had moved to Monaco to sell their payment app to clients all over Europe. The computer clacker handled the tech and Marcus handled the sales. His girlfriend became his wife, and his wife a mother, as the business bloomed alongside their family nest.
‘What brought you back to England?’. He looked at me and swayed. I think the vodkas had finally met up with whatever he’d drunk last night.
‘Ah, well that’d be because of the cancer.’ He took out his phone while he continued his explanation.
‘My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, so we came back to London for treatment.’
He showed me his phone. It showed a picture of him, but younger, fresher and smiling. His arms were wrapped around his girlfriend. He scrolled. Now they were walking out of a church and taking their first steps together as husband and wife.
‘I look at this every day. Her Insta has become like a mural for me. She was just so bright. Look, she’s like sunshine, even here.’
A video started to play. It showed a woman, frail, hair gone, but singing and dancing with wasted arms. She wasn’t alone. Beside her was a nurse. It was the last video he’d filmed of her. She died that week.
‘Mr. Brown. My apologies. Have you checked out yet?’. He realised he hasn’t, so popped his flip-flops back on and went up to his room. Chloe and I exchanged a look. She knew his wife wasn’t in the picture anymore, but she had no idea he was a widower. It’d been about six months since she’d passed.
We thought about his messy expressions of self-care: the vodkas and the dating, both ways of numbing the loss. He thought throwing money at the problem might help, so had ditched Tinder in favour of a dating app for the rich.
Instead of being open to everyone, all members were vetted. If you had a net worth of over £1 million, then you could join. Otherwise, the community could vote you in if they thought you were hot enough.
‘What shoe size are you?’. Marcus was back; Selfridge bags hung from his arms, a suitcase rolled behind him, and a Nike bag dangled from his hand. Chloe’s face shifted, ‘Who me?’.
‘What shoe size are you?’.
‘A six. Why?’.
‘Here, have these.’ He handed her the Nike bag. Inside was a pair of Nikes and outside was a Chloe dancing the dance of someone all too excited by the gift but wanting to rebuff the gesture in the name of professionalism and decorum. She was defeated by Christmas.
‘No, honestly. Have them. I got them for my daughter, but she bought them yesterday. Think of them as a thank you. You’ve been so great these last few days. Plus, it’s Christmas’.
His driver was waiting outside. Chloe said goodbye and went to put the shoes in her locker in case someone stole them. Marcus and I exchanged numbers, and I sent him the links to the videos I’d been watching about processing grief and loss.
I cycled home, enjoying the downhill ride while thinking about the gamble of talking to strangers.
Hanging up my keys, I did what I always do whenever I meet a new person. I Google them.
Man sentenced to one-year imprisonment after pleading guilty to defrauding 273 victims out of a total of £8.9 million.
Marcus Brown ran a bogus investment firm that would cold-call elderly and vulnerable people to manipulate them into putting their money into worthless investments.
Once the money was deposited, Mr Brown would withdraw the funds. After a raid by the City of London Police, £600,000 has been recovered. The rest is still being traced.
Mr Brown will be released from prison at the end of 2019.
A photo accompanied the news report. The mugshot was a stripped-down version of the decadent man I’d spent the majority of my afternoon with. I thought about the millions in defrauded funds waiting to be recovered. I thought about this man’s Rolex, his luxury hotel suite, the Selfridge’s bags, the private driver, the rich-persons dating app, and the disregard for the price of everything.
Somehow he’d managed to get away with it. Stash the funds, wait out his sentence and then start living life on Easy Street. I’m still confounded by it. What else was a fake? Did he even have a wife? Does he have any children? Was he ever an entrepreneur of anything other than being a crook? Was I his latest mark?
Jamie | @JamoeMills
From a midsummer in Tallinn, Estonia ☀️🇪🇪