The man knocking on the distressed door of the most rundown flat in the most ruined estate in the most shunned corner of London has a nose that looks like a bellend.
Gideon Smith steps back from the door with a smirk of satisfaction at a job well done and waits for someone to answer.
Smith is the definition of nondescript, the sort of person who could run down the high street on a busy Saturday afternoon stark bollock naked and with his head on fire without being noticed. He has buttoned-down hair with an appallingly neat side parting, a forehead that is expansive to no good end or reason, and a face that would be entirely without feature but for that one remarkable thing in its middle — and this thing is often and inevitably remarked upon. The remarkable thing being, of course, the nose that looks like a thing. It is, perhaps, the sole thing by which to remember Gideon Smith because the rest of him slips out of the consciousness so easily. The bridge of the nose is unusually round and tubular and angled in such a way as to suggest dangling-ness and terminates in an unusually bulbous and fleshy tip that is deeply cleft in a very unfortunate and evocative way. It is not just a feature that sticks in the memory, it is a talking point in itself. ‘Gideon who?’ people might say when asked to recall him. ‘Which Smith?’ they might ask. ‘Oh, you mean the bloke with a nose like a fucking bellend?’ And, ‘Christ! I remember the nose, don’t remember the rest of him. Isn’t he a bit of a wanker?’ It is, you might say, his claim to fame, that nose that looks like a fucking bellend.
There are other reasons besides the notable nose for which Mr Smith ought to be well known. If only anyone actually knew them.
Having rapped on the door and waited for an answer, Smith checked his watch, checked his phone, checked his official tablet, and knocked again — all of which entitled him to another smirk of satisfaction at a batch of jobs well done.
While waiting, he lamented the shabbiness of the door and turned to take in the dilapidated panorama that was mainly composed of blocks of flats identical to the one whose open walkway provided his vantage.
This part of London — and Smith knew it well from his work — lacked. That was it, it just lacked. Whatever a community could have was lacking here. It lacked shopping centres, it lacked branded spaces; it lacked proper branded cafes that sold branded cappuccino, it lacked nice branded shops that sold nice branded cardigans. It lacked other things too. It lacked proper property prices, it lacked cultural cohesion, it lacked niceness; it lacked jobs, it lacked hope, it lacked get-up-and-go, it lacked the idea that in order to get anywhere, you had to apply yourself. In other words, it lacked a clue. It was amazing to Smith that it didn’t lack sky or air.
In essence, it lacked aspiration.
Instead of all those things that a nice, well-brought up neighbourhood had, it had boarded up windows, it had gaps in terraces, it had people hanging around on street corners, it had crime, it had violence, it had migrants, it had burned out shells and dereliction.
And, most of all, it had only itself to blame.
Behind the door was at last a clanking and thudding and then a voice asked, ‘Who’s that then?’
‘Department of Aspiration,’ said the man outside the door with relish. ‘The name’s Smith, Gideon Smith, Senior Facilitator Gideon Smith. I have an appointment with one Harry English, Mr Harry English, a client of the Department of Aspirations.’
The door opened as far as the security chain would allow.
The face that looked out was not so old, probably in its thirties, but it was certainly care-worn; tired and care-worn.
What must have once been attractive blond hair dangled lankly across a receding hairline, apparently looking for a pair of scissors and showing considerable disappointment at not finding any. The grey eyes might once have been steely but were now puddle-like and rheumy. There was a conspicuous dent in the man’s skull, high on the forehead, splitting the pate into the hairline like an obscene and fleshy canyon on an improbable and distant planet.
After a pause that might have been the time it took to deal with the sight of the nose, the face at the door asked, ‘Got any ID?’
Smith smiled genially and made a note on his official tablet. ‘Asked … for … ID. Mr English, your request to see my ID is going into your facilitation report. And may be taken into account in the ongoing resolution of your case.’
‘I can’t ask for your ID?’
‘Of course, you can ask for my ID,’ Smith told him. ‘It is absolutely your inalienable right to ask for my ID or the ID of anyone else on your doorstep. Indeed, it’s entirely sensible in these drug- and crime-fuelled times to ask for my ID. It’s irresponsible not to. But given that I am here in the role of facilitator, with the express and sole purpose of helping Mr Harry English — helping, you see, not hindering — asking for ID does not show a grateful and cooperative attitude.’
‘I … well.’
The man with the dented head closed the door, rattled the chain off and opened the door again.
‘I’m Harry English.’
‘Ahem,’ said Smith.
‘Please come in.’
‘Ahem,’ said Smith again. He was pointing his ID at close range right into English’s face.
‘It’s OK,’ said English. ‘I don’t really want to see it.’
‘You’ve asked for it. I’ve noted it in the facilitation report.’
‘I thought you might be someone else.’
‘How could I be someone else with this ID?’ asked Smith with a big reassuring smile and a quick but non-malicious roll of the eyes.
‘OK, I’ve looked at it now,’ said English.
‘Would you like to come in?’
‘Thank you. I most certainly would.’
English laboriously turned in the doorway with a stiff-legged gait. He grasped a railing fixed to the wall to support himself, which rattled insecurely and appeared ready to drop off.
‘This railing is very loose,’ observed Smith. ‘What have you done to it?’
‘Nothing. The council put it up like this. It’s your standard installation for standard, renting clients. They said that if I wanted the job done properly, it would require a premium installation and I could pay to upgrade to that level of service. I couldn’t afford the upgrade to have it fixed securely to the wall, so I went standard and they attached it wobbly as per the terms of that level of service. If I ever get any money, I can get the job upgraded to the premium level.’
‘Excellent,’ said Smith and made another note on his official tablet. ‘That was a scheme to raise the level of public service commensurate to the private sector, you know. The central government insisted the local governments accept it or lose more funding.’
‘No one likes to lose funding I don’t suppose’, said English negotiating the doorway from the hall to the living room. It seemed that his legs didn’t want to go where the rest of him wanted to go.
‘Well,’ said Smith drawing his voice up to its full self-importance, ‘it was funding that got us into this mess in the first place.’
‘Wouldn’t surprise me in the least,’ said English obligingly, while wedging himself through the door, holding on to the frame with one hand and bullying each of his recalcitrant pins into cooperation with the other. ‘What mess is that?’
Smith expostulated, both elated and amused ‘Ha! What mess is that? Just the near bankrupting of the nation by the previous lot, that’s all. Spend, spend, spend, spend, with no thought how the nation was going to pay for it. Throwing money at the unemployed, the feckless little skivers, the disabled, immigrants, nurses, doctors — buckets of money, like it was going out of fashion. Left us in this state of ruin.’
English had persuaded his legs into the living room and Smith was drifting in behind him.
‘Oh, yes, luckily the current lot came along and instilled some sense into the proceedings. Austerity, and lots of it! Regained a firm grip on the purse strings, balanced the books, brought back common sense housekeeping, set about establishing some good old fashioned fiscal equilibrium. Rewarded effort, told the hangers-on what’s what.’
The living room was a spartan space, there was not much room and, evidently, not much living in it either.
There was a sofa of sorts in bile green and a couple of chairs in the same colour. There was a rickety table in brown formica with a stash of dribbly condiments which were more or less empty and apparently kept on the table as a matter of form more than practicality — a table should have its display of condiments even if the bottles were empty.
‘Oh, yes,’ said English with a far-away look in his eyes as he travelled back in time, ‘I seem to remember that previous lot bunging millions and millions at the banks after they messed up and started dragging the world economy down with them. That can’t be right, I said to my mucker Dusty — that’s Dusty Miller, by the way; we were in the desert just outside Mosul — I said, that can’t be right bunging all that money at the banks just because they’re failing, not when there’s poor on the street and the hospitals are struggling —’
‘Ah! Ah! Ah!’ Smith interjected. ‘Different thing, different thing entirely. Powerhouses of the economy are the banks, powerhouses of the economy. And look, they were nearly brought down by the feckless and useless, weren’t they, all those silly, irresponsible people borrowing money that they couldn’t repay to buy houses or whatever. What could the banks do — say no? No, it was an honour and duty for us all to help out the banks in their time of need. An honour and a duty.’
‘Oh,’ said English. ‘Is that what it was?’
On the mantelpiece were some photographs of English in younger, less damaged days. In all the photos he was wearing army uniform: there was the standard dress uniform portrait, and the rest were all of Harry English in battle fatigues while on deployment. Here he was with some smiling, laughing comrades; here in full combat gear in dusty terrain, giving a thumbs up, rifle hanging across his chest; here again in combat gear but with a bunch of cheerful and colourful but grubby kids in Pashtun garb including a grinning waif in a cute pink dress. Next to the photos there was also a medal and a framed regimental badge.
‘Excellent!’ said Smith. ‘Fantastic! You are, of course, an old soldier. It says so in your file. I so very much admire you guys. Going out there in all weathers and laying down your lives for Queen and country.’ He consulted his official tablet again. ‘Laying down your legs for Queen and country in your case.’
‘That’s right,’ affirmed English. ‘I was in the army all right. Afghanistan, Iraq — I was in those places.’
‘You know,’ said Smith, ‘in America when people meet a veteran, they say, “Thank you for your service”. Imagine that! “Thank you for your service.” I think we ought to do the same sort of thing over here, you know.’
‘There’s a thing,’ said English.
Smith examined the pictures on the mantelpiece, leaning in close as if sniffing them to test for authenticity.
‘I seriously thought of joining the armed services, you know. Oh, yes, we have a lot in common your job and mine: public service, servants of the Crown, selfless dedication to duty, protecting the public and the integrity of the state. Keeping the ne’er-do-wells, the evildoers, the scroungers and the foreigners at bay. The camaraderie: a band of brothers united by a common purpose and common experience. Oh, yes, I nearly joined the armed services, but I joined the civil one instead. One day when I was kid, I saw soldiers with guns in their hands standing outside some ministry building in Whitehall, and I thought to myself, so who’s most important, the people doing the guarding, or the people inside being guarded? So I joined the people inside.’
English supported himself with one hand on the dodgy little table. ‘Would you like a seat?’
‘Except,’ continued Smith, pulling himself away from the photos, ‘You’re not working now, are you. What happened?’
‘It was my fourth tour, this one in Afghanistan. Like most of our blokes that copped one in those wars, it was an IED. We were on patrol, it was Helmand, and —’
On a mission to inspect the kitchen, Smith squeezed past English through the door, causing the soldier to topple into the chair that served the table.
‘You missed a Aspirational Opportunities Interview, Mr English. Last Thursday. Midday.’ Smith opened the cabinets above the counter and sink, inspecting the contents: a tin of beans and a can of tomato soup, some dust.
‘I called the department about that,’ said English. ‘Before and after.’
Smith consulted his official tablet again and smiled reassuringly. ‘Odd that. No mention of any calls in the case log. Why would that be?’
‘I don’t know, but I called. I don’t have a phone, but I went out and walked around with my legs until I found a phone box that wasn’t knackered. Took a while, that did, but I called. Then I called again from the hospital. There was no answer either time. I left messages on the machine.’
‘But there’s nothing in the log, Mr English.’ There wasn’t much in the kitchen besides the cabinets, the top and the sink. It was not the sort of place you would find Jamie Oliver. It was not the sort of place you would find a scavenging cockroach or microbe, there being such an obvious lack of sustenance. On the counter was a box of tea bags, a mug, a teaspoon, a small fridge — Smith opened the fridge.
‘Well, I’m sorry about that.’
‘Your apology will be noted in your facilitation report.’ Smith sniffed at the contents of the fridge: one plastic bottle of milk, nearly finished, a sense of warm air on the nose. That was it.
‘Nevertheless, you did miss the Aspirational Opportunities Interview.’
‘I had to go to the hospital. It’s my legs, you see.’
‘But you don’t have any legs.’
‘Well, it was my stumps.’
Smith made a note on his official tablet.
‘It was a Aspirational Opportunities Interview and you missed it to go to the hospital.’
‘Yes, the specialist wanted to see me and that was the time he made. The same day and time as the Aspirational Opportunities Interview. That’s why I called you.’
‘NHS hospital, I suppose.’
‘Well, yes, isn’t ev —’
‘How did I guess?’ Smith rolled his eyes and sneered.
The man from the DoA opened the drawers under the counters — there were two of them. One of them was not broken and was able to contain things such as cutlery. Among the thin smattering of tarnished knives, forks and spoons, something caught his eye.
‘Specialists! What do they know? Always … I’m not saying they’re … ‘ He sighed and cheerfully gave his eyes another roll. ‘But! Well, look at it this way. I have here on my official tablet —’ he waved the official tablet at English ‘— a report on you from your NHS specialist appended to your facilitation file. Just look! Two amputated legs, one above, one below the knee, sliver of skull missing, shrapnel in head and torso and PTSD. Now, you see what I mean? PTSD is what women get each month when they’re getting ready to menstruate, so either this specialist is an idiot or he’s mocking us. OK? And it didn’t occur to you to change the time of the so-called specialist’s appointment?’ He went back to the interesting thing he had found in the drawer and fished it out.
‘Oh. Does the Aspirational Opportunities Interview take priority over the doctor? You see, it was about my legs — my stumps — and the specialist is available only once in a blue one. The hospital was very specific about that.’
The object that had caught Smith’s interest was metallic, peculiar, and very complex. It hinged or pivoted in the middle like a pair of pliers, and as it did so it revealed a toothy mass of prongs, blades, tools and other instruments that could only be described as things.
‘What is this?’
‘Oh, that’s my can opener. Well, it’s a pocket tool kit. I bought it when I was in the army to supplement the standard issue gear. Dead useful it was. Once our APC was ambushed and disabled by an RPG but I got it going again only using that and while under fire. These days I just use it as a can opener. Not too many RPGs around here, thankfully.’ The old soldier chuckled. ‘Fantastic bit of engineering though. You got everything there. Look at the way it hinges like a pair of pliers? That’s because you can use it as a pair of pliers. You can’t show me even a Swiss Army knife that can do that. But mostly I use it as a can opener. I’ve always said that the most important bit of kit a soldier can have after his rifle is a can opener. An army marches on its stomach, you know. And I still use it to this very day. That little gadget has both saved my life and keeps me alive, that’s what I like to say.’
Smith clacked the handles a couple of times. ‘Hmmm.’
‘That would be an heirloom if I had any heirs,’ the soldier said reflectively and sadly.
‘The miracles of modern science,’ said Smith with reverence. ‘Can you by any chance prove that you were at a meeting with the specialist?’
English looked startled. ‘Well, I’ve got the appointment card.’
‘Super! Can I see it?’
Smith could find nothing else to inspect in the kitchen and edged back into the living room where he got into an awkward little dance with the old soldier who was attempting to get something from the mantelpiece. When they had separated themselves, English presented Smith with his appointment card, which the civil servant then photographed with his official tablet.
‘There you go,’ said Smith. ‘Irrefutable proof that you were at the hospital at the time you had the Aspirational Opportunities Interview.’
‘But I said that, didn’t I?’
‘Yes, but now I’ve got the evidence. It will go in the facilitation report. Are you aware of the penalties for missing a Aspirational Opportunities Interview?’
‘According to the Striver’s Contract you signed, failure to attend an Aspirational Opportunities Interview is equivalent to failing to strive. A contract thus broken can be thus terminated.’
‘In short, in very short in your case not having legs, we can sanction you.’
‘Yes, sanction you. That means withdrawing our material support until such time that we deem you are showing sufficient efforts to fulfil your side of the bargain.’
‘Withdrawing material support?’
‘Withdrawing material support. That means we cut off your money. All of it.’
English stood to attention. ‘Look, I don’t want no handouts. I’ve looked out for myself all my life. We didn’t take no handouts in the desert, we just got on with the job. I just want to get back to work and stand on my own two legs — my own two prosthetics.’ What English didn’t say was that he had nary two beans to rub together and needed a bit of support getting back with the working pack.
‘Excellent stuff. We can only help those that are willing to help themselves. Isn’t that right, Private English?’
‘Absolutely, no doubt about it. Looking forward to getting stuck back in, I am.’
‘Excellent!’ Smith helped himself to the sofa and flipped through screens on his official tablet. ‘So what are we doing about getting back into productivity then?’
‘Well, mainly, I’m looking for a job.’
‘When you’re not lollygagging at the hospital.’
‘That’s right. I might curtail the hospital bit if it’s going to get in the way.’
‘Fabulous! And what kind of job are you looking for?’
‘Well, one that I can do. I’m not too fussy really. I just want to get on with it.’
‘And what can you do?’
‘I can shoot guns and march around on parade grounds. Correction: I can shoot guns and I used to be able to march around on parade grounds. I don’t think the marching bit is viable now.’
‘Have you seen any advertised jobs involving shooting guns?’
‘Not really. The army and the police are the best places for that, I’m ruled out of them now.’
‘You must be a fit bloke, being a soldier and all that. How about building work, or gardening?’
‘Those jobs need legs.’
‘I suppose legs might be handy in those roles. How about security guard? You have the gravitas and the training.’
‘I still don’t have the legs. Couldn’t chase down the tea leaves or whatever.’
‘Council worker — bin man, road man.’
Smith clicked his fingers in epiphany.
‘Really, Mr English, I’m throwing out suggestions here and you’re poo-pooing them all. I have to wonder about your willingness to play the game. Give me some help here!’
‘Sorry, Mr Smith, I’m trying my best but with the best will in the world, that IED in Helmand has slightly shaped my options.’
Smith runkled his face in scepticism.
‘How about a sitting down job?’ English suggested.
‘A sitting down job — that’s progress. But it’s an overly broad category and you’re going to have to refine it a bit.’
‘Well, what sort of sitting down jobs are there?’
‘Really, Mr English, this is the attitude I expect from a petulant school child.’
Sweat broke on English’s brow.
‘How about office work, Mr English?’
‘Brilliant! I’ll do it. When do I start?’
‘Do you have any office skills?’
‘I can sit down.’
‘Yes. Usually office work requires a suite of skills, sitting down being just one. Do you have, for example, keyboard skills?’
‘Keyboard skills? No, I never was any good at music, which was one reason I joined the army.’
‘Keyboard, as in computer skills.’
‘Computer skills!’ Relief illuminated the soldier’s face like God’s grace at the second coming. ‘I most certainly do. Targeting and fire control systems, combat environment management systems, integrated battlefield radar systems, GPS tracking and navigation systems, battlefield communications systems, and, and …’
‘How about Word or Excel?’
Smith gave his eyes another emphatic roll. ‘You really are not making this easy for me.’
‘I’m sorry about that. I’m not sure what to say, you see. I’m used to following orders. Give me some orders and I’ll follow them. Order me back to work!’
‘Really, it’s not my job to give you orders, Mr English. I can’t order you back to work, this is a democracy. The fact is, it’s your job to have initiative and aspiration. Above all, you must have aspiration. Tell me what you aspire to.’
‘I aspire to having a job.’
Smith leapt to his feet, English staggered to his prosthetics.
‘You leave me no alternative, Mr English. Your attitude leaves a lot to be desired.’ Smith flung out his arm, pointing at the bewildered ex-soldier. ‘You’re sanctioned!’
Gideon Smith left Harry English’s flat with the satisfied smirk of a job well done. He made a thoroughly satisfied tick on a spreadsheet on his official tablet and went on his way.
His way took him to a part of town less destroyed than Harry’s, a part of town where aspiration had at least dropped in to say hello, though had not necessarily hung around for a chat.
He found the address he sought, parked outside, traveled the short path through the tiny square of dilapidation between the gate and the front door, which was opened by a lady of, to Smith, harried but irrelevant appearance. There was a demonic screaming and howling behind her quite out of character with the semi-civilised neighbourhood and quite in character with a cannibals’ tea party.
Children. Lots of children. Rampant children; children in full indulged cry; children moving with the speed and consuming purpose of rodents.
The client here was in for trouble: Smith didn’t do children, and consequently didn’t think anyone else should either.
‘Department of Aspiration. The name’s Smith, Gideon Smith, Senior Facilitator Gideon Smith. I have an appointment with one Malcolm Spinney, Mr Malcom Spinney, a client of the Department of Aspirations.’
The woman didn’t smile or say hello. She said, ‘Wait there,’ and turned back into the house.
Smith made a note on his official tablet.
Malcolm Spinney had an appalling moustache. It was the first thing Smith noticed about him. The moustache was right there in the middle of the face, like a semi-drowned shaggy dog. You would not normally expect to find a semi-drowned dog in the middle of a human face; you would expect to find a semi-drowned dog in the proximity of actual drowned dogs, by or in a canal, perhaps, not on or in the middle of a human face, especially not a more-or-less actual-size semi-drowned dog.
‘Welcome!’ said Spinney as if he were genuinely pleased to see Smith. ‘It’s the man from the ministry! Welcome to my castle!’
The castle was terraced and squeezed into an inadequate amount of space between two similarly squeezed terraces. It had wonky gutters for crenellations, a worn concrete path for a drawbridge, and a precarious pile of very used bricks for a keep. Something had conspicuously nested in the one watchtower on the roof, preventing Santa from access come Christmas.
‘Castle! Well, I’m English, this is my home, ergo, it’s my castle!’ Spinney laughed like the wag he wasn’t. ‘And you are very welcome! Come in, good sir, come in! Are you a knight errant? If so, what is your quest, and how might I help with it?’
The house smelled more like a farm than a castle. Smith was not sure what a castle ought to smell like, but he thought that poo might not be the dominant note.
‘Poo,’ confirmed Smith by making a note on his official tablet.
‘Moustache,’ he thought. He made another note.
The man from the ministry observed further that in addition to the appalling moustache, Spinney was wearing an appalling sweater. It was a sweater that had eschewed taste or style for unmitigated appallingness. It was a dark green that might have been intended to suggest the big outdoors, verdancy, English forests full of oaks, but instead suggested fresh cow pat — a big pile of very fresh cow pat. There was an appalling shirt too, one of unspecifiable and probably illegal colour, which hung from under the sweater, completely missing the waistband of the wearer’s shit-brown trousers. The sweater looked made to go with the moustache and may well have been made with the pelt of the same dog.
Smith made another note on the official tablet.
The visitor was drawn by Spinney and his mission into the dark heart of the house, down a passageway made exclusively for broken toys among which lurked more of the scuttling, ratty children, and then the passageway emerged into a kitchen that may have been the source of the smell of poo.
‘Would you like tea?’
‘That could be construed as accepting a bribe from a client of the department.’
‘OK, well, milk? Sugar? One lump or two?’
‘Erm, I think I just said that accepting a beverage could be —’
Spinney laughed a hearty laugh, cutting Smith off. ‘I know! It was a joke, you see. You said it was like a bribe, so I said —’ adopting a comic tone of bluster he had clearly got from the TV ‘— would you like milk? With your bribe?’
Spinney went back to his mirth while Smith made a note on his official tablet.
‘Bribery is no joking matter,’ he told Spinney, who was still having a good giggle to himself. ‘Bribery is a very serious offence.’
‘That’s OK, I make a very serious cup of tea,’ japed the host, clearly chuffed at this upgrade of humour. ‘Talking of which, I’m going to have one even if you don’t. I know it’s only mid-morning, but you only live once, so live dangerously, that’s what I say.’
Smith had no idea what to say; he had no idea what Spinney was on about.
More of the small creatures circled his legs with some special circling noises and biffed each other with bits of broken toy seized from the hall.
‘Well, Mr Spinney, you do seem to have rather a lot of children. Are they all yours?’
‘All mine? Not that I know of. Though you can’t be too sure. There’s no knowing what I get up to during my blackouts.’ This mysterious remark noisily amused Spinney some more.
‘Blackouts! Oh, dear!’ he spluttered.
‘Blackouts?’ inquired Smith. ‘There’s no mention of blackouts in your facilitation dossier.’
Spinney guffawed and clutched his sides. ‘Blackouts!’ he squealed. ‘Facilitation dossier! Nice one!’
‘Mr Spinney, do you have a medical condition you haven’t told us about?’
The man in the embarrassing sweater was bent double over the kitchen counter, red in the face and apparently choking with hilarity.
Smith was lost again. ‘Yes, Mr Spinney, it’s a condition of receiving benefits, clearly stated in your Striver’s Contract, that all medical conditions that might affect your ability to take up work should be reported to the department. Essentially, in this case, that means me.’
Spinney screamed and tumbled to the floor where he clutched his sides, and waggled his legs while tears streamed down his face.
‘Do you in fact have blackouts?’
‘No!’ exclaimed Spinney as if it were the silliest thing he had every heard. ‘That was another joke. I thought you were along for the ride. Oh, dear!’ he gasped, wiping tears from his eyes and climbing back to his feet.
‘What, then, is the connection between children and blackouts?’ Spinney paused in watering the kettle and made a great show of attempting to control his face.
‘Yes, you see, Mr Spinney, it says in your, er, facilitation dossier that you have three children but there are rather too many to count here. It would help if they stayed still, but I suspect more than three.’
‘Yes, well, we are rather a mecca for children around here. While Mum and Dad are busy, they are welcome to wreak havoc here.’
‘You are looking after the neighbourhood children?’
‘More getting overrun with them. They are welcome, the little tykes. We love ‘em, you know, children. The sound of children playing is truly joyous, don’t you think? It’s the sound of our future, our legacy.’
Somewhere in the house a child screamed in pain and burst into tears while another bellowed in evil triumph.
‘So you are running a daycare centre for the neighbourhood.’
‘What? Well, it is daytime, and we do care, so I suppose so, in a way, though caring is twenty-four-seven, that’s what I say.’
With ah-ha haste, Smith made a note on his official tablet.
‘So, Mr. Spinney, you missed an appointment with the Department of Aspiration last Tuesday, an Aspirational Opportunities Interview. Can you tell me about that?’
‘Oh, yes!’ exclaimed Spinney brightly. ‘Good news! I was at a job interview!’
‘You elected to go to a job interview when you were scheduled for an interview with the DoA?’
‘Why, yes, it’s all about getting back to work, you know. Given the choice between going to a job interview, and going to see you to tell you I would have been at an interview had I not been with you, well, I thought the former a better course of action.’
‘You thought it was, I quote, “A better course of action”?’
‘Well, it was a job interview, you know. For a job. I did call you repeatedly and left messages. You didn’t get the messages?’
Smith consulted his official tablet. ‘There is no record of any messages in your case log. Why, then are there no calls recorded in your case log?’
‘Ah ha!’ Spinney held up his mobile phone for Smith to see. The screen was displaying the phone’s call record, which did indeed list several calls over a number of days to the Department of Aspirations. ‘That is your phone number, is it not?’
Smith took the phone from Spinney and squinted at the screen a moment before taking a photo with his tablet. ‘You seem to be storing government data on your phone, Mr Spinney, without authorisation.’
‘What? The phone numbers?’
‘They are government phone numbers, which makes them government information.’ He made a note on his official tablet. ‘So, rather than fulfil your obligation to attend all department appointments and Aspirational Opportunities Interviews as clearly stipulated among the responsibilities as stated in your Striver’s Contract, you chose to attend a job interview.’
‘So you admit it.’
‘Admit it? I told you it.’
Smith made another triumphant note on his official tablet.
‘Are you aware of your responsibility to attend all Aspirational Opportunities Interviews as clearly stipulated among your obligations as stated in your Striver’s Contract?’
‘Ah ha!’ Smith’s fingers busied themselves on the screen again.
‘About this job interview. It was —’
‘We are here to help you, Mr Spinney. But we can’t help you if you don’t help yourself, if you don’t work with us. We put aside time last Tuesday to see you, time with your name on it; special time, department time; time we could have used for any of the many aspirants who are working with us; time that was wasted while you went off on an errand of your own choosing.’
‘It was —’
‘Mr Spinney, there are people in this world who pull their weight. There are others who take advantage of the weight pullers. You have to ask yourself some searching questions, Mr Spinney. What kind of person does the state want you to be?’
‘Look at this, Mr Smith,’ said Spinney. ‘Right here.’
‘You are pointing at the back door. What does the back door have to do with your case?’
‘No, the back door is like a magic door. It will take us to another world. Just you see. Let’s go through that portal now and see what’s on the other side.’
Smith searched on his official tablet for a box marked ‘magic doors’ to check. Finding none, he followed Spinney through the gateway to the next universe.
The next universe, the magic land, smelled more strongly of poo than even the interior of the house and contained chickens. Chickens, dirt, a shambolic shed, a lean-to, more chickens, a jumble of plants in various stages of growth and decay, and, in the middle of the yard, a huge and revolting bubble of plastic of a very unwholesome translucent mien, tethered to the ground and apparently breathing in some kind of obscene rhythm.
Smith very much wanted to ask about this thing, but surprise slowed his wits and Spinney was away with his passion.
‘There we have it,’ said Spinney with pride and flinging an arm at the chaos. ‘What do you think?’
‘What am I looking at, Mr Spinney?’
‘You asked what kind of person I was. This is my answer. Am I a burden on the state? Not on your Nelly. No, when I got made redundant I got myself into the closet and found my initiative hat and put that firmly on my head, oh, yes, indeed. And in between job hunting, I got on with this.’
‘Got on with making a stinky mess?’
‘Got on with making myself self-sufficient. Got on with standing on my own two feet. Got on with not being a burden by using my bonce and thinking laterally.’
‘Well, not perfectly, but we’re getting on with it, we’re making progress. Look! Chickens: that means eggs, chickens mean feathers to stuff homemade pillows and eiderdowns, chickens mean the occasional boiler for the pot.’
‘You eat chickens from your own garden?’
‘Only when they’re dead. We never eat the living ones, oh, no sirree, Bob! Then there’s the goat. We’re not sure what we can do with that yet, but we’re working on it. Self-sufficiency places always have goats. Then there’s all the healthy nosh we’re growing: tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower … the quinoa hasn’t done very well. Nor have the tomatoes really, they’ve come out more rot than fruit. The squash, the broccoli, the carrots, the parsnips didn’t fare too well either. Actually, neither did the cauliflower.’
‘You’re not very good at growing things.’
‘No, we’re very good at growing things. Green thumbs — green forefingers, middle fingers, ring fingers and pinkies too. Completely green hands. It’s the goat. It keeps getting out of its pen and eating everything when we’re not looking. But early days. We’ll get it sorted.’
If Smith was not wrong, and he prided himself on always not being wrong, Spinney had slipped into an impersonation of Richard Briers circa The Good Life (1975-1978).
‘And the pièce de résistance, the pride and joy, the great innovation, the giant leap for the man called Malcolm Spinney. Da-daa!’ He went down on one knee in a horrifying Al Jolson impression and waggled his hands at the huge plastic thing in the middle of the yard.
It was revolting: a sagging bag of plastic like a condom deflating with detumescence or heart attack. It was visibly wet and drippy on the inside and conspicuously flecked with black matter, which, while unidentifiable, was sufficiently flecky that it couldn’t be any kind of good news at all. Plastic tubes and pipes ran from the plastic thing and into the house, the shed, and into a machine that was all tubes and dials and knobs and bakelite and which belonged in a crap 50s sci-fi TV show.
‘What is it?’ asked Smith, now in territory way beyond his official tablet.
‘It’s a methane machine, of course.’
‘There’s no “of course” about it. And what is a methane machine and why are you showing it to me in lieu of an Aspirational Opportunities Interview or comprehensible explanation?’
‘Self sufficiency! I’m showing you I’m not a burden on anyone. The Spinneys are doing it for themselves!’
‘What does a methane machine do for you, yourselves?’
‘It makes methane!’
‘Good, I’m glad we got that sorted out.’
‘Methane is a gas.’
‘And if we breathe it, we become self sufficient? But miss our Aspirational Opportunities Interviews?’
‘No! You don’t want to go breathing methane.’ Spinney chortled fit to burst, which seemed to be a recurrent theme with this man. ‘It smells awful. It smells like farts and rotten eggs. Oops! I just said a naughty word. Should never say rotten eggs in front of the children!’ Had he laughed like this in a public place, his dearest, most loyal friends, his most doting family members would have got up and walked away.
‘No, methane is a volatile gas that’s made from fermenting biomass. Methane is what your bottom produces when you go parp.’ Seeing that Smith was following like a tortoise follows a Ferrari, Spinney elaborated. ‘Methane can be used as a fuel. It burns really, really easily — oh, ho ho, blue angels, anyone? Oops, shouldn’t say that too loud in front of the kids we’ll be putting ideas in their heads.’
Conspiratorially, ‘You know when you fart onto a cigarette lighter you get those blue explosions? Those are blue angels. They’re illegal in Canada, you know.’
‘Good, I’ll make a point of emigrating there when I’m done here.’
‘The thing is, you can use methane to fuel cars, houses, whatever you like. It’s a very, very natural gas.’
‘You put that stuff in your car?’
‘Not in my car. You have to convert the car to run on methane and put a bag on the roof.’
‘Have you converted your car?’
‘No, I’ve no idea how to do it and it’s probably expensive. But you can cook with methane and power your central heating, and if you’ve got a generator you can use it to make electricity and power your lights and your telly and all that, saving huge money on bills, saving finite natural resources like oil.’
‘You mean, you have this methane machine powering your house?’
‘Again, not as such. Not yet. I’ve no idea how to do that yet, and it seems the gas and electricity companies won’t permit it. But we’re working on it.’
‘I see. So what do you do with the methane this machine makes?’
‘Well, we make it, you see. That’s about it. We make it pending being able to do something with it.’
‘And how do you make it?’
‘That’s the beauty of it. It’s all natural. Organic household waste and, well, you know, where parps come from.’
‘Fermenting faecal matter, I believe.’
‘Absolutely. And plenty of that around.’ Spinney nodded at the kids who were catching the chickens and trying to feed them to the goat. ‘We dump it all in the tank here in the garden under this cover and we let Mother Nature take her course.’
Smith looked around at the terraced houses hemming them in either side and at the back, a sure sign of a high population density just metres from the methane machine.
‘So you have a pit of rotting excrement and vegetable clippings in your backyard producing a gas, which I gather is highly volatile and combustable and smells foul.’
‘That seems to hit the nail on the proverbial head.’
Smith became aware of a memory worm niggling in his cerebellum, something to do with Spinney’s work history, some neglected detail in his file. ‘What was it, exactly, that you used to do before you came into your present circumstances as a burden on the state, Mr Spinney?’
‘I was preventionologist,’ he said proudly.
‘A preventionologist — specifically, a sudden-catastrophic-combustion-event preventionologist.’
‘You might need to elaborate.’
‘I used to prevent things, particularly sudden-catastrophic-combustion-events.’
‘As I say, you might like to try that again in English.’
‘Sudden-catastrophic-combustion-events. Sometimes called explosions. Prevent: stop from happening —’
‘Yes, I know prevent, but what do you mean by explosions? Bombs? Was this some kind of military job?’
‘No, goodness me! No, industrial explosions. Particularly those caused by volatile gases.’
‘So, this was a very specialist sort of job? A niche sort of job?’
‘Absolutely. How many preventionologists have you met, do you think?’ Spinney chortled at the extremely remote odds of Smith ever having met anyone who could claim to be a preventionologist.
‘So, what happened? Were you made redundant for lack of any explosions to prevent? Did the company go bankrupt?’
‘Oh, yes, the company did go bankrupt, fairly soon after the explosion, as a matter of fact.’
‘What explosion was that?’
‘The explosion that demolished the plant. You might have heard about it. It was on the news and everything. In fact, you might have actually heard it. It was a pretty big bang, I can tell you.’
‘What did this plant actually do? I mean, why did it explode?’
‘It was a methane factory. One of the biggest in Europe.’
‘Methane factory? Like the one in your back garden?’
‘Oh, god, no, not like the one in my garden at all. It was much more sophisticated and advanced by comparison to that. It was all shiny with chrome and had miles and miles of piping, chimney stacks that vented steam into the atmosphere. We made our own clouds, as it were.’
‘So you were the guy in charge of preventing explosions at a factory that exploded, a factory that was making the same gas you are now making in your back garden?’
‘And do the health and safety people know about this? Right, Mr Spinney, I think I’ve got the picture about your set up now.
‘Despite being in partnership with the Department of Aspiration, you are making yourself unavailable for job hunting by running an unlicensed daycare centre for children, demonstrating an unwillingness to work and-or a state of self employment by pursuing this self-sufficiency project. Moreover, you have declined to honour the terms of your Striver’s Contract by failing to attend an Aspirational Opportunities Interview.’ Smith flung out his arm, pointing at the bewildered man with the awful moustache. ‘Mr Spinney?’
‘Mr Malcolm Spinney?’
‘Mr Malcolm Spinney of 23 Acacia Terrace?’
‘Mr Malcom Spinney of 23 Acacia Terrace, client of the Department of Aspiration?’
‘Mr Malcom Spinney of 23 Acacia Terrace, client of the Department of Aspiration, you are sanctioned!’
Gideon Smith left Malcolm Spinney’s house and the execrable smell of poo with the very satisfied smirk of a job very well done. He was wearing the same smirk when he arrived at the JobShop™, his local HQ.
Smith could have entered the JobShop™ by the staff door which had an abundance of steel, barbed-wire, CCTV, motion sensors, automated tasers, remote-controlled teargas launchers, self-activating water cannon, and all the other accoutrements of a thoroughly modern state-owned facility, but he chose instead to enter through the front entrance and the shop floor itself.
After a busy morning of sanctioning clients, discontinuing their benefits, he wanted to take stock of the losers yet to fall to his bureaucratic smiting.
The usual crowd of clients was in. By usual crowd, Smith did not mean a particular set of individuals, but an amorphous blob of typicality: grey shadows at the boards of job cards, or piled untidily in seats waiting consultations with the staff.
Strivers or losers, aspirants or dead weights, wondered Smith. They looked like losers and scroungers to him. By definition they must be. If they were real people they would have jobs from which they didn’t get laid off or fired. They’d be living it large in BMWs and big suits. No, being in the JobShop™ and on the lists of the DoA, they were by definition unfit to survive in this world. They were not Darwin’s chosen ones. They were not anybody’s chosen ones.
At the front desk, Heart, Miranda Heart — facilitator, band three, five years service, moving up and on as well as can be expected — was interviewing a client. Smith caught her eye, flashed four fingers and mouthed ‘Four.’
Heart’s eyes made a question.
In answer, Smith, drew a finger across his throat in a slicing motion and pointed at random job seekers. ‘Four,’ he repeated. He has sanctioned four people all by himself that very morning.
Heart gave a discreet thumbs up below the desktop so her aspirant couldn’t see.
Smith smirked the smirk of a job well done, a job-well-done done better than anyone else.
He was — and he had no doubt about this — an inspiration to his junior colleagues. A leader, a real leader, and he was defining leadership.
One by one, he caught the attention of his other colleagues at their interview desks with his four-finger gestures and mimes until each nodded or thumbed or grinned their approval.
Smith sidled from the door, keeping behind the clients but in view of his colleagues. He pointed out the client sitting in line waiting his turn with the facilitators, a young man in hoodie and indifferent mien.
‘Sanctioned!’ mouthed Smith silently and turned his pointing finger into a shooting gun. ‘Pow!’
At the woman absorbed in the job cards on the racks, ‘Sanctioned! Bang!’ At the older man struggling to come to an understanding of his mobile: ‘Sanctioned! Bang! Bang! Bang!’ At the whole shop: ‘Sanctioned! Sanctioned! Sanctioned! Rata-tata-tata!’ with a machine gun gesture.
The aspirants swivelled in their seats to see what it was that was making their front-desk interrogators giggle like children.
‘Morning all,’ said Smith brightly as he strode past the desks and to the office door, the key punch security and into the inner sanctum like a chosen one entering a temple.
Smith loved that bit of going through the armoured door into the office. It said to the clients, you could be just like me if you weren’t such losers. For now, you are excluded.
All books available in paperback from Amazon, and ebook from Kindle and Apple Books — or direct from the author(email link).
Amazon/Kindle North America
Or try your preferred regional Amazon/Kindle.
Apple Books [No, the sporty books on the Apple Chris Page page are nothing to do with me but have become conflated by name!]
Or read short samples of each book:
Un-Tall Tales (Will open separate site in new window)