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  Campaigning for a Sensible Present
Chris Page

In this case, 'new' story is a misnomer.

Campaigning for a Sensible Present was written as part of a longer piece in the early 90s. The longer piece is being a long time in coming about. It is called War and Peace.

Recently I have cannibalised parts of War and Peace to make some stand-alone fragments. This, evidently, is one.

I am helping out, campaigning for a sensible present, going from door to door. We had started out campaigning for a brighter future, but it’s a tough job when competing bright, full-colour futures are beamed at us through twenty-four inch flatter, squarer tubes and HDTV panels all day, every day. Our own brighter future was lost in the tv glare.

Eventually someone thought to ask: ‘Bright futures are all very well, but aren’t they carrots perpetually dangled on sticks, just out of reach?’ Too true. This is the problem with brighter futures, they are always just around the corner. What we needed, we decided, was not a bright future — not even if it was so bright you needed sunglasses to look at it — what we needed was a brighter present. We went on to reflect that a brighter anything seemed to involve a lot of new fridges, cars, sexy legs, nice clothes, hair transplants and toothpaste, and to be totally frank, we didn’t have the budget for that much brightness. We scaled back our aspirations to a merely sensible present. That’s pragmatism. Secretly I was happy we didn’t have the budget. Let’s face it, all that bright stuff is just a bit silly.

The dishevelled, pale woman at number 23 Nirvana Heights decides after a moment’s hesitation not to close the door in my face. She smiles and retreats inside, which I take as a sign I should follow. It’s a regular council flat in a part of the city that’s unfamiliar to me — a part of the city that’s unfamiliar to everyone, even to the people who live there.

The wallpaper inside the flat is a faded nicotine colour and has timorous pink flowers printed on it. It is the same print as the woman’s dress and when she stands against the wall to let me in I can see only her worried smile and her shins.

Nothing else in the flat matches anything. There are some pictures drawn by her kids stuck to the wall and the only other ornaments are the kids’ toys filling the spaces between the furniture.

‘ Do you want a cup of tea?’

I accepted the offer and when she turned her back I mopped my nose with a towel I found draped on the back of the sofa. I have a permanent cold. I tried to think about the matter in hand, my pitch for a sensible present, but found myself thinking about sex.

She chats amiably but distractedly. She tells me she has two children, one four, one six, both at school, how her husband ran away to become a circus clown when the second one was born, and how she has been alone since. She tells me that she isn’t working much at the moment just the odd spot of part time work. She tells me she used to have permanent jobs, and remarked that it was funny how permanent jobs were so temporary, especially when the kids got sick or the school holidays came around. She told me how part time jobs disqualify her from state help, and how having two kids and no husband seemed to have the same effect.

I realise she is talking about freedom and that freedom is a theme of our sensible present campaign, and I wonder whether she’ll hit me if I try to liberate her breasts.

I tell her about our schemes for crèches, day-care centres, after school care, increased benefits, better housing, and I hand her for the second time one of our flyers.

Her eyes glaze over as soon as I start talking and she’s not paying any attention to the flyer either.

Freedom, I go on, in our society is a matter of money. The more money you have, the freer you are; you have no money, you have no choices; choice costs money. There are lots of people around who have no money and no choice. This is because things have been so structured for so long to enable a few people to marshal enormous amounts of money for themselves to use as they like. Once you have money, one of the choices that become available to you is to make more money. Because money equates to freedom, these people are in effect taking freedom from other people and stacking it up in steel vaults in Switzerland or the Caymen Islands. Freedom thus becomes a limited and finite quantity and is therefore carefully meted out. Freedom is also a very dangerous thing because it results in people doing what they want or need to do and if they are doing what they want or need to do they are not available to shovel money at the freedom hoarders; they are stashing freedom for themselves. However, we intend, in a sensible present, to break the link between money and freedom. We intend to have freedom of choice independent of the money in your pocket. We intend to make freedom free.

The woman is pottering around the flat straightening things out as I speak waiting for the kettle to boil. She wears the same dull eyes but nods or smiles when she thinks she is supposed to.

‘ Mind if I put some music on? I kept a job at Crust’s Supermarket for a few months and this is one of the things I bought. It was in a sale.’
She knocks away the earless, eyeless teddy bear she had been gesturing at and hauls a hefty music box out of a corner. She has only one CD, Ultimate Karaoke Hits.

‘ It’s the definitive collection of the country’s favourite karaoke tunes,’ she tells me pointing to the evidence, which is a statement to the same effect on the front of the CD case.

It’s getting past lunchtime now, and I fetch the never-ending bottle of scotch from my haversack.

‘ Er, mind if I ... ?’ And she gets me a glass.

The current politico-economic structures are anti-choice, anti-humanity, anti-life. They exist solely to maintain a well moneyed ruling elite we never directly vote for — the captains of industry, the venture capitalists. We vote for the puppets who represent nothing but the interests of the money masters, the freedom masters. The small variety of political shades evident on the ballot paper are a smokescreen to hide the faces of the puppeteers. Notice that no party would make any fundamental changes, they want to just fiddle with the details, and leave the basics as they are.
The woman is now colliding with solid objects: making for the kitchen she bumps into the sofa, then misses the kitchen door and hits the wall before backing up and trying a successful second time. I follow her into the kitchen.

If money controls everything, democracy is a myth. Voting means nothing. It’s just like choosing which thief will take from us next. She pours hot water from the kettle into the sink, puts milk in the teapot, sprays tea leaves over the counter and fills a teacup to the brim with sugar from the bag.

‘ Another cup of tea?’

I figure I ought to go but remain in the kitchen doorway. A freight train grinds and squeals its way past outside, the block of flats vibrates.
‘ The kids keep me going,’ she says at length.

Well, all that politics, all that hope, all that karaoke, it’s enough to get anyone fired up, and one thing led to another: a warm touch in the city’s dead-bone chill. We had sex there in the kitchen, on the table. You know the scene — things were knocked to the floor, albeit without much conviction. There wasn’t much eye contact and a certain amount of staring out the window.

When I left — when we had finished, I thought I ought to leave — she was lying on her side, half curled on the sofa, not looking at me. I didn’t know from her posture whether she wanted me to stay, whether she wanted me to leave; whether she didn’t want to see me go, whether she didn’t want to see me stay; whether she hated me or wanted to fall in love with me. I had similar feelings. And I had one feeling extra. I was wondering whether I had raped her. But I figured I probably hadn’t.
In the stairwell, I pause to tug on the collar of my old coat and chug on the never-ending whisky. The light is brighter than I expect under the thin sky, and I grimace as I step into the courtyard. A group of men with swastikas and spiders webs tattooed on their faces stand around a burning car.

They watch with studied menace but some kind of chilling acceptance too, as I give them a wide berth and make for the tunnel that leads to the street.
I hope very much that the sensible present will hurry up and get here.
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