Longer than Flash Fiction but not yet a short story
Cooking With Gas
This popped into my head unbidden the other day and I should have probably done more with it because, as it is, this breaks one of my own rules and dislikes of writing, in that it is almost entirely NOT fiction. It is almost straight reportage of a job I once did. There are some aspects which are most decidedly not factual – nobody would make money out of prior knowledge of Council activity for example would they? I normally feel you should do a little more work than bang down what happened, and I have – a very little more – but this felt so weird that I thought I would present it as it occurred to me after all these years.
‘We’ll walk. It’s only up the road.’
So we did.
Two young men. Professionals in three piece suits. Not as unusual then as it would be now perhaps. We strode across the old market centre of an old mill town. The town was searching for a new direction. We knew where we were going. The mills that had brought prosperity and self confidence were almost all gone, one or two hanging on by their fingernails. Our client wasn’t.
He was dead.
‘What did he die of?’
‘Heart attack I think.’ Andrew stopped at the crossing. They really needed to do something about the traffic snaking its way through a medieval street plan. I said so to Andrew.
‘They’ll put the ring road in soon.’
He looked at me as the green man appeared and the beeper bleeped.
‘You should stay a bit longer in the Leigh on Friday nights.’ He winked.
‘I think I’m still at the house clearance stage.’
We turned off the main street and disappeared into the warren of early nineteenth century terraces.
‘Me too, but get yourself noticed.’
‘Yeah. Eddie, Keith and Simon were all in last week when the planning crowd walk in, straight upstairs. Eddie and co. buy a round and follow. Monday he tells me there are interesting developments on the old railway line into town.’
We turned a couple of corners in quick succession then took a left down some cobbled steps.
‘Where’s that going to go then? When it gets into the old goods yard? There are properties all round there now.’
Andrew slid his forefinger along the side of his nose and tapped it.
‘Keep an eye on the conveyancing files. See where your mate at the Rugby Club puts his mortgages out to in the next few months and who’s buying.’
‘But it’ll be blighted.’
‘Exactly. Lots of lovely compensation. What’s a terraced cottage at the moment? Eight grand?’
We entered a courtyard that could have been out of a Dickens novel.
‘Bit more, bit less depending where it is.’
‘Yes, well you can rest assured you can buy it for seven and sell it for twelve when the council values it for you if the road goes through and you sell without trouble, Deal yourself in, then you’ll be cooking.’
We stopped before a peeling green door.
I took the bunch with its clean new string and cardboard tag and jangled it in front of Andrew.
‘Want to play “guess the key”?’
‘What the hell did he want with all these?’ He took the bunch, squinted at the tumbler lock and selected a Yale type key. It stuck half way in.
‘Bugger! Your turn.’ He handed the bunch back.
I discounted all the obvious mortice keys and selected the most worn Yale. It slid into the lock and with a slight wiggle spun the cylinder. The door pushed clear.
Andrew gave me his dead pan look as he stepped through the door, then stopped and wrinkled his nose.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. Then I got it as the air rolled out past him. It wasn’t so bad as to make you gag but there was something really odd about it.
‘Did he die in here?’
‘Don’t know. I guess he must have.’
We went in a bit further. The door opened into a short hallway with stairs facing you and a door on the right. The smell wasn’t quite as bad now the door had been open a minute. We left the front door open and moved forward to the door to what was obviously the living room. The smell rolled over us again, very strong now. We both cleared our throats. Someone had to go in first. Andrew had been first into the house, so my turn.
I walked in, eyes flicking, hoping not to see anything too horrible. It was a standard terraced room. Some had a front room and a living room and a kitchen. This was configured with a living room a kitchen and a scullery. The living room had nothing in it you wouldn’t expect to find. I shook myself free of the smell.
‘He can’t be here can he? He’s with the undertaker. That’s why we’re here.’ I rationalised.
Andrew nodded and went and shut the front door. It was quieter than I would have expected. It didn’t smell like a body. Not entirely. Not really. It wasn’t that decayed meat smell, not the sickly sweetness underneath, although there was a hint of it. We stood on the threadbare carpet and shrugged.
‘Let’s get on with it.’ I said. We each had a plastic bag with a couple of foolscap envelopes in case we discovered things we needed to take back to the office. You never knew what. Simon and Andrew had found a bewildering variety of oddly coloured old bank notes in a house last year none of which were now legal tender. The Bank of England redeemed them at the face value of just over a thousand pounds. I had wondered if the estate would have been better off selling them as collectors’ items; but it wasn’t my decision.
‘You check the sideboard I’ll do the shelves then we’ll move back through the kitchen.’ Andrew said.
I put the bag on the top of the cluttered sideboard. There were ornaments and trinkets and lots of bits of metal lying about in the dust. I squatted down and opened the cupboard doors underneath the drawers.
I rubbed my fingers together, they were getting grubby already. Dusting had obviously not been a priority. I felt the grime as I took in the collection of china and odd mementoes. I rubbed my fingers again. They felt greasy, which was odd. Old polish? I discounted the china as definitely not Meissen or Ming and went on to the drawers. They too were greasy and a bit smutty even. I found some letters, a few bills, one insurance policy, a cheque book and a building society pass book. They all went into an envelope which I signed and Andrew countersigned.
‘It’s really grubby.’ I said.
Andrew looked at his hands. They too were showing signs of dirt. ‘It’s like he’s been smearing butter or something on the wood.’
We moved through to the kitchen. Everything there had the same soiled feel to it, but oddly it was not as bad as the living room. There was nothing of interest to his estate there. No solid silver cutlery or Fabergé eggs tucked away in drawers. We moved back to the scullery. If anything it was cleanest room so far. There was an old fashioned ringer washing machine but beyond that it was mostly given over to metalworking tools and a bench with boxes and boxes of nuts, bolts, screws and other bits of metal unidentifiable to me.
‘What did he do for a living?’ I asked.
‘Toolshop engineer for Hewitt’s mill.’
‘Brought his work home with him then.’
‘Retired last year. This is his hobby stuff.’
‘One year out of harness. Not much is it?’
‘Poor old sod.’
We walked back through the kitchen and I checked the grill and the oven. Clean as a whistle.
‘I checked that. No hidden millions in the cooker.’ Andrew laughed.
‘I just wondered if he’d left a meal on or something. It smells like old bacon.’
‘Someone cleaned it up if it was. Gas is off according to Len.’
Len was the firm’s Legal Exec who had sent us on this errand. It needed two of us to make sure everything was above board. It was why we stuck together in the house. You didn’t want someone accusing you of walking off with the half of the sovereigns Uncle Tom had always told them was in the back parlour. We went upstairs.
One small bedroom had been converted into a bathroom. You could just about swing a cat but there was nowhere to hide a fiver, never mind a bag of sovereigns. We considered the shaving kit for a moment, shuddered at the cutthroat razor and moved on.
The second bedroom was converted into another workroom. The work bench was covered in tools and metal again. All clean and relatively tidy. There were a couple of drawers, in one of which we found twenty pounds in pound notes. They went into an envelope and we sealed it, signed it and noted the room.
The bedroom was sad, the bed unmade, a few scattered clothes. The wardrobe was full of clothes from a different era and the overpowering smell of naphthalene and paradicholorobenzene mothballs. There was nothing of value or significance in the pockets but at least the stink of mothballs overpowered the stale burnt bacon smell.
My hands were nearly black and sticky and my suit would be going into the dry cleaners the next morning.
‘All done?’ I asked.
‘Couple of girlie mags in the chest of drawers and about a dozen watches. That’s it. Time to go.’ We bagged the watches and replaced the magazines.
We descended and stuck our head into the living room for a last look round. No obvious Picasso on the wall we’d missed. A few shelves, the sideboard a television, a couple of easy chairs one of which looking the worse for wear and stained with what was presumably the side effects of our client’s demise
We locked up and left.
It was almost five when we got back to the office.
‘All right?’ Julie, the receptionist asked.
‘Yes. Need to wash up though.’ Andrew held up his hands.
‘Ew! What have you been, going through the coal hole?’
The talking brought Len out of his office.
‘Come on, hand over the loot before you go anywhere.’
We followed him into his office and placed the keys and the bags onto his desk and talked him through the finds.
‘No treasure chests that lot open then?’ He said nodding at the bunch of keys.
‘No. He just collected metal bits and pieces, tools, watches and obviously keys.’
‘Fair enough. You’d better go and get him washed off you by the look of things.’
Len had a big smile on his face as he tamped down his pipe.
‘Didn’t I say to take some gloves or something?’
‘No you didn’t.’ I said, holding my hands away from my sides. ‘Should you have done?’
He laughed. ‘Didn’t you read the file?’
‘No identified close relatives, house search for valuables and financial papers.’ Andrew said.
‘Clerks eh? Page two, cause of death.’ Len smiled, and picked up the folder as if to refresh his memory which was obviously not required.’
‘Neighbours called the police when they hadn’t seen him for a few days and…Did you notice anything odd?’
We shrugged and I held my hands up. ‘Everything was covered in greasy dust. Oh and it smelt like he’d left a fry up on.’
‘Neighbours knocked and then opened the letterbox to shout. Then they called the police. They called the fire brigade.’ Len smiled sadly. ‘He’d been sat in front of the gas fire, watching tele. Died of a heart attack. Nobody missed him, retired, no family, bit of a loner. Sat there in front of that fire for quite a while. Not hot enough to burst into flames. Just enough to cook his legs through to the bone.’ He nodded at our hands. ‘That grease and soot is what’s left of his legs.’
Andrew and I looked at each other, at our hands and headed for the washroom followed by Len’s chuckles.
This is probably a bit too long for this section at c2,000 words but it seems to fit. There is an explanation of its origins etc here
I waved Charlotte and the kids off. I’d told them to go out and enjoy the day anyway despite me not feeling great. Emma had fixed me with a glare when I told them, the thought of being alone in the car and at the show with her mother and brother not a hit apparently. Josh gave a shrug and carried on massacring something or someone on his phone. As long as there was an internet connection via some platform, the rest of the world was irrelevant to him.
Charlotte was sympathetic ,although concerned no doubt that it may mark another turn in my recently fluctuating moods, tinged with exasperation at being left to deal alone with the two children on what was definitely a double team task. I was sorry but under the circumstances it had to be this way.
As the car turned the corner at the top of the drive I took a slow look round at the garden. The grass needed cutting. I stepped back indoors and put the chain up on the front door.
I had actually developed the weariness and headache I’d described when I’d dipped out of the trip to the outdoor performance of whatever it was we were supposed to be seeing. Too much method acting. I shook myself like a dog to break the mood and went to make a cup of tea. I put the kettle on and looked into the cupboard. What was it to be? Not an Earl Grey, too light and frivolous, not a China tea, those were Charlotte’s. I was a confirmed Indian tea drinker, glad of the Empire’s interference in the Chinese monopoly of production in the nineteenth century. I may not have approved of imperialism but in this case I preferred the flavour of the resultant brew no matter the means. Something robust and fortifying. I was tempted by the lure of bog standard builders’, but there are limits even in extremis, and robust needn’t mean brutal. I went for the Assam.
I warmed the pot, threw the water down the sink, spooned the tea in and then poured the boiling water on the leaves. Loose leaf was a tad twee perhaps but I could use the brewing time to prepare a few items.
At the end of the landing was a trapdoor in the ceiling. I took the stick from the back bedroom and used it to trigger the latch mechanism that held the trap in place. It swung down and I reversed the stick, using the hook on the other end to snag the ring on the bottom of the collapsed ladder and pulled it into place. I went into the attic and turned on the light. Boxes of packing from our move here ten years ago were in one corner, opened, assessed as not required immediately and in time consigned by indifference and a shrug to another lifetime. Around those boxes, were kids toys, put aside but definitely not abandoned, oh no, waiting the call to fight again in a battle with the forces of adulthood, but not now, not yet. I moved around a plastic bag from which a dozen reproving beady glass eyes stared at me. Why us? Why here? Were we too not loved once? I felt a tear pricking at my eye.
The tea was brewing and I really had to get what I came for. The time for reflecting on the lost past was gone. I’d done that. Now I needed to do something about it.
Two large purlins ran the length of the attic. They were bigger than the rest, thicker than they needed to be for the job they were doing if one thought about it for long, but people generally didn’t. At the rear of one, if you knew where to feel, was a knot hole and if you knew the trick you could push and slide a panel back to reveal a lock. I took the key out of my pocket and ducked down and scrabbled to insert it. The lock snicked open and I retrieved a bag from the void before relocking the box.
Downstairs I rinsed a cup with hot water and, sitting at the kitchen table poured my tea. Milk, no sugar. It was just the strength I required to fortify me. I finished the first cup and poured a second. I wondered if I should have had a mug so I needn’t have bothered with refills, but I liked the distraction the effort provided. In any case, if you were going to the bother of leaves and a pot and letting it brew properly, you should use a cup and saucer. Did young people know what these were? Emma occasionally drank coffee and Josh was strictly a cold drinks fan, milk and smoothies when I could persuade him to abandon cola bean based fizzy drinks. Neither saw a need for saucers. I wondered if anything I had done in my life and regarded as important was of relevance to them in this digital, connected, yet Balkanised world?
I took another sip of the Assam, glanced at the bag I had brought down and managed a wry smile. Some things were relevant whatever the zeitgeist. I drew it towards me and opened it. Inside were two boxes, one flat, 4 inches high by about 12 inches by 8 inches and the other about 8 by 5 by 4 inches. I opened them both. Neither was much use without the other.
Half an hour later the boxes, considerably lighter now, were back in the attic hidey hole. Belt and braces. I washed the tea things, and went to the garage. I opened the locker in the corner. Time to change.
I took a last look at the mobile set up in the corner and hoped it would work okay. It had in the test I’d run last week, but it had to work for real this time. The call admin would be useful if things went wrong.
The route I followed into town took forty minutes instead of the twenty minute ride on the main roads. I parked the bike in a yard at the back of dilapidated short rent houses. Finding roads and parking not covered by cctv had proved impossible in the second most watched state in the world, but I had avoided all the good quality traffic cameras, and the yard was not an area anyone cared enough about to spend money protecting. A false number plate and a few cosmetic tweaks to the bike covered the rest.
I took the holdall out of the top box and, still wearing the helmet and one piece suit, walked down the alley. I turned right at the end and into a mean back street that ran behind what had once been a market building. Twenty yards down the street I made sure the security cameras I had vandalised a couple of nights before outside the public toilets were still wrecked. Sure enough they remained smashed and the cables missing. I went in and changed. The suit, helmet, gloves and boots replaced the hoodie, jeans and baseball cap in the holdall and I tucked the reunited contents of the attic boxes into an inside pocket of the hoodie.
The phone rang.
I looked at the incoming number. Emma.
I let it ring again a couple of times then answered before the voice mail system kicked in.
‘Hello?’ I said as groggily as I could.
‘Dad. Did I wake you?’
‘It’s all right love. Everything all right?’
‘No I’m bored, Mum’s being so embarrassing and Josh is being a little swine.’
‘How’s the show?’
‘We’ve only just got here Dad. What time do you think it is? I’ve got hours of this to put up with. Why couldn’t I have stayed with you?’
‘Because it’s a nice treat for Mum to have her two lovely children with her and share a joyous day out.’
I had to think of a way to stop this conversation. It had served its purpose. The link through from my phone back in the garage had worked. It would show my phone communicating with Emma’s while based in the area of our house at a time that made it impossible for me to have done what was about to happen. But I needed to move fast now.
Charlotte’s work friends the Watsons saved me.
‘Oh Dad, sorry got to go, Leila’s here. Got to ask her what happened to Jack.’
‘I thought he left her to join the Army or something?’
‘Okay love, enjoy it. The show, not being mean to Leila.’
‘Oh yeah, thanks. Love you, bye.’
The call ended, and with it my link to current normality. I had ten minutes to be in place. The old market was due for renovation. It had been due since the council shut it temporarily ten years previously. Just before the banks crashed and the council’s money went south, invested in Icelandic herring futures or whatever had sounded a good deal three months prior to the crash. A prime centre site like the market would have expected to have been grabbed at a bargain price as the recovery started, but savvy investors could see the writing on the wall for bricks and mortar city centre retail. I pushed my way through a first floor window I had forced a couple of days previously.
They were due in half an hour. I would have preferred to have had more time to scope the place but I had to work with what I had. I’d had my suspicions about Alan at the time but I’d had no real proof until it was too late. He had gone abroad afterwards in triumph and it became clear that Peter Colston had covered for him and carried on the good work. HR had shunted me sideways into ‘something less stressful’ so I needn’t worry too much about all these ‘reds under the bed’. After all we were all friends now in any case. Weren’t we? I pulled the revolver from my pocket and the two spare speed loaders. I’d have preferred long or a machine pistol but again, you have to work with what you have.
Charlotte, Emma and Josh got back late. They’d eaten after the show and taken their time returning. Plenty of time for me to clean up, restore the bike to its original state, dismantle the phone relay and return the weapon and ammunition to the purlin. I was reluctant to dispose of them, but I should probably do that as soon as I got the chance. The burner phone was already dismantled and buried in the cement foundations of a new bridge, the sim card destroyed. The clothes I had worn in the market had been disposed of in a burning skip.
A week later we were having breakfast in the garden. Josh had managed to turn off his phone and was telling me about his plans to ditch being a YouTuber and be an actor. Emma was reading some social media feed and smirking, it was hard to tell what at. Charlotte was catching up with the local paper.
‘You worked with an Alan Stephens didn’t you?’ she said.
‘Stephens? Alan, yes, years ago. You met him once at Arthur’s. Why?’
‘He’s missing. They found his car in the woods in Bratby park on the edge of town. No sign of him though. Asking if anyone has seen him to let them know.’
‘I haven’t seen him in twenty years. Thought he went overseas.’
‘Says he came back to take up a “senior civil service post” six months ago.’
‘Probably shacked up with a tart if he’s still the same as when I knew him.’
She shook her head.
‘He’s been missing nearly a week.’
‘Wow!’ Emma said.
‘Not that surprising, people do disappear.’ Charlotte said.
‘You went “wow”‘ I said
‘Yeah, they’ve found a body in the market fire’
‘Oh God!’ Charlotte said. ‘I wonder if it’s Alan?’
‘One of Dad’s work friends is missing, I was just reading about it in the paper.’
‘Was his name Colston?’ Emma asked.
‘No. Alan Stephens.’
‘Wow! That’s weird.’
‘Not that unusual a name.’
‘No it says here “there is speculation that Colston’s death may be linked to the disappearance last week of Alan Stephens, rumoured to have been a Cold War warrior.” Oh my God they think he did it and escaped!’
‘Does it say that?’ Charlotte asked.
‘Well, no, but between the lines that’s what they mean!’
‘Do you think it could be linked?’ Charlotte turned to me.
‘Shouldn’t think so. Sounds like someone taking two and two and making sixteen.’
‘But why would they link them?’
‘Peter Colston used to work with Stephens years ago.’
‘Do you think…?’
‘No. Nobody waits twenty years to settle a score do they? All water under the bridge now. Just a coincidence.’
ALL IN IT TOGETHER FARM
This was written some time ago and appeared initially as a separate page under ‘WRITING’. It was a bit out of place there so it has moved here . Obviously it bears no relation to anyone living or dead.
All In It Together Farm was on its uppers. Everyone said so. Especially Mr Shiny the farmer. He looked at his chickens in their long gleaming barn. He addressed them. He wasn’t sure why. To him they were simply production units. Yet something, perhaps something his father or maybe his grandfather, had instilled in him once upon a time, continued to suggest to him that it was something he should at least pay lip service to.
‘Happy beasts make rich pickings.’ Was a phrase that came to mind now and again. Of course he had the latest interactive music and soothing sounds technology installed so he didn’t need to do that. But just occasionally he felt the need to talk to something, anything that wasn’t a machine. So today it was the chickens’ turn.
‘Morning ladies.’ He said. Just because they were in cages and stupid didn’t mean you had to let your own standards of civility drop he reasoned.
They cackled welcomingly at him. At least that was what he heard. If he had been able to speak chicken he would have not basked in the glow of his imagined reception.
‘Oh God he’s back! Watch out girls, lay something or he’ll be back with the emptiers.’
‘Why can’t the fat git leave us alone? Its bad enough being cooped up in here without him droning on about his problems.’
Was a more representative sample of what the chickens were saying.
Fortunately for Mr Shiny’s self esteem, he had not the faintest idea what animals of any variety said or thought. His cows were in a concrete bovine support unit and his sheep were herded by a Romanian chap on a quad bike, cheaper than keeping a sheep dog and less fuss he had found. Thus his personal life was animal free. Personally he didn’t like animals. And as for plants…
So he spoke to the chickens out of his own need not any desire to genuinely interact. No, his communication was definitely one way.
‘The thing is ladies, we are in a bit of a pickle really. It looks like we won’t be getting any EU money shortly and I’ll probably have to let Nicolai or whatever is his name is go. Can’t really claim his abilities are special, after all a dog used to do most of his job. So we’ll have no-one to fill your feed hoppers either, unless I can get one of the layabouts from the Britannia Estate to come and do it on a zero hours jobby.’
The hens who had continued their clucking as they got on with eating, fell silent at that piece of news. Mr Angle noticed the change in noise level and looked quickly around to see if anything untoward was happening that he had not seen. Satisfied that there was nothing out of the ordinary occurring he looked back at his production units.
‘So we might have to get rid of you lot and put in a zip wire and a beetle bank or something. Can’t make enough out of them bloody supermarkets just selling food can I? Let them Europeans do it, shiftless sods.’
With that he got out his iPhone and checked a satellite picture that showed some weeds growing up in the cereals by the 40 acre. He walked out of the barn to get on his desk top and direct a spraying drone to zap the little green bastards. The practice he had got on ‘Nuke PyongYang II, This time it’s Fun’ would prove handy he thought as he slammed the door shut behind him.
Pierce Street ran up the hill up from Catherine Street. Half way up the hill was our school, Christ Church infants and junior. Twice a week the curate from Christ Church, where Catherine Street became Bond Street, walked up the hill and gave us Divinity lessons and general chats about vicary things. When he ran out of homilies, we got talks from visiting African church members with all the associated embarrassing questions from Ally Sinclair: ‘Sir, is it true African babies are born white and then turn brown in the sun?’ I mean I know we didn’t have a lot of sun in Macclesfield, but baby ripening? Really? On the walls the maps were still coloured pink across large portions of the globe. Our text books had detailed descriptions of the sensible layout of various imperial cities, thanks to the perspicacity of British engineers and administrators, and reassuring suggestions that there were still opportunities for adventurous British youths in continuing the work.
At the top of Pierce Street, up the cobbled hill, built much later than Christ Church for reasons that we hadn’t yet touched on in history, loomed the tower of St Albans Roman Catholic Church. Attached to St Albans was another school, cunningly named St Albans infants and junior school.
We didn’t deal directly with the Reformation as such in lessons and certainly the Catholic Emancipation acts never got a look in, but we knew the Queen was head of the Church of England, and therefore Christ Church, and in consequence our school and that she also ran all the bits of the world coloured pink.
In contrast, St Albans was in the final analysis run by the Pope, who wasn’t British and had been on the side of the Spaniards when they sent the Armada to conquer England. Something we had done in class. The Armada had been rightly thrashed by Drake on his tea break from playing bowls. Bowls was played by the old men in South Park and on the much more difficult double crown green in West Park and woe betide any child who stepped on the hallowed turf. We wondered if Drake had worn a flat cap and smoked a pipe.
Whatever Drake’s sartorial and tobacco choices, he certainly dished the Dons who we all knew had been trying to reimpose Roman Catholicism on Elizabeth. Most of us realised this was a different Liz from our current monarch, Supreme Governor of the Church of England , Christ Church and our school, but I couldn’t vouch for everyone.
Sporadic reenactments of the sixteenth and seventeenth century wars of religion would, as a result break out, up and down the length of Pierce Street at break times, and before and after school. I don’t know what version of ‘love thy neighbour’ they were being taught in St Albans but it was clearly as ineffective as ours in behaviour modification compared to the underlying ‘this is us and that’s them and they’re bastards’ message underlying the history lessons.
After one particularly intense and enjoyable exchange of stones, more hits on them than on us defined the enjoyment factor, the Head called a special assembly. Bill Lewis, Mr Lewis, or God’s Anointed on Earth, acknowledged the different confessional preferences pertaining to Christ Church and St. Albans but reminded those of us invested in such things that it was all the same God in the end. And for those of us not so committed, it was against the law and we would suffer torment, if not eternal, then certainly in this world, should we be caught defending HM the Q’s faith in such a manner again. This was before human rights and telling the under tens they were below the age of criminal responsibility.
We trooped out, having sung a suitably martial hymn, possibly Onward Christian Soldiers, which, though flying under false colours, I used to enjoy belting out with gusto. As we filed into class, Mr Bayley sought out his usual suspects and fixed us with a steely gaze.
‘I hope that sunk in’ he said.
As we prepared to return to our desks, he asked us one more question.
Graham Newfield beamed ‘We did Sir!’
There was a flash of a smile and a wink.
‘Good lads! Off you go.’
This is set in the 1960s and I hope the attitudes displayed about many things are very different. I fear I may be being overoptimistic however!
I love Saturnalia.
No, really! I mean I know it’s fashionable to pretend to be bored of all the excess, but feasts, presents, lots of wine, what’s not to love?
I remember last year we all had a dormouse eating competition for the last night, completely mad! You had to eat a dormouse and chug a goblet of red every time someone said ‘I’. Funny as….
‘One has had enough’ Sextus said after he’d peed himself the first time. Brutus says ‘What?’ and dopey Sextus says ‘I said…’ We cried. He chundered dormouse all over our King of Misrule who was doing a great job. If you’ve never seen an Equestrian covered in dormouse puke you haven’t lived, I tell you.
No, the dormice didn’t puke on him, Sextus’ puke was full of half chewed dormouse.
Yes, we had a King of Misrule, course we did. We believe in doing things properly. Keep Saturnalia Roman I say.
I know the King of Misrule thing can be a bit of an arse, but most people are sensible about it. I mean, ‘dance naked!’ ‘jump in the river three times!’ ‘bite a dog’, it’s all a laugh isn’t it? Great fun! And nobody goes all the way with it these days do they?
Well, I mean some of the army guys do the odd beheading, but I reckon it’s all part of the service isn’t it? I mean you start trying to impose modern bloody namby pamby standards of ‘oh no, we can’t possibly sacrifice humans in this day and age’ on the military and where are you? Where are you mate? Bloody barbarians all over the place, Christians picketing the Circus and saying the Emperor isn’t a God, that’s where. I mean the army guys need to let off steam. Their King of Misrule really goes to town, anything he says for thirty days is his command. Nothing out of bounds. Probably worth it for a bit of a throat cutting at the end of it. I mean a short life and a merry one eh?
I mean you can’t stop people letting go and propitiating the dark side of Saturn if you want the good side can you? Personally I can think of several Lords of Misrule I would happily see on the altar at the end of their reign. Taking the piss some of it is. And what’s with all this peace love and understanding stuff? These bloody people, coming over here trying to impose their mad middle eastern monotheisms on people. It’s all right for these Judaeans, they don’t have to live with the Raetians next door do they. Po faced gits with their Alpine ways. I’d like to see a Judaean turning the other cheek on one of the cheese eating mountain dwellers. They’d slap it and nick his cash.
What do you mean, ‘what do I mean’? Raetians is what I mean. All they care about is herding cows and hoarding money, other people’s usually. No, it’s true. Their valleys are full of other people’s gold. Well known fact.
I don’t get this Judaean stuff anyway. Where’s the fun in sitting around waiting for the spirit to move you or whatever it is they do? Twenty four dormice and goblets of Apullian red would move anyone, no waiting. They need to have more fun. They’re spoiling Saturnalia with all this moaning about excess. Before you know it they’ll have the bloody Emperor signed up and then where will we be? No more boiled Flamingo with dates, no sea urchin stuffed sow’s udders…
‘What? Course they’re salted, who ever had unsalted sea urchin? Where was I?
Oh yeah, and no roast parrot. It will all be unleavened bread and no pigs.
What’s that? That’s the other lot is it? Well, they’re all the same if you ask me. Whose Empire is it anyway? If they don’t like it they can just sod off. Well no. Obviously they can’t but why would they want to? What did their weird gods ever do for them? Now, the Emperors, Saturn, Jove all those boys, proper Gods, yeah, and Goddesses, where would we be without Minerva, Venus and Diana eh? None of this wishy washy say a prayer and it will all be lovely bollocks.
Still as long as we’ve got this Emperor in charge we’ll be okay. I mean anyone who feeds two Frankish kings and their soldiers to the beasts in a triumph is all right by me, my son. That’s the proper way to celebrate isn’t it? Not singing a hymn and putting ash on your head
Still it’s the drinking and feasting and vomiting I really like. And as long as he’s in charge I reckon we’re safe from all that pacifist crap.
So here’s to him!
Long live The Emperor Constantine!
(In 307AD the Emperor Constantine defeated an opportunistic Frankish invasion of Gaul and had two of the invaders’ kings: Ascaric and Merogais, and their soldiers, thrown to wild animals in the arena – probably in Triers.
In 312AD he formally converted to Christianity and in 313 decriminalised its worship in the Roman Empire).
The Problem with Thought Experiments
It was a box.
Just a box.
I suppose if you want to be precise, it was a small wooden crate. It was sixty centimetres long by forty centimetres deep and forty centimetres high. It had a frame with planking sides, top and bottom, and cross pieces from corner to corner to reinforce the sides. There was nothing fancy about it. It was well made with nicely fitting joints, but it was unpainted and had no markings. Nothing to suggest anything unusual about it all.
Which, of course, was what was unusual.
Who goes to the bother of making a small wooden crate from planed wood with well jointed ends, no casual nailing or stapling here, without any markings? Everything is plastered with information these days. Size, weight restrictions, ‘this way up’, fragile, handle with care, ‘to be transported in accordance with…’ makers names, advertising, contact details for the sender, recipient, manufacturer, the delivery address, the intermediate handling station, temperature restrictions, hazard warnings, the contents.
Ah yes. The contents.
There was uncertainty about everything to do with it, that box, and nothing was more uncertain than its contents.
How it got there was a mystery in itself. No-one saw it delivered and it seemed self evident that it could not have simply materialised from thin air, the ether or a thousand other clichés that flesh and writers are heir to. Could it have popped through from a parallel universe? A bit of time travel maybe? Who knew, who knows?
We opened it of course. Well, you do don’t you?
There was a sort of humming coming from it. Not exactly a sound and not really a physical vibration but a sense of something emanating from it. Something like that prickling static feeling one gets wearing a lot of nylon or being near a van der graaf generator.
So we opened it.
I don’t really know what we expected. I know Doover wanted it to be Man U kit. Although why anyone should box overpriced sports kit so securely defeated even his logical processes. Shalene was hoping for a super secret advanced prototype of something. Possibly a plasma gun or the latest set of Kardashian make up. I don’t think I had any expectations, which was just as well.
We went round to Stevo’s with it. It felt heavier than it should have been. Stevo had a jemmy. He said it was a tyre iron, but I’ve never seen a tyre iron with a hook on it like that, and everyone knew what his night time hobby was. Doover had suggested dropping it off the walkway because the smash wouldn’t hurt his shirts, but Shalene pointed out her ray gun would either not work after that, or go off big time and blast half of the Waybury. We knew she was just worried the nail varnish and foundation bottle would smash but we humoured her, and so Stevo’s it was.
He was keen at first and we had to argue for half an hour about his cut for opening it. He wanted half as it was his jemmy, or tyre iron. We got him down to a third which was more than we wanted and less than he wanted so that seemed equally unfair to everyone. Bit like Brexit negotiations.
When we got it into his dad’s shed and he slipped the tyre iron out of its hiding place, he lost his enthusiasm. He didn’t like the humming. It was well scary. Doover said he wasn’t going to bitch out was he? Shalene said if he used that sexist crap round her again she’d bitch slap him good, so he shut it. But Stevo had lost it, so I took the tyre iron. As soon as I handled it I understood why Stevo did it. His hobby I mean. I mean I wouldn’t go robbing myself but I sort of knew why he did it. It was a cool tool.
I knelt down and stuck the slim steel end under the edge of the lid, or what we guessed was the lid; no markings remember? I pulled myself up to put all my weight down on the metal. I looked up at them.
Your faces! I laughed. They were all holding their breath, mouths open, eyes wide. What do you think is in here? And then I dropped all my weight onto the lever.
The stink made us gag, Stevo chucked into one of his dad’s plant pots, but that had a drainage hole in the bottom so it started seeping out into the shed, making it stink up worse.
Everyone swore for a bit and then I thought in for a penny, that’s the worst bit over and levered the whole top off. It crashed onto the floor, splashing puke about. Shalene swore a lot more. There were some Fs and a lot of other letters of the alphabet. Doover declared it sick and not in a good way and Stevo puked again. Nobody really bothered with him this time.
There was a smaller box inside, with one of those weird yellow and black circles divided up into segments you see on the door to X ray places. I had one when I fell off Stevo’s car at the circus. Nandridge Circus roundabout, not the one with clowns, apart from Stevo. At the other end was a small machine surrounded by broken glass and some liquid on the bottom of the box.
None of that was sick, in any sense. What was weird, and what was stinking, was a furry bag of what had once been, by the look of it, a cat. It wasn’t well. We all sat back and looked at each other, and then back at the cat. Outside and air seemed like a good idea.
Stevo went to get some water and have another puke. We shrugged. Shalene said it was only a cat, though you could tell she was shaken. Doover said he bet it was a Man City Cat, the bastard thing. I didn’t say anything. The stuff inside reminded me of something. I couldn’t quite get it. Something Scratch Wilson the physics teacher had gone on about in class at the end of one term when we’d finished the syllabus and he’d wanted to impress us. That had a poisoned cat in a box. Or was it not poisoned in his story? I couldn’t remember.
Stevo came out of the kitchen and walked down the path. We all turned to see if he was all right. He looked okay, well as okay as he ever did. Then he stopped and he dropped the glass of water he was holding. He was definitely for it. Puking in his dad’s plant pot and smashing his mum’s glass. Doover asked wtf was up with him and Steve didn’t say anything but pointed behind us. We all laughed. Yeah, very clever Stevo. You need a better schtick than that pal. He turned and ran. We laughed some more. Then we smelt it. That smell again. We all turned.
It was the cat. It had been as dead as you can get. It was still as dead as you can get but there it was hissing and spitting and stinking its way up the path. We followed Stevo and ran.
We didn’t wait to see where it went but from what happened next on the Waybury I guess we can work out what it did next. The police say they’ve contained the outbreak. They let us go after a week. We couldn’t tell them any more. Apart from the name stenciled on the inside of the box.
I remembered later what Mr Wilson had said. Well, be honest. I googled it. Apparently everyone thinks the cat is alive or dead. But of course it’s alive and dead until you open the box . Turns out he got the moment of quantum superposition wrong. Sometimes it’s alive and dead after you open it as well.
Bloody Schrodinger can keep his cat.
NO PROBLEM WITH SPOONS
Spoons held no terror for Swanson. Why should they? Knives on the other hand held the potential for slashing cuts, flashing attacks, rending of flesh, dismemberment, spilling of blood, evisceration, plunging penetration of stabbing steel. He toyed with the steak knife by the side of his plate. Knives too left him singularly unperturbed.
He let the knife alone and smiled across the table at Catherine. He wondered if it looked as forced on her side of the experience as it felt from his position. He desperately wanted it to look sincere. It was sincere. He was, at the very least, infatuated with her. He thought… he stopped and chided himself…he knew, whatever anyone else may think, that he was in love. It had been such a short time but he knew she was the one. He wanted her to know how he felt but he knew it was too soon to tell her. He didn’t want to appear too needy, to scare her away. He just wished there had been more time for her to get to know him before he had to face this hurdle.
The waiter appeared with their food. It looked perfect. She had chosen a salmon mousse terrine with salad and vinaigrette. He had the soup. No problem there. Catherine thanked the waiter and shot Swanson a delighted and delightful glance. Ordinarily he would have melted with joy and desire. He felt queasy. He looked down at his cutlery. He picked up the spoon but there, on the left of everything, was the fork. Each tiny spear point of a tine winked in the candlelight. Mocking. Threatening.
Some people, uncouth, unmannered people, tapped a rhythm with their knives. A tattoo of metallic vibrato. His father had never espoused that particular habit. For him mealtimes were enlivened with the tapping of a fork. On glasses, or the side plate for attention, on the edge of his main platter with annoyance, occasionally on the table for emphasis, the latter with the handle to counterpoint the tine tapping of the former. The slivers of metal scraped along the plate surface with the force of his eating, the eldritch screech setting Swanson’s youthful, impressionable, nerves aquiver.
So much for the routine horror of mealtimes chez Swanson. Gesticulating, tapping screeching, implement of low key irritation, there on the left, a stick insect of metallic personification of his father and his attitudes and his demeanour and his vulgarity. Swanson began to shun the object where he could. Soups, stews, sandwiches, pizza slices, finger food of all kinds offered salvation, while traditional three course meals stalked the horizons of his day. As soon as he could, and whenever he could, he avoided family mealtimes. That wasn’t difficult during the week. Cereal for breakfast, sandwiches at school and snacks on the way home, snatched meals before ‘homework’ sessions. But weekends were different and Sundays unavoidably awful.
Saturdays could be worked round. Early or late rising avoided his father’s cooked breakfast fetish. Rugby and cricket at school and later at the local clubs meant he could avoid mealtimes with the family. But Sunday was a ‘family time’. A roast dinner time. Knife and fork time. It wasn’t just seeing and hearing his father’s fork wielding displays any more. The implement itself was taking on a symbolism of its own. His father’s ‘if it were good enough for me and your mother…’ line about what to do after school. His sneering approach to ‘book learning’. His contempt for music. ‘Why aren’t you listening to rock and roll like the other lads?’ Everything that Swanson could feel dragging him back, holding him in this God forsaken wasteland of a town. All was becoming embodied in those four thin prongs of steel that scraped across the plates, dripped egg yolk and spittle, sprayed flecks of cabbage and serrated burnt animal across the tablecoth.
His mother was not completely unaware of his problems around the use of forks. She claimed to have seen it coming when he was little and had as a result tried to make his cutlery special and fun. He had had knives, forks and spoons in the shape of childhood characters from nursery rhymes, from blockbuster films and cartoons. Her latest attempt, in keeping she said with him growing up, was a set of cutlery engraved with his initials. These she hoped would give him “ownership” of the situation.
Worse was yet to come. At 15 years old Swanson had returned from after school rugby practice. His mother was out at her sister’s and Swanson returned home to find his father back from the office early and in DIY mood. Swanson found him, sleeves rolled up engaged in his latest obsession. The presence, real or imagined Swanson was uncertain, of a mouse in the kitchen was exercising his father greatly. The proddings of the fork towards his face , the agitated tapping on the plate edges and the punctuating bangs on the tabletop, accompanied a litany of threats towards and speculation concerning the whereabouts of the alleged mouse. The time apparently had come for the end of theorising. Action was at hand. As Swanson entered, his father nodded vigorously at him to close the door behind him. Swanson did as he was bid and as the door shut, his father ripped away the fascia beneath the under sink cupboards. A grey ball of something hurtled towards Swanson from under the cupboard. He blinked and as he did, he missed his father, already on his knees, dropping the fascia board, and diving at the mouse. When he had finished blinking, he saw his father at his feet clutching his hands together as if in supplication or prayer.
‘Got it!’ his father cried, and then his exultation turned to a note of pain. ‘The little buggers biting me!’ His father rose to his feet and dashed the contents of his clenched hands into the sink. With remarkable speed, he picked up his favourite instrument from the draining board, and with a gladiatorial gleam in his eye drove the fork into the arena of stainless steel and the sacrificial animal within. Swanson heard two things. A distinct squelching, and a shriek. His father, a grin of triumph fixed across his face, lifted his still wriggling opponent aloft and turned holding the impaled animal on high for Swanson’s approbation. Wriggling, bleeding, run through on the tines of a fork, the mouse seemed to implore Swanson for mercy. All Swanson could see was the blood trickling down over the initials on the handle of his, Swanson’s fork.
Catherine said something about the food looking good and he nodded. Her hand reached out and the fingers curled around the shaft of the fork. Perspiration burst on his brow and his throat constricted. He wanted to concentrate on her face, the sweep of her eyebrows the delicate bow of her lips. His soup, the spoon. Anything but the reminder of the multi-pronged symbol of his father’s triumph and death in the afternoon long ago and far away.
I wondered why the guy in the trench coat was hovering. It wasn’t as if there was a lot to hover for in this street. Sure there were still some shops open, but a butchers, two bookmakers and an off licence with whitewashed windows didn’t make for much of a window shopping experience. The bank I was queuing outside had a hole in the wall cash machine and a plastic logo to look at. I wondered about the cash machine. Was that his interest?
The woman in front of me finished her transaction and waited a second for her notification slip to be produced. It appeared and she took a step away from the wall, putting the paper in her purse. I took a step forward and so did the old gentleman in the trench coat. I now saw that he was wearing a hat as well, a strange cross between a flat cap and one of those Breton caps made fashionable in the 1960s by the Beatles, Bob Dylan and other ‘hipster; types. Maybe this was an original. He looked old enough to remember the 60s.
The woman in front of me took another step and so did I. So did the third point in our variable scalene triangle. I was about to put my card in the machine when his presence in my peripheral vision broke that plane of acceptable proximity. I held the card in front of the machine and turned as he spoke.
‘Excuse me do you know if this bank is any good?’
I confess to being a bit surprised. It didn’t seem like the traditional approach of a mugger. Besides he was too old. I did a swift three sixty sweep for accomplices but came up cold. I smiled.
‘Sorry, I’m just using the machine.’ I said
He looked rather crestfallen. I checked again. Just a woman behind me getting a bit agitated at the delay. I decided to offer him a little more. He seemed safe enough.
‘My daughter has an account here though. She doesn’t use a full range of services but it seems okay. They’ve always been very helpful.’
His face lit up. The glasses perched on his bob of a nose were like marbles, seeming as thick as they were round.
‘Oh good. I’m looking to move from Barclays.’
‘Not working for you?’ I asked placing my card on the lip of the machine’s slot.
‘Oh no! They’ve been terrible. I don’t keep all my money here you know, just the stuff for day to day use.’
I paused, he had approached beyond my comfort zone again. I wasn’t going to be putting any pin numbers into a machine with him this close. I had no idea what his vision was like with those lenses.
‘Excuse me, are you using the machine?’ Ten seconds was obviously outside the parameters of the agitated beady little woman’s patience. I turned and smiled as insincerely as I could.
‘Yes. But you go ahead.’
Meanwhile my new associate was joining in the conversation, apologising to the queue jumper and me. I took a couple of steps away and let her get on with it while my pebbly eyed friend followed. Clearly he had more to say.
‘Do you think they do international transactions all right?’ He asked switching in an instant from concern for his interruption of high street banking to world finance.
I assured him that from what I had heard, HSBC were probably capable of connecting Wales with the world in a financial sense. He nodded, but his face did not seem to reflect complete satisfaction with my views.
‘Only most of my money is overseas.’
I nodded, for all the world as if he had been fortunate enough to select the one person on this South Wales village street who also kept his fortune in an offshore tax haven. I was trying to construct some suitable advertisement for HSBC’s abilities to transact international banking affairs when he switched tack again.
‘If you don’t mind me asking, whereabouts are you from originally? You aren’t local are you?’
I wondered which version of this story we should go with. I decided our interaction had gone on long enough. My wife was waiting for me at home and I had other errands to complete before returning. So the short version.
‘Cheshire.’ I said.
He looked at me in a strange sideways fashion, as if to question my veracity, or at least my own knowledge whence I haled.
‘Really? I thought you were from London. I’m from London.’
‘Yes, I can hear the accent.’ I said, and then, dredging up the few months I had lived with someone in London as a sop for his mistake said ‘Well I’ve lived all over with work, I did work in London for a bit’
His face lit up as his head once more went on one side and he gave me that look as if to say I should have known better than to try and deceive a man of his perspicacity. I thought this was probably a good time to make our farewells and head once more for the vacant cash machine. But no. This was not yet over.
‘I’m half German actually.’ I wondered what I was supposed to do with this knowledge. Call immigration? Mention the war? Not mention the war? I hadn’t been going to.
‘Yes. Born there, you know under Hitler.’ Inconvenient, not to say uncomfortable, I thought. ‘Had to leave of course because of all the problems.’ Something about the tone, about the sharing of information beyond normal bounds had shaken loose any pretensions to a normal conversation a few minutes ago. His next statement began to envelop us in the surreal.
‘Dad was Welsh, he was a ship builder. He built U Boats.’
We both laughed and I muttered how ironic that was. I didn’t mention the fact that I felt something, maybe everything, about this story was getting more and more unlikely.
‘Yes. Course we lost everything because of the bombing.’ Uh huh, uh huh. I nodded and backed away just a little. He followed up, swinging left and right non sequiturs. ‘I worked in the Met for forty years’ Ah at last a glimmer of hope.
‘Really, you might know some of the people I worked with. SB?’
Something definitely put him off his stride a bit with that. But he was nothing if not game.
‘Oh yes, was that in New Scotland Yard or Old Scotland Yard?’
In for a penny.
‘Special Branch were in New Scotland Yard. I was in Palmer Street, over the road.’
‘Oh Palmer Street. Yes of course.’
Given the average SB officer probably didn’t know about Palmer Street, I was a bit surprised that an ordinary Met officer thought he could pull off the pretence that he knew all about it. There was more.
‘Course it took ages to get the compensation through.’
I blinked. It was like listening to an old multichannel radio gone horribly wrong, all the conversations were interleaved out of sequence.
‘It wasn’t until 1991 that the German Government sorted out what they owed the family. There was nearly a whole street in Berlin we lost.’
We were back on the Third Reich connection.
‘Yes, I did all right out of it in the end. And all my cousins did too. Two hundred and thirty thousand I got. Course I didn’t bring it home. Don’t want to risk all that tax off it.’
I nodded. Goodness knows why. I suppose politeness gets us tied up in all sorts of convoluted collusions.
‘My boss kept me on when I left. They wanted me because of my languages. I speak all five types of German.’ He enumerated them, none of which sounded like Hochdeutsch or Plattdeutsch to me, but I was no expert.
‘Lovely I said, ‘that must keep you occupied.’ Although I wasn’t sure why a Commander in the Met would want to keep a seventy year old German speaker on the payroll in South Wales.
‘Yes, I keep an eye on things for him down here.’
We had cast adrift from the shores of reality some time ago I realised. Perhaps sensing my suspicions he reached inside his coat. Just for a second my own hands twitched. Fortunately I recognised he was holding only a wallet before I did more than twitch.
‘See, I’ve still got my warrant card.’
Sure enough, there was a badge and the crest of the Metropolitan Police. I studied it. Last time I looked Met warrant cards didn’t have gold metalicised plastic starbursts. The smudged photocopy of a Met Crest on the opposite side of the wallet from the badge said that someone, unclear, was something, possibly to do with the Met. For a second I wondered if he had at one time been in the Met and taken a copy of his card. Then I realised there was no photo. I wondered if it wasn’t just a letter saying someone was a cleaner.
He put it away and taking a long slow look around, leaned in conspiratorially. He fixed me with his glittering lenses.
‘And MI5 asked me to do some work with them down here.’
‘Excellent. You must have got a real feel for that type of work.’ I said.
He puffed out his chest.
‘Well they didn’t want to lose me.’
‘No, I can see that.’ I said.
‘I tip off the locals with anything I can but they aren’t up to much.’
‘Er, no. Well they haven’t your level of expertise I expect.’
He smiled a knowing smile.
‘That’s right.’ He looked around again. We were alone. In fact people were avoiding us. ‘I’ve got a police computer in the car of course, so I can check things. I let them know about three paedophiles the other day. Arrested two of them. I had to tell the Chief Constable of course. They wouldn’t listen to me up at the ordinary station. Abergavenny it was.’
‘Fantastic work.’ I said.
He looked at me, his face suddenly changing.
‘Anyway. You reckon this bank’s okay then?’ he said as if realising I had been wasting his time with all this chatter of his origins, policing work and espionage just to avoid this question.
‘Er, yes. I should go and have a chat with them and see if they can do what you need.’ I said
‘You know I think I’ll go in and see if they can do what I need.’ he responded.
We shook hands as two spies together in a Welsh village street would, and bade each other a fond farewell. He wandered off towards the door of the bank while I got my money. As I walked off towards Waitrose he was still outside the bank. I felt a bit sorry for the cashiers I had lumbered with the next phase of his delusion.
‘Just thinking about what to say.’ he explained, though I had said nothing.
On my way back from Waitrose he was still outside the window.
‘Cheerio Dave’ he called to me.
I waved back as I went to the car park. I put the key in the ignition.
When had I mentioned my name?
‘And if that doesn’t do it?’
‘I see no reason why the measures in place won’t hold it. There are multiple response protocols depending upon the seriousness of the numbers and the epidemiological model’ The minister replied.
‘It hasn’t been contained in the origin countries using those protocols. We wouldn’t be meeting if it had.’
‘Simpson, without wishing to run the gauntlet of the PC brigade, I think it safe to say that our adherence to the letter of the protocols is likely to be considerably more rigorous than it was in those countries. Now, if…’
‘With respect Minister?’
‘Yes Walters? What is it?’
‘With respect Minister, shouldn’t there be a planned response beyond, well. Beyond crossing our fingers? If those measures don’t hold it?’
‘Your concern does you credit Walters but I think we have considered all the likely scenarios without moving into the provenance of horror films and disaster fiction.’ The minister held up a hand. ‘If, and I only raise the matter in deference to the concerns of our colleague here,’ he nodded in Walters direction, a smile touching lips but not eyes, ‘we shall meet again to consider further measures.’
The minister raised an eyebrow.
‘I mean at what threshold will we meet again? If the first level is breached or at the last level? Because we’ll need weeks of preparation. For beds, for disposal facilities for bedding, for quarantine regulations, movement control orders…’
‘I see where you are coming from Walters.’ The minister turned to his Permanent Under Secretary. ‘Derek, if you could just allay our friends fears please.’
‘Certainly Minister. Professor Walters, the measures we have been discussing concern the medical and social services response to any possible spread of the virus. As such we have, through the knowledge and advice of experts, of whom you have been pre-eminent, confirmed our previous response protocols and updated and integrated them with new measures where appropriate. There are other considerations the possible spread of the disease may raise and these have been considered in more appropriate fora, given their multifaceted nature. You may rest assured Professor Walters that their deliberations have taken into account all the concerns you mentioned and more.’
‘What considerations Minister? I merely meant those things that come under the remit of this committee. Beds, quarantine…’
The minister cut him off.
‘I know Alan. I know. I can’t go into the details here, I’d be trespassing on the Ministry of Justice’s territory and let us not forget that of the PM.’
‘But we’re the health committee reporting to COBRA on this. It’s surely our responsibility to plan for the ultimate contingency?’
‘If I may Minister?’ the PUS intervened.
The minister nodded
‘Whilst you are correct Professor Walters, that this committee has the responsibility to deal with any emergency arising in the form of a health threat to the UK, such as the current virus scare, there are obviously other agencies with interests in the knock on effects of such a potential threat to UK society. At a certain stage, which we hope is never reached, priorities may shift from a purely health care response to a more multi-agency involvement. At that point lead agency status may shift and given the delicate nature of some planning options it is felt that this forum may not necessarily be the best place for such contingency measures to be discussed fully. You may however, as the Minister has indicated, rest assured that should the time come, the advice of this committee and its experts would be fed into any options being considered by the full Cobra committee.’
‘Thank you Derek.’ The minister straightened his papers. ‘Now I think that concludes matters for the moment. However, we’ll schedule another meeting for a week’s time. Derek see that everyone is informed please.’
‘Not now Alan. People have busy schedules and we’ve used our allotted time. If you’d like a private word I’m sure we can arrange something through Jill. Okay?’
The people around the table stood and began to chat to one another or leave depending on how busy they wanted to appear in front of the minister. Professor Walters tried to intercept the minister before he could leave but Derek, the PUS intercepted him.
‘Don’t worry about seeing Jill. She’s nearly as busy as the Minister. Let me know a convenient time and I’ll sort something out for us.’
‘Don’t flannel me Derek. What the hell is this other committee that’s taking over the response planning?
‘Alan, no-one’s taking over. This is a health driven response and this committee is the lead body. And I think I can say without fear of contradiction that you are its lead authority. No-one knows more about the type of threat we face.’
‘Exactly. And I’m telling you we haven’t faced anything like this ever before. If what we are seeing elsewhere is anything to go by we will breach the thresholds. We should be beginning our response with a level three approach. Level one might work for flu but this is different, by an order of magnitude.’
‘Well that’s one opinion.’
‘From the “lead authority”.’
The PUS looked around. The room was nearly empty now. He put a hand on Walters’ elbow.
‘Hang on here a second.’ he said quietly and with that swiftly ushered the remaining few members out of the room. He shut the committee room door behind him.
‘Have a seat Professor.’
The pair sat at the head of the table.
‘Now. This is off the record and if I read any of it outside this room, even if it’s only in the Tunbridge Wells Gardening Society blog, you’re finished. Understand?’
‘I’m not being threatened.’
‘Yes you are actually. Think of it as a threat warning.’
Walters face turned white and he started to rise from his seat.
The two men locked eyes and Walters sat.
‘Now. You are quite right. It is very likely that we will need to go further than level one and fast. But to jump right in is going to panic everyone. They’ll all start running all over the place and that will make matters a damned sight worse. This needs managing. We need to put in place some non-health measures first before we move to that scenario.’
‘Yes. You mentioned quarantine. We really need to stop movement in and out of the country completely.’
‘But you can’t…’
‘We know, but we may have to. At first we need some other possible movement and containment controls. People from high risk areas may have to be refused entry. Or if they turn up on the doorstep we may need to ‘quarantine them’.
‘Yes. Put them in some sort of secure accommodation until we know whether they are a threat or not.’
‘But we’re supposed to be helping them.’
‘Well there are some very promising trials with…’
‘We know. You covered that. How long to get that into scale production?’
‘Well if we short circuit some of the human trials possibly we could ramp up in 6 months.’
‘The lead authority. We had a look at the figures you did last year when we asked for a worst case prognosis for this sort of event. Your worst case said we’d probably be dead by now. Your best case gave us 6 months. That means your best case makes that response time useless.
‘And we can’t be sure the US is going to release the methodology in any case.’
‘They have to!’
‘No. What hasn’t been publicly released is that although it’s a private company that made the breakthrough, it’s a wholly owned Government cover for the biological response programme. This is a CIA operation to counter the work the Soviets were doing in the 1980s.’
‘But that’s silly. I know about those programmes. The Russians stopped them after the Wall came down.’
‘Possibly. But the Americans thought it as well to continue looking for a vaccine or a cure.’ The PUS paused for a second. ‘Given the time it’s taken to get this far, not a bad decision I’d say.’
‘But this isn’t a weaponised outbreak.’
‘Probably not. Have you seen any samples yet?’
‘No but the epidemiology isn’t right.’
‘Maybe not, but it isn’t consistent with previous outbreaks either.’
‘Well not precisely but there are so many new factors, travel patterns for a start.’
‘I’m not arguing. But the point is, whatever the reason it’s as virulent as the most virulent form and as contagious as the most contagious form. You are the one that wants to move to more extreme methods.’
‘Yes but in clinical treatment terms.’
‘This is more than a medical problem. It may not even be a medical problem.’
‘Not a medical problem?’
‘It may be outwith your ambit. It’s more likely a security and policing matter.’
‘But we should treat this. We can contain it and…’
‘Suffer what? A 90% death rate?’
‘No. That’s in vastly different public health conditions than here.’
‘And how long do you think it will be before all that breaks down? No this is going to make 9/11 look like a picnic. We are going to need full emergency powers to control the people. Of course there will be a medical response. And a public health response. But it’s going to have to be targeted to key services on the one hand and backed up by force on the other.’
‘That sounds very like martial law.’
‘It does a bit doesn’t it.’ The PUS selected a piece of paper and pushed it in front of Walters. ‘And this is the first notice I’ve served under the new rules.’
Walters went even paler as he read it.
‘And if I don’t comply?’
‘There’s a new treatment and containment centre opening in mid Wales. They’ll need someone to do what they can. You wanted quarantine arrangements didn’t you?’
‘And if I do?’
‘Well there is a small stock of vaccine, and we need the best brains working with us.’ The PUS leaned over. ‘Just sign there please Alan.’
So this guy walks up to me in a bar and says:
‘Wanna be a star?’
My first reaction is to punch the little creep in the head and get back to my beer.
But I know Louis, the bar keep, doesn’t like blood about the place on account of it bringing back too many happy memories and he is currently working on a case of existential angst and does not want to be distracted into levity, so I keep my hand in my pocket and shake my head.
The guy fingers my sleeve for a second and I guess he feels the muscles kind of tensing up in there because he moves the offending digits pretty quick and shoots me a glimpse of his orthodontic work.
I give him the stone eye routine to back up the biceps and he takes a step back.
‘No offence mister.’ he says, ‘but I have a proposition which could leave you and me both in a healthier position financially and socially.’
I ask him if he is suggesting that I am in need of extra monetary largesse or that I am in some way requiring elevation in either class or style.
At this point he realises he has tried to mash the wrong potato and takes a hike while he still has an ambulatory capacity. I make sure he has departed my immediate vicinity before returning to my beverage and the contemplation of the female form across the room. It is at this point that Louis decides to break with his homework on melancholia and enters the conversation, which technically has ended some seconds before, but for the purposes of narrative continuity we will pretend is still extant.
‘What did the Mike want?’ he asks.
‘The Mike?’ I repeat knowing that I have made something of a faux pas if I am correct in decoding this individual’s nickname or alter ego. ‘The Mike’ was a performance poet extraordinaire, and is now the publisher of “100 Ways to Versify” and “The Longer Conga Songa Book”.
‘You sure it was him?’ I ask staring across the room where the little creep is disappearing out of the bar.
‘You may not know this,’ says Louis, ‘but I used to rhyme myself a few years ago. With the right publisher I coulda been a contender. I had a shot at the T S Elliot and I once went three stanzas with Heaney.’
I looked at him. He had gone too far and he knew it.
‘We was only sparring, you know. But I still caught him with a spondee in the second.’
I nodded. We’d all been a few stanzas with Heaney. Some of us had beaten him, caught him with an iambic pentameter or two and then finished him off, sometimes with a spondee in the second. Most of us usually woke up though and didn’t mention our dreams to anyone afterwards. Louis had gone to that place where reality and poetry meet and meld and it’s a very difficult gig to come back from. Louis had given up trying.
‘You sure it was him?’ I asked again.
‘Can’t be two of the Mike.’ he said reverently.
I didn’t think so either, but I thought it gratefully, not reverently. He was a fixer, a maker and breaker of poets. He’d been a mean versifier himself once but the constant composition had got to him. He’d been up there on stage every night, the rhyming, the scansion it had all taken its toll. But he couldn’t let go and when he played an open Mic gig one Thursday in a mean, low, writers group in the back of a busted down library he hit the skids. He thought he was still a big shot but a new kid called Zephania comes at him with lefts and rights, its dub poetry and the Mike ain’t never heard anything like it before. It was all over in a couple of minutes. It could have been seconds but the Zeph had heard Mike once and had some respect for him so he played him along for a few stanzas and then boom! He let him have it.
I never heard of the Mike composing anything except a contract after that. But he could tie up a metrical foot on one of those all right. He’d run the best on the way up and quite of few of those who should have been but they hadn’t been able to escape the Mike. He worked them like they were prose writers. Once he’d got a short volume out of them he’d put them on the road. They’d read till they bled. He’d squeeze them till they couldn’t tell their Dactylic Hexameter from their Trochaic octameter and then he’d dump them. The lucky ones ended up dead pretty fast. There were worse ends. I knew a couple who had hung on for years working the Hallmark Cards gig. He liked performance poets the best of course. I wondered what he wanted with me.
Don’t get me wrong I had a pretty high opinion of myself but there were a hundred raw hungry kids out there snapping at my heels. Hughes murmured about me once before he croaked. Duffy has said some good words and I noticed she’s always avoided me. Heaney. I’m not talking about that. I ain’t no Walter Mitty so it stays between me and him and he’s gone now, God rest him. But I’m glad I had the chance even if it was in an unlicensed gig in a Dublin backstreet. Now I know my limitations.
I thought I knew where I was. A contender? Sure. But for what? Now the Mike was making me an offer. Did that mean I was on the way up or the way down?
I downed my drink and ran after him into the street to find out.