I have been writing now in earnest for around 25 years. I started writing TV and film scripts, and then moved to playwriting before – a little over a year ago – I found myself inexplicably returning to poetry (where in truth it all began) – this time, however, I found I had a fully-formed voice and since that day I have dedicated my writing almost exclusively to poetry.
A few months back I had my first collection published: Thamesmead by Steve McAuliffe (available on Amazon now).
My poetry is a mixture of political-polemic and spiritual liberation, with a healthy disdain for the State and all its soulless machinations thrown in for good measure. In this I more than occasionally feel the influence of William Blake:
No, there was no Grand Tour for poor old William, And how was he to know his Arcadian Jerusalem would be appropriated By fat-faced Tories in their elite drinking clubs up in Oxford? Those heirs to the Satanic Mills he so abhorred They flipped the mills for a profit before the bubble-burst, And floated mythical Albion on the market as Jerusalem PLC. I must, I really must… I must create something
However, it’s the politics of the individual that truly concerns me; the possibility of liberation once the individual’s enormous potential has been rediscovered. Thus in many of poems, liberation occurs in the most mundane and soul-less of environments: concrete sprawling estates; old people’s homes; the trees of Peckham Rye…
I believe that in order to create Jerusalem we must first reject all the artificial limitations imposed-upon-us. After all, it is the firing of our imaginations and the articulation of our determination to see real change that will finally free us of those pesky mind-forged manacles. The revolution begins inside of us.
No more waxing waning moon for me it seems No more marking down allotted time in artificial markers For there are new eternal tales to tell
New myths to weave from out of stardust Truths formerly forbidden under Time’s totalitarian stranglehold
Well, somebody has to say it, so it might as well be me. Privatisation is very probably the biggest financial scam of all time. It dwarves anything else I can think of. LIBOR? Fiddling small change. The original Charles Ponzi? Amateur! There has been renewed talk of privatisation recently, as the coalition government seek to use it to help balance the books, the Royal Mail and the NHS being the principle targets. It has become an issue in the Scottish referendum campaign, so it’s important to understand what it’s really all about.
It’s a scam, and here’s why: not only does it not always do what it says on the tin, it’s actually impossible for it to do what it says on the tin. I call it ‘magic pudding economics.’ Here’s the theory: You take a publicly owned organisation that is providing a service, let’s just take the example of a utility company, and you sell it off. Now of course that means you get the proceeds of that sale now. Which makes this year’s figures look better. But this is when, we have been told, the magic happens.
We are expected to believe that after the sale, the magic of private enterprise, the wonders of competition, will deliver a better, more efficient service. At a lower price. Not only has this never actually happened, if you think about it for five minutes it’s clear that it cannot possibly happen. Because the new owners are taking essentially the same organisation and extracting from it not only the grossly-inflated boardroom salaries and bonuses we’re now all so familiar with, but also profits for their shareholders. The salaries and bonuses might be scandalous, but the shareholder profits represent a vastly bigger impost.
But what about the magic? Well, we’ve been told for years that the public sector is somehow by its very nature bloated and inefficient. That the private sector is intrinsically efficient, and that they will find efficiencies which will allow this financial alchemy to occur. But I have to tell you, I’ve worked in both the private and public sectors over the years, and there really isn’t that much difference. In the public sector we hired all the same management consultants, did the same courses, probably more of them. If anything the public sector was a bit better planned and structured, with the private sector more chaotic. By far the greatest boost to efficiency, and consequently to productivity, in my lifetime has been computerisation, and that has benefited us all, has it not?
So in the quest for these mythical ‘efficiencies’ the first thing the new owners usually look to do is to cut the workforce. Now if you’ve bought the pitch, this should be fine, right? Because being a public sector organisation it must have more staff than it needs. Well, if that was ever true, it hasn’t been for a long time. So although this will save the privatised entity money, it will categorically mean a decline in service standards. In the worst cases this can manifest in a collapse in safety standards, or in a condition known as ‘corporate anorexia,’ where the obsession with becoming ‘lean and mean’ results in a workforce so emaciated that it is no longer capable of fulfilling its core functions. But even with these savings, they’re still not making enough to satisfy the shareholders. There’s only one other thing to be done, and that is of course to raise prices.
Now, we’ve been using the example of a utility company, perhaps an electricity supplier. Everybody knows how much electricity prices have risen in recent years, and whilst rival companies may offer you a few pennies discount on your tariff if you choose them over their competitors, you’re still paying twice as much, as a proportion of your income, for electricity than you were when it was publicly owned. Even with the energy saving light bulbs. Aren’t you?
Now in some specific cases this produces a very perverse outcome. Some public enterprises make money, and others don’t. If they do it’s not usually much, because there are no shareholders to suck it up, so prices are set to slightly above break even levels. But I want to consider those which don’t make money. Like public transport for instance. Public transport never makes money. It’s not really meant to. It’s infrastructure, it’s there so everyone else can make money, so that people can get to work, goods can get delivered and the rest of the economy can function. So what happens when you privatise say a railway company which costs millions to run? Well, nobody is going to buy a loss-making concern, are they? That would be silly. So governments are forced to offer guaranteed profits, in the form of subsidies, otherwise they simply couldn’t be privatised. The new owners do their usual tricks of cutting staff and raising prices, but due to the need to suck more cash out in profits than can possibly be saved that way, they still come up well short of the revenues the government has guaranteed them. So we see the bizarre spectacle of privately owned enterprises costing us, the taxpayers, more in subsidies than they used to cost us to run when we owned them!
So what is the true purpose of doing all this, if it’s not about efficiency, better services and lower prices? Lloyd George used to say that there was one question which should be asked of any enterprise: Who does this benefit? Well, that is clear. Certainly not the customers. The only beneficiaries are the owners of these privatised entities. Therefore there is only one possible explanation – it is the deliberate transfer of literally trillions of pounds worth of assets from the public sector (which is you and I) to the private sector (which isn’t). Often at prices which turn out to grossly undervalue those assets. And they’re doing it again. They’re not even bothering to hide the fact that Westminster politicians, and very often their relatives, are positioning themselves to profit from the creeping NHS privatisation that threatens to engulf the English part of what might arguably be described as the UK’s greatest social achievement.
So now that you’ve thought it through, you may be wondering how it was that we were all persuaded to accept for so many years something so patently illogical. Well, strangely enough, that’s the easy bit. It’s known as ‘The Big Lie.’ The bigger the better. The more ridiculous, the more credible it becomes, because people think that nobody would make up something so counter-intuitive. And if you tell it often enough, people will inevitably begin to accept it. The Bush II administration in the US spent a little over two years consistently and deliberately mentioning Iraq and al Q’aeda in the same sentences, over and over and over again. By the time the invasion of Iraq came, over 60% of Americans polled believed that Iraq had attacked the US on 9/11. That’s all it takes. With privatisation we have had 35 years of the lie being repeated. A bit longer if you’re an academic economist, but for most people it dates from when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. That’s long enough not only for people to start believing it, but for it to become something that goes without saying. It’s just accepted. It’s not even questioned.
Well today I am asking you to question it. More than that, I’m asking you to become, with me, the little boy who points out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. Because it’s true, he’s stark, bollock naked, and it’s not a pretty sight. And we Scots will have a chance, a unique opportunity, in just over 100 days, to start again, with a blank sheet, empty of this discredited ideology. But, some will ask, what about everything we’ve got to lose? Well, I think it’s about time we thought about that too:
Shit, my head is banging. I didn’t think I was that drunk last night, but I feel like someone has come in when I was asleep and replaced my tongue with a sock full of sand. I can’t even remember the election result, let alone getting home and going to bed. Maybe I fell asleep before it was announced. That was going to be embarrassing at work. Thank God I’m on annual leave.
I never really should have agreed to go to the works election night party . I don’t know what Tim, our manager, was thinking of when he organised it. He had seen the divide in the coffee room whenever the conversation came around to the hot political topic of the day. Nick and I have almost come to blows on more than one occasion. The whole team in a confined space with alcohol and the live election results? Great idea Tim.
I tried to make an excuse about previous plans, but Tim pulled me aside when our break was over and strongly suggested I reconsider.
“Craig, mate” he said in that cringey ‘hey, we’re all friends here’ way that makes my skin crawl. “Just come along, eh? Show willing.”
“I’m really not sure it’s a very good-”
“It’s just, I really want to recommend you for promotion.” He looked at me expectantly “but you aren’t really much of a joiner. I mean, Jason runs the football team, and Nick organises the Christmas party. A few extra curricular things might help keep you in the running.”
I sighed, long and loud and pointedly, but I need that promotion. Our pay has been frozen the last three years running, but the rent hasn’t. Here I am, a single man with a steady job, and no kids, struggling to make rent on a bedsit. You can’t tell me that’s right.
The last thing I remember about last night is making what I thought at the time was a passionate and well thought out speech about the dangers of the rhetoric surrounding the election campaign on all sides. I was disheartened, although unsurprised, when Nick burped hugely, hitting me in the face with a rancid puff of stale beer and pork scratchings, before announcing;
“Well yeah, but the problem is, people can’t talk about the real problems in the country without being called racists.”
I sighed irritably- he clearly hadn’t listened to a word I’d said.
“That’s precisely my point.” I said “The real problems you talk about are caused by chronic underfunding by successive governments. It’s deliberate mismanagement, to justify privatisation. Nothing to do with immigration.”
“More people means more pressure on services” he insisted “it stands to reason.”
I snorted decisively. As if Nick had any capacity to reason. He simply regurgitated what he read in the angry tabloids.
“We have an ageing population” I reiterated tiredly “We need immigration. Who looks after your old mum while you’re at work?” I knew the answer of course. Just as I knew what his response would be.
“Mums carers do a grand job of course,” he said “but there’s plenty of British that could do it just as well. And they get the training for it, don’t they? All paid for by us, and then they take the skills we give them and sod off home.”
“Ungrateful, that’s what it is” Carl chimed in. “after all we do for them.”
“Yeah, how dare they” I said sarcastically “Coming over here, looking after our old people and paying taxes. Going back home before they become a burden on our health and social care services. Bloody cheek.” My sarcasm was lost on Carl though, who seemed to think I had had some kind of road to Damascus style conversion to his point of view.
“They only swarm over here because of our welfare system.” Said Carl, nursing the very end of his pint without quite finishing it. He was adept at making sure he was always just finishing his drink just as someone else was heading getting a round in. “We’re too nice for our own good.”
“True that” said Nick, as Carl and Jason nodded vigorously. “They take all this benefit money in and give it away to their families abroad. We give ‘em all too much. No incentive to work, like.”
I despair, I really do.
“What I don’t understand,” Jason announced “is where it all stops? We ain’t got enough jobs for all these people. Locals can’t find no work, because the foreigners accept lower wages. You can live like kings in their countries for pennies, can’t you? So they put up with it and we get the rough end of the stick.”
“How is them getting shafted giving you a rough deal? “ I snarled, trying to keep my temper. “You’re angry at the wrong people Jase. You should be angry with the bosses paying slave wages, not the people so desperate they’ll take them.”
“Well it’s all less jobs for the locals, ain’t It? “ Jason retorted. “More of us scraping by on the dole because they take our jobs. Our Mickey is on the job seekers. It’s barely enough to live on, and that’s a fact.”
I had to get up and go to the bar at that point, in case I lost my temper. How can you even argue with people who think the benefits system is at once too generous and not generous enough, that foreigners take our jobs while living a life of luxury on unemployment benefits.
I roll over in bed, half opening one eye against the stabbing white morning light, groping about on the bedside table for my phone. I can check the election result online , it might jog my memory about last night. I better check I didn’t drunk dial my ex too.
My phone is switched off, which is kinda weird. I never switch it off, the first thing I do when I wake up every morning is look at the news online. I must have let the battery die. I plug it in and hold the power button until the screen lights up, then swing my feet out of bed. Judging by the taste in the back of my throat, last night involved kebabs. I need coffee.
I go for a pee while the kettle is boiling, then stare at myself in the mirror for a minute. No one has shaved off my eyebrows or drawn a cock on my face or anything. Maybe I wasn’t that pissed. I look old today though.
I finish making the coffee, dumping the last of the milk into it before carrying it back to bed. I can’t be bothered to fold the sheets and wrestle with the rusted mechanism to turn the mattress into a sofa yet. I pick up my phone and press the twitter icon.
The loading screen fills my screen for a moment and then a dialogue box pops up. ‘Access denied’. It has never said that before.
I press Facebook icon instead and again get the same message; ‘access denied’. I try both my browsers with the same result. It must be a network problem.
I sit and drink my coffee in the silence. I haven’t really got room for a TV here, not unless I got rid of the bookcase. I really want to see the election results, it’s annoying me that I don’t know. It would almost undoubtedly be the centre right party that used to be the centre left party. The country were too annoyed by the right wing party that used to be the centre right party who had been in charge over the last term, surely. The people had endured cut after cut, to public services, benefits, pensions, schools. They wouldn’t be so blinded by mainstream media as to vote them in for more of the same. I itched to be reading analysis, getting involved on the comment boards, finding out about all the key players in the new cabinet.
I fire off a quick text to my brother asking what the election result was.
“Pride In Britain, of course” he replied. He thinks he’s really funny, my brother. A right little comedian. Pride In Britain are barely a party, really, just a group of angry bigots who shout about “taking the country back” and “putting a halt to the eradication of British culture” and burble like idiots when asked to explain what that actually meant. If they got a single seat I’ll eat my hat.
I pull on jeans and a light jumper and search increasingly frantically for my wallet before finding it in the bedsheets. I even still have a few crumpled notes in there. I thought I’d be skint after last night’s skin full. I grab my sunglasses against the bright May glare and head out to the corner shop.
Our street is fairly quiet, but that’s not unusual for a Friday morning. The old man next door bids me a cheery “good morning” as he hoses his car down and I raise a hand in greeting. My mouth is still feeling a bit too acrid for speaking just now, and I know if I engage him any more than that I will end up standing here for the next half an hour hearing about the state of the potholes in the high street, how long it takes to get a doctors appointment at the local surgery, and the entire minutes of the save the library campaign’s last meeting. Not that I don’t want to save the library of course. But I’d rather do that when my head has stopped pounding and the nausea has passed. I need this hangover to hurry up and clear, I’m meant to be driving up to the coast this afternoon. Nice bit of camping, get away from it all for my annual leave.
A girl in a black niqab comes out of the newsagents just as I’m going in, so I step aside to let her pass.
“Thanks” she says, and I can see her smile in her intricately painted eyes. I see her most days, and most days I tell myself that next time I see her, I’ll ask her name.
“Morning Mr Singh” I call out cheerily, then stop dead.
The news rack is a sea of red, white and blue. Tabloids scream “Britain is Great Again”, “A New Dawn in British Pride” and “Pride In Britain” Broadsheets announce “Unprecedented Landslide Hands Pride In Britain Easy Victory”. Simon Dovesly’s smug grin is plastered over the front of every newspaper.
“You’ve got to be joking” I say out loud.
“Had you not heard?” Mr Singh asks.
“No, problems with my Internet today.” I say. I turn and see he has chosen to wear a union flag turban today. Whether he is nailing his colours to the mast, or quietly poking fun, I can’t tell. “I thought my brother was joking when he said Pride In Britain won the election.”
“Can you believe it?” says Singh “They won every single constituency. “
“That can’t be right.”
“It’s what the papers are saying. And it’s all over the TV.”
He reaches over and turns the volume of his tiny portable TV set up. Dovesly is halfway through his speech, spittle flying back out of the corners of his mouth.
“The establishment were against us from the start! “ he raged on screen “we had to fight the leftist media all the way. But we won every constituency. We showed them what Britain really wants. We’re tired of unchecked migration. We’ve had enough of our free speech being criminalised as racist. We’re sick of so called human rights laws dictating how we treat our prisoners. Britain has voted to take back control.”
“is this a wind up?” I say “are there hidden cameras or something?”
“I wish.” Singh sighs, shutting the sound back off again. “it’s a definite worry.”
“I don’t think you’ve anything to worry about mate.” I say “you’ve lived here what, 30, 35 years?”
“Yeah, I was born not far from here mate. I’m as British as chips in curry sauce.” He smiles “Still. Worrying that so many people voted them in.”
“Every constituency though? Are the electoral commission looking into that?”
“If they are, I’ve not heard anything about it.” He says. “What can I get you?”
“One of every paper you’ve got please” I say, going to grab a can of fizz and a sausage roll, along with the milk I came in for.
“Even That Rag Which Shall Not be Named?” he asks, his eyes twinkling.
“Please. Internet withdrawals. Need to know what the enemy is saying.”
He rings up the papers and drink and asks if I want them tomorrow too.
“No thanks mate. I’m away for a few days. Camping. Hoping when I get back I will find out this has all been a misunderstanding.”
“We can hope.” He says as he gives me my change. “Hope the weather holds out for you.”
I put the coppers in the charity box and head back out into the sunshine.
I check my Internet connection while walking home. It still reads ‘Access denied’. That’s just weird. I’ll have to complain to the network provider.
I fold up the bed when I get in, opening up the space a bit. The fizz has cleared my head a little. I leaf through the papers while eating the sausage roll. Every one of them, even the usually fairly left wing Daily Voice, was framing this as a victory of ‘common sense’ and ‘free speech’ over ‘restrictive human rights legislation’ and ‘political correctness gone too far’. I couldn’t finish my breakfast. How did we get to this stage? Voting in a fascist, nationalist party in this day and age?
I remember, suddenly, sitting with my friend Giles last November, drinking the good cider and putting the world to rights. Good bloke, Giles. Bit posh, but I don’t hold it against him.
“I don’t understand how people like Hitler even get into power.” I had said “how can people be so stupid?”
“Well, fascism doesn’t come in in jack boots, kicking down doors, darling. It comes in wearing a suit, calling you brother” he said sagely.
“That’s a bit deep”
“Ah well, I’m quoting some clever bugger” he said “point is, it never starts out with transportations and labour camps. It starts with dividing people. It starts with blame.”
I pull my phone out of my pocket and try the Internet again. It still says ‘Access denied.’
I write a quick text to Giles. ‘dropping off grid for a week or two. Fancy a drink when I’m back?’
I get one back almost instantly. ‘don’t blame you – world gone mad! Bastards must have cheated election. Drink sounds good. Text me when you’re back. Having some Internet issues so not on emails just now. Speak soon.’
It feels weird, just sitting in the bedsit, not doing much. I leaf through the newspapers again, feeling panic rising in my belly once more. I thought we had said no more to this sort of thing back in the 40s.
I pack a bag and head out to the car, unable to just sit and read the hatred anymore. I’m fairly certain I’m sober enough to drive now. Might as well miss the weekend traffic.
The open road calms me a little. This is modern Britain, not 1930s Germany. We don’t stand for that sort of thing, we never have. There will be an investigation, I’m sure. They must have cheated. Our country is a tolerant nation. There’s no way a fascist party got in in every constituency by playing fair. It’ll all be sorted out. It might even be sorted by the time I get home. Today will fade into obscurity as a weird little blip in British history. We’ll laugh about it.
My history teacher’s voice echoes across the years.
“Where you have economic instability, extremism thrives.”
Things had been bad recently – I mean, we’d had a recession. We are on our way out of it, but everyone is feeling the pinch. Things aren’t that bad though, not yet. It takes more than a bit of belt tightening to turn the people of this country into fascists. Everything would sort itself out.
I relax and switch on the radio. Most channels seem to just be playing static, but the National Broadcast Channel is working. A calm toned female newsreader is talking about the new regime.
“Pride In Britain have vowed to tackle these issues head on, however, unveiling plans to counter non domestic extremism with a firm hand. In a statement, Deputy Leader Sara Polacki confirmed that the party intend to give the police added powers to stop and search those suspected of crimes relating to terrorism. She also confirmed that there will be a general curfew in place, from 7pm until 7am, for the duration of the national emergency. A full list of exempted occupations are available at-”
I turn the tuning nob in disgust, searching for music. Anything to make the world make sense again. The radio searches through fuzz, eventually settling on a talkshow.
“And it’s about time we showed those bully boys in the establishment whose boss!” the caller raged
“So you think that vote is the electorate effectively giving two fingers to traditional politics?”
“I think we’ve just had enough of stuffed shirts telling us what to think.” The caller yelled “Pride In Britain is just what our country needs.”
I hit the off switch in disgust. I can’t listen to that Little Englander crap. I drive the rest of the way to the campsite in a pensive silence.
The next twelve days are good for me. With my phone still not connecting to the Internet, I quickly started to feel like I was the only person on the planet. I went fishing in the cool, clear lake. I sat in the dappled shade and listened to bird song. I drank good bourbon while staring at the fire. I read my favourite books. Somewhere between the rolling green hills and the soaring blue sky, I found peace. If this was the calm before the storm, I would enjoy it.
I fantasised about staying out there, avoiding everyone forever. How easy it could be to just walk out of society, refuse to participate. But real life calls. I’ve only got two days of annual leave left.
I switch my phone on again and text Giles.
‘Are you around for a drink today?’
I reflexively try the Internet again while I wait for an answer, but it says the same message; ‘access denied’. I think I’m slightly relieved. I’m not quite ready to break the silence of this place with full on Internet chatter and noise. My phone chirps.
‘Sure. Come to the house.’ Says Giles’ reply text.
I pack up my few possessions and head to the car. Giles is the ideal person to ease back into being social with. He is measured, thoughtful, a true voice of reason in an increasingly turbulent world. I’ve always looked up to him. He will help me make sense of things.
I don’t listen to the radio on the way home, preferring instead to wear the comfortable silence a little longer.
I park in the familiar drive and knock on Giles’ front door. He opens it quickly, a large, unnatural grin on his face. His left arm and hand are bandaged in a sling.
“So nice to see you, do come in.” He says formally, the strange smile barely moving. “Can I offer you some tea?”
I have known Giles for nearly thirty years. He knows I don’t drink tea.
“You know I drink coffee” I say.
“Oh no!” Giles says “A proper English man drinks tea.”
I’m not sure if Giles is joking or not. This isn’t his usual humour. Why is he pulling that awful rictus grin?
“What did you do to your arm?”
Giles looks down at his splinted arm as if noticing it or the first time.
“Do you know, I’m not sure I recall.” He says, limping toward the kitchen. “How was your holiday?”
“So good. Didn’t see another soul the whole time I was away.” I say. “So what’s been happening? How’s the first fortnight under Pride In Britain gone?”
“Oh it’s been absolutely super” He grins, “We’ve never had it so good. Just what the country needed.”
I burst into uproarious laughter, but Giles doesn’t join in. My guffaws subside to chuckles and peter out to nothing. Giles continues to stare, his eyes blank, that terrible grin fixed to his face like a mask.
“Giles, what are you talking about? Did the result get overturned or something?”
“Of course not, who would dream of such a thing? It’s a real people’s victory!” Giles says with no hint of sarcasm. “We’ve finally triumphed against a system where we weren’t free to voice our concerns about immigration without being labelled racist, we-”
“Giles I know you don’t think this, what’s going on?” I snap. I’m starting to get really scared.
“I’ve woken up I suppose. “ Giles says “Pride In Britain are doing a brilliant job. Inflation has gone up a tiny bit, sure, but it’s short term.”
“You are literally writing a book on countering the rise of fascism. It’s been your life’s work this last decade, Giles.”
“No, no my dear you are quite mistaken.” Says Giles. “My book is on the importance of cultural cohesion, and the civil duty of citizens to obey the law.”
I’m so confused. My head starts to spin. This isn’t Giles. He might look like Giles, but he’s wearing Giles like a mask. This isn’t my friend.
“Giles, would it be okay if I went and used your bathroom for a while? I’ve been camping, I need to freshen up.”
“Of course, of course. You’ll be wanting a shave too I should think. Under the anti terrorism act, all full or partial face coverings are prohibited. Anything more than two day stubble might get you into trouble.” He says it cheerfully, as if that’s no problem at all. “There are disposable razors in the cabinet.”
I run the tap and stare at myself in the mirror for a long time. I should be trying to rationalise this, or be panicking, or something. Instead I am numb. I can’t begin to work out what could possibly have happened to Giles to have changed him so deeply. I owe it to him to at least try to work out what has happened.
When I go back down, my face feeling oddly bare, Giles has set out some tiny cucumber sandwiches, a plate of biscuits, and a pretty porcelain tea set on the coffee table. It’s like an American parody of Englishness. His face is still stuck in that puppet-like grin.
“So what have you been up to these last couple of weeks?” I asked, trying to keep my tone light, conversational. “and how’s Brendan?”
“Brendan…Brendan..” Giles murmured, as if he has no recollection of his fiancée, who he has been living with this last year. “Oh you mean the degenerate boy who I tried to help? Disappeared. You can’t help some people. He was a rubbish lodger, anyway.”
Is this what’s happened to him? Brendan has flounced off after a fight and Giles has had some kind of breakdown?
“Anyway, brilliant news. I met someone.”
“Oh! Already? I…Well, whose the lucky guy?”
“Her name is Cynthia. Beautiful thing. I met her at the education centre.” He takes a sip of his tea. This can’t be happening. Giles has never had an interest in women. “She can trace her lineage back six generations you know. On both sides.”
“I…sorry. where did you say you met her?” I don’t know what to say. Her lineage? This is really scaring me now. Adrenaline is thudding through me. I can’t believe I’m scared of Giles. But I want to run.
“The education centre. I went there to get my Internet license you see. I was allowed to stay a while. Something about my Internet postings. I got the full residential.”
“The full residential?” I think I’m going to be sick.
“Yes, Craig. The full package.” I can’t stop staring at that fixed smile. Has it been done surgically? It shouldn’t be possible to smile like that while speaking.
“I kept getting the access denied message when I tried to log on. Got myself down the education centre quick – if you keep logging on when you’ve been told your access is denied, you can get in trouble. So I went to apply for a license, and got told I was on the VIP list. Stayed for a good week, I think. It was all such a blur. Lots of telly. Relaxing with the tabloids. So many pretty girls there. There were classes I think…and spa treatments? It was so relaxing, I can’t really remember.” He takes another dainty sip of tea.
“Do you know” he says looking at me square in the eye, his fixed grin at once tortured and comedic “I’ve not been able to stop smiling since.”
“I really should be getting on.” I say.
“Of course. You don’t want to have to break curfew. Can’t very well go back to work with broken fingers, can you?” he laughs manically. I try to join in.
“You’re a good patriot, and a good friend, Craig. See you soon.”
I drive away as quick as I can, feeling like I was being chased, even though I know I’m not. Bile rises in my throat. Giles just called me a good patriot. The man who, despite his denials, has spent the last decade working on a book called “Evil and The Nature of Nationalism.”
I pull into my street and idly wonder what has become of the girl with the intricately painted eyes. Out of sheer habit more than anything I pop into Mr Singh for a can of fizz and a sausage roll to take home. I’m going to sleep in my own bed and hope it all makes more sense when I wake up.
“Afternoon Mr – oh. Where’s Mr Singh?” I say to the red haired, plump woman behind the counter. She turns to face me and my blood freezes. Her face is contorted into a fixed, unnatural grin.
“Oh, he relocated” she said dreamily, then dropped her voice to a stage whisper that easily carried as far as her sing song speaking voice. “They’re happier among their own kind.”
I back away a bit, a grab my can of pop. I want to run, but I try to keep calm, avoid spooking her. I put it on the counter with a rumpled ten pound note.
“Would you like the paper?”
“Sure, I’ll grab a Daily Voice if you’ve got one”
“That’s not funny.” She snaps, here voice stern, her face still smiling. “This is a respectable, grateful establishment. We are proud to only stock Britain’s News here. We’d never be caught selling anything else! We know we’ve never had it so good.”
“Sorry. My mistake, I-”
“Good day.” She says pointedly through her smile, her eyes furious. She thrusts 25pence change into my hand. I’m not going to argue. I grab my can and the paper and get out of there, virtually sprinting home.
I fumble with my keys at my front door. It will be good to be back home. I can shut the door on the world. Work out what to do next.
“You there! What’s that book you’ve got there?” An authoritative voice demands. I turn, and see three men, dressed in camouflage, looking serious.
“Sticking out of your bag, there.” The middle one strides forward and grabs at my backpack. My book is indeed sticking out of my bag.
“Isn’t this book on the banned list?” he says, grabbing it out of my bag. “Incitement against the British people”
“It’s Orwell.” I say “He was English-”
“He was a traitor.” The soldier says “Are you a traitor, boy?”
“What? Of course I’m not a-”
But then there was a flash of white light and stabbing pain as someone hit me over the head. The world went suddenly dark as I was hooded. I tried not to panic but they were drawing a string around my throat.
The world went blacker.
You mean I never told you how I found God? What, never? You won’t believe me anyway. I mean, I wouldn’t. Oh you still want to know? Ok, here’s what happened.
It was a few years back and I was on a road trip. Sheila had left me a couple months before and I was looking for something. Not God or religion, or anything like that. I suppose you could say I was looking for myself, although I didn’t know it at the time. I just had the urge to wander.
I was just passing through the town, on my way somewhere more interesting. It was that kind of town, if you understand what I mean, just somewhere to pass through, a few houses, a bar, a dilapidated church. A two horse town, if they’d had another horse. Nothing to write home about.
My car had broken down a couple of miles back and I had walked into town to see if there was a mechanic, or even a car rentals place anywhere nearby. It was easily ninety degrees in the shade though, my head was pounding and my legs were tired, so I ended up heading straight to the bar instead.
I was blinded by the gloom when I first walked in, couldn’t see much of the dingy exterior to start. A bored barmaid gave me a tall glass of water and I chugged down half of it without stopping. Then I ordered a bud and looked around for somewhere to sit, blinking the sunspots out off my vision. The bar was empty except for me and some old guy at the end of the bar, nodding into his whiskey, so I wandered to the other end of the bar, sat heavily and laid my head on the table.
Everything from the last few months seemed to catch up with me then – Sheila leaving, losing my job, gambling away all of my money, being stuck in this ghost town that was hotter than hell.
“Oh God!” I groaned into the table.
“Well it’s hardly my fault is it?”
My head snapped back up so fast I nearly gave myself whiplash. How the hell had he gotten across the bar so fast, and so silently? He was eighty if he was a day.
“Sorry, what?” I said, but I didn’t really care what he had said to be honest. I wasn’t looking for company, I just wanted my headache to clear. It was filling my whole skull, pounding in my brain like a crazed, caged animal wanting to escape. If I could have taken the top of my head off to let it out I would have.
“I said it’s hardly my fault.” He repeated, sipping his whiskey. “It’s your bad choices that led you here. Free will – it’s a bitch, ain’t it?”
“I guess” I said, in as non committed a tone as I could muster. I really couldn’t be bothered with the local crazy that day.
“Oh you guess, huh? You’d rather you didn’t have free will, that I just told you all exactly what to do, like children?”
I looked at him then, really looked at him, straight in the eyes. I couldn’t tell you what colour they were now, just that they were old, too old for his face. I couldn’t work out why I thought he was so old before, he didn’t seem it now. His face was sort of…ageless. I will never forget the guy, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about what he looked like now I come to describe him.
“I’m sorry…what are you on about?” I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t the least bit interested, made my voice tired and snappish and fed up, but you know what these crazy guys can be like.
“I was just saying, it’s not really my fault if you messed things up with Sheila. I mean, she gave you enough chances didn’t she? You chose gambling over your relationship. Free will. You can’t come crying to me about it now.”
I stared at the guy some more. I mean, I have met some nutters in my time, but I had never met one who claimed to be God. Clever how he threw those little details in really…except I hadn’t told him about Sheila had I? Or the money? I frowned, and it just made my head ache more. I decided he must be one of those con artists, like the ones that tell your fortune by noticing the small details about you.
“I bet thinking about free will and determination is a bit heavy when your head is pounding” he said, and then he leant forward. He smelled of old books in long forgotten rooms. He laid his hand on my forehead and I wanted to pull away but I couldn’t, I just froze.
Have you ever been hit in the face really hard? I mean so hard it doesn’t even hurt, not at first, you just get that blinding light and then your head spins? It was like that. It didn’t hurt, but it was so bright it was like I could see the headache for a moment there, and then my head span and my vision wavered and I felt a bit sick. When I could see again, my headache was gone. Not like it felt a bit better, like I had never had a headache to start with.
I was dazed. “How? ” I asked.
He chuckled slightly and winked at me, like a grandfather does at his grandson when he has taught him a clever little magic trick.
“Perk of the job” he said then finished his drink.
I must admit, by this stage I was starting to think that that I was hallucinating the whole encounter, that I had finally lost it, the heat and the stress had broken my brain. Maybe I was sat in the bar talking to myself while the barmaid quietly called for help. Maybe I was collapsed by the road somewhere, dreaming all this while vultures circled waiting to feast. Hell, maybe I was still with Sheila, in our bed and the last few months had been a feverish nightmare and when I woke she would kiss it all away.
“Not happening son. You blew it with that girl good and proper,” he said “silly boy. She really cared about you.”
“I know she did” I whispered.
“Mary can we get some more water over here please?” He called out. “I reckon you could do with something stronger, eh?”
I was beyond trying to work out what he was on about by this point, so I just nodded. Placate the crazy, then get out, find a car, keep moving. That was my plan.
The bored barmaid dumped two glasses of water onto the table, slopping some over the side of the glass.
“You need to actually buy a drink sometime, Abe. You can’t sit in here all day drinking water.”
“I know lovely, I will. And may I say how very lovely you look today?”
The girl blushed prettily.
“Get away you old charmer” she said, and wandered back to the bar. The old man leaned in again.
“Her fella made a horrible comment about that dress this morning” he whispered “he thinks if he grinds her confidence down she won’t go off to the big city the first chance she gets”
“And will she?” I asked him, not really sure if I was playing along or if I believed what he was saying.
“Buggered if I know. Free will, innit? It’s a slippery customer. Is she looking?”
I glanced over to the bar.
“No, she is playing with her phone”
I know you won’t believe this, but it’s the honest to God truth. So to speak.
He dipped his fingers into the new glasses of water. They grew cloudy, swirled a moment, and then settled. The liquid had turned pure amber. I could smell that it was bourbon.
He must have seen the shock on my face because he chuckled again.
“I know you ain’t much of a wine drinker. Me neither to be honest. Here I give you grapes, sweetest most luscious taste in the world and you lot rot it down into something that tastes nasty for days and gives you a hangover. Free will again, see? I’m starting to think it was my biggest mistake. But what is humanity without it, eh?”
I shrugged, picked up the glass, took a big gulp. My throat burned. I couldn’t suppress the cough. He raised an eyebrow at me while I spluttered.
“That there ain’t water, son. Go careful like.”
“No kidding” I choked out.
“Now I know you. I know you’re thinking, this is some crazy man, I’ll humour him til he goes away, but tell me boy; if you did meet God, what would you ask him?”
I thought for a while, sipping the bourbon more slowly this time.
“I suppose I would ask what I’m meant to do now.” I said eventually. “I’ve messed things up pretty bad, it would be nice to have some guidance.”
He snorted then, and took a drink.
“What?” I demanded, “isn’t that what most folks would say?”
“Only every single blessed one of you” he replied. “No originality. No one ever asks how I am.”
“Well…If you were God….I am mean..,you’d be alright wouldn’t You? I mean, you’re God.”
“So that means I got it all figured out, yeah?”
“Well don’t you?”
“Of course not. See it’s like when you were a kid. You think Mum and Dad have it all figured out don’t you? Like they are totally in control. And then you get to realise, when you get to their age, that they are as clueless as you.”
“I suppose I never really thought of it that way.”
“No one ever does! It’s all, ‘God, please let me win the jackpot. God, please bring my kids home safe. God, please forgive my sins before I go off and repeat them again. Oh God, look at me having sex. Oh God, I think I’ve left the gas on. Hey, it’s Sunday! So we thought we’d get you up early to tell you we love you God!’ Love me? Huh! No one ever even wonders how I’m doing.”
So I asked him. Not because I was trying to make him feel better, but I genuinely wanted to know.
It was like he had been waiting thousands of years for someone to ask. He just let rip. I can’t even recall everything he said, how crazy is that? There I was talking to God in a bar in the middle of nowhere and I can’t remember what he said to me. I remember the loneliness though, the crushing responsibility. And the voices. The millions upon millions of prayers tugging at his heart and his brain.
“Why don’t you just answer them?” I asked at some point in the evening before everything went a bit wobbly round the edges.
“it don’t work that way son.” He said sadly, shaking his head. “it’d be the easy thing to do, but it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. It would defeat the whole point.”
I think I asked him what the point was, but I can’t remember if he answered. I don’t think he did, but who knows? Maybe I found out the point of the entire universe, life, creation, the whole shebang and I forgot it while I was getting shit faced on water with a dude who claimed to be God.
“Imagine” he said to me, somewhere around the fourth glass of water whiskey “imagine you’re a single parent yeah? But with billions of kids. And they are grown ups now, you can’t control them. And they are doing it all wrong and you can see where they are headed but you can’t do anything to stop them. That’s my life. That’s how I am.”
“But couldn’t you help a bit? Give us some guidance?” I said, “a book of instructions or something?”
He laughed then, for so long was worried he would have a heart attack, until his breath was just coming in heaving panting gasps.
“You don’t think I tried that?” He spluttered, “more than once! You know what happens when you try that?”
I shook my head, a little unsteady from the holy whiskey.
“They bloody twist everything you say! You pick a guy, right, and he is all pious and holy seeming and you think great, this guy will just write down what I say. But they never do”
“Of course not. They take your message and then they add what they think should be in there too, and they put in a few lines to make sure they keep their power base intact and before you know it your message of peace and love is now a ruddy great big book filled with hate and pointless rules”
“That must be frustrating”
“The whole thing is frustrating. I gave you lot all the tools to make a heaven on earth and what do you do? You make hell instead.”
He looked so forlorn I tried to comfort him.
“It’s not that bad. I mean, there’s good people out there.”
“I ‘spose. It’s all a bit late to change anything now anyway. This world was meant to be my greatest artwork, you know that?”
I was pretty drunk by this point but just did my best to hold up my side of the conversation.
“It is pretty great, God. The detail is amazing”
“Yeah, the hardware isn’t too bad, I suppose. Maybe one day I will start over, use it as a template.”
“You mean…The four horsemen, end of days, all that stuff?”
“What are you, some kind of nutter? You believe in the apocalypse?” He laughed again.
“Well right now I am sat here getting leathered with God, so I’m not really sure anymore.”
“Ha! Yeah I suppose that is a bit of an attitude adjustment for ya” he laughed again, sounding more genuine this time. “Don’t worry. I don’t really do apocalypses. So fifteenth century. If I start again it will be somewhere else. And Earth is genuinely the best place to have a drink and take in a show. I won’t scrap it.”
I don’t know why but I found that hilarious. I laughed until it hurt and then I laughed some more and I carried on laughing until I was sat there crying like a little boy, snot and tears all over my face, hiccuping and groaning and I couldn’t even have told you what was wrong.
“Come on son. I think you’ve had enough”
He helped me up and we staggered out of the bar. It was dark by that point, and freezing compared to earlier in the day. We staggered along the middle of the road, and I thought it would be hilarious to sing kumbaya. God didn’t seem to mind.
Eventually we reached the car, and I steadied myself on the hood as I threw up all over the tire. I cried the self pitying tears of all who throw up drunk and told God I was sorry.
“I know son. I always know.”
“For everything” I sobbed “for all of it.”
“I know, little one. I know.”
When I woke up I was sat in the drivers seat and God was no where to be found. The taste of bourbon that’s far too expensive for me to afford was still in my mouth, and my headache was back with a vengeance.
The car started first time, and I drove to the first motel I could find, took a shower, then slept for 12 hours straight. When I woke I got it into my head that I was going to go back to the town and ask Mary if she wanted a ride to the city, but I never found the town, although I looked for a good week.
I wish I had asked him if there was anything he needed from me. Like a personal commandment, you know? Something that hadn’t been twisted or spun. Maybe I did ask him and I don’t remember. But I reckon he would have said it was up to me to work it out.
A dream? No of course it wasn’t a dream. Dreams aren’t like that. It was probably the most real thing to ever happen to me. Fine, you don’t have to believe me, but that’s what happened. That’s how I turned my life around, stopped gambling, stopped running from myself. I’m doing all I can to create a little bit of heaven here on earth. I might not make much of a difference, but if we were all doing it, we’d make a difference then. Someone has to go first.
And that’s why I never pray early on Sundays, and I always ask God how he is getting on before I say amen. You don’t have to believe me, but that’s how I found God. Drowning his sorrows in a bar in the middle of nowhere.