BY GUY BLYTHMAN
OBJECTIVE MARTIAN

The scout ship was too small to register on scanners as a meteorite and therefore attract attention until it had crash-landed in a field a few miles from the outskirts of London. He stumbled from it quite badly hurt, but the fact that his metabolism wasn’t that different from a humans’, all in all, assisted those working to heal him.
For the moment there could be no question of a return to the home planet. The combined effects of nuclear war and environmental disaster had forced him to leave and then the meteorite strike had knocked him off course, badly damaging the ship at the same time. He had put himself into suspended animation while it drifted, found on awakening that there was an inhabited planet nearby and decided to investigate.
Once his period of recuperation was over his carers set about teaching him English; his species being a bright lot, he was soon proficient in the language and also mastered French, German, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Chinese and a host of other tongues. There then followed a period of instruction in human ways so he could fully fit into Earth society, the ultimate aim being to find him a job, along with a permanent home although the latter would probably be some form of sheltered accommodation in order to avoid excessive media attention. Meanwhile, under his direction work began on a machine which would enable him to establish contact with any survivors of his own kind.
It was, of course, the story of the century. All the geeks loved it, and so did everyone else. He became quite a media star. At first children were frightened of him, but they soon overcame their fear and played with him quite happily. Animals saw nothing odd in him, perceiving that he was after all an intelligent life form – in effect, a man – and reacting to him no differently from any other person. He was given a cat as a pet, and the two of them became inseparable companions. He wasn’t, in fact, vastly different from a human apart from his hairless, purple-tinged skin, egg-shaped, slightly pointed head and slim, dexterous fingers longer than was the norm on Earth. Interviewed, he said he had come in peace and wished only goodwill to the inhabitants of the world.
His successful integration into human culture was lauded as a triumph for the multiracial society. He was voted “Man of the Year” even though in his view he hadn’t yet done anything particularly spectacular. He was photographed with Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and the Pope.
To pass his time he took up various hobbies. He had a TV in his room and learned to like soap operas, with a particular penchant for Neighbours. He asked for and was given books on Earth history, thinking it best to familiarise himself with the various cultures of his adopted planet. It always seemed to be the same ones that they supplied him with, and the range of programmes he seemed able to get on his TV, and websites access, also seemed limited. He was told the reason for this was technical.
When they judged the time was right he went on a walkabout, with police protection of course. Not long into the proceedings, a number of people including a man in a loincloth and feathered headdress, who didn’t look as if he came from this part of the planet, came up to the cordon and tried to break through it so they could approach him. The man in the loincloth was carrying a banner which read something like, “You who have come from another world, tell them to stop them ruining this one.” Two policemen attempted to keep them back, and there was a scuffle which developed into an ugly scene.
Now that his command of English, indeed of several other Earth languages, had improved so much he was scheduled to address the United Nations, having already spoken to both houses of parliament.
Inevitably he lived a rather cloistered existence while he received his induction into Earth ways. They meant well he supposed, but he found the constant presence of the guards, the painstaking security, rather stifling. One day he managed to sneak out; they weren’t always very efficient. Taking a walk in the park, he found a bench and sat down to reflect on things.
After a while a young man happened to come along, and catch his eye. “Hi,” he said.
“Good morning.”
“How are you?” the young man asked.
“I am well.”
“What are they going to do with you eventually?” The man seemed unsure whether this might not somehow sound a rude way of putting it.
“They said they will give me employment. They are not sure what it should be yet.”
“Well, I hope you have better luck than I have.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve had no work at all, or it didn’t last. And without a job I never had the money to do all the things I wanted.”
“Why do you have this difficulty?”
“I was born with Asperger Syndrome. Only a mild form of it, but…I seem normal but I’m not…not in their eyes, anyway. Because I had it I was clever. There were so many hopes vested in me…they were all dashed. When you’ve got the condition you don’t mix easily, I guess...people are uncomfortable with you. And the bosses…they’ve got too much power to hire someone and then fire them if they decide they don’t like your face. What chance does someone like me have?”
By now others had recognised the alien, and quite a crowd was gathering. He talked with them for some time. Most were just ordinary people, of average intelligence, but he nonetheless found what they had to say very interesting. One invited him home where he spent much time on his host’s computer, learning a lot. Then he went to the library and browsed until his guardians eventually managed to track him down.
“Where’ve you been?” asked Prentiss, the civil servant who had been put in charge of them, once they were in the car. “We’ve all been very worried about you.” He frowned. “You don’t look very happy.”
The alien was silent for a moment. “Tell me,” he began. “Would you say there are some evils one is happy to admit to, and some that one is not?”
Prentiss gave him a benignly quizzical look. “I’m afraid I’m not with you,” he smiled.
“Your society is facing a crisis; standing at a watershed. The issues it faces are too important to be left to the vagaries of the market, therefore you need to curb the power of the private sector. It is because it has too much influence that there are inequalities within the world. And because there is hypocrisy. You are horrified by any thought of racial prejudice yet ignore people who are discriminated against on other grounds. Although you have an ageing population you despise and sideline your elderly so that you cannot make use of their wisdom, their experience, their better judgement. And when black people were oppressed by their own kind, you did nothing to help them. If you were so concerned with overthrowing regimes merely because they were tyrannical, why did you not invade the nation called Zimbabwe as well as that of Iraq?”
“White people have been responsible for a lot of trouble themselves, you know,” said Prentiss, lowering his voice.
“I am not disputing that. Do you think I am a fool? But you humans have a capacity for replacing one injustice with another. Now it is the West which is in danger of being discriminated against. But you are slow to realise that that is what is happening. It is because the whites have been in such a dominant position for so long that you find it hard to think they could ever be the victims. That is where you are blinkered. Because they were in such a unique position to indulge their prejudices, their crimes seemed magnified in contrast to those of others. Yet they are no worse than anything else. And if they feel sufficiently beleagured then eventually your “multi-cultural” society will break down.”
“I’m sure that’s not very likely – “
“You must admit that you recognise anti-white discrimination is a problem and take firmer action to deal with it. You must moderate this philosophy that is called political correctness. That and the pollution of your natural environment will be the two great challenges of your twenty-first century. You champion the cause of anti-racism yet you continue to harm those who in the past have been victims of white exploitation by damaging their natural habitat, destroying their way of life.
“You must limit the power of the commercial sector; create a sensible balance between different means of producing energy, which will mean an intelligently planned economy; reorganise the whole basis of your society. If you do not, you will destroy yourselves. All of you, whatever ethnicity you are. You will go the same way we did.”
With that he took himself off to bed.
The following morning Prentiss came to see him. It seemed his speech to the United Nations would have to be postponed for some reason; it wasn’t quite clear from Prentiss’s explanation what it was. Also, work on the machine which would enable him to re-establish contact with any survivors of his own kind had been stopped, due he was told to an absence of a vital component or one that had been found to be incompatible with the alien technology.
He spent the day doing all the things he normally did to pass the time, and thinking. That night he was in bed when he heard the sounds of hurried movement from the corridor, and the door burst open. The light came on and he sat up, blinking, as the four of them surrounded and took hold of him. They were young, hard-faced men doing a job simply because they got paid for it. He could sense at once that something was wrong.
“No! What are you doing? Stop!”
He felt the prick of the needle, then the drowsiness, then nothing.
The official story was that he had contracted an Earth disease with which his metabolism was unable to cope, having not the right antibodies. It was, after all, the truth. Along with the hysterical mourning there was international anger over his death, but it soon blew over. They gave him a state funeral followed by burial in a special tomb in Hyde Park, which became a place of pilgrimage. The inscription on the memorial tablet read simply, “A Friend of the Earth”.




BLUE

On days when I have nothing to do but think
I remember the blue in your eyes
And much else besides.
Yes, your hair was like the sun
And your eyes the colour of the sky from which it shone,
The sea by which we lay.
Your skin too was gold, like the beach;
You were sun and sand, sky and sea, in human form,
Yet complementing and not blending with them.
And always your eyes.
Are you so shallow as they say?
What secrets lie behind those sapphire orbs
Clear, sometimes cold, transparent to the light
Yet deep as the ocean.
Something, I know not what, always drew me to you,
You were the gold, and also the blue.
That strangest of all colours, cheerful and bright,
Yet also sad;
For the summer fades and is gone, the gold with it
And then there is but a dream, an impossible dream,
Of times we should have had
But never did;
But the blue remains, contemplating what ought to have been but was not.
In what future world, what life beyond this one,
Can the dream come true?
In that world we will have the gold
In this one, just the blue,
Haunting me with
My thoughts of you.





FLESH

Alan had enjoyed his time at university, more or less; but there was always one thing which occasioned a sharp pang of regret whenever he contemplated it. One thing which unlike his lower second class degree in economics, enough to guarantee him a decent job should he choose to look for it, he had failed to achieve.
Pulling it off the way his friends did didn't come easy to him. He wasn't the sort who could strike up a conversation with a girl, have a few drinks with her and later, without having had to deliberately ply her with alcohol (which something in Alan had always recoiled at), find himself experiencing intercourse. As a result his college life had been chaste, revolving mainly around books and the small circle of male friends with whom he met in the Hall of Residence bar every night to discuss whatever seemed remotely interesting at the time.
There had been one source of relief available for his tension, had he cared to take advantage of it. He hadn't, not really. But from time to time something a bit more than mere curiosity drew him towards the maze of little streets to the east of the city centre; those dusty little streets between the railway line and the river, where he knew he would find what he wanted if he was desperate enough to have it.
It had once been a genteel area, or maybe the Victorians, whatever their faults, had made an art out of mass building projects in a way later generations had not cared to do. The terraced houses had nice moulded cornices to the doors and windows and ornamental stone guttering around the eaves of the roofs. Some were plain red brick, others painted in bright, gaudy pastel colours. A low wall divided the pavement from the front gardens, which were frequently overgrown with weeds sprouting from the cracks in the path and sometimes an enormous bush partly obscuring the living room window. The houses themselves were in an equally run-down state; the paint on the window frames was cracked and peeling and the panes badly in need of a clean, flecked with blobs of dried white paint and often so grimy it was impossible to see through them. He had the impression many of the houses weren't actually lived in; certainly there weren't that many people in sight.
There was a fair amount of rubbish strewn about. Items of builder's tackle were stacked on the pavements and piles of sand and gravel overflowed from them into the road. Altogether he was reminded of a vast construction site, where work was perpetually in progress but with never any sign of completion.
Though sometimes he was there on legitimate business, visiting friends who rented several of the houses or talking administrative matters with other members of the University Darts Club Committee, he found that just looking at the girls, or being propositioned by one, gave him a certain thrill.
When he was walking up and down the main street trying to find a house to which he had been invited for a party a woman in her fifties waved and shouted "Yoo-hoo!" to him from the other side, thinking he was attempting to locate a brothel. Another, of similar age, had said "hello" to him as he walked past her. He had drawn level with a place that had a red light in the window, above a sign saying "Young Model", just as the woman was admitting a client and could have tagged along only his courage failed him. A black girl, her high heels clicking on the pavement as she strutted up and down, had glanced at him once or twice and caught his eye but made no approach, leaving it to him to take the initiative.
He knew there was little danger of being robbed or beaten up by the pimps, though it did happen. Organised crime, to give it its due, kept things firmly under control. The girls were quite nice really, that was what people said; and only once, it was true, had he been treated to nasty cat-calls when propositioned and hesitating over his response. Sometimes the reasons for what they did were understandable, like keeping up maintenance payments after a separation or helping get their children or grandchildren through college.
A part of him nonetheless thought the idea dirty, sinful even, though maybe his natural desires and the frustration he felt at not being able to gratify them gave him an excuse. In any case, nothing happened, and when his three years were up Alan left the university and returned to his home town on the outskirts of London, where he found himself a clerical job in a local branch of the civil service. By saving up he was able after a few years to buy the flat he rented. Time passed, during which his friends bought houses in reasonably well-to-do suburbs, got married, had kids, and in one or two cases even achieved moderate fame in their chosen professions. One day, several years after leaving college, he went back there to do some research at the library and to see a couple of old acquaintances who were still living in the area. Once those assignments had been completed, he wasn't quite sure what to do next. As there would be plenty of time in which to get home, if he caught the train at about seven, he decided to have a nostalgic look round some of his old haunts.
He couldn't quite say why his legs were taking him towards the St James' district.
It was by now mid-afternoon on a blazing hot day; the hottest of the year so far, and stifling. From a cloudless blue sky the burning sun beat down remorselessly, and bricks and concrete felt hot to the touch. The dust rising up from the streets and the pavements trapped the heat, intensifying it. The air was thick with the dust, and totally still, apart from an occasional gentle breeze which carried with it the smell of fish and oil from the docks. He had always liked to come here on days like this, because the younger women were in T-shirts, or skimpy blouses, and hot pants and the vision of bare flesh added to the thrill of the whole experience.
He had no idea what exactly he would find there. He knew a vig-orous clean-up campaign had been mounted at one point, although there was a certain resurgence of the problem once the initial reforming zeal had died away.
Newcastle Road was the main place, he knew. He started at one end of it and gradually made his way down the long, seemingly endless thoroughfare, glancing down a sidestreet whenever he came to it. At first there didn't seem to be any girls about, confirming his suspicions. But it was sometimes like that; either you were lucky or you weren't. If anything the element of Russian Roulette made the business all the more exciting.
He decided he would walk right to the end of the street and see if anything happened.
His heartbeat increased the more of it he covered. A few times he found himself fitfully glancing this way and that, as if afraid he would miss them otherwise.
Only a few more yards to go.
No, they weren't about today. It seemed the moment had passed and Alan felt half frustrated and half relieved. At least you tried, he told himself. Time to go home now.
Then his eye fell on the girl standing at the corner with Kings Avenue.
She wasn't especially tall - petite was how you might have described her - and wore a white bikini top, white shorts and white plastic shoes. She had pinkish-white skin and pale naturally blonde hair pinned back in such a way as to leave a few strands hanging down at the sides. He had observed that people of her colouring often kept it until relatively late in life; all the same her pure blondeness and slight build made her seem childlike. Certainly she couldn't have been older than her early twenties. With her arms folded, she seemed to Alan to be hugging herself protectively. She stood with one leg straight and the other bent forward, in the classic pose of her profession.
She had the kind of looks that turned him on. He resolved that at any rate he'd walk past her and see what happened.
As he came up to the girl, she spoke. "Are you looking?"
He turned to face her. She wasn't quite as attractive seen in close-up, but not ugly either. "How much is it?" he enquired.
"Thirty pounds, in a room," she told him. He wondered what she defined as outside of a room and how easily you could get away with doing it there.
He hesitated, knowing that sometimes they got nasty if you refused them, but not being entirely sure if he wanted to do it. Then he hit on the right response. "I'll be back," he said. She gave a brief nod, and he went off - apparently, from her point of view, to fetch the money although in fact he had enough in his wallet at that moment to pay for his pleasure.
Afterwards he often wondered what would have happened had he taken up the offer. And about the girl herself, her life story. The things which had led her to be standing there on that spot, at that time, on that day. In other words, why she - did what she did.
Because of his connections with the town there were always reasons for him to visit it, which he did on at least one occasion each year. For old times' sake, he would usually fit in a saunter round St James'.
Over time, he became aware that the area was changing. Increasing public hostility was driving the girls away. The city council's urban regeneration scheme was starting to have an effect; though the district remained a little run down, there was none of the all-pervading decay of the past. One thing in particular which he noted was that St James had become predominantly Asian in its ethnic make-up; and the Asians had less tolerance than the white community of such activities. He supposed you couldn't blame them. He could just have been unlucky, of course; but he never saw a single girl who was obviously there to conduct "business". There was of course the odd one who might be, going by her appearance, but she never attempted to solicit custom. Either she dressed like that from habit or it was simply the time of year. But in view of all the developments taking place in the town it seemed pretty unlikely.
He recalled the girls standing about in the street, sitting on walls or leaning against lamp posts in their light summer wear, during what he now thought of as the "old days". Now with summers getting much hotter because of global warming or whatever, they kept inside throughout June and July and August. To stand about in the open for too long in such baking sunshine meant running the risk of heatstroke, or at any rate getting very uncomfortable. For that and other reasons the profession was moving off the streets and assuming a very different sort of character, generally and not just down here.
He could have replied to one of those ads in the paper and engaged the services of a busty young "masseuse" who conducted operations behind closed doors. But somehow doing it like that took away the raw thrill of the encounter. And it's not as if you'd ever pluck up the courage anyway, he told himself.
There was always King's Cross of course, but it sounded much too rough for his liking.
For its part St James' was now just like any other suburban area. There seemed increasingly less purpose in his visits there. Each time he sauntered about for an hour or so, wallowing in thoughts of the past, before heading back with a sigh to his dull little flat and his even duller job.

*

Alan paused in his work to stare out of the office window at the drab skyline of West London, vacantly. One of the girls caught his eye as she got up from her desk and left the room on some errand or other, and he breathed in long and hard. He'd asked her out a while ago and been politely turned down; it had been like that with all the others he'd shown an interest in.
He'd thought of going to a dating agency, but a sense that it would be embarrassing if things failed to work out as planned always deterred him.
To his alarm he became aware that Hodgson was speaking to him. "Alan, can you go and get those files for me from Accounts? That's the third time I've had to ask you."
"Sorry," he gabbled, and hurried to comply with the request. On his return to the office he laid the pile of documents on Hodgson's desk, then went back to his own where he resumed his dreamy gazing out the window.
The work would be more varied and interesting, but also more stressful, if he managed to attain a higher position within the Branch. He could never make up his mind on the issue. At the moment though, promotion seemed unlikely because Hodgson, who was thick with the top management despite only arriving here from another Branch a couple of months ago, thought he hadn't quite got the hang of his current job, even though he'd been in it for some years now. It would have helped if he'd had some success with his writing, but his work was invariably returned with a polite letter regretting that it did not fit in with the publisher's current schedule.
He wondered if he ought to speak to the two younger clerks about how precisely to distribute the office's current workload between the three of them, but although such a conversation was long overdue there was the danger that Hodgson might overhear it, and think that by organising the others in this way Alan was encroach-ing on his own prerogative as supervisor. In the meantime the administrative log-jam continued, because Hodgson was perpetually busy and got irritable whenever Alan interrupted his labours by trying to raise the matter.
Alan dismissed all these thoughts from his mind and got back to business, suddenly worried that his boss would notice him daydreaming and regard his estimation of him as confirmed.
Towards the end of the day he went over and cautiously approached Hodgson. "Dave, is it OK if I have the day off tomorrow?" he asked.
"Why do you want the day off?" Hodgson answered without looking up from the file he was studying.
"My mother needs help with some work that's being done to her house," Alan said.
"You'll have to take it as annual leave."
"Fine."
Hodgson nodded curtly and scribbled down a note to himself to the effect that Alan would be absent the following day, Friday. Alan returned to his desk and occupied himself trying to break the log-jam until five o'clock came and it was time to forget about paperwork for a while.
First thing in the morning he caught the bus to the station and boarded the train to his old university town. Arriving there just before mid-day, he had lunch in the little cafe near the old medieval walls which he used to patronise as a student. Over the meal he thought hard about what he was planning to do later on, his fingers tapping out a monotonous rhythm on the table beside him.
Had they really all gone? Perhaps they just didn't come out during the day, when it was so hot and when they would of course be most likely to be seen. Perhaps they were all night birds now.
Alan spent the afternoon studying in the public library, bent over his books with an expression of grim dedication. He stayed there until five, then found himself a diner and had some fish and chips and a Coke. He waited until the meal had gone down before leaving.
After a little aimless wandering he finally made up his mind and set off, away from the city centre and towards St James', walking swiftly and purposefully now. The shadows that lengthened as the day drew to its close seemed to follow him as he hurried on his way. And the shadows seemed to whisper; it was a sound like the rustling of leaves as the wind blew them along the pavement.
Once again, he took the old familiar route; left down Buxton Road, right along Cumberland Terrace to Gloucester Avenue, across to the car park and through there to the underpass, through the underpass to the lower end of Newcastle where they'd put the bollards up to block it off and prevent kerb crawling. All the time it was getting darker and darker, the whispering shadows closing around him. The streetlamps, modern concrete ones replacing the old-fashioned ornate swan's neck version, came on.
He explored the side roads first, deducing that what he sought would be more likely to happen there, being relatively out of sight. Nothing. Beginning to fear that someone would wonder what he was doing walking all over the place like this on his own, and think he was up to no good, he retraced his steps to Newcastle Road.
He walked up one side of the road and then started on the other; feeling increasingly sad, in both senses of the word.
There was no-one about. Everybody was securely battened indoors against the cold and the gloom. Apart from the occasional eruption of chatter and laughter from one of the houses the only sound was the ringing out of his footsteps in the empty street. The solid brick faces of the houses, the impenetrable blackness of the little alleyways leading off the road on each side, the glow of the streetlamp in a puddle of water left over from a brief squall of rain, all said nothing to him.
Hands thrust deep in the pockets of his overcoat, Alan trudged on towards the end of the road, his feelings a frustrating mixture of both bitterness and resignation. He decided to just concentrate on getting home.
Crossing the road where it intersected with one of the side-streets, he stepped up onto the pavement, chancing to glance to his left as he did so. He stopped and stared suddenly, half in disbelief, as something caught his eye. The darkness was still not complete and with what natural light remained, plus that from the streetlamps, he was just able to make out its details.
Standing there in the angle of the wall where it curved to the left to follow the sidestreet, just as she had stood a few years before, was the girl with the blonde hair. At least he had an idea it was the same one, though he couldn't decide if that was quite possible. Memory played tricks and maybe she had not in fact looked like he remembered her. And yet, that pale blonde type with its smooth white skin often did age well; he recalled an old aunt whose hair had faded straight to grey, not gone dark, and whose complexion when she died at ninety-three had been as pink and unblemished as the day she was born. It depended, though, on how much of a toll the life the girl led had taken on her health.
She wore the same outfit as previously, with the addition of a T-shirt.
He must have caught her just in time. It wasn't likely she'd been planning to stay there much longer, dressed like that. The evening air was already starting to chill, though summer evenings were warmer now than in the past and you did see girls lightly clothed at such a time of the day. Or perhaps she was so dedicated to her job that she was prepared to put up with the discomfort.
From the shadows she spoke, in the London accent now almost universal in the Home Counties. "You lookin' for business, mate?"
This time the words came out automatically, almost without thinking. "Sure. How much will it be?"
"Thirty pounds, in a room."
"OK then," he said.
She stepped from the patch of near darkness around her and he followed her down the sidestreet, every part of his body tingling with the rush of blood from his pounding heart. She stopped halfway along at the gate of one of the houses, and pushed it open.
The building was one of the few still in a rundown state. It didn't seem likely that anyone actually lived there - that was his conclusion, anyway - it merely came in useful for certain activities.
She led him up the path to the door, which creaked loudly as she opened it. The lights were still working, and when she turned them on Alan saw the rubbish stacked in boxes on a floor which looked like it hadn't been cleaned for years. The wallpaper was faded and peeling, and the whole place stank of food waste and various other things he wouldn't have cared to ponder if the prospect of what he was about to do hadn't driven all other thoughts from his mind.
They ascended the steep flight of stairs to the top floor. The girl opened the door of one of the bedrooms, leaned in and threw the lightswitch.
The room was moderately clean, but bare apart from a single bed
in the centre. The girl began to undress, prompting Alan to do the same. There was nothing remarkable about her body, and she could do with putting on just a bit more weight, but he told himself that in the circumstances he couldn't afford to be choosy.
Once they were naked and the right precautions had been taken, she lay down before him on the bed.
It lasted altogether about five minutes. When it was over he felt
strange rather than entirely satisfied, but then he had had no idea what the experience would be like. To be honest, he was in something of a daze. It was the kind of thing that when you finally got round to doing it seemed as if wasn't really happening. He could barely believe it was actually happening. The dominant impression was one of coldness, but he supposed it would be like that. Whatever she might think of him as a person for wanting to do it, he doubted she was in it for his benefit. There could be no passion in a relationship like this.
"Thanks," he smiled, and lifted himself off her. Again that brief, almost imperceptible nod. They dressed, and she accompanied him down the stairs and out of the house to the front gate. This, he guessed, must be a ritual stemming from a wish not to have the clients on the premises any longer than was necessary, in case they got up to any mischief.
Opening the gate, he turned to go, but at that point some indes-cribable impulse made him pause and look back at her. "Thanks again."
"Uh-huh," he heard her murmur.
Alan hovered, biting his lip, and he thought she regarded him quizzically for a moment. At length he managed to speak. "Take care, won't you?"
"Don't worry mate, I will," she muttered, nodding in what seemed like appreciation of his kindness. The tone of her voice was low and flat, but not he thought unfriendly.
"I mean...well, in your kind of...of work, you must meet some pretty rough characters, mustn't you?"
"I dunno nothing else. There ain't nothing else." She went on standing there silently, and again Alan marvelled at her apparent imperviousness to the cold.
Again she spoke. "Sure, I've had a few in my time....rough characters. But they don't cause no trouble, not any more."
"Oh, er, why's that?"
"They can't do anything to me that's worth worrying about," she told him. "Not now. I died of AIDS in 1997."
Afterwards he couldn't decide if she had physically turned away and gone back into the house, or just faded where she stood into the darkness around her, losing all form and substance; the only footsteps he could hear were his own as he walked very very fast, almost running, down the street in the general direction of the station. He had no real idea where he wanted to go after that, only that it must be a universe away from what he had left behind him, in that dingy little house in its dingy little side street.




POLITICALLY CORRECT MAN

Politically Correct Man lives in a house in a part of London that used to be quite run-down, but was redeveloped in the 1980s as part of urban renewal schemes and is inhabited today by many professional people along with writers, intellectuals and quite a few well-known actors. His living room contains a computer with Internet connections and a scanner which is attached to his digital camera. He is extremely proud of all this technology and regards the ability to use it as an essential part of being a fully-realised human being in the modern world. He always communicates by e-mail, never by post. So great is his faith in the technology that he doesn’t commit anything to paper if he can avoid it; this would be foolish and a complete waste of time. Since almost everyone does so this would not be cost-effective, benefiting only a small section of the population. He’s aware that there are some sad people who aren’t quite computer literate; it may be because they are too old. But then it’s a far from perfect world and some people are always going to be on the outside. They should be grateful they aren’t being massacred for their colour.
If you were to put to him that it might be dangerous to be so reliant on the technology, in case for example al-Qaeda blew up the power station supplying the electricity, his reply would be immediate – for PC Man is no woolly indecisive ditherer, he knows what he thinks. To suggest that Islamic terrorists might want to cause such disruption, and therefore misery, to a mainly white Western culture is simply paranoid racism and we ought to have no truck with the notion. Nor does he fear the electromagnetic pulse; in a world which is multipolar – and that’s the way it should be, since one belief system is as good as any other and if we all thought that way it would eliminate the possibility of all those nasty wars - he does not see people becoming divided once again into two opposing power blocs conflict between whom would cause a nuclear holocaust.
PC Man’s normal mode of dress is casual, just open-necked shirt and trousers. He hardly ever wears a suit and tie, for these are a Fascist bourgeois convention which prevent him from expressing himself fully. Although his own accent is pretty cut-glass, he regards it as a jolly good thing that the upper classes are dying off, as is believed to be happening. Politically Correct Man believes that all the fears about crime and “yob culture” are exaggerated and simply an attempt by the middle and upper classes to rubbish the working class; after all, nothing like that ever happens down his way.
He is a keen anti-racist and deplores those ignorant yobs who beat up blacks and Asians and have nothing better to do than commit crime and hang around street corners being offensive. You could say that in social policy he would generally regard himself as a liberal. In particular he has no time for Margaret Thatcher, lamenting her greed-based elitist policies and their socially fragmenting, alienating and impoverishing effects, their destructive effect upon moral principles. He deplores the culture by which everything is judged solely by whether or not it makes a profit. He regards John Major as having been a decent man. For Major’s successor he at first felt great admiration; this evaporated somewhat in later years, in no small measure because of the war on Iraq (he doesn’t think it was right to go into Afghanistan either, because the Americans brought 9/11 upon themselves), but in many other respects he is still a Blairite. He likes Blair’s sense of priorities. Blair encouraged the growth of political correctness, a thoroughly good thing, though he also presided over full employment and the greatest period of prosperity for many years – of course it was. He is unmoved by complaints that Blair and Gordon Brown have allowed Scottish and Welsh MPs to keep the residual right, after devolution, to sit at Westminster and legislate on matters affecting England. Since the way Margaret Thatcher and John Major treated the Scots was abominable – and here again we English must recognise our shameful past and pay due penance – and yet a fully independent Scotland might not be practical, the present arrangement represents an acceptable compromise; it’s good management. Since one wrong can be less serious than another it is possible for there to be positive unethicality, just as there can be positive discrimination. Gordon Brown is acceptable as long as he continues this, which so far he has done. Since it isn’t as serious as being knifed because you are black, it follows therefore that we must put up with it.
A lot of groups within society, other than the gays and the ethnic minorities, still say they are disadvantaged but to him they’re just Moaning Minnies. He has heard that many writers believe novels are accepted on the basis of whether they can be sold to the masses and not on that of actual quality, with the result that publishers just concentrate on bringing out a few best sellers and new writers find it hard to get published and have to wait decades before they get any joy, if they ever do. This is a load of rubbish. All you need is perseverance and you’ll succeed; after all it happened to his friend down the road. As for the publishers putting the commercial side of things first, well of course they do! How do you expect them to make a living?
It’s said that there is a lot of ageism about. Well, yes, there are still inequalities in our society, but he’s sure the government are aware of the problem and doing all they can; that things will work out all right in the end.
It is an article of faith for him that no-one was unemployed before the recession. If anyone was, it was clearly their own fault. It had to be, when nearly everyone else was working, and if nearly everyone else was working then the system must have been pretty good. He dismisses objections to casualisation and fixed-term contracts; that’s just the way things are nowadays. It’s simply a response to a different work and social environment. Anyway, commonsense suggests that if you work hard the boss will keep you on and if he doesn’t you’re bound to get another one fairly quickly if you’re worth your salt. He has no patience with people who have been out of work for years or drifting constantly in and out of employment and casual jobs or work training schemes; they’ve brought it upon themselves. Those who accuse the government of fiddling the figures, pretending people were working when they were on useless training schemes, are simply being negative and judgemental. Things were working perfectly OK and will be back on track again once the recession is over. It’s not that he doesn’t sympathise with anyone who genuinely is one of the long-term unemployed; after all he was unemployed for three months and he knows how hard it can be. But if you persevere you will get a job just as you will get your novel published.
In any case for him the real enemy will always be racism and the discriminatory treatment of minorities. For him reason and morality depend on recognising that one evil can be greater than another and that therefore all commonsense dictates that the lesser evil be embraced, in the name of the efficient management of affairs - Tony Blair in particular had the sense to see this- and that in other cases it could be called punishment for past sins. The books he reads are liberally populated with dumb or bitchy blondes or bigoted, unsavoury white people in general. We shouldn’t complain about this stereotyping, because since we are the majority ethnic group we aren’t vulnerable, and therefore it doesn’t do any damage and therefore it isn’t worth bothering about. Those who do bother about it are most probably racists. These people, they won’t accept any definition of things which doesn’t suit them!
His patriotism involves a view of Britain as the laboratory where the multi-cultural experiment was tried and proved such a wonderful success, bar a few nasty racists of the sort you’ll always get, sadly, but who we can and will deal with. That’s about it. Anything to do with racism should be dealt with immediately and comprehensively. As for the ageism, we’ll solve the problem even if it takes a hundred years.
Yes how vulgar and rude these fascist yobs are, their nastiness reflected in the vulgarity and crudeness of their language; it’s only typical of them.
PC man is also anti-sexist, and this is seen in the terminology he uses and does not use. “Lady” and “gentleman” are upper-class terms which reflect the attempt of a narrow social group to impose its values upon society, so no talk of “refinement” or “courtesy” or “politeness” if you don’t mind, they’re just sanctimonious bourgeois inventions. He likes the way David Dimbleby on Question Time very pointedly says “the woman over there” rather than the “lady” when responding to a question from a member of the audience, and in the same vein it should be “men” and “women” on the doors of public toilets - not “ladies and gentlemen”.
PC Man doesn’t know what will happen to him when he dies, and because “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “evil” are so often relative terms he can’t accept the idea of a Heaven and a Hell as punishment for one and reward for the other. However he believes religion should be tolerated as part of freedom of and as a way of building up one’s spirituality.
On the subject of religion, he’s a great admirer of Richard Dawkins. By making Him look small, cutting him down to size, Dawkins’ acerbic humour reassures you, telling you you don’t have to believe in that nasty old God after all. But the church is so spineless and ineffective, with few people publicly worshipping now, that it’s not worth bothering about anyway. It’s totally discredited, and so it should be because it’s the source of all the world’s problems, a malevolent giant spider whose tentacles extend everywhere and which brainwashes everyone into obedience to it.
Of course he will have no truck with anyone who says that about political correctness. He concedes that some who don’t like PC would themselves admit it to be an extreme view, and of course that’s fine by him. But anyone who would in other respects be inclined to criticise his cherished beliefs is highly suspect, as suspect as the belief that a backlash is growing against it amongst ordinary sensible people. Those “ordinary sensible people” are in fact bigoted racists, who would never be honest enough to describe themselves as such. I mean, those people never accept any definition of reality which doesn’t suit them, do they?




CHRISTMAS

Nowadays it is often felt that Christmas is not what it’s crackered (ha, ha) cracked up to be, and, sadly, many people seem to have come to the conclusion that it’s really more trouble than it is worth. There’s all the tears and sweat over preparing Christmas dinner, the frantic rush to buy presents, the relatives you don’t want to see again; but I wonder if perhaps we aren’t doing it justice by seeing it in such negative terms.
We could do worse than rediscover what was, after all, the original reason for it – the coming into the world of a child who was meant to be a force for peace. But even if we look at things from a secular point of view, it can be argued that if it fails to live up to our expectations it’s because we aren’t approaching it in the right spirit; which is essentially what the ghosts in A Christmas Carol were trying to tell Scrooge, if you’ll forgive another awful pun.
If our relations are a pain at Christmas, this could be because we do not value them as we should. Of course it may be they are simply a pain; but if they are a pain, they will be one the rest of the year as well, so why knock Christmas for it? In any case not everyone has relatives who are a nuisance or a bore; you may simply be unlucky. If you basically have a dysfunctional family, of the sort which is constantly arguing, aim to sort out its problems during the year, then you will be better able to enjoy Christmas when it comes. Of course it can’t be guaranteed you will be anything like one hundred per cent successful, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort; and besides, such things are what New Year’s resolutions are for. Your mediating attempts may be totally unsuccessful and totally unappreciated, but at least by not being drawn into all the bickering you will have achieved some peace and preserved your own dignity – in which case you will be a little more likely to be a good influence on others. As the Quakers say, it’s better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.
We’re always told to get difficult decisions over with but sometimes this may not be possible. Christmas is in fact a perfectly valid excuse for putting off things that we don’t really want or know how to do, until such a time as we may be better equipped to deal with them, our anger having cooled. As such it should defuse tensions rather than heighten them, and, coming as it does at the end of the year, better enable you to face the new one which lies ahead. Many’s the time that I have wondered whether I should get angry with someone over an undoubted wrong which left me feeling crushed in spirit precisely because I wasn’t doing anything about it, but not wished to sour things, been unhappy at the dilemma, and then realised that Christmas provided a get-out clause. There’s something about that time of year; the suspension of normal commitments such as work (for most of us, anyway), the burying of grievances, which acts like a catharsis. The obligation to be nice to people, if accepted, can have a beneficial effect which allows Christmas to become the healing and unifying force it should be. Here again the spirit of the thing is all-important; otherwise, it will simply be a matter of postponing the aggro until it flares up again in January, with as much unpleasantness as before.
Officially, Christmas proper only covers three days: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, after which we have that odd little period between it and New Year’s Eve which doesn’t seem to fall into any category. Nowadays, in effect it lasts a lot longer; all those carol concerts and office Christmas parties, which are clearly meant to be an essential part of the whole thing, however much they are or aren’t appreciated, mean it is in fact extended over a period of three weeks at least. This allows plenty of time for the preparation which is needed to make Christmas a success, so why not set our minds to the task instead of either panicking or giving up in despair? Buy your presents early, then you won’t be caught up in the rush one particularly nasty aspect of which, these days, is the tendency to be rounded on and falsely accused of queue jumping. Concerning what other people might get for you, make sure you ask for something you really want or need; and remember of course that sometimes it’s more blessed to give than to receive. Whenever you’re given something you don’t want, remember it’s the thought that counts. These now sound like rather hackneyed clichés, but their meaning remains perennially valid even if the phraseology is stale. As regards the nosh, there’s surely nothing wrong with a good meal; admittedly, it takes days of careful planning only to be eaten in just a few minutes, but that’s true of much else in this life.
Christmas is lots of things. When I was a boy the films I saw on TV over those two weeks, being mostly about thrilling escapades in far-off lands or on alien planets, seemed to transport me to another world, full of magic and mystery. Granted, we’ve now probably seen most of them already. But this has more to do with the law of diminishing returns than it does with Christmas. They were and are escapism, something which is healthy and necessary at all times and particularly at Christmas if the latter is considered to have a particular potential for inducing stress. They can still have their appeal, but if too much of the allure has faded there’s still the option of reading, which of course existed well before the movie industry. If you can, take a book and retire somewhere quiet when the family are getting on your nerves. Or, if you’re at all like me, make your own entertainment by trying some creative writing; even if it’s only to say how awful Christmas is.
Of course you never can quite recapture the magic it seemed to have in our childhood. But that’s to be expected. It applies to a lot of other things too and is a recognized hazard of growing old. But if you have children of your own, you do recapture something of it in their wonder and delight. The joy of seeing their faces light up as they open the Christmas present they have always wanted speaks for itself. Material pleasure, material possession aren’t bad in themselves; when you show your love for a friend or a relative by giving them a present, the whole point is precisely that it’s their possession, for them to cherish and enjoy, or there is no point. When material benefits are bestowed from an altruistic motive, they are a focus for good rather than for greed, which ennobles the giver as much as anything else – something which gives the lie to the dictum that “property is theft”.
In the past the presents and the dinners, the parties, the films, the sense that things were somehow wonderfully different, somehow all added up to an experience which even now can still give me a genuine thrill. If we no longer get that old Christmas feeling it’s because we have allowed the downside of the whole business to demoralize us, leaving us with no proper commitment to making it work. Yet as I’ve said we need something like it because if we let it, it can reduces tensions as well as meet the need from time to time to relax and perhaps be a little hedonistic. This is something to which the exposure of Santa as your Dad in disguise, or the constant failure to have a white Christmas – a recognized defect of the British weather system – makes no difference. And if there is a requirement for such a festival why not use as its basis an old religious tradition, even if you don’t believe in it any more. You may remember that Christmas song by Greg Lake which topped the charts back in 1973. As a believer I disagree with its atheist, or at any rate agnostic, message, but it does offer one very good and crucial point; Christmas is what you make it.




ROYAL HOLLOWAY MAN

Most of us, on the train or bus if like me you don’t have a car, or in the street, or in some other situation will I expect have encountered Royal Holloway Man. Typically, he is in his late teens or early 20s. He lives in rented accommodation with his girlfriend, though how permanent this arrangement will be is unclear. She’s constantly complaining he isn’t keeping the place tidy enough, bringing all her friends round without telling him first, taking him all the places she wants to go and having them do all the things she wants to. He’ll probably drop the bitch before long.

He’s not sure what he wants to do with himself, careerwise, in the long run. But he’ll jack a job in if he doesn’t like it, maybe his engineering course too, and relishes his freedom to do so. Meanwhile, when not studying his lifestyle revolves around meeting with the lads down the pub, and going on foreign trips, such as stag nights in Amsterdam, with them (these excursions tend to blow his savings, but what does that matter when you’re having a good time). When the urge strikes he’ll go on the pull, especially when not in a steady relationship. He has from time to time visited prostitutes and experimented with drugs, though since a lot of people have at some time during their lives it might be unfair to hold this against him.
The above activities do not take up all his spare time by any means. He also spends a lot of it on the internet and is a frequent contributor to chat sites, where he uses the name Magic Mushroom (he never gives his real one).

He has no religion, and does not belong to any political party; why should he, when all politicians are as bad as each other? He doesn’t even vote; whatever happens, the government will get in, whether it be Labour or Coalition. Indeed, he has no involvement in any community organisation – why bother with one when you can get all your fun from surfing the net, or from booze, women, etc. Such things (community organizations that is) are all run by grannies anyway – at least that’s what he’s heard, anyway, and because it is a commonly expressed opinion among his peer group it must be true. Though it is to some extent confirmed by his own experience; he did go once to a party organised by his local Rotary Group and it was like an old people’s home, everyone there was over forty.

He simply does what he likes when he likes, and joins things for as long as he pleases. This is, after all, the age of pick ‘n’ choose. His degree is basically a means to a job, and if that job bores him he will ditch it. What he wants is the money to do all the things he enjoys, and when he can’t get it he is angry, though I suppose that’s understandable.

His favourite TV programme, by the way, is Dr Who. He likes its liberal tone, dismissing suggestions that it’s got a little too politically correct as mere racism, to be lumped along with the argument that it is only sensible, in a small country, to have practical restrictions on immigration to avoid overcrowding and pressure on resources as an obvious cover for something nasty. I mean, only Daily Mail readers think that, right? He collects DVDs of the classic series, even though they reflect the time in which they were made and he dislikes the upper-class accents in some of them; Dr Who Magazine has told him not to worry about such things and just get on with enjoying the story. They’re sent to try us, after all.
He also likes the way that in Who anything goes; the Whoniverse, as fans call it, is one of infinite possibilities. This mirrors the way he likes to perceive reality. He is very much in tune with the discoveries and concerns which shape the post-modern world. Quantum physics has revealed to us a strange universe full of infinite wonders, although of course it must never at any time and under any circumstances include God. Those people who don’t believe in time travel or that you can warp space are boring ***s who are trying to make the cosmos a less interesting place. And if they claim their views are based on logic, which time travel in many ways would seem to contradict; well, as Doctor Who himself once observed logic is just a way of being wrong with authority. Logic is for the Mr Spocks of this world; it’s boring because it means you can’t do the things you want to. So it’s out. At the same time, Royal Holloway Man would probably interpret Einstein’s theory of relativity (however Einstein would) as meaning that, since nothing is absolute, we are free to do whatever we want to in life regardless of the views of others. There are exceptions to this individualism, however; he will not do anything which a reasonable number of other people are insufficiently interested in, because if it wasn’t naff it would be more popular – makes sense, right?

Though Royal Holloway Man has no political involvement, in the formal sense, he does have political opinions. He resents – quite understandably - the rich fat cats who are enjoying a comfortable lifestyle while he has to struggle to make ends meet, despite their foolishness having been responsible for much of the economic hardship he and others are currently having to endure. He also resents “posh” people because of the illiberal views he has been told they entertain. His favourite film is Titanic – he particularly likes the scene where the Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio characters stick two fingers up, literally, at the snobby English stewards, and indeed appreciates the whole way di Caprio has been teaching Winslet to rebel against her refined background. He dislikes homophobia, sexism, racism; such things are the vices of the middle and upper class establishment, as are all attempts to suggest his behaviour is ever inappropriate. Those scummy people who tell him not to swear, gob on the floor, drop litter or put his feet on the seat – or would do, judging by the way they look at him - are simply imposing middle-class values on society, which of course we must not do. He has what he regards as a justified contempt for older people because it was their generation that was responsible for all the racism, sexism etc., and for the damage to the environment which is causing global warming. For these reasons he regards the educational theories which have shaped his mind as a bloody good thing. He takes care to do all that is “modern” and “relevant”, and has absorbed all the PC buzz-words, such as “partner” for live-in boyfriend or girlfriend and “issues” for “problems”, taking the view that anyone who dislikes them is living in the past. He’s not too happy with people in authority; they generally try to stop him doing what he wants to, and since what he wants to do is good, because he finds it pleasurable – he wouldn’t want to do it otherwise, would he? – it follows therefore that they are bad.

As for the Church…bad news, man. I mean, these people who believe in Jesus Christ, etc; what are they on? Religious belief is surely illogical; Richard Dawkins says so anyway, so it must be true. It’s responsible for all the world’s problems, a sinisterly powerful organisation with an unhealthy brainwashing effect upon its devotees. And nobody gives a *** about it anyway, so why should he?

It will have become apparent by now that Royal Holloway Man is in many ways the child of Politically Correct Man, who we met in an earlier manuscript. How far Politically Correct man would be prepared to admit parentage is debatable. One suspects he is a little embarrassed, even uneasy, at what he has brought into the world. There are some things about his offspring of which he is proud, but there are others which, whenever he thinks of them, cause him just the vaguest disquiet. Royal Holloway Man’s mother was Margaret Thatcher; the reasons why we can be so certain of this aren’t too hard to identify, if we think about it. At the time he was conceived neither parent really felt much attraction to the other, and we can only assume that both were blindfolded and that the lights were turned down; but perhaps that was indeed the case. (Each parent can of course blame the other for the way their offspring has turned out). You might have thought Royal Holloway man owed more to the 60s anti-establishment counterculture rebels – of whom PC man might well have been one, in an earlier incarnation - and yes, he could be called their direct descendant, but he is not so much their son as their grandson, and by a rather strange route. How we should regard the result is maybe a matter of opinion. But perhaps PC man deserves our admiration for the achievement of having created what one would not have thought, because it does somehow seem a little strange, was possible: a politically correct yob.




THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT

The Reverend Richard Holmes was in full flow. He was telling his
congregation how Jesus associated with even the worst of humanity. Essentially the content of the sermon was as follows.
"Jesus said he would never turn away anyone who came to him. To him everybody was of value, and he was as happy to associated with prostitutes and the like as with anyone else. I think we should follow his example; by which I don't mean that we ought to take up prison visiting, or hang around the local red light district trying to reform fallen women. I mean that generally we should treat others as we would ourselves; no matter what they may have done. If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven.
I wonder how many of us know someone who we don't really like, who has some unpleasant habit...or who's rude, selfish, arrogant, and untrustworthy? I suppose it's only natural we should dislike them, and try to avoid their company. But let's ask ourselves; are we really any better than they are? If so, are we that much better that we can regard ourselves as being justified in looking down on them? Let's be honest about it; the answer is probably no. We're all guilty of something or other; and the least sin is an incalculable evil. And as Jesus made clear, there are some prostitutes who are nearer the Kingdom of Heaven than many so-called decent people. Perhaps some can't help what they do. But whatever the reason, we should pity them and not despise them. No-one, but no-one, is beyond redemption. There have been gangland thugs, whores and fraudsters who the influence of a Christian faith - the power of God and of Jesus - have helped to live a better life. It's far more sensible to repair something which is defective, so it can be used again, than to throw it away; and that's especially so if the something is a human being - the most precious commodity on God's Earth. Hate the sin, but love the sinner.....that is the Christian principle we all must follow.
Let's finish by singing hymn number 538."
Afterwards he stood by the door with a benign smile on his face, shaking hands with each member of the congregation as they filed past him on their way out. Robert Syms, a large florid-faced man, came up to him. "Excellent sermon, Dick," he said. "I dare say there's a lot of truth in it." The vicar nodded his thanks. "Glad you liked it. I had to burn the midnight oil a bit writing it; didn't get back from that meeting I told you about until quite late."
"Be seeing you, then. Sorry you can't come to our anniversary do."
"Yes, I'm afraid my old mother's not too good at the moment; I ought to be spending as much time with her as I can. Hope it goes well, though."
After Syms had finished chatting and gone on his way a certain look briefly came over the vicar's face; grim would have been one way of describing it, and there was a touch of weariness there too. It suggested he was thinking of some terrible perennial problem about which he could do nothing.
Robert Syms, although now into his fifties, remained strikingly youthful and energetic. He was still a handsome man, and his dark hair and moustache showed as yet no signs of grey. He was usually in the best of health, since he exercised to just the right degree and ate all the right foods, and his doctor had often commented that he saw no reason why he shouldn't live for as long as he had already, if not longer. He worked as an accountant for a largeish local electronics company, and lived with his wife Joanne in a fairly ordinary semi-detached house in this suburb of South-west London, where he now repaired for them to consider, over tea, the guest list for their 25th wedding anniversary.
"We'll have Ted and Brenda, of course; and Billy Stubbs and his wife." They agreed on a list of names. "I guess that's about it," Bob remarked when he had finished scribbling them down.
"I thought we might invite Stephen too," Joanne ventured, after a few moments' hesitation. ".....Just this once. Don't you think so?"
"Let's not keep on about that," replied her husband. "I'm not having him back in this house again, and that's the end of the matter."
"But he is our son. And on an occasion like this...."
"I don't want to hear any more about it," he snapped, giving her a dirty look. "He's not coming and that's that. You know how much I loathe that sort of thing.
I mean come on, darling. You don't seriously want all those people to see...to see that that is our flesh and blood."
Joanne Syms knew when her husband's mind was made up. She contented herself with a sigh and a weary expression.
From an early age Robert had always bullied his son, trying to force him to conform to his, Robert's, idea of what a man should be. She wished she'd had more spine, that she'd objected to it more forcefully. Bob's reaction when they had learned where Stephen's preferences lay was predictable. He exploded with rage and eventually, after a heated argument, told Stephen as she wept uncontrollably in the background never to come anywhere near the family home again.
After a while she herself had come to accept Stephen's condition as something people couldn't help being born with. She wasn't entirely happy with it, but at any rate it couldn't be right to ostracise people the way her husband did their son. From time to time there had been some contact between her and Stephen, against the father's wishes, but Bob hadn't spoken to him now for five years.
Stephen was never likely to marry, and they had no other male children. It would have been nice if they could have had a boy to carry on the family name. The problem was that although Bob was dissatisfied with the way his son had turned out, he didn't want any more children either. He'd always been rather tight with money, and had determined from the start not to have more than two offspring, since that would to his mind be disagreeably expensive. It seemed he didn't trust her to take the pill regularly, for he insisted on taking other precautions, which to her reduced the pleasure of intercourse. His suspicions were without justific- ation; she was indeed taking the pill, since she thought that if she did get pregnant he would demand she had an abortion. Now, she was probably too old to conceive in any case.
Apart from Stephen's absence, which she tried hard not to think about, the anniversary party was a very enjoyable affair. It was attended by relatives and work colleagues alike. They held it in the lounge with the big French windows open so that the warm afternoon sun streamed in. As more guests arrived, the gathering spilled out into the extensive back garden. There was a buffet, with sausages on sticks, cheese biscuits and other snacks. Joanne and their daughter Sally served drinks. The air was filled with the babble of conversation, with every now and then a burst of laughter as Bob told a particularly amusing joke or anecdote.
Joanne moved among the guests, making sure everyone was happy.
On the opposite side of the room, standing a little apart from the rest of the gathering, she noticed a tall young man somewhere in his twenties, with a round, cheerful face and a mop of blond hair. Douglas Rayner had only recently joined Bob's firm - in fact, had just completed his first week in the job - and barely knew his host, but, being a benign sort of chap, Bob had extended the invitation to anyone who he knew or worked with in any capacity. Douglas had felt it would be churlish not to accept the invitation. In some ways however his decision to do so had been unwise; he hardly knew anyone there, and was beginning to feel rather a drip. Noticing his plight, Joanne introduced him to a group of others, one or two of whom were also recent additions to the payroll and in much the same awkward position as himself.
Joanne continued on her rounds, leaving Rayner conversing cheerfully with his new acquaintances. She paused to glance fondly over at her husband, who was chatting with three or four others, including an old Army pal and his wife. It seemed the subject of religion had come up.
"I consider myself to be a Christian, yes," Bob was saying. "We're C of E; that's what it says on our birth certificates, anyway. And I'm on the Parish Council. And we both do our best to be nice to everyone."
"Do you go to Church much?"
"Joanne goes some of the time. And I'm there most Sundays."
"You believe in the Bible and everything?"
"Oh yes. I do feel very strongly that something must have happened all those years ago to cause so many people to believe in it. And I think you've got to have some kind of faith to see you through all life's tribulations."
"But what about all those people who don't believe?" asked the Army wife. "Surely they don't all end up in the big fiery furnace?"
"Oh, everyone gets to Heaven," opined Syms confidently.
One of the group who had clustered around him looked rather perplexed by this. "I thought the message was pretty clear," he said. "You have to believe in it or else." He quoted from the Bible: ""No-one comes to the Father but through me"....reject God, or Jesus, and you don't get to Heaven, full stop."
For an uneasy moment Syms appeared angry, and the questioner regretted having been outspoken to a perhaps injudicious extent. Then their host smiled. "Yes, but it doesn't really mean that, does it?"
"You don't think so?"
"No, of course not. I doubt very much we're supposed to take everything in the Bible literally."
"I'd tend to agree with you," said Reggie Lander, the firm's Head of Personnel. "Take that bit where he says that whoever looks at a woman lustfully commits adultery in the heart. He seems to be condemning it as sinful, but how on Earth can you expect any normal young man not to feel that way about girls?"
"It's an exaggeration," asserted another. "I used to be into religion, a long time ago, and I've studied the whole business of how to interpret the Gospels in some detail. Jesus often exaggerated, usually in order to get a particular message across. He had to pitch it high in order to get people to listen to him, and make them think carefully about what he was saying. In the particular case we're talking about, he was trying to say that merely thinking something wrong is every bit as bad as actually doing it, a view with which I agree absolutely. He chose one of the more common, if venial, sins in order to make his point."
Syms appeared to seize on this, nodding vigorously.
"What you say is right, I'm sure," conceded another of Bob's colleagues, who often liked to engage in philosophical or theological argument. "But because it's true in one case doesn't necessarily mean it's true in others. If you use your head you'll know when a particular commandment is meant to be unequivocal and when it isn't. I'm sure there are many Biblical passages which can legitimately be interpreted in more ways than one. That's the fascinating thing about these subjects. What annoys me is that some people abuse it in order to...."
Syms cut him off, beaming and waving an admonitory finger. "Ah-ah-ah-ah! Let's not get involved in one of your deep discussions, not at this time of day." He changed the subject. "Understand your daughter's starting at University in the autumn, Tom. What's she reading?"
On the other side of the room, Douglas Rayner and his companions had been having a similar conversation to theirs.
"You have to believe in it absolutely," Rayner was telling someone. "That seems to me to be logical, if it's as good as it's cracked up to be, and if I didn't think it was I wouldn't bother with it at all. If one religion is as good as another, why believe in any of them? Why bother to evangelise, or have priests or churches? To earn my place in Heaven I have to take both the doctrine and the ethics seriously, and live my life by them."
"OK, I get what you're saying," replied his listener. "But the idea of sending people to Hell, even if they're good people, just because they don't happen to have a particular view about how the universe started...that's what I can't swallow."
"Well, I guess if Heaven is as good as it's supposed to be, then it's cheapened if you offer it for free; and its opposite - Hell - has got to be something really bad."
Overhearing something of the conversation, Joanne felt a slight twinge of conscience at the obvious sincerity of Rayner's Christianity. But to believe in the way that their guest did seemed too much of an effort. Some people could manage it but not others, and she was very much one of the others.
All she wished for was for she and her husband to continue to live together reasonably happily, and remain in good health. Despite his shortcomings, and despite some of the rotten things he had done in the past, she still loved Bob. Love was like that; a little irrational, perhaps. And he did have his good points. He was a genial host and an entertaining conversationalist. He had all sorts of little trademarks and catchphrases which added to the affection she felt towards him. Even some of his faults you could simply laugh at. Besides, after 30 years of marriage she just couldn't imagine life without him.
If there was some kind of life after death, well and good. If there wasn't, then they'd know nothing about it. They'd simply be buried in the churchyard where their bodies would fertilise the soil and help the trees and the flowers to grow.
After all the guests had gone home, Syms stood looking out into the garden for a while, contemplating his life as people often do on occasions like this.
He'd had a good innings, on the whole. But it could have been a lot better if only that bloody son of his hadn't ruined things by turning out the way he had. And it made things a lot worse when Joanne whinged on about it as she insisted on doing from time to time. With a sigh he dismissed Stephen from his mind. Best thing was not to think about the stupid ponce. He ought to look on the positive side; he was in a secure, well-paid job, from which he would retire in a few years' time on a substantial pension, after which should follow a comfortable and healthy old age. That was all that mattered.

*
One night about a couple of weeks later, when Bob was working overtime and Joanne was at home watching television, the doorbell rang, and she answered it to find two police officers, a man and a woman, standing on the threshold. Her heart leaped into her mouth. Like most people she associated this kind of happening with bad news.
"Er...yes? Can I help you?" she asked nervously.
"Mrs Syms?"
"That's right."
"Do you think we could come in for a moment?"
They broke the news to her in a thoroughly professional manner. As carefully and sensitively as possible they explained that there had been a fire at the office and her husband was dead.
At first she refused to accept it, shouting at them hysterically. Then came the tears as the truth gradually sank in. They managed to calm her down, after which she remained for some time in a state of delayed shock.
Friends and relatives came round to lend support. An understanding boss allowed her to take as long as she liked off work. Her brother-in-law made a good job of handling the arrangements for the funeral, which was attended by all Bob's former work colleagues and acquaintances, along with the usual crowd of people who except on occasions like these you hardly ever saw. The Reverend Holmes made a very nice speech, in which he summarised all the good things that Bob would be remembered for and expressed his certainty that their loved one was in Heaven. After they had sung some of Bob's favourite hymns he commended the late Mr Syms to the care of the Lord.
Afterwards everyone went back to the Syms residence. Like many funeral receptions this one was a rather strange affair, more like a social event in some ways; people laughed and chatted over drinks, renewing old acquaintances and seeming all in all to be having rather a good time. Eventually it broke up and Joanne was left alone. She looked sadly round the living room; without Bob everything seemed strange and empty. But of course she'd just have to get used to not having him around.
She took no interest in the details of the inquest into Bob's death, in case it should cause her any distress. Quite what had caused the fire in the first place was never established; one theory was that it had been the work of a disgruntled ex-employee, but nothing could ever be proved. There had been some concern prior to the blaze about the inadequacy of safety regulations, and the management had been on the point of doing something about it when the tragedy occurred.
There had been about half-a-dozen people on the premises at the time. The company operated a "flexi-time" system; the exact times at which you arrived for work and went home were up to you, provided you were there for a certain contractually specified number of hours per day. This arrangement was much appreciated by the workforce, but had its drawbacks. With it, getting into bad habits was very easy. Douglas Rayner in particular was painfully aware that he was some way down on his time, and the matter was starting to prey on his conscience, besides which he expected pretty soon to be called in for an uncomfortable interview with his supervisor. The only way to avoid it was to put in a few late nights.
The fire, which started in a stockpile of plastic components within the warehouse which occupied the same building as the main administrative section, raged for almost an hour before it was detected, the thick steel walls of the building muffling the roar of the flames. Then someone chanced to open the door of the warehouse and a huge thick cloud of choking black smoke billowed out.
The flames spread rapidly through the building, those inside it running for the exits. People working in other parts of the premises, among them Douglas Rayner, heard the alarms go off and the fire brigade was called.
Rayner was called to give evidence at the inquest. He thought back to the traumatic events of that tragic night. Everyone had gathered in a group on the forecourt, waiting for the firefighters to arrive. Glancing towards the Admin building, they saw the flames which had appeared at some of the windows.
"Anyone still in there?" asked Reggie Lander, who as the most senior employee present had taken charge of things.
"I don't know," someone answered. "I'm not actually sure who was in the building - are you?" The question was addressed to Rayner, who shook his head.
"I think Bob Syms and at least one other person," another said. "Trouble is, the logbook's in the main building and I don't think it would be wise to go back in there. If they're anywhere, they must be in Admin. I'm pretty sure everywhere else has been evacuated."
The fire engine turned onto the forecourt and drove up to them. The occupants got out and approached them; Lander explained the situation to their leader. "If there's anyone left in that building, do they still have a chance?" he asked.
"They may have been overcome by the smoke, but if we can get them out soon enough they might be OK. But.." The man stared at the burning building, not wanting to say what was in his mind. The flames visible through the windows suggested much of the interior must be a blazing inferno. By now the roof had also caught fire, and his experience told him it would cave in within a pretty short time.
"Is there anything you can do?" Lander repeated.
"Well, I'm not going to leave them to burn if there's another way. Thing is, our main concern has to be to stop the fire spreading to the hospital over there. Most of our lot are tied up doing that right now." He lowered his voice. "I don't like to say this, but if there is anyone still in that building they've probably cashed in their chips already."
Lander guessed what he must be thinking. It would be unjustified, morally and practically, to try to rescue people who in all probability were already dead, when there were many other lives which could be saved.
The fireman's radio bleeped and he answered it the call. "I see...all right, thanks. We'll come to some sort of arrangement at this end. Out."
He turned grimly to Lander. "A couple of the lads have been injured at the hospital." He indicated the three or four firefighters who were with him. "These, and myself, will have to help over there. I could spare one of them, but they'd need some assistance."
"I'll stay on here," offered one of his team.
"Who's going to help her?" asked her chief. "Frankly I'm reluctant to risk civilian lives in this."
The group of employees looked at one another uncertainly for a few moments.
"I'll give her a hand," volunteered Rayner.
"You understand the dangers?"
"I'll need one of those respirator things, won't I?"
"Yeah. You're going to do it, then?"
He nodded.
"OK," said the fire chief after a moment's hesitation. "But take care." He hoped he wasn't going to regret this.
The firewoman showed Rayner how to put the respirator on. They entered the building by the main door, but didn't get far before they found their path blocked by a wall of flame.
They hurried back out and went in search of a side door. Finding one, they forced it open. They split up, each going in search for anyone who might be trapped inside.
Rayner hastened along the corridor which divided the west wing of the building into two sections, briefly searching every room he came to. Everywhere was rapidly filling with smoke, and he reckoned they'd soon have to give up their search. Suddenly he came upon two prone bodies, one of which was Robert Syms. The other belonged to Margaret Yates, a girl in her late twenties who worked in Bob's section. It later transpired that they had unwisely gone back into the building to fetch some important documents. That task accomplished, they tried one of the fire doors only to find it wouldn't open. They'd attempted to reach the main exit but been knocked out by the fumes. Rayner reckoned they wouldn't have been exposed to them long enough for the consequences to be fatal, a supposition that was later confirmed by the coroner. They had only been unconscious for a couple of minutes by the time he found them. The flames were closing in from all sides, and a sound from above caused him to jump back in alarm. A large piece of blazing timber crashed down, narrowly missing him. The roof, a mainly wooden affair underneath the metal sheeting which covered it, was still in place, but probably wouldn't be for much longer.
It was clear he couldn't carry both Syms and Margaret at the same time. He considered. They were at about an equal distance from him. Margaret was considerably lighter, though that wasn't a factor in the equation because he was young, strong and fit enough to carry Syms' weight.
There wasn't much time in which to make up his mind. The roof looked as if it would fall in at any moment, and in fact he could hear the firewoman shouting something to that effect.
He hurried over to Margaret Yates, bent down, picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. Then he hastened back along the corridor to the fire exit. He carried her out of the building and over to the ambulance which had by now arrived on the forecourt. Handing her over to its crew, he started back towards the blazing building, then changed his mind. As he watched the remains of the roof disintegrated and fell in, several huge flames licking upwards. There was no doubt that Syms would have perished instantly.

Margaret Yates fully recovered, and was soon back at work. Thankfully the company was able to carry on functioning at a new site, so preserving its employees' jobs.
Gradually, Joanne Syms began to come to terms with her aching loss and settle back into the daily routine which her bereavement had disrupted. She kept as busy as she could in order to keep herself from thinking about her loss.
Gardening in particular occupied a great deal of her time. It was while she was out in front one Saturday afternoon, planting some new flowers, that she met Douglas Rayner again. Passing by on his way back from some meeting of his local Church, he stopped to say hello, and they exchanged a few pleasantries. She invited him in for a cup of tea; she'd taken a liking to him at the party, and having someone to talk to was one of the things that helped take her mind off the bereavement.
"How are you, Mrs Syms?"
"Oh, as well as can be expected, I suppose. It's very kind of you to ask."
They chatted for a while about fairly mundane subjects. Then, after a little hesitation, she leaned forward with an intent expression on her face. "Tell me something. I don't bear you any malice; I expect you had your reasons for what you did. But why did you save that girl, and not my husband? It's something I have to know....you understand?" Douglas nodded.
"You said you managed to get her out and then the roof fell in." A few details of what had happened on the night of the fire had filtered down to her. It seemed silly asking the question, because Douglas would have had no reason to dislike her husband and so leave him to die in preference to Margaret Yates, but she had to be sure there hadn't been another way, that Bob couldn't have been got out of it alive somehow.
"Well," he began. "This is difficult to say...but I think you'll understand. Did you know I was a Christian?"
"Yes."
"I hadn't had much time to get to know your husband." He'd spent most of his time at the party attempting to convert people who he'd found did not share his religious beliefs (and trying hard not to seem to arrogant and dogmatic in doing so). "But he did tell me once that he was a believer, and....well, when someone says they're a Christian you've no choice but to take their word for it. You won't know whether they're telling the truth just by looking at their faces. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt." He paused. "I guess I'm assuming you're one because he was; that's why I thought you'd understand."
She looked uncertain for a few moments, then nodded.
He thought back to the reaction of an atheist colleague when he'd explained to her the reasons for his choice (he hadn't revealed them at the inquest, in case public knowledge of them produced negative feedback of an unpleasant kind). "That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard," she said loudly. Her manner had been derisive; derisive and, it had seemed, angry.
"Look," he'd said to her forthrightly. "The roof was about to cave in on us. I had to make a decision, and there wasn't exactly a lot of time to do it in. That was the only....the only criteria I could have used. You may not agree with it, but I don't see what else I could have done apart from leave both of them there, or just stand there thinking things over until all three of us got barbecued. And that would hardly have been sensible."
A curious look had come over Joanne's face; it most closely resembled embarrassment. At first Rayner didn't notice it, and carried on talking.
"I'm sure your husband has gone to a much better world. But that girl; I got talking to her on one occasion a day or two before the fire, and she told me she didn't believe. And if you don't believe.....well, it's never a nice thing to talk about, but we know what happens to them when they die, don't we? I mean, if you really understand what it's all about....at least your husband's OK. I still regret having to leave him, of course. But I thought the best thing I could do was to give that girl another chance."
Her pale face and the look it wore were now too obvious to be ignored.
"Are...are you all right, Mrs Syms?"
It was a full minute, during which he watched her uneasily, before she spoke.
"Er....er, yes, I'm fine...er, look....look, I have quite a lot of things to do about the house, and I think I ought to......I hope you don't think I'm being rude or anything."
"Of course not. Er.....well, all the best to you."
She showed him out, then went back indoors. She walked slowly back into the living room, where she stood motionless for some considerable time. Eventually she slumped heavily into an armchair, from which she stared blankly into space, not feeling much like doing anything and not sure what to think either.
After a while she began to cry.




THE BIGGER PICTURE
The Pensions Administration Agency occupied a rather ugly concrete and glass building on a hill in one of the outlying districts of a town in the Home Counties, about ten miles or so from London. It had been established about eight or nine years previously; origin-ally, it had been a branch of the civil service, but in line with the government's current policies was now more or less indistin-guishable from a private company.
During the last few months it had become apparent to the Manage-ment that the Agency needed a few Casual (that is, appointed on a daily basis) employees, to provide extra manpower during a lengthy period of reorganisation caused by the amalgamation of this office with another in the area. Apart from the other attractions of employing them, their appointments could easily be terminated if they proved superfluous to requirements, without any need for bothersome and costly disputes with unions.
And so it was that one brisk January morning Richard (known as Rick) Hanson, a man in his late twenties with a serious but not un- pleasant face and short, dirty blond hair, arrived at the Agency to start his first day of work in its Administrative Section. He had been unsure whether to go for the job; he'd already been in several casual posts recently, and what he really wanted was something permanent. He needed a bit of stability in his work record; that would make his cv look a bit more respectable in the eyes of prospective employers. Still, it was a job, and it would give him a lot more money than he'd ever get on the dole. It demonstrated to himself and the world at large that he was doing something positive rather than sitting at home vegetating, living off the state. It would be a useful filler until he found himself something better elsewhere. And of course there was always the possibility that a permanent post would come out of it.
Rick had a similar feeling to that you experienced when you started a new school, a feeling he had known on more than a few occasions in his life. He wondered what it would be like to work here, what his future at the place would hold.
The building was just like any modern office block, with that same sterile, antiseptic smell. As his letter of appointment instruc-ted, he reported direct to the Administrative Section, which was housed on the third floor. The Section, like the others in the building, occupied a long, low, open-plan offices with massive windows that gave panoramic views of the town and the wooded countryside beyond it.
There he found himself to be one of a group of people in a similar situation. They were met by an attractive redheaded girl.
"Hi!" she said, smiling pleasantly. "WP - that's what we call Bill Harrison, the Senior Officer here - will be along in a minute. You'll like WP, he's quite a character."
Mr William Peter Harrison was a large man in his fifties, with a fat, fleshy face. As the redhead had indicated he did have a certain charisma. He gave them a speech of welcome, peppered with anecdotes delivered in amusingly colourful language. Then he handed over to his deputy, a nervous-looking young Administrative Officer named McLaren, who gave them an outline of what their duties would be, confirming what they'd read in the job descrip-tion; filing in the storeroom where documents were kept, entering information on computer, manning Reception and the switchboard when required. They would alternate between these tasks as needs be. The work, as Rick had expected, caused him no problems. After all, it was quite basic. Over the next few weeks he settled into the job, mastering all his tasks with little difficulty, and getting to know his colleagues, who seemed an OK sort of bunch. He inquired about the possibility of a permanent post, and was told that one might be coming up shortly, though they weren't sure. There was no reason why he should not apply for it.
He began to feel a sense of excitement. His working life so far had been a mess in many ways, mainly due to the effect of government policies on the job market, along with other factors beyond his control, but this, he found himself thinking, could be the start of a revival of his fortunes. He'd been made redundant; taken on casual posts because he thought they would lead to something permanent, only to be disappointed in that expectation; had had to leave jobs which turned out to be unsuitable. He hoped this would be the opening which would finally give him his passport to the world of steady employment, and thus of wealth and independ-ence. If he worked hard and showed interest in the job, making tactful suggestions for running the place more efficiently should any occur to him, it ought to make a good impression.
He had to look on the bright side about things. Up until now he'd always been able to recover from each professional disappointment. Lately, however, the stress of all those constant upheavals had begun to tell on him. It might not be quite so easy to bounce back the next time round.

Harrison was on his way to one of the meetings which were held regularly between senior management and the heads of all the major departments.
He and a colleague came in through the door. He was relating something which had happened to him on holiday in Belgium. "And the guide cracked the usual joke, asking us "Who knows any famous Belgians?" We wrote and complained afterwards to the tour company..well, it's racist isn't it? I mean, how would you like it if....."
The other attendees were already there. Opening the proceedings, Stacker, the Chief Surveyor, suggested they dealt with personnel matters first.
Before Angela Leary, the relevant Head of Department, could speak, Harrison began voicing his grievances. "We've taken on too many casuals," he sighed. "We're going to have to get rid of one or two." The casuals had been appointed as part of a major recruitment drive that would be necessary to replace the large number of people who had left the firm in recent months. Harrison was annoyed that Stacker had approved the appointments without telling him. The matter undoubtedly affected him - most of the casuals were in his department - so he had a right to know what was going on.
Angela Leary, a professional-looking middle-aged woman with short dark hair, was seen to purse her lips at this mention of a thorny subject. The appointments had been made without consulting her, either, and if recruitment wasn't part of her brief it was hard to see what was.
"Which ones?" she asked.
Harrison frowned. "Too early to say yet. We'd better keep an eye on them. It's not going to be too difficult to get rid of them, of course, but it'll look better if we had some sort of excuse. We can't possibly admit we took on too many; that'll make us look stupid. If any aren't pulling their weight, give them one warning and then if they continue to play up kick them out."
"What if we can't think of an excuse?" Angela asked. She was decidedly unhappy about the whole business. The casuals had been led to expect they had a job of some kind, and now it seemed they were going to be rudely disappointed. If they were to be given the push, they should at least be able to feel there was some good reason for it.
"They'll still have to go, excuse or not," Harrison said. "Look, don't worry about it. They don't have any rights, they can't object. Sometimes, my girl, you've got to take hard decisions."

During his lunch hour and at tea breaks, Rick often went to the staff tearoom, where he'd chat with a group of colleagues from his and other departments. The room was a dingy and somewhat depressing affair. It had once been painted in attractive, patriotic, red-white-and-blue colours, but Harrison, who had authority over such matters as this, had decided that it should all be covered over in black. When asked why he had done it, he had muttered something about the previous colour scheme not being "practical".
Rick was sitting with Mark Cater, one of the permanent staff in Admin, along with Tania Schroeder, the redhead who had met the Casuals when turned up for their first day's work. Nearby Ron Burrows, a slight, perpetually red-faced man from Accounts, and Ed Barrett, a rogueish-looking individual with close-cropped hair from Finance, were chatting amiably with Harrison.
Most of the conversation in the tearoom concerned fairly ordinary things, but from time to time Rick would make a few remarks on philosophy, one of his most passionate interests. His companions seemed quite happy to let him chatter on about it.
"I mean, we don't know what's out there," he was saying, referring to the question of whether Man was alone in the Universe. "Whether there's some sort of intelligence, and how it thinks. Whether it's anything like ourselves....."
"Who gives a shit," said Barrett, who by now had joined the group, robustly. "As long as I get plenty of beer..."
"And bonk," added Cater.
"And bonk," agreed Barrett.
"Everything comes down to basic instincts with you, doesn't it?" said Cater.
Barrett grinned wickedly. "That's right!"
"But it's true, though, isn't it?" said Rick.
Barrett laughed. "Maybe. I just want to live my life and get all the things I want out of it. It's not something I lose sleep over."
A petite brown-haired girl entered the room, had a few words with Harrison and then went out again.
"Who's that?" asked Rick.
"That's Louise Straker. Angela Leary's Number Two."
"Looks a bit of all right. What's she like as a person?"
"She's lovely. A really sweet girl; always has a smile for you."
"Do you reckon I could get a date out of her?" Rick asked. He did, indeed, like the look of the girl.
"Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained," Cater told him.

January came and went, then February. Rick continued to settle into the job. On the whole, he was happy with the way things were going. The girls in the office were quite fanciable, and the work, though a little boring, was bearable. If you really got down to it, it seemed less of a chore; it was even pleasantly therapeutic at times. He presumed a higher post would be more interesting and challenging, and thus more suited to one of his intelligence. It would also be better paid, and so would give him more of a life. In fact, the anticipated internal vacancy had just come up, and he'd put in for it. He'd also made a few enquiries towards getting another job somewhere else, just in case this one didn't work out. Someone from the Job Centre had been looking at his cv and considering how it might be spiced up, but they hadn't got back to him yet.
It was during the first week of March when it first became clear that something was wrong. McLaren came up to him and asked him quietly to go into Harrison's office.
"You wanted to see me, Boss?" said Rick cheerfully.
"Sit down," said Harrison. "And pin your ears back."
Rick tensed. This sounded like a rebuke. What could he have done wrong?
"What are you playing at?" Harrison asked.
"Eh?" said Rick.
"It's all going wrong, isn't it? In the folder store, on the switchboard, on reception."
He stared in amazement. Almost involuntarily, he shook his head.
"Don't you shake your head at me. I'm Senior Officer here and
what I say goes, right?"
"I don't know what you mean," said Rick.
"You know very well what I mean," said Harrison. "If your work doesn't improve....
"That's the door," he said, gesturing towards it. "You'll be going through it on two weeks' notice unless you buck your ideas up."
"All right," Rick muttered, seeing that whatever Harrison was up to, it wasn't worth trying to change his mind. He got up and walked mechanically from the room.
The overriding emotion, along with anger, was worry. If he could be brought to book like that when he had done nothing, how could his job possibly be safe?
It was half-past three. He took a tea-break to lick his wounds.
Over the tea he told several of his colleagues what had happened.
Burke, an older man who had taken on his casual post as a means of filling in the time left to him before retirement, snorted. "I heard Ron Burrows did everything wrong in his first couple of months in the job, but he's still there."
"I'm not surprised at what you say," said Katie Clarke, another member of the Admin staff. "This sort of thing has happened before, hasn't it?" She glanced at her friend Sharon Bowler. "It happened to Sue, didn't it. They just told her she was "unsuitable for the job." Didn't say why. There was nothing she could do."
Sharon sighed. "There was a time once....a lot of folders were supposed to have been filed wrongly, and I heard WP giving the people responsible a tongue-lashing. He said they'd be thrown out if they didn't buck their ideas up. I'd checked them myself earlier, and every one was put away correctly."
"But why? Rick asked. "What the bloody Hell are they playing at?" "If you ask me, they've taken too many casuals on," said Katie. "That's why they're doing it. They just want to make sure they have some sort of excuse, even if it's total rubbish.
"That could be the answer," mused Rick. At the interview he'd had the distinct impression that Harrison hadn't really believed in the truth of what he was saying.
"I'm not going to take this lying down," he said fiercely.
"Watch out," Katie said. "WP can be dangerous if you get on the wrong side of him."
"He frightens me," said Sharon with a shudder. "When my niece was having a baby and I asked if I could have some time off to look after her, he was so bloody rude......"
"Is there anything I can do about it?" asked Rick.
"You can get the Welfare Officer." Sharon scribbled down an address and gave it to him. He thanked her and tucked the scrap of paper into his pocket.
He sighed. Hopefully something would come of that.
In the corner, where Barrett and his usual circle of associates were sitting, the conversation had turned to women. Barrett was boasting about some of his more recent conquests, laughing about an incident in which he and Tania had been discovered by Stacker, during normal hours of work, in compromising positions in a storeroom on the premises.
"Thought you told me you were engaged," Rick said, surprised.
"I am," replied Barrett.
"Does your fiance mind you doing that sort of thing?" he asked.
"No," muttered Barrett, quietly. Rick's eyebrows lifted. Barrett gave a nervous grin.
Something else happened to annoy Rick that week, besides the strange interview with Harrison. One day he decided to supplement his lunch with a cup of tea. He arrived at the tearoom to find it being used for a meeting between Harrison, Stacker, Angela Leary and one or two others. A spirited argument appeared to be in progress over some administrative matter.
"When Bob Marden was running Admin he used to - " Angela Leary began.
"Bob Marden isn't running the fucking show any more, I am. Get it?" Harrison snapped.
The woman opened her mouth to make some angry retort, then shut it, controlling herself with an effort.
Rick decided it might be best if he wasn't present, and made a swift exit from the room. As he closed the door behind him he could hear Harrison's voice rising in protest.
"What am I supposed to do, just beam down and...."
Then Stacker, trying to calm him. "Look, Bill, there just isn't any other option."
Then Angela again. ".....Dumping all this work on me."
Returning a few minutes later, Rick found the room empty. He took a carton of milk from the freezer and began to pour some of it into his cup. Then Burrows came in and saw him.
"Hope you're not snitching the milk again, Rick," Burrows said.
"Eh?" responded Rick, nonplussed.
"There is a price on it."
Rick stared at him. As far as he knew the price applied only to the tea as a whole, of which the milk was a part. No-one had ever told him that the milk had to paid for separately.
Burrows noted his bemusement. "It's good value," he said reprov-ingly.
"Oh, right," said Rick faintly.
He stared after Burrows as the man went out. For some reason he'd never particularly liked him, and now this confirmed his impression of the man.
When he got home after work he looked up "snitching" in the dictionary, to find that Burrows had effectively been accusing him of stealing.
Later that same night the Welfare Officer called on him at his house, and they discussed the matter of the interview with Harrison in some detail. But both came to the conclusion that there wasn't really much that could be done.
On the following Monday morning he discovered that Burke had left. Through Katie he was able to glean something of the reason (he also learned that Burke had met Stacker in the street that morning, greeted him with a friendly "good morning", and Stacker hadn't responded in any way, completely failing to acknowledge his presence). Harrison had called him in for an interview at which he had told him that he was "not paid to think," and that Adminis-trative Assistants, especially Casual ones, should be "seen and not heard."
The other main event that week was the receipt of a reply from Stacker to his application for the internal administrative post.
"I thank you for your interest in this post. I feel however that it would be better for you to settle into your current post, in which I note that you are doing well after a rather shaky start."
A rather shaky start???? What on Earth was the man talking about? Harrison had told Stacker, who was not of course acquainted directly with his work, a pack of lies. By so doing he had hindered his chance of getting a permanent post in the place, a foothold from which it would be less easy for anyone to dislodge him.
He struggled to keep his temper.
On the following Monday morning, Rick was working in the folder store when McLaren came in with a bundle of files under his arm. "Can you file these, please, Rick?" he asked, in a strangely quiet tone of voice. Immediately Rick knew what the reason behind this exercise was, and grinned. I'll show them, he thought.
He proceeded to file the documents away, as carefully and method-ically as possible. He was absolutely sure everything was in the right place.
From the window in the folder store door Rick saw Harrison come into the office. It seemed he had been having an argument with Angela Leary.
"Women," he sighed. "Dumb broads."
As Rick worked he remembered that it was the annual office party tonight. That should give him a chance to let his hair down and forget his grievances.
He took a book on philosophy with him, in case of moments when found himself without anyone he knew to talk to. As he came in
through the door of the bar, Tania waved to him from where she was sitting with the usual gang. "Hi, Rick!" He went over to join them.
While talking to Barrett, he broached the subject of his writing an article for the department's satirical in-house magazine, of which Barrett was editor. He wanted to be, and be considered to be, "part of the team", since he was personally committed to staying on in the department, whatever anyone else's plans might be, and writing the article was a way of showing that. Its subject, he had decided, would be Dennis the office cleaner, a crotchety if not altogether dislikeable man who grew plants on a compost heap at the side of the premises, and who would be murdered by a colleague who took offence at his irascible nature and his body used to fertilise the compost heap he made such a fuss of. Rick told Barrett what he had in mind, and whether he thought anyone would object. From what he had seen of the magazine, the stories that went into it were pretty outrageous, suggesting that the amount of licence permitted was considerable.
"Should be all right," Barrett said. "It's never caused any problems before."
"What will Dennis do?"
Barrett grinned. "Well, he'll probably swear at you." Since Dennis swore at a lot of people in the office, this didn't seem very worrying.
Rick went over to the bar to buy some drinks for them. Cater picked up the philosophy book, which he had left lying on the table, gave the cover a brief, cursory examination and put it down again.
"Hey, I'm gonna tell Straker he fancies her," Cater announced to his companions, Rick being safely out of earshot.
"That's not fair," Barrett said, though he grinned as he did so.
"It's his own fault for going around telling everybody," Cater said.
"So?"
Then Rick came back with the drinks, forcing them to abandon the subject.

Tania and Harrison were chatting as they came through the door of the Admin office, arguing about something in a light-hearted fashion. "You're a nuisance, you are!" she said jokingly.
"No, I'm not!" Harrison shouted, advancing rapidly towards her and causing her to back against the wall. His hands were resting on the wall on either side of her, each no more than an inch or two from her body. He wasn't sure whether this was meant to be threatening, or just a rather clumsy way of showing affection, but whatever the reason the young woman certainly looked startled. Rick frowned, then with a shrug dismissed the matter from his mind.
More upsetting to him that week was the discovery, from another member of staff to whom Rick had been chatting during lunch break, that Louise Straker knew he planned to ask her out. He had indeed made it a bit obvious. But all the same, someone must have told her of his intentions.
It upset him deeply. He had wanted so much to tell her out of the blue that he was interested in her, not just because all his contact with the girl, as well as what other people had said about her, made clear she really was nice, but also because it would have been the first time he had ever done such a thing. He'd been trying to summon up the necessary courage for weeks.
At least there had been no complaints about Rick's work over the past few weeks. Indeed he had been praised once or twice by McLaren and Harrison, and left with the impression that things were OK now. However, a rather distasteful incident was to occur the following week. Stacker had come into the office requesting some computer print-outs, which Rick of course had given him. He consulted them closely, frowning. As Stacker was going out of the office, Harrison came in. Stacker stopped him and began discussing the figures on the printouts with him.
After the conversation had finished and Stacker had gone, Harrison marched up to Rick, who was busily tapping away at a computer terminal.
"Come in here a minute," said Harrison, gesturing towards the door of the folder store. They both went inside.
Harrison shut the door, and turned to face Rick. He spoke slowly, quietly, menacingly.
"If you do that again, I'll bloody well brain you. It's none of his business to come here looking through my records."
Anger battled with amazement for domination of his thoughts. The man was a Surveyor, for God's sake! How could Harrison lay down the law on what was Stacker's business and what wasn't? He thought of going to see Stacker and making a complaint. It would stir up some trouble between the two men, who he knew didn't get on (their antagonism explaining Harrison's resentment at his superior encroaching upon what he had decided was his exclusive territory). But at the same time, he remembered Katie's remark that Harrison could be dangerous if you got on the wrong side of him. The matter needed some careful thought.
Rick went to the tearoom at the first opportunity, needing to calm his nerves. He wanted to sit alone, but the only empty place was next to Barrett & Co., so he went to join them. Due to the mood he was in he could manage only the usual small talk, otherwise sipping his tea in silence. By the time he'd finished it it was almost time to go back to the office.
Then he remembered a matter he had been meaning to bring up with the others. "I've got something to tell you, but I don't think I've got the time," he said to them. He had been planning a get-together for them all one evening after work.
"That's all right," said Tania, thinking he was going to start one of his intellectual discussions, "I doubt if we're likely to be interested in it, anyway."
A cold feeling came over him. He put down his cup of tea and looked at her sharply.
"Oh, I see! That's nice, isn't it?" He tried to make it sound jocular, unwilling to sour the atmosphere too much.
He saw that she looked startled. "Sorry, didn't mean to be rude," she said with an awkward smile.
He stared at her for a moment, then got up and left the table. The others looked uncomfortable for a moment, then started chatting again.

Harrison and Stacker were ensconced in the latter's office. Important administrative matters sometimes made it necessary for them to confer together regardless of their mutual antagonism.
"We're still overmanned," Stacker told Harrison, after perusing some papers. Even though Katie and Sharon had both left in the past few weeks (as had Angela Leary) they nevertheless had more staff than they were really permitted. "We've got to get rid of another Casual. Now who do you suggest?"
Harrison thought of the three casual workers. There was Richard Hanson, an attractive brunette named Miranda Simons, and a middle-aged lady named Samantha Page. Page was a brilliant worker; Simons was reasonably good at the job so there was an excuse to keep her on. Then there was Hanson.
Hanson, always raising objections to things, always making them sound more complicated than he preferred. And the little prat's middle class, college way of speaking irritated him.
He gave Stacker an account of Rick's misdeeds. Stacker frowned, then thought for a moment.
"Well, I'd guess it'd better be him, then," he decided. "I'd be happier if we had some more concrete reason, though."
"Well...we took on too many of them, didn't we?"
"We can't possibly admit that," muttered Stacker. "If it gets out, Regional Head Office will have our heads on the block."
"For Christ's sake, the man's only a Casual, he hasn't got a leg to stand on. There's no sense in worrying about it. We don't have to give a fucking reason."
"If he makes a fuss about it to someone or other, it could still look bad for us," Stacker said.
A idea occurred suddenly to Harrison. "We can use that article he wrote."
Of course! the article! The ideal solution to the problem. In the past no-one had really objected to the tone of the magazine, But there was no hard rule to the effect that they couldn't do so if they wanted to.
"If he does makes a complaint, he'll have to bring the article up, and that'll make the whole thing sound too silly," Harrison said. "That way he won't dare cause any trouble."
The idea appealed to Stacker. "All right. Will you speak to him?
"Yeah. I'll do it now. We may as well get it over with."
Harrison went and saw McLaren, who in his usual quiet voice asked Rick to go to the interview room, telling him that Harrison would be joining him there shortly. Apprehensively, Rick obeyed.
"I'm sorry to tell you that your work is not satisfactory and I must give you two weeks' notice." said Harrison hollowly.
Rick had been constantly dreading that something like this would happen. All the same, he couldn't suppress his feelings. Harrison repeated what he'd told him at the March meeting.
Rick protested that in other jobs, and other departments of the Service, he had never been treated in this way. Harrison replied that it wasn't his concern how other departments did their jobs. This was how he did his job.
It was too much for Rick after all the humiliation, all the stress, he had been subjected to over the past few months. He was quite unable to control himself.
"Up yours," he snapped, sticking two fingers up at Harrison.
He turned and stormed out of the room, out of the building. He couldn't possibly do them the favour of staying with them for just another two weeks, not after the way they'd treated him.
He should have seen this coming, should have got out of his own accord when he had the chance. On the other hand, the strain of unemployment, and of constantly alternating between it and work,
had been a good reason for not doing so. The thought of that strain became uppermost in his mind. If he had to go through it again.....even if his health remained intact, the pressure on him would be appalling, would crush his soul and destroy his happiness. If there was the slightest chance he could persuade Harrison to change his mind....it was probably futile but he felt he owed it to himself to try.
He found a bench in the park opposite the Department and there wrote out a letter to Harrison on a piece of foolscap, telling him about the effect his dismissal would have on him, and offering to apologise to him for his conduct at their meeting earlier. He went back into foyer of the building, and was about to deposit the letter in the box for incoming mail when he saw Barrett standing in a corner consulting a notice board. Rick asked him to give the letter to Harrison.
He waited in the foyer for Harrison to come out at the end of his day's work. He would be reported for loitering if he hung about here for too long, but guessed Harrison would be finishing pretty soon.
Word must have got around that he was on the premises, for about half an hour later Barrett came back and handed him a typed letter. It purported to explain in slightly more detail the reasons for his sacking. The by now familiar accusations of inefficiency were repeated. In addition, there was a reference to "difficulties in forming inter-personal relationships". His eyes widened. It was true he was a quiet, introverted sort of person with few close friends, but he'd always got on well with people in the office. It didn't help that the letter failed to say what the difficulties were.
"The last straw," it appeared, had been his story about Dennis,
which it seemed had "upset line management quite deeply."
He stared at the letter in bafflement for a long time. Then he
simply turned and walked out of the building into the street.
In a zombie-like fashion, he started to walk down the hill into town. Several times he stopped and then started back towards the Department. A passer-by saw him and frowned at his apparently strange behaviour.
"You all right, mate?" the man asked. Rick mumbled an affirmat-ive. He walked on a bit, then turned to see what the man was doing. Seeing that he had passed out of sight, Rick paused and took a few deep breaths, struggling to calm himself. Every cell in his body screamed at him to go back and teach Harrison a lesson. Tell him in no uncertain terms what he thought of him, then smash the bastard's face in.
No. He'd got himself into enough trouble already, probably, for losing his temper. He wouldn't do it.
He sat down again on the bench in the park, contemplating his future. Where could he go now? What could he do? Everything seemed utterly hopeless.
It occurred to him that it would be an insult to himself to let bastards like Harrison and Stacker screw him up. That thought, more than anything else, was what eventually stirred him into action. There must be some way of getting out of the professional rut he was in; he guessed it would require careful thought, and for that he needed to compose himself. He couldn't go on sitting here festering in his bitterness and depression.
It was early evening now. He got up from the bench and strode off into the gathering darkness.
Out there, far beyond the four walls of the Pensions Agency, was a complete world, a colourful, lively, if sometimes vulgar, place where there were good things as well as bad. Where there were people with big hearts and minds, instead of small and petty ones. Somehow, he would find the willpower to pull himself up yet again from the mire, so he could succeed in that world, do something which would be of lasting benefit to both it and himself, enabling him to enjoy all it had to offer and, to his satisfaction, give it something back in return. There were lots of ideas he could try that he hadn't tried before.
Various sounds and sights reached his senses as he made his way downhill through the suburbs towards the city centre. Around him he heard the noise of cars, the laughter of children, the colourful displays in the shop windows, the sight of courting couples with linked arms. All of them symbolised the continuation, and the richness, of life.
Filled with a new resolution, he hurried towards the lights of the town spread out before him, feeling in spite of the disaster which had befallen him that day a strange, exhilarating sense of rebirth.

The ship had crashed a couple of years previously into what had then been the bare earth of a building site, due to failure in its power unit. Due to its very small size, its passage through the atmosphere had not been detected. It remained deeply buried in the ground, until the Pensions Agency had been built on top of it. To heal the injuries they had received in the crash the crew put themselves into suspended animation for a time. When they revived, they proceeded to repair the damage which had been caused to the ship's various systems by the impact.
They had come to this planet in search of a new home for their species. Their own had been invaded by another race, the Schthori, beings who despised them as inferior, and they had been decimated in the bloody war of conquest that followed. The few survivors had managed to escape in a single spacecraft and establish a temporary base on a remote and inhospitable world in a neighbouring solar system. That world would not in the long run support them; it was incapable of sustaining life and devoid of all mineral resources. While on it they were unable to venture outside the artificial habitat of their spacecraft.
Food supplies were dwindling, and a permanent new home was desperately needed. They would have to settle for the first remotely suitable planet they encountered, for their spacecraft was old, inefficient, and fast running out of fuel.
The scout ship had chanced upon Earth, and had been in orbit around the planet, surveying it, when the power failure occurred. had caused it to lose height. A crash-landing became necessary; fortunately the ship's communication equipment was not too badly damaged, so it was possible for the crew when they awoke from their sleep to patch it up somewhat, allowing the expedition commander to deliver a report to the mother ship on what they had found on Earth. Translated into English, the message would have sounded more or less as follows.
"This is Commander Jarriad commencing report on suitability for colonisation of, and threat posed by indigenous inhabitants of, the third planetary unit of star system 3, Gelad Spiral.
Atmosphere, climate, relief all seem suitable for our purposes, according to scan taken whilst in orbit.
Due to the damage sustained by the craft on landing, it is impossible to explore more than a strictly limited area, about one parzec {the equivalent of a few hundred yards on Earth}. We have used the psiscanner to pick up the emotional signals given off by all native inhabitants within that area, and analyse them in order to establish whether they are of an negative or a positive kind, and therefore whether the population is liable to be hostile or friendly. The evidence from what we have found within the necessarily limited area of our investigation suggests human relationships are characterised by deceit, hypocrisy and insensitivity. (It seemed that there was a faint glimmer of goodness there - perhaps one or two individuals were benign - but they couldn't be sure, for it was swamped and masked by the mass of negative signals). This can cause them severe stress and emotional damage. For reasons of safety, and in view of the urgent need for a suitable homeworld to be found, it must be assumed that this kind of behaviour is typical of the species in all its activities and at all levels of their society." Despite the repairs there wasn't enough power for the battered old ship to pull free of the planet's soil and travel over a wide area, or for the psychofield to be extended beyond its current range.
"The dangers are clear: if they are prepared to damage themselves so much, how would they behave towards other species?
Since the option of abandoning this world and searching for another is not open to us, I am taking the action specified in the manual." He regretted having to do so; the Traxans were a moral and honourable race, in their own way. But any threat to their survival had to be dealt with. They had already suffered persecution, invasion and oppression at the hands of the Schthori and other races, and were not willing to countenance any more of it. They needed a safe haven, a home on which to rebuild their civilisation unmolested, and any thought that it might not be forthcoming was simply unbearable. Besides, Traxans perhaps had a different psychology, a different way of thinking, from humans. The damage to the Traxan ship's reactor had by now been repaired. They started it up, and the energy within began to build up towards the point where it would be released in a massive surge that would accomplish Jarriad's purpose without any harm to the Traxans, whose biochemistry was such as to render them immune to it.
Jarriad waited until his chief engineer informed him that the power had reached the desired level. He ordered him to begin discharging it. Then he spoke again into his flight recorder. "Initiating destruction of native intelligent species."


MEMOIRS OF AN ANTI-WAR PROTESTOR

9/11 traumatised me, as I’m sure it did a lot of people. By the end of 2002 I had recovered sufficiently not to feel inclined to support military action against any country that might possibly be hostile to the West; I was at best surprised, and at worst somewhat chagrined to discover that some people still did. Oddly, it was some time before I remembered that Saddam Hussein had gone on TV taunting the Americans over the atrocity, and made the connection. I now feel much more understanding towards those in America who pushed for the war than I used to; nonetheless, I still believe that opposing it was the right thing to do. What offended me, especially in view of the damage it was likely to do, was the sheer lack of justification for it all. There was no evidence that Saddam had had anything to do with 9/11 beyond gloating over it, and if he was stockpiling WMDs it was highly unlikely he’d have used them in anger against the West or Israel. Admittedly, I was also peeved because the overthrow of Saddam would destroy the topicality, and thus the saleability, of a novel I was then writing but I didn’t see why I should suffer such a setback when there were other, more valid arguments against the war as well.
Having fortunately failed to get a job that had been going at the Ministry of Defence in Feltham, I had the green light to join up with the Surrey branch of the Stop-the-War Coalition. My anti-war activity consisted primarily of two things. One was to stand with a group of other protestors on Staines Bridge holding up placards bearing anti-war slogans for motorists to see. We met with a mixed response. One driver shouted out abuse at me; he appeared to be cut from the same cloth as the youth down the job centre whose thought the war a good thing because “these Pakis need sorting out”, having evidently got his ethnic and geopolitical wires a bit crossed. Another stopped his vehicle to ask why I was doing it; I told him it was because he might get blown up if the war brought terrorism to Britain, whereupon he said “Keep up the good work”, or words to that effect, and drove on.
I distributed anti-war leaflets of my own devising; was interviewed among with others by a German TV crew. Then there was the famous march up in London. Never had I been among such a vast, thronging mass of people all doing something they really believed in and determined to make an impact. Some made their point tastefully, others perhaps less so; at one point my eye fell on a poster of a highly scatological nature involving Tony Blair, George Bush and a dog. And it certainly was a Stop-the-War coalition; a group of people marching with a banner the slogan on which might be considered anti-Semitic were marching not far away from another calling themselves Jews for Peace in the Middle East. As for the child strapped into a wheeled high chair and paraded about as a symbol of who might suffer if the war mushroomed into an international conflict, I found it distastefully exploitative. Children were also being taught to swear; they were allowed to join in the chanting of “one, two, three, four, we don’t want your bloody war.”
Since the march passed off without any serious incidents, there is nothing more to say about it except that I somehow lost track of the rest of my group and went home independently of them, taking with me as a souvenir a placard which on one side bore the slogan “Free Palestine”. Afterwards I displayed this for several years in the window of my flat in Stanwell, despite some people thinking that I shouldn’t. On several occasions a stone was thrown at it, breaking the window. The police felt I should take it down, but did not press the matter, fortunately perhaps as there might have been something of a confrontation. The suggestion seemed to be that it was too politically controversial, but since I doubt that gangs of delinquent Zionist Jews patrol Stanwell terrorising Palestinian sympathisers the incident was most likely the work of those young males who throw stones at things simply because they’re there. It somehow didn’t seem right to display the notice, which was already rather battered when I found it, when I moved into the more salubrious surroundings of Shepperton – in any case it had had a good innings. It now resides in my mother’s attic alongside a “No to Sir Keith {Joseph}” poster I picked up, again as a souvenir, at college after witnessing a protest against Tory education cuts (which I didn’t take part in, then being one of the party faithful). An amusing observation is not inappropriate here. The Residents’ Association at Stanwell held a fete one Sunday afternoon at which a folk singer with a guitar was performing. While he was doing his stuff my flat with the poster in the window was clearly visible in the background (I think the scene was photographed at some point) and what with the generally run-down condition of the estate at that time (it probably hasn’t got any better since) it looked like a protest song. No-one seems to have realised!
There was a plan to picket the US airbase at Fairford, Gloucestershire, where the Stealth bombers to be used in the invasion of Iraq were kept. Ostensibly the aim was to stick anti-war leaflets and such like to the perimeter fence; whether there was an intention for the protest to lead into something more ambitious, such as breaking into the base and letting down the tyres on a Stealth or whatever you do to sabotage it, I don’t know, nor can I say whether I would have gone along with it if there had been. I must admit the whole idea scared me, sabotage or not; I had visions of being shot by some trigger-happy American guard. In the end the woman who was to drive the minibus fell ill so we didn’t go
Another thing I did was to start attending monthly meetings of the branch in Guildford. Unfortunately, the political bias of the movement was towards the Left, and like a typical such organisation they spent so much time arguing at each of their meetings that they only managed to discuss about a third of the agenda. It was a weird situation, as if I had fallen through a time warp and gone back twenty years to my university days, when groups like Militant Tendency and the Socialist Workers’ Student Society were causing so much trouble. These people had not moved on; they were still fighting the ideological battles, the class wars, of the 1960s and 70s and 80s. You would not have been surprised if at some point Wolfie Smith had walked on and shouted “Power to the People!” The worst offender was a gentleman called Mick Moriarty who you may have heard of before in the context of protest politics in north Surrey. Before the war had actually started we were trying to decide where to have our big meeting to attract support from people across the county. The opinion of many members of the group was that it should be held in Woking, which would clearly have been the most sensible approach because the town was a major administrative centre of the county and had a large Muslim population who we wanted to show were on our side, to prove this was not a conflict between one section of the community and another. Bizarrely, Mr Moriarty insisted that it be held in Esher because of the number of posh people who lived there. He believed the war was essentially orchestrated by a wealthy upper class clique and that it was important to be making a statement to these people. The very fact that Esher, besides being smaller than Woking, was so socially unrepresentative meant that we would be missing the target, failing to achieve our essential aim which after all was to get as many people as possible on our side. No better way could possibly be found of sabotaging the effectiveness of the protest; the business was so peculiar that it makes it a good deal more believable Mr Moriarty was an MI5 agent working to undermine us from within, as one person I know suggested. Unfortunately, he got his way and I am sure did incalculable damage as a result.
The one I liked best out of all my colleagues in the movement was a loud-mouthed, but honest and straightforward, old-school Leftie of genuine working-class origins. He told me he had more respect for me, as a fairly decent and sensible Tory (though by that time I was no longer a member of the party), than for the sanctimonious kind of middle-class left-winger who seemed to dominate so much of the movement. Similarly I had more time for him than I did for the kind of people he was describing, and certainly for the pseudo-socialists who supported Tony Blair whilst in power and are still running the country now; although he did once come out with the rather disconcerting comment, “You’re talking common sense – even though I don’t agree with it.”
After we had manifestly failed to stop the war on Iraq we did, it must be admitted, become a little directionless. There was some debate about where exactly we should go from there, with the occupation clearly causing problems but Messrs Bush and Blair reluctant to budge When I suggested along with another prominent member of the group that we change the emphasis to focusing attention on the Palestinian issue, one rather snooty woman of the sort you too often get around the Camberley-Guildford area effectively accused me of being immoral. How it can be immoral to attempt to change a situation where thousands of people are forced to endure a poor standard of living, denied their political aspirations and regularly massacred is quite beyond my ability to fathom.
The SWC was often accused of being anti-Semitic; all I can say is that at one meeting people were trying hard to say “the Israelis” rather than “the Jews” when talking about obstacles to peace in the Middle East, my vociferous friend having reminded us that anti-Semitism was a problem and warned us about contributing to it. Though I might add that at least one Jew of my acquaintance went on the march and another was regularly involved in the Surrey branch’s activities, attending most of the Guildford meetings where he made no secret of his dislike of Israel’s behaviour. He had been involved in peace movements since about 1950, when he was quite a young lad. Palestine was a legitimate concern of the movement, since the issue has the potential to kill people in large numbers and heighten international tensions (it was “War” in general that we were trying to stop, not one particular conflict).
Eventually, disillusioned by the attitude and general uselessness of most of my fellow travellers, I stopped going. So did one or two other people including the guy who until then had been running the branch. By now my enthusiasm for the whole Stop-the-War business was waning rapidly but I did decide on one last fling. Later in the year George Bush came to Britain and decided to drop in on the Queen. The Coalition took the chance to flock to Buckingham Palace to demonstrate en masse against his general foreign policy and I went along, partly to make my feelings known and partly, I must confess, to get a glimpse of the world’s most powerful man. I’d been told that a sit-down protest in the middle of the road had been scheduled and I went along fully intending to join it, and to be arrested if necessary. However I couldn’t see any sign of one when I got there, nor was it to materialise later, and since I would have looked rather silly doing it on my own I decided to forego the whole project.
I picked up a placard someone appeared to have discarded (I didn’t keep it this time) and while I stood around with everyone else waiting for Mr President to arrive a photographer took a full-frontal shot of me with it, evidently considering me a typical peace protestor; presumably there’s a picture of me somewhere gracing the pages of some magazine or other, though I haven’t seen it. In the end Bushy sneaked in the back way, so there was nothing much for us to do. It appeared to be the general feeling among those present that there had been some connivance between the police and the Americans, which there probably had. One protestor was so incensed that he ran up to a policeman, grabbed his helmet and tried to run off with it, whereupon he was immediately arrested. The police had to preserve their dignity, their authority, or they would not have been able to do their jobs properly; nevertheless their action seems to have been resented. Putting on a nasty tone of voice and pretending to speak into a radio, one demonstrator did a very good imitation of a policeman calling in other policemen to arrest the person who had stolen the helmet “because it’s really important.”
That’s about it. I still get e-mails from the SWC, on Yahoo which I rarely use these days, but largely ignore them. And I’m still wondering whether I’m on MI5’s list of dangerous subversives (let them do their worst). But my overwhelming feeling as the whole thing dissolved into farce was that nothing would ever increase the sum total of human common sense.