Sunday 8 April 2012

Long short story...

June 1999 - Poetic Justice

In a recent news report I read that a convicted rapist was to be given Viagra because he had no regular sexual partner. Psychiatrists argued that if he were capable of sustaining an erection he would be capable of forming a normal relationship. No mention that with a more effective weapon, so to speak, the essential means-motive-opportunity triangle behind his offences would be complete. Is this the therapy culture gone mad or am I hopelessly behind the times? What other obvious solutions to society’s problems am I missing here?


Pete wearily plodded to the front door in his silk dressing gown and embroidered slippers. It was half past ten in the morning for Christ’s sake, how was a person to catch up on essential sleep? Didn’t these people realise that he had been kept up until the early hours with the twins? Mandy and Jane had only driven off a couple of hours before and here was Pete being disturbed again.
“Your car, sir.” The liveried chauffeur saluted as Pete blinked in the sunlight.
“Yeah, right. Very nice, thanks but I’ve already got one.” He indicated the silver-grey Jag on the drive.
“No sir, you misunderstand. I’m here to get you to your appointment.” These people, would they never leave him alone? Last month he had forgotten to go into the unemployment office and sign on so now what had they done? Only gone and sent a driver to collect him. How humiliating! He would have to see about this, his caseworker was going to get a real earful over this one, no messing.

He stormed into the plush foyer of the Benefits Agency and barked at the terrified receptionist, “Get Janet down here, now!” He lit a new cigarette from the remains of the last and stubbed out the butt on the carpet. His fingers trembled – see the state he was in? No bloody wonder. How dare they? Janet appeared nervous as she descended the last few steps.
“Good morning Mr Smith, perhaps you would like to step this way. Coffee?” Pete gruffly nodded assent and he indicated ‘two sugars’ to the girl who had appeared with a tray. Janet led him into a large, airy office and motioned to a leather couch. As he sank into its embrace she positioned herself on a subservient stool at his feet. She fumbled with her papers for a moment before making what seemed to be quite an effort to summon up the courage to speak...
“I, er… how is everything going?”
“It was fine until I was summoned here at the crack of dawn.” Pete was testy, as well he might be. Another couple of hours and he might have got around to sitting at his desk for a while. Who knows, he may have even managed to turn on the computer, which had sat unemployed, like himself, since its acquisition three months previously. Did these people want to help him… or what?

“You do understand that the Benefits Agency has a right to review its, er, its investments from time to time. Since we set the terms of your deal you have failed to attend eight of your monthly reviews in the last year. We believe we have been fair but in accordance with our charter we must ask you if there is anything else we can do to help.” Janet looked over the top of her glasses at him and tried to look as if she wasn’t really floundering. “You see, once we have completed our end of the bargain then you must complete yours. After all, it is the public’s money we are using to get you back on your feet and they are entitled to value for their money.”
“Well, it’s hardly fair is it? I mean, I just get the creative juices flowing and the next thing you know I’m being badgered to produce reams of paper. Poetry isn’t like that. It’s quality that counts, not quantity. Give me a chance for Christ’s sake.”
Janet glanced quickly down at her file, she hadn’t meant to provoke an outburst and she could never forgive herself if Smith’s delicate psyche had been unbalanced.

Peter Smith – Poet

That was how the report was headed. It went on to detail his case history; Under the government’s ‘New Initiatives For the Future’  (NIFF, even the acronyms were getting desperate, an old military joke taken too far) he was entitled to a lengthy series of benefits to enable him to get back to work. Because Pete had never actually raised an angry finger in employment the criteria allowed him to decide for himself what kind of work he wanted to perform. Poet had been accepted - by a committee of social workers - as useful in an age when thirty percent of the workforce was admitted to hospital with a stress-related disability each year. So, poet it was. That’s what it said on Pete’s ID card and that, therefore was what he was. Under the NIFF terms it was illegal for the state or any individual to force him to earn money by any other means. Only via an appeal to the highest level of labour courts in the land, or at Pete’s whim, could this designation be changed.

“So. Let’s’ start at the beginning shall we?” Janet smiled cautiously at the hunched figure opposite.
            Pete found the next twenty minutes tedious in the extreme. Okay so the state had moved him from the bed-sit flat he had lived in under the old basic welfare system to the country cottage he now occupied overlooking the river. But the setting was entirely in keeping with the need to have a calm and inspirational environment in which to create. Admittedly he had yet to put pen to paper, in fact his phobia about fountain pens was what had prompted the provision of the idle computer, but he still didn’t see why she had to go in detail through the list of things the government had provided. Was she trying to apply pressure?

            “Now I hope you don’t feel I’m putting you under pressure here Mr Smith. I just want to make sure we have done all we possibly can. So, as I was saying; the furniture, satisfactory?” Pete nodded that it was indeed satisfactory, especially the deep leather recliner which looked as if it might also be perfect in a more upright posture against the desk. Certainly he was in no danger of getting a bad back.
            “The car, so you would be able to communicate one-on-one with your relatives and friends without the humiliation of being seen on public transport, should you become famous; satisfactory?” Commensurate with his status, should he become famous, the Jag was understated, elegant and did very nicely. Pete decided that one day he would learn to drive it himself instead of always having to rely on the woman they had provided. She was there in an attempt to pre-empt lonely, self-destructive poetic angst and so far had performed her function admirably. Last night she had easily earned whatever they were paying her. The chauffeur and the twins. Now that had been very nice indeed. He was brought back to earth by Janet’s summing up. Shit he was going to be in trouble now; she seemed to be awaiting an answer.

            “So, do you think that there is anything else we could possibly do to facilitate your creative re-awakening?”
            “I’m sorry?”
            “When you applied for the reclassification as poet, let’s see, er… yes three years ago, you stated that you needed to undergo a complete change of environment and lifestyle in order to go through what you described as a creative re-awakening. Has it happened yet?”
            “I don’t think so…” Had it hell! Since he’d had the digital satellite system installed – to help him unwind and avoid the anxiety of writers’ block – he had scarcely moved from in front of the flickering screen. So this was it, the day of reckoning. What could they do to him? Would he go back to the bed-sit? Or worse, be written out of the social contract altogether and end his days on bad cider, viewing the world from a park bench? Oh well, it had been a good… was it really three years?… how time flies…

            “So we can take it that, despite being given all possible assistance to allow you to pursue a new career as a poet, this project has failed? Is there anything you’d like to say?”
            “Right then, that’s the end of that.” She carefully scored diagonal line across the front page of his file, “That marks the official demise of Peter Smith – Poet.”
            My god, she had written him off! What would he do, who could he turn to? Through his panic he realised that she was talking again, asking again.
            “So what are you going to do?”
            “Well, I hardly know where to start, I, er…” Would they send him to a labour camp to pay back the…? It must be thousands they’d spent on him. Punishment? My god, he hadn’t even considered what they might be able to legally do to him. “I just don’t know.” He hung his head in despair in front of his inquisitor.

            “Oh dear, I hope I haven’t upset you. Look, just go away and think about it. In fact get right away, I’ll provide you with travel vouchers for two weeks anywhere in the world,” (whispering now and looking up at the ceiling microphone – all interviews were taped.) “Please don’t get upset, my boss would be furious.”
            “Eh?” Pete was now completely confused; he’d obviously missed something, “could you just go over that again, please?”
            “Er, ahem…” (she glanced quickly at the microphone and seemed to gather herself together, sitting more upright and enunciating loudly and clearly.) “You have a choice, Mr Smith, we can offer you either artist or philosopher, given that your first choice hasn’t worked out quite as planned. Either of them comes with a month’s free trial, in fact you can even try both of them and you don’t need to make a firm decision for another three months. To help you with your decision we can provide a holiday, on the state of course, as a means of getting over your recent trauma, and on your return you are welcome to take advantage of our free counselling service.” She sat for a moment before gathering her papers together, then stood up and nodded formally to Pete and turned for the door. “My secretary will prepare all the necessary paperwork and she will ring you at home later to ask if you have made a decision about your holiday destination. Thank you for coming in.”

            Janet hovered at the door, she thought she had covered everything. He didn’t seem too traumatised by her approach and in time she felt sure he could settle into a new life as an artist… or a philosopher. Society needed philosophers. And therapists. And trauma counsellors. She was sure she had made the right decision about Mr Smith and mentally ticked off all the features of the interview as she opened the door. She had been polite, helpful, courteous, generous with her time and - she felt sure - helpful. Only one thing remained. As she began to close the door she turned to face Mr Smith and smiled beatifically at him.

            “Just One last thing Mr Smith”

            Pete almost felt relieved. She had been teasing, torturing him. Here at last was the deserved denouement. The axe hovered. “Yes?” he responded, weakly.

“Have a nice day.”

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