Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Right of Way

Right of Way

Right of Way


"Abdul's Bomb Shop is open!"

The day had been quiet. I had slept peacefully. Then, as happened every evening, at a quarter past seven give or take a few minutes, a tremendous bang shook the house and woke me. I heard a stage Arab accent from the street outside shouting. "The shop is open! Abdul's Bomb Shop is open!"

The word shop was something of an exaggeration. Abdul had found a place to put up a trestle table about six feet by two and painted Abdul's Bom Shop on the low garden wall behind it. Every evening Abdul, a short, fat man who arrived dressed in a brightly coloured robe, sandals and a fez, carrying an ex-Army rucksack, took out the three or four improvised explosive devices that he happened to have with him, and arranged them on the trestle table. Then he put one of them down in the middle of the street and set it off, causing a very loud bang, flying debris, superficial damage and a cloud of sand, to attract the attention of buyers. It was a miracle that he still had all his bones intact. "Abdul's Bomb Shop is open! Destroy an unbeliever for only £20. Also ideal for demolition jobs and suicides. First come, first served."

"Oh, belt up, Abdul." Beside Abdul's trestle table, a thin man in his twenties was now straightening his own trestle table, which had been knocked down by the blast. He brushed the sand off it with his hands, and arranged several small bundles in a row on top of it. "Yer too noisy."

"Why should I belt up?" Abdul showed his annoyance in his native plain North London accent. "The storm comes before the calm, and bombs come before camel fodder, Nigel. They shall beat their ploughshares into swords and their camel fodder into improvised explosive devices, if they can work out how it's done. You've got the right to sell camel fodder and I've got the right to advertise."
"Look, mate, the economy of the entire Faithful United Christian Kingdom would collapse if there weren't any camel fodder, so learn yer place."
"An' now you listen to me. In the daytime I volunteer for Christian Counsel, right, I listen to all miserable people eatin' their 'earts out, an' I can assure you I never 'eard of a problem what couldn't 'ave been sorted out with enough 'igh explosive."
"Any problem at all?" said Nigel, skeptically.
"Any problem at all. Ask 'Enry Kissinger if you don't believe me."
"'E's been dead for 'ow long?"
"Ninety five years," Abdul guessed triumphantly, "so ask 'im through a medium."

Abdul took two steps away from Nigel. He harrumphed, shook the sand from his feet, aimed his stentorian mouth upwards and resumed the stage Arab accent. "Annihilate an unbeliever for £20," he yelled. "Come to Abdul's Bomb Shop." I swear my window rattled more when he was shouting than when he was setting off IEDs.

Behind Abdul's Bomb Shop, a woman in her fifties was selling zizz out of an old bus-conductor's leather money bag. She had no trestle table, perhaps so that she could skedaddle in a hurry should it become necessary. She kept her distance from the others and parked herself near the 'No Road' sign at the far end of the street. Before dawn the sand around her spot would be strewn with six, or maybe even twelve, catas: the catatonic, motionless, scrawny bodies of people in their twenties or thirties, escaping reality for twelve hours on one eighth of a grain of zizz.

The market was gradually putting itself together for a night's trading. A man with postcards, biros and stamps, and beside him a woman selling snacks, whose trestle table was dotted with a few meat pies, jars of water, apples and hard boiled eggs. Opposite her stood the inevitable second hand car parts salesman, bringing a handful of ancient car parts — this was a door handle, that was a windscreen wiper, and that was a hub cap — I wondered who bought them, as cars were pretty much unusable on what was left of the roads. One by one and with much shouting and aggressive pushing and shoving of trestle tables and each other, the traders and dealers gradually assembled and waited noisily for customers. By midnight the market would be alive with people.

I looked out of my bedroom window. There seemed to be more sand on the street than yesterday. Within living memory, this had been a thriving, dilapidated Victorian terraced street, typical of hundreds of streets in London. Now, every day, there seemed to be more sand than the day before. There was sand everywhere: not just the road surface, but window ledges, gardens, roofs were always covered with a layer of sand.

Looking to my right, I could see the first few customers coming around the corner and walking with effort through the sand towards the market. The sound of Abdul's demonstration effort had alerted them to the traders being in place. I looked them over, as I often did, trying to guess who they were and what they might be doing here. This unkempt looking young man in tattered clothing, making odd twitching movements with his hands, looked as though he were driven by his demons to be first in the queue for zizz. Following him, an old man arrived on a camel, probably the first customer tonight for Nigel's camel fodder stall. And then there was Julie.

Julie worked in the next office to mine. We'd both received instructions from The Management, as we called them, to attend a meeting in Romford, the purpose of which (the meeting, not Romford) had not been explained. Julie had agreed to travel with me. She might have been forty, and she was wearing a long, deep blue dress and carrying a coat and a weekend sized bag. It was still too hot to wear the coat. I'd agreed to meet her at the travel office, and she'd arrived early, or maybe I was late. I opened the window carefully, almost managing to avoid the blast of hot air that hit me in the face, and I waved to her. "I'll be ten minutes." She saw me, and she raised one hand to her ear. I couldn't shout over the noise of the market, so I held up ten fingers and she replied with a thumbs-up.

After readying myself as quickly as I could, I found Julie easily on the street outside. I took her weekend bag and we queued for the travel office. The travel office was an unshaven man carrying a rucksack and smoking a crude cigarette. As a sign of authority he wore a blue peaked cap that he'd probably found on a rubbish pile somewhere.

"You got anything for Romford?"
"You're in luck, mate. Be at the cross-roads over there at twenty hundred. Five pounds each. Names?"
"Sherburne. And, er…"
"Cook," put in Julie.
I forked over ten pounds and I received two small printed sheets, both scribbled on. Julie asked, "When will we arrive?"
"Midnight, if you're lucky. Don't worry, all my passengers arrive. Anyfink else?"

The ticket seller said "Anything else?" in a tone of voice that meant "Go away."

Julie and I sat in my living room drinking instant coffee without milk, trying nervously to pass the time.

"Arriving at midnight. That's fast travel these days," I said.
"I doubt we'll be there quite that soon," said Julie.
"Even two or three in the morning wouldn't be too bad. Everything would still be open."
"Desmond, do you have any idea what this meeting is all about?" Julie asked me.
"None at all," I said. "Nobody told me anything. I just found the note in my in-tray saying I had to be at the Holton Hotel in Romford by seven tomorrow evening. I looked around, but I didn't see any invitations for anybody else in the room."
"Me, too," Julie agreed. "I just realised I don't have any water for the journey. Is there any chance you could…?"
"Of course," I said, "there's plenty in the fridge."

I fetched two extra bottles and gave them to her. The water was cold and the bottles immediately became wet with condensation.

"Whatever they're going to make us do in Romford has to be better than working, whatever it is," said Julie. "Do you and I have anything in common? At work, I mean."
"Age," I said, "and experience."
"I just wondered why they picked us out."
"I have no idea," I said. "I'm the longest serving staff member in my office. I don't think I have any other special qualification to be singled out."

Julie appeared thoughtful for a second.

"Do you live by yourself?" she asked me.
"Yes," I told her. "Who would want to share with me?"
"What do you find to do?"
"Going to work, working, and coming back afterwards, mainly. And cooking. And I used to like travelling but that's not really possible any more."
"What do you cook?"
"Breakfast, lunch to take away, dinner. English cuisine. I don't really trust the snack lady in the market."
Julie cheered up a little. "What's your favourite recipe?"
"I don't know. I made some tomato sauce a few days ago and it worked out all right."
Julie appeared interested. "Are you going to tell me the recipe?" she asked, conspiratorially.
"It was a simple mixture of water, maltose, dextrose, hydrolysed protein, modified starch, aspartame, lactose, lithium chloride, red E5432, crimson E6543 and tomato flavouring E7654. And, dare I say it, the result was a great deal tastier than the muck you can buy in the shops."
"Ooh! Where did you get such an unusual and mouth-watering recipe?"
"My grandmother gave me the recipe," I said. "Nothing but wholesome, natural ingredients."
"Did she work on a farm?" Julie asked.
"No," I said, "she had a job in Sainsbury's."
"May I try some?"
"Yes, I suppose so."

I went to the kitchen, made a cheese sandwich with lashings of tomato ketchup, and invited Julie to eat it.

She gave a verdict after a few seconds of chewing.

"Do you want to know what went into the cheese?"
"No, thanks— What's that?"
"It's a cheese sandwich. I thought you'd already worked that out. Cheddar cheese."
"No," said Julie, "there's someone outside."

I could hear a voice calling in the marketplace. "Stratford, Ilford, Romford, Basildon, Southend on Sea. Service C-90 to Southend, anyone?"

"Crumbs!" said Julie, putting her hand to her mouth to avoid bits of bread falling out.
"I wouldn't worry about those," I said, "I've got a vacuum cleaner."
"No, I mean, that's our caravan leaving."

We grabbed our coats and our weekend bags, and dashed outside.

The sun had set now, and the air outdoors was cooling down. We both put our coats on. We walked as fast as we could, which wasn't particularly fast, towards the cross roads, where we could see three camels waiting. One of the camels already had a passenger on board. He must have come up from somewhere in the City of London. The driver came up to us.

"Cook? Sherburne?"
"That's us," I said.
"Good evening. I'm Daly," said the driver, "but everybody calls me Mirror."

I tried hard to laugh.

"Do you think we'll be in Romford by midnight?" Julie asked.
"I expect so," said Daly. "These are ex racing camels. Now, you ride on Rameses here. A few years ago, Rameses ran a lap of the Le Mans circuit in twenty-two minutes. Eight miles seven ’undred an’ twen‘y yards. I'll take the bags." He grabbed the rein of the nearest camel and it knelt for us to board. Then it stood up and we both nearly fell off. Daly watched us trying to sit down aboard Rameses and laughed wholeheartedly.

We held onto each other and planted ourselves in the twin saddle, both by sheer coincidence facing forwards and with Julie more or less sitting in my lap.

"I could get to like this," I said.
"We'll be sitting here for four hours at least," said Julie, "so we'll see how you feel when we dismount again."
"Promise?" I said. Julie had more sense than to answer.
"I have to check Hamurabi and Nefertiti," the driver told us, "and then we depart."
"What are these paper bags for?" I asked, finding a half dozen tough looking brown paper bags tucked into the front of the saddle.
"Sandstorms," said Daly. "Pull it over your head if we run into a sandstorm."

Daly looked at the other two animals, walked back to the travel office, called out "Stratford, Ilford, Romford, Basildon, Southend on Sea" to the crowd, came back, hung a red lamp on the back of the third camel, mounted Nefertiti with far greater grace and style than Julie or I had managed, and yelled "Hold tight. Giddy-up!" We moved off, swaying and bouncing eastwards along the road in the light of the half moon.

Julie had to lean backward and rest her head on my shoulder to talk to me. "Have you ever travelled this way?"
"You mean on a camel? Or in this direction? Or with the office pin-up in my lap?"
"I mean," she said, "have you been to Romford."
"I went through Romford on a train once," I said. "It took about a minute. I can't remember much about it."
"I don't think there's much to remember in Romford. How long are we going to spend there?"

Although my instructions had been perfectly clear about the arrival time, they had not said when I was going to come home again.

"A day and a night at most, I hope."

I had not been outside Tottenham for a couple of years, and I noticed how different the place looked since the suburb began to turn to desert. Apart from the market places and shops nearby, there were few people walking the roads. So many people had fled north or west across the Atlantic, to escape the heat and the dust, that many houses were abandoned and, in the conditions, as soon as a house became empty it deteriorated rapidly. Some streets were now lacking windows or chimney pots or slates on the roof, while others had collapsed and looked as though they had been bombed-out. Behind us there was some light from the houses and offices in the city, but ahead of us the horizon was mainly dark, the streets lit only by a few lights from windows. As we approached our first stop, we heard the rattling and creaking of a caravan coming towards us. It passed us by. Daly exchanged greetings with the driver of the oncoming caravan and told us it had come from "somewhere out Ipswich way."

The camels must have been eating carrots by the ton, because once out in the countryside they seemed to see in the dark. We reached Stratford in slightly more than half an hour without bumping into anything. Stratford was a ten minute halt at a simple pair of caravan stops, one on each side of Village Market. Here at the caravan stop there were a dozen working street lights. Someone had set up a small wooden shed from which he sold water, tinned drinks and snacks. A couple of catas lay motionless on the sidewalks, one young man and one older, their eyes open but not actually seeing anything, paralytic on zizz. For some reason it entered my head that they looked like father and son.

"Are they all right?" I said to Julie, pointing at them.
"No," said Julie.
"They're always here," said Daly. "Lying about lookin’ useless. I wonder they're still alive. Bloody nuisance, if you ask me. ’Scuse me a minute."

One of the catas arranged his right hand into a V sign and raised it a couple of inches.

Daly jumped down onto the street and settled two passengers who were waiting at the stop onto Nefertiti, the lead animal. Another passenger, riding solo on Hamurabi, descended and bought a bottle of water at the shed. Daly walked the length of the caravan, looked at the camels, looked at us, and looked at everyone else. Then, "’old tight please! Giddy-up!" and we were under way again.

There were fewer homes east of Stratford, and the roads were covered deeper in sand. The camels were labouring more and moving more slowly.

An hour or so later, we arrived at Pioneer Point in Ilford. Daly made us dismount while the camels were fed and watered.

We were suddenly surrounded by snack vendors selling unleavened bread, cold water, coconut halves, orange juice and dates.

Meanwhile, Daly fell into an argument with a middle aged man who was almost bursting into tears. "Driver! Can you find a seat for me? I have to get to Southend tonight."
"Sorry, mate, I'm full."
"No, you're not. There's a spare seat on that camel there." He pointed to Hamurabi.
"You can't sit on Hamurabi," said Daly, flatly.
"And why the fuff not?"
"Don't upset yourself," said Daly, quite genially in the circumstances. "That passenger is in first class."
"How much is the first class fare to Southend, then?"
"Twenty quid."
"How about if I pay you twenty quid?"
"Nuffink doin’." Daly shook his head slowly. "Go to the travel office. He's over there. Book on the next service."
"Why won't you take me if I pay for a first class ticket?"
"Because," Daly repeated, "I'm full. ’Scuse me."

Contretemps over, Daly shooed us back into the saddle and, calling "Hold tight!" started off towards Romford. Nearly an hour later we came to a stand in Romford Market.

We dismounted the camel. I said, "Thank you, Rameses," but Rameses didn't seem to care. Daly handed me both weekend bags, and we asked him if by any chance he knew the Holton Hotel.

"Up this street here," he said, "it's more or less opposite Mercury House. Tell a lie, they renamed it a few years ago. Devotion Tower, it is now. Anyway Devotion Tower is two hundred feet tall and you can't miss it."

We thanked Daly, walked along the street towards Devotion House and looked around for the Holton. Behind us we could hear his voice looking for his passengers. "C-90 to Southend on Sea. All aboard!"

We picked our way through the deep, dry sand by the light of street lamps and an occasional lighted window. From this distance we could see on the roof of Devotion Tower a clock and, beneath it, a lighted sign which displayed in turn the three slogans of the ruling United Kingdom Religious Adherence Party, UKRAP:

Obey the Lord
Naughty Thoughts are Bad and Bad Thoughts are Naughty
Attend Church, or Else

"That's the tower," I said, stating the obvious, "but where's the Holton?"
"Isn't that it?"

Julie pointed to a small building of modern design, with a plate glass front wall, in which a number of people could be seen buying drinks at the bar and talking to each other. Sure enough, the sign over the door said, 'Holton Hotel, Romford.' Inside, the clock told us it was half past eleven. The caravan had arrived early. We made a bee line for Reception and checked in. The receptionist told us that our bookings were for three nights. She wore a handwritten name badge saying 'Sandra,' which gave the impression that she was a student doing an evening job to eke out her student loan. Bother. We had both been hoping to be back at home by Thursday. It looked as though we were expected to stay here until the end of the week.

The receptionist gave us each a couple of pieces of paper and then pointed across the bar and said, "The restaurant opens for lunch in half an hour. Shall I book a table for you?"
"Yes," we both said.
"By the way," I added, "how many people are going to be there?"
"Having lunch in the restaurant? Sixteen people have booked—"
"No, I mean for this meeting tomorrow. How many of these stapled together agendas are you giving out?"
"Forty or fifty," she said. "It's a big meeting. I don't know exactly. But I can tell you that only the Ashkelon Room was big enough for them, and it seats fifty. Bethel seats thirty six and it was too small."
"Who are They?"
"Over there?" Our receptionist looked over at the bar and at the small crowd of people buying orange juice and cola. "Just the usual business people having a drink before lunch. Three quarters of them work for that mobile phone company, what's it's name? Priceyphone, on Mavis Grove."
"I don't mean who are they. I mean, who are They? Who made the bookings?"
"Oh!" She realised who I meant. "The people who booked you all in came from Devotion Tower. They looked like top brass. Voices that sounded like money."
"I'm familiar with the type," I said, "the upper floors of office blocks are full of them. Suits, cigars, mansions, salaries like interstitial distances."
"I'm not supposed to tell you that," Sandra continued, as though she had just remembered the rule, "so remember that you didn't hear it from me."
"Hear what from you?" I asked.
"We never asked about anything," said Julie, "we just took the agenda that you gave us, and then we left."
"Yes," I added, "five minutes ago."

Sandra giggled.

Lunch was a nondescript casserole, pretty much standard conference fare. Julie and I decided it was mutton. We ate it, said thanks to the waitress on our way back into the lobby, and decided on the spur of the moment to look around the town.

Outside on the street the night was cold and there was a breeze blowing, strongly enough to raise occasional clouds of sand. We looked at each other and decided, without a word, to take the small risk involved and spend a couple of hours sightseeing despite the strengthening wind. The clock on the top of Devotion Tower told us the time was half past two. The shops would close at five o'clock or thereabouts.

Devotion Tower itself told us nothing. Apart from the signs on the roof, which identified the government as tenants, there was nothing to tell us which ministry or department of state was working there. We looked through the glass door and saw a news ticker. The ticker was pumping out worthy sentiments (‘That Ice-Cream Could've Been You,’ ‘Follow the Firework Code,’ ‘Go To Work On A Camel,’ ‘Stop Children Larking Near Vehicles Parking,’ and so forth) as tickers always do when they are switched on and have nothing else to do. It was this feature, more than any other, that had earned the standard ticker the nick-name Rubbish-O-Tronic. Neither the ticker nor anything else on the desk displayed anything to identify who worked in the Tower or what they did.

"I suppose they'll tell us who they are tomorrow," I said to Julie.
"Yes. If they ever do," she replied.

We heard a siren in the distance. A hefty camel draped in a black 'Repentance Squad' banner, ridden by two huge men in black leather clothing and helmets with visors, dragged a windowless black steel crate on wheels to the front door of Devotion Tower. One of the uniforms jumped down from the camel and stood in front of the door. The door slid open. Both men then opened the steel box and hauled a half naked and plainly terrified young man out of it. They dragged him across the street and discovered that the door had now closed again. After working out that one officer had to stand in front of the door so that it stayed open, while the other had to push their prisoner through it, they forced him into Devotion Tower. I could see that he was bleeding from several cuts on his face and there was dried blood on his chest and legs. The Repentance Squad dragged him up the stairs, the street door closed, and a loudspeaker somewhere above our heads bellowed at us in a monotone robotic voice. "Disperse! Stand clear of the doors! You did not see anything! Nothing happened here! Disperse immediately!"

"Did you see that?" Julie asked, shocked but standing exactly where she was.
"Yes. Is this the same Britain where once I sat and watched Dixon of Dock Green on the Great Television Programmes of the Last Century But One Channel?"
"It is," said Julie, "and Z Cars as well."

I had heard that the Repentance Squad occasionally arrested criminals on the street and took them to their offices for questioning. The ticker would tell me that an enemy of God — they always used that phrase — had been arrested for picking pockets, embezzlement, murder or riding a bicycle without lights. Never having seen it happen I had assumed that being arrested was, in general, if you didn't resist, a reasonably courteous process during which one would not expect to sustain life changing injuries. I felt shocked. The prisoner looked as though he had gone three rounds with the World Heavyweight Champion. One look at Julie told me that she was as shaken as I was. She was, literally, white as a sheet and trembling.

The loudspeaker started up again, louder than before. "Disperse! Nothing happened here! You did not see anything. Disperse immediately or you will be excommunicated!"

"It'd probably be safest if you and I disperse before they disperse us," I observed to Julie. "if they're threatening us with excommunication."
"What does that mean exactly?" I asked.
"Six months singing hymns," Julie conjectured, "reading Bible stories and stitching hassocks in an evangelism camp on Lundy Island. Possibly worse."
"What could be worse?"
"I can't think of anything. Let's get going."

There were several shops on the street but most had turned their lights off and closed their doors at the first sign of trouble.

"Over there." I pointed to a well lit shop that looked as though it might be open. The sign over the door of the shop read, 'Inter-Cacti. Cacti for all occasions. Gardening supplies.'

On a table in the middle of the shop were cardboard trays of Dream Bloom, Poison Ambrosia, Sleeping Groundberry and other plants that could be expected to thrive in waterless, sandy soil. There were eight customers in the shop, or thereabouts. I tried to mingle and look as though I was interested in the plants, and Julie really was interested in them.

Nadia, a small, blonde woman who wore a name badge and looked around forty walked up to us. She was wearing the blue and orange uniform of the Inter-Cacti chain store. Another badge told me that she supported the People's Dispensary for Sick Cacti. She had a slight, but noticeable, Slavic accent. "Are you lookink for anysink in particular?"
"Well, if you have a ticker, I'm looking for some explanation of what was going on in the street just now."
"The ticker's on the cash counter, but it only plays veather forecasts and cacti-related news stories. I can't afford football, global catastrophes or politics on my meagre profits."

I thought about this. What does one pretend to be looking for in a shop that sells only gardening supplies?

"Do you have a couple of, er, Queen's Itchfoot for the herbacious border of my back garden?" I asked.
Nadia pointed. "They're over there, in the cardboard pots that look like paper cups vith Lotsa Coffee written on them. Vhat's your garden like?"

I hesitated. My garden had once been a ten foot by ten foot ragged, dried out patch of uneven grass. Since the beginning of the year it had deteriorated into a pile of pebbles, stones and dust, covered with sand, a depressing sight, and not one that I cared to describe in detail to the most expert cacticulturalist in the whole of Romford.

"It's magnificent," I told Nadia. "Rows of Smooth Woundwort, Hammer Flax and Weeping Grapevine in front, not a weed in sight, and the house is surrounded by a beautifully kept lawn…"
"How does he keep the sand off it?" Nadia asked Julie.
Julie had once seen my garden and, therefore, needed a few seconds to compose a convincing reply, in the creation of which an accurate memory would be more of a hindrance than a help. "He… he tells the servants to take the sand off it with a vacuum cleaner," she said eventually, "before they run his bath, cook his breakfast, lay his clothes out and iron his newspaper."
"You're havink a laugh," said Nadia.
"No," Julie told her. "Straight up, the servants really do use a vacuum cleaner."
"Gosh." Nadia had a new respect for me after that.

"Evenin' all! May I have your attention please!"

From the shop doorway, a Repentance Squad officer was holding up a black metal bullhorn, which was yelling at us.

"I am Constable Faulkner of the UKRAP Repentance Squad, but you can call me Thicko. I am armed with Pocket Size Yellow Completely Harmless Ordnance of the type authorised for use against—"
"PSYCHO: the weapon that put the battery into assault and battery," said an old man in a tweed jacket, corduroys and a flat cap, who was holding a Jack-in-the-Bush cactus, Ioannem fructotes, and looking closely at it.
"You! You with the flat cap," yelled the bullhorn. "I'm talking to you!"

I noticed that the constable had not lifted his visor, and the bullhorn appeared to be yelling all by itself, with no human intervention.

"Stop talking and look at me."
"’Struth," I said to Julie as quietly as I could, "it's like being back at school."
"Yeah," she replied, "reform school."
"Show your ID," said Faulkner's bullhorn.

Nobody moved. Everybody in the shop stood silently, staring at Constable Faulkner and wondering whether he had gone off his head.

"He means you, Nigel," said Nadia, solicitously. "You got your ID vith you?"

Somewhere on my right, Nigel, the old man in the flat cap, put his right hand into his breast pocket, found his identity card and, slowly and unsteadily, raised it above his head.

The officer pulled out the stun gun, held it horizontally at arm's length as though he were standing in front of a target on a gun range and pointed it at Nigel, in the manner of one holding an épée at the enemy's throat.

"Did you see an emergency response camel bringing a prisoner to the door of Devotion Tower at…" the bullhorn thought for a moment, "02.40 hours?"

Through the shop window, I noticed that three other policemen were standing on the street outside the shop. One of them, who wore a black voltage-proof jacket with the word 'Intercessionary' printed on it in small white capitals, was speaking into a microphone, giving the bullhorn its voice. The other two were drinking tea from black mugs lettered, "Not to be Removed from the Police Canteen."

Nigel, still at gunpoint, answered the question. "Yes. It came round the square at a tremendous speed — for a camel, I mean — and—"
"Wrong answer." yelled the bullhorn.

The stun gun gave a clang like the bell of an approaching tramcar. A brilliant green beam flashed from the barrel and struck Nigel in the chest. Nigel fell forward, poleaxed, clutching his chest and spluttering. Nigel's shirt was smouldering and Nadia poured weedkiller over it, to put out the fire. "Christ!" moaned Nigel.
"No blaspheming," said the bullhorn.
"Bloody coppers," said Nigel, still gasping for air. "If you want a lightning conductor, go to B & bloody Q and buy one."

Faulkner swung around and pointed both the bullhorn and the stun gun at me. Not in my direction, mind, but actually at me.

"Good morning, constable." I said. "May I ask you something that's been troubling me?"
"What's your name?"
"Sherburne. Desmond Sherburne."
"Let me see your ID card."

I found it in the fourth pocket I looked in, and I held it up.

"What do you want to ask me, Sherburne?"
"Why are you holding a radio controlled bullhorn while someone else speaks the words into it, instead of just shouting at us?"
"Because," said the bullhorn, "the Ministry of Communions requires the provider of information on a communication network to be a separate entity from the owner of the infrastructure."
"Oh! I see," I said, although I didn't, really.
"It's basic ’ealth an’ safety, that is. And now I have a simple question to ask you. Think very carefully before you answer. Did you see a Repentance Squad speed-camel bringing a prisoner to the door of Devotion Tower at 02.40 hours?"
I looked and saw that I was still at gunpoint. "You've got your right middle finger on a hot rivet. If you fire that sidearm, you'll probably lose your right arm."

Faulkner looked at his right hand and changed his grip on the weapon.

Good answer."

Faulkner pointed his armoury at Julie, who instinctively took a step backwards. "You! Did you see an emergency response camel bringing a prisoner to the door of Devotion Tower at 02.40 hours?"
"N-no," Julie stammered. "N-nothing's come this way for an hour or more."
"That's the right answer. And you, over there, in the blue shirt—"

An alarm sounded from the ticker on the counter. "Citizens! I hev important nyews for gardenars everywhere in Romford," said a woman's clipped, Roedean inculcated voice. The melifluous speech of one of the first woman announcers of the British Broadcasting Corporation had been re-created from 1952 recordings and configured into a phonological cranio-resonance simulator, then fitted to every ticker as standard. "Sendstorm alert. Winds up to 160 miles per ire. Immediate onset, take covar." That accent was so beautiful that it sounded a bit like a posh speech impediment.

"Sod it," said the bullhorn. "As you depart from the shop, present your identity card, face up, to—"
"I repeat, sendstorm alert."
"Somebody shut that thing up."
"Immediate onset, take covar, citizens," the ticker repeated, "you rarely do not wish to be ight in this one."

Outside the shop, I saw the three Repentance Squad constables look at each other and then run off at the double into Devotion Tower. "Come on," said the bullhorn as soon as Intercessionary forgot about the mike being open, "let's get back indoors, fill in some pointless forms and get some more tea."

"Under no circumstences venture ight until you hev heard the All Clear."

There was a silence. Constable Faulkner stared at the dumbstruck, out of control bullhorn for a few seconds, then opened the shop door and stepped into the street. The strong wind ripped the bullhorn out of his hand and blew it many feet up into the sky.

We watched as the shop doors closed behind Constable Faulkner, leaving him to struggle towards Devotion Tower in what was now a hurricane. He was doing fairly well when the bullhorn fell out of the sky, appeared in the air behind him and, buoyed up by a tremendous gust of wind, smacked him on the back of the head. The impact knocked him to the ground. Only after two of his colleagues had dragged him into the safety of Devotion Tower did I realise that he had left his sidearm on the table.

"Nadia," I asked her, "when the All Clear goes, would it be all right if I took Thicko's stun gun back to him?"
"Yes," she said, "I'm sure he vould find that most helpful. Let me wrap it up in a tree bag to keep the sand off it."
"By the way, what do you do for the PDSC?"
"It means the Peoples' Dispensary for Sick Cacti," Nadia began, "I help treat cacti if they are ill."
"Oh," I said, "I thought it meant the Police Department of South Carolina."
"No! It is a simple, charitable alliance of gardeners."
"They bring their tired and broken cacti to you?" asked Julie.
"Yes. Black spots, trembling spines or just plain exhausted. I heal them. I have medicine for them here. A couple of days tucked up in bed recuperating and they're usually healthy enough to keep going and die of natural causes at the end of the season."

The All Clear had not sounded. There was no sign of the sandstorm coming to an end, so along with everybody else in the shop, I folded my coat, put it on the ground to use as a pillow and slept as best I could on the floor. At ten the following morning, the ticker woke us with a musical jingle and gave us the long awaited all clear. ("All clear," said the posh 'fifties voice. "All clear.")

The wind had dropped. The sun had risen. It was hot outside, but it would be safe to walk a couple of hundred yards along the street. I found what looked like a safety switch on Faulkner's stun gun and turned it off, and then Nadia wrapped it up in a tree bag. It would not attract too much attention that someone walked out of a gardening supplies shop carrying something long and thin in a tree bag.

On the way back to the hotel I forgot all about returning the stun gun to the Repentance Squad office. Truth to tell, I had never intended to take it there anyway. Why waste a good weapon?

Julie and I wandered back to the Holton, propped the tree bag against a pillar and ordered ourselves a hot cup of tea and a sandwich from the daytime menu. I dragged myself and my new armament up to my bedroom. We were grateful to Nadia for looking after us and keeping us safe, but neither Julie nor I had slept well on the floor of Inter-Cacti and at half past ten in the morning, hours behind schedule, we desperately needed to sleep. We slept in separate rooms, in case you were wondering.


The following morning, considering the events of the previous night, I felt reasonably fit and strong. After the usual morning rituals, I managed to separate the PSYCHO into three sections, stow them in a clothes drawer and put some spare bed clothes on top of them. I walked downstairs, avoiding the lift for the sake of healthy exercise, and turned up in the Eden Room for breakfast. I looked around and I saw Julie sitting by a window on the far side of the room. She waved to me and I sat with her.

"Did you sleep well enough?" she asked me.
"That depends on what I have to have slept well enough for."
"Well enough to get through today."
"After last night, I had no choice," I said. "Have you seen anyone that you or I know?"
"Not yet." Julie looked around and added, "except you. And me, of course."
"Have you worked out how the service works here?" I asked.
"I think you have to sit and twiddle your thumbs until a waiter notices how hungry you are," she said.
"Full Christian breakfast, madam?" A voice from behind rather startled her.
"What?" said Julie.
"Excuse me," said the waiter, "my name is Walter, I'm one of the early morning team. May I bring you both a full Christian breakfast?"
"What's in it?" I asked him.
"Here's a menu card, sir."

The waiter handed us each a menu card identical to the ones that were already on the table in front of us that we hadn't looked at. He was young, perhaps another student trying to pay off his loan by working outside lecture hours, dressed neatly in a black suit and a white shirt. He had the sort of voice that you expect to hear only in the Junior Tuck Room at a posh and expensive school. I pretended to read the menu. It began, 'The Holton Breakfast. This company lives by Christian Principles and Ordinances. This Thursday evening…' The card was helf menu and hanf a Statement of Christian Principles. Companies had to put something like that on their stationery or the Repentance Squad might send in the Michelin inspectorate.

"I'd like that," I said. "A full breakfast. It looks very good on paper."
"Me, too," said Julie, "and we'll take tea and orange juice, if you have it."

"When does the session start?" I asked Julie. "I forgot to bring the paperwork with me."
"I don't know," she said.
"Perhaps I may be of assistance?" Walter offered. "Are you with the trousers?"
"Excuse me?" I was a bit taken aback.
"I'm sorry, sir: TROUSERS, in capital letters. It's The Religious Observation Unit Snooping on Everyone Requiring Surveillance."
"A sort of Stasi but with dog collars," I said.
"A word in your ear, sir," Walter said sotto voce, "I would refrain from offering criticism in public areas of the hotel." He continued in his tuck room voice, "TROUSERS are holding a recruitment day followed by an induction course. I think most of the people in this room are going to it. So I guessed, er…"
"I think you guessed right," said Julie.
"They start in the Ashkelon room, that's on the ground floor, at nine o'clock. Three quarters of an hour."
"I think I might just forget about it and go home on the first caravan," I said. "I don't really feel like volunteering to be the school snitch."
"Before you check out, sir," Walter explained, appearing anxious not to be overheard, "it would be to your advantage if you were to find out what happens to those who decline the offers of engagement that are made at these gatherings. Besides, it should be cooler and more comfortable indoors by nine o'clock. Excuse me, I'll come back in a moment with your breakfast trays, sir, madam."

Walter made a note and strode off towards, as I imagined, the kitchen.

"So now we know," I said.

The performance — I say ‘performance,’ because it resembled a performance much less than a discussion or a meeting — in the Ashkelon Room started a few minutes late. There were about forty people sitting in rows of chairs, facing front. There was a poster on the front wall of the room, Your Christian Faith Needs You. Two overpowered — and overpowering — loudspeakers struck up a military march which I didn't immediately recognise. A woman wearing the uniform of a sergeant in the Repentance Squad marched onto a podium at the front of the room and began to sing roughly in time with the music.

The atheists and humanists need sorting,
The Amish and the Mennonites are odd,
But I've got a perfect vision of a new evangelism
To broaden and enforce the law of God…

Julie, sitting next to me, muttered, "It's old time music hall, revenant from the grave."

The recruiting sergeant, unless she was an actress playing the rôle of recruiting sergeant, looked in my direction. I knew I was sunk.

"She's singing 'I'll Make A Man Of You.' She's trying to channel Clara Beck," Julie went on. "Clara Beck performed this number hundreds of times in music halls, some time around nineteen fourteen."
"How do you know that? That was two centuries ago."
"My grand-dad was a fan of hers. Postcards and a CD made from half a dozen phonograph recordings on shellac. My dad had them transferred to compact disk while there were still turntables to play them on. Grand-dad had a postcard picture of her standing in front of a poster of Kitchener lettered 'Your Country Needs You.' It's a recruiting song. Once you heard it you felt compelled to join the Army. If you ever watched that old film—"

Five or six of those sitting around us turned to Julie with their fingers on their lips and hissed a 'Sshh!' that could have been heard on the moon.

"That's me told," said Julie.

I gave, shut, and listened up.

On Monday, I monitor a Cath'lic,
On Tuesday, a Pentecostalíst,
On Wednesday I view a Hasidic Jew,
On Thursday, a Baptíst…
On Friday I scan the Kirk o' Scotlánd,
Looking for a traitor in the pew,
I am so enthusiastic that I may do something drastic
To keep an eye on every one of you.

Someone had a senior position, I thought, no sense of humour, a luxurious office and an unlimited budget, always a lethal combination.

When the music stopped, I had the feeling that the audience were expected to clap, cheer and demand an encore. I did two of them. The performer saluted us all, marched off stage and was replaced by a man, also in a black uniform, who looked around the room and addressed us.

"Evenin’ all. Well, that was fun, wasn't it."
"No," I said. Here, I knew by instinct, was the senior official with a luxurious office etc.
"Oh, yes, it was," he said.
"Oh, no, it wasn't," replied about one quarter of the audience.

Seeing that he was on a losing wicket, the speaker coughed and picked up his script, a small sheaf of papers. I noticed he was looking up, above the heads of his guests, not down at the pieces of paper.

"My name is Sergeant Benjamin Peyton of the Repentance Squad."
"That's an odd first name," I thought. "It wasn't on the Times Names List, was it?"
"I am here to inform you of the vital part you are about to play in the reformed society which the United Kingdom Religious Adherence Party, popularly known as UKRAP, intends to roll out over the next five years. We intend to make Britain a god-fearing country again."

I was watching the way Sergeant Peyton's eyes moved across the room as he spoke, appearing to see something on his left and follow it across to the right, then begin again at his left. I guessed what might be going on and, turning around, I saw that his script was being projected onto the back wall of the room. Beside the projected words sat a young man with brilliant red hair. He wore a green cardigan and owl glasses. He had a computer and he appeared to be making the script scroll up as Peyton read it aloud.

"Already several new Ministries of State have been created," Peyton continued to read, "as UKRAP promised in its recent election manifesto. The Ministries of government are gradually being reorganised along scriptural lines. For example, and I will limit myself to just a handful of examples, the Ministry of Communion will deal with telephones, the internet, post and broadcasting. Already they have banned Pinky and Perky from the airwaves."

"But not premium rate telephone numbers or junk calls," I heard somebody say, but Peyton didn't take the bait.

"The Ministry of Doctrine deals with education. Our aim is to extend—"

"Yes," said Julie very quietly, "and what has it achieved?"

"Already," said Peyton, looking directly at Julie, "the Ministry of Doctrine have ordered school canteens to serve fish on Fridays."
There was a pause while Peyton didn't list any other achievements. Julie asked, "Anything else?"
"And it has decided that π is exactly three."
"How does that help?" asked Julie.
"Only a mathematician would understand the importance of giving an exact value to the previously irrational…"
"I'm a mathematician," said a man in the front corner, "with a first at Cambridge, so try me."

Peyton looked imploringly at the young man in the green cardigan. "Rick?" he said.
"One second," said Rick, and tapped a couple of keys. The script on the screen changed.
"Scripture is quite clear in stating that π is exactly the number three. Because of its importance in practical engineering, π needs to be easy to understand—"
"So does the book of Revelation," said a middle aged woman two chairs along from the mathematician.

The script changed again and Peyton continued, "Let's think about something easier to grasp."

There was a chorus of groans and boos.

A voice came from behind me. "What about creationism?"
"Creationism?" said Peyton. "We've done nothing about creationism. There's no evidence for it, so don't be ridiculous. We remain committed to teaching the theory of evolution."
"Until next week," someone said, "when some other American loony comes up with another fig leaf."
"As long as creationism gets a mention at an appropriate moment, that's all we care. Let us not sneer at foreigners who have perhaps not enjoyed the same advantages as ourselves."

To Peyton's bewilderment, a gale of laughter from the audience ensued. Peyton stared up at the autocue and waited for the hilarity to die down.

"This meeting is organised by The Ministry of Repentance, which deals deals with crime, police, justice, courts and prisons.

We are committed to improving the spiritual life of the nation, but, like all reforming governments, UKRAP is impeded by hostile reactionary forces. Forces of atheism, forces of conservatism, forces of rationalism and forces of humanism. Forces opposed to the law of God. Pause."
"You're not supposed to read ‘Pause,’ sergeant," said Rick, from his seat beside the autocue. "It's a stage direction."
"Forces that base themselves inside this country," Peyton read.

"Forces grey out, forces white in," I said. By this stage, I didn't really care whether Peyton heard my heckles or not.
"Who said that?" asked Peyton, mildly irritated.
"Procter and Gamble," I said, "a popular soap manufacturing duo."
"For small values of popular," said Julie.
"Forces impinge upon us that we will never understand or control." said someone in a seat behind mine.
"Who said that?" snapped Peyton.
"David Suzuki," said the person behind me, "a Canadian scientist."

Peyton, irritated less mildly than before, pressed on.

"These forces, pause, lower voice, are the enemy within. Dramatic pause."

The script on the back wall changed for a few seconds and Peyton, uncomprehending, read the new content.

"Sergeant, you are not supposed to read the stage directions out loud," he said. "Where was I? Our newly cleaned and purged nation is in danger from its enemies within and without."
"Love thine enemy," I muttered.

"The threat is so urgent that the government has launched The Religious Observation Unit Snooping on Everyone Requiring Surveillance. You are about to join—"
"At what point did you notice that your acronym spells ‘trousers?’" I said. There was a ripple of laughter from members of the audience who hadn't spotted it.
"Yes, well, do we have a reply to that one, Rick?" Rick changed the text on display. "Do not look embarrassed. We had already had all the leaflets and stationery printed by the time we realised what the acronym would be. We didn't have the budget to pulp it all and start again because we blew all the small change on inspecting the magnificent beaches of the Twin Towns in the Caribbean, a box at the opera and a fact finding visit to Seychelles."

"My friends," he went on, "you are about to join the programme which will detect and forestall civil disorder and social breakdown before it happens."
"You could hardly prevent it afterwards, could you," muttered the mathematician.
"Your job will be to watch everybody around you — your parents, your children, your workmates, the people you see every day on the bus…"
"There aren't any buses," I said. "They finished years ago."
"…and report to your commanding officer in the Ministry of Repentance, raise voice, all traitors, all treachery and all sedition, as well as all information which may leads to the identification of any who are about to commit these vile crimes. Any questions? Count three then say In that case, I invite—"

I looked around, and nobody else had shown any interest in asking anything, so I stood up. Sergeant Peyton glowered at me as though I were something disgusting, instead of just superciliously. The idea that he was speaking to a hostile audience and saying the opposite of what they wanted to hear had apparently not occurred to him.

"Yes?" said Sergeant Peyton, impatiently.
"Supposing I don't want to help."
"Are you telling me that you don't want to help this vital, reforming enterprise? Of course we will exempt you from service if you are medically unfit."
"What about if I'm a conscientious objector?"
"A conscientious objector to carrying out instructions that came directly from God? What hope is there for a civilisation whose members don't respect, obey or enforce the law of God?"
"Quite a lot," I said, trying desperately to think on my feet. "This civilisation hasn't tried to enforce the rule of God since the sixteenth century and it's getting on reasonably well. I just want people to go on as they are, thinking whatever occurs to them, making mistakes, getting wrong answers, telling jokes, feeding the dog, watching the telly, talking to anyone they want to talk to about whatever's on their mind, obeying the law of God whenever they feel like it and generally not giving twopence about what UKRAP wants."
"Then we sue you for breach of contract the moment we let you out of jail. You forget that UKRAP speaks with the voice not of men, but of angels."
"Breach of contract? I haven't signed a contract."
"Hold up agenda. You made a contract the moment you looked at the terms and conditions. Section 6, subsection C, on page 4. Reading these terms and conditions constitutes acceptance thereof. He who is not with us is against us."
"You mean I have to take part in this nonsensical attack on freedom of speech even if I don't want to?"
"Yes, I think you have. Rick, could you get the autocue moving? Thanks. Understood perfectly. You are conscripted into the Ministry of Repentance."
"Do I get paid?"

The same people who shushed me half an hour ago were now pointing to their watches and telling me it was time for the morning tea break. I thanked Sergeant Peyton and told him that, in that case, I was really looking forward to learning whatever I could from the remainder of the course and I hoped my small contribution would advance his cause.

"That is a wise decision, Mr. look directly at questioner and ask him what his name is.
"Desmond Sherburne," I told him, not having the wit to think of a false name fast enough.
"That is a wise decision, insert first name here. Any further questions? Pause and look around the room… No? Then we shall get some tea and resume at eleven p.m. Bring a hymn book with you because we shall be singing a hymn and the Reverend Coalman will conduct a reading. When you come back, leave the front row of seats empty because the choir has to sit there. Script ends, leave the stage.

In the Eden room, Julie and I sat in the same places we had sat in at breakfast time.

"How was it for you?" I asked her.
"Well, it came as a surprise, I must say, being reduced to the status of office snooper. You were right, it is the Stasi with dog collars. I think you might do well to keep your reservations to yourself, though."
"I don't think I'm looking forward to joining in a revivalist meeting," I added.
"Oh, I am," said Julie, "it'll just be harmless nonsense."

Walter arrived carrying a tray with a teapot, cups, milk and sugar.

"Tea, sir, madam. Would you like anything else?"
"Apart from a ticket home on the next camel? No, but thank you for offering."
"That's how fed up you are?" said Julie. "You're giving up already?"
"Yes," I nodded, "I'm afraid I'm fed up to the back teeth already with all this self-congratulatory nonsense. I never thought I'd hear myself say it, but I'll be very happy to get out of my own bed on Monday evening and go back to work."
"It's not a good idea to go home early," said Julie, "even in case of emergency, they'll treat you as an opponent."
"You don't know of an emergency that I could leave in a hurry on account of?" I asked.
"Well," said Julie, lowering her voice noticeably in the way you do when you are sitting in a hall full of snoopers and snitches and about to suggest doing something a bit dodgy, "I forgot to feed Pongo and Wiggles. Would you like to go back on the next caravan and feed them? I'll collect any hand-outs for you and I'll give them to you back at the office. Monday, probably."
"Sure, why not? It sounds like a situation requiring immediate attention. Who are Pongo and Wiggles? Are they cute?"
"Very cute. Eight years old and female."
"They sound wonderful," I said.
"They are an inch and a half long and they live in a bowl of water."
"Goldfish," I guessed.

Julie produced her key ring from her pocket and detached a key from it.

"Here's the spare key. Don't forget to talk to them."
"How do I tell them apart?"
"Wiggles has long eyelashes. Pongo has one gill longer than the other."
"What do they like to talk about?"
"Pongo is only interested in football. Give her the back page of the Mirror and she'll be happy as a crocodile in a playgroup. Wiggles likes recipes and hair styles and stories about the Royal Family, and you have to read her horoscope to her every day or she gets quite tetchy and doesn't know what to wear."
"Which house is it?" I asked, pocketing the key.
"23 Bromley Road," said Julie, "the fish are in the back downstairs room and they eat a pinch of Aqua-Yum every twenty-four hours or thereabouts."
"I meant which astrological house. Aquarius, Taurus, those houses."
"Oh, I see," said Julie. "Pisces, of course." She pronounced it correctly, pie-skays, which I found most impressive.
"Is there anything else I need to know?"
"Aqua-Yum is in the fridge."
"Anything else?"
"Not much that I can think of." Julie thought for a second. "Pay any bills, defeat any burglars, answer all the mail, undertake any building maintenance, dig the garden, that sort of thing. Have fun. You can sleep in the bed if you feel like it."
"That's a very kind offer," I said. "I always wanted to live two streets away from the place I live now. While I think of it, can you forge my signature?"
"Certainly," said Julie, "I've done it hundreds of times."
"Good, that might come in handy. Sign anything they want me to sign. And where's the nearest church to your house, by the way?"
"Oh, yes, church," said Julie, "you don't want to get into bother, because they do check sometimes. St Paul the Apostle, 60 Park Lane. Dead boring so take a book to read. They've got a card reader so no form filling to worry about. See you in the office on Monday."

I picked up my luggage and walked down to the Market. I was lucky: there was a seat unsold on a daytime service for Tottenham.
"It's a daytime service, so stock up on water," the travel office said, handing me a ticket. "Forty thousand cubits is a long way when the sun's up."

Night time caravans were uncomfortable, but daytime services were an endurance test. Sheshanka the camel was steadier than Rameses and walked in a closer approximation to a straight line, but the temperature must have been over a hundred Fahrenheit and the sun hurt my eyes. At Ilford the camels had to be fed and watered, so I took shelter in a local hostelry and I spent a few minutes drinking cold orange juice directly underneath the air conditioner. I would probably have given up and taken a room in the shelter and continued my journey after sunset, but the thought of Pongo and Wiggles alone and starving made me feel obliged to keep going during the heat of the day.

Sheshanka was half an hour out of Ilford. The caravan was walking up Ilford Hill, a street of derelict houses, when two men suddenly ran out of the front garden of one of the houses. They were wearing kerchiefs over their faces and wide brimmed hats, so that even in the brilliant daylight it was impossible to see what they looked like. They stood in front of the caravan and shouted "Whoa! Stand and deliver!" The caravan came to a stand.

"Oh, blimey, not them again," called the driver.
"We are well wishers," said one of the men. "We intend you no harm, provided of course that you do exactly what we tell you. We want to talk to one of your passengers."
"Any one in particular? I've got six for you to choose from."
"Sherbourne," he said, glancing down at a piece of paper.
"I ain't got no Sherbourne on here. I got a Sherburne, that's different."

Hearing my name and imagining that I might well be shot, or worse, if I pretended to have a different name, I made the mistake of clambering down from Sheshanka.

"Oh, well, in that case we've got the wrong details. Have you got a…" he looked at the back of the paper, "McGovan on board?"
"No, I ain't. Can I get this caravan goin' again before we meet ourselves comin' back?"
"Yes, yes, all right. Get going, just get going."
"Hold very tight, please. Giddy-up!"

I was now standing on the sand at the roadside watching the caravan, including my seat and my luggage, move off.

I realised that despite the heat I was cold, clammy, barely able to stand up and shaking like a leaf. Dismounting had been a big mistake and, as with all big mistakes, I had to keep my wits about me as best I could and make the best of it.

"I'm Sherburne," I said to the fellow with the piece of paper. It suddenly dawned on me that the driver had, obviously, encountered highwaymen before and saved his passengers from their clutches. He would certainly have saved me if I had simply had the sense to stay where I was. I just hadn't realised that I was supposed to sit still, shut up and let him get on with it.

Sheshanka was now smirking and ambling off into the distance, thinking "What a fool" to herself. The caravan was out of hailing distance now.

It was broad daylight, dusty, hot and bright. I guessed it might be 120° F, two in the afternoon, and the low point of my diurnal cycle. Realising how exposed I was, I was pretty scared. Who were these people? Did they have orders to return me forcibly to the Ashkelon room in the Holton Hotel in Romford? Had the Repentance Squad already discovered that one of their weapons had gone missing? If they had, had they traced it to me? The stun gun was in my luggage, which was with the driver, so I couldn't even shoot my way out even if I knew how the gun worked.

I could see that the front door of the house was open. The highwaymen shooed me inside. Both men followed me. We were in a small room, ten feet square perhaps, containing a couple of dilapidated but comfortable sofas and some basic furniture. There were two doors to the room, the one I'd just come through and another one at the back.

"Take a seat. I'm Sandy, this is Rock," said the man with the piece of paper. He spoke in a perfectly friendly manner. But then I thought, psychopaths can do that, can't they.
"Hi," said Rock.
"How are you feeling? It's terrible, taking the red-eye," said Sandy. "Did something urgent come up at home?"
"Well," I said, "I could certainly drink some water. No, nothing urgent. I just…" It didn't seem a bright idea to say 'I got so bored and irritated that I wanted to leave' before I knew which side Sandy and Rock were on.
"I'll get some water." There was a fridge in a corner of the room. Rock took some water out of it and gave it to me.
"Sorry if we frightened you," said Sandy, "Rock needs some training in customer service. We just need a few minutes of your time. That's all. You're in no danger."
"Am I free to leave?"
"Why the rush? Have you got a date?"

The door at the back of the room opened and a tall, fattish man in a tweed suit entered. He moved awkwardly, a bit like a dodgem car, as though the furniture and the walls were too big for him, and eventually he sat on the sofa opposite me. He was carrying a manila folder and he took a typewritten sheet out of it. Before speaking, he studied the sheet with care.

"Are you Sherbourne?" The man had an unmistakable Southern Irish accent.
"Not quite," I said, "just Sherburne, without the 'o'".
"Ah, I see." He took a splashwrite from his pocket and crossed out the 'o' in Sherbourne. "I see you've met Sandy and Rock. I'm Steven Stone."
"Why have you brought me here?" I asked.
"We didn't bring you here. We just kept you here. But you are right, we want to talk to you."
"Something important," said Sandy, and Stone glared at him until he shut up.
"We want you to join the Right of Way."
"The what?"
"The Right of Way. We are a political alliance opposed to UKRAP. We chose a name for ourselves that doesn't sound too much like a mob of heavily armed insurgents. So, like the Thirty Nine Steps — you've heard of them?"
"Yes," I said. "Just a second. Where's the camera?"
"This isn't prank TV and you're not being filmed. We chose a name that's inconspicuous, melts into the background, and won't mean very much to anyone unless they're in the know." He tapped the side of his nose with a crooked finger. "When you first saw the phrase 'Thirty Nine Steps' on the back of a novel, you imagined that the book would tell you about a stairway somewhere in a remote part of a faraway county of England. So we are the Right of Way. ’Cause as soon as you call yourself The Brotherhood or The Revolutionary Anarchists, they're on to you."
"Good thinking," I said. "Have they not worked out what the Right of Way is yet?"
"Yes, they have, but it took them a while longer than it might have done, and it still means nothing to constables who haven't been briefed about us. Do you mind if I smoke?"
"Not at all," I said.

Stone took a small circular tin from his pocket and removed the lid. It contained a fibrous, golden substance with a sweet aroma which instantly filled the room. Seeing the puzzlement in my expression, he held it out for me to see.

"This is called pipe tobacco," he said. "Not much of it gets through to the laïty, I'm afraid."
"What's it made from?" I asked.
"Naturally occurring," said Stone. "It's a plant leaf, dried and shredded."

Stone filled a briar pipe from the tin, lit it, breathed the smoke in, and sat still and quietly in a cloud of bluish grey haze, thinking.

"What does it do?" I asked him.
"Its immediate effect is less dramatic than zizz," he said, "but in the long run it kills you."

I thought about that. Less impact at the point of use, worse long term consequences, and yet natural, beautiful and visibly, olfactorily superior to the synthetic drugs which could be found readily on the market and reduced your brain to the consistency of black pudding, if you were unlucky.

"Actually I meant what does the Right of Way do?" I asked.
"That's a premature question." Stone put the lid back on the tin and put it back into his pocket. "Hold your horses for a second. The question that goes before that is the more important one. What does the Right of Way think?"
"What does the Right of Way think?" I parroted.

Stone turned to Sandy, who had been sitting quietly and eavesdropping.

"Sandy, where's that scrap I cut out of the paper this morning?"
"Don't tell me you already lost it."
"I don't think I have." Sandy rummaged in his pockets and found a crumpled square of newsprint. He handed it to Stone. "Here."

I could see that the square of newsprint was a quarter of a tabloid page, with a headline, a picture and a story. Stone carefully folded the headline back and held the newsprint out so that I could see only the photograph.

"Do you recognise this fellow?" he asked.

I recognised him at once. I was shocked. I actually felt my blood run cold for an instant.

"My god."
"You do recognise him."
"Yes," I said, "I recognise him. He was the man who wasn't brought to the door of Devotion Tower yesterday with blood all over, and he also wasn't hustled inside by two Repentance Squad goons."
"Are you completely sure of that? Do you want to change your answer?"
"Completely sure," I said.
"Now read the story." He unfolded the paper.

'Opposition leader killed in high speed camel crash,' read the headline, 'by our Traffic Correspondent, Laurie Driver. The deputy leader of the Opposition Coalition in Parliament, Kian Ainsworth, was killed in a high speed road accident on the A11 near Epping…,' I read, 'The father of two, blah, blah, pronounced dead at the scene, his mother Shirley Ainsworth told this newspaper she had no idea what he was doing in Epping at that time of the afternoon, etc.'

"If you get the feeling that someone is telling porkies," Stone began, "and something has to be done about it…"
"I've had that sense for years," I said. "Something has to be done but I don't know what it is. Every day the government does something so inexplicably stupid that even they must realise it isn't going to work. 'Major improvements' means things are going to get worse. 'More people are in work' means more people are out of work. 'Immigration is going down' means immigration is going up. I just have this niggling conviction that I didn't vote for this. That things weren't supposed to turn out like this."
Stone paused and said after a few seconds, "Join us."
"Why do you think I would want to join you? Why shouldn't I strike out on my own?"
"Because you agree with us. One man on his own can't do very much, but if an alliance could be formed, just think."
"What makes you think I agree with you?"
"We have this."

Stone handed me a two page letter, handwritten on Basildon Bond notepaper and folded into a matching envelope. The envelope was addressed to the Editor of the Times newspaper in London and it bore a twelve shillings and tenpence stamp.

'To the Editor.' I read. It was real handwriting with a real pen, not the dreadful, coarse, illegible blobs and streaks from a splashwrite. 'Dear Sir, The recent decision of UKRAP's Ministry of Pilgrimage to convert the speed limits and the distances on road signs into cubits goes against both history and common sense. Cubits are in no sense a Biblical unit of linear measure, blah, blah, general election immediately, yours etc., Desmond Sherbourne.'

"Just a little thing," Stone took another draught of pipe smoke, "but this letter tells us one opinion out of the many you hold, and even though it is an opinion which few would dare to express in public, you have not only written it down but also posted it to the editor of the world's greatest newspaper." He drew on his pipe for a moment. "Bearing in mind that the editor is almost certainly a paid-up member of UKRAP, sending that letter required courage verging on folly. Of course, it is very unlikely that he would dare to print it. He has a wife and family, I think."
"Well, it would be evidence of my political leanings, except that I didn't write it."

Stone almost spluttered his pipe across the room, but managed to catch it as it fell from his mouth. "What?"
"I've never seen it before, it's not my writing, and look at the envelope. It's postmarked Earl's Court, not Tottenham, for one thing," I said.
"So you went to Earl's Court and posted it there," Stone asserted.
"And my name isn't Sherbourne. It's Sherburne. That isn't my signature."
"Oh, dear," said Stone, "we got the wrong man. Easy mistake to make. Some days I don't know what the office thinks they're doing."
"You have an office?"
"I'm awfully sorry. You're free to go, of course. Unless you want to join the Right of Way anyway."
"I have to ask you this," I said. "You understand. Are you an agent of the Repentance Squad pretending to be a rebel leader inviting me to join in an insurgency?"
"No," said Stone, his eyes twinkling.
"I'm most relieved," I said.
"You're right to ask," Stone nodded. "Sooner or later every recruit asks me that, if they have their wits about them. I could be anybody. But I'm exactly what I say I am. You've nothing to worry about."
"One other thing," I asked, "who's paying for all this?"
"Moneybags Maximilian, that's who," said Stone.
"He just reached into his pocket one day, pulled out a couple of million pounds and gave it to you saying, 'Here, start a new political party' ?"
"Pretty much," said Stone. "We get some money from subscriptions and some from bequests, but the bulk of it comes from Lord Maximilian, known to his friends and enemies alike as Moneybags. He's a long standing atheist who hates UKRAP with a vengeance. As soon as he heard that a few of us were thinking of standing for election as an opposition party, he sought us out and offered us a fortune in exchange for audited annual accounts and a sinecure of some kind if we ever came to power."
"What kind of sinecure?"
"Just somewhere he can appear in broadcasts every now and then but can't do any real harm."
"In that case," I said, "I think I feel the same way you do, so I ought to join up."

Stone produced a blank, postcard size membership card from his manila folder and lent me his pen to fill it in.

"Your name and address go here," he said, pointing at the lines that I had to write on, "and the membership fee is one guinea."

I filled it in and handed over the money. Then I slipped the membership card into my pocket.

"Congratulations. You are now a card carrying member of Right of Way." He shook my hand. "You'll hear from us soon. Keep the faith."
"I shall," I said, "and if you meet Mr Sherbourne, with an 'o', tell him he's right about the road signs."

I acknowledge Arthur Wimperis and Herman Finck, writers and composers of the recruiting song I'll make a man of you which was published in 1914.


I managed to stop an eastbound caravan, buy a ticket to the City, claim my luggage from the Lost Property office at the terminal and bring it back to Julie Cook's house. Coming out of the Lost Property office I looked up at the headliner and I was disappointed to see that me being camel-jacked had not been thought newsworthy. I still had Julie's spare key, and after a few attempts at working it into the sand-damaged Yale lock, I managed to open the front door.

Like most of the houses built two hundred and fifty years ago, in Victorian times, Julie's house was still standing and in habitable condition, while nearly all the jerry-built tower blocks built a century later had fallen to pieces. Its floor plan was the same as the floor plan of my house. Nonetheless, Julie's house was cleaner than my house, tidier, and furnished in better taste. You could see through the windows without wiping them. I put my suitcase in the small hallway and went straight to the back room, where two small hungry fish were circling aimlessly in a tank about one foot by one and a half.

"Which one of you is Pongo?" I asked them. The lighter coloured fish moved slightly as I spoke the name, while the darker coloured fish remained still, so I supposed the lighter coloured fish to be Pongo. "You must be Wiggles," I said to the other one, "I've been looking forward to meeting you. I've heard so much about you from your aunty."

I took a pinch of fish food from the cardboard tube of Aqua-Yummy that stood in the fridge and crumbled it into the water. "Good evening, mesdames. Tonight's menu is the chef's special Aqua-Yummy, prepared brunois and served raw by this week's guest chef Desmond, as seen on Channel Ninety-Two's excellent programme Cooking Dinner For Your Fish." Both fish jumped upwards to the surface and wolfed the small, smelly orange granules down. After that I swear I heard them say "Thank you, Chef" in the tone of voice that meant they would each leave sixpence on the tablecloth after they had finished their main course, dessert and two rounds of port.

"Goodnight, mesdames," I bid them. "Don't upset yourselves. Aunty will be back in a couple of days. I am only a stand-in." Pongo looked at me, uncomprehending. "Yes," I continued, "that's right, Pongo, I am as it were a step-aunty. Give me a shout if you need anything."

I found the bathroom, top of the stairs on the right, just like in my own house, and I cleaned myself up after the camel-jacking and the membership interview and the ride home. Coming downstairs again I noticed a couple of envelopes on Julie's doormat. One was handwritten and therefore, obviously, personal. The other was a five by seven cartridge paper envelope with the address printed and smudged onto it by an old fashioned addressograph. It bore a 19s 8d stamp. I persuaded myself that it just might be a bill that needed paying. Admittedly the possibility did not seem very likely, but the envelope was not marked with any return address and it did look interesting, so I opened it anyway.

Inside the envelope was a magazine. Not just any old magazine like Good Christian Housekeeping or Ticker Times with its recently revised subtitle Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things, or even Faithful Playboy. This was Thoroughfare, the magazine of Right of Way. I looked back at the envelope: it had definitely been addressed to Julie at 23 Bromley Road. Therefore, either Julie was a supporter of Right of Way, or she subscribed to the magazine in order to keep track of what the organisation was doing down her way, or quite possibly both. Or the magazine had been addressed to Julie by mistake, but I didn't think that was very likely.

Thoroughfare, the magazine of Right of Way.
the front cover began. With one exception, the articles looked like the sort of thing a one day a month editor would have bought by the yard from a freelance pool.
THOROUGHFARE COVER THUMBNAIL Thoroughfare, the magazine of Right of Way. July 2117.

French connection: between Lottery funds and anonymous accounts
The Disappeared: from England too
Sad Ending: the demise of council housing
Climate change: there'll be another one along in a minute
Why the religious right won the election
Down the drain: the Civil List

I stretched out on the settee in Julie's lounge, turned on an old fashioned standard lamp and put my feet up. I turned to the only interesting looking article and began skip-reading it in the way you do when you know that sooner or later you will have read the piece many times and you will know the whole of it by heart.
Why the religious right won the election, by Shineforth Toynbee

A shade more than a century ago, in 2013, an unsigned article entitled UK Economy: Tories [i.e. the Conservatives — ST] and Labour now have almost identical policies appeared in the on line Royal Society of Arts (RSA) newsletter, a small print run publication which circulated in digital form to a very small readership. Despite the small size of his audience, the author made a very important point. He was drawing attention to a phenomenon which needs to be appreciated before any understanding of the victory of the religious right is possible.

In 1945, the Labour Party had been the snarling nemesis of the Conservative Party. Its period in office was marked by great achievements: the nationalisation of the railways, coal and steel, and the creation of free socialised medicine, under the capable guidance of Clement Attlee and his cabinet of convinced socialists. The Labour Party lost the election of 1951 and its campaigning socialist spirit, so successful in the dreary years that followed the Last War, never appeared again.

To understand the reason for the disappearance of the Labour Party for which a generation had cast their votes and its replacement by a bland shadow of its former self, it is necessary to observe the similarity between the policies of the Labour Party and the only other large political party. That similarity had been remarked upon before 2013, but by the time the RSA story hit the internet, the two parties, formerly the holders of diametrically opposite views on every subject, were increasingly described by commentators as 'indistinguishable' or even 'identical.'

By May 2015 the similarities between the two parties exceeded their differences. Several commentators observed …

My eyelids were drooping. Tiredness overcame me. The article would have to wait until I had slept for a while. I dropped the magazine. It slid onto the carpet beside the settee, and I stretched out and went to sleep.

When I awoke, I realised that the sky was darkening, people were walking on the street outside, and my watch had stopped. I picked the magazine up from the floor and laid it on the bookshelf, intending to read the rest of Shineforth Toynbee's analysis later. We all want to know how things got this way, and why things are worse now than they were when we were five years old.

I took the watch off my wrist and wound it, and then I put it into my coat pocket. I found a couple of small squares of paper lying around, as well as a pencil, so I made a shopping list, made sure that I still had the door key, and went out to see what provisions I could get. Two hours later I returned with a string bag of essentials and I had set my watch by the church clock. The watch now showed twenty past ten, just the time when people would be arriving at the factory, opening the office or beginning the housework. As I was feeling for Julie's key, I realised I hadn't bought enough water to wash properly in the evening, and besides, I dodn't know how much water two goldfish need.

I was letting myself back into the house when I was startled by a voice over my right shoulder.


It was a quiet male voice, just loud enough for me to realise that somebody wanted to talk to me.

"Yes?" I replied.
"Julie in?" A young man, late teens probably, in a cheap hooded jacket, looked up at me, smiling.
"No. Sorry. I'm a friend of hers. Can I help?"
"Ask her if she wants to come to an all day party tomorrow at the Rave Cave." He gave me a scrap of cardboard.
"If she turns up, I will. But she's at a meeting and I don't think she'll be back by tomorrow morning."
"If she doesn't come, you can have her drinks. There'll be plenty of tinnies and enough pills to sink a ship."
"Thank you," I said. "I might come."
"That's the thing about parties. You never know who's coming. You might meet the boy of your dreams, who knows?"
"I'm sure I'm just the sort of person you want standing in your kitchen drinking illicit beer and trying to get off with skimpily dressed nineteen year old hairdressers and sociology students."
"Listen, mate, if you're going to drink beer, at least stay away from the windows. All right?" and, without waiting for an answer, "See you there."

He seemed to mean it. I had something to do, an appointment to keep. The young man walked out of the small front garden of the house and walked away along the street. I read the square of cardboard that he had left me. ‘Excelsior Rave Cave, High Street, 8 am to 8 pm.’. The only commitment I had was to feed the fish, and I had done that, so I would have nothing much to do for the rest of the night. I decided to go to the party and see what amusement it afforded.

You could have seen and heard the Excelsior Rave Cave a mile away. A tremendous rhythmic thumping noise, probably not what you would have called music, and brilliant flashes of light came from a disused shop. The shop was big enough to have been a car showroom or a supermarket in days gone by. A camel with a stereo blaring and banging at enormous volume was roped to a street lamp outside the shop. Its passenger had tied it up and left it there while he, presumably, joined in the dancing inside. The shop was part-way along a parade of several disused shops. At one time this row of shops must have sold more or less everything you might have wanted to take home and live a normal life. Above the shops were disused flats where the shopkeepers must once have lived, or which while living in a perfectly respectable house a mile away they let out at exorbitant cash rents in order to provide themselves with an extra income out of the sight and hearing of the Ministry of Tithes. The street's days of wealth and glory were now ended. To the left and to the right, the shops were derelict. A couple of doors had been forced open to create doss houses, providing a place to live for poor families and a place to zonk out for the local catas. About half way along the row, The Excelsior Rave Cave was, depending on where you stood as you looked at it, either a noisy dark place with the windows painted over, or a place full of people and brilliantly lit by flashes of light. Through the door you could see people packed close to one another, a bit like old photographs of the London Tube, but without actually coming into contact. They made regular repetitive jerky movements in time to the piledriving noise. Some in the crowd were turning alternately a little to the left and a little to the right, others were nodding their heads in time to the rhythm, and others were sort of jumping up and down. I couldn't see the point of coming together and then dancing alone. You could do that at home. Why would I want to dance on my own a foot away from the object of my desire, when the whole point of coming here was, I presumed, to have fun with other people. I longed for the sensuous excitement of dancing a waltz, or anything else, with one arm around a woman half my age and holding her within touching distance.

This large hall, in which maybe a hundred people were doing something a bit like dancing, was the former business area of the shop, where it sold I know not what. At the back of the hall, a door led to another room, where I guessed I might spend another five minutes before becoming fed up enough to go home again. I pushed around the edge of the room and through the door at the back.

This area looked like the former stockroom. Dim lights shone from the ceiling and, if I had been talking to anyone, the noise from the main hall would have made conversation difficult, but not as impossible as it did on the dance floor. Here a large number of tins of drink were stacked on shelves. The tins were mainly beer, but there were also wine, various liquors like whisky and rum, and the inevitable non alcoholic beer, cold tea, cold coffee and fruit juice. I read the labels on a dozen tins and picked the one that said ‘Orange Juice.’ Jaded though I felt, the orange juice was pretty good. It had the unusual property of actually tasting as though, at some time in the past, an orange had been picked from whatever tree or shrub oranges grow on, and squeezed in a press, and then the liquid that came out had gone into the tin without anybody adding sugar, salt or anything beginning with E.

"Could you reach me one?"

A woman who might have been in her early twenties or late teens was asking. She was standing at my right elbow, smiling broadly from underneath long, straight fair hair, and wearing a tee shirt and cotton trousers. She was easily able to reach the tins without help. She was wearing mascara and lipstick, both of which were generally discouraged. She didn't come from this part of town. I guessed from her accent she came from somewhere in south London or the western suburbs.

"Sure. Are you sure you don't want something stronger?" I asked.
"Just orange, thanks. Maybe later on I'll upgrade to something more sociable."

I picked another tin of orange and gave it to her. I wondered why this attractive young women had chosen to talk to me when there were dozens of men her own age in the next room.

"I've not seen you here before," she said.
"I haven't been here before," I said. "I'm staying in the neighbourhood for a few days. Someone gave me an invitation so I decided to drop in. I had nothing else to do. I'm Desmond, by the way."
"Petrina. Hi. Can I call you Des? 'Scuse me but I really need this. It's so hot." She ripped the top off the tin and gulped the entire content. "Can you reach another one?"
"Yes. Here."

Petrina drank the whole second tin of orange juice in a couple of seconds and threw both empty tins into a metal bin in the corner. "I really needed that. Where are you staying, Des?"
"Bromley Road," I said, "My friend forgot to feed the goldfish so I am now a temporary resident, fish rescuer and acting head chef."
"It's just that you look a bit lost."
"I've never been into a rave cave before in my life, so I feel like a fish out of water."
"Yes," I said, "except I'm not dying, just a bit uncomfortable."
"Do you have kids?" she asked.
"No. So I have no second hand experience of rave caves either."
"Do you know how to dance?"
"Yes," I said, "but what people in here are doing isn't really dancing, it’s just…"
"We'll do it your way," she said. I was so surprised that I forgot to reply. "Let's imagine the synth is really a chamber orchestra playing Strauss while you hold your beloved all close and smoochy?"
"Exactly," I said.
"All right," said Petrina, "sounds good to me. We'll just ignore whatever the people around us are doing, and we'll dance your way."

Petrina had obviously danced to the music of an imaginary chamber orchestra before. She stepped into the crook of my right arm and took my left hand in exactly the way I had wished she might do it, and we stepped across the room with a gentle circular movement.

"You've done this before," I said, remarking on the obvious.
"Stage school," said Petrina. "I thought about half a dozen subjects I could study in order to earn a living, office IT, household electrics, production management, but then I thought, what the hell, I could have a lot more fun if I did performing arts."
"It looks as though this is your specialism," I said.
"Yes, in a way it is. Look, Desmond, now we're out of sight in a dimly lit corner, can you do something for me?"
"If I can," I said.
"Show me your ID card."
"It's in my house ten minutes away. I can get it if you really want it."
"Because, you see," said Petrina, "I'm an agent of the Repentance Squad, and you're Desmond Sherburne, aren't you. The Squad has a Search and Report out on you."
"Damn it, that's all I needed."
"Des, I am being nice to you. I have my orders."
"You sure it's me and not somebody with a similar name?"
"No, not really. Mistakes do happen. But they showed me your photo and I'm reasonably sure you're the same man. That's why I wanted a look at your identity card. I won't make a big fuss and show you up in front of everybody, but I do need you to go and get it."

The policeman who had been hiding somewhere on the street outside the Excelsior Rave Cave waiting for a signal from Petrina gave her some sort of reward in a circular purple envelope and escorted me back to Julie's house. He was considerate enough not to put me in handcuffs. Inside the house I found my pink card in my wallet and I showed it to him, and he wrote down the details in his notebook. "Thank you for complying with Repentance Squad instructions," he said in exactly the same voice as Jack Warner. "You committed a criminal offence by absconding from your conscripted duty as a member of TROUSERS."
"Which was?"
"Attending a rally and a training course in Romford. Consider this your only warning and don't go AWOL again or you may get into serious trouble, as I'm sure you realise."

He was silent for a few seconds and I didn't really have any sort of reply ready.

"I would've loved to see you do two weeks in jankers, but fortunately for you, TROUSERS needs you to undertake a straightforward mission."
"How fortunate. I would have hated to be left alone to get on with my job. What have I been instructed to do in my absence?"
"A group of visitors from Rotherhithe Brewery is coming to your office next week. Keep an eye on them."
"What for? I haven't heard anything about this visit."
"Neither have they, but they will."
"What are they going to do that I need to report on?"
"If I knew that," he said, "I wouldn't need you, would I. Just keep an eye on them."
"Yes," I said, "all right."
"Consider yourself in receipt of a Repentance Squad caution. Don't go back to the Excelsior. Goodnight, all."

I turned to Pongo and Wiggles. "Did you hear that?"

Pongo gave me a look that meant she was a lot more interested in how Spurs were going to play against East City on Saturday night than she was in me being assigned my first snoop job.

"Strikes me that McCutcheon is the better manager," I said. "Spurs to win by four goals to nil, if not more."

I looked towards the other end of the fish tank.

"How about you, Wiggles? Did you hear that King George VIII spent £10,000 on a tie for the Archbishop's Banquet? Just for one meal in the Guildhall. That's almost as much as that cub reporter Faustus Dimbleby spends on one of his. And then there's import duty and purchase tax. Why he can't buy British, I can't imagine. Treachery, isn't it, for a man in his position?"

Wiggles showed no obvious interest.

“I almost forgot," I told Wiggles, "I have your horoscope. ‘Regardless of your romantic status, you'll feel comfortable with it and perhaps a bit freer, starting on Tuesday. That celestial siren Venus grooves into Scorpio and your outspoken, exploratory ninth house until two weeks Friday. The love planet in Scorpio—’”
"Oh, do shut up," thought Wiggles, loudly and obviously.

I went to bed dejected and thoroughly miserable. Neither fish cared twopence for anything I thought. I had been intending to pick up Thoroughfare again and carry on reading Why the religious right won the election, but I'd had enough bad news for one day. Bad enough that they were in a position of power, let alone that there might be a good reason for it. I couldn't imagine how I was supposed to welcome the Rotherhithe Brewery delegation, take care of their requirements and at the same time look out for the least sign of atheism, humanism, rebellion or general bloody-mindedness.

An odd feature of a city whose transport is based on draught animals is the almost total quiet of the day. A cart with pneumatic tyres moves silently. It was 4 pm or thereabouts, hours before anybody in a nine to five job would be outdoors. I had not been sleeping soundly and when I heard the noise of someone lying in the road, obviously very unwell, wailing and vomiting, I felt moved to get out of bed and do something. Sure, there were catas lying more or less at every street corner but usually they passed out quietly, lay somewhere out of the way quietly, and then woke up quietly, stood up and became normal again. This cata was definitely experiencing one of the occasional complications that children were warned about, to no effect, at school. The temperature outside was about 100° F, although once darkness fell it would plummet to 40° F or so, if that. I threw on a coat and wriggled my feet into my shoes, and I went and stood outside. The crying continued. Someone was in serious pain and seemed to be a couple of minutes' walk away. Then I recognised the voice. It was Petrina.

After walking two hundred yards along Bromley Road, I saw her lying in a patch of sand and trying to hide in the lee of the garden walls. She was still wearing the tee shirt and the cotton trousers, clothes sufficient for the heat of the day but hopelessly insufficient to survive the cold of night.

It is a strange feeling to come across your sworn enemy when he is helpless. Because of this woman's misguided loyalties, I was bound to do dirty work as often as the Repentance Squad might require it, for the rest of my life. I wondered how good it might feel to smother her with sand or crush her head with a brick. At the moment I knelt beside her, I realised I would never be able to harm someone so beautiful. I wanted her to be alive and dancing with me again.

"Petrina?" She didn't respond at all. "Petrina!" I looked at her hoping she would react to my voice, but I saw no sign that she could hear me. She was curled into the foetal position and there was blood around her mouth and on the paving stones. Her breathing was irregular and growing weaker. An inch or two from her right fingertips was the purple circular envelope with the legend Acetyl cuprochloride BP ⅛ grain.

The next thing I knew, I was out of breath and soaked in sweat from running to the phone box. I pressed the 999 eikon. I thanked God that you didn't have to present your identity card to make an emergency call.

"Emergency. Which service do you require?" said the robot at the exchange, in a synthesised female voice.

I knew immediately that I had made a mistake. I silently damned voice actuated servers unto the seventh generation.

"I am sorry, citizen, I don't recognise your selection. Please choose one of the following four options."

Four eikons appeared on the screen: a doctor with a stethoscope, a fireman with a hosepipe, a constable with a notepad and pencil and a priest sitting in a confessional.
"Please select Resurrection, Tongues of Fire, Watchmen or Christian Guidance."
"I am sorry, citizen, I don't—"
"Please wait." Then, after a few seconds, a female human voice — I could tell it was human because I could hear the slight flakiness due to being woken at two in the afternoon and also because it had a Welsh accent to it — said, "Good afternoon, I'm a doctor. What seems to be the trouble?"

I described Petrina's unconscious body to the doctor.

"Can you stay with her? I shall be there in a few minutes."
"Yes," I said.

I walked back to Petrina. A couple of minutes later, a woman walked around the corner and came along the street towards us. She held a large canvas bag. She peered along the street, saw Petrina and me and ran up to us.

"I'm Afon Probert," she told me, "I'm the doctor. Did you phone Emergency from the phone box up by the High Street?"
"Yes," I said, recognising her voice from the conversation in the phone box.
"Are you her father?"
"No," I said, adding untruthfully, "we're friends."
"Do you know anything about her?"
"Only that her first name is Petrina and she works for the Repentance Squad."
Dr Probert leaned over Petrina to examine her.
"I found this packaging," I said, holding up the purple envelope.
"Is that it, there? Blasted stuff, yntê. At least we know what drug she's taken. God knows what's mixed in with it, though. There could be rat poison or drain cleaner in it for all these pedlars care. One eighth of a grain, it says — you know, I sometimes long for the return of milligrams. I never could do fractions. I mustn't digress, must I, now. I have a job to get on with by here." Dr Probert spoke at an astonishing rate in a Welsh accent that would have sounded thick on a Llanwenog sheep. I recognised the Welsh word for ‘isn't it,’ but I had to hope that in the heat of the moment she didn't accidentally break into full blown Welsh, that most incomprehensible of languages. "We won't be able to move her very far. Can she spend a few hours recovering overnight, in your house, out of the cold?"
"Yes," I said as Dr Probert balanced her canvas bag on top of the garden wall and opened it. "Yes, that would be all right."

Dr Probert picked out a syringe, put a cartridge into it, rolled up Petrina's right sleeve and swabbed her upper arm.

"This isn't an antidote but it's the best we can do. It will bring her round for a few minutes, keep her heart and head going, yntê. After that, she'll pass out again. Get her into your house if you can, I'll give you some tablets she can take. She'll need to be indoors after sunset, when it gets cold. Don't leave her alone. If she feels unbearably ill tomorrow, send her to the hospital and the pill packet with her, yntê. Now you'll have to help me to lift her. To stand her upright."

Dr Probert gave Petrina the injection. Petrina's head twitched to one side and she drew breath suddenly.

"This works quickly," she told me, "unless it doesn't, yntê." She continued, by way of idle banter, "Emmerdale Pharma, the factory that makes these injections, is on three shifts, working round the clock, and they have a six week backlog. I hope you're a strong man, Mr Sherburne. Get your arm under Petrina's other armpit while I get this one… three, two, one, lift."

We had lift off. We hauled Petrina upright. She doubled up, vomited and rested her weight on Dr Probert and me.

"Can you hear me, Petrina?" Dr Probert asked. After a few seconds of silence, she turned to me. "Does she speak English?"
"She's trying to say ‘No, I can't hear you,’ then, yntê. Where do you live?"
"Number twenty-three Bromley Road."
"You're going to walk a few yards," the doctor shouted to Petrina. "Just along by here a little way."

The three of us staggered along the street in the form of a sort of three legged race, manoeuvred Petrina sideways through Julie's front door and plonked her into Julie's leather armchair, sitting bent forwards.

"Is she safe like that?" I asked.
"Yes. She won't choke like that. Let her sleep the drug off. Bloody stuff, yntê. Stay with her." Dr Probert reached me a bubble-pack of four pills and an official looking envelope. "Give her those tablets, one when she comes round and one every two hours. Oh, there's a ticker over there."
"Yes. Why do you mention it?"
"Because you rang Emergency from a phone box. You could just have come back by here, yntê."
"I was panicking," I realised. "I just thought, I need a doctor, I need to dial 999 so I need a phone box. I forgot that key-pads went out years ago."
"Yes. People do strange things in an emergency, yntê. Now look here, there's a form in that envelope. One or other of you has to fill it in and post it to the Department of Resurrection or I don't get paid, so please do that bit, it really matters."
"Sure, of course I will."
"She'll be fine, I'm sure," said Dr Probert, "Goodnight, bach," and she made off.

I put both the packet of tablets and the form onto Julia's bookshelf. Finally, taking off shoes, I settled onto Julie's settee, and I noticed that the magazine Thoroughfare was within easy reach. If it kept me awake, it might just make a difference to Petrina's chances of survival.

Why the religious right won the election, by Shineforth Toynbee.

A shade more than a century ago, in 2013, an unsigned article…

I'd read that bit before, so I skipped the stuff that looked familiar and picked up the story further down the page. Ah, yes, here we are.
By May 2015 the similarities between the two parties exceeded their differences. Several commentators observed that ‘you couldn't get a fag paper between them,’ although few had seen the problem with the perspicacity of Anthony Wedgewood Benn, writing a generation before. ‘When you hear Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher arguing the toss on the floor of the House of Commons or elsewhere,’ the great man had written, ‘you are listening to two people who dislike each other but don't actually disagree about anything.’ He was later to add, ‘We are given all these personalities to choose between to disguise the fact that the policies are the same.’

The alignment of policies was deliberate and disastrous.

Although the policies on offer at the election were identical, as a perusal of the manifestos will quickly confirm, the electorate had long since realised that the policies did not actually work. Every issue with which the electorate on average wages and with average expenses had been struggling was worsening while the parties agreed to continue administering the same purported remedies that had been failing since the 1960s. With the exception of concern over pollution and climate change, which rose sharply in the public awareness during the 2060s, the top of the list of public concerns are recognisably the same today as they were one hundred and fifty years ago: immigration, wages, prices, the health service, unemployment, housing and poverty.

This overweening sameness and invariant failure meant that the electorate were, almost palpably, desperate for a plausible alternative political party for which they could vote and which could offer some solutions to the problems of the day. The Conservative Party and the Labour Party, oblivious to this hankering, competed for votes not by determining policies with reference to different economic theories, but by deriving their policies from theories borrowed from marketing and advertising. Since political parties were being marketed using identical techniques — SWOT analysis, mass marketing, diversity marketing etc. etc. — this meant that the policies of the parties differed only in trivial matters.

With effect from the general election in May 2022 the parties agreed that they would no longer stand candidates against each other at European or Parliamentary elections. Since the candidates would have been promoting identical policies, under a first past the post electoral system, the only effect of standing one candidate from each party was to split the vote and make the election of a candidate from a minor party more likely.

The reader may, understandably, have formed the expectation that under such circumstances the electors would cast their votes en masse for the Liberal Party, the Liberal Democrats, or ‘whatever it calls itself these days,’ as the telling phrase of the time had it. In fact, the Liberal Party, whatever it called itself at the time, made a lethal misjudgement, overestimated both its support and its wealth, and stood candidates in every constituency on a manifesto which, as the marketing consultants knew, and as the Liberal Party also knew, had no chance of success. The result was an overwhelming, irremediable disaster when its vote imploded. The irrelevance of the Liberal Party, its history of over-promising, its misinterpretation of political events and the antics of its jejune leadership, endlessly targeting one thing while re-imagining and re-inventing another, claiming that lessons had been learned in the face of the obvious truth that they hadn't, led it head first into bankruptcy.

It has never recovered.

Other than its archives, which went back to 1859, and a crate of documents presented to the Bankruptcy Proceedings, all that remained of that once august body after the administrators submitted their report and final accounts in 2025 was a plaque on the wall of Number 10 Great George Street. Even the cost of cutting and installing the plaque, with its short account of the party and the aphorism ‘They were stronger than lions,’ was a concession wrung from the administrators by the Historic Buildings Trust.

At first glance, the religious parties might appear to be unlikely successors to the great secular parties—

Petrina suddenly howled and struggled to twist around in the armchair. She raised her hands to her forehead. "Oh, my god, I've gone blind."

"You're all right. You're with me."
"Who the devil are you?"
"Desmond Sherburne. The subject of your recent report. You're recovering from a dose of zizz. The local doctor says you'll be all right. Can you swallow a tablet?"
"I've gone blind." Petrina began to cry. "Help me, I can't see."

Acetyl cuprochloride is not a recreational drug, nor is it suitable for human consumption. Do not take it by mouth. I chose the name for prosodic reasons.

The list of public concerns was published by Ipsos Mori in October 2016 at


When we arrived at Northumberland Park Hospital three or four miles away, the nurses put Petrina into a wheelchair and took the purple wrapper for the laboratory. Dr Probert, now wrapped in a green smock and a hairnet, came into the accident and emergency waiting room carrying a clipboard.

"Brenda," she pointed to the woman on Reception, "says your name is Mr Sherburne, is that right?" she asked, matter-of-factly. "Petrina, welcome to Northumberland Park."
"You're still on duty," I said, stating the obvious.
"Never off. This afternoon I was on call, tonight I'm at work."
"I can't see," cried Petrina.
"Will she be all right?" I asked.
"May I examine you, Petrina?" Dr Probert ignored my question and without waiting for her answer she said to me, "Did you fill that form in? Never mind, here's another one. Borrow a pen off Reception while I see what I can do for your friend."

Dr Probert tore another form off her clipboard, complete with printed envelope, handed it to me, and in the same smooth movement turned Petrina's wheelchair through a hundred and eighty degrees and pushed it away down a corridor, talking to her without pause as they went.

The lady at A & E Reception wore a badge giving her name as ‘Brenda.’ She handed me a pen and a clipboard without being asked, so I did my best to concentrate and fill the form in. Date, time, nature of incident, contact telephone, all the usual stuff and then a set of lines and boxes ‘for office use only.’ I wrote what I could and returned it all to the desk.

"Why do they care about the patient's age, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, nationality and gender identity?" I asked.
Brenda stared at the form as though she had never seen one before and suggested, "People ask me that all the time. I tell them that the IT department has two computers and one of them is programmed to ask the most irritating questions in the whole world."
I fell right into it. "And what about the other one?"
"It's nosey."
"It certainly is. Still, I've filled the form in, so let me put it into the envelope," I said.
"Did you sign it and date it where it says?"
"Thanks. That's perfect, then. Don't seal the envelope because they'll only open it again at the Post Office so that they can read the letter and scan it into their files. I'll send it with the courier, later. You can sit in here and wait for your friend."
"Will she be all right?"
"If we can manage it, then yes. And as the hospital has had to shell out half a million pounds on a chapel for patients as a condition of keeping its contract with the Ministry of Resurrection, and you're paying for it. I suggest that if you want to help, you can keep well out of the doctors' way and go and pray for her."

I looked along the corridor and I saw the door labelled ‘Chapel,’ but just then the phone on the reception desk rang. "Hi, Afon," said Brenda, then, "Yes, I'll tell him."

Brenda called me back. "Mr Sherburne? Dr Probert says the lab's busy, they haven't reported on her bloods or on the residue in the pill packet, and after that Petrina needs to wait for a head scan. There's unlikely to be any news of her for three or four hours."
"Is Petrina going to be all right?" I asked.
"If we can manage it," said Brenda, "I told you. The lab report will tell the doctors exactly what she's taken and what's still circulating. The scan is supposed to tell them how she's been injured, and how badly. Just getting her ready for a head scan takes a while. Go on, you really do have time to pray for her, if you think it might help. Obviously the Ministry of Resurrection does. Or you can go and stand outside in the sunshine and wish."
"Look here," I said, feeling myself becoming angry without much by way of just cause, "Petrina's lost her eyesight. That counts as urgent in my book."
"In ours too, Mr Sherburne."

The chapel door was a heavy double door made of sapele wood with coloured glass panels inset into it and a blue plastic notice that said ‘Chapel’ in big white letters of the sort that one used to find on railway stations. The room inside was small, tiled with wooden squares and lit by windows of coloured glass, designed to inspire reverence, and it smelled of antiseptic. I took a seat and deliberately did not look reverently upwards to the life size crucifix on the wall opposite the door. Its greatest concession to the twenty-second century was the superscript near the top of the cross. In a break from tradition it read ‘K O T J’ in English instead of ‘I N R I’ in Latin. A small blue notice screwed to the floor near the base of the crucifix read ‘Banksy #2.’

"It was a donation," said a voice behind me.
"The whole crucifix?"
"The whole room. It had been a padded cell, and when the need for padded cells ceased, the janitor locked it. It had been closed for no-one knows how long. Then a little while ago they opened it."

I turned round and saw a man in chaplain's dress pushing Petrina in a wheelchair. I dashed across to her — a distance of maybe ten feet — and threw my arms around her.

"Desmond?" she said.
"I'll leave you two alone if you want," said the chaplain. "Oh, and I'm the Reverend Adams, I'm the resident God-botherer."
"I guessed that from the mauve smock, the dog collar and the fact that you're wearing a crucifix. It's all right, you can stay. Petrina and I aren't really on kissing terms. To tell the truth. last time we met I was wondering what would be the best way to kill her."
"Gee, thanks," said Petrina. "It's always useful to know where you stand."
"Best from which point of view?" the chaplain asked me.
"The lowest likelihood of getting caught seemed important. Probably more important than anything else."
"You watch too many movies," the chaplain said. "Reality is a different place altogether. They do things differently there. Oh," he said in the tone of one struck by a sudden thought, "I forgot, you dropped your identity card by the Reception desk. Here, I picked it up."
"Thanks, that was kind of you." I took the card and put it into my wallet.
"Am I going to get better?" asked Petrina.
"If they can manage it," said the Reverend Adams. "In a few hours, they'll have all the test results and they'll have a clear idea of what's wrong with you, Petrina."

A chime rang out, announcing a waiting voice call. Reverend Adams pulled one of the heavy curtains to the side and picked up the receiver of the ticker that had been hidden behind it.

"Adams," he said. "Yes, Sherburne's here, as it happens. I'll give the phone to him."

Instead of the tones of Dr Probert or of Brenda the receptionist, which I had rather expected, I heard a Scottish voice that I didn't recognise.

"Mr Sherburne?"
"I'll be off, then," said the Reverend Adams in the background. "I'll be in my office. It's two doors down." He pointed in the direction of along the corridor.
"I'm Rotherhithe Brewery," said the Scottish voice. "Do you expect to be available in your office at the Ministry of Entertainments and Beverages around two in the morning?"
"Well, as you've probably realised, Mr… ah," I was about to say ‘Mr Rotherhithe’ when I realised that the Repentance Squad snitch in the room could hear me, "I'm in the hospital trying to take care of a friend who's been taken ill, so tomorrow might be a bad day. The day after might be better."
"Fine," said Rotherhithe Brewery, "we need to discuss the content and intended market of our latest products. All the important details are on the company's latest Ticker Ticket. Have you seen it?"
"No, can't say I have. At the Ministry we don't usually involve ourselves in commercially sensitive information about beverage providers. We think—"
"You won't be able to understand every nuance of the discussion unless you've watched the Ticket. I left a copy at reception."
"Of the hospital?"
"No, the reception on the ground floor at the Ministry. When you get back to work, pick it up. Wear headphones when you watch it, or you won't be able to hear all the subtleties of the extraordinary four-dimensional audio track. We paid an engineer from HMV a fortune for all the work he had to do."
"Thanks for telling me. Obviously I shall listen to it with close attention before tomorrow's meeting. I'll see you then."

I put the receiver down.

"Work intrudes?" asked Petrina. "Some people don't understand that at times you're more than a salary with an in-tray."
"Quite," I said.
"We could get the faith healer to drop by," Petrina continued.
"Is he on the payroll as well?" I asked.
"Most hospitals have at least one these days," she added.
"I never set much store by the power of prayer myself, but as long as we're here."
"Stand in front of me and put both hands on my head while I recite a monastic healing incantation."

Petrina broke into a monastic chant which was, I think, in Latin. She sang at a powerful alto pitch which seemed almost visibly to fill the chapel with golden light.

"Why did you stop?"
"I had to draw breath. Don't you want to know what I'm praying for? After all, we're both in this together."
"I've heard that phrase before," I said. "Nos omnes pariter." Isn't it carved on the tombstone of some early twenty-first century politician somewhere? Petrina, of course I want to know."
"That's a pity because I have no idea," said Petrina, "I don't know any Latin. I went to a comprehensive. I made it up as I went along. I thought, maybe with you knowing Latin, you could tell me."
"That was pretty good Latin for one who faked it."
"So was yours, and you've never had to spend five consecutive evenings as a nun like I once did."
"You didn't strike me as the next Mother Theresa."

Petrina smiled suddenly as an idea came to her.

"Did you ever notice how many of the great jazz musicians are blind? I might have a whole new life ahead of me knocking out Summertime on a white Bosendorfer or accompanying myself on a double bass."
"Do you like jazz? Do you sit with your eyes closed in dark cellars underneath public houses tapping your feet to Last Camel to Clarksville?"
"Nah," said Petrina.
"Maybe In The Heat Of The Day?" I asked.
"Nah," said Petrina, shaking her head.
"How about Twenty-second Century Blues?"
"No, I hate all of them. I'm the Rhythm Factory kind — no words, no music, just lots of time signature at enormous volume. But anything'd be better than living on Universal Credit."
"Unicred is hell on earth, you're right there. I do hope things turn out better than that," I said, really meaning it. "What about being a soloist in the next decent jazz quintet or bringing back Big Band?"
"Yes," said Petrina, "if you know a shop that sells musical scores in Braille, I'll go straight there."

"The lab tests have come in," said the nurse. She arrived in the chapel, ordered me back to the waiting room and pushed Petrina away along the corridor towards the wing of the hospital where, I assumed, they kept the head scan machine. When Dr Probert finally invited me to join her and Petrina in her office she was as optimistic as doctors in A & E ever are.

"Petrina will probably recover in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours," said Dr Probert, "If she doesn't, bring her back by here. She has some scars in her brain from repeated doses of acetyl cuprochloride. So it's a bit like frying a fish in batter and then expecting it to find its way right across the English Channel. Mr Sherburne, don't give her zizz ever again and Petrina, if he does, don't take it, yntê."
"I'm afraid I didn't give it to her and I don't know who did," I said.
"You didn't give it to her? Petrina, didn't you tell me—"
"Yes," said Petrina, "but I mis-spoke. Sorry. Des had nothing to do with it."
"I'm glad you told me," said Dr Probert. "You should have said that before, yntê. I'll have to phone the lab straight away and see whether they can find the wrapper and keep it for finger-printing. Can you get yourself home, Petrina, bach?"
"She can stay with me," I said, "for a day or two."
"I'll be quite safe," said Petrina, making a joke that Dr Probert giggled at and I didn't understand.

Dr Probert gave Petrina a prescription for tablets and orders to take one every two hours even if she felt better. Then Brenda said it would be OK to borrow a wheelchair even though we didn't really need one provided we cleaned it and gave it back when Petrina didn't want it any more. Thus equipped for life in the wide world, we returned to Julie's house.

Julie was not pleased to see Petrina. Returning on an overnight caravan, she had walked three streets carrying her own suitcase and, not knowing which caravan she was taking, I hadn't met her at the stop. Some time around midnight, Julie opened the door expecting to find the house empty apart from me in one bed.

"Who are you?" she shouted at Petrina, who was stretched out on the armchair.
"I'm Petrina," said Petrina.
"She's my friend Petrina," I said.
"What's she doing here?"
"She's a local cata," I explained as succinctly as I could, "and she's suffering from severe side effects of a dose of zizz, so I let her come indoors to recover."
"Do I get a say in the dispute?" asked Petrina.
"No, you bloody don't. This is my house," said Julie. "Any dispute, you're wrong and I'm right. Desmond, you can take your friends to your house, by the dozen if you want to, but you can't bring them here. You're only here to feed the fish and read to them. You can stay for as long as it takes to call a camel."
"He saved my eyesight," said Petrina. "At least, I think he did, I haven't actually got it back yet."
"Bully for you," said Julie.
"I'm sorry I've annoyed you," I said. "Petrina collapsed in the street. She's been to the hospital. She just needs time to recover. Meanwhile, until she recovers, she's blind."
"She'll get used to it."

Aboard the taxi, Petrina gave the driver an address, I made a note of it, a shared house on Villiers Road. We went there, I helped her into her house and, some time around four in the morning, the camel took me back to my house. The fare was £11 5s. For some reason I resented paying it out of my own pocket. Julie ought to have paid it. Around me as I went through my own front door, the market was still shimmering with light, the noise of market stallholders and the smell of hurricane lamps.

I awoke at half past ten in the morning and I arrived in the office just before mid-day. Ron, the guard on duty just behind the front door, gave me a Ticker Ticket and said a courier had brought it and it had my name on the envelope.

It is the habit of everyone in the Ministry who owns a wristwatch to look at it when anybody arrives late for work, suggesting that they have done a great deal of useful work since they clocked in at half past eight in the evening while you were at home asleep in bed, when in fact the only things they have done all day is staring out of the window, drinking tea and trying to solve that annoying puzzle about the nine pipelines that have to go from three factories to three houses without crossing over.

"Anything on the agenda today?" I asked my office mates.
"No," said Bethan on the far desk, "we can do whatever we like until home time, just like in the infant school on Fridays."
"Do we have to do what we want?" Conrad asked from the desk against the window.
"No," I said. "If all else fails there's always work. How's the Daily Alcohol Requirement coming along?"
"Twenty three pages," said Conrad. "I'm making it up even as we speak."
"Nearly there. Now, who's got the headset?"
"Borrow those," said Conrad, pointing to the headset that was on my desk.

I kicked my chair on wheels across to the shelf, where the ticker stood, and I plugged the headset into it. Then, as you do, I held the ticket to the screen, waited for the beep and reached for my identity card. It was then that I saw the two identity cards in my wallet. I had cracked the lamina on my own identity card, so I could distinguish between the genuine card and what appeared to be a copy. Trying not to draw attention to the fact, I held the fake card to the screen. The ‘Start’ eikon lit up.

"Don't waste your time on that ticket," said Bethan. "It's fifteen minutes of puff from Rotherhithe Brewery. Just a catalogue of beers and cheap blended liquors."
"How do you know?"
"I watched it at nine o’clock this evening, while you were home in bed," said Conrad. "It's a public ticket, see? Unencrypted. Any ID card will start it off. Mine did, anyway, so I watched it and I gave it back to Ron on the door afterwards. It's just an assembly-line alcohol factory spending its marketing budget on trying to gain exemptions from the vending limits and the labelling requirements."
"Fat lot of good the labelling requirements do." Bethan mimicked an announcement. ‘Warning! Consuming this beverage could make you do something a bit silly.’ As if that wasn't the whole point of buying it."
"With that attitude," I said, "you'd take the ‘Do Not Drink’ warnings off tins of insecticide."
"Yes," jeered Bethan, "and stick them on tins of Rotherhithe's Best Bitter, where they belong."
"Okay," I said, "when they visit, they'll expect me to have seen their ticket."
"Visit?" Conrad was astonished. "They're visiting us here? I'll bring a wheelbarrow and I hope they bring samples."

Amid the sound of general laughter I pressed the ‘Start’ eikon, watched and listened.

The message began with film shot in a dimly lit bar with beautiful furniture from Laura Ashley and beautiful customers from Central Casting. The voice-under began, "Do not look surprised. This ticket is a briefing for members of Right of Way. Do not discuss it with anybody. If anyone comes near you, touch the screen and the ticket will revert to the standard sound track." The shot changed to a pub sign, ‘The Tower,’ swinging from a bracket on the brown and black wall of an inn somewhere in a bucolic landscape that probably wasn't in England, let alone in Rotherhithe. "The insane, corrupt government of this country puts up a front of ethics and piety but the truth is, it cares nothing for democracy. People are angry. You are angry. Either UKRAP is overthrown, or it will become a belligerent thousand year Empire and rule unchecked for ever." Thus it would have continued, but Conrad was coming across the office in my direction and I felt it wise to touch the screen. The commentary changed immediately. "Here is a typical English country pub, serving lunch and a selection of delicious drinks from Rotherhithe Brewery."

I took the headset off. "Everything OK?" I asked Conrad.
"Are they bringing samples?"
"Hundreds of them. Have you done twenty-five pages?"
"Yes. All I need is a counter signature and the whole report gets tickerised to every MP in Central Hall."
"Good. Where do I sign?"

Conrad held out the milestone form and I signed it, sending the Report on Daily Alcohol Requirements to The Management who, in turn, were expected to forward it to the six hundred and fifty Members of Parliament and the thirty two members of the House of Lords who, since the collapse of the Palace of Westminster during renovation work in 2018, had been slumming it in Central Hall. To those people who imagine, in the way Members of Parliament do, that reports, laws, speeches, press releases and what passes for 'debate' on broadcasts can solve the desperate tragedies that constantly beset our fallible human existences, the problem of heavy drinking would now appear to have been resolved.

"May I go out and play for the rest of the night?" Conrad asked.
"Of course. Tomorrow there will be a great abundance of more pointless paper-shovelling to shovel and form-filling to fill in, so make the most of today. Take the dog for a swim, or something."
"Desmond! I need a word, urgently." Julie had put her head around the office door just as Conrad was pulling his coat on and disappearing along the corridor. "What on earth is that you're watching?"
"Background reading. An illustrated documentary of alcoholic beverages, Julie, in which we staff at the Ministry of Entertainments and Beverages might legitimately take a professional interest. On the screen just now, for example, is a pint of Rotherhithe Best Bitter, a beer known for the last twenty-five years to be—"
"Known as piss," said Bethan, "and we're going to put it in ribbed bottles marked ‘Warning, contains piss.’"

Julie pulled up a chair and sat close to me, obviously worried about something.

"Desmond," she said, "how well would you say you know your friend Petrina?"
"I don't," I said, "not really. I know she's a coppers' nark. I also know that I found her somnolent form in agony on the sidewalk a couple of minutes from your house, I phoned for a doctor, and she was eventually sent home from hospital with orders to take two aspirins and make an appointment with her local GP during office hours."
"Well, how did she come to be somnolent and in agony?"
"Zizz. Someone had given her a zizz pill. She is a habitual user and she reacted badly to it. It happens sometimes. When I left her in the searing heat of yesterday afternoon, she was still blind as a bat because of her adverse reaction, but expected to recover fully."
"Desmond, a couple of things went missing from my house."
"Money, I suppose," I guessed. "Oh, dear. How much was it?"
"Not money. A couple of books, and the stuff that was in my waste paper basket in the living room. I don't know what else I might notice later. So you've let a Squad nark rummage through my things?"
I hesitated. "So it would appear. I'm sorry. I tried not to leave her alone. Were your letters and tickets interfered with?"
"No, but only because they read those anyway."
"Can I ask, was anything incriminating taken?"
"Evidence of my long career of murder, embezzlement, aggravated burglary, drug running, inflicting grievous bodily harm on random civilians and knocking on people's front doors and running away? No, of course not. That's all very well hidden. No, you missed the point. Nothing of value went missing, except two secondhand books whose names I can't remember and which might fetch at most a shilling in a charity shop. I just don't like the feeling that someone has gone through my house."
"I quite understand. But look, if I hadn't invited her inside—"
"Like if you had found a smelly old man dossing on the sidewalk, you would have invited him to come indoors, be sick on the carpet — my carpet — and sleep it off? Desmond, I'm not going to throw a tantrum," Julie continued, fists clenched and almost in tears by now, "but please don't bring your friends into my house. Not without asking me first, anyway. I don't know where they've been or where they're going. You can come to see me or to feed the goldfish and that is it."
"Or both?"
"Yes, all right, you can come to see me or to feed the goldfish or both, and that is definitely it."
"May I come to feed you and see the goldfish?"
"Well, all right, I suppose so, but that's the limit. Do you hear me? You can come to see me and feed the goldfish or you can come to feed me and see the goldfish but that's all, everything, the outer limit, the edge of the universe, that's your lot. As far as you are concerned, that's the Great Untraversable Frontier Wall of Mexico."
"I'm sorry. I apologise unreservedly. Really sorry. I didn't think anything like this would happen."

With uncanny accuracy, the ticker sensed that I was ignoring it, and it went back to silently displaying worthy sentiments.

‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases.’
"Apology accepted. I have important visitors arriving in my office in approximately," she looked at the clock face on the ticker, "no minutes, so I won't mention the matter again if you don't."
"Rotherhithe Brewery?" I asked.
"’Scuse me?"
‘Post early in the day!’
"Do the important visitors come from Rotherhithe Brewery?"
"No. Where did you get that idea from? My office mates and I have to meet, greet and reassure a four-strong delegation from the Women's Alcohol something or other."
"OK, so at the end of the day we'll take the only known cure for tedium sores, cliché burns and cuts and grazes from flying allegations, and I'm buying."

On the sidewalk in front of the building I saw a group of four middle aged women in designer hair styles, hats and coats and carrying Hitomi Tanaka briefcases in fashionable pastel shades trying to get past Ron on the door.
‘Audio One is wonderful!’ burbled the ticker.
"That looks like your guests, down there. Camomillia, Ophélie, Nigella and Penelope, The Female Alcohol Renunciation Trust in all their diamond encrusted middle class glory."
"Oh, for God's sake, Desmond," I had exasperated Julie for the second time and it wasn't even one in the morning yet, "they're only trying to make a living."
"Have a nice afternoon."

Through the window at the back of my office we saw the women arrive in the corridor and watched one of them knock delicately on the door labelled ‘Julie Cook.’ Julie walked out of my office into the corridor. Before my door swung shut I heard her ask the tallest, best cosmeticked and poshest of the women, "Are you the FART?" and I couldn't stop myself laughing. Such pranks are a childish form of entertainment but here at E & B you would never stay sane if you didn't play one from time to time.

The ticker reminded me that ‘Citizen! TROUSERS is watching you!’

I sat in front of the ticker, looked both ways, plugged the headphones back in and double checked that the sound track would not be heard by everyone within a mile radius, and then I restarted the movie on the ticket.

"As I was saying," said the ticker as a picture of a pint tankard of Rotherhithe Brewery's Old Gutrot standing on a french-polished mahogany bar top came into view, "either UKRAP is overthrown, or it will become a belligerent thousand year Empire and rule unchecked for ever. As British subjects who have all our lives respected democracy and the rule of secular law, we have formed a plan to put an end to the UKRAP government before it does any more damage. Two, in fact."
"Two different plans?" I said it out loud by mistake.
"That's right, we have two different, incompatible plans to end the UKRAP government. One is to create a pressure group campaigning legitimately across all political divides and force an election by a legitimate campaign. The other is to search for evidence of corruption and expect it to derail their re-election strategy. You can see—"

I silenced the ticker because a man I didn't recognise strode into the office. He looked around and demanded to know, "Who's Sherburne?"
"Me," I said, but only because I couldn't see any way to run out into the corridor without being brutally seized and detained.
"I'm Rotherhithe Brewery," said tha man.
"Did you bring any samples?" Bethan asked.
"They're down at the local, ‘The Navigation,’ just down the road there."

With Bethan out of the way and Conrad already half way home, Rotherhithe Brewery and I had the office to ourselves.

"Are you and I alone?" said Rotherhithe Brewery.
"Yes, so far as I know."
"Can anyone hear us?"
"Is there a ticker?"
"Yes," I said, "I'm sitting right next to it. So are you, actually."
"Then they can hear us, you eejit." Rotherhithe took a ticker token from his pocket and held it near the ticker. The screen of the ticker immediately went dark.
"You can turn it off," I said, taken aback.
"Yes," said Rotherhithe Brewery, "we have that privilege. Mind you, it will show up on the network monitor as a breakdown, so sooner or later someone will come in and fix it."
"What do I say when they ask me how I broke it?"
"Tell them the stuff it was telling you was such rubbish that you lost control of your arms and they threw it out of the window before you could stop them."
"I'll try that. It might work."
"Indeed it might," said Rotherhithe Brewery, "but it's never worked yet."
"I feel quite relaxed about it. There's a first time for everything, isn't there."
"Now, Desmond. May I call you Desmond, by the way? Desmond, I have to tell you something which will probably come as a surprise."
"Go ahead. Call me Desmond as well, if you want."
"I was going ahead until you interrupted me, Desmond. In collaboration with Razor's Edge Consulting, which is a little known marketing firm, we have been trying to find somebody to act as front man for a campaigning organisation that can make a political stand against the religious party in the election next year.
"But there isn't an election next year," I said.
"The elections to the European Parliament."
"Oh, yes, those."
"And in you, we have everything we need. A clear speaking voice probably trained at a good school. An attractive appearance in a cardigan or in a shirt and tie. A willingness to do whatever we tell you."
"Gosh," I said, "I am flattered."
"And above all, absolutely no idea at all about who should govern England or how they should do it."
"Now, hang on a minute—"
"So you will be the spokesman for Justice for Atheists."
"‘Justice for Atheists.’ Starting when?" I asked.
"What about everything else?" I asked anxiously.
"There will be plenty of time for everything else once this mission is finished. Besides, when would be a better time?"
"To be honest, any time when I wasn't up to my neck in fifteen mission-critical projects would be a better time."
"Overloaded at work?" asked Rotherhithe Brewery.
"Yes," I said, "I can't really just take my hat off the peg, walk out of the office, leave Bethan and Conrad up to their necks in work that they have precious little idea how to do, swan into the news broadcast studio, sound off about whatever's fuelling public indifference that day and then come back and say 'Sorry, guys, I had to go and be interviewed about putting crucifixes underneath the CCTV cameras in school cloakrooms,' can I?"
"Oh. I hadn't thought about that. You can't be our spokesman because you have too much work. You've got lots of work to do because you work in the Ministry of E & B. There's only one solution as far as I can see."
"What's that?"
"I'll have to get you fired."
"Yes," I said, intending to sound extremely sarcastic, "that's a wonderful idea."
"Yes, it is," he said, "Leave it with me, I'll soon arrange it."
"What, in the name of God, are you thinking of doing?"
"Don't worry, it won't be any trouble, you won't have to do a thing, just sit back and watch the show."
"Let me get this straight. You're going to arrange for me to be dismissed from my job?"
"Trust me, it will be as well arranged as the collected works of Leonard Bernstein Junior."
"What am I going to live on?"
"If things go even remotely according to plan, you'll have enough money in appearance fees to sink a ship and repair it afterwards. Women will throw themselves at your feet. And if you live long enough, you might even get a bit of Unicred. Have faith."

With that, Rotherhithe Brewery left the office, and a couple of minutes later, through the window, I saw him walking away down the street.


At some time in between me leaving work and me getting out of bed the next evening, somebody pushed a handwritten message underneath my front door. The Management was taking immediate and decisive action on this emergency, which contrasted sharply with the time it took in that organisation to procure a two shilling box of paper clips. The letter told me more or less what I had expected. From the Department of Human Equipment, The Ministry of Entertainments and Beverages, Whitehall. Dear Mr Sherburne, A routine inspection has found thirty-seven pictures of women with no clothes on in the drawer of the desk at which you are assigned to sit. Therefore you are to appear on trial for your job before a disciplinary committee to defend yourself against a charge of having inappropriate contents in an article of office furniture. It gave a time, date and room number, which as they used to say about standards compliant computer software, I parsed but ignored. Once they've started a war against you, they've won and you've lost, and there's no point struggling. They have all the weapons and all the artillery and as many soldiers as they can wave a pile of money at, so why bother? You had to think of these proceedings as the rats' way of remaining aboard the sinking ship while the crew walked the plank. Besides, it was a rotten job anyway, and as George Orwell observed, I could not understand why I had agreed in writing to do it, when going to prison might have been a possible alternative.

I felt in my pockets and assured myself that I had left nothing of use nor value in what had hitherto been my office. Coming to terms with never going there again was a straightforward matter. It wasn't as though I would miss the daily idiocies of life in the Ministry of E & B. Good work was supposed to give your life meaning and purpose, but I had never noticed going to the office giving my life anything resembling meaning or purpose, and therefore not going back to the office was not going to tear any sort of desolate rent in my soul. My existence was not going to be left meaningless by the absence of gainful employment. The only sort of hole that being sacked was likely to leave me in was of the financial black variety, and if Rotherhithe Brewery knew what it was doing, which was possible, then money would come in the form of interview fees and the like in my new rôle as the public face of Justice For Atheists. The only thing I was going to miss was the thirty-seven pictures of women with no clothes on. I had never seen them and I was reasonably sure that the drawer in which they were ostensibly found was empty when I last looked, and it would never occur to the Department of Human Equipment to return the pictures. Even if it did, the enforcers at the Post Office would probably refuse to convey them. More likely, the pictures were already tacked to the wall of the Human Equipment office.

I found the future worrying but not actually terrifying. I had a few pounds in my wallet. The Ministry owed me a couple of weeks' salary. The Ministry of Tithes would owe me some back income tax and might refund it. When those payments arrived, they would have to last for a while.

I set off for the market, not so much to buy provisions as to reassure myself that I was still alive and well and functioning normally. I was leaving my front door and turning towards the busy market square on the left, when a man in a trench coat and — I kid you not — a homburg hat, leapt out at me. The hat made him look distinctly similar to itinerant journalist and credit card salesman Alan Wicker-Basket, even though Alan Wicker-Basket never actually wore a homburg.

"Good evening, Mr Sherbourne. I'm Alan Wicker-Basket from the Christian News Corporation and I'd like to record an interview with you now."
"Hello," I said. "Nice day."
"What do you make of the claims in the newspapers this afternoon that Cecilia Boone has been receiving large payments in cash from the slush budget of the Scottish Republic?"
"What? Where would I buy a newspaper in Tottenham? I'm more or less the only resident who can read."
"Cecilia Boone. You know who she is?"
"Isn't she the one who played Agent Keen in The Blacklist?"
"She's the damned Prime Minister!" Mr Wicker-Basket seemed awfully cut up about it.
"I never heard anything more ridiculous." I said. "Why should I care if Mrs Boone won three pounds ten on the slots in the Glasgow Empire?"
"It's an awful lot more than three pounds ten," said Wicker-Basket, his homburg twitching ominously. "Here are receipts, cheques, begging letters, bank statements, piles of used Scots banknotes in brown paper bags…"
"Used Scots banknotes? Do you mean those horrible plastic things?"
"Yes," said Wicker-Basket. "What have you to say to that?"
"I say," I said, "I only came out here to buy a tin of beans."
"Mr Sherburne, this is no laughing matter," said Mr Wicker-Basket. "Mrs Boone changes her vote at the French Fisheries Commission and the very next day the Scottish Foreign Ministry pays a hundred and twenty Scots poonds from an offshore cache into her personal bank account. That's a lot of money in Scotland."
"Maybe they were paying her expenses." I said. "It's fair dear, going from London to Edinburgh on a camel. Especially first class. And everybody knows that you can't trust the French. They've spent the last three hundred and fifty years trying to kill us—"
"Cut! Cut, cut, cut," cried a voice I knew from behind a stationary camel.

Rotherhithe Brewery emerged carrying a cheap disposable movie camera, of the kind used by doorstepping journalists who fear with good reason that their quarry may knock the camera out of their hands and drop-kick it into next Wednesday.

Rotherhithe Brewery was looking daggers at me. "That was awful."
"I didn't think much of it, either," I said.
"I'm not talking about him, I'm talking about you," said Rotherhithe Brewery, screaming and pointing at me and not at him. "You're meant to be the spokesman for Justice for Atheists. Where's your suit? Sorry, I mean ‘spokesperson.’ Where's your gender-neutral trilby? Where are the club tie, the cigarette and the pint of beer? Why haven't you been practising your Tottenham accent? You've been living there long enough, haven't you?"
"I don't smoke," I said.
"Then either start, or paint a twig white and stick it in your mouth."
"Look," I said, trying to sound like the voice of reason itself, "what's going on?"
"A dry run for being doorstepped."
"It's just a dry run? You mean, nobody's going to broadcast this multi-camel pile-up?"
"No, it was a practice run."
"Thank God for that."
"Desmond, sooner or later something like this is going to happen to you, and it's as well you know what it feels like."
"Do I have to be doorstepped? Can I not just go to the studio?"
"Yes," said Rotherhithe, somewhat grudgingly, I thought, "now I come to think of it, you can. To be honest, I never thought of that. I just wanted to see you jump when Alan Wicker-Basket hurled himself upon you. Here's your script. Read it and be there by ten o'clock. Buy a newspaper and read it, and say thank you to nice Mr Wicker-Basket."
"Thank you, Mr Wicker-Basket. Can you give me a lift to the studio?"
"No," they both laughed, "we're going to the beach."
"But there isn't a beach," I called after them as I watched the camel bear the two men off down the road and around the corner.

Then I realised I still didn't have a tin of beans, so I went around the market in search of one. Snack Lady had a few tins with what looked like Lappish writing on them. One and ninepence. As for the fake cigarette, I would have to make that myself.

I introduced myself to the nice woman at the broadcast studio and she put me in the green room, where Graham, a young man of vaguely feminine appearance and a voice an octave higher than it had any right to be, put powder on my face, combed black powder into my hair, rubbed something into my eyebrows and lent me a tie.

"That's a posh tie," I said.
"You recognise it? That's over there somewhere." said Graham.
"Yes. Pantone School, isn't it. How did you get it?"
"We just wait for the postman. You'd be surprised how many schools send us their ties and expect free publicity."
"So why am I advertising Pantone School in particular?"
"Their school tie just happens to look so good on television, it's over there somewhere. It doesn't shimmer, it doesn't moiré, it's in pastel colours so it doesn't dominate the frame, it doesn't upset the chromakey machine, and it's textured so the microphone clip doesn't come off. Perfect in every way, really. Nobody who sends us a tie ever thinks of phoning me up to ask what sort of ties we actually use here. I have a huge pile of ties that we're never going to use."
"I don't have enough ties," I said, "and in this job you need lots of them. Can you let me take some home?"
"Sure. Wait a second." Graham disappeared, seeming amused that anyone could possibly want a pile of ties. I heard a cupboard door open and close, and then Graham returned with a paper bag full of school ties. "These'll probably get you any job you ever want," he said, half in jest.

I realised that he was right. Those ties were the key to getting whatever job I wanted. Just when I needed them, there they all were.

"May I pay you for them?"
"Certainly. That would be over there somewhere. Five shillings each. Cash only."
"That's about ten pounds, I guess."
"Forget it, Mr Sherburne. To be honest they were spilling onto the floor and I'm pleased to get rid of them. If the Salvation Army hadn't recently been put on the list to receive piles of money, I would probably have taken them all there."
"I am most grateful," I said.
"You need a fake cigarette and a pint of beer," Graham gabbled. "Props will lay them out during the VTR segment. Don't touch the pint of beer. Firstly, drinking on screen is banned and secondly, if you lift the pint then the camera can see it's not beer but amber gelatin. You can put the fake cig in your mouth but if you draw on it then your mouth fills with dust. Blow gently into it, hold it sloping downwards, and that way it looks as if you're smoking it. Can you do that?"
"Yes," I said, feeling my memory already reaching capacity. Sitting on a sofa being interviewed for a broadcast was complicated stuff.
"That's so far over there somewhere that you won't see it for a fortnight. One other thing." Graham wrote my name in big letters on a piece of cardboard about six inches square, and pinned it to my left trouser leg. "Name badge. The camera won't see it. The interviewer will sit on your left, and if she can't see it, she'll forget who you are. I'll put the bag of ties into your pocket. You can't carry it in your hands, it'll be out of shot, so nobody will ever know."
"Who's interviewing me?"
"Latonya Lawley," said Graham, and I wished I hadn't asked.
"Latonya Lawley?" Panic seized me. "Which programme am I on?"
"‘Moaning Minnies.’ Didn't anyone tell you?"
"No. They just said I should come here. Am I going to make an ass of myself?"
"It's all right, Latonya knows you're a first timer. You're on for four minutes fifteen seconds, in between the Domestic Violence Survivor of the Week and an Australian recipe for fish pancakes. Just read the autocue in a London accent and you'll do fine."

I almost burst into tears. I was lower down the bill than a fish pancake.

Graham pointed to the armchair that I was supposed to sit in and a woman in overalls put the props on the coffee table: undrinkable beer and an unsmokeable fag.

"Hello, André," said Latonya Lawley, who was sitting in the other armchair looking resplendent in a royal blue tailor made morning dress, "the VTR is just finishing."

I had the feeling that things were not going particularly well. I mouthed "That's not my name," shook my head and pointed to the name badge on my leg.

A voice from the dark void behind the camera called out, "Finch! Position One." The green cue light, just out of shot, flashed for a second.

"Now," Ms Lawley began, "it's the end of a long and hard day. You cooked the dinner, you did the laundry, you put the kids to bed, so what is it that you really want for dinner more than anything else? I'm sure most of you have already realised that the thing you are really looking forward to is a hot, light and fluffy fish pancake."

The camera pulled back. I was in shot. Live, on a national broadcast, and about to look a fool.

"We are very lucky today," Ms Lawley continued, "to have in the comfy chair the man who has done more than anyone else to put fish pancakes onto the English national menu. The great Australian French chef André le Couloir has turned up in the studio to promote his new book, ‘A Collection of Excellent Fish Pancake Recipes,’ just published by Pacific Intermedia at £4 10s. Now, André, tell us where you collected these culinary masterpieces."

I couldn't think of anything else to do. I assumed the most realistic Australian accent I could and I read the autocue.

"Well, Latonya, I garnered the first couple of recipes from the Um-Paa-Par aboriginals who live on the Ayers Rock. The unique savoury taste of these pancakes is due to the fact that the Um-Paa-Par people have not, so far as I have ascertained, invented the teflon frying pan. The combination of two kookaburra eggs with local rock salt and half a pound of crushed pigfish results in a delicacy of such incredibly delicate delicateness that it's just out there somewhere. What's more it's packed to the gunwales with pectanite, which is completely missing from a normal European diet, and the Um-paa-par never suffer a day's illness and have a life expectancy at birth of one hundred and seventeen."
"Cor," said Latonya, acting as though she were impressed, "that's more than life expectancy in England, isn't it. How would you serve that?"
"Just slide it onto a plate," I read, "and you can eat it straight off the stove. If you want to make something special out of it, you can serve it with about six ounces of broiled malaflops. That's the marsupial equivalent of a tomato. And some people would serve a lightly chilled Melbourne Blanc with it. Good on them, but when I give it to friends I just serve it with a pint of Rotherhithe Brewery's Best Bitter, and they fall over themselves for seconds."
"Do you ever have a problem finding the ingredients?" Latonya asked me. "After all, they're more exotic than most recipes call for."
"Everything should be on the shelves of your nearest Australian Supermarket, but if you're having problems then you can use tomatoes instead of pigfish and haddock in place of malaflops. Just use your common sense, really."
"And in the whole book—" Latonya began.
"That's ‘A Collection of Excellent Fish Pancake Recipes,’" I gabbled, "by André le Couloir, published by Pacific Intermedia, of all good booksellers, £4 10s."
"Yes, in the whole book there are no colourings, no flavourings and no preservatives other than salt."

At that point the timer on the wall read 3 minutes 45 seconds and, realising they might let me out at any moment, I permitted myself to relax a little. Props had laid the cigarette out on the rim of an ashtray. I picked up the unburnt end, held it to my mouth, breathed in like you do on a cigarette and suddenly I exploded in a coughing fit as the dust, which was intended to look like smoke when the user blew it out, flew into my throat and stuck to it. I was bent double by choking. As I leaned forward and coughed as prolifically as I could in an effort to dislodge the dust, the brown paper bag jumped out of my left pocket and strewed school ties all over me, my chair, my tankard of fake beer and my name card. The tankard and the name card fell to the floor. The name card landed face down and the tankard turned onto its side. A revolting lump of yellow gloop slithered out of the tankard and began to spread out on the carpet.

"Oh, dear," said Latonya, ever the cool, calm and collected model of broadcasting sang-froid, "are you all right, Mr, er… what's your name again?"

Now, any incident that could impel Latonya Lawley to say "Oh, dear" unscripted on a national broadcast had to be of the utmost seriousness. Mercifully, the timer reached 4 minutes 15 seconds, and a voice from the dark space behind the camera hollered, "Fade to black. Cue VTR." The audience at home, if he was still watching, could hear me fighting for breath as I picked up what I could of the school ties and stumped unevenly out of the studio. As I left, I heard the voice from the dark space yelling, "Ready to go in one thirty. Latté, you were fabulous, darling. Props! Clean that mess up. Finch! Keep Props out of shot." It was a great pleasure to hear the thick studio door close behind me. I had the feeling I was unlikely to see it open before me ever again.

I spent a couple of minutes in the green room tidying myself up, sorting out the ties and drinking some water to wash away the fake cigarette dust. A couple of minutes later, the door opened and in walked Steven Stone, beaming all over his face and carrying a couple of tins of beer.

"I suppose you want my resignation," I said. "You can have it. I knew it would take me a while to settle into the job, but I wasn't expecting a total disaster like that."

Steven Stone looked nonplussed. "You were fine. Nothing to worry about. Have a beer while we're out of sight."
"Did you see me?"
"Well," said Steven, "no, I didn't. I didn't see you, I saw someone else. I thought maybe you got lost on your way to the studio and CBC had hired an actor from Central Casting to fill in for you. But it all went perfectly well."
"I can't believe that things have turned out perfectly all right," I said.

Steven and I walked out of the studio and along the street into a small cafeteria where, "since you're unemployed and can't afford seventeen and six," as he put it, he bought each of us a paper cup of instant coffee and a fishpaste sandwich.

"I have to say," I told him, "I'd forgotten how delicious fishpaste is."
"Certainly tastes better than fish pancakes," said Steven. "Take another one if you want."
"Maybe later."

Steven had in his briefcase a small broadcast receiver. He set it on the table between us, tuned it in to the Home Movie Service and turned the little clock back to 10.04 pm.

We watched Latonya Lawley wearing a blue dress looking earnestly into the camera and telling us, "Today, Moaning Minnies begins with a look at Justice for Atheists, a new licensed campaigning organisation." I didn't recognise the man who was being interviewed but I did recognise the twin armchairs.

"Know who that is? That's André de Couloir, that is."
"How did you know?"
"He runs the fish restaurant on Fore Street. It's an awful place. It got turned over by the Food Inspectorate a couple of months ago, but don't tell him I told you."
"I suppose there must have been some confusion."
"Total confusion. Still, he stood in for you, and after that, you stood in for him. We have got our message across. So has he, if that matters to anybody. This could be the start of something big."
"But it probably isn't," I said, and I walked back home. My copy of Thoroughfare magazine was waiting on the doorstep in its cartridge envelope.

How the religious right won the election, by Shineforth Toynbee
Episode Three, I thought.
At first glance, the religious parties might appear to be unlikely successors to the great secular parties. By the mid 2050s, the Conservative and Labour parties were effectively exact copies of each other, and the great postwar Socialist governments were before living memory. In 2060 the two parties recognised that competition at the ballot box could only damage both of them, and their best hope of remaining alive, solvent and separate was an electoral pact. Either both parties faced the same bankruptcy which had destroyed the Liberal Party a generation before, or they had to carve out territories for themselves and each had to agree not to compete for votes in the territory of the other. The resulting electoral pact became known in the press as the McDonald McCarthy pact, from the surnames of the Labour and Conservative leaders of the day, respectively.

The pact took effect before the 2062 general election, which meant that voters had a choice between Tory and Labour candidates only in a handful of the most marginal Parliamentary constituencies: five seats north of Watford, three seats south of Watford, two seats in London itself and two seats in West Central England, which was at that time the devolved state of Wales. With those exceptions, England was a one party state, with small parties, some of which were religious in nature, competing in most constituencies with either the Conservative party or the Labour party, but not both. Yet it lacked the one advantage that a one party state has over a multi party state: in the event of a dispute between intending candidates in a constituency in a one party state, two candidates can stand, both in the name of the one party, without imperilling the one party's chance of coming to power.

The McDonald McCarthy pact effectively reduced the cost of standing candidates in parliamentary elections, but it now meant that two complete sets of administrators, including sizeable office blocks in the fabulously expensive centre of London, were administering one single set of candidates. Since the manifestos of both parties and their conduct when in office were identical, the great parties were now in the position of two competing commercial companies making and selling identical soap, soup, chocolate or woollen socks. The cynical suggested that this was exactly what the marketing and advertising agencies had been trying to achieve. By merging, the parties could expect to, roughly, halve the cost of administration. Instead of two parties each of which was funded by fifteen millionaires, they could form a single party funded by thirty millionaires, a structure much more likely to prove financially viable in the long term. By 2068, after the 2067 general election, as the Trades Unions disintegrated in the wake of the Gibbard affair, the funds which the Trades Unions donated to the Labour Party had diminished to a trickle. The merger took the form of a buy-out. The Tory Party bought the detritus of the Labour Party outright and became The Grey Party, which title it bears to this day.

I could remember my dad talking about the Gibbard Affair. It had happened a couple of years before I was born. It was now in the school history syllabus. Gibbard senior had been a trades union grandee, who had negotiated on behalf of the workforce of a large mobile phone factory in Slough. Gibbard had negotiated terms of redundancy and the factory was closed. Days later it emerged that the factory had closed despite a full order book, the owners could have paid a substantially greater sum in redundancy money than they had, and Gibbard's son, Gibbard Junior, was a director of the management consultancy which had recommended closure and stood to make millions from it. When the facts became known, Gibbard resigned, recommending as his successor an unknown businessman called Albert Flandres. The crunch came, all but destroying the union, when Albert Flandres turned out to have been Gibbard junior's business partner and the owner of most of the consultancy involved.
With one Grey Party candidate assigned to every constituency in England, the only alternative candidates came from the minority parties. These tended to be single issue parties like UKIP († 2017) and the Green Party († 2021) which had ceased to attract votes once their objective appeared to have been met. The principal alternatives were the religious parties. There were twelve of them. None had ever won a parliamentary seat. All but one based their policies on Christian scripture. The important difference between the religious parties and the single-issue parties was that they had more or less comprehensive manifestos. Furthermore these policies were of immediate interest to the electorate: food policies, crime policies, education policies, economic policies, foreign aid policies, housing policies, all of them radically different from the policies of The Grey Party.

The defeat of The Grey Party took place against a background of a collapsing economy and a dramatic change in the climate. Standards of living among the poor were in free fall while the incomes of the rich rose. Both these changes were wholly due to the actions of The Grey Party government, despite their regular protests that poor people's standard of living was falling the world over, and rich people's standard of living was rising the world over, and therefore they could not be blamed if the poor grew poorer as the rich grew richer. The decline in the standard of living of the poor was horrifying. Homelessness was increasing, unemployment — estimates of which were almost universally believed to have been falsified — had engulfed about 80% of the population of working age, and crime had become the only way in which the lowest urban social class could obtain sufficient food. Unemployment was made worse by the collapse of the benefit system known as Universal Credit. After years of error, delay and insufficiency, Universal Credit came to a stand.

Climate change was accelerating and exacerbating the social problems. The climate had been changing for five decades and desertification now extended across the whole of southern England, with sand dunes reaching as far north as Hull and Liverpool. Heating and cooling were now more costly and yet more essential than ever for a reasonably comfortable life. Both were now out of the financial reach of about eighty per cent of households. Heat stroke, dehydration and hypothermia carried away many poor citizens before their time. Even right wing commentators such as the Daily Mail's Gertrude Hitchens and Emanuel Starkey of the British Broadcasting Corporation warned that historically, such mismanagement generally led to revolt or, in extreme cases, revolution.

Faced with a desperate, impoverished electorate whose vote had been rendered worthless, an electoral pact between the religious parties ensured their victory. None of the religious parties could afford to fight 650 seats in a general election, and they therefore determined to fight the next election on a common platform as the United Kingdom Religious Adherence Party, UKRAP. For the first time in a hundred years the electorate could now choose between two political parties with different policies, and both parties had a chance of gaining power.

Furthermore the religious parties recognised how many of the electorate longed for what they called ‘retrenchment,’ a return to the cosy, comfortable England that had disappeared since about 1950 but still survived in popular imagination. UKRAP promised to — and later did — abandon the unfathomable French metric system and the cumbersome American decimal currency, they promised to abolish half the universities and turn them back into polytechnics, they promised to restore the old road signs with words instead of the new signs with drawings. Indeed, they promised to abandon every innovation that voters disliked, from European paper sizes to junk telephone calls and to the ban on smoking cigarettes in the streets and on public transport. UKRAP also had clear plans to deal with the dramatic effects of climate change by importing camels, working at night and sleeping during the day, while The Grey Party made a 'solemn undertaking' to commit England to restoring the former climate by technical means, a commitment which they knew they could not fulfil.

Then came UKRAP's master stroke. UKRAP abandoned the economic theories which had held sway for the previous century despite the clearest evidence that they could not be made to work. The turning point came during a party political broadcast on Tuesday 3 May, ten days before the 2112 election. The broadcast began by quoting Proverbs 19 v 17, ‘Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.’ It went on to announce the economic policy agreed by all the religious parties. The electorate was filled with enthusiasm for their proposals, while The Grey Party was blindsided. During that ten minute amateur broadcast, made with a Philips Toucam in a vicarage bedroom in Kirkby Lonsdale, The Grey Party's share of the intended vote plummeted. It fell below UKRAP's share as the number of Don’t Knows halved. The die was cast.

In the last days of the campaign, The Grey Party ridiculed what they dubbed ‘wishful thinking dressed up as economics,’ a phrase which every Grey Party politician on every political discussion programme was instructed to repeat as many times as he could, describing it as ‘muddle headed’ and ‘uncosted,’ to no avail. In reality the policy had the approval of numerous eminent economists. UKRAP went into the 2112 election on a promise to double the cash incomes of the poor within three months, or resign en bloc. They won the election by a majority of 104 seats. The median income of the bottom ten per cent of the population of England rose by 102% between 12 May, the election date, and 12 August.

In the election of 2117 UKRAP won again, by a slightly bigger majority, this time on promises to re-introduce grammar schools and the student grant and teach the illiterate English working class to read again. For at least fifty years, the English school system had been recognised internationally, in one survey after another, as the worst in the world. Creating a literate and numerate populace would be a feat neither attempted nor achieved since Likbez, Stalin's literacy programme in the Soviet Union two hundred years before.

I put the magazine back into its envelope intending to read the last few paragraphs later. I put the envelope on a high shelf in my clothing cupboard where a casual visitor would be unlikely to notice it, and I took Constable Faulkner's PSYCHO electric gun out of my suitcase. I needed to know how it worked, or failing that, how to shoot somebody with it. It was in three sections, which I was able to re-assemble. There was a safety switch, which I could turn on, and there was a trigger. I looked along the sight, poked the barrel out of the window, aimed carefully at a garden slug which was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I pulled the trigger.

There was a loud clang and a green beam struck the ground just in front of the slug, leaving a black, burned smudge and a live slug. I had missed the slug, so had it been a heavily armed deadly spider from northern Australia accidentally transported to England in a crate of fish pancakes, I would have been in just as much mortal danger after shooting at it as I was before. I tried aiming at the slug again. Sorry, Mr Slug, I thought, but this just is not your day. Other householders put out slug pellets or basins of beer but this householder goes to extreme lengths to protect his growing vegetables. There was a red point of light in the sight that wasn't there before. I fixed the slug in the crosshairs and pulled the trigger for the second time. Nothing happened. Presumably the red light meant that something was not ready to fire. A second or two later the light in the sight vanished, so I positioned the crosshairs directly above the heart of the enemy and pulled the trigger again. There was a clang and the beam shot above the slug and hit a lollipop stick. The stick actually splintered into two pieces, but the slug kept on coming. Now there were two lights in the sight. I waited, but neither light went out. I guessed that the two lights meant the batteries were exhausted, so the gun needed to be connected to mains electricity.

Again, I looked over the body of the gun. It took a minute or two of staring at it before I found a little recess within which was a sort of two pin plug. By good fortune the plug was the same size and shape as the plug on my electric kettle, so I plugged it in to the kettle wire and switched the power on. A green light appeared on the stock. Now all I had to do was wait until the gun was re-charged and then find a good place to hide it. I felt just like the main character in ‘Protect and Survive’


Workless, worthless and penniless. It's strange that you need time to adjust to being unemployed. You would have thought that you just shrugged off the restrictions and obligations of employment and in seconds you found yourself well-adjusted to your liberty, much like when they let you out of prison. That evening, I had got out of bed, put on a suit, picked up my briefcase and walked out of my front door in the direction of the office before I realised that, since I had been summarily dismissed from my position as the Entertainments and Beverages Section Manager, my presence in the office was no longer required, nor indeed permitted.

Today was the day of the great disciplinary committee hearing. There seemed no point in going, just to be humiliated by listening to Human Equipment reciting the prohibited contents of my office desk to me and a staff federation official when all three of us knew the account was completely made up. I decided to let them dismiss me. At bottom the only thing I cared about was the salary that I would no longer receive.

Between them, I was sure, Conrad, with a third class degree in woodwork, and Bethan, a school leaver with three O levels, were doing my job perfectly competently. My place would, if the appointment followed the usual pattern, be taken by something called 'fresh blood,' that is, one of The Management's friends, relations, servants, wives or mistresses whose experience running a sausage factory on the Isle of Man could be misrepresented as a knowledge both broad and deep of the alcoholic beverage industry, taxation, retail economics, cocktail recipes and the Christian ethics of drink and drinking.

I was out of it. Instead, I was now the media spokesman for Justice for Atheists, working freelance and on a zero hours contract, making a living by appearing on broadcasts and avoiding making a fool of myself, while eating any fish pancakes and drinking any pint tins of beer that happened to come my way. It was an occupation that, so far, I had not been especially good at.


I heard her voice from the street. Julie Cook was walking up the path — all three feet of it — to my door. I opened the door and called back to her.

"Julie! What brings you here?"
"I missed you. So tell me, Mr Movie Star, what do freedom and fortune feel like?"
"I don't know," I said. "But seeing as you address me by the title bestowed upon me by a broadcasting company, I take it you were watching ‘Moaning Minnies’ yesterday."
"Oh! That edition. Yes. In fact I watched it several times."
"The edition in which I arrived pretending to be an expert in the reform of the government's legislative programme and departed pretending to know how to cook a fish pancake."
"Yes," said Julie, "I noticed that as well. I thought you interviewed fairly well, all things considered."
"I went to all the trouble of mugging up. I read a magazine article, as well."
"The one by Shineforth Toynbee? I noticed. You left the magazine open at that page. Did that dear champagne socialist leave you feeling well briefed and knowledgeable?"
"Well briefed enough to survive a four minute interview. Turned out that I'd been revising for the wrong paper. That nightmare where you turned over the paper at the start of the school mathematics examination and all the questions were about the American Civil War."
"Never mind. For one who never did more in the kitchen than make a mug of coffee, you did superbly. Speaking of which, do you want coffee? I brought a jar of instant and a tin of milk in case your money had already run out."
"Thank you," I said, "I'm really touched."
"Tell me something." Julie paused.
I had no idea what she wanted me to tell her, so after a few seconds I asked. "Tell you what, exactly?"
"Since you were on ‘Moaning Minnies,’ do women come up to you in the street, women you've never seen before, all legs and teeth and perfume, and say 'Mr de Couloir, can you spare a minute to explain why my fish pancakes always turn out like sticky lumps of cold grease?'"
"It happens all the time." I said. "The bedroom's full of them. I tried beating them with a stick to make them go away, but it only makes them more determined to get an answer. I always tell them the same thing, which is 'Because you can't cook even with an instruction manual.'"
"You must be fed up with them by now. Oh — I forgot to tell you. Wiggles and Pongo send their kindest regards."
"That's sweet!" I forced myself to sound delighted to hear from them. "Tell them that I'm delighted to have been fired, because it will give me much more time to write horoscopes and football match reports with which to amuse them while I starve to death… Look, Julie, is there a point that you're trying to avoid getting to?"
"Yes." As Julie was speaking, she pulled a piece of paper from her bag. "Next time I'm coming this way, I'll bring the beloved fish with me. Look, there's something I need to find out." She held up the paper. It said 'Is that thing switched off?'

She meant the ticker. I pulled the plug out.

"It is now."
"You have reservations about UKRAP, don't you."
"Will I join Mr Fawkes in his grand conspiracy to transform Parliament, do you mean? Just a second. Let me make the coffee."

I went into the kitchen, poured some drinking water into the kettle and made two mugs of instant coffee. It gave me a chance to look carefully out of the windows and check for snoopers. I didn't see any.

"Here," I said two minutes later, "have some coffee."
"And the answer is no. I know exactly where to get thirty-six barrels of gunpowder at a fair price, but no, I have no desire to be tortured half to death, show trialled and then hanged, drawn and quartered for my part in a plot that is famous mainly for not achieving anything anyway. Which, it will not surprise anyone who is snooping on this conversation to hear, is why I am freelancing for Justice for Atheists."
"Do you really think it's wise to wait until the election before trying to push the Christian Right out of politics? These guys are way out of control already."
"Sure they're out of control. They started well but now they're thrashing around for something else to do, and the extremists are dictating their policy. That much was predictable. There's nobody else to take over from them. I think that starting a real opposition party is the best bet. Democracy sometimes works. If people want us, they will say so, loudly and clearly. We have, what, four and a bit years to build up an opposition party."
"Look," said Julie, "I know you have to avoid saying anything in public that might attract unwanted attention but we're alone and you can tell me your opinion."
"I did. Obviously it isn't what you want to hear, but my opinion is that a democratic vote every five years—"
"Don't you realise that the House of Commons is in the grip of a zizz epidemic?"
"No. And even if it were, why is that worse than the Grey Party drunkards and alkies? You used to hear them singing and yelling in the background on ‘Yesterday in Parliament’ at half past eight in the evening, when they had spent all day in the bars and the rest of us had only just got out of bed."
Julie thought about it. "Then when UKRAP won their third term six months ago, they ordered the broadcasters out of Central Hall altogether. Now all we have to go on are vague half-truths sent out in news releases."
"And we don't have to listen to the drunks any more. I quite miss their tuneless caterwauling as the front bench waffled about tax rates or the maximum sentence for impersonating a dog warden."
"Look. I didn't want you to know this but I skived off work yesterday, firstly so as to watch you begin your new career—"
"I'm flattered."
"Good luck with it, and then, having Ministry ID, I went to Central Hall and tried flashing it to the guys with guns on the front door."
"Did they shoot you?"

Julie continued, tellingly, I thought, in the hushed tone of one who had covertly visited some forbidden hide-away instead of a voter and taxpayer who had openly gone and seen how her representatives were behaving.

"No, they didn't. They let me in. The MPs are all zonked. They're draped over the seats, unconscious. Dead to the world."
"The less the government does, the better for the rest of us, I'd say."
"If pictures of the House of Commons in a state of complete catatonia were to find their way onto billboards in the cities, just think."
"Yes, just think. The government would die of shame, the Grey Party would make a comeback, we'd all be homeless, unemployed, freezing and starving again, and in the worst case you would be found beaten to a pulp in a Repentance Squad site office somewhere while the Daily Worshipper would say you had been killed in a sandstorm on the M11. Julie, for God's sake keep your head down—"

There was a sharp knock on the door. Damn. From where I was sitting, the caller appeared to be a young man wearing the deep blue overalls of Networks Corporation and carrying a metal tool box. There was a camel parked at the kerb outside, hitched to a small tool-chest on wheels, with 'Networks' branded along its near side. I hadn't heard it draw up.

"Eugene Skala. Ticker repairs," said the man. He looked like a youth in his first job, who didn't have much idea of how razors and combs work. "Network Monitoring tells me you had a breakdown. Second breakdown this week, it says here." He walked into the lounge without waiting to be invited.
"No, Mr Skala," I said, "thanks for dropping by, but it's all right. I pulled the plug out by mistake."
"That's the problem, the plug's not in the socket," he told me, pointing at the plug as it lay on the carpet. "It needs electricity, or it won't work properly. Perhaps you tripped over the cable and the plug came out."

Mr Skala picked the plug up, pushed it into the socket and waited while the ticker started to operate. ‘Hop on a camel’ it said. He touched the 'Next' eikon with his finger and the sentiment changed to 'Twinkle twinkle little star, Circumference is 2πr'

"There you are, all mended," he said, "there was nothing wrong with it. User error. That'll be ten shillings."
"For what?"
"Call out charge."
"Call out charge? I didn't call you out."
"No, but you would have done when you noticed the ticker wasn't working. Networks just beat you to the punch. You can pay cash now, or Networks will put it on the bill next month."
"You'd best put it on the bill," I said, "because I'm poor as a church mouse."
"Never say that!" Julie told me. "As soon as they know you haven't got any money, they try to make you pay."
"It will go on your bill," Eugene nodded. "I'll be off, then."
"One second," Julie addressed him. "Desmond, make some coffee. Three mugs."
"But you only just— All right." I went into the kitchen and started muching about with cups, water and the kettle.
"Yes?" I heard Eugene answer Julie.
"How long have you worked for the Squad?"
"Six months," said Eugene. "Woops! I mean, I work for Networks."
"Thanks for reassuring me," said Julie. "I wouldn't want to think you were actually searching the house without a warrant. Thing is, you're wearing Repentance Squad socks."
"Oh, dear," said Eugene.
"You know," I said from beside the stove. "if there's one thing I can't stand, it's having my house searched by a constable without a warrant pretending to be a repair man."

Eugene left the house without saying anything else. Through the window I watched him clamber onto the camel with his tool box and sway off.

"Room service!" Julie laughed, "Cancel the coffee."

Julie looked at the table and found the scrap of paper which she had given to me earlier. She picked it up, turned it over and gave it back to me, saying "I really have to get back to work now, big boy. I shouldn't be having affaires at all, really."
"I don't mind," I said, "I don't sit in judgment over anybody, but I do wish you wouldn't leave your underwear lying around the bedroom. It makes the place look untidy. Put it in a neat pile beside the ironing board in future."
"Certainly, big boy."

I opened the front door and went out onto the street with Julie. I watched her wander off towards her house, giggling. While I was outside the house, I looked down at the piece of paper. ‘You know where I work,’ it said. I dropped it into the neighbour's dustbin and hoped that I would never see it again.

"Yes, Julie," I said quietly to myself, "I do indeed know where you work, but do credit me with having reconnoîtred the site fairly thoroughly during the years that I worked in it. Firstly there are a team of fighting fit, giant sized gorillas on the door who are paid so much per inflicted injury to keep me out, plus a bonus for death and disfigurement, and secondly even if I could get inside, I can't think of any room in any building in all the length and breadth of merry England where a seditious conversation would be more likely to be overheard, recorded, reported, falsified, exaggerated and used in evidence at your show trial. Of course, I could always stand on the street outside, underneath your office window, with a violin, a music stand and a megaphone and sing you my political opinions to the tune of ‘O Sole Mio,’ but even that might attract a small measure of unwelcome attention.

I wanted to ask Julie where she was going to get the pictures and which walls she was going to post them on, but she was now too far away to talk to. Simply asking these questions in any situation where I might be overheard was tantamount to suicide.

If I was to make a living as a freelance politician, which was the hopeless sounding occupation that now confronted me, CBC would need an occasional reminder that I existed, but I would have to put myself to the trouble of making myself known to the newspapers. Newspapers had mostly died out during the twenty-first century, but there were two surviving daily newspapers still circulating, so I thought it might be a good idea to spend the day introducing myself to them. The Daily Worshipper was, essentially, the mouthpiece of government, and therefore immune to bankruptcy, and then there was The Popinjay, which derived its name from a classic parliamentary insult, had managed to keep its sales and advertising sufficient for it to continue to print a paper edition, and adopted an anti-establishment stance on most political issues when it judged that it was safe to do so.

"Can I hire self-drive for a day?" I asked the ticket office on the market square.
"Certainly, guv, if you've got a driving licence," came the reply, "£4 14s 9d plus ten quid deposit and five bob for insurance. You pay for all fodder and water. Any maintenance or medical attention is all down to you and the insurance company."
The price sounded reasonable to me. "All right," I said, "here you are."
"Akhmed," said the ticket office, giving me my five and threepence change, "he's around the corner. Good runner, fit, strong, reasonably good tempered, less than thirty million cubits on the clock, yours for the day. Bring him back here by this time tomorrow evening."

I walked around the corner and saw four camels tied to posts in the street. "Which one of you is Akhmed?"

One of the camels immediately stepped towards me, so I climbed aboard and cast off. The ticket office saw me over the low wall. He looked up at me and yelled, "Not that one. Akhmed. His name is on his saddle. Ain't you never seen a camel before?"
"Sorry," I yelled back.

I fought for five minutes to moor Nagua back onto the post. She was stronger than I am. She also, definitely, did not want to be tied up and left. Well, you wouldn't, would you. After a spot of walking along the line of camels looking at their details, I found Akhmed, who did not seem best pleased at being identified. I climbed into his saddle and cast off again. The ticket office didn't yell anything. Akhmed and I were on the road and headed for Wapping.

I didn't have the privilege of driving as often as I might have liked, so I chose to go the pretty way, down the Lea towpath and turn right at Limehouse. I felt a bit like Mr Toad. Not only did I enjoy the beautiful views of pastoral parts of London that I hadn't seen for years, but Akhmed could stop for a drink whenever he wanted, which he did, but not very often. An hour and a half after setting off, we were coming to a halt outside the red brick office of The Popinjay.

Akhmed was pulling faces. He could smell fresh paint, which distracted him. Someone had recently painted 'The Wapping Liar' on the wall. It was an old joke but I still smiled at it as I found Akhmed's mooring rope and threw the looped end around a bollard. There was a heavy door, blackened through years of use, marked 'Visitors,' so I tried it and walked inside. There was a man sitting at a desk with a pile of today's edition, a ticker and a notebook. He shared his desk with a name plate, 'Warwick Dean.'

"Warwick Dean?" I asked him. "I wanted to introduce myself briefly. I'm Desmond Sherburne and I'm the newly appointed spokesman for Justice for Atheists."
"Okay. Would you like to write your contact details here, so that we can find you when we want you?"

Wanting to appear organised, I had brought a pen with me. I wrote my name, address and job title in capital letters.

"Can you wait a moment? Maybe someone wants to talk to you." Warwick Dean left the desk and wandered up a staircase, where I guessed the offices were. He came down again with a remarkably slim and well groomed man who looked mid twenties and smelt of after shave. The second man carried a spiral notebook and a carpenter's pencil.

"Hi, I'm Raeburn Franklin. I work on the news desk. Just so there's no mistake, can you dictate your name and job title again? This is all on the record, I presume?"
"Desmond Sherburne. Sierra, hotel, echo, romeo, bravo, uniform, romeo, november, echo." I noticed Raeburn smiling at my naiveté and desire to impress. "Policy spokesman of Justice for Atheists, which is a political party that plans to fight the 2122 general election."

I realised that I didn't need to spell my name out and show off my knowledge of twentieth century war stories. I could simply have offered to write it in his notebook. Still, I was learning on the job, and there was always next time.

"What does Justice for Atheists think about today's revelations concerning Kian Ainsworth?"
"I don't know," I said. "What are the revelations?"
"Ainsworth's sister says a private investigator found hundreds of zizz tablets in his flat."
"He was selling zizz in Central Hall?"
"Unlikely," said Franklin. "Zizz is easier to get in Central Hall than clean drinking water. More likely Ainsworth found someone else's stash and hid it in his own home."
"And then?"
"That's all we know," said Franklin. "It's probably all that anybody knows. Do you want to give me a quote?"
"How about…" I thought for a moment. "Just a stupid prank by a member of The Grey Party who was more awake than most. It seems to have ended tragically."
"Ended tragically?" Franklin asked, as though I ought to have said more.
"He was found with all those tablets just a day or two before he was killed on the M11, isn't that right?"
"Eighteen hours or so before," said Franklin.
"Excuse me a moment," said Warwick Dean. He walked out of the front door and, a few seconds later, he walked back in again. "Sorry, Mr Sherburne, you should go and take a look at your camel. He doesn't look well to me."

Akhmed the camel had been sick into the gutter. I could see tongue marks on the newly applied paint and it didn't take a genius to work out that licking the paint had made him ill.

"Sorry, I need to attend to this. Is there a garage near here?"
"That way." Franklin pointed west. “‘The Pit Stop.’ It's a mile or so.”
"Thanks. I can't leave him to suffer while we talk through the story."
"May I quote you on the stupid prank ending tragically?"
"Yes," I said, "but Clichés Are Us hold the copyright."
"Don't forget to buy the paper tomorrow evening."

Coaxing a sick camel a mile along a heavily trafficked street may look difficult, but actually it's harder than it looks. An hour later, and not long before it closed, Akhmed and I arrived at the garage. ‘The Pit Stop. The camel doctors who put the Hump Back in Hump Back Bridges.’ I explained to Tylor, the mechanic, that poor Akhmed appeared to be suffering the effects of licking paint.

"You're a very sick camel," he said, looking at Akhmed and ignoring me altogether. "You should think more carefully about what you lick. You need milk of magnesia and a night in the sick bay." Then he picked a familiar blue bottle out of the drug cupboard and handed it to me, saying, "Give him this."

I managed to get most of the bottle down Akhmed's neck.

"Well done," said Tylor.
"Thanks," I said.
"I meant, well done, Akhmed. He had to drink the stuff."
"Well, I helped a bit."
"He'll be right as rain tomorrow evening. When you collect him, the bill will be £21."
"Twenty-one pounds?"
"Yes, that's one pound's worth of milk of magnesia, five pounds' worth of cleaning up the mess and fifteen pounds' worth of knowing what was wrong with him. After a night in the workshop, he'll be strong enough to take you home."

Sunrise was approaching. With no camel to ride on, I walked along the north bank as far as Limehouse and then hitched a ride on a barge that was headed towards Stansted. It was nearly nine in the morning when I walked along Tottenham High Road. I passed the Excelsior Rave Cave, which at this time of day was, mercifully, silent. Two doors along, one of the dilapidated shops seemed to have re-opened. The door was closed, but through the grubby window I could make out Petrina Mack sitting at a trestle table with a notebook, a pencil, and a small pile of posters. I waved to her from the street, but she didn't notice me.

I went and explained the absence of my hired beast of burden Akhmed to the ticket office in the market. Then I managed a few hours' sleep in my own bed, and then as soon as it became cool enough to go outside I found a caravan going towards Wapping and went back to The Pit Stop. Tylor was in the repair shop, his overalls looking as though he had recently been standing too close to an oil bomb, and working on what looked like a cart with a broken axle.

Akhmed was fully recovered and I handed over the £21 which I had managed to scrape together. Akhmed was strong enough to take me on the short journey to Fleet Street and the office of the Daily Worshipper, where I had decided to make myself known. I parked Akhmed in the shade as best I could.

"Don't eat any fresh paint while I'm away," I told him sternly.
"Desmond?" I heard Julie's voice.
"Over here, by the parking meter. Where are you?"

Julie appeared from around a corner. She was holding a roll of posters in one hand and a tin of what might have been wallpaper paste. Standing in the tin was a broad brush.

"Desmond, are you doing the grand tour?" she asked.
"Long story. I decided to introduce myself to the newspapers, seeing as nobody else wanted to do it."
"It's the best way to get your name known, I suppose," she said.
"And what are you doing so far from your office?"
"Skiving off. They can spare me for another day. Remember I asked you to imagine what would happen if everybody found out that members of Parliament were vegetating on zizz most of the time?"
"You did, and I remember thinking that everybody's probably so familiar with the members' sleep patterns that the chances of fomenting a popular revolt by handing out a couple of pictures of MPs lying about doing no work of any kind while in receipt of vast salaries are quite small."
"Why? Why would anyone put up with it?"
"They've been doing it for at least a hundred years. What are you going to do that will make people so angry that they demand reform?"
"Today at ten in the evening the Minister of Pilgrimage is opening a new caravan shelter on the Blackfriars Bridge. The broadcast cameras will all be arranged in a semicircle around the temporary lectern. There's a bunch of us putting up posters behind the lectern." She unrolled one of the posters. It was a Large Post size sheet of paper with a photograph of Members of Parliament catatonic on the benches of Central Hall. 'MPs At Work,' the caption read.
"And nobody, neither the Repentance Squad nor the security guards from Central Hall, have been troubling you, trying to stop you fly-posting, for instance?"
"No. They don't know we're there, and we'll be finished soon. I'll be able to go back to the office and do something pointless."
"Julie," I asked, "where did you get the posters from?"
"There was a woman wearing a Justice For Atheists badge handing them out. She was standing in front of one of the old shops on the High Road. Not far from the Excelsior, as a matter of fact. I just took a handful. She told me where the posters were going to be stuck up, and I came down here. The paste and the brush were waiting for me when I arrived here. It was good fun."
"I think you and I had best leave the area," I said.
"I'll explain later," I said. "For now, if you leave the painting and decorating on the pavement and climb aboard, I may just be able to get you away from here before the big fight starts."

I cast off Akhmed and joined the near-stationary column of traffic that had formed around the broadcast crews, heading in the direction of Limehouse. We had covered a hundred yards or so when a Repentance Squad constable stepped in front of Akhmed and held his right hand up, gesturing to me to stop.

"Damn," I said to Julie, "we didn't get away fast enough."
"Stop! You're being kettled."
"Whoa, Akhmed," I said. It wasn't necessary: we were only moving a step at a time anyway.

When Akhmed took another step, moving us perhaps a foot along the road, the constable aimed his stun gun at Akhmed and shouted the traditional challenge, "Halt or I fire!"
"Aren't you over-reacting a bit?" I said to the constable.
"Get down off that camel and give me the reins."

Akhmed knew, a sight better than we did, what to do. He had obviously seen a constable before. He spat a bucketful of foul smelling green muck at the constable, knocking him to the ground and rendering his weapon unusable. "That's him out of the game for a while," I thought. Ahkmed turned to the left of the jammed traffic and ran at high speed along the sidewalk of the main road, scattering shoppers, tourists and business people left and right, and leaving us to hold on as best we could. He ran for three or four miles and came to a stop ten minutes later, breathless, sweaty and obviously pleased with himself, a bit beyond Canary Wharf and overlooking the Thames. I felt a powerful sense of gratitude.

"Well, that was the ride of my life," said Julie, as she checked that her pockets had not been emptied into the sand, righted herself and sat carefully upright.
"If we let Akhmed cool off, we can go home at a gentle jog-trot along the Lea towpath. It's quite a pleasant journey."
"Do you think they'll come after us?"
"Maybe they will. They're a vindictive lot at times. Depends on how thorough their intelligence gathering was when they gave you the posters. On the other hand, they've been made to look fools and they won't be keen on everybody finding that out."
"Snakes alive, I'm a fugitive," said Julie.

I dropped Julie at her house, dropped Akhmed off at the market square, and picked my way home. The sand seemed, definitely, deeper now than it had been two days ago, when I set off.

I opened my front door as the sun was rising. On my doormat were two envelopes. One of them contained nothing but a ticker ticket, which I put to one side for later. The other was the inevitable envelope from the Ministry of E & B. I noticed that the letter was hand written on the back of a sheet of notepaper taken from the Watermead Golf Club. Obviously the writer had been so drunk that he had mistaken the headed notepaper for a blank sheet.

'Dear Mr Sherburne,' it began, 'At the disciplinary hearing held today in your absence, it was blah blah staff federation pointed out that the space occupied in your desk drawer by thirty-seven photographs was too little to impede the use of the drawer for official purposes. The hearing draws it to your attention that The Management discourages blah blah written warning, and you are expected to return to work next Monday, 22 November, at 8.30 pm.'

League Division Two, I thought, Sherburne 1, E & B Nil.

And at the end of the letter, 'In view of your four day unpaid suspension from work, you will be required to work four days beyond your ninetieth birthday in order to claim your corporate pension in full.' This struck me as a little unfair because it was the Ministry that had put me out of my job and it was also the Ministry who did not want me back in until next Monday.

Their letter also proved to me that, try as you may, once the Civil Service have sunk their teeth into you, you can't get away from them.


I picked the ticker ticket up from my doormat and looked at it. It had nothing written on it: no name or address, for instance. It might well be an advertising flyer from the local pizza delivery kitchen, or a notification of an extra service time from the parish church. I held it against the ticker and it turned out my guess was right: it was a public ticket. Anyone could read it. It was a short advertisement for Pizzeria di Torino, which was introducing three new pizza meals especially to suit me and my family. Announcing the amazing new Pizza Pomodoro, the wonderful Pizza Polpette e Acciughe, the staggeringly delicious and succulent Pizza Prosciutto e Asparagi, twelve inches diameter, £17 each, free delivery. Enough. I was beginning to feel embarrassed in case anybody ever found out that I was watching it.

I was about to throw the ticket into the single steel dustbin that stood at the kerbside — for some reason I suddenly remembered what a relief it had been when they removed all the dozen or so coloured receptacles for different sorts of rubbish and replaced them with a single galvanised steel dustbin — when I realised that, if the ticket contained a message intended for me, then firstly it was not an advertisement for pizza, since I was no great fan of pizza, and secondly whoever sent it would not want to make it obvious that he was sending a message mildly critical of UKRAP, if that is what it was. I still had the faked identity card in my wallet, so I held that against the ticker and I tried again. The ticket did indeed have a second message on board.

The message was an amateur recording of a professional broadcast. Someone, somewhere, had coaxed an old fashioned television receiver into working and tuned it to France Today, then stood a camera in front of it and recorded it. Speaking, writing or teaching the French language was illegal, so I was grateful to my unknown correspondent for his, or her, work. The sound track of the programme was in heavily accented English.

The programme, as far as I could make out from the snowy picture and the hissy sound track, had been recorded on location somewhere a few miles to the north of London. It began with the sinister call sign, 'France calling, France calling, Admiral Nelson was greatly over-rated' and the programme title followed, 'The Architect, the Minister and the Pills.'

"Two hundred years ago," the reporter explained to the camera as he lit a Gauloise, "this area of England was more fertile than it is today. It was covered with heated glasshouses, producing fruit and vegetables for London." He walked halfway across a field to a tumbledown pile of stonework, steel poles and glass which might once have been a glasshouse. The reporter held the pack of Gauloises at such an angle that the camera could see clearly what it was. The Ministry of Resurrection had decided that cigarettes were bad for us and therefore, in England, they were in dire shortage.

I noticed that the title of the programme appeared on the screen as 'How to Cook Pizza,' meaning that anybody in Monitoring who noticed that I had spent half an hour reading a ticket would assume that I was learning about cooking pizza. Whoever recorded this ticket was a technical whizz.

"These days, of course, the fertile soil is parched by the hot sun and buried under a foot or so of sand, rendering it more or less useless for agriculture. But a couple of the buildings from that age survive," the reporter continued. "Here are two of them. They stand on a patch of land called Dijkstra Acreage. It seems the local people have put these buildings to good use. Come with me and have a look inside." The reporter had found a factory producing zizz, certainly by the pound if not by the hundredweight. Drums of chemicals, retorts, Bunsen burners, everything a mad Professor in a science fiction film might want to create some fanciful invention. "Such discoveries as this are fairly common. The Repentance Squad says that every zizz factory they close down is replaced by another within days. Most of the factories are abandoned buildings, like this one, which the drug pedlars share with tramps, catas and homeless families. What makes these two tumbledown shacks unusual is their ownership." The camera swivelled around and zoomed in onto a large and ancient looking house on the horizon. "The land called Dijkstra's Acreage is registered to this fellow here, who is so important that his picture hangs in the Tate Gallery." The picture cut to a painting of a big man in posh clothes on horseback. "This is Sir Marmaduke Boone, a partner in Boone, Hooke and Diefenbach, architects, and also husband of the Prime Minister and leader of UKRAP, Cecilia Boone." There followed a long list of everything that FT and its team of amateur forensic scientists had chanced upon while wandering around the two buildings with magnifying glasses and flashlights. At the end of the documentary, as was de rigueur in any documentary about anything at all, Sir Marmaduke had been shown shouting expletives about the French and displaying an extraordinary reluctance to be interviewed about the use to which his buildings had been put. He even threatened to set his dogs on the reporter.

The programme ended and the ticker went back to 'Stagger Working Hours.' Beneath the table there was a cardboard box of tickets that I didn't actually want but couldn't be bothered to throw away. The timetables of railway services long suspended until further notice, take-away menus, camel hire companies. I put the ticket fourth from the top of the heap.

While I had quite enjoyed spending two days working off my own bat as a freelance elder statesman and media personality, it was reassuring to know that, should I ever want to cook a pizza, having a paid job meant that I would be able to afford the ingredients, the gas to cook them on and enough electricity to light the kitchen, more likely than not.

I managed to wash the sand and sweat off myself and go to sleep during the heat of the day. Some instinct, probably set off by having dodged around a constable on a getaway camel, told me that I might be able to get out of trouble more easily if I had the stun gun ready at hand than if it were lying in pieces in a different room, so I found it, reassembled it, checked that it appeared to be working, and laid it beside my bed where I could reach for it easily if I saw or heard anything that needed to be shot.

In the middle of the day I was woken by the dustbin in the front garden clattering onto the floor. I guessed it was a fox. Nobody would be mucking about with the dustbins outside in the heat. Sitting up, I rubbed some of the sleep out of my eyes, and then I looked out of the window. The dustbin was on the ground and a pile of rubbish had spilled out of it. I couldn't see any fox footprints in the sand, but maybe it was a small animal and didn't leave visible tracks. I opened the front door and began to scoop up the mess with my bare hands.

"Sherburne!" I heard someone on the other side of the street call my name. "This is the Repentance Squad. You are under arrest. Stand completely still and do what I tell you." The constable on the other side of the street had appeared out of nowhere, and was armed with the usual stun gun.

"Constable," I said, hoping that the same ruse would work twice, "you're holding that gun with your right second finger on a hot rivet. If you fire it, you'll probably lose— Ow!"

I'd been darted! A bolt the size of a three-inch, 6 SWG nail was embedded in my left thigh.
A voice on my left shouted, "One hundred and eigh-ty!"
"Bloody coppers," I shouted, "you've ruined my last good pair of trousers."
"Don't pull the dart out," said William Tell, on my left.

My leg felt as though it had caught fire. I grabbed the bolt and pulled it out of the muscle, realising too late that, without the bolt to plug the wound, my leg was bleeding profusely. I'd fallen for the oldest trick in the book. A pincer movement: Player Number One creates a distraction, while Player Number Two gets to close quarters. My left knee gave way and I crashed to the ground, looking and feeling a complete fool. The constables piled their weapons into a compartment somewhere on the Emergency Response Camel, then picked me up by the arms and legs and dropped me into the small cart behind it.

They threw me in a cell in a building somewhere nearby. Sergeant Bill Enderby bade me welcome to Hornsey Repentance Station, explained that I was under arrest for failing to stop and assaulting a constable, took my details, went through various initiation rituals and offered me a phone call.

"Do you want to make a voice call? Calls may be recorded and monitored for training and quality control purposes."
"I don't know anyone who cares about me being arrested, except me of course," I said, "but I would appreciate being allowed to talk to the Samaritans. I know someone there, who lives near me. Besides which, they don't tell you to pull yourself together if you start crying."
"Seems reasonable enough," said Sergeant Enderby, handing me a mini-ticker. "I've got the number here somewhere."

"Is Abdul there?" I asked the Samaritans.
"Yeah," said the voice at the far end, "This is Abdul speaking."
"Abdul, it's me, Desmond. I've been arrested and taken to Hornsey Repentance Station."
"That's terrible. You must be very shaken up. But people often come to terms with their misfortune faster if they muse on the nature they can see out of the window. Does the cell have a window?"
"Yes. But all I can see is, well, it's mostly sand. There's a camel park and the war memorial on the road. Depressing stuff."
"Nothing else." I looked for a moment. "Oh, yes, and a bus shelter. Over on the right."
"Are there any nice people in the bus shelter?"
"No, they all look as though they stop reading after the football pages."
"How about in the cells? Are there any nice people in the cells?"
"There's me, in mine. I don't know, I guess there are three to my left and four to my right. And I don't suppose they can read at all."
"Oh, my, my, that is terrible. You have to read to them. You can't just—"

The mini-ticker stopped working.

"Three minutes. That's all you're allowed, Sherburne. We'll come back and talk to you later."
"How long am I going to be in here?"
"How long is a piece of string?" he replied. "If you give us the answers we want, don't tell lies, don't make trouble and sign everything we tell you to sign, then you'll be out of here in five years, if you're lucky. Possibly more. Oh!" The sergeant looked along the corridor and smiled to somebody. "Here's Mrs Berry with some supper."
"Fish fingers an' chips," she said, passing me a plastic fork and some food on a paper plate. "I made some tea. I'll bring that along in a— 'Ere, Bill!" She pointed me out to the sergeant, as though there were fifty people in the cell with me. "That's André de Couloir. I saw 'im on Moaning Minnies."
"Who?" Sergeant Enderby was, briefly, skeptical. "Are you sure?"
"I'd know 'im anywhere. 'E's a chef what knows about cookin' fish. Sure as I'm standin' 'ere, 'e's definitely been on Moanin' Minnies."
"We'd better have a closer look at his identity card. We'll soon sort this out."

Mrs Berry went on handing out fish fingers and chips on paper plates, while the sergeant disappeared into an office somewhere.

"Well, now," he said when he came back, "as soon as our little machine saw this card coming, it went pink with rage, it jumped up and down and it said, 'Security error.' Which means this card is a fake."
"Yes, it is." I said.
"Why didn't you tell us it was fake?"
"You didn't ask me," I said, perfectly reasonably, I thought.
"Didn't you realise you're not supposed to carry a fake identity card?"
"See?" said Mrs Berry, walking back along the corridor. "Told you he was André de Couloir."
"That's a jolly strange name," said Sergeant Enderby.
"French," said Mrs Berry, knowingly. "You can't trust the French. That you can't. 'Is name means 'Andrews Liver Salts.'"
"It means 'guardian,' I guessed. 'Andrew the guardian.'"
"Huh!" Mrs Berry snorted, "That's nonsense. Why would anyone name themselves after a newspaper?"
"Why would they name themselves after an indigestion cure?" I asked.
"Because they're French, Monsieur André," said Mrs Berry. "They get indigestion all the time, because French food is so horrible. They eat snails and frogs' legs. Oh, euurgh!" She convulsed at the very thought of it. "Let them eat fish fingers."
"Could be worse," I said, "it could have been pigfish."

Mrs Berry stormed off, obviously annoyed by the idea that a Frenchman might have been eating her fish fingers. Later she gave me a paper cup of tea and told me, "I know you French'd rather be given coffee, but we English people don't drink that muck."

The tea was pretty good. I found out later that Mrs Berry won most of the baking competitions at the women's institute. Sergeant Enderby drew the short straw and had to collect the rubbish. I spent, maybe, an hour staring out of the window as there was nothing else to do, and then he hollered "Lights out!" and turned the lights off. As it was bright daylight outside, I didn't really need the electric light.

There's a special kind of peace that descends when everyone around you is snoring. I'd been staring out of the window, seeing nothing in particular happen, for at least an hour and possibly two or three. Then a single camel mooched across the horizon: someone had gone off road. He parked a few yards from the building, walked up to the wall, then walked back to the camel and mooched off again.

A couple of hours later, in the middle of the day, the building was shaken by a terrific bang. An IED had blown a hole in the wall: not, unfortunately, in the wall of my cell, but in the wall of the cell beside it. I guessed that Abdul had counted the windows from the wrong end. Whoever was in the cell ran out across the sand, turned around to stick out his tongue and make a defiant gesture towards the Repentance Station with the first two fingers of his right hand, then made off awkwardly through the sand.

It took a few minutes for the Repentance Squad to get out of bed, find a dog, get Genghis the dog out of bed and then explain to it that the escaped prisoner had gone that-a-way and it had to go and fetch him. They repeated the instructions three or four times, each time slower and in shorter words than the time before. The dog suddenly ran off, barking, and seized the ankle of a little old lady who was standing in the bus shelter. "Bloody thing's nearly bitten my foot off," she wailed to the constable who had to release her and call an ambulance.

I lost interest in it after that, but a couple of hours later the dog returned, pulling the prisoner along by his wrist, barking merrily, while a posse of guards and constables watched. cheered and drank mugs of tea at the main gate.

After everyone had gone back to sleep, I tried the wall that separated my cell from the yard outside. Abdul, as you would expect, knew what he was doing. The bottom courses of bricks had been shaken loose to the point where I could dislodge a couple of them with a gentle push. I walked towards the horizon and I saw an unattended camel with a note attached. "IED £20. Camel hire, this is Kenanyahu, ask the ticket office. Good luck."

Sitting on Kenanyahu I drove away from the Repentance Station. Inside the Station, I could imagine the guards shaking Genghis back out of bed, Genghis savaging them in an effort to get back to sleep, and the guards putting sticking plaster on their arms and legs as they explained my escape to him. Genghis shot off woozily in the general direction of the bus shelter, and that scared Kenanyahu into running away at speed.

Kenanyahu didn't seem to care very much whether I stayed on board or fell off, so I was fortunate that I happened to have my arms around his neck and he happened to be facing away from the prison and ran a little faster than a sleepy dog. By the time he stopped for breath, Genghis had given up the chase. We were close to the former reservoirs along the Lea towpath. The first place the Repentance Squads would look for me would be my house, the second was probably the Ministry of E & B, and the third would be Julie's house. And then I realised we were half way to an estate where we could hide.

When Kenanyahu sppeared to have recovered from the run, I rode him as gently as I knew how northwards towards the acres of former greenhouses, of which France Today had told me, where we could lie low until the manhunt died down. By sunset I could see the distinctive mansion of Sir Marmaduke Boone a mile or so along a green lane which led westwards off the road. I saw a drinking trough in working order on the edge of a field of sheep, and I guided Kenanyahu to it. He settled down beside it and, as the sun set, he drank several gallons of water and fell asleep.

We had come a long way. I felt a bit like Dick Turpin arriving in York, not least because I was now an outlaw.

In the darkness I waited for Kenanyahu to wake up, and then I coaxed him into taking me the short distance down the green lane and onto the Dijkstra Estate. Five minutes later I saw the derelict glasshouse which had appeared on France Today. I hitched Kenanyahu to the fence and wandered into the remains of the structure, saying "Anyone at home?" in a voice loud enough to be heard in the glasshouse but quiet enough not to be heard in the Boone homestead.

The panes of glass that formed what was left of the walls and roof of the glasshouse let in enough light for me to see the rubbish on the floor and the remains of seed trays, flower pots, trowels and sacks. As is often the case in life, it was easier to see what was there than to see what wasn't there. It took several minutes for me to search the building and satisfy myself that there was no zizz factory here. I couldn't see anything to suggest that there had once been a zizz factory but that, having been held up to public gaze by a foreign broadcaster, the assembly lines had been removed.

I wandered back into the surrounding shambles of bricks, struts and cloches that had once furnished a huge market garden, and I looked around for another former glasshouse. There were two or three within a hundred yards, but they were as empty as this one, and they didn't look like the glasshouse in the programme. Then I found an empty Gauloises pack on the ground at the entrance to my glasshouse. This was definitely the right place. There were, sadly, no cigarettes left in the packet.

I realised that, as someone had remarked at the time, France Today had made the story up, shot two minutes on location and filmed the rest in a disused aircraft hangar in Paris or an abandoned railway station in Marseille. Just the sort of news they would fake, now I came to think of it.

Of course, I reflected, I didn't really need to live in a zizz factory. It wasn't at all the sort of place where I had imagined myself spending my retirement. It was probably an advantage to reside on my own in an otherwise empty derelict glasshouse, just less entertaining than sharing one with drug barons, pill pushers, catas, tranks, tramps, runaways, homeless families and those reporters from France Today who reek of frogs' legs, garlic and Gauloises. Nobody here knew who I was and nobody in the Repentance Squad knew where I was, which arrangement suited me very well. Until they got around to sticking up 'Wanted' posters on the trees, all I really needed was a place to sleep in the shade, a supply of water and, ideally, a source of food. I wondered whether, if they ever put a price on my head and nailed 'Wanted' posters to the trees, I could turn myself in, claim the reward money and stash it somewhere in order to sustain myself should they ever let me out of the Repentance Station again.

I noticed a small white box on the ground and I picked it up, hoping that it might contain some Gauloise tobacco. Instead, it rattled when I moved it, and I found two small yellow tablets in it. So someone had been here dropping zizz tablets, in more senses than one. I had nothing better to do, and I had never taken zizz before, so without thinking it through properly I took one.

The pain in my stomach was so intense that I yelled aloud and dropped the box. I supported myself on the fence for a second, crumpled into a sitting position, vomited and passed out.

Daylight was streaming in through the window. I was lying down in a big room. There was a scent of antiseptic and a noise of people bustling around. I was wearing somebody else's pyjamas with the right sleeve rolled up. There was a plastic pipe connected to my arm.

"Oh, you've come round."
"Where am I?"
"You're in the — don't move, you're pretty ill," said a woman in a white coat. "You've been unconscious and delirious by turns for three days now."
"Christ, I feel awful." My stomach hurt, my muscles all ached, and my guts were burning.
"Don't blaspheme," she told me. "We work hard here. We don't have to put up with that sort of language as well."
"Sorry." I thought about how to express myself without giving more offence than strictly necessary. "Cripes, I feel awful."
"That's hardly surprising. Eating a giant size super strength slug pellet, and on an empty stomach at that, you're lucky to be alive. Now, I'm—"
"Where am I?" I asked. "Who are you?"
"I was just coming to that. You're in the Saint Margaret's Hospital, and I'm Doctor Prunella Moseley. You've taken a slug pellet and it's made you seriously ill."
"I never thought a slug pellet was so poisonous."
"Have you never seen what it does to slugs? Even big, fit, healthy slugs. Now, just to make sure you're able to do it, grab the rails here," she indicated the handrails that ran along the bed, "and sit up."

I sat up, felt an awful pain in my stomach and I vomited again. Dr Moseley caught the mess nimbly in a paper bowl.

"You'll be here for a few days," the doctor said. "If you want, I can phone your next of kin."
"I have no idea who my next of kin is. Probably my dad. And then, oh," I thought quickly, "bother, I was going to start a new job tomorrow. I'll need to tell them. Any chance you can help with that?"
"Sure." She produced a notepad. "What's your dad's tee-mail? And your work tee-mail?"

I actually remembered both tee-mail tags.

"And, look," Dr Moseley continued, "I know you probably don't want to talk about this…"
"I'll talk about anything," I said.
"Were you trying to kill yourself? Because you had a close shave."
"Not trying to kill myself, exactly. I was trying to disappear."
"How come?"
"I'm a fugitive from the Repentance Squad. That is covered by patient confidentiality rules, isn't it? Ow!"

I felt a stab going through my abdomen. I let go of the rail and fell back down again. Dr Moseley caught me and helped me lie flat.

"No," she said, "patient confidentiality doesn't really apply to the identities of hardened criminals fleeing felony, except for their medical details. We are all duty bound to help the Repentance Squad but, unfortunately I usually forget that sort of thing before I have time to fill the form in in triplicate, find a thirteen shilling stamp and post it."
"I am much reassured," I said. "There isn't an observer from TROUSERS pretending to be a patient but really watching me from the next bed but one, is there?"
"Over there, wearing blue pyjamas and reading The Popinjay. Jameson Rose. Don't worry, he's far too ill to notice you. I'll make sure of that. You were trying to disappear, you say?"
"Yes. Just to vanish into thin air for a while."
"I'm afraid slug pellets don't have that effect, even on slugs. When you feel stronger you could try the nuclear physics department at Cambridge University. They're not that far away."
"Oh!" I suddenly realised. "Where's Kenanyahu?"
"The president of the Fertile Crescent Confederation? Somewhere in America, I wouldn't be surprised."
"No, my camel. His first owner was a practical joker. I left him hitched to a fence on Dijkstra's Acreage. He'll be starving."
"I'll find out." Doctor Moseley produced her notebook again and wrote a few words. "Now, I shall be putting you on the detox diet that my grandfather wrote. You need to stick to it, and you're to stay in bed for the time being, so no sending out for a Big Fortnum's. I'll tell your contacts that you'll be here for two weeks. That way, when we discharge you in a few days, they'll be surprised and pleased to see you."
"Good thinking. What's in the detox diet?"
Dr Moseley reeled the list off. "Beetroot, fennel, gorgonzola cheese, liver, mushrooms and oysters with a mayonnaise garnish."
"Cripes. Everything I don't like in one handy saucepan."
"It'll do you good."
"No, it won't."
"It could have been worse. I crossed out the garlic, the snails and the frogs' legs. Now, Mr, er…"
"Sherburne. Desmond Sherburne."

The doctor wrote my name down.

"I have other fish to fry. I'll come back later. Do you need anything?"
"You could give me one of the fish, when you're fried it. Battered, with curly fries and tomato sauce."
"I meant—"
"I know. Still, hope springs eternal, except when it doesn't. I've been living on prison food for the last, ooh… two days."
"Doesn't Mrs Berry cook the prison food at Hornsey?"
"She's famous. The dietitian here worships her. There are statues up to her grandma. She had a brand of cakes named for her. There's not much wrong with her prison food. Now if they ever put you into Pentonville…" She left the sentence unfinished.
"Well, in that case, could you find me something to read? A newspaper or something?"
"I'll send someone across with one. The papers all cost the same. They're £2."
"Get the 'Popinjay' if it's there. I've probably got some money in a pocket somewhere."
"Sorry that you have to pay for it. If you were in Scotland, the paper would be free."
"Yes. And so would I."

Trained to spot a political opinion a mile off, the man in the blue pyjamas twitched visibly.

For a moment the possibility of fleeing to Scotland seemed a good idea, but, firstly, I was in no state to travel and secondly, even if I did, I would certainly be stopped and turned back at the Border. The last thing the Presbyterians wanted in their country was an influx of one unreformed criminal.

"Here's the newspaper." An orderly handed me the Popinjay. I told him there was some money in my trousers pocket, justly earning a reply about how much she loved to put her hands in a man's trousers.
"Don't let me stop you, er…" I said.
"Shirley. You're on the front page."
"Over here, underneath the Ticker Highlights and the daytime football results."
"Oh, there. 'Opposition leader Sherburne found alive.' Good lord. I mean, good grief. Mr Desmond Sherburne—"
"That's you, isn't it?"
"Yes. Resolute critic of the UKRAP government, is recovering in hospital from the effects of a zizz tablet which he took whilst camping in a disused glasshouse on the Dijkstra Acreage, a patch of land belonging to the husband of the Prime Minister, Sir Marmaduke Boone. The tablet knocked Mr Sherburne unconscious for four days…"
"It did," said the orderly. "You were over here seeing things and yelling nonsense and everything. Do you remember the alkies?"
"Yes," I said, "the catas of the nineties, sleeping off half-bottles of vodka on park benches in the 2090s."
"It was like that in those days. Some of them had full bottles. We all thought you'd lost your mind. Nasty stuff, zizz."
"You must have been watching me and wondering who to phone."
"The psychiatrist, the neurologist or the undertaker."
"Yes," I said portentously, "I am lucky to be alive."
"Aren't we all?"
"I mean, I have learned my lesson. I shall never touch the stuff again."
"That's the spirit."
"Good idea," I said, "I'll stick to spirits in future and be the first of a new generation of alkies."
"It'll cost you." said Shirley. "Anything else in the paper?"
"Just the usual." I flipped through the first few right hand pages and searched for an interesting headline. "Fluffy the Cat walks 100 miles to old home. Widow refuses to move as bulldozers circle. Man wins lottery. Boone denies involvement in zizz factory — hang about!"
"Is my horoscope any good? Gemini."
"I think the ban takes effect soon, doesn't it. Isn't it a residual pagan practice?"
"Have a look anyway."
"Oh, here on page six, Farewell to Horoscopes Week. Gemini. 'Your awareness of other people's creativity and boldness is growing. Perhaps, Neptune—'"
"Wasn't he one of the gods?"
"Yes. In fact he probably still is. Cross between Samson and a nuclear submarine. 'Perhaps Neptune is about to dispel the false image that someone has of you. But this is a not an overnight process.' I've found that overnight processes are less fun than the daytime ones. 'With patience, slowly, you can make powerful changes soon.'"
"I wonder what that could mean," Shirley said, thinking hard.
"Probably something that you've never thought about before. Cook boiled eggs for four and a half minutes instead of five, for instance."
"So that's what I've been doing wrong all my life."
"I'm not sure Neptune eats eggs. He's more the pescivorous type, I would have thought. Fish suppers, I can see him eating a fish supper, hold the chips. Kedgeree, maybe, and a fish cake with a cherry on top for afters."
"Do you really think so?"
"I can see him, clearly, raising a glass of ambrosia before the assembled bar-flies in the drinking den beside Mount Olympus. 'Gentlemen, I give you a toast. Meat is murder but fish is justifiable ichthyocide.'"
"Does he have anything to say about eggs, though?" Shirley asked.
"Not that I can hear. Sorry."

When Shirley left me, I flipped the pages back to 'Boone denies involvement in zizz factory.' During a Press conference, a reporter had shouted out a question about how come a visitor had been given a prohibited drug. Mrs Boone looked flustered and stammered an answer which the microphones had not heard, making herself look as though the questioner had caught her on the back foot and made her look as though she was admitting a crime.

I heard a familiar voice asking my whereabouts entering the ward from the main door from the corridor.

"He's over there." That was Shirley.
"Desmond!" That was Julie Cook. "I am so pleased to see you. Nobody knew what was happening to you. We were all quite worried. The Management said I could come out to visit you."
"The Management were worried about me? I doubt it. They only just finished throwing me overboard."
"Well, Conrad and Bethan send their good wishes for a speedy recovery."
"Oh, well, thank them and I'll be back at work in… when I've recovered."
"Is the story true about Boone's husband giving you a zizz tablet?"
"Well, between you and me, no. Firstly I was trespassing on her husband's land, and secondly it wasn't a zizz tablet. But apart from that, it's all true."

The man in blue pyjamas, two beds down on my right, wrenched himself out of his bed and walked over to mine.

"Madam," he asked, "who are you?"
"Who are you?" Julie asked, aghast. "What right do you have to come over here and interrupt—"
"I've interrupted conversations before and I'll interrupt them again." He fiddled with his pyjama pocket and eventually produced an identity card from it. Not the usual pink one such as they issue to you and me, but a blue one. "Detective Rose, of the Repentance Squad. And you are?"
"Oh, dear," said Julie, "Julie Cook, a humble office manager from the Ministry of E & B office in Tottenham."
"And who," he asked, turning to me, "are you?"
"Desmond Sherburne, also from E & B."
"Really? Do you want to change your answer?"
"Yes, really. No, my answer suits me perfectly. I don't want to change it at all."
"Do you want to phone a friend?"
"No, because I haven't got any."
"Oh, a comic," he said to me, as though being miserable were a virtue, "I believe that your name is André de Couloir and I also happen to think that you are suspected of, in alphabetical order, absence without leave from national service, escaping from lawful custody, failing to stop when ordered, possession of a counterfeit identity card, possession of an illegal substance, operating a draught animal on the footway to the endangerment of the public and taking and riding away a draught animal, to whit Kenanyahu the camel."
"Why would anyone think that I'm André de Couloir?" I said.
"Mrs Berry, the cook at Hornsea Repentance Station, identified you."
"What?" Julie was rather surprised.
"She's been a cook all her life, so she knows how to identify people." Detective Rose rested his chin in his hand and nodded his head in a gesture intended to suggest great sagacity in the teeth of a massive non sequitur.
"So it's a fair cop," I said. There is never any point in a dispute with a wise man. "I did it all, except that I'm Desmond Sherburne, and it wasn't André de Couloir who cooked pigfish on 'Moaning Minnies,' it was me."
"Have you any claims in mitigation? You never know, they might keep a lawyer in business."
"Oh, yes. I had to leave the recruitment meeting due to a colleague's emergency, it wasn't my faked identity card, somebody else gave me the faked identity card but it had my name and number on it, I only escaped because the bomber put the IED under the wrong window, it was the camel that failed to stop and not me, and the camel I stole, I didn't steal it, and it's asleep on the Dijkstra Acreage somewhere beside a drinking trough."
"Suffering sand dunes! I am looking forward to helping you write that all down in a coherent fashion so that Judge can read it."
"I'm sure he's a reasonable man," I said, "and makes allowances."
"He is," said Detective Rose, "very reasonable, but he doesn't like criminals. That's what you've got to worry about."
"He might make an exception in my case."
"If he does," Detective Rose shook his head, "we have others."

Julie had been sitting quietly on one of those grey plastic chairs with tubular steel legs that are always sticky however often you wash them, but listening to this exchange she fair bubbled over.

"Nonsense, Detective. This man is Desmond Sherburne. I've known him for five years. He hasn't got a criminal bone in his body. Nor anywhere else."
"And have you ever heard him use the name André de Couloir, which appears to be his alias, or one of his aliases?"
"No, of course not," said Julie.
"Squeezable squad-cars, it gets better," said Rose, trying to sound incredulous.
"André de Couloir's a chef who comes from Scotland and cooks Australian tribal recipes. I was watching him on a broadcast."
"Well, you're right, André does look a lot like Desmond Sherburne, but this is definitely Desmond Sherburne."

Detective Rose suddenly cried, "Oh, help!" keeled over to one side and had to grab a bedside table to steady himself.

"I'll help you get back to bed," said Julie. "You've had enough excitement for one day. Shirley!"
"Excitement?" Rose asked, swaying from side to side. "Plainclothes plasticene, is that what this is?"
Shirley dashed across to Rose and steadied him by grabbing one armpit. "Come to bed," she said.

I could see Detective Rose toying with the idea of replying "I've been waiting all week for you to say that," and deciding not to risk it.

"Don't so much as think it," she said.


I spent three days recovering from what had been a very nasty bout of poisoning before Doctor Moseley allowed me to go home. During those days she gave Jameson Rose occasional injections to make him feel rotten and told him it was strengthening medicine, he was suffering from an attack of swamp ague, and he ought to keep away from other people in the ward so as to avoid spreading it. I can still hear his voice booming around the entire room, "But I haven't been near any swamps. There aren't any swamps any more."

I arrived back home a couple of hours before sunrise. Within five minutes of my closing the front door behind myself, the Repentance Squad were banging on it. Two of them. They must have been watching the house.

"Mr Swinburne?"
"That's me," I said, trying to change my plans to go to sleep and not entirely succeeding.
"We are Constables Christianson and Hardwick of the Repentance Squad." The one on my left held up two blue cards which might, or might not, have authenticated them.
"Good morning. Which is which?"
"I'm Christianson," said the one on the left, "and he's Hardwick."
"Why have you been watching the house?" I asked.
"Could we see your identity card, please?"

I went in search of it. I was lucky. The card was in my wallet. I looked at it carefully and made sure that it was the card with the slightly cracked lamina, which was the genuine one.

Christianson held it on top of a reader. It gave out a ping, ping, meaning that the card was either genuine, or a good enough forgery that the reader hadn't found anything wrong with.

"The Repentance Squad suspects that you committed certain criminal offences, Mr Sherburne."
"I have. Let me think. Possession of an illegal drug which turned out to be a slug pellet and nearly killed me, failing to stop and driving on the pavement, both of which turned out to be the camel enjoying itself, and taking and riding away, because I was too ill—"
"Please read this form carefully," said Hardwick, interrupting my string of excuses and giving me an official looking envelope, "and if you agree with it, sign it and return it to Hornsea Repentance Station."
"What happens if I don't?"
"You'll probably end up in Hornsea Repentance Station anyway."

I put the envelope, unopened, on top of 'Thoroughfare,' intending to look at both of them later. I had been wondering what the rest of Toynbee's article was going to tell me. Now I had something more important to do than read magazines and fill in forma. I had to sleep. I had to leave the house in about two hours, so I had a little time to relax before, at long last, going back into the office.

I was third to arrive, so I had the small satisfaction of seeing that even after two weeks or so, Bethan and Conrad still recognised me.

"Where've you been?" said Conrad.
"Do you not read the tickers?" I asked.
"Yes, I do, and it says 'Tomorrow is looking great!'".
Bethan chimed in. "What's taking zizz feel like?"
"First things first. How's the report gone down with the—"
"On daily alcohol requirement? Here."

Bethan handed me a single sheet of paper which said,

Your daily alcohol requirement is zero, unless you are a Christmas pudding.
"It's a bit on the short side, isn't it?" I asked.
"Yes," said Bethan, "The Management sent it back with orders to cut out all the unnecessary verbiage." "Well, you've certainly done that." I observed. "Has this gone back upstairs, without me signing it off?"
"Yes," said Bethan, "they demanded it on Wednesday, no extensions, and definitely no unnecessary verbiage."
"Absolute deadline, they said," Conrad added.
"So he cut twenty-four and three quarter pages and I forged your signature."
"What — again?" I was amazed.
"Yes. It was a jolly good signature," said Bethan, "lots of loops, flourishes and pot-hooks, quite unlike the scratchy mess that you make with a splashwrite."
"Well done. Used your common sense. I'll have to put that in your next annual review. Did anything else happen while I was away?"
Conrad thought for a moment. "Something about unauthorised impure broadcasts."
"Which is ours to deal with because of what?"
"Because they're classed as entertainment and Communion doesn't want them. And then there was something about fabrication studios for news stories," said Bethan.
"Capital investment required, land purchase, architect, quantity surveyor, that kind of thing," Conrad — for want of a better word — explained.
"They don't have the capacity to manufacture enough news," said Bethan.
"Sounds like a fairly average few days, then, but nothing you can't handle," I said, preparing to open my in-tray. "Let me know if I need to stay awake."
"You can depend on us, sir. And now," said Bethan, "tell us what taking zizz feels like."
"Yes. Because I've never tried it," Conrad said with an air of expectation.
"And neither have I," said Bethan.

There is a branch of mathematics called Probability Theory. I mention this only because, apart from this one occasion, I have never used Probability Theory for any purpose ever in my entire life. I wasted a term at school on this useless game with small real numbers between -1 and 1. I estimated the probability that Conrad had never taken zizz as around 0·8 and the probability that Bethan had never taken zizz as around 0·4. Then I reached for the back of an envelope and a splashwrite and calculated that the probability that one or other of them had taken it would have been about 0·7. This meant that one or other of them was probably lying. Even after wrestling with this problem for several minutes, I had no use for the answer. Conrad and Bethan, baffled, watched me doing arithmetic. Quite likely they had never seen anything like it before.

I thought for a moment. How could I summarise the awful experiences I'd been through in the last week?

"I can tell you what it feels like to take something that looks like zizz but isn't," I told him.
"The squaddies have been in and out every day, asking for you," said Conrad.
"They found me. They came to my door and left me some forms to fill in," I said.
"Have you read them?" That was Bethan.
"No, not yet."
"My money's on the forms having a one way ticket to the local nick stapled to them," Bethan guessed.
"You'll be a political prisoner," Conrad added, "sent to the Norfolk gulag to live with the turkeys," and to emphasise his point he sang, "He used to bring me roses…"
"What's that you're singing?"
"Opening music of the longest running movie series in the whole of Europe," said Conrad. "It goes right back to the days of electromagnetic broadcasting."
"That long ago, eh? You're very probably right, anyway, Bethan," I said.
"Yes," Conrad went on, "for a traffic offence committed by a spokesman for the leading opposition party—"
"Justice for Atheists is the leading opposition party?" I was astonished. "You're kidding me."
"Yes, leading," said Conrad. "Don't you read the news?"
"I never see it," I said. "Any time I look at the ticker, it's telling me to stagger working hours, or something similar."
"Thirteen per cent of the vote at the last poll and rising," Bethan added, "not counting don't knows, won't votes and people the government don't like. Who knows, in a hundred years' time, you could be King."
"So," Conrad concluded, "they're gunning for you."
"Oh, we have a visitor." Conrad looked toward the door. "Hello!"
"Desmond?" The visitor was Petrina Mack. "I asked at reception and the concièrge told me to come up here."
"Yes," I said, "he would. It's what we in the service of the people refer to as security."
"Anybody can bring bombs in here," said Conrad, "we don't much care, as long as they stay on the low pay-grade floors."
"Desmond," Petrina sounded desperate, "you must help me."
"Why, what happened?"
"Can we talk somewhere?"
"If you mean 'Can we go somewhere and talk while you record everything I say and then have it gone through with a fine toothed comb and a lie detector by the Squaddies in exchange for an eighth of a gram of zizz,' then no, thanks. My liberty is worth more than that."
Petrina thought and said, "Desmond, I'll buy you a cup of tea."
"All right, then." I had been out-manoeuvred. A cup of tea meant a few minutes in a different room not staring at small print on big pieces of paper. It had to be an improvement. "Come with me."

The canteen was in the basement. I put two cups of tea on a tray and picked out a couple of sandwiches, for all of which incidentally I paid £11 15s 4d cash, and then we went into the emptiest corner of the room and sat beside one another, close enough each other and far enough from everybody else to talk quietly. When I offered Petrina first choice of the sandwiches, she opened one and stuffed the other one into her handbag, saying "Thanks! I'll eat that one later."
"That's all right," I said. "I'm not hungry. Now, tell me what's wrong."
Petrina hesitated, then drew a deep breath, took a bite of sandwich and delivered herself of, "My mum's found out. 'Scuse me talking with my mouth full."
"Found out that you're taking drugs?"
"No. Well, not just that. The hospital told her that I was in an acute ward suffering from drug induced brain damage. If mum had found out that I was taking drugs, but not the rest of the story, she wouldn't have been half as upset as she was."
"Wasn't she at least relieved to know that you were in good hands, and to know what had happened to you, and where you were?"
"Well, yes, but when Mum came round to my house and asked me where I got the money from, I couldn't think of a story in time. I said the Repentance Squad paid it to me for narking. God! She went ape, she went berserk."
"I'm not surprised, to be quite honest." I said. "I think I would be upset if I knew that a child of mine was earning his zizz money by betraying his friends to TROUSERS. There's such a thing as common decency, after all."

Petrina burst into tears and took another bite of sandwich.

"Oh, don't take on so," I said, instead of sympathising. After all, this woman could have got me shot.
"You don't understand."
"Yes, I do."
"She wants to visit me at my house," said Petrina. "I'm scared."

I thought about this for a moment.
"Your mother," I tried to sum up the situation, "is coming to your house tomorrow evening and you're scared that, knowing the facts about your recent escapade, she might attempt to reform your sinful life style by battering you half to death with a sledgehammer."
"Yes," said Petrina, still weeping pathetically and chewing a mouthful of sandwich.
"I have just the thing," I said.
"What is it?"
"Videbis quod videbis."
"Inscription on the tombstone of John Logie Baird. You shall see what you shall see."
"What, really? How did you know that?"
"Easy, I made it up. But it has a certain plausibility to it. When are your parents due to visit?"
"Tomorrow evening," said Petrina.
"I'll be back from the office at about six in the morning, so I can come to your flat-share at about seven and I'll try…"
"They'll be at my house by then," she said.
"I'll try to leave early tomorrow, in that case. Shouldn't be too difficult as I never have much to do here. I'll be at your house tomorrow at half past six a.m. That should give us a half hour advantage."
"Yes," said Petrina, "it should."

I came home at the end of the day, picked up the PSYCHO gun and checked that the battery was charged and that I still remembered how to assemble the three sections into a working stun gun. Then I found my old cricket bag from school, laid the gun into it, put stumps, bails, pads and gloves on top of it just in case I was stopped and searched, and I set off. I arrived at Petrina's shared flat around six thirty. Just in case, standing in front of the door, I took the gun out of the bag and turned the safety switch on before I rang the doorbell.

Petrina opened the door. A man of about fifty, maybe more, pushed her to one side and started to shout at me in a broad Yorkshire, "I'm her father. So you're th'swine who got my daughter pregnant—"
"No, Dad, that was the other one, and it—"

Some rapid reflex, over which I had no control, tried to deal with the threatening situation before anyone actually attacked me. It made me point the gun in his direction. Petrina yelled, "Des! Don't shoot!" but it was too late: it was as though someone else had occupied my body and pulled the trigger. I heard the warning bell clang and I saw the green beam leap out of the muzzle and hit Petrina's father in the chest, knocking him backwards. He fell onto a display cabinet, breaking a glass shelf and knocking two ships in bottles to the floor. Apart from shock and burn marks, he appeared breathless but unhurt.

"I'm sorry, Mr Mack," I said, "I didn't mean to shoot you. I thought you might be going to threaten me."
"You're too right. I am going to threaten you. Have you any idea what these Napoleonic maquettes are worth?"
"Not much," I said, "they're broken."

I turned the safety switch off. This was a courtesy to Mr Mack although, from the point of view of self preservation, I was not at all sure about it being a good idea.

"I'm truly sorry," I said, "I did my national service in the army. The training gets under your skin after a few months."
"I don't give a shipwreck about your national service and I don't think Messrs. Duncan and Kipp LLB will give one, either, when they're writing out your earnings attachment. Now help me up," Mr Mack demanded.

Petrina and I managed to lift Mr Mack to his feet and prop him up against the door frame. Petrina was just about to go and make her father, herself and possibly also me, a nice cup of tea ("It's still the British way of dealing with any crisis," she observed) when his expression changed. His mouth fell open. He was looking at the ticker at the far end of the room.

"What is it, Dad?"
"What's being broadcast?"
"That's 'Shop Your Neighbour,' said Petrina. 'You know, they show you crimes they've made up and actors wearing masks and carrying sacks labelled 'Swag' stealing the pensions off old ladies in cottages by the seaside—"
"I know that! Look at th'programme."

We were all silent for a second. On the screen of the ticker were a couple of recent photographs of me.

"…needs to be caught and put behind bars as soon as possible," said the voice. "Wanted for going AWOL, breaking ight of jail, training a camel to spit at constables…"
"That's egregious, is that," said Mr Mack.
"…having fake ID, possessing drugs, TDA and driving on the pavement. He goes by either Desmond Sherburne or André de Couloir. Citizens! As always, if you know who this man is, where he is, or anything incriminating, defamatory or libellous about him, stand and wave at the ticker and we'll call you straight back."

Mr Mack took his chance and waved vigorously. Almost immediately the ticker trilled and the face of Sergeant William Enderby appeared on the screen.

"Yes," he said.
"He's here," said Mr Mack.
"He's there?"
"In th'room wi'me."
"Are you in any immediate danger?"
"I don't think so. He seems quite a nice boy, actually."
"Is that him there, on your left?"
"Yes, of course it is. Who did you think it was? Father Christmas?"
"Oh, I recognise that ugly mug. Keep him talking and I'll send the boys round."

With the noise of a bulb horn, the ticker reverted to 'Shop Your Neighbour.' By now. the programme had moved on to another suspected criminal, who had been seen kicking a dog in Woodford. Crimes against animals were always good for the viewing figures.

"Dad," said Petrina, "you can't shop Des. He was in the Rifles."
"In th'Rifles? Wh—, why didn't he say so? I take it all back. Anyone who was in th'Rifles is a friend of mine. I was in th'Rifles, you see, Des. Mind you, that was at th'time of th'French Perfidy—"

I didn't tell him that I was in the Rifles only because I had a choice between them and the Water Distribution Workforce, which meant two years of utter misery laying large diameter water pipes many feet below the surface of the earth. At least in the Rifles you were mainly above ground and they sometimes let you shoot people.

"Before my time, I'm afraid," I said.
"Dad, the constables will be round in a couple of minutes."
"Conversation adjourned. Let me handle this," said Mr Mack. "Go round th'back of th'house, Desmond. Th'garage isn't locked. There's a car in there but there's still room for you to hide. You might get away wi' it."
"A car?" I repeated. Cars were a rarity.
"Th'car's only an 2092 model Dagenham Four so it's not worth much but it was either that or th'entry level Xio. Well, I wasn't going to spend my money on a pile of cheap scrap metal from China. I did most of my courting on th'seats of that car and when they came for it I wouldn't let them take it off me. Haven't touched it for years but it's still in working order. Do you know, I took it to pieces and hid it all around th'house, then when th'scrappage payments came to an end—"
"Dad, I think Des needs to get started."
"Go on, make youssen scarce, son. Pettie, you and I are going to have a nice cup of tea."

I walked to the back of the house. The garage was cold, windowless and dark. I felt thankful to whoever had decided that the building did not require windows. The car was a streamlined, maroon piece of modernist art with seats and a windscreen. Any museum, and for that matter any motorist with a private road free from sand cover, would have been delighted to have it. It almost filled the garage but I managed to squeeze myself into the small space behind it and squat so that nobody would notice me unless they came right into the garage and looked carefully, or unless they were a dog. I had a vague recollection, which I did not entirely trust, of police dogs being made redundant under the animal rights laws. I noticed that the charger socket was still connected to the mains.

I heard an officer enter the garage. Someone outside shouted, "I'll take Fido around the house and then he'll do the garage," and I heard Fido shout "Woof!" I was done for, but not yet. The officer walked around the garage, didn't see me, and then for some reason, perhaps fascinated by the beautiful vehicle, tried the door and sat down in the passenger seat.

'What's the matter?' I thought, 'Has he never seen a car in his life before?' Probably he hadn't. He might have been twenty-five, and too young to remember cars.

He must have found and turned the key-switch. I saw some lights on the dash. Then I heard the click of the seat belt and the constable saying, "Car! Take me to the Repentance Station."
"Fasten your seat belt," said the car.
"Jesus Christ! It works!"
"Do not blaspheme. Fasten your seat belt," said the car again.
"It's fastened already," said the constable.
"Sorry," said the car, "the microswitch must be faulty. Shall I have the mechanic call round and replace the microswitch? It will cost about £20."
"Yes. And can you change your accent? I'm tired of Standard English."

I had the sense that the constable had forgotten what he was supposed to be doing. I was also becoming very cramped.

"Do Ibap."
"What is Ibap?"
"Ibap is the amalgamation of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan."
"Goodness gracious me," said the car, with a very realistic subcontinental accent. "I am very ready to convey you anywhere you wish to go."
"Do you actually know where the Repentance Station is?"
"398 High Rd, Tottenham, London N17 9JA. I could find my way there with my eyes shut."
"Go on, then."

The garage doors swung open. The car ejected the charging cable and started forwards. The plug fell onto my foot and I almost cried out. The car sped out of the garage onto the street, startled the Emergency Response Camel hitched to the lamp-post outside and, by now doing twenty miles an hour or so, it smashed into the garden wall of the house opposite.

"Malfunction," said the car, still in an Ibap accent. "It's all changed since I was last here. The estimated cost of repair is £300."
"Woof!" said the dog, meaning "Can I bite someone?"
"Shut that dog up, Hathaway," said the unmistakeable tones of Sergeant Enderby.
"Shush a moment, Fido," said Hathaway.

Fido made a sort of whining noise that meant he didn't like having to be quiet whilst something exciting was going on.

"What the fundament were you doing, Jarrett?" bellowed Enderby.
"Looking for the suspect in the car, guv. He could've been— Aargh! Christ, my chest hurts."
The car beeped its hooter and called out "Attention, emergency team. The driver is injured. The driver has a sternal fracture and abdominal bruising."
"Sternal fracture," Enderby repeated to his team. "Comes from playing Scalextric at twelve inches to the foot scale when you ought to be… oh, never mind. Match abandoned. We have to get Jarrett here to the hospital, the fumbling idiot. The rest of you, get out onto High Street and catch some dealers, or stick some parking tickets on some camels, or something."
"Why does the car speak in an Ibap accent?" asked Hathaway.
"Because," replied the car, "the driver told me to."
"But, more important, why did it crash? These self guided vehicles are infallible," Hathaway commented. "How come it crashed so close to home?"
"I had my eyes shut," said the car.
"Go on, tell me why you had your eyes shut."
"Because the driver told me to. Shall I turn the key-switch off now?"
Enderby sighed. "Yes. Yes please. Unfasten the seat belt and open the door, then switch off. That's a very sensible idea."

After five minutes, Petrina came out to the garage to look for me.

"They've all gone," she said. "You can come out now."

I was back in my house at last in the early evening, and the first thing I had to do was to read whatever was in the envelope from the Repentance Squad.

Firstly they gave me five separate Crime Reference Numbers, each of which I had to keep safely for the next ten years and quote any time anyone asked me whether I had a criminal record. I put the form behind the clock and resigned myself to the knowledge that in the not unlikely event of my becoming tired of being an office manager, a future of starving, and alternately freezing and boiling on the streets waiting for my Universal Credit awaited me.

Secondly, the Repentance Squad had accepted my excuses for my crimes. I suspected this was because it saved them work rather than because my excuses were actually plausible. I had a Caution Form from the Ministry of Repentance. By signing it I admitted my guilt and I promised not to do it again. The alternative was to go up before the Beak with a small chance of being found Not Guilty and a large chance of being fined, given compulsory work or spending some time in jail. I signed the forms and put them into my briefcase.

In the light of the setting sun I sat on my own favourite chair and picked up my own copy of Thoroughfare. I wanted to finish the article.

Why the religious right won the election, by Shineforth Toynbee
I found my place three quarters of the way through the essay.
In the final days before the 2112 vote, UKRAP changed the focus of their amateurish party political broadcasts and their billboard advertising.

As the chief executive of Leviathan Marketing Partnership pointed out, small political parties cannot afford to canvass votes with the help of professional marketing companies, which meant that their campaigns avoided the worst pitfalls of hiring an agency more accustomed to promoting baked beans, saloon cars or double glazing. UKRAP leveraged one of the curious advantages of small political parties: their manifastos are compiled from the submissions of interested members of the party.

The collation of contributions results in a series of carefully thought out and, usually, credible policies written without regard to what the electors want to hear. Thus the transport policy was probably written by a keen railway enthusiast, housing policy by a local architect, education policy by a retired geography teacher and so forth. A local chartered accountant or a quantity surveyor with time on his hands would work out the predicted costs of the policies. Even the Party colours, red and orange, were chosen because a local printer had a few extra tins of them and he had offered the tins to the party at half price to get rid of them. The Fisher Colour Test might as well never have been invented. The Grey Party, it was said, bought their entire manifesto by the foot from Leviathan Marketing Partnership, and it showed.

UKRAP concentrated on presenting their Shadow Cabinet. They made it obvious that under a UKRAP government, the Shadow Cabinet — that is, the men and women who would be in the senior jobs in the event of a UKRAP victory at the polls — were experienced and reputable. This contrasted awkwardly with The Grey Party, whose candidates too often had not attained the age of thirty, had been born into rich, landed families and had never done any work related to their portfolio. Many had never done anything that the elector could recognise as a stroke of work. 'Who do you want in charge of the courts?' asked one poster, 'Barbara Truss, born 2075, management accountant' or 'Grover Haggard, born 2068, Judge.' 'Who do you want in charge of schools?' asked another, 'Maudie Gibb, born 2060, chartered accountant' or 'Denver Danell, born 2055, Headmaster.' A series of other posters introduced the rest of the senior Shadow Cabinet.

The electronic voting system meant that any elector could vote from more or less any building in England. The polls closed at 10.00 am on 13 May 2112. Twenty minutes were allowed for computer security and consistency checks, and by 10.30 The Grey Party conceded defeat. Cecilia Boone, the incoming Prime Minister summarised the result: "We wiped the floor with them." Kian Ainsworth, the outgoing Prime Minister, was so overcome that he burst into tears and was unable to make a farewell speech.

In the election of 2117 UKRAP won again, by a slightly bigger majority, this time on promises to re-introduce grammar schools and the student grant and teach the illiterate English working class to read again. For at least fifty years, the English school system had been a laughing stock, recognised internationally, by one educational concern after another, as the worst in the world. Creating a literate and numerate populace would be a feat neither attempted nor achieved since Likbez, Stalin's literacy programme in the Soviet Union two hundred years before.

No religious party has ever held office for long. The re-election of UKRAP is a remarkable achievement for a group of parties who, before 2112, had only ever held seats on community councils and rarely for more than one term. It is a worthwhile exercise, albeit of course irrelevant to the title of this article, to speculate on the reasons for which UKRAP will, eventually, lose an election. Whatever dislodges them may be one or more of these causes, or the cause may be something completely out of the blue that knocks their supporters from under them.

Firstly, the leaders of Christian and other religious movements are rarely as devout as they say they are. When their laïty hear that their leader has been found in bed with a woman who is not married to him, or has been declared bankrupt by bailiffs attempting to recover gambling debts to a luxurious casino in Monte Carlo, they lose faith and, likely, will vote next time around for a secular party.

Secondly, all small political parties are rent by in-fighting. UKRAP is no exception: a lot of their time in Parliament has been wasted by arguments from their break-away factions about whether God intended us to smoke cigarettes and whether (as laid down in Leviticus and Deuteronomy) it should be illegal to make clothing from mixed fibres. The demands of factions whose loyalties are to religious ordinances sometimes have an other-worldly feel to them. The consequences are farce. A recent decision to express distances on road signs in cubits, even though drivers and pedestrians alike had used miles without difficulty since long before the invention of the motor car, illustrates the problem. The decision was taken because an extremist group had made several demands, all of them based in scripture and of little relevance to real life. In order to keep the extremists on side, that decision was exchanged for the group's demand to institute punishment by crucifixion. The problem is that if the bulk of the party defy the fringe groups, then they the extreme factions may vote with the opposition, while if the main party gives way to the fringe groups then the extremists appear to have taken over the entire party.

Thirdly, the British electorate appreciates a government that can manage the economy and get the basics roughly right, but it is not a devout population. There has not been a revolution in England since 1651, and even that one petered out with no lasting effect. We British people are not famous for waiting until a church tells us what to do. Any law which is basically unfair or absurd will, eventually, be found out, criticised and done away with. This means that UKRAP can never impose its interpretation of Christianity upon Britain. It has done some good but, in time, it will be someone else's turn.

The article had actually clarified for me the nature of the politics through which I had lived, as well written history does. I found myself sharing Shineforth Toynbee's interest in knowing which of these forces would eventually propel UKRAP off the political stage and through the political stage door onto the cold street outside. After all, I was the spokesman for what I hoped would be the main party of opposition. There was a small chance that within a few years, my party would succeed UKRAP. I rather hoped that I would live to see it happen. If it did, my job might turn out to be one of those jobs that people would notice if I stopped doing it.

When I left work in the morning, having spent another day wrestling with something about unauthorised impure broadcasts and something else about fabrication studios for news stories, a camel with a 'Christian Broadcasting Corporation' drape and a rider in a smarter suit than I have ever owned were waiting for me outside the office door.

"Mr Sherburne?" the rider called.
"Yes," I said. "Did someone accidentally leave the 'Open Day, Please Walk In' sign outside? Because that was yesterday."
"CBC want to take some photographs."
"What are you going to say about me?"
"We're just going to put the photographs into the archive, just in case we need them for anything."
"Do you need them for anything?"
"As of this minute, no. But you never know what is round the corner."
"Well," I said, "I suppose being photographed is part of my duties as spokesman for Justice For Atheists, so let's get on with it."


"Yes, Troy?" A woman in overalls, sitting out of the way behind the lights, answered the call to to 'Props.'
"Get another glass. The flash bounces off that one. Get one with non-reflective lacquer on it."
"I think there's one in the personal properties locker. I could borrow it."

Which meant that someone — I have no idea who — actually kept a special beer glass that looked better on camera than the pub standard variety.

"Great," said Troy, "Fill it three quarters with beer and give it to Desmond. Griselda, you're doing make-up, aren't you. Look, there's hair sticking out of his nostrils. Trim it and then put black grease in his hair. make him look less like a grey haired pig standing on its hind legs and more like a human being. He needs to stay human for the next half hour. What is it, Janet, can't you find a beer glass that doesn't reflect?"
"Have you asked Count Dracula?" I asked innocently.
"Oh, no, I got the glass. We aren't allowed beer in the props store," said Janet.
"Well, piss into it, then." Michaelson suggested this solution while remaining perfectly amicable the whole time. He just enjoyed swearing more than most people I know.
"Certainly, Mr Michaelson. May I have that in writing?"
"No. Bugger off and get some props."

There was a mock-up of a bar at one end of the studio and Michaelson photographed me at least a hundred times walking into the bar, hanging my hat on a stand, drinking real though alcohol free beer, leaning on the bar, sitting on a bar stool, buying a pint from an actress dressed as a barmaid and smoking a fake cigarette.

After what felt like an hour of telling me to stand with my left arm raised or my right foot forward or leaning downward because the camera could see straight up my nose, he led me on to the next piece of scenery.

Next to the bar there was an office desk. Michaelson photographed me writing, talking into the ticker, reading a newspaper, staring out of the window and ticking boxes on what was supposed to look like a complicated form.

"Now," Mr Michaelson explained, leading me further along the studio to a full size model of half a car standing in front of a half size cardboard street, "we need to film a gaffe in case the UKRAP guy makes one, we'll use this for balance. Got that?"
"Yes, I think—"
"Good. Props, Have you got the working class woman in a cheap coat? Make-up, I said (sforzando) working class! Get a her a hat from the Salvation Army for sixpence."
"Ready when you are, Mr de Mille," said a well-spoken woman in a fluffy mauve coat.

My part in this carefully staged gaffe was to get into the half of a car through the passenger door and be filmed by a camera standing where the missing half of the car used to be. Then I had to read the autocue while sounding furiously angry.

"Roll 'em." Michaelson sounded as though he were commanding a firing squad. "Sherburne gaffe, scene one, take one. Action!"
"That was a disaster," I read, squinting at the autocue through the grime on the half windscreen while fuming with imaginary emotion. "You should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It’s just ridiculous. She's just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to vote for UKRAP."
"Is that what you wanted?"
"You were fabulous, darling," said Michaelson. "Now, while we're here and everything's within reach, can you think of anything I might have missed?" he asked.
"You could do pictures of me flying across Metropolis City, like Superman does."
"If you don't have a flying licence," Michaelson said, "you'll have to go on a caravan."
"All right, then, as I'm speaking for Justice for Atheists, how about filming me in church?"
"Sure. Good thinking." Michaelson looked at his watch. "We've got time and it's certainly not a place where any other studios will think of working. Put yourselves down for two hours' overtime, you two, and phone for a camel to All Souls while I pick the kit up."

I felt quite sorry for the camel, which found itself laden with Michaelson, Michaelson's steel case of cameras and equipment, Janet, Griselda, its driver and me. Nonetheless it trudged a couple of miles to All Souls.

"Do you think the incumbents might possibly object to us using their church as a studio?" I asked.
"Why should we care? The CBC owns the building. We can throw them out, but not the other way around."
"You own it?" I had never heard of the place.
"It's used every day, for filming and audio-ing church services. I'd have thought you'd have been sick of the sight and sound of the place."
"No," I said, "I never thought it was the same place over and over again."

We heaved the heavy doors back, bolted them open ("Health and safety," said Janet) and stepped inside. On cue, the breathy Oxbridge voice of an old man in a cassock and a dog-collar came from behind us.

"I say, are you intending to film in this church?"
"Yes," said Michaelson, in a tone of voice that left 'What are you going to do about it?' to be added.
"Good. Good, only don't go on after eight in the morning."
"Don't worry, we'll be out on time."
The priest thought for a moment and asked brightly, "May I be in it?"
"May I be in it? In the film. I've never been in a film."
"Course you can, Vicar. Just keep an eye open and when you see a camera with a red light shining on top of it. come and stand in front of it and tell a joke or sing a song or something. Whatever comes into your head. Viewers just love that."
"Oh, I am so pleased to get the opportunity. I shall certainly do as you ask."
"Irony is wasted on some people," Michaelson mumbled, almost inaudibly.
"I say!" the priest called again, "I forgot to tell you, we'll be testing the broadcasting equipment. Microphones and cameras and stuff."
"Gosh," said Michaelson flatly, "how exciting."
"It is, isn't it. Anyway I have to tell you that you may be recorded while you're in here, but we're only making the recordings in order to test the equipment and when we've checked the recordings for quality we'll put them all in the microwave and have a big bonfire."
"You'll do what with them?"
"We'll burn them to ashes in the microwave. The choirboys have even brought some Idaho potatoes to roast in the flames. It's become a sort of annual event, you see."
"Are you raving mad? You're going to…"
"I'm going to put them all on the nearest rubbish tip and forget about them. Sigh. Irony is wasted on some people, isn't it."

Janet, Griselda and I all burst into a snigger. The priest walked away chortling out loud. Michaelson looked so irked that I thought he was going to cuff me round the ear.

"Right, we'll do some stills first." Michaelson ordered, his ego still less than fully re-inflated. "No, don't stand there. There's a pane missing from the stained glass window and the light patch'll dazzle the camera. Get over there, by the door…"

We took pictures of me walking into All Souls, me walking out of All Souls, me sitting in a pew, and every other position that Michaelson could think of in the space of ten minutes.

"Now, let's film you singing from a hymn book."
"But I can't sing," I said. Actually I can sing but I didn't want to.
"It's all right, we'll get an organist and a professional tenor to sing and we'll dub that over the film. All you have to do is say the words clearly in time to the music, so it looks right. Janet, can you find a hymn book? There ought to be some in the blue box underneath the table there. Desmond, I'm sure you know 'All Things Bright and Beautiful.' Just thirty seconds, that's one chorus and one verse. Can you do that?'
"You make it sound easy," I said.
"It is easy, otherwise I wouldn't ask you to do it, would I. That's how come everything on TV is fake. If we want you to fly, you can fly. If we want you to find a cure for the common cold lying around your garden shed, you work in your garden shed and you find a cure for the common cold. And if we want you to sing like a recently liberated bird, you sing like a bird. We do it all with the simple magic of fakery."
"All right," said Griselda, "he gets it."
"Yes, and Griselda, can you do something about that bloody awful nose of his?" He looked at her, and then at me, and Griselda performed a painful operation on my nose hairs with a pair of nail scissors. Michaelson shouted, "Quiet in the studio please."

There was a buzz of conversation coming from a small side chapel, thirty or forty yards away from us.

"Don't tell me I have to go and talk to the fans about the noise." Michaelson complained. "Do we have a rifle?"
"You're not going to shoot them!" I was appalled.
"I mean a rifle microphone," he said, in the tone of voice that teachers use when they are talking to an irremediable dunce, "which is a way of cutting noise out of the audio. Don't worry, nobody ever dies in my productions. Not unless they stand in front of the camera and extemporise a song and dance act."

Michaelson put down everything he was holding and went to look for the rifle microphone.
"Troy?" It was Janet's voice. She sounded a bit worried about something.

Michaelson was already out of hearing.

"Troy, Grizzly, er, Des?" Janet sounded more worried the second time around. "Can one of you come and help me for a moment?"
"Troy needs to see this," said Grizelda.
"I'm sure I don't really need a hymnal. Any book at all will do," I said, "unless it says 'The I-Spy Book of Preserved Diesel Locomotives' on the front cover. I know the words of the first eight lines of 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' off by heart."
"Grizzly, look, the box is full of… er…" Janet picked up one of the small purple packets and read it. "Acetyl cuprochloride. Cripes! I think it's zizz."
"The hymn books must be in another box somewhere, then," said Grizelda, pointing across the room. "There's another box over there."
"But shouldn't we do something about this? There's enough zizz here to paralyse a regiment."
"It's got nothing to do with us," said Grizelda, "we only—"

A voice resonated across the room from the side chapel.

"She's quite right," cried an unfamiliar voice, "it has nothing to do with you."

A man was standing in the door of the side chapel, shouting to us. Tall, a trifle portly, in an expensive looking suit.

"Get out of the building," I said to Janet and Grizelda, "both of you." Then I called back to the man in the doorway, "Who are you?"
"I could tell you," he said, "but then I'd have to kill you."
"Well," I said, "in that case, let's not stand on formalities. You can be 'One' and I'll be 'Two' for the time being at least."
"That won't be necessary," said One, "because I was going to kill you anyway. Once you know where the stuff comes from and how it gets into the food chain, you know too much."
"So it really is cooked, cooled and canned on Dijkstra's Acreage?"
"No," he said, "that was a small falsehood that I negotiated with the French when FA wanted to film there. The factory is a few miles away. Which, as you have probably worked out for yourself by now, is what Kian Ainsworth discovered. Now, please forgive my discourtesy, but I didn't introduce myself. I am Sir Marmaduke Boone, but you can call me Sir. And now, as I said earlier, I am going to kill you."
"Are you sure that's wise?" I said. "You'll get into an awful row."
"That's unlikely. My two main customers are the Repentance Squad and the House of Commons. I don't think they want an interruption in supplies. Now, if you would just stand up straight and keep still, with the help of Messrs Smith's and Wesson's excellent invention, I don't think this need detain us for too long."

Boone raised a large revolver and aimed it in my direction.

There was a sudden noise outside the church like the clang of an approaching tramcar. A green beam flashed through the broken window panel and struck Boone on the pistol hand. He squealed with pain and dropped the pistol. He put his seared fingers into his mouth, swayed on his feet, cursed, and a second or two later, he dropped to the floor. He reached for the pistol, managed to grab hold of it, yelped, and dropped it again.

Petrina Mack ran into the church holding a PSYCHO gun under one arm and waving a blue card with the other.

"Repentance Squad! Nobody move! This thing's fully charged."
"Petrina, don't be bloody stupid! Get out! These guys have guns. You'll be killed."
"Des! At least you're not hurt. Not yet, anyway. Get down. Where are the bad guys?"
"Well, there's me, there's Marmaduke Boone over there, and there's at least one more cowering behind him in the side chapel."

Petrina thought for a second and then shouted at the side chapel, "Listen up! This thing fires gas as well as electricity. You can't escape, even if you really want to. Come out with your hands up."
"Does it?" I hissed.
"No," Petrina hissed back, "I'm bluffing. It might work. I just thought, if it fired gas and electricity, it would be on the duel fuel tariff. Des, you can leave or you can stick around and watch the ending."
"I'll stay and watch, if it's all the same to you."
"All right. Keep your head down and if the shooting starts, try to dodge the bullets. Have you got that?"
"I've never seen a bullet before. Are they easy to dodge?"
"Anyone can do it. You sort of stare at them in a special way, and they slow down. I've seen it on TV." She returned to shouting as two other people, one man and one woman, shuffled out of the side chapel and stood in a row where we could see them. "Hands up, you three."

I recognised them. They were Sergeant Benjamin Peyton and Lady Cecilia Boone.

Petrina marched the three of them out of the building and into a waiting cart, and then I sat and tried to get my breath back.

Troy Michaelson's voice erupted behind me. "Well, have we got a story."
"I don't know," I said, "have we?"
"I went to search for a rifle mike in the goldfish bowl, upstairs, where you couldn't see me. They were testing the mikes and the cameras. We have the whole thing on chip. Sound, stills, videos, close-ups, everything you could want. I shall make a fortune by selling it all to the ticker feeds."
"Aren't CBC going to destroy all the footage?"
"Not this copy, they're not." He produced a couple of ticker tickets and smiled broadly. "These babies are worth their weight in gold."
"Good," I said, "it's nice to know someone ended up better off after all this."
"Hey," said Michaelson, "where are Janet and Grizelda?"
"They walked out in the middle of the show," I said. "I can't imagine why. Try looking around Langham Place, in a tea bar or somewhere."
"I certainly shall," said Michaelson. "I'm really looking forward to telling them about my good fortune."
"I'm sure your supplementary benefits are the one thing they most want to hear about," I said, "but do tell them I survived the shoot-out. Actually I'm sorry they missed it."

An unauthorised channel transmitted the footage in its entirety at about eight in the morning. CBC ran it past the lawyers and showed it on daytime broadcasting. When England awoke at eight the same evening, the government had resigned.


As the story broke, Troy, Janet and Grizelda were recovering from the incident in All Souls, sitting together in the Nice Cup of Tea on Great Portland Street. I came to their table.

"Mind if I join you?"
"Not unless you object to me telling you how much money I just made," said Troy.
"I need a nice cup of tea," I said, "and you can talk about anything you want while I'm drinking it."
"What are you going to buy with all that money?" Janet asked.
"I shall buy a house," said Troy.
"Haven't you got one already?" asked Grizelda.
"Yes, I have," said Troy, "so I am going to carry on living where I am and leave the new one empty."
"Ooh!" Grizelda almost swooned. "What a status symbol."
"Don't you think Justice for Atheists might requisition it if you don't need it? After all, the housing crisis is out of control, isn't it?"
"I don't know," said Troy, "nobody can tell the future, but I suspect JFA will carry on putting homeless people into churches rather than inconvenience people so rich that they own two houses and keep one of them empty."
"You're right," said Janet, "that's always the way."

A waiter came over to me. "What can I get you?"
"Do you serve green tea?" I asked.
"No. This tea bar is called 'The Nice Cup of Tea.' If you want green tea you can go to 'The Revolting Cup of Stuff that Isn't Tea at All Really,' two doors down."
"Good," I said, "that's how I like tea bars to be. English Breakfast tea, please, milk, no sugar, and serve it in the biggest mug in the shop."
"How do you feel?" Troy asked.
"Thank you for asking. My heart is still pounding. I don't think I've ever seen anybody handle a dangerous situation with more ability—"
"Thank you very much for sharing that with me," said Troy, "but although I did handle the dangerous situation with extraordinary ability, what I really meant was, how do you feel about me making so much money that I can buy another house. Let me tell you, once I found the goldfish bowl, everything just sort of fell into place. It all came naturally. I faded up the ambient ceiling mike in the side chapel and put a long lens on the back-up camera, and I even managed to get a few kilobytes of security video showing that young policewoman firing through the broken widow. She's gorgeous. I shall have to—"
"Well, actually," I said, "I meant Petrina. The policewoman, Troy. She's so young, a very recent recruit, and yet she was able just to run in and order the three case-hardened crooks into the Black Maria. Is that not an extraordinary performance? Putting her own life on the line like that!"
"But you must admit the footage I got was stunning. Audio as clear as day. You can hear every word. Every letter of every word. And did you know they have high saturation hardware throughout in that place? Fortunately I knew exactly how to optimally leverage it. I just had to—"

Once a dinner guest splits an infinitive, it is time to change the subject. Fortunately, at just the right moment, Petrina Mack herself walked in, still carrying the PSYCHO. Intuitively, we all applauded.

"It's the woman of the moment," I said.
"What happened? Where are the bad guys?" Janet asked.
"They're in good hands. There was a whole team of constables hiding behind the doors. Didn't you see them?"
"No," I said. "They must be pretty good at hiding."
"On Langham Place? One of them dressed as a street cleaner, one as a gardener and the rest as hedge fund managers. So the bad guys are probably on their way to the Hornsea Repentance Station, where they will enjoy Mrs Berry's cooking for the foreseeable future," she continued, "and I expect they will be there for a while."
"Petrina, how did you know where I was?"
"The Squad told me to find you. Something about a form not filled in properly, nothing to worry about, and they lent me a PSYCHO for the day just to get used to carrying it about. You have to avoid drawing attention to it or people's nerves get strained. I made a couple of voice calls and I knew where you were. I just happened to be outside watching through a broken window at the right time."
"Yes," I said, suddenly realising how serious my position had been. "If it hadn't been for you, I'd certainly be dead."
"So now we're even," said Petrina.
"The least I can do is buy you a nice cup of tea."
"We're in the right place," said Petrina.

I asked the waiter over.

"Tea with milk and sugar for my saviour here." I asked. "Nothing's too good for her. Three course meal if she wants it."
"Certainly sir. Madam?"
"Just the tea," she said, "my mum's cooking dinner. Maybe some other time, Des."
"Sorry, madam," the waiter told Petrina, "but I have to ask you, do you mind checking your iron?"
"No, of course I'll—"
"If you'll just turn the safety off, I'll store the gun out of the way."

Petrina snapped the switch off and the waiter ceremoniously stood the gun upright in the umbrella stand by the door.

"Sorry," Petrina said to him, "I hope I haven't frightened anyone. It's Repentance Squad issue but I'm off duty."
"Routine," said the waiter, "it happens all the time. Everyone forgets to check their iron unless they live in W1. There are so many more guns in central London than in the suburbs that we've learned how—"
"I'll say!" said Troy. "You won't believe this but there was actually a Westminster in the goldfish bowl. A hundred rounds a minute machine gun! Just in case a blue-collar ten-a-penny technician found himself surrounded by a screaming mob of rioters throwing lumps of coal at the crucifix above the altar! What a waste of the company's money. Complete over-reaction, if you ask me."
"Are you telling me," I asked Troy after I realised the import of it, "that you could see what was going on, you were armed with a machine gun, and you didn't lift a finger to help me?"
"Well, I reckoned that if the output included footage of a leading member of the main opposition party being shot dead by the husband of the Prime Minister, then it would be worth even more than it already is."
I resisted the urge to punch Troy up the bracket with the force of an express camel running into a wall. I don't know why. Instead I said to him, "Troy, either you leave now, or I will."

Troy did not move.

"Waiter," I called out, "I'd like the bill for the entire table, except for him."
"That's," he looked at his billpad and did the arithmetic without making notes, "£11 12s."

Petrina left with me. "Des, I'm glad you're still alive." She was smiling and she seemed to mean it.
"The feeling's mutual," I said, "you had me worried a few days ago."
"Come on. I'll give you a lift home on an Emergency Response Camel. I'll turn on the sirens and the blue flashing lights. It will be great fun."
"You forgot the stun gun. It's still in the umbrella stand."
"It won't hurt anybody, as long as nobody turns the safety on. The tea bar will hand it in."

I spent the day staying awake and sitting at home alone, watching the ticker to see in what capacity I would be launched into the career of a government minister. The King had sent for Steven Stone and waved a magic wand over him, turning him into the Prime Minister. The Cabinet was a list of ten or twelve people I had never heard of. By the early evening Justice for Atheists had done some serious horse trading and formed a government.

The studio anchor read out the list of names — my name was not on it — and added, "UKRAP is now the Opposition in the House of Commons, but will Justice for Atheists' minority government be stable enough to last until the next scheduled election in 2121? Here to discuss this with me is the newly appointed spokesman for Justice for Atheists, Lord 'Moneybags' Maximilian."

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