The path not taken

“That Rich,” scoffed Nathan as he turned to his wife, “is a freaking Narcissist.” He scowled, waiting for confirmation about the President’s mental health.

“Yes, dear.” His wife didn’t take her eyes off the T.V.

Sam and Olivia burst in, home from school.

“Hang your masks up on the hooks, SamAnOllie, and go wash your hands.”

The children pulled off their RichMasks, decorated with the flag and the slogan “We’re All Rich!”, and disappeared to the cloakroom. Strains of the world’s hardest-to-sing national anthem came, as they made sure to count the full twenty seconds.

The President’s speech continued:

“Today I announce zero deaths this month. Zero. Zero deaths total since the first case, and zero new cases. Aren’t they beautiful, those zeros? Aren’t they the best? And all because of my team.”

He threw a big, clumsy arm round the slight, bespectacled figure beside him. He patted the sheepish cheek with the other hand, knocking the glasses askew. The face behind the glasses blushed.

“Dr F. He’s the best Scientific Adviser. And I chose him – y’know that? Other people said, ‘Don’t pick him, he’s only worked on African viruses.’ But I ignored them. So it’s all down to me. I let him get on with his work like no-one else; I told him. When he came to me needing money for masks, PPE; PatriotTrace, I organised it. I told the Treasury Secretary – she’s the best, by the way, a real cutie – I said ‘Get the guy the money; get him all the loot he needs,’ and she did it because she always listens to me – she’s got brains. I like brains. I like a woman who can handle figures – know what I mean?”

“What’s for supper?”

“I’m cooking tonight.” Nathan rose from the couch and flipped the T.V. off. “Pizza.”

“Pizza’s unhealthy. They said so at school. President Rich wants us to eat healthy.”

“And salad. From the veg box.”

The veg box, delivered twice a week and adorned with the obligatory flag and slogan, had become an object of contention in the family. The kids loved the novelty, but their parents said it ‘made us look like we were poor. And anyway, poor folks need it more than we do.’

When her husband had left the room, Christine picked up the remote and quietly put the T.V. back on. The President was talking about the continuing Quarantine rules (‘Patriot Protection’, organised by ‘His Border Force. Y’know everybody used to hate them but since I took charge and put my guys in there, now everybody loves them!’), and the erection of a monument to ‘victims of the virus. Y’see, it’s just gonna be a plinth. No victims! We got zero victims. So it’s gonna have my name on it – my face because I’m the one who saw to it that there were zero deaths. It’s gonna be a big, beautiful monument to zero deaths!’

He moved on to what ‘his team’ intended to do to get the economy back up and running…

They’d have sunk – family and country – without the quarterly Freedom Checks: freedom, in their case, to stay at home and not risk going to work – two crowded 20-minute subway rides there, two back, and open-plan air-conditioned offices. They may look well-off – she did her best to make it appear so (don’t we all?) – but like everybody they were only one pay-check away from disaster, and there’d been talk of ‘downsizing’ at both her and her husband’s workplaces – she in Event Planning and he in Advertising.

Sure, the President was a narcissist – a real hard case. But who else would have grabbed the wheel and got the country through this mess? Who else would shout and bluster to make sure everyone – like her brother and sister both in Healthcare – got the protective kit they needed, every day? Who else could have gotten away with telling all the malls and bars to shut up shop, making everyone register for tracing, and above all persuading folks that wearing face-coverings was an act of patriotism? Look at England, France; Brazil – tens of thousands of virus deaths, and economies in meltdown.

Sure she’d vote him out at the next election, the egomaniac that he was. But for now…

 

A little Christmas tale: All Bar You

mistletoe

I hadn’t meant to go.

But the rest of Engineering talked me into it. “Come on, it’ll be a scream.”

So I put on my jolliest clothes, and I went.

Engineering weren’t there.

I glanced round the room – didn’t recognise a soul. It looked like only the higher-ups: short, pasty middle-aged men; and their P.A.s, all younger, smarter made-up than me.

Work’s Christmas do.

Executive ballroom, Montague Hotel; near the city walls. Lavish deep red-and-gold garlands, huge tree; myriad tiny lights. At least the venue had class.

I headed for the mulled wine. Thus armed, I mingled – find an interesting conversation.

A group discussing local fee-paying schools: Tadcaster Grammar, St. Peters; Bootham. Another arguing the finer points of some tax-avoiding scam. House prices.  I rolled my eyes.

I noticed mistletoe.

Fat chance, guys.

He stood out, directly beneath it. Golden-blond hair, ponytail: tall, slim, straight; severe.

And he turned and looked right at me.

I made my way towards him. Set down my warm wineglass and gazed up at him.

Crystal splinters of eyes: golden lashes.

Frisson.

I didn’t know what to do with my hands as he embraced me. Sparks shot across my palms. I closed my eyes.

Deep: dark.

Lost…

I gaze up at him again.

“Do I…know you from somewhere?”

“I know all in this room: all bar you.”

He’s kissed everyone? The blokes too?

He shakes his head.

“Oh…sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“I am Fear: the sum total of all these people’s fears. Fear of ageing, cuckolding; ridicule. Status anxiety. Fear of poverty, death: of time itself. So intense, here in this room, that I am able to materialise in human form.”

I’m lost for words.

“What if I told you this was your last day?”

Strange thing to ask at an office party. But different, at least.

I concoct some witty answer-

But those eyes: he’s serious!

That’s not fair!

“I’m only twenty-five! My friends! My work! My parents! I’d leave my brother an only child!”

“Are you not afraid for yourself?”

“No! I’d be dead, wouldn’t I?”

“Then I don’t know you.”

“No. You don’t-”

But he’s gone.

A short tale for Guy Fawkes’ Night

“Mu-u-um…”

Oh-oh. That’s five-year-old-speak for, ‘I’ve got one of those questions.

“Yes darling?”

I tuck her in.

“What’s Torcher?”

I balk. What the heck have they been teaching her at that school?

“It’s what they did to Guy Fawkes. We learned about him today. He couldn’t write his name afterwards: after the torcher.”

Why can’t she ask the standard stuff like ‘where do babies come from?’, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ or even ‘why are there rich people?’

I gather my wits.

“Well, er, it’s… for example when they shine bright lights in your eyes when you want to go to sleep, or… erm… hurt you if they want you to tell them something… something they want to know.”

“Like, who helped you with the gunpowder?”

“Yes.”

“Guy Fawkes didn’t tell them.”

Dear God please don’t let her ask me what ‘hung drawn and quartered’ means…

“He must have been very brave.” Hmm: that probably wasn’t the right thing to say.

“Is that why we have fireworks? Because we want to remember how brave he was?”

Er… “No… no, that’s not it.”

Something whizzes overhead. The drawn curtains flash white, a split second before a deep boom echoes, outside and in.

Wait

“Did your teacher tell you how Guy Fawkes was found? In the cellar?”

“Yes! One of the Lords was… a friend, of the gang who wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. And he wrote him a letter saying, don’t go. Pretend to be ill. He didn’t say why. But the man thought… anyway he told someone. Like a policeman. And that’s how they found Guy Fawkes.”

“So they found him out without having to ask anyone anything.”

“Yes…” She frowns, puzzled, then brightens: “Without having to do any torcher!”

“Yes.”

I’d never thought of it before that question.

So now, whatever other people may be celebrating tonight – the saving of hundreds of lives; the confounding of Treason; the preservation of the Mother of all Parliaments to live to fight another day – when I bite into that lump of pitch-black parkin and gaze at the fireworks that light the sky, I lift my glass of blood-red punch to the tale that shows by example:

Torture doesn’t work.