Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Death of an Atheist

Surrounded by loving children and doting grandchildren, the atheist's eyes closed for the last time and his spirit departed.

A screaming in the ears.

A sense of rushing forward at incredible speed.

A white light at the end of a tunnel.

Mr Largely Hampton stumbled as he came to a stop. He found himself standing before a throne, translucent blue as if rough-hewn from a single sapphire, that reached higher than he could see. A motionless figure was seated on it, inexpressibly huge, shrouded in mists through which shone blinding, unapproachable light.

"Jesus Christ!" Hampton swore, staggering backwards and shielding his eyes.

Out of the mists stepped a small man dressed in white. He was tall, middle-eastern and grinning.

Hampton stared at him. "Oh," he said. "So you do exist. Huh."

Jesus continued grinning.

Hampton was standing on an endless flat expanse, transparent like glass. Over and under wheeled the stars.

"Don't think this changes anything," he said, wagging a finger. "I often imagined what I'd say if I died and it turned out that you were real. I've got some questions for you, mister." He was amazed at how suddenly clear his mind and memory were - like a super computer running smoothly at full tilt, laughing at light speed.

Jesus nodded. "Ask away," he said, in slightly accented English.

Hampton stole a furtive glance at the towering figure shrouded in blinding fog, and considered his position. But, dead or not, he was still himself, and righteous indignation bubbled to the surface. He steeled his nerves and took a deep breath. "Suffering," he said. "The big one. Explain it."

"I'm going to need you to be a little more specific," said Jesus. "Give me an example, if you don't mind."

Hampton sighed. He was here now. Why beat about the bush? "My sister. Dead at ten. Cancer. How can you possibly justify that?"

"I'm not entirely sure I could ever justify it. You see, I didn't kill her." Jesus' face was unreadable.

"Then who did?"

"No-one, it just happened. Things just happen all the time, good and bad."

"But you're all powerful, yes?"

Jesus said nothing.

"If you're all-powerful, you could have saved her." He stole another nervous glance at the throne, great and terrible, but did not back down. "In any court of law, you would be found guilty of neglect."

"Yes, I could have saved her."

"You admit it! Then why didn't you?"

"If you can tell me why I should have saved her, I'll tell you why I didn't."

In spite of his surroundings, Hampton felt a sudden thrill of anger. Jesus was apparently harder and more calloused than he had expected. "Why? Because she deserved better! She was entitled to better. She was entitled to a full and happy life!"

"Says who?" asked Jesus, calmly.

Mr Hampton paused. His thinking was crystal clear, his mind purring like a Ferrari. He realised he had no higher authority to quote. In the end he plumped for "It's a self-evident truth."

"Is it? Oh. Self-evident. She was entitled to a full and happy life because you say so."

"Are you saying she deserved what happened to her?"


"Then you're saying she was entitled to a full and happy life!"


Hampton raised an eyebrow. The little man in white was being infuriating. "Heads or tails, Jesus. You can't have both." He gasped as a coin materialised in his hand, simply because he had imagined it.

"She was neither entitled to happiness nor deserving of pain," said Jesus, calmly. "Things just happen, good and bad. That's life. Her illness was not punishment from God any more than her happiness was reward from God. Things just happen."

"She suffered," Hampton spat, "and so did her family. She went through so much - chemotherapy, isolation, all her hair falling out, how is that fair? She didn't choose to be born into a world of pain-"

"How do you know?"


"How do you know she didn't choose to be born into a world of pain? How do you know you didn't?"

"I- what? I would have remembered it!"

"Can you remember your second birthday?"

Hampton could feel his neck turning red. "Of course not. Even here, I can't remember that far back!"

"And yet you expect to remember something from before you were born?"

Hampton paused again. "Are you telling me she chose to be born? Of her own free will?"

Jesus shrugged.

"So she didn't choose to be born..."

Jesus shook his head. "I didn't say that, either. But as you don't know either way, how confident can you really be?"

Beside the throne, semi-shrouded in the blinding mist stood the pearly gates. "Is she in there?" Hampton asked.

Jesus nodded.

"Is she all right?" Hampton strove to stop his voice breaking.

Jesus gave him a real smile for the first time. "She is living a full and happy life."

Hampton turned to look away. There was a tear battling its way out of his right eye. Behind him his solitary shadow stretched away for what must have been miles, clear cut and black against the light coming from the throne. Jesus cast no shadow.

"So she is happy, then. In the end, she got the full and happy life she was entitled to," he said.

"Who said entitled?" said Jesus, in what Hampton thought an insensitive tone. "Heaven is a gift, not a birthright. How does simply being born entitle anyone to anything?"

Hampton's anger returned with a rush. He decided to change tack. "But you're meant to be good! Perfect, in fact! Surely healing a dying girl is good, and yet you didn't do it! If I had had the power in my hands to save her, like you do, I would have saved her, but you didn't. By not acting, by not intervening, you showed that you might be all powerful, but you're certainly not good."

"I have the power to heal every hurting person on the earth, right now, this instant. Should I do it?"

"Yes! Emphatically yes!"

"Should I surgically remove all pain from the world?"

"Of course! You shouldn't even have to ask!"

"Should I take away people's ability to do evil? Should I remove their choice? Should I remove your ability to disagree with me, right here and now?"

Hampton opened his mouth and then closed it again.

"Imagine a world in which I surgically removed the suffering from every act of violence. Murderers could attack people over and over, every day, with no consequence. They could stab a hundred people in the street, every day, and no-one would care.
"Imagine a world where a man can beat his wife with a bat every night, yet she feels no pain. He would feel it was right to indulge that desire as often as he felt it. He would probably say it was self evident. For him, good and bad would be meaningless concepts, because the consequences would be the same, no matter what he did.
"Imagine a world where the rapist causes no pain, does no damage. The rapist would use the absence of pain to say that what he did was right and innocent."

Hampton's mind was spinning. He needed a little time to process. "Would that be so bad?" He asked, scratching his head.

"It would drive you insane. The entire race of you. If not working brings the same results as working, then why work? If not eating brings the same results as eating, then why eat? If not breathing brings the same results as breathing, then why breathe? If no matter what you do, it always turns out the same then why bother to do anything? Why even stay alive?"

"You're saying life without choice and consequence is meaningless?"

"Yes. Even if it's a choice as small as eating a single fruit on a single tree. Without choice, without the potential for pain, there can be no free will."

The mist from the throne seemed to be drawing nearer, billowing out in an ever growing cloud. The light from within was dazzling.

"You asked me if you should take away my ability to disagree with you," said Hampton, one eye on the slowly approaching cloud. "What would you say if I said yes?"

Jesus laughed. "In the beginning when there was only me, I separated light from darkness, and saw that the light was good. You remember that story? Yet I was all that that existed at that time. Do you realise what that means?"

Hampton said nothing. His mind was working perfectly - better than it had ever done on earth. He could remember passages from Genesis that had been read in school assembly when he was five. "God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness." The separation of light from darkness happened before any kind of light source - stars, planets - had been created. So where did this occur?

Jesus nodded in response to his thoughts. "The separation of light from darkness happened within me. I became the light. I removed my own ability to choose evil - in me there is no darkness at all, and now I cannot sin. Look - no shadow. You want to be the same way? You want to be like God? Do you think you've earned that right?"

Suddenly conscious of the razor-sharp memory of his own life, Hampton changed tack again. "I suppose I understand the need for consequences, pain and free will - but what about the suffering that has nothing to do with free will? What about suffering that is completely random? Natural disasters, parasites, droughts, plagues?"

"Don't even get me started on natural disasters!" exclaimed Jesus, with an odd note of bitterness in his voice. "Even calling them that is a little upsetting."

Hampton stared.

"Gifts!" Jesus cried, in exasperation. "They were meant to be gifts! Enough free energy to send someone to the moon and back! Mankind was made to be in tune with the earth, to fill and subdue it like a mother calming her baby. But they subdued it like a man beating a wild animal - a wild animal that can bite back. You lost touch with the earth and forgot how to read its messages. The animals haven't forgotten - they know to get out of the way days before a tidal wave, a volcanic eruption, or an earthquake. But not you, not any more. Instead of harnessing the power and using it, you don't even realise it's coming, and it destroys you. Instead of riding the bus, you threw away the timetable, fell asleep in the road and let it run you over."

Hampton had never considered that angle. The 'natural disaster' argument had always served him well when he had been alive. But it was true what Jesus said about the animals - how did they know? And why didn't the humans know? Presumably they had known once...

"What about disease, then?" he persisted. "What about HIV? What about cancer? Why allow them to exist? What about scorpions, snakes and parasites?"

"You know I exist," said Jesus. "Guess who else exists. No heads without tails," he added, nodding at the small coin still in Hampton's hand.

Hampton got the hint, but smirked. "The devil? Give me a break."

"Real," said Jesus.

Hampton needed a moment. "What's he got to do with anything?"

"He wanted to be like me. But not the same. He wanted to compete. And he was powerful, let me tell you. He separated the light from the darkness within himself, just like I did, but he chose to embody the darkness. He wanted to be an alternative version of me. He took away his own free will to choose good and evil, and chose to be capable of only evil."

"And he causes disease, dangerous animals, parasites and things?"

Jesus paused and gazed past Hampton for a moment. "It's not quite that simple... Do you remember Adam and Eve?"

"And the apple, yes."

"Who said anything about an apple? Adam was in charge of the earth, but signed it over to the devil, and it came to resemble him as he poured himself into it. The world, which started out perfect, became hostile and dangerous, and the evolutionary process adapted, throwing up poisonous creatures, poisonous plants, diseases and parasites. The harmony of existence became a battle for supremacy."

Hampton was confused. "And how is any of that fair on the rest of us? Those of us who didn't pick fruit from the tree, or fall from heaven?"

"Are you suggesting I should have surgically removed the consequences of the Devil's choice? Are you suggesting I should have surgically removed the consequences of Adam's choice?"

Hampton realised they had already covered this ground. "Oh," he said. The fog from the throne had almost reached them.

"You see, it's the same problem. I can't run around after every creature with free will, putting right every wrong decision, because if I do, no decision has any meaning. Life has no meaning if I do that. Free will is a risk. A massive one, granted, but without it, life is meaningless."

"So what is the meaning of life?"

"Choice. Choose the right."

"Right and wrong don't exist," Hampton replied, fiddling with the coin in his hand. "Only different perspectives."

"Then it won't matter if I send you to Hell then, will it?"

Hampton froze.

"If there's no objective right and wrong, what does it matter where you end up? One place is the same as another. Depending on your perspective, of course..."

"Hell is a medieval construct, created by an elitist religious institution to control the uneducated classes," Hampton croaked.

"Says who?"

"It is self-evident!"

Jesus said nothing.

"I've tried to live a good life!" Hampton gasped. "I've done my best to treat others well!"

"You have," Jesus nodded, putting an arm around his shoulders. "You looked after your family with great integrity. You provided for your children when they were ungrateful, and often denied yourself so that your family could flourish instead. You worked hard, obeyed the law, and lived with integrity much of the time."

Hampton looked at Jesus. "Then I can go into Heaven?"

"I didn't say that."

"I'm going to Hell?"

"I didn't say that either."

"... what, then?"

"Well, let's see, shall we?" said Jesus, as the mist overtook them.

And together, they approached the throne.

(Written 08/03/17. Being a Christian, I often come across atheist arguments against belief in a God, one of the most prevalent being the 'an all-powerful all-loving God would not allow suffering' argument. This was framed with great intensity by Stephen Fry in a recent viral video in an interview with Gay Byrne. I have always thought that the 'too-much-suffering' argument doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny, getting by usually on the power of the emotions that drive it, rather than the logic of its position. 

When examined thoughtfully, it becomes apparent to anyone with no axe to grind, that for any free will to exist at all, there must be real choice and real consequences for making the wrong choice. Without these, life would literally be stripped of all meaning. This in no way denies how awful pain can be, nor how often innocent people are made to suffer, but merely acknowledges the nature of a world in which everyone can, and does, choose. The bad choices have ripples that spread out and hit the innocent - but the good choices do the same thing, spreading out and affecting the deserving and undeserving alike. 

Who knows what happened to Largely Hampton in the end when he stood before God the Father? We aren't allowed to judge, only God can do that. It's a mystery. Which is why I didn't answer that question in the story! Part of believing in God is also accepting that there are some things we will never know, and some questions to which we can never have definite answers, only creative speculation. I hope this example of creative speculation has made you reconsider the party line on suffering-vs-God a little bit. Thanks for reading :) James.)

Monday, March 6, 2017

Greg Slab

The name on the door said Greg Slab. The occupier wished it said something a little more dramatic, like 'Fontaine Diablo', or 'Harry Magnum'. But it didn't. It said Greg Slab. He was a Detective Sergeant in the NYPD (North Yorkshire Police Department), which was normally an easy gig.

For the past week, however, his sleepy corner of the Shire had become the frenzied centre of attention for the national media. Four deaths, all children, all from the same tiny village, one a week. It was an unprecedented level of morbid fascination for the rural community of Tanthorpe, the region with the second-lowest crime rate in the entire country.

After the first death (a girl called Edie, nine) they had uncovered the 'what', but not the 'how' - PPP, a common enough substance, available in virtually every household's cleaning closet. They couldn't pinpoint how it had got into her system, and it was put down as a tragic accident. She died on a Wednesday.

A week later came the second death - a homeschooler named Nathaniel Wilkins, seven. The same poison again, but this time there was no PPP-containing cleaner in the house. Or at the school, or at his grandparents' house. Forensics had descended on the Wilkins residence and tested everything - food, shampoo, toothpaste, but there was nothing; no explanation as to how the PPP had been introduced into his system. At this point, the local papers had begun to get involved. Front page on the Northern Echo. He too had died on a Wednesday.

Next week, Christopher Hall, twelve. And this time it hit the national headlines. The community was becoming paranoid, and people had come to the police station to complain, loudly. PC Jones had done her best to reassure them, but both she and the complainers knew it was just empty words. They were no further forward.

The police had ransacked the Hall residence, but the Halls were Greenpeace activists in their spare time. They ate organic and waved placards outside the headquarters of big corporations. They wouldn't let a PPP-containing cleaner anywhere near their house.

It was on Thursday that the words 'serial killer' were yelled by a member of the public at the police complaints desk. Friday morning it was mentioned on BBC News.

Then, the following Wednesday, little Libby Nutall had died, and with the fourth tragedy had come a breakthrough; in the house, forensics had found a half-eaten chocolate bar - a ChocNut - with Libby's teeth marks in it. It was laced with PPP. Greg ordered a search of the bins of the previous victims for ChocNut wrappers - and they had found one at both the Wilkins and the Hall residence. Traces of PPP remained in one of the wrappers.

TreCorp PLC (the parent company) were crucified in the papers and halved in value overnight. They recalled every ChocNut bar in the north of England - you couldn't find one for love nor money, and those for sale further afield were avoided like unexploded bombs.

Yet Slab knew that TreCorp were doing everything they could - it was the greatest PR disaster the company had ever known. They had shut down the factory at Leeming Bar at which the ChocNuts had been manufactured, but still hadn't found how the PPP had been introduced, or even how many batches had been affected. Bookies were offering ten-to-one odds on a government inquiry.

Slab sat in his empty office and stared out of the window. A member of the press was outside taking photos of the police station exterior.

Very few people knew there had been a fifth Tanthorpe poisoning this week. Alistair Mitchell, six, PPP. But this one had been different - his mother worked as a doctor at Northallerton Friarage Hospital, and his life had been saved. He was unconscious, but stable. And everyone involved - thank God - had managed to keep the information away from the press. Alistair's stomach had been pumped, and there was no ChocNut inside - it was a poisoned Chuckler he had eaten, manufactured in Sweden, by Sotsaker, a Swedish company with no connection to TreCorp.

Five different children, all in Tanthorpe, all on Wednesdays. The coincidences were no longer coincidences. Up until now, TreCorp had seemed the likely culprits - but what were the odds that Sotsaker, the Swedish company, had also contaminated their stock in time to poison a fifth child, on yet another Wednesday?

Slab shook his head. Impossible. How then?

Next Wednesday, it was Greg Slab's face on the news, the toast of Tanthorpe and pride of the NYPD. A second face appeared alongside, downcast, mad-eyed.

There was a corner shop by the school bus stop at which children disembarked. They would flood inside, pocket money jingling, to load up on sugary treats with the money they had failed to spend on a healthy school dinner. The owners were eagle-eyed when it came to shoplifters - they had a network of CCTV cameras positioned throughout the shop, watching every shelf.

Funny, Slab had thought to himself afterwards. You couldn't steal a penny chew in that shop. But you could put something back onto a shelf, and no-one questioned it. They didn't even notice if the thing you put back hadn't been on the shelf in the first place. 

(Written 06/03/17, remembering a time I shoplifted a chocolate bar in my younger life, and felt so guilty that I went back and paid for one of the same bars and then put it back on the shelf to clear my debt! I was surprised by how easy it was - and also slightly scared by it. I could have done anything to the chocolate bar and put it back to poison some totally innocent shopper, had I been some murderer, and no-one on the shop floor would have acted with any suspicion. And thus the idea for a story was born that it has taken me years to get around to actually writing...) 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Eighth of December - A Riddle

The sky was a wash of purple and orange punctuated with adamantine stars, and it never changed. Underneath grew strawberries - miles upon miles of them in neat, perfect rows stretching into the distance between the sparse trees.

Jael sat alone in his tree. Not many people had their own tree. He was unusual in that respect. Piem was his closest neighbour, living in a large tree with two others, close enough to talk.

"Piem!" Jael shouted.

Piem appeared from behind one of the thick branches and raised an eyebrow, twitching his overlarge moustache.

"I'm going to do it today," said Jael.

Piem walked carefully along the branch that brought him closest to Jael's tree, sat and stared thoughtfully into the middle distance. "You want to end up like one of them?" he asked, pointing to a nearby tree from which three corpses hung, suspended from the neck. The bodies bounced against each other gently in the breeze. "They say that's what happens to you if you go down."

"I don't think they're real. Have you ever looked at them up close? They haven't got faces. They're fakes."

Piem looked unconvinced, but Jael ploughed on. "Piem, can I tell you something?"

He nodded.

"I've been feeling strange lately. This whole place... the fields, the trees..." he fell silent.

"Spit it out, then."

"I... Look, I'm not convinced any of it's real."

"You're so weird," said Piem, grinning through his walrus moustache.

"Come with me," said Jael with unusual urgency. "I'm going down to the strawberries. Today."

"You're always looking. Why do you keep looking?"

"It's better than being like those fools out there," replied Jael, gesturing in the direction of a cluster of trees on a hill. "Who wants to spend their whole lives with their eyes closed?"

Piem shrugged. "They find it easier. They don't trust people who look down all the time."

"Well I don't think it's such a bad thing," Jael replied. "The longer you look at the sky, the more stars you see. The more I look into the strawberries, the more... the more..."

"The more what? What have you seen?"

A set of swinging corpses on a nearby tree rocked in the growing wind. Jael didn't answer.

"It's Wednesday. Shall we go tree-hopping?" asked Piem in a falsely bright voice.

Jael sighed. "You realise these fields go on forever? I mean literally, forever. There's no point going sideways - we'll never get anywhere going sideways - the only way out is down."

"But why do you want to get out?"

"Is all this really enough for you? I want to be someone."

"You already are someone! You've got your own tree man! Most of the others have at least seven to a branch! There's at least two others in mine!"

"What do you mean, 'at least'?" asked Jael.

Piem looked darkly into the upper branches. "I think there's another one up there somewhere... But that's neither here nor there - your tree has the highest branches in the forest. How can you be so dissatisfied?"

"That doesn't matter much to me any more. It's getting harder. I don't know. Maybe it's me, but doesn't this place feel a bit dreamlike to you?"

Jael and Piem turned as a group of people living in a nearby tree struck up a lively song, all singing it together with their eyes screwed tightly shut.

"It's all wrong," said Jael.

"You're not feeling yourself," said Piem. "It's all right. Just stop looking down for a while and you'll feel better. It'll all work out in the end, Jael. Relax."

"You know, I think I disagree. The more you look, the more you see what's really there. There's something under the strawberries, Piem." His voice was suddenly conspiratorial. "There's someone there - with eyes - eyes the colour of... the colour of..." he gestured in circles as he searched for a metaphor. "... cranberry sauce," he finished, lamely.

"Come on man, you can't see very well - you wear those spectacles for God's sake! You sure you're not misunderstanding what you've seen?"

"No! I mean yes! The more you look the more you learn to... oh, I don't know... 'tune in', I suppose. Haven't you ever tried?"

Piem shook his head, his face blank.

"It's all right," said Jael, with a half-hearted shrug. "Maybe I am the only one. Piem?"



Jael jumped from the branch and hit the strawberries - and vanished.

Piem leapt to his feet. But Jael did not return. He was gone. And in his heart, Piem knew that one day his time would come too. But not yet. He had a few years yet.

(Written 28/02/17. This one's a riddle! So I'm not going to explain what it means here - but if you have a guess, or can figure out what's going on, please put your thoughts in the comments section! Who are Jael and Piem? and where are they? Let me know if you figure it out...)


(Update - well done to everyone who guessed, and especially to those who got it right! Here is the explanation...

Lyrics to Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles:

"Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me

No one I think is in my tree
I mean it must be high or low
That is you know you can't tune in
But it's all right
That is I think it's not too bad

Always, no, sometimes think it's me
But you know I know when it's a dream
I think a 'No' I mean a "Yes"
But it's all wrong
That is I think I disagree

Cranberry Sauce"

Jael = J.L. (John Lennon)
Piem = P.M. (Paul McCartney)
8th December = the date of the murder of John Lennon.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Mr Butler and Mr Dry

David Butler stood nervously in the glass foyer and waited. Outside, snow was falling in darkness. Automatic doors opened and closed behind him as people came and went. Michael Buble sang Christmas songs over the tannoy inside, where the glare of the supermarket lights formed a blinding, blurry mist. He patted his pockets absent-mindedly but his glasses weren't there.

David was nervous. Managing the store had been his life's work. His grandfather had founded Butler's, but in the past year it had been bought, and today he was meeting a representative from the new owners. Tomorrow the shop was officially changing hands.

An overweight man in a suit strode into the foyer, brushing the snow off his shoulders. "David? David Butler?" it said.

"Mr Dry, is it?" asked David, shaking a sweaty hand. He wished he had his glasses. The man was just an unfocused blob.

"Call me Crispin, please," said Mr Dry. "Shall we?"

David followed him inside, past the Christmas tree on which hundreds of fairy lights glowed in unfocused circles.

Mr Dry picked up a bag of tangerines and examined them critically. He groped each one like a doctor testing for lumps. "What do you notice about these tangerines?" he asked.

David took them and brought them close to his face. "They all look fine to me..."

"That, David, is the problem," replied Mr Dry. "You buy the tangerines by the crate, and bag them up in store, yes? Well from now on, we're going to put one of the fruits that are past their best - a bit watery and squashy - into every bag we sell."

David was taken aback. "But sir, we usually just throw them away!"

"It'll save us money, David. It's good business."

"Surely people will notice, sir! A bad tangerine in every bag? They're bound to pick up on that!"

"You'd be surprised," said the fat, blurry shape. "You'd be surprised. One week the husband will get the bad one, next week the wife, next week little Johnny. They won't pick up any pattern. And even if they do, they don't do anything about it. It's just business. Now, what have we got here?"

"Dry roasted peanuts, sir."

Mr Dry strode up to the nearest till and poured them out in the bagging area. "What's missing from this picture?" he asked.

David scooped up a handful of peanuts and peered at them.

"No dust, David. Where's the peanut dust?"

"The waste produced by the dry roasting process? We throw it away!"

"From now on, we're going to remove a couple of peanuts from every packet and replace them with dust. It'll save money. There's money in waste products, you know. It's good business."

David was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.

"And I'll tell you what," Mr Dry continued, "after a while, people will expect the peanut dust. They'll feel ripped off if they get a bag without it. Get someone to clean these peanuts up, will you?" 

David quickly cleaned the peanuts up himself and scurried after Mr Dry, who had picked up a sack of potatoes. 

"Now what about these? Can you see anything wrong with these potatoes, David?"

"No, sir! They are of the highest quality! Very popular with the customers!"

Mr Dry pointed to the little printed label that said where the potatoes were from. It said 'ROMANIA."

"Romania is a problem, sir?"

"No, no, of course not," he replied, "cheap as chips, I'm all for it. But from now on, we don't tell people things come from there. We say 'grown in the EU'. That way they could have been grown in Italy or France. More romantic. And we can bump the price up a bit. Everyone knows a possibly-grown-in-France potato is worth more than definitely-grown-in-Romania potato."

David's head was spinning. "Sir, is this honest?"

"There is only success or failure, David. There's money or no money. This isn't bad - it's good! Good business! You see?"

"Not at all."

"Tell me David, when did you last rearrange the store?"

"We never do that really, sir," David replied, trying to keep his voice steady. "People know where to find things. It works great, just the way it is."

"Right, well from now on, we're going to be moving everything around. One month we'll move all the eggs. Then another month we'll move the baby products. Then the sauces. Then something else again after that."

"Sir, we have always tried to be considerate towards both our employees and our customers. This sounds... for lack of a better word, disrespectful."

"It's good business, David. Rearranging will force people to search all over, exposing them to all the products and displays they might miss out on in their usual shopping routine."

"Sir, there will be complaints if we keep arbitrarily rearranging the store."

"Complaints are good, David! If a customer cares enough to complain, that shows they are beginning to feel a sense of ownership in the business. They are beginning to feel it is their shop."

"People already feel that, sir!"

"And besides, complaints won't cause any real trouble - the customer service team can simply blame Head Office. Everyone knows that wherever you work, Head Office can neither be reached nor reasoned with. Easy to blame, and impossible to actually get hold of. Damn good system, if you ask me."

"In what possible sense is that a good system, sir?"

"In the sense that it's good business."

"I thought you might say that."

Mr Dry wandered over to the hair care products and stared at the shelves. "Now," he said, "tell me about the people of this town. Are they wealthy?"

"Not wealthy, no," replied David, "but not poor either... middle class, I suppose. Families who want the best for their kids."

"You see these products? You've got the very cheapest shampoo, then some stuff priced in the middle, and then the expensive name brands. We need to change this."

"I - I'm sorry?"

"We'll discontinue the stuff in the middle. Make 'em choose between either the bog-standard cheap rubbish or the name brands. Just you watch - they'll go for the name brands every time - these middle class families - they'll feel like choosing the cheapest stuff is letting their kids down. So only leave 'em one other option. The most expensive one."

"Sir, that is immoral!"

"Not at all, not at all! We're doing them a favour, can't you see? We're giving them pride. They'll realise they can afford the best! Imagine what that does for your self-respect, David!"

David sagged. "Mr Dry, if you don't mind, I have left my glasses in my office, and must go and find them." And without waiting for a reply, he left the shop floor and fled upstairs. 

He found his spectacles in his office amongst the stock reports. As he slipped them on, the world came back into focus. He had known his last day at the store was coming, but he hadn't realised until now that it had already come. He watched Mr Dry wandering the aisles on the CCTV monitors. Tomorrow it would all change. It was already changing.

He made his way back downstairs and approached the meat counter. "Mr Rodgers. Come with me, if you would be so kind."

Mr Rodgers laid down his meat cleaver and followed Mr Butler into the dairy aisle, where Mr Dry was examining a bottle of milk.

"Mr Rodgers, this is Mr Dry." Mr Dry looked up. "He came in a green BMW which is currently parked outside in the disabled space. I'd like you to let his tyres down, please."

Mr Rodgers looked confused.

"Is this a joke?" asked Mr Dry, one eyebrow raised.

David was not smiling. "We have pressurised air available in the garage forecourt, sir - a pound a go. Good business. And Mr Rodgers, I seem to remember a length of spare tubing out in the warehouse? Please take it and siphon off his fuel."

"What do you think you're playing at, Butler?" said Mr Dry, a warning in his voice.

"We also have petrol available in the forecourt, sir. Shall I call Eileen the cashier and ask her to put up the price?"

"Put up the price? What for, man!"

"For when you get there with an empty tank, sir. Remember, there is only success or failure, Mr Dry. There's money or no money. This isn't bad - it's good! Good business! You see?"

"You are asking to be fired, Mr Butler," said Mr Dry, but David was already walking away.

He stood in the foyer for a moment, the doors opening and closing behind him, and took a deep breath. Apparently, the principles of good business only worked in one direction. When they were turned around, they became gross misconduct. With a sigh, and without saying goodbye to anyone, he walked out into the falling snow, got into his car, and drove away into the night.

Mr Rodgers the butcher didn't know what was going on, or why the new boss was glaring at him. But it was obvious that old Mr Butler hadn't liked him very much, and old Mr Butler liked everybody. As he made his way back to the meat counter, he mused on the notion that everybody liked Mr Butler too. Respectful, that's what he was. Made things easy for the staff, and they made things easy for him.

"New boss is here, Doreen," Mr Rodgers said, as he picked up his cleaver again. "Don't like the look of him. Only been here five minutes and already fallen out with the old man."

Doreen listened greedily to the whole story, and then scurried off to the alcohol aisle to gossip to Shannon, who, Mr Rodgers knew, would invariably tell everyone else in the store. He paused in thought for a few moments, and then grinned as his cleaver fell on the meat. Mr Butler knew how to make life easy for those who worked in the store. Apparently, he also knew how to make it hard.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Politician's Dinner

"Gary, it's lovely to see you, thanks for agreeing to meet up again."

"May I offer a particularly warm welcome to you, Miss Bingham. The third date is always the most... invigorating, don't you think? Please, have some wine."

"I must make a confession, Gary. I'm not here only for the date tonight. I was wondering; before we order any food, can I ask you a few questions? It's about my sister."

"You are, of course, referring to the honourable Mrs Dresden?"

"Yes - or Helen, as most people call her. She seems to have gone missing."

"I'm sure all of our hearts go out to all her friends and family during this difficult time."

"She's been gone for nearly a week now, Gary. Mum's been beside herself. You know how it is - Helen's a grown-up - she can get up and go if she chooses. But her mobile has been switched off, she hasn't been to work... And it's been nearly a week. We're going to speak to the police tomorrow. Is there anything you want to tell me?"

"Only that this is a matter for the relevant authorities."

"You two seemed to really hit it off."

"All I can say to the honourable lady is that I am happy to look at the issue she raises in due course."

"Because - the reason I ask - I was shopping on Saturday, Gary, in the town centre-"

"Which has undergone significant redevelopment, as per our manifesto pledge-"

"-and that was the last time Helen was seen. In a black Jaguar. She's been missing since Saturday."

"-delivering the best deal for working people, and I might add, the best deal for Britain."

"Gary, are you listening to me?"

"Yes, I've been perfectly clear about that, and I resent any implication otherwise."

"Good. Because the last person to see her was me, Gary. Did you know that? Oh, yes, go on then, I will have another glass - I only caught a glimpse, and the windows were tinted, but I'm sure it was her I saw. In the passenger side of your car. The black Jaguar. Which you happened to be driving at the time."

"My honourable friend raises an important issue. I am looking seriously at this and will make sure I have an appropriate strategic response in good time."

"Gary, was my sister the woman in your car on the day she disappeared?"

"Now, look - I would like to think I have been entirely transparent in all my dealings with you, Miss Bingham. My commitment in relation to honesty, openness and accountability is completely clear."

"Gary, I asked you a question. Oh, go on then, just one more - but that's all - I'm driving."

"Now, look - let me be clear about this - I do not sanction kidnapping, abduction or murder, and that will continue to be my position. I've been perfectly clear. I will institute an urgent review into all matters pertaining to the case referred to me by my friend the Right Honourable Member Sat on the Chair on the Other Side of the Table. I've been perfectly clear, and, if I may refer the honourable lady to my previous statement to the house on this issue, I will continue to be perfectly clear."

"Gary, were you in that car with my sister? Answer me!"

"I say to the lady opposite, I've already addressed her concerns, and wonder why the honourable lady wants to hear it again? I don't propose to give a running commentary on every ongoing development, thank you very much. Your sister was one of the many people shopping on Saturday, and I think it's absolutely right that we recognise the contribution these fine men and women make to the prosperity and growth of modern Britain."

"Gary... I miss her. I miss my sister. Was she in your car? I'm so sure it was her I saw!"

"Can I join my honourable friend in her sentiments so well expressed, and assure her that she speaks on behalf of both sides of the house in this matter. And can I congratulate her on a fine choice of wine for the evening?

"You like it? Gosh I have drunk a lot of it already, haven't I? What was I saying? Go on then, one last glass. Are you ordering another bottle?"

"I'll tell you what I am doing - lowering taxes, providing greater opportunity for working people, driving down unemployment - that's what I'm doing."

"Yes, that's very nice Gary, I know you're an MP, but what about the wine? Are you ordering that?"

"I'll tell you I am doing - providing more school places! Encouraging higher voter turnout! Making Britain work for working people!"

"I'll just order it then... Honestly, for a date, this is a lot of hard work."

"I can confirm that we are putting forward to the committee a motion for additional funding for any further meetings that may come up in future."

"Somewhere more upmarket than this place, I hope. Seriously, you could afford to take me to the Ritz on your salary."

"Despite the mess I inherited, I am proud to report a robust economic sector, in which there are many new opportunities for working people."

"You mean the Ritz isn't out of the question? Ooh, that would be nice... I've never been before..."

"I am hopeful that talks will be able to continue."

"Oh that is nice, Gary! What were we talking about? I'm lost... Go on, then, fill her up..."

"I have made a robust response to all the issues raised by the honourable lady, and the working men and women of Britain can rest assured that this government will pursue the very best deal possible for everyone concerned."

"Have you? Oh, that's a relief. I'm glad. Oh, my head hurts. I'm not sure I'm hungry any more, although for the life of me I can't imagine why. I was ravenous when I arrived."

"My honourable friend raises a valid point."

"Shall we just head out now? I suppose we could save a little money if we skip dinner."

"Hear, hear!"

"Oh alright then, you cheeky thing! Back to your place, maybe? You'll have to drive though, I'm feeling a little tipsy. Did you come in your car? Oh good, then I'll wait out front for you. What kind of car do you drive again?"

"A black Jaguar. With tinted windows."

"OK, I'll keep an eye out for it, ladykiller!"

"I look forward to it with great anticipation. Another glass?"

"Go on, then, if I must..."

(I wrote this in response to a challenge; to write a short story using only dialogue - which explains why there is no 'he said', 'she said', or any descriptive writing at all. 
I've always loved and hated the way politicians talk without actually saying anything or committing themselves. I took many of the phrases that Gary uses verbatim from Theresa May at Prime Minister's Questions, Wednesday 25th Jan 2017.)