THE PROFANED PORTRAIT
The prime minister first notices that someone has tampered with the Thatcher portrait as he is showing a visitor out of 10 Downing Street:
Warbytton had done with Carrot and fluttered his hand airily in dismissal. He had caught sight over the man’s shoulder of a framed illustration on the wall – a bold caricature of Margaret Thatcher given on permanent loan to Number Ten by a well-wisher – and was shocked by the background detail. Had he never properly examined it before?
It was a friendly portrayal, the manic effect of those startlingly bright eyes softened by a flowing mane and a smile that stopped a little short of malevolence. The former premier stood before a stylised Big Ben with, or once with, the sketchiest suggestion of Parliament Square greensward stretching behind her.
Except that now she only had to look over her shoulder to witness an entwined couple, naked and athletically rutting.
Ben Strutters, a police officer who relishes violence, is called into his superior’s office to explain what happened the night before:
Summoned to the chief constable’s office, he stood stiffly to attention until a wave of the hand suggested that he could relax a little. But he wasn’t invited to sit down.
‘I’ve heard reports of what happened on the South Bank last night,’ the chief said, ‘but I want to hear it from your own mouth, inspector.’
‘The violence appears to have been extreme.’
‘There were several groups of armed trouble-makers, sir.’
‘I’m talking about our violence.’
‘We did down a good many ruffians with the deluge gun. A few legs broken, I have to admit. Some blood.’
‘Staves next, sir.’
‘Depends what you mean, sir. Anyone who had the look in their eye, if you know what I mean. No questions asked.’
‘And then the Tasers?’
‘As a last resort.’
‘But then you went in heavily with them.’
‘That’s true, sir. Twenty people felled on the spot, four of them hospitalised.’
‘And what do you say, inspector, to a criticism in today’s Blither’ (he gathered the newspaper from his desk and squinted at it) ‘that your use of force was disproportionate in that eighty members of the public were injured while one police officer sustained a bruised thumb and six of his colleagues lost their helmets?’
‘I’d say, sir, that the public learned a useful lesson.’
The chief constable reached out a hand.
‘Exactly the right response, inspector,’ he said. ‘I’m fast-tracking you to superintendent.’
The Daily Maul has splashed an old, but revealing, pin-up photograph of Valmai Partridge, a pneumatic would-be MP no better than she ought to be:
The Pink Party leader appraised her former prime selling points on the Maul’s front page with rueful pleasure.
‘But they’re still quite pert, aren’t they, Duggie?’
‘They’re a treat, Vavoomshka,’ said her fourth husband, who specialised in inventive endearments. ‘I wouldn’t swap them for anyone else’s. Even if I had the chance these days.’
‘But Game Bird Partridge is a bit much, don’t you think? They’re suggesting I’ve got a dirty past. Who do they think they are? Voracious Valmai!’
‘Well, you were a call-girl.’
‘An escort, Duggie. Respectable. No hanky-panky unless I initiated it. Which of course . . . Could I sue them?’
‘They’d have you for breakfast.’
She gave the filthiest of laughs.
‘They wouldn’t be the first, Duggie!’
A BENEFITS RACE
This scene at the Office of Handouts is largely self-explanatory, but we should perhaps explain that all benefits claimants are forced to wear coloured bibs – orange for the unemployed, green for those in poorly paid work:
Ellie Stammers thought she might be in love. Whatever it was, she knew that Greg Gripp was the most commanding man she had ever come across since the bailiff who turfed her mother and her squealing little brood out on to the streets all those years ago. She gazed at him now through the double-strength security glass as he rounded up what he merrily called ‘the runners’ for his 11.30 handicap (with relentless cajoling and badgering they managed to fit two into an hour). She was rather proud of her green bib, which proved that at least she was trying to be a decent citizen, but Gripp wore a pinstriped suit and a large flapping tie bearing the Power4Us logo. He was in charge, and he stood no nonsense. He was wonderful.
What a privilege it was to work here. The carved stone windows, dark oak beams and parquet flooring were reminders of the days when this was one of those borough libraries long since sold off for more profitable use. Perhaps it was nothing more than the lingering waft of ancient furniture polish, but although the fittings had been stripped out to suit the demands of the Office of Handouts’ Rigorous Assessment Unit, and although she had never been much of a reader herself, Ellie was convinced that, in moments of quietness, she still sensed a trace of an imagined dusty, studious, intellectual atmosphere. It was uplifting.
Having marshalled his sorry looking field of claimants into a starting line, Gripp strode to the far end of the room, took a ten-pound note from his pocket and taped it to the wall.
‘‘We’re looking for strivers, remember,’ he announced. ‘We want to see real effort. First to the end gets the prize.’
He popped his head into Ellie’s little booth.
‘Ready?’ he asked.
She held up her stop-watch in assent.
‘Good girl. There are ten runners and we’ve an eighty per cent target today, so you can work that out?’
Maths had always taxed her brain, but this seemed doable.
‘We send two away,’ she offered after some thought.
‘Wrong, Ellie. We send eight away. It’s a refusal target. You’ll learn,’ he added generously before rejoining his charges.
And now for the performance that she always enjoyed with a shiver of guilt, though she couldn’t quite say why. It felt a bit naughty, to tell the truth, as if she might be caught out smiling to herself and scolded, though there was nobody to see. It was their little secret.
‘They’re all ready for the off,’ Gripp declared, in the breezy tones of a professional race commentator. ‘In the stall to my left’ (of course there was no stall, but excitable Ellie pictured one nevertheless), ‘we have Diabetes One with restricted leg movement, but a definite will to win. Next to her, champing at the bit, is Emphysema, a bit choked up but ready for the fray. Next, it’s Pneumo . . . how do you say that?’
‘Pneumoconiosis,’ wheezed an elderly chap, holding his chest. ‘Look, I’m not sure I can go through with this.’
‘Nonsense,’ Gripp chafed him. ‘You look a hell of a lot better than I did when I fell out of bed after a few tinnies last Sunday morning! It’s Pneumo Lad, and then we have Hippy Girl, three weeks after the operation and grumbling a bit, but nothing that a flick of the whip won’t put right. Or is your money perhaps on Heart Bypass Boy, carrying brand new stents?’
Ellie thought he was a real card. It was so impressive, the way he improvised from the few details he had on his sheet. It was such a pity that none of them seemed to appreciate it. Where was their sense of humour?
‘Fresh out of her wheelchair it’s Arthritic Knees, bunched up with Bell’s Palsy and Curvature of the Spine – not sure that’s one to back, folks! And on the rails we have the very game Double Hernia, by Too Much Straining out of Carelessness, jostling for position with Colostomy Kate. They’re under starter’s orders.’
Her thumb hovered expectantly over the stopwatch button.
‘Ready . . . steady . . . (he approached the booth, handed her the sheet and gave her a massive knowing wink) . . . ‘hobble!’
They set off, slowly, erratically, pausing to catch breath, to clutch at a limb or to cough. After only a few staggering paces the man with the lung disease clutched his heart and fell to the floor, motionless, toppling the woman with the hip replacement. She sat down heavily and raised her hands for help, but all the others were struggling forward in laboured desperation, their limbs seeming to wade through treacle.
‘Two riders are down,’ Gripp enthused in his breathless track commentator’s voice. ‘It’s looking like a photo between Hernia and Curvature. But here comes Colostomy Kate lurching up on the outside . . .’
‘Should we call an ambulance?’ Ellie asked. ‘He hasn’t moved.’
‘Could be faking it,’ he said before raising his voice again. ‘But no, it’s Curvature holding on with the finishing line in sight. Oh, he’s bent on victory . . .’
It was obvious that he was dead. Two of her uncles had gone like that, straight down and without even the ghost of a gasp or a tremor. She crossed his name off the list: only seven left to go.
When the race was over Gripp handed the winner his tenner, asking Ellie to record that it should be offset against any future benefits, and wished him a courteous farewell.
‘But haven’t I passed the test?’ the stooped figure asked, pocketing the note. ‘Didn’t I strive? Look at this sweat!’
‘Pass me the sheet, please, Ellie,’ Gripp said. He glanced at the figures. ‘One minute 14 seconds, Mr Rosejoy. You’re an athlete.’
‘You mean . . .’
‘In short, you’re feckless. You come here expecting handouts when you can cross this room in little more than a minute. You’re very lucky indeed to be striding out – practically sprinting, I’d say – with ten pounds in your pocket. I could have you arrested.’
‘And what about the rest of us?’ demanded the woman with the colostomy bag. ‘I got knocked over.’
‘The question is whether that was a tactical ruse or not,’ he mused. ‘After due consideration I’m prepared to give you another chance. Come back next month.’
‘But what do I do in the meantime? I’m broke.’
‘Go home and practise your mobility, Mrs Pardew. The purpose of this exercise is to create a fair world for all, and in particular for those who keep people like you in food and drink.’
At this moment two medics wearing green vests over their uniform stepped into the room, lifted the dead body on to a stretcher and hurried out again.
‘It’s lucky for one of you that Mr Cathcart dropped out,’ Gripp said. He consulted the sheet again. ‘Our cut-off time today is one minute 55 seconds. Emphysma and Bell’s Palsy can sign on. The rest of you can go home.’
‘My neighbour clocked 1.45 last week,’ the heart patient said, ‘and he’s got a handout.’
‘That was last week.’
‘But this is completely arbitrary!’
‘It’s not arbitrary,’ Gripp said. ‘It’s my decision.’
How masterful he was, Ellie thought, and how generous. Only six of these orange bibs had been completely turned away, unless you counted Mr Cathcart, and of course you couldn’t.