Popping

D.A.N. Jones

It was my 53rd birthday and so I strolled, as was my custom, out of my Quanco office into Hyde Park to look at the statue which had been set up on the day of my birth. Curiously enough, the maintenance of that statue had become part of my ever-increasing Quanco duties – only the cleaning and repair, of course, despite Quanco’s ever-decreasing funds: the task of changing the advertisements and the labels on the statue belongs to the Commercials. I like watching the Commercials perform this weekly rite: it brings a touch of colour and razzmatazz to our fusty little park.

I crossed the road safely, assisted by a kind old Securicor traffic warden, and showed my security card to the Pertinax man at the park gate. The Pertinax company always seems to me the most formidable of the Commercials’ police forces. Perhaps it is just their badge, that battle-axe with ‘Securis Certa’ as motto. I wondered what it meant. I never learned Latin. Nowadays, of course, the better schools and universities all teach Latin, sponsored by the advertising industry: but I was born at the wrong time.

Yes, there it was, the same old statue (‘in sepulchral posture’, as my dad used to say) with my birth-date inscribed on the base: 1 April 1984. It could do with a good scrub and a nose-job: but Quanco funds, as we all know, are not unlimited. Never mind. The winning smile was still visible on the battered face of our first woman Primeperson, as she stood there triumphantly, in Coade-type stone, with her shopping basket and her safety helmet.

The Commercials’ officers, guarded by a Pertinax man, were changing the bright advertising labels on her helmet and the goods in her shopping basket. As usual, they had covered over the motto around the rim of her helmet – ‘Decus et tutamen’ – but that did not matter: it was merely the slogan on the New Penny she introduced in 1983, which is now, of course, out of circulation, quite redundant.

You could still just make out the inscription on the plinth: ‘Margaret Thatcher: Prudentia et Securitas.’ I understood that bit of Latin, all right. Beside it stood the bright placards of the traditional Commercial institutions: ‘Sponsored by Prudential Insurance’ and ‘Sponsored by Securicor Police’.

The statue was set up in the very year that the Primeperson inaugurated the rolling programme for the privatisation of the health service and the police forces. My old dad took this very much to heart: he was a ‘civil servant’, in the days before computerisation, and he would say to me, when I was a boy: ‘Prudence and Security, always remember that, Norm. There’s not so much of it in the Commercial world as they make out. Privatise as much as they like, there’ll still be a need for public service ...’

At first, my dad seemed to have judged rightly. The Primeperson recognised the apparent need for a non-Commercial element in society and she set up the Queen’s Association of Non-Commercial Officers, to deal with clergymen, heads of the broadcasting authorities, judges, magistrates, members of parliament, sports referees and various other oddments which seemed to demand an independence that no Commercial organisation could sponsor. Gradually, of course, many of these professions and rituals have been ‘hived off’: but when I first joined Quanco, as a young man, there were dozens of enjoyable departments in which I could busy myself. I particularly liked dealing with opera and ballet in the Minority Arts department: but nowadays they have been hived off to the closely-guarded university barbicans, sponsored by Murdoch-Times International, and I cannot afford to attend, with my Quanco money! Sometimes I feel that I have not been prudent, or provident, enough.

Musing on these things, I noticed that the Pertinax man was eyeing me suspiciously, as if I might be a Redundant. So I showed him my security card and wandered over to sit by the bandstand. The Commercials don’t like dowdy little Hyde Park, where we old-fashioned Quanco types congregate. The Commercials much prefer great big Jekyll Park, across the security fence, with all the amusements and advertisements and giant porn-video screens – and no unhygienic grass. It’s funny to think that the feminists of the 1990s gave the park its new name in memory of Gertrude Jekyll, the famous gardener. I don’t suppose Virago Communes Inc really meant the Commercials to cover the old park over with bounceable safety-flooring. But then I don’t suppose the Primeperson really meant my own organisation to sink to its present level of poverty. I was very worried about Quanco, very frightened of my new Director.

Sitting next to me, by the bandstand, was another Quanco man. We are easily recognised. Our clothes are not exactly shabby, but they are always cheap and we don’t wear any advertisements, even in our hair: the Commercials, naturally, are proud of the advertisements they wear. Sponsorship pays.

The Household Cavalry band was playing old songs of my father’s day, hits of ‘Motorhead’ and ‘Iron Maiden’ and ‘Dead Kennedys’. I hummed along, glad that there were no commercial breaks, but sorry to see how scruffy and unkempt the old musicians looked. The man sitting next to me turned his head and stared at me, accusingly. To my horror I recognised ‘the mad vicar’. Usually he is all right, but sometimes he mutters 17th-century prose in a disturbing way.

‘Is this your outfit?’ he demanded, indicating the band.

‘The royal bandsmen come within my orbit,’ I replied. Most of the armed services have been privatised, of course, but Quanco maintains a responsibility for the surviving ceremonial troops.

‘They’ll be redundant soon,’ he leered. ‘No productivity. Less work for you. More productivity.’

‘That doesn’t make much sense,’ I observed. But I knew it did. He might be right about the bandsmen’s redundancy, too. Since the Queen’s 100th-birthday celebrations, she had rather dropped out of the video-light and might well be made redundant. Her regimental bandsmen would lose their ceremonial function and no one would sponsor them.

Countering the vicar’s attack, I asked him, sadistically: ‘Have you heard that people over 60 are going to be compelled to wear safety-belts when sitting down, indoors. It’s coming in, next year.’

‘They can’t do that,’ he protested, his eyes mad.

‘Why not? It will be very good for the economy. The manufacture of safety-belts may even offer temporary employment to some of the Redundants, before computerisation takes place’.

He was very upset. I smiled and hummed. Grabbing my arm, he pointed to a couple of children in the plastic-sand pit. Not many children come into Hyde Park, since Jekyll Park offers so much more amusement. These must be children of Quanco people: their parents were lucky to have found any Commercial company to sponsor their children’s birth.

‘Look at those kids,’ he said, ‘with their safety-helmets and bottom-pads. They must be about fifteeen.’

‘Well, we all know that security-wear is compulsory for the under-16s,’ I said. ‘Or is it under-18s, now? The bigger the child, the more space for the advertisements.’

‘Poor little devils,’ muttered the vicar. ‘When I was a boy, I used to ride a bicycle without a helmet.’

I smiled. That was years ago, before bikes and motors were withdrawn from circulation. Nowadays, we have safe, slow electric cars, except for the licensed stuntmen of the Commercials’ porn-video companies. Really, I must drop into Jekyll Park and catch up on the screenings. The mad vicar made me feel quite modern and adventurous. I would like to view a good, bloody car-crash on the screen.

‘Have you any children?’ asked the vicar.

‘No, actually,’ I said. I nearly said: ‘Actuarily.’ It was a sore point with me. I began to tell the vicar about my failure to win family sponsorship and how my poor wife had spent hours a day phoning up other women with advertisements and invitations to Popperware parties, just to make our income-level more acceptable to Commercial sponsors, only to find that the women on her list were all doing the same job for rival advertising companies. I used to see their sad little faces on the screen of our Burgess blepophone.

‘So, in the end, she left me,’ I concluded. ‘She moved in with a highly-placed Commercial on the BUPA Executive and now she’s got three Commercially-sponsored children.’

‘You live on your own, then?’ he asked eagerly. Did he want storage space?

‘Not entirely,’ I said, guardedly. In fact, I have a dog – strictly illegal, of course, under the hygiene regulations, which are firmly enforced by the competing police companies.

‘Whereabouts?’ he persisted. I changed the subject, hastily.

‘I wouldn’t stare at those children if I were you. The Pertinax man might think you’re a paedophile. They get a bonus for catching peeds.’

The vicar quickly turned his head back to the band. I was glad I had not told him where I lived. It’s my father’s old house in what is now a rather unsavoury area, full of Redundants. I have a good security system, paid for by Quanco, but the electric cabs won’t enter the area, since the policing is not all that could be desired. I have to go by electric bus, which makes the journey even slower. Fortunately, with my security card, I can use the upper deck of the bus, which is very well guarded, often by the very toughest Pertinax officers. That reminded me.

‘You know Latin, don’t you?’ I said to the vicar. ‘What does the Pertinax motto mean? “Securis Certa”?’

‘A certain axe,’ he replied, with his gaptooth leer. Then, to my horror, he began chanting some ancient rhyme, at the top of his mad voice. Not his usual 17th-century stuff, it went:

The Emperor Pertinax
Possessed a certain axe
With which he used to strike
Those whom he did not like.

I got up quickly and left him, for I saw the Pertinax officer approaching. I did not want to be mistaken for a Red Redundant. I made for my office and sat there, thankfully, glad that I was a modern man, in tune with the times. All I had to fear was the new Director.

The screen above my Burgess blepophone flashed and (after a brief commercial break) I saw the face of dear old Zara, the secretary I share with so many others.

‘The Director wants you, Norm,’ she said. ‘Have a nice day, I’ll be back with you after the break.’ I straightened my tie, during the commercial, and nervously entered the navyblue office of Mr Belaker.

To my dismay he was strapped into a new chair with a fashionable American safety-harness. Did that indicate that he was preparing for a long career with Quanco? Indoor safety-belts would not be compulsory until he was 60, by my estimation. Perhaps it was merely a status symbol.

‘Had a drink yet, Norm?’ Belaker barked sharply. He was trying to be friendly and passed the obligatory breathalyser across the desk, to check my veracity, in an informal, ‘don’t-doubt-yer-word-of course’ style. Managing his new harness quite well, he elegantly pressed the computerised safety-level doohickey and passed me an alcohol quota.

Then he began small-talk. As usual, it was all dull scandal about Quality people. Yet, he was supposed to be the modern Transatlantic whizz-kid, a hooked-up popper: any amount of money had been paid for his transfer from Philadelphia. If he tells me that story about Lord Booby and the Duke’s daughter once more, I thought, I shall scream like a mad vicar.

Not really listening to him, I examined his body and clothing, seeking clues. He had an unusual face: some said he was an Albino Negro, but I thought him too pale for that. Although he had left the Commercial world, he was still wearing plenty of smart advertisements. A ‘V’ for ‘Video-porn’ was emblazoned on his nu-fibre tee-shirt. His pink hair, or wig, had been cut into a matching ‘V’. I wondered if this whizz-kid would change Quanco regulations and encourage us all to follow his example.

‘But let’s pop to projects, Norm,’ said the Director, flashing his splendid new teeth. ‘Hiving-off, I mean. Privatisation, Mark Two. You know the Government’s invested quite sexily in me as a hooked-up axeman and I aim to justify their confidence. Popping off this week. My first project needs a really hooked-up popper – and I reckon that popper is you, Norm.’

I quickly began to tell him about all the other jobs I was doing. I added, as hot news, the state of the Household Cavalry band and the Primeperson’s statue. ‘It looks like a burnt-out candle,’ I said.

‘Yup, yup, yup,’ he barked impatiently. ‘You’re a hooked-up popper, Norm. I know you can handle the pomp before natural wastage takes over. But the project I’m popping you now, Norm, is really sexy. You know the very first Quanco responsibility in your department we need to hive off? Think. In terms of profitability.’

I couldn’t think. The cricket and the coronation-type ceremonies used to be good for the tourist and video industries, but they were dropping out of circulation.

The Director smiled, complacently.

‘The prisons, Norm,’ he said, ‘including the psychiatric hospitals. Don’t you see, my old popper? The police and insurance companies would love to have them. They’ll fight like cats over them. The auction will go pop!’

‘You can’t do that’, I protested.

‘Why not, Norm?’ said the Director, suddenly talking more solemnly, like a video statesman. ‘You’ve often told me what a state your nicks and nuthouses are in. Here’s where private enterprise can prove its worth. Incentive. Thrift. Insure with the company of your choice and, if anything nasty pops, you get a quality of medical or reformatory treatment that the state can’t possibly afford. Or do it on the cheap, through your favourite police company. Think what the police industry could do with a few prisons of their own. And it’s a real incentive to the prudent saver. A matter of freedom of choice. For the first time in this century you can choose whether you go in a quality prison or somewhere more downmarket, not quite so sexy. You do see it, Norm? There’s nothing reactionary about it. Some of the left-wing poppers are calling it Prison Lib. Free enterprise takes freedom to prison. It’s almost like the state withering away ...’

‘But I can’t do it,’ I blurted. ‘This will mean endless negotiations. I’ve got too much on my plate.’

‘Oh, I see,’ He sighed with relief. ‘I thought you were going ethical on me. You’re too modest, Norm. A hooked-up popper like you can juggle projects galore. What have you got on that little old plate of yours, anyway?’

I told him, talking rather fast, about the quarrelling broadcasters and cricket umpires, the by-elections and the boundary changes: but, as I prattled on, my head began to go angry – what he called ‘ethical’ – and I had to struggle to repress my anger. It came from living among Redundants. Even with my security system, I did sometimes talk to a few of my Redundant neighbours and I felt sorry for them, despite their lack of thrift and initiative. The prisons and psychiatric hospitals were bad enough already, as all the Quanco staff knew only too well. If you once let the Commercials break them down into Class One and Class Two institutions, the Class Two sector was going to be real hell.

‘And then there’s the magistrates,’ I rattled on.

‘Yup, yup, yup,’ broke in the Director. ‘Purely ceremonial function. They’ve got no one to argue with, now the magistrates’ clerks have been replaced by computers. Pop up out of it, Norm! Let’s freshen up that old Quanco spirit! Have another quota!’

But he was looking at me cunningly – and I knew what he was doing. Piling up my tray with orders I couldn’t possibly handle, to put me out of business. The same old Commercial practice so frequently denounced in Sir Angus Wilson’s social romances. So I began to rage at him, angry and ethical, like a Red Redundant – or a mad vicar.

‘Pop!’ he said, indignantly. ‘Pop! Fasten your seat-belt, Norm, while you’re still hooked-up.’ But I just screamed at him.

‘You’re at risk, Norm,’ he said, finally. ‘At risk. Better pop off home and pop a few pills, my old popper. You could be losing your security.’

Somehow I got out of that office and into an electric safety-bus. I showed my security card to the man upstairs and settled down for the long crawl home, behind all the smaller slow-vehicles. If I was made Redundant I should have to give up my security and travel on the lower deck, among all those mad people and muggers. Why had I not been more prudent? I fell asleep and dreamed of my happy childhood in the 1990s ...

It was horrible to wake up and walk to my house in the drizzle and twilight. There was a little crowd of Redundants watching an event. The Director had acted already. Uniformed men were busily dismantling my security system.

There was the Friendly Communications man carrying out my Burgess blepophone. There were the firemen from Crassus Hazard removing my fire-protection wires and alarms. I began to giggle. Perhaps the dustman would come soon to bring some dust, or the gasman with some poison gas ...

But there were three friendly, dapper young policemen standing at my door, all trained in the art of self-defence, all equipped with life-preservers. One asked me my name, calling me ‘sir’. When I told him, he called me ‘Norman’. Policemen always use one’s forename, once they have found it out.

‘Well, Norman,’ he said, ‘I’m afraid I’ve got to have your security card. Your security has been withdrawn ... Now, don’t get too upset, Norm. You can always appeal ... You go straight to Raison House tomorrow morning and ask for the Redundancy Welfare Officer and when your number’s called one of the Receptionists will direct you to the appropriate queue and then you can book an interview through Safety Net and eventually you will meet a qualified Redundancy Counseller to whom you can tell all your hopes and fears.’

He was a nice man. I was sorry to see him go – off home, probably, to his safe house in the Commercial suburbs. I went upstairs and crept to the cupboard in the little room where I keep my illegal, unhygienic bitch-dog. My one sin. ‘Tap turns on the water ...’ I crooned. One of my dad’s old songs. I cuddled my bitch.

The crowd of Redundants outside was getting bigger. They were looking at my house with interest, wondering if there was anything worth nicking, now the Law had gone. They still call it the Law.

I didn’t have much that was really worth nicking. A vintage stereo and music-centre. A rare old book by Marghanita Laski, called Tory Heaven ... But to some Redundants almost anything is worth nicking.

Will my little old bitch bite the Redundants when they come in? Will any of them be Red Redundants? Will that be good or bad?

She is trembling and whimpering, an old bitch gone in the teeth. She couldn’t bite a Redundant. She hasn’t the heart.

‘Oh, Maggie,’ I sigh, cuddling her. ‘What a bitch of a birthday!’

The murmur of the Redundants outside is getting louder. They are walking up the garden path, some shy, some cocksure, almost like voters.