Saturday, 12 February 2011

Blast from the Past #fridayflash

It is all a bit different from her last visit. Way back in the '80's when she was experiencing her summer of love. A personal rebellion against the constraints of South London surburbia - living in exciting sin with Oz in his Liverpool bedsit. A complete success in the appalling-your-parents stakes, made even more so, by her refusal to return home and get a job.  Instead, she and Oz slept all day, and spent the evenings among the pseudo-anarchists he called friends. The men dressed in black trousers and roll-neck jumpers, wore National Health glasses and smoked roll-ups. The women had long dark hair, wore flowing dresses and hennaed tattoos on their arms..They talked till the small hours about the Contra rebellion, the miner's strike, the virtues of free love. And every Thursday, they queued up with the rest of the unemployed in the foyer of the smoked- filled  dimly-lit dole office. The concrete floor was covered in discarded chewing gum, the rug in the corner, marked with cigarette burns. Grey paint peeled from the wall, and the unsmiling staff gave out the weekly cheque from behind reinforced glass. It felt authentic. Real. That they were living the rebellion already.

It's not like that today. Dole in the twenty first century comes courtesy of IKEA. Bright blue sofas adorn the foyer, air-fresh and cleanly-lit with white striplights. The walls are painted pale yellow, the carpet, a soft fawn. The reinforced glass has been replaced by cheery security guards, who take her details and tell her they'll call her for her appointment. She might as well be at the doctors.

Back then, she and Oz convinced themselves they were on the side of the oppressed. Claiming the dole brought them into contact with Thatcher's victims. By opting out of the capitalist labour market, they were refusing to prop up the corrupt system. They were young,  free, in love. They were going to change the world.  Till she came home one afternoon, and discovered Oz practising free love with one of the dark haired anarchistas and realised there was more to life than revolution. She returned to her studies with enthusiasm, graduating, much to the relief of her parents, with a first that propelled her ever upwards.

Until now. It's unreal and unsettling, but here she is. With the redundancy money gone, her savings eaten up by mortgage payments, what choice does she have? She looks around the room, and for the first time, sees her fellow claimants. When she and Oz queued up in the old days, they never thought about the preoccupations of their fellow unemployed. Now, Oz is too busy being a media darling, he wouldn't be seen dead here. It is left to her to look across at the bald man with the bewildered air, and wonder whether he has just lost his job, or has been coming for a while. And is it stereotyping to think that the young mum trying to control her toddler has never had a job?  Or the lads coming in from their quick smoke out the front are boasting about skirmishes with the law? But most of all she wonders about herself. No lover, no parents, no end of degree to fall back on. What is she going to do now?

The security guard calls her name and indicates the lift. Second floor, third desk on the right, Ellen Chapman. She picks herself up with a slight sigh and follows his pointing finger. If this is going to be her life from now on, she'd better get used to it.

Friday, 4 February 2011

The Devil's Detail #fridayflash

"Morning Melissa," he smiles, and not for the first time, wonders how much longer he'll have to put up with her catatonic grin.

I should have looked at the small print, he thinks, as he does every Friday at eleven o'clock. He pulls up a chair for her and brings her a cup of coffee. Dad always said the devil's in the detail. But at the time, there just wasn't time. We had to get the deal struck and I relied on my team. I had more important things to do.Maintaining a media presence. Looking statesmanlike. I had to trust my boys would get the best deal. What else could I do?

Melissa tries not to wince at his faux-chivalry. How an earth has this happened? A year ago, I was riding high, now I'm just a laughing stock. She smiles, hiding her disdain for the smoothness of James' chin behind a sip of coffee. I shouldn't have left it to the boys. I thought they'd put the party first. Think of the good of the country. It didn't even cross my mind that the real ties that bind are formed in the playground.

"What's the latest Whip count?" his teeth glint in the morning sun.

"Sixty yeas, ten abstentions, ten nays. On your side?"

"Two hundred and forty yeas, six abstentions plus 11 from the other parties."

"So we're safe then?"

He resists the impulse to add, "No thanks to you." Instead, "It would help if you could rein Mark Townsend in."

Melissa stares down at her coffee spoon. The bastard, the total bastard.

 "He's making waves you see,"  his eyes gaze at her with fake sincerity, "And I believe you have some influence?"

She stirs her coffee.  Leave now, and the party is destroyed. Stay and I ruin every relationship I have. But once you make a deal with the devil, life becomes a series of increasingly unpalatable choices.

She smiles back, his equal in sincerity, if nothing else. "Of course, James. Now tell me, what is it you want me to do?"