By Patrick Tuck
‘The difficulty is,’ said Hastings, ‘we haven’t hit our targets.’
The glass office and the glass the desk. The city below and beside.
Hastings wore a tie. John Benjamin didn’t wear a tie.
‘Yes I have,’ said John.
‘But the department hasn’t,’ said Hastings.
‘It’s your department,’ said John. ‘Why don’t they fire you?’
‘I’m sorry, John,’ said Hastings.
‘How much do I get?’ said John.
Money. Income. The life support that bought the food, water and shelter he was too useless to acquire without it.
‘Three months,’ said Hastings. ‘You can leave today.’
They looked at each other and Hastings looked away first. He swept his neat brown hair across his head and corrected his posture.
John signed the paper and left.
He called Louise and she cried. It wasn’t like before. There was a time a good salesman was always in demand. One could sit in an interview and point to a list of good companies and targets hit, and as long as they had spare capacity to sell, they’d bring you on.
‘I can’t get back tonight,’ said John, ‘it’ll be too expensive. I’ll come first thing tomorrow.’
Parsimony. A change of circumstances is a change of man. Income, no matter how small, represents an inexhaustible resource. There is no limit to money. So long as a quantity travels towards a man, it’s value is diminished. And now John had none travelling to him.
And it wasn’t like before. These days a man lost a job and never found another. And not just the unskilled or uneducated. Now obsolescence hung over the human condition like a plague. And who would have thought salesmen would hold out so long.
John smiled in the window of the Craven Arms and entered. He walked to the wall and tapped his card and watched the pint of bitter fill the glass.
It was the most useless profession. He’d always known. Even as he accepted his first role after university. Selling solutions. Anyone that used software needed a solution to manage the software. John had sold them, and with fervour, in the masochistic human lust for creating one’s own doom.
There had been some pride at first. Not obvious pride but basic and visceral. Exceeding targets. Breaking a record for daily or monthly sales. He was successful. Not because of financial motivation. Not as a competitive animal. But for the very reason that he saw the futility of the role. He understood its distance from anything good or useful. A vocation that manipulates behaviour, undesired by producer or customer but found to be a necessity of commerce.
The labourers went, then the administrative staff. First they received solutions to ease their workload, to lower staff costs. But the solutions were too complex. It took a skilled worker. So improve the technology. So remove the requirement of skill. So remove the worker.
Then engineers and mechanics and even supervisors. Craftsmen had a brief renaissance, a rebellion against the inevitability of algorithmic efficiency. Progress prevailed. The irrepressible force.
But so long as the consumers were human, they would need to be persuaded by humans. They would need the human touch, charm, cajolery. And a great salesman can read a person, understand them, and can see the individual and the demographic and can tweak a pitch and listen and mirror and buy the confidence and attention with subtle movements and choice words. But this can be done with perception and experience. Nothing more.
But what sees beyond a demographic, and beyond language, and beyond reaction? And what is there to probe so deep into consciousness? A solution can burrow deep beyond any veneer a human has learnt to construct. It sees every man naked. It can visit a woman in privacy. It can spy on a child without fear of reprimand.
And so, while consumers remained human, a profession began to die. A solution can persuade and pester and target and manipulate without the transparency of the salesman. It is ‘helping to buy’, John’s father’s great saying. It is urging the consumer and it is relentless and it holds no fear of rejection and it is slavish to its cause and cannot be hindered by morality or the balance of work and life.
‘Hastings,’ said John.
Hasting scanned his card. Ice clattered into the glass and then gin, tonic and a slice of lime.
‘You want anything?’ said Hastings.
His accent slipped and his tie was loose.
‘Another bitter if you’re offering.’
‘I am,’ said Hastings.
They sat at a table.
‘You don’t look happy,’ said John.
‘They took your advice,’ said Hastings. ‘No salesmen to manage, no need for a manager.’
‘I guess that was an easy one to see coming.’
‘Did you see yours coming?’
‘Now that it’s happened,’ said John.
‘Because we hope,’ said Hastings. ‘If that’s a word fit for the things we settle to do.’
‘Cheers,’ said John and drank.
‘Not hope,’ said Hastings. ‘I don’t know why I said hope. It’s just delusion and denial. What time are you heading north?’
‘West,’ said John. ‘My family is west. I’ll go in the morning.’
‘This gin’s rancid,’ said Hastings.
‘It’s probably the tonic,’ said John. ‘Been in the line too long. Not many gin drinkers here.’
Hastings looked over John’s shoulder out the window and across the pub. He took out his phone and pressed the screen and swiped up and down and right and left.
‘I’m going back north,’ said Hastings. ‘It’ll be horrible.’
‘It’s not so bad,’ said John. ‘Still a few people with work up there.’
‘That’s worse,’ said Hastings.
‘Maybe it won’t be much longer,’ said John. ‘They’re talking about the universal income again.’
Hastings lowered his head to his gin and sipped through the straw. He was like a child with a secret.
‘They’re always talking about it. They’ll hold out as long as they can. Besides, there’s no one to pay tax.’
‘What’ll you do?’ said John.
‘A friend of mine has a few luddite restaurants,’ said Hastings.
‘The expensive ones?’ said John.
‘That must be a good business.’
‘Not really. Things are expensive when you have to pay people.’
‘Still, it would be nice.’
‘Yes. Maybe. You want another?’
‘I can get them,’ said John.
‘Don’t. They gave me six months and I make, made, more than you anyway.’
Hastings walked to the wall and tapped the card and touched the screen. A drink and some words back and forth and an evolution of the man. Rigid, removed Hastings. And now they had something to share. Their situation. A sense of despair and inevitability. The common experience tied them in brief affinity. Pain cannot be transferred. Sympathy’s limit is shallow. Friends had been made redundant. Others had suffered worse. And now it was him, it meant something. The context of the suffering is everything.
‘What’ll you do?’ said Hastings. He put two pints of bitter on the table.
‘I think this’ll be it,’ said John, ‘with the house. We’ve kept it going a good while, but there comes a point. I suppose we’ll look at one of the communes.’
Hastings failed to conceal a wince. ‘I hear some are okay,’ he said.
‘Louise’s brother lives in one. He’s always pestering us,’ said John. ‘Energy’s free now. You can live comfortably.’
‘Until you need a doctor.’
‘Others are talking about fighting,’ said John.
‘That’d be a dumb thing to do.’
‘Not if we won,’ said John.
‘It’d be no different if you won. Just some of you and some of them would die along the way,’ said Hastings.
John thought of his father and the fleeting moments of joy in prosperity he’d witnessed as a child. A promotion. A bonus. A raise. His father smiled and forgot his miseries and his failures and the emptiness of his progress. He bought John a magazine and a pastry and talked loosely in celebratory inebriation.
‘There has to be another way,’ said John. ‘You don’t have to pay robots; the machines are labour saving. People should be able to live well.’
Hastings twirled his gin. He waited on his words, as John’s father would, contemplating how much to disclose. Judging the level of ignorance to grant.
‘You don’t pay robots,’ said Hastings, ‘but you have to buy them. Someone has created them, or created the intellectual property for them.’
‘Then we’d seize them,’ said John.
‘And then there’d be no new robots,’ said Hastings.
‘You believe in the inevitability of capitalism,’ said John. ‘If it’s inevitable, why is it so often rebelled against?’
‘I believe in the inevitability of revolution,’ said Hastings. ‘Like a wheel always turning.’
John drank his bitter and looked at Hastings suffering through the drink. The wet, bitterness pausing in his mouth as he braced to swallow. And he saw more in the man. He had judged Hastings as he’d resent to be judged, as only what he showed at work, as nothing beyond a professional, and a reluctant one at that.
‘Anyway,’ said John, ‘there’ll be no revolution tonight. What time are you heading north?’
‘Tomorrow,’ said Hastings. ‘They’ve got me a hotel tonight. Park Lane.’
Hastings lowered his head to his drink.
‘They’ve got the fair on Hyde Park,’ said Hastings. ‘I thought I might pop down there if you’re free.’
Carnival lights. White bulbs and limp greens and synthetic, scratchy blues and pinks and yellows. The noise is sharp and warm.
Hastings puts his hands in his pockets. The night is cold and a breeze runs over and through him. People are jerked up and down and left and right on the amusements. Muted then screaming then giggling. He loves the fair. ‘Why do you want to go there?’ his father had said. It was a place for commoners. A place for the conned, not the conmen. A world of distractions, of flashing lights and cheap thrills. Where nothing was learnt, no skills honed, no personal development. Not a place for a boy with his opportunities. A boy that could learn to shoot or ride a horse or play the piano or speak a foreign language.
John brought two spiced ciders and Hastings cupped his hands on the polythene.
There was a magic to the fair. A primitive and unobtrusive virtual reality. You could fall a hundred feet and survive unscathed. Each ride a simulation of the moments before death, or potential death, as the rollercoaster recreates an impossible journey and the pirate ship sways to an extent that would toss the hardiest sailor into the depths of the ocean.
He’d always loved the elation of survival. Emerging from the ride, holding his brother’s hand. A death escaped. A life appreciated. He didn’t think this then. He didn’t think of death then. He just did things.
‘Shall we go on the house of mirrors?’ said John.
They looked at the open front. Men and women and children shaking and wobbling and falling. There were no harnesses there. There was no danger real or simulated. Maybe a bruise on the shin or embarrassment. All he wanted was to be strapped in and thrilled.
‘No,’ said Hastings. ‘I don’t like that one.’
‘I’m getting a hot dog,’ said John.
‘After,’ said Hastings. ‘Let’s go on the pendulum first.’
‘I’ll chuck up my breakfast,’ said John.
Hastings stared at the ride. ‘Don’t be a baby. I’ll pay.’
They queued and sat in and the cold left and Hastings gripped the silver handles hard. He looked across the fairground. The anticipation. The hint of remorse. What if I’m too old? What if I’m sick? What if the harness comes loose? It’s not tight. I could slip out.
And it’s too late. The mechanism is working. The man who strapped him in is talking to someone.
And then the first feeling of weightlessness. The seat jerks up into his backside and they lift off. John’s smiling next to him. Good.
Poor John. Didn’t even negotiate his dismissal. Didn’t even ask for a hotel room. Or for a fourth month’s pay. Didn’t know what was owed him or his statutory rights. John that believes in anything beyond the self. That we are anything more than individual animals with our interests and survival in mind. John that believes a worker can be simultaneously obsolete and powerful. He’s happy to see John smile.
The pendulum is above the tree tops and he can see London. He knows so much about London, about its history and its achievements and importance. He can see Nash’s Georgian masterpieces. He can see the Victorian glory of Tower Bridge. And he can see the modern eyesores that will become celebrated at another time. As all achievements, outside of sport and business, are appreciated fully only in retrospect.
The city has been the focus of an entire life, and he realises, jerking against the cold metal and the hard pillow of the harness that he doesn’t really like the city. That he’s never liked people and doesn’t know why he’s chosen to surround himself so comprehensively with them. Is it to compete against them? To defeat and humiliate them?
Hastings looks to his left and John is white and grimacing. The ride swings and he sees his suit flutter in the wind. His organs move and his head is light as they’re whirled back to the top. It must nearly be over. This is the crescendo of disorientation. These are the moments before the pretend death. This is what his father couldn’t hide from him. He closes his eyes and imagines he’s falling for good. The harness disappears and he opens his palms and falls into the night and the crowd.
‘Hastings,’ said John.
Hastings opened his eyes and the harness was up and he stepped on the metal platform with certainty.
‘What do you want to do now?’ said John. ‘I don’t feel like eating after that.’
‘Let’s play a game,’ said Hastings.
‘They’re all rip offs,’ said John.
‘I don’t care.’
John walked ahead and Hastings followed. He bought John another spiced cider and walked to the games. Pink and blue and yellow vulgarities dangled from the stands. It was proof for anyone in doubt that success is its own reward. That one participates for victory and not for the intrusive, oversized cartoon character that briefly degrades one’s living room before a lifetime imprisonment in the attic.
And what victories had he known? Why had he participated? It wasn’t for the rewards. He had a house and a wife. Many people had houses and wives. He wasn’t exceptional. But there was no manner in which to be so. Technology was the great leveller. A mechanism for equality. Not financial. He’d heard enough about Marxism to understand that technology brought poverty to those that owned nothing. But it brought the equality of un-remarkability. A great warrior built his strength and guile. A man with a palm and a forefinger can pull a trigger.
‘Let’s go on the shooting range,’ said Hastings.
They stopped and each paid and lifted the rifle. John shot and missed. He adjusted his aim and hit, and again and again until he won a prize.
Hastings lifted the butt to his shoulder. ‘Be calm,’ his father said. Even when he hit the target – ‘be calm.’ He exhaled and shot and missed. Adjust a little. These sights are always crooked. He searched for calm and exhaled and shot. He missed. Now he was angry. John had hit. It was the same game and the same rules and he’d had better opportunities and he missed. Poor, simple John, who didn’t ask for anything more than he was given, hit the target and won and succeeded.
Hastings exhaled and missed. He wanted to tell John how much money he’d made, to break the man with his undeniable superiority. A superiority that must be proven.
‘You’re pretty good with a rifle,’ said Hastings.
John smiled. ‘You believe in revolution don’t you?’
John with a gun, confident. And he useless. What did he believe in? Anything? He’d said revolution but the words had come, he hadn’t chosen them. And why had he said it? Because he believed it or because he thought it sounded clever? And why was he so confident that John and his revolutionaries wouldn’t win? What did he know? What did he really understand about what could happen? Communists could be innovative.
There was an urge for chaos. There was little else.
‘John,’ he said. ‘Let’s go back to the office.’
‘Let’s just go.’
‘I’ve only loved one woman other than my wife,’ said Hastings.
The night was cold and thin. Hastings was drunk and spluttered his feet over the payment.
‘I knew her at university. She smelt very floral. I really loved her.’
John shoved his hands in his pockets and wished he was alone. So many evenings had ended like this, lost to politeness. He couldn’t blame it on workplace etiquette now. Hastings could offer him nothing. He wanted solitude and a bed. There were things to think about now. He was retired. And still he stood there with a man he didn’t like and listened.
‘Do you believe in love, John?’ said Hastings.
‘Good,’ said Hastings. ‘What do you think it is?’
‘I think it’s mostly compassion,’ said John. ‘And I think it’s gratitude.’
‘Are you grateful for your wife?’
‘Because she does things for me. Because she stays with me when there’s nothing in it for her other than to have me.’
‘The woman I loved at university, she did things for me, she was thoughtful. Now I do things for my wife, and she’s not grateful or compassionate.’
‘I’m sorry about that.’
Hastings shrugged. ‘It’s funny how we get to these places.’
They stopped and John looked up at the glass office tower. Five years he’d come every day. He’d picked up another man’s phone and sold another man’s product and had taken his money and left more. And the years moved quickly now and he was always, always behind. And now it seemed life would offer him very little of what he had hoped. And that was something to be accepted and managed. At least the burden of ambition would no more haunt him.
‘What are we doing here?’ said John.
‘Let’s break something,’ said Hastings.
‘Yeah, you wanted a revolution. Let’s break something. Let’s get back at them.’
‘You’re drunk,’ said John.
‘So?’ said Hastings. He was leaning and drunk and frowning. ‘This is your problem, John, you’re soft. You know you’ve been mistreated and you do nothing.’
‘What good will breaking a window or a door do?’ said John. ‘I do get at them. I don’t buy their products. I don’t use their solutions. I don’t accept their comfort.’
‘And where has that got you?’
‘Further than smashing windows.’
‘Fine then,’ said Hastings. ‘If you’re too soft I’ll do it.’
Hastings looked around for a missile and found none. He turned the street corner and came back with a jagged brick.
‘Sometimes, John, you need action,’ said Hastings.
He swayed under the brick. The venom seeped from his eyes and he lifted the brick like a shotput practice.
John looked at the office tower and at the staggering man with the brick.
Hastings took a deep breath in and out.
‘They’ve probably got cameras,’ said John. ‘It’s not worth it.’
‘Let them watch. I don’t care.’
‘They can take back the money.’
Hastings laughed. ‘Who cares? It’s tens of thousands. I’m forty-eight. It’s not enough to last. It’ll get me nowhere. They can keep the money.’
Hastings drew back his arm.
The city was quiet and the street close.
He dropped the brick and looked at the ground.
‘Come on,’ said Hastings.
They walked to Postman’s Park and sat on a bench. Hastings was quiet a while and John couldn’t leave him.
‘You never asked what I thought it was,’ said Hastings.
‘I’m sorry. Tell me,’ said John.
‘I think it’s apology, contrition. I think it’s the counterweight for all the things we do out of selfish ambition.’
‘What about the woman at university?’
Hastings looked into his lap.
‘I was already ambitious then. I knew I wanted to make money. I met a great woman, and I knew I would always put myself first, so I made sure that I loved her, that I gave her things to balance my life out. And because I loved her, she loved me, and so I thought I couldn’t lose her and I lost her.’
They said nothing else of meaning. John had no reply and so they sat there. Hastings, still in the vulnerability of his disclosure, drifted to sleep. And John sat and watched the morning come.
At sunrise they walked to a café and had tea and toast.
‘Off to Paddington?’ said Hastings.
‘Well, thanks for coming last night.’
‘No,’ said John. ‘It was good. I hope things go well with the luddite chefs.’
Hastings rolled his eyes.
‘Good luck, John. Again, I’m sorry.’
They shook hands.
o o o