It might seem strange that that title could lose all of its negative connotations in so short a time but, by this period in the centre of London, that’s precisely what had happened.
And so when Frank arrived at folks’ doors he wasn’t met by the slightest social indignancy. Quite the opposite, in fact, people would openly rise in their own front rooms and welcome him inside without any reservations at all. If he gave notice there’d even be a mug of Earl Grey and a tea biscuit in it for him. All this with the most kind and congenial conversation from the residents of any house he chose to visit.
And all he had to do to secure this VIP treatment was to show his Department of Ecology badge which identified him as the neighbourhood commissar.
On this morning he’d arrived unannounced at Jackie Richard’s flat. She was unemployed, so there’d be no tea and biscuits, but Frank wouldn’t have taken them even if they’d been offered. The flow of materials and moneys was best kept running in one direction between those on welfare and the government; any toing and froing might have given the claimant the impression that their lifestyle had been validated by society at large.
Jackie came to the door in her slippers and housecoat; but as soon as she saw the green enamelled badge in Frank’s hand she tried to make more of a show of herself.
“Oh, hello darling, come in won’t you,” she said, closing the gown over her neck, “I was just napping.”
Napping, Frank thought. It’s eleven-thirty in the morning and you haven’t been out of bed.
But he nodded and returned her pleasantries. The Department had trained the commissars to be courteous in all eventualities.
He came into the stale smelling room and undid the straps at the back of his head; removing the carbon offsetter from his face. It had become illegal, since the pollutants bill was passed, even for the commissars to travel out of doors without their offsetter masks and Frank was nothing if not faithful to the book.
He smiled as he tucked the piece of rubber under his arm.
“Hi there,” he said, “Ms. Richard, isn’t it?”
“Call me Jackie, darling.”
Frank bobbed his head in a little courteous nod. Courteousness, after all, was the watchword and, truth be told, Frank had had to work on his public relations more than most in the Department. He wasn’t a likeable man. He was slight built and weedy; his movements resembled those of a small, greedy bird and some uncharitable souls had described both his face and mannerisms as unbearably unctuous.
Frank, on the other hand, viewed himself as painfully normal and as having all the qualities that best befit a bureaucratic worker.
“It’s about your offsetter, my love,” he said, checking his call-sheet, “the indoor one. The grid shows it’s been down since Tuesday.”
Jackie looked puzzled.
“I never noticed,” she swore.
Frank titled his head in the general direction of the living room.
“May I take a quick butcher’s do you think? The grid is rarely wrong.”
Jackie stepped out of the way and Frank carried his toolbox through into the flat.
On entering the front room his eyes at once latched onto the small, round piece of plastic, similar to the one inset into his mask, that was responsible for converting the carbon dioxide that had gathered in the room throughout the day into a more eco-friendly cocktail of gases before it leached out into the atmosphere proper.
Since CO 2 had been added to the list of the world’s most dangerous pollutants every home was obliged to have one of these devices fitted and regularly maintained.
“Ah! There’s your problem!” Frank pointed at the little red light that blinked at the edge of the offsetter’s outer rim, showing him it was malfunctioning.
“Christ,” it had clearly been the first time Jackie had paid enough attention to see it. “I’m so sorry. I swear on me life I didn’t notice. Will there be a fine?”
Frank chuckled reassuringly and waved his hand.
“No, bless you sweetheart,” he said. “Actually it’s still functioning when it blinks—”
He knelt down my his toolbox and began to open up.
“—Still though, I’ll have a butcher’s at it and see what’s wrong. Abundans cautela non nocet.”
“What’s that?” Jackie looked confused.
“Oh!” Frank looked up at her, “better safe than sorry, love.”
That was another one of Frank’s unnerving idiosyncrasies: If he thought you were stupid enough not to know what he was saying he’d talk art and high culture and he’d quote Latin phrases badly in a cockney accent.
It was an apparatus of control that the ruling elite used flawlessly but that the middle class, to which Frank belonged, could only hope to ape.
After he’d fixed Jackie Richard’s offsetter he’d ticked her off his list. It wouldn’t malfunction again for months if ever and so Frank guessed they’d rarely meet again. That was the way with the commissar position: You got to know everyone like the back of your hand but never to talk to socially.
Inside his van, on the car-park of the industrial estate, he took a bite out of his corn beef sandwich. He chewed lazily and watched the filthy, grey pigeons flapping around in the yard. The whole estate, every window in all of the flats, even the bonnet of the van itself was spattered with dots of muddy rain.
That was how well the offsetters worked in reality, Frank thought. London had become a real shit-hole over the past forty years. When Frank had been a kid he’d remembered clean rain and, legendary as it was, his grandfather had told him that, when he’d been a nipper, the snow still fell and lay on the ground white as caster sugar through the whole month of December.
Frank finished his sandwich. The birds outside were fighting over a bone.
Frank was a smart guy.
True he hadn’t been to college. True he didn’t have much schooling. But he’d known enough to become a commissar and, from where he started, that wasn’t any mean feat. He picked wet bread and meat from his teeth with his tongue and thought about it. His little moustache bristled.
He knew enough to know that the offsetters didn’t work; not the ones people paid to have installed in their houses and not the ones they had to wear on their faces in public. Those machines no more converted carbon than the Shroud of Turin cured leprosy. Their primary function as an ecologically responsible device was completely fanciful.
Still Frank had to keep up the pretence. It was the commissar’s job to educate the public which, in this world, meant to deceive.
It was easily enough done: this societal domination malarky. It came with no plots or intrigues; it followed no mass revolts and spawned no caped avengers. It didn’t even look too austere, or denying, or totalitarian even.
If Frank had learned nothing else, he’d learned this. Control doesn’t present itself as it does in an Orwell novel. It doesn’t change a country’s infrastructure, or a peoples’ religion, or even a person’s daily customs to any great degree.
Now there was a box in everyone’s house and on their faces when they were out of doors— that was enough.
Frank reached up onto his dashboard and retrieved his call-sheet. He checked the name under Jackie Richard’s; then he winced.
Ah! Today’s the day, he thought, as he read old Agnes Payne’s name and address. Ah well. Manet omnes una nox.
“Would you like a little cup-a?” Agnes called in from the kitchenette.
“Oh, you’re a lifesaver, sweetheart.” Frank called back from where he balanced on a chair, slowly opening up the offsetter above Mrs. Payne’s front room window.
This was exactly what Frank was talking about. No upheaval. No Orwellian dystopias. Just some old dear’s front room with floral wallpaper, porcelain dogs and a poof for the chairs. Just your average London flat and Frank, a commissar of the regime, being offered refreshments while he does his work.
Things had to be kept normal. Frank knew that much. The human psyche was fragile and had to be soothed by the familiar. Anything too outrageous, alien or horrific would only lead to snapped sanities and roving mobs. But if you kept their sense of familiarity intact, Christ, then you could ride them roughshod from here to Sunday afternoon.
When Agnes reemerged it was with a tray carrying two china cups of builder’s and a plate of bourbon creams.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have,” Frank climbed down from the chair.
“You finished already then?” Agnes looked up at the no-longer-blinking device.
“It was just a loose wire, love.”
Frank placed his tools back in the box and made special care to reseal the compartment where his small casement of Petri dishes were stored.
After that he removed his gloves and took one of Agnes’s china cups from the tray.
She offered him a bourbon cream but he couldn’t help thinking about what his hands had just been touching.
“Thanks, love,” he said, declining her offer. “I’m a bit full up from lunch.”
Frank had no idea what the geneticists at the Department had done to the spores that he carried around in those Petri dishes in his toolbox all day long.
All he really understood was their effects.
You see, you’ve got to look at this from the Department’s point of view. CO 2 is a pollutant. True it’s a necessary pollutant but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous and so, you see, a human being is like a factory. It produces like a factory— goods, labour, ideas, any number of things that are useful to society. But the factory also produces waste— excreta, methane, CO 2— it was all waste and it was all a burden.
And yet human beings are the only such factories in the world that are allowed to go on producing waste after they’ve ceased to offset that damage with anything useful.
Frank took his pencil from his top pocket and— on the walk back to his van— he scratched old Agnes Payne’s name from his call-sheet.
They wouldn’t meet again and that was a fact.
All it took was a pinch between your thumb and finger of those biologically engineered spores. When the indoor temperature hit a certain figure they’d wake up and by seven that evening they’d have settled into the nearest set of lungs available.
Most would survive it, Frank knew, but if the lungs were very old or very young it tended to look like natural causes or cot death respectively.
Ah well, Frank thought. Manet omnes una nox. The night is waiting for us all.
He slammed the van door and the pigeons out front startled and rose like a grey wave into the air.
He’d said it often enough but the Jackie Richard’s of the world— the dole users— they were redundant factories too. They wanted the spore treatment as much as any old dear.
He winced. He just didn’t see the sense in targeting the over-eighties when there were welfare cases to take their place.
He looked at the call-sheet and winced again.
This was another problem, he thought, reading off the names of Freddie and Pamela Holmes. He turned the key in the ignition and set off out of the car-park towards the estate’s exit road.
Freddie and Pamela lived in a nearby council house which, nevertheless, made up part of Frank’s patch. They were just back from the hospital and their new arrival would be settled in by now in its custom decorated nursery. More work for the spores to do.
Frank just didn’t understand it; not when scroungers were allowed to go on living.