Now there is a challenge!

It was lunchtime and the salad bar was busy. I sat at my special table, my back to the corner, an uninterrupted view of who was coming and going; who was making more than one visit to the ‘all you can eat’ salad counter.  Most customers were office workers on a short lunch break, eager to stuff their faces as quickly as possible before moving on to complete other lunchtime chores.  The table on the far side, diagonally opposite me, was filled with an office party celebrating something; loud banter and raucous laughter erupted every so often from that direction.
I studied the plate before me – a Grosvenor Pie, all pink meat and boiled egg encased in thick crusty pastry, surrounded by an Ensalade Mixta.  My mouth fairly watered as I picked up my knife and fork and set to.
The start of my repast was interrupted by the shambling figure of Georgio as he entered the restaurant and shuffled over to my table.  His balding head was bowed in contrition.  His normally ruddy complexion paled with concern, maybe even fear.  It was a warm day so I overlooked the fact that he was wearing a t-shirt over his jeans instead of something smarter.  I nodded at the chair opposite me and he sat down.

‘Ok,’ I said in a reasonable tone.  ‘Would you care to explain how you lost track of the merchandise.  And no phoney excuses, I’ve heard them all.’

‘This is no excuse, Mr Smith,’ Georgio gabbled.  ‘It’s the God’s honest truth.  When I got there someone had beaten me to it.  The dealer had gone and the stuff with him.  He must have made a deal with some other guy.’

I popped a whole cherry tomato into my mouth and bit into it.  I don’t know how, but as it split the juice managed to squirt out of my mouth and hit Georgio straight in the eye.  I didn’t apologise.

‘You expect me to believe 10 kilos of top grade stuff that I had paid for was sold to someone else?’ I asked.

Truth was I hadn’t actually paid anything.  Buy on credit, sell for cash was my policy.  Not that any of my operatives knew that.  I trusted them to collect the cash and bring it to me –  I accepted they might skim a little off the top before handing it over, I would have – but to actually make a sale and then deny it?

I tried to spear a radish.  It shot off the plate and hit Georgio in the middle of his forehead.  I caught it on the rebound and popped it into my mouth.

‘Ok,’ I said as I chewed on the radish.  ‘This time I believe you. Don’t let it happen again.  Make sure you get to the dealer on time and don’t leave me with egg on my face for letting down my clients.’

‘Sure, Mr Smith.  It won’t happen again.  I promise.’

‘It’d better not, else you’ll be working for some other punk.  Now, piss off.’

Georgio made a hasty retreat as the doors to the kitchen opened and one of the staff emerged bearing a tray with a cake complete with sparklers.  The table in the corner clapped and cheered before bursting into a tuneless rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to you.’  Poor Sindy looked mortified.  And no wonder.  Fancy being named after your mother’s favourite toy. 

A waiter approached my table.

‘More Perrier, Mr Smith?’ he asked obsequiously.

I nodded, then added my thanks once the water had been poured.  No need to be rude even if he was a slimy, bootlicking lackey.

Another of my gofers arrived and I nodded him into the seat Georgio had vacated.  This was Freddie.  Another skinny t-shirted, jean clad kid who thought too much of himself.  He had spiky hair and was wearing sunglasses which he did not remove.  Must have met Georgio, I thought.

‘Everything go ok?’ I asked.

‘Sure, no problems, Mr Smith.  All transactions complete.’

He pushed an envelope across the table and I took it and slipped it into the briefcase that was standing open at the side of my chair. 

‘You hear about what happened to Georgio?’ I asked. Freddie nodded vigorously.  ‘Make sure it doesn’t happen to you.’  He nodded some more and then made a quick exit.

As I worked my way through my lunch more of my gofers came and sat at my table and slid envelopes full of money towards me.  I didn’t check any of them.  I knew how much should be in each.  I knew an odd tenner would be missing.  They knew I knew.  What most of them didn’t know was that if they didn’t help themselves I would actually pay them more.

My mobile rang.  It was one of my regular customers, desperation in his voice as he said:

‘I need some stuff urgently.  Can you get it to me before tonight?’

‘Well, I’m not sure, Carlo.  It’s a bit late.’

‘Please.  I’ll pay whatever it costs.  I really need it.  There’s a special party.’

‘I’ll see what I can do and have one of my boys bring it over.  What exactly do you want?’

The list was not that long but it would be expensive.  I ended the call with a promise to be in touch.

I watched the birthday party leave as I wiped the last of the salad dressing from my plate with some bread.  Not much work would be done in that office this afternoon, I thought.  I pushed my plate away, drained my glass of Perrier and closed the briefcase.  Slowly I got to my feet and walked out of the restaurant, giving the staff a cheery wave as I went.

Then I hurried down the street, briefcase clutched tightly in my hand.  It was tough being the main supplier of top class salad produce to the finest chefs and restaurants of the city, but someone had to do it. 

copyright©Kristen Stone 2012 All Rights Reserved


50 years into the future.

The Minister sat behind his expansive desk, the offending report lying neatly on its polished surface.  The report should have been a work that would induce pride in the achievements of the current administration.  Page after page told how scientists and doctors had virtually eliminated all fatal diseases. It was something mankind had been trying to do since medicine was first practiced.

     Cancer no longer existed.  The last fatal heart attack had been ten years ago.  Obesity and all its associated ailments had been eradicated.  Smoking was no longer a problem because the tobacco industry had diversified and no longer produced cigarettes.  Fears of a pandemic influenza outbreak had disappeared with a universal vaccine. The nation was fitter and healthier than it had ever been.    

     The report had been compiled by over a dozen of the best specialists in different medical and scientific fields.  None of whom were aware of what the others were reporting. So why was the Minister so uneasy about the conclusion of the report?

     He looked across the desk to the Civil Servant who had come to discuss what to do next; how the Minister should proceed when he made his recommendations to the Cabinet.

     ‘We can’t act on the conclusion of this report,’ the Minister insisted.

     ‘You have to,’ the Civil Servant replied calmly.

     The Minister noted the ‘we’ had changed to ‘you’ placing responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the government.

     ‘But the public will not stand for it,’ the Minister said.  ‘There must be an alternative.’

     ‘There isn’t, believe me.  Resources are finite. Space is finite.  The country is running out of both. We cannot afford to be so healthy.’

     ‘Why not?’

     ‘It’s simple.  People are living too long.  Pensions are being paid out for far longer than they were ever meant to be.’

     ‘Then we raise the pension age again,’ the Minister said.

     ‘It’s already seventy-five,’ the Civil Servant said.  ‘Every time we raise the pension age we take away jobs from younger people.  The leaving age for school is twenty-one because there are no jobs for the youngsters.  Everywhere from coffee shops to the government, the young are being held back by coffin dodgers.  And when they do retire they think a long and active retirement is their right.’

     ‘And so it should be,’ the Minister said.  He tried to ignore the fact that the Civil Servant was a sprightly sixty year old while he, himself, had just had his seventy-second birthday and was quite happy to serve another full term in office after the next election – if he was returned to serve, of course.  That was up to his constituents. 

     ‘Ten years,’ the Civil Servant said.  ‘Ten years, that’s what was expected when the retirement age was set to seventy-five.  That’s plenty long enough. But no, even at seventy-five they are going on for another thirty years.  The King is sending out so many birthday cards to centenarians he is getting writer’s cramp. It’s getting to be three full post bags a week!  It’s costing a fortune.’

     ‘At least it’s keeping the Post Office busy,’ the Minister said.  ‘Must be about the only thing that gets posted these days. Everything else is done by email.’

     ‘Too right.  If the King didn’t have to use the Royal Mail for this we could get rid of the postmen completely.  Totally unnecessary these days.’

     This was another sore point but the Minister was not going to follow it up and turned to the final page of the report to read it again.

     ‘But this is a bit extreme, isn’t it?’ he asked.  ‘How can it be implemented?’

     The report stated in all too vivid detail that people had to fall ill and die.  

     ‘Well,’ said the Civil Servant warming to the subject.  ‘One idea put forward was that fake drugs are introduced randomly to the system so that these wonderful miracles cease to work.  All these preventative medicines are all very well, but we need a few heart attacks, fatal strokes and cancers. Sickness existed for a reason.  People don’t simply die of old age. Keep people well and they will go on for who knows how long.’

     ‘Would that be fair?  Aren’t we going back to the days of postcode lottery medicine?’

     ‘No way.  The fake drugs would be distributed all over the country.  No one would know the difference between the fakes and the real things.  And they would be spread out thinly enough so that just a few people sadly passed away so that it wouldn’t be obvious.  Just enough to keep the undertakers happy.’

     ‘What do you mean, keep the undertakers happy?’ the Minister asked.

     ‘Sadly the role of funeral director is a dying trade, if you’ll excuse the pun.  Not enough people are dying to keep these people in work. And we cannot afford to lose the skills of the undertakers because we will all need one eventually.  But they won’t wait around indefinitely. In some places, they are down to one or two funerals a month. Some towns don’t even have an undertaker available. People are having to travel around the counties to find one.’

     ‘Are you proposing that all drugs have fake copies?’ the Minister asked.  He tried to stop his attention wandering to the top drawer of his desk where he kept the pills which kept him functioning.  Unbeknown to his colleagues he had advanced Alzheimer’s and without his pills he would become a blithering wreck within days.

     ‘I am not proposing anything, Minster,’ the Civil Servant said.  ‘I am just putting forward a possibility for you to consider.’

     ‘What else could we do?’ he asked.  ‘Have you anything else you can “put forward” for my “consideration”?’

     ‘Well,’ the Civil Servant dragged out the word making it sound more like ‘weeellll.’

‘All these free passes to gyms and swimming pools, these pensioners are getting far too much exercise for their own good these days.  There ought to be more incentive to sit at home and watch TV all day like they used to. That way they will be more prone to thrombosis and weight gain.  That might see a few off.’        

     ‘Anything else?’  The Minister was feeling depressed.

     ‘It was thought that perhaps we could encourage people to smoke again.  Smoking related illnesses got rid of hundreds of thousands every year and if we got them started early enough we wouldn’t even have to pay out on some pensions.’  The Civil Servant was almost beaming as he said this.

     ‘But wouldn’t we have to spend money on treating them?’ the Minister asked.  ‘Do we have enough hospitals and medical staff these days?’

     ‘It wouldn’t happen overnight.  We would have time to build up the medical staff.  It would give the youngsters a career again. Nursing was always a fine career but there has been a declining need for it over the last few years.  The same goes for doctors, they have forgotten what a clogged artery looks like. And new cigarette factories would also give employment.’

     ‘And we could get the tax on tobacco back,’ the Minister liked the sound of this idea.

     ‘Not too high, to start with.  Don’t want people complaining they can’t afford to smoke.’ 

     The Minister began to drum his fingers on the edge of the desk, a sign that he was getting enthused by the ideas.

     ‘We could say that we have eliminated the bad effects of tobacco, promote it as a new and safe form of leisure activity,’ he suggested.

       The truth was a whole generation had grown up without anyone around them smoking.  It was only the older people like the Minister who could remember people smoking and then it had been limited to within one’s own house, not in public places.  Many of the under thirties would not even know that smoking had been a major cause of many diseases. And by the time the effects started to show he would be long gone.  That could well be the long term solution to the problem but it would do little to solve the immediate situation. 

     The Minister suddenly had another thought and frowned. 

     ‘Does anyone actually grow tobacco these days?’

     The Civil Servant smiled and nodded.

     ‘I checked this out.  There are still a few tobacco plantations around the world, supplying the poorer nations who have never actually banned the use of tobacco.  We can use some of our foreign aid budget to encourage these farmers to up production. It will provide wealth for these poor countries, too.’

     ‘Do you think that will be enough?’ the Minister asked.  ‘Fixing the medication and cutting the free passes?’

     ‘It will be a start,’ the Civil Servant said.  ‘But it will have to be done very quietly. The pill side of things, I mean.  The other thing can be brought into the next budget. There will be a few complaints but I’m sure the Chancellor will be able to talk his way out of it, he usually does.’

     ‘Umm, any thoughts on how we can do it?’

     ‘Maybe set up a dummy company abroad making the pills and then import and infiltrate them into the supply chain.’  The Civil Servant chuckled. ‘It’s been done before. People used to buy cheap pills on the internet and they would arrive from India containing who knew what!’

     ‘Fine.  Start working on it, get it sorted for me.’  He leaned forward and very carefully extracted the conclusion from the report.  ‘I will present this report to the cabinet and everyone will be very impressed with what a wonderful state of health our citizens have.  I’ll persuade the Chancellor to scrap the free pass scheme and also suggest that now tobacco is healthy we encourage people to smoke again.  We will keep the pill thing between ourselves. The fewer people who know about it the better.’

     He stood up and escorted the Civil Servant to the door.  When he returned to his desk he calculated how many tablets he would need to keep him going for the next ten years and made plans to get enough before any fakes could appear.  And when the ultimate plan was set up and running there would be the matter of making sure a certain Civil Servant could not reveal any secrets.

The end

Copyright©Kristen Stone 2011 All Rights Reserved