Monday, 25 July 2016

The Final Test - a post-Brexit story

I'm still suffering from post-Brexit blues. Writing this story helped a bit!



The Final Test

Henry was sure that he wasn’t being followed, but he was still sweating with fear. He’d never been to this part of town before. He turned into the lane he’d been told about and scurried down it: a tunnel between the brick walls of terraced houses, giving way to broken fences then a line of lockups. Some of the garage doors were metal up-and-overs and others were scarred wooden ones, barred and padlocked. He stopped, glancing once more behind him, just in case, then looked for the green doors. There they were, only a few yards further on.
            There was no going back. This place offered him his only hope. He advanced to the doors, nudging the one on the right, which opened a crack into darkness. What was that? A shout? Someone in the lane? In one quick move, he slid in, pulling the door shut behind him.
            Inside smelt of limey earth and urine. Henry stood, shivering as the sweat cooled on his skin, his eyes adjusting to the dark. In front of him was a wall of cardboard boxes, stacked high, spewing out what looked like household junk: the tube of a vacuum cleaner hung down like a snake and a child’s broken bicycle veered over a roll of carpet. Along to his right, at the far end, he noted a glow of light and moved towards it, to discover a small gap in the barrier of boxes. Squeezing through this, he came up against the side of a sort of wooden shack, a decapitated garden shed, its window the source of the light. From inside came the low drone of a voice.
            Henry let out his breath from a knot in his chest and tapped on the side of the shack.
            ‘Yes?’
            ‘Nemo,’ Henry whispered.
            ‘Come in.’
            When Henry pulled open the plywood door, four faces stared back at him. Two men and two women, were jammed together in a tight circle on plastic garden chairs round an upturned bin with a candle on it. Their eyes were dark and sunken. Each clutched a sheaf of papers.
            ‘I’m afraid there are no more seats,’ said a bald man with a lined brow, the tutor, Henry assumed.
            His voice was soft, educated, and he gestured to the only piece of bare floor space at his feet.
            Henry nodded. ‘Sorry I’m .’
            ‘That’s all right,’ said the man, handing him some tattered photocopied papers. ‘We’ve only just started.’
            Henry crouched down in the space.
            He glanced up at the others, comforted a little by their strained faces, their shared tension. The other man was young with tousled hair, one woman was middle-aged, white-faced and dowdy-looking, while the other was younger with glasses.
            The tutor spoke in a clear whisper. ‘The questions never stay the same. However, these old test papers will give you an idea of the range of topics. I have a list of others as well.’
            ‘But I’ve heard they’ve got new tests, not just paper ones,’ said the middle-aged woman, in a quivering, slightly accented voice. It was the vowels that betrayed her.
            ‘Yes,’ said the man, ‘SSDs.’
            ‘What?’ the woman said.
            ‘Subliminal sensory detection systems. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that kind of thing. Sorry.’
‘But if we pass the exam,’ said the woman with the glasses, ‘surely they won’t
            The tutor shook his head. ‘No guarantee. Come on, let’s get started. Now, don’t take notes.’ He tapped his temple with a finger. ‘It’s all got to go in here.’
            Henry looked down at the front page of the first paper.

EIP Test Paper 1                    Time Allowed: 20 minutes

NOTE: ALL QUESTIONS MUST BE ANSWERED.  Failure to provide an answer to any question will result in a zero score and automatic referral to the exit unit.

SECTION ACultural Affiliations

Part 1:  Cooking and Eating

  1. Describe the origins and ingredients of the following items:
(a)   barmcake
(b)   rock bun
(c)    lardy cake
(d)   bannock

  1. Which of the following dishes would you serve when entertaining friends?
(a)   Lancashire Hotpot
(b)   Fidget Pie
(c)    Cullen Skink
(d)   Urney Pudding
(e)    Flead Cakes

Henry suddenly felt sick and let out an involuntary gasp. The middle-aged woman started crying.
            ‘I can’t. It’s no good,’ she squeaked. ‘How can we prepare for a test like this?’
            ‘Sssh,’ whispered the tutor sharply. ‘I know it’s difficult, but I’ll help you. You must be quiet though. You know what will happen if they find us.’
            The woman sniffed and pulled a tissue from her sleeve, holding it to her nose.
            ‘Right,’ said the tutor. ‘Let’s go slowly. Bannock that’s the one to watch. If you know the answer to anything with Scottish associations, you must never let it show. Sometimes it’s knowledge that’ll give you away. Sometimes however, it’s a matter of discriminating the Scottish item from the others.’
            ‘But that’s trickery,’ sniffed the middle-aged woman. ‘They said the tests would be fair.’
            The tutor looked down at the test paper and muttered. ‘And you believed them?’
            In the moment of silence that followed, Henry felt his dismay weighing like a heavy stone in his stomach.
            The tutor looked up at the woman. ‘You’ll have to work on that accent. Have you got copies of the RP recordings to practise?’
            She nodded, stifling another sob with the lump of tissue.
            Henry felt his armpits prickle with sweat again.
‘Has anyone ever passed this test?’ he said.
‘Yes, I did,’ the tutor sighed, glancing at them apologetically. ‘But look, if you’re completely thorough with your own purging, it’s just possible that you might escape the test.’
‘Didn’t help my friend,’ said the young man with tousled hair. ‘We had a de-contamination day at work and he was picked up.’
            Henry’s throat tightened. This had started him thinking about Colin again and how his attempts to purge his home and family had failed. He could still hear Colin’s wife screaming, as the Specials had pushed her and the children into the armoured van. Colin had stood in their living room, bleeding from the head and in handcuffs, the result of his futile attempts to resist. Henry had stayed silent in the background, amazed that they hadn’t arrested him too, for fraternisation. How could Colin and Marion have missed the thing? They had meticulously scoured their house and destroyed all incriminating evidence: tea towels from Oban and Skye, a shortbread tin used for storing buttons and a tartan rug lining the dog’s basket. Henry had driven with Colin to a river fifty miles away one night at three in the morning. They had watched the black, weighted shape of the dustbin bag sink into the water as they stood on the bank. That terrible day, the Specials’ officer had mockingly waved an audio cassette in front of Colin’s face, Kenneth McKellar’s Songs of Scotland. The Specials had found it propping up a broken bookcase in his daughter’s bedroom.
Henry sometimes wished he’d gone with the first wave north, the voluntary emigrants, but he was terrified of being herded into a hostile environment as an alien, jobless and penniless to a future in some transit or refugee camp. Scotland, plunged into economic recession, was heaving with resentment at the financial burden of those first expulsions. The English government refused to pay any compensation to those they had driven from their homes and their jobs. Also, the weather in Scotland was awful. Henry would never forget one childhood holiday: two weeks in a sodden tent near Loch Lomond and his skin itching with midges when the rain finally stopped.
            ‘Right,’ said the tutor, finishing his last recitation of the ingredients of lardy cake, which Henry had only half heard.
‘Here’s a really important section. You’ve got to give evidence that you’ve upheld the key principles of Englishness.’
            Henry gulped and thought hard. He could only identify two examples of actions that might qualify: he’d sold a few raffle tickets for his local cricket club and, ten years ago, had attended the first part of a hanky dancing workshop led the Colchester Morris Men. The others were struggling for examples too. Fortunately, the tutor was able to supply them with a number of untraceable fabrications, such as commissioning a portrait of Nick Griffin, which had sadly been lost in a fire, or scrubbing graffiti and offensive slogans like ‘Freedom and respect for all!’ from walls and hoardings.
            The session lasted for four hours. Henry’s head ached and his throat was parched. By now, however, it would be dark and easier to get home unnoticed. The only risk was encountering one of the vigilante gangs that roamed about with torches and clubs looking for people with red hair or anybody engaged in anti-government activity.
            The tutor’s head was bowing with weariness as he bade them goodbye until next week, exhorting them to keep rehearsing the material about cooking, sport and music that they had learned that evening.
            ‘Be hopeful. Keep strong,’ he said.
            They crept out of the shed, around the wall of boxes. Henry, the last in line, found himself standing next to the crumple-haired young man outside the doors. The women had already disappeared.
            ‘Fancy a drink?’ said the young man.
            Henry, startled by the overture, stuttered, ‘Is there anywhere safe?’
            ‘Yeah, I know somewhere. I know the landlord. It’s a bit of a way, but I’ll die if I don’t have a beer.’
            ‘Which way?’ said Henry.
            He followed the young man, who charged off down the lane and through a network of streets for more than half an hour. Henry didn’t see the pub sign until he was standing beneath it. The Bulldog, the image of a squat, bandy-legged creature with a squashed grinning face made Henry’s shivers return, even though he was hot with hurrying.
            ‘Hey, is this OK?’ he panted.
            The young man turned to Henry and grinned. ‘Best place to hide, in the heart of English Identity country, isn’t it?’
            There was a logic to that, Henry supposed. What kind of person with any vestige of Scottishness would go into a place like this?
            It was nearly empty apart from two miserable looking old men, humped over their beers in the far corner. Henry’s companion walked confidently up to the bar, where the landlord was standing smoking. Henry tried not to cough, as he’d still not got used to smoke indoors since the repeal of the anti-smoking laws in memory of the late founder of the Party, Nigel Farage.
            Henry followed the young man, clutching his glass of warm cloudy stuff which was the only ale available these days. For some time, tantalising memories of drinking chilled Belgian lager had featured in Henry’s dreams. The young man sat down in a dark, empty corner.
            ‘I’m Josh,’ he said, offering his hand.
            Henry took it, feeling his shoulders loosen and his breath calming a little. ‘Henry,’ he said.
            ‘What’s your status then?’ said Josh.
            ‘One parent,’ said Henry, ‘my mother. She died two years ago.’
            Josh took another drink and grimaced. ‘That’s close. I only had my grandad, poor old sod. He’d turn in his grave.’
            ‘Yeah,’ said Henry, ‘Thank God my mother never saw the state we’re in. She knew things were going to get difficult. The party got in the year before she died, so she started clearing things out, burning books and stuff.’
            It was good to be talking so freely. Even though this Josh could easily be a spy, there was nothing Henry could do now to resist the effects of the beer and a sympathetic companion. He told Josh about how he’d built a bonfire in the garden one night, with his mother handing him her leather-bound school prizes: A Scots Quair, The Collected Works of Robert Burns, Scottish Philosophers who shaped the World. She’d cried and he’d offered to bury them instead, but she’d insisted and thrown them into the fire herself.
            Josh grimaced in sympathy. ‘Well, I’m not hanging about here waiting for these bloody tests. Even if you did know all the names of the winners of the Gloucestershire cheese rolling competition since 1949, they’d still find a way of getting you.’
            Henry gulped another mouthful of beer. ‘How are you going to get out?’ he said.
            ‘There’s a bloke with a boat at Brightlingsea. You want to come?’
            ‘Where? Everything’s blockaded.’
            ‘Well, I’m going to take my chances,’ said Josh. ‘He can get you to France for two grand.’
            Henry’s stomach started churning again. He needed to go to the lavatory.
            ‘I don’t know. It’s risky,’ he said, squirming in his seat, the sweat breaking out on his face again.
            Every day on Ingerland 4TV they showed footage of boatloads of escapees sinking in the English Channel.
            ‘Think about it,’ said Josh. ‘Want another pint?’
Much later, well after midnight, Henry fell into bed. He lay in his clothes, alternating between hot and cold as he agonised about whether to take up Josh’s offer. He was dozing when he heard the crack of splintering wood as his front door was broken down.

At first Henry thought he was at the dentist’s. He was in a chair, with a thin man in a suit at his side.
‘Your attempts at deception have been a little unimaginative to say the least’, the man said, glancing at a clipboard he was holding. ‘Changing your name from “Hamish” to “Henry”. You must think we’re very stupid. And then there was the attempt to alter your mother’s birth certificate. You know you have no claims to purity status. There’s nothing pure about this type of fraud.’
Henry, numb with exhaustion, resorted to his well rehearsed speech, which he delivered in a monotone, his eyes on the floor. ‘I’m a marginal category, limited blood affiliation and total cultural assimilation. I have a right to claim full English citizenship.’
      ‘Oh you do, do you?’ said the man, narrowing his eyes.
      ‘Yes,’ said Henry, ‘I am English in mind, soul and spirit. I have no allegiance to beliefs, cultural practices, values or tastes associated with Scotland, nor ever have.’
      ‘Then you won’t have anything to fear from the final test, will you?’
      They peeled off his shirt to apply the electrodes to his chest, and more to his temples, forehead and neck and he was swung suddenly backwards in the chair till his face pointed up to the ceiling. Some earphones were rammed into his ears and then a greasy faced man in a white coat stared down at him for a moment or two. ‘This is the easy bit. Just lie back and think of England,’ he snorted, tapping a dial by Henry’s ear.
Henry heard the sound of some switches being flicked. He was too tired for terror, particularly as there was no sign of the expected pain or tingling. Perhaps it was just a lie detector test after all. Nothing happened.
His next conscious sensation was of an internal pulsing, and a stirring in his brain, in time to a romping tune, a resonant regular thrum of a guitar backing and rich-voiced, bouncing accordion. He was transported back to the carpeted living room and himself as a small child, a sideboard full of rattling silver plates on a tartan tray and the smiling face of his mother as she twirled him round and round in furious pleasure, the old record player vibrating with the same irresistible beat of a reel that set his blood dancing.
‘Got you!’ said the man, leaning over him and pointing at the dial. ‘No need for these now, sunshine’, he said, ripping the pads from Henry’s head. ‘Have a nice trip!’

Hours later, Henry was wedged against a steamy window on the bus, packed with bodies and lurching through the darkening afternoon. The night was completely black by the time they crossed the border.