Not the most subtle story I’ve ever written.
I used to be a social worker and then a manager of a team of social workers. This story poured out of me more or less in a single burst of rage, when the ‘Baby P’ tragedy was in in the news (the murder of Peter Connolly by his mothers boyfriend), and the media and the government were conducting one of their periodic carnivals of shame. During a previous such event, a fellow team manager had told me, ‘I managed to get my kids out of the house just half an hour before the TV cameras arrived on my lawn’.
My experience in that job has made me much more forgiving than most people are of the ‘mistakes’ made not only by social workers but by anyone who has to make decisions in real time, in the messiness and uncertainty of the real world. I did not feel inclined to condemn the police officer who ran towards an innocent Brazilian electrician and shot him, believing him to be a suicide bomber. And I will not be one of those calling for heads to roll in the aftermath of this Covid-19 episode. Hindsight makes all kind of things look like obvious mistakes that simply don’t look that way at all when they are happening.
This story first appeared in Interzone in 2010 and is collected in The Peacock Cloak.
Johnny’s New Job
Monday it was all round the factory where Johnny worked that a little girl called Jenny Sue had been killed by her wicked stepfather. He had dropped her down a dry well and left her there to starve.
Wednesday, the case was officially declared by the government to be an instance of Welfare Knew And Did Nothing (within the meaning of the Summary Judgement Act) so of course everyone kept their ears open and sure enough pretty soon the thrilling voice of the Public Accuser came booming out of the factory Screens, demanding on behalf of everyone there that culprits be identified for him to Name.
‘Ordinary decent folk have had enough!’ the Public Accuser told the city government, while every single soul in the factory stood raptly listening. ‘Those responsible must pay the Price.’
Everyone cheered. Accuser’s dark unsmiling face stared down at them from the giant Screen. And then on came Factory Manager Number One and suggested they all do two hours of extra work for nothing, in memory of the little girl.
‘Let’s all do our bit extra,’ Factory Manager said, ‘It’s what Jenny Sue would have wanted.’
And everyone cheered once more and returned to their looms, working with such gusto that their output for the next two hours was the same as it would normally be in half a day. And some of them had tears running down their faces as they worked and worked for that poor dear dead little child.
They knew they’d need time off, you see, when Welfare’s Name was announced.
Friday afternoon at 3, Screen gave out that the Announcement of Welfare’s Name would be in an hour’s time at City Hall, to be done by the Public Accuser himself.
‘Work hard as you can to half three,’ said Factory Manager, ‘and then knock off early and go with my blessing on full pay. I know you all want to do your bit. And I will do mine.’
And once again everyone cheered, and told each other he really wasn’t so bad at all as bosses go, and they set to and worked at the looms as hard as they could until half-past three. Then it was down tools and on with coats and down through the grey streets to City Hall where a big crowd was already gathering, with a brass band playing solemn music in memory of the little girl and a big flag hanging from the balcony.
Announcement was never on time. The last time it had happened was when Welfare took a little boy away from his loving mum and dad, and they both begged her not to, but the Welfare Officer didn’t care, that heartless cow, even though the mum was pretty and the dad had once served in the wars in Araby. The wait was over seventy minutes that time and the crowd was going crazy with impatience by the time the Announcement was made. But in a way that was all part of it. Announcement on time would spoil things really. It wouldn’t give folk a chance to wind themselves up for what had to be done.
Anyway, at ten past four the Mayor came out onto the balcony.
‘Fellow citizens, it is my sad duty to announce that a dear little girl from our city has died due to the criminal negligence of Welfare.’
There must have been two, three thousand there. Everyone cheered and pretty soon the old familiar chant went up.
‘The names! The names! The names!’
And the Mayor gave a little wave as if to say, I do know and I’d like to tell you but I’m afraid it’s not my job. And on the big Screen above, where his face was shown as high as a double-decker bus, you could see his little smile as if he was sharing with everybody the impatience he felt with that as a human being, whether or not he was Mayor. And everyone said to themselves, well, he’s not so bad, he’s just like us really.
Then the Mayor went back inside – ‘The names! The names! The names!’ – and presently out he came again with that same shy little smile and held up his hands for quiet. It was nearly half-past four by then.
‘Citizens! Citizens! Thankyou as ever for your commitment and concern. You make me proud to lead this great city. It is my great pleasure and honour now to give to you that mighty defender all that is good and decent in our community, that fierce guardian of everything that is right. I give you…The Public Accuser.’
And out came Accuser in his black robe, and you could see on the screen that he never even nodded to Mayor, never even smiled.
‘The names!’ yelled out Johnny, just as everyone else was settling down, so you could hear his individual voice right across the square.
And Accuser looked at him, looked over the top of his half-moon glasses right across the square at poor little Johnny down there in the crowd.
Johnny went bright red.
‘Well I was only saying…’ he muttered.
‘My fellow citizens,’ boomed out Accuser, ‘a terrible crime has again been committed by Welfare in whom we generously placed our trust. We did not ask much of them. We did not ask of them that they make our city rich. We did not ask of them that they heal the sick. All we asked of them – the one little thing we asked – was that they protect our children, our precious little ones, and to ensure that none of them came to harm. And yet they failed, again they failed, again they betrayed the little ones. And it is has been looked into, as ever, by the proper people, and we are now at that point we always reach on these occasions when I tell you the name, or names, of the officers concerned.’
He slowly unfolded a piece of paper, placed it on the dais in front of him and smoothed it out.
‘I have so far identified just one Welfare Officer who must take the blame, though more names may likely follow later.’
Accuser paused, looked out over his half-moon glasses to make sure the people were ready for the full seriousness of what he was about to say.
‘That negligent and heartless Officer is…’ again he paused. ‘That blundering and incompetent fool… That disgrace both to manhood and to our city… is… ‘
And here he looked down at his paper.
‘…is Officer David Simpson of 15 Lavender Grove, Uptown.’
The crowed booed and hissed. Accuser took off his glasses and scanned the faces below, as if to make sure that everyone present had fully understood.
But he need not have worried. The people were already surging out of the square, bellowing with grief and rage.
And off Johnny went with them, striding and sometimes even running through the streets, adding his own impatience to the general haste to get to 15 Lavender Grove and get the job done.
‘Welfare Officer David Simpson,’ announced Screens along the way, ‘had been receiving a salary of seventy thousand gold crowns a year….’
There were cries of incredulity and rage.
‘…owns a real car,’ the next Screen was saying.
You heard bits as you passed the Screens every fifty metres or so, and then in between you couldn’t hear.
‘…and this year he went for a holiday in sunny Tartary with his wife Jennifer and his two children, Horace and Portia, both at Younger’s Infant School. That’s on Upton High Street, by the way, and here are the pictures of the kids…’
The crowd looked up at the children and hissed.
‘How would he have liked it if it had been one of them?’
‘Tartary, eh?’ the announcer was musing aloud on the next Screen. ‘Tartary. Not bad. Not bad at all for a man who was paid to care for little children and instead stood back and did nothing while an innocent little girl was killed.’
‘The bastard, get him!’ yelled Johnny, who wouldn’t have minded a holiday in Tartary himself.
‘Yes get him,’ agreed the folk all around him, hurrying earnestly through the streets, determined that what happened to Jenny Sue must never ever happen again.
‘We’re doing this for you Jenny sweetheart!’ shouted out a woman nearby, in a voice that started strong and ended with a sob.
‘For you, Jenny Sue!’ the crowd yelled with her, and many joined her in angry tears.
‘Someone ought to chuck his little girl down a well and see how he likes it,’ a man said to Johnny: it was a tiny little man with a huge moustache. ‘See how he feels about that.’
Well that sounded fair enough to Johnny so he yelled it out.
‘Let’s get his little girl Portia,’ he yelled. ‘Let’s chuck her down a well!’
‘Yeah, let’s get her,’ a few people around him called out.
But it was a bit half-hearted and quickly petered out, as if the crowd sensed that there was a contradiction here somewhere, even if it was hard to put your finger on it.
Poor Johnny felt a bit crushed that his contribution had gone unappreciated but a kindly woman beside him put her hand gently on his shoulder.
‘We might hate her,’ the woman said, ‘and we might well hope that she dies too, a horrible cruel death, so he can see what it’s like, and be truly sorry. But she is only a child after all, whatever we might think of her. We’ve got to remember that.’
When they reached the sign that said ‘Welcome to Upton’ everybody cheered, and for a little while the crowd milled about in the middle of a cross roads, wondering where to go next, growing and spreading out into the surrounding streets as more people poured in from behind. Traffic lights went red, orange, green, orange, red to no avail while cars and vans waited respectfully for these good but justifiably angry people to move on in their own good time.
‘Where’s Lavender Grove, mate?’ the crowd called out collectively to the people of Upton.
‘Up that way, turn right and then left, you can’t miss it, mate,’ the people of Upton called back in strong stern voices, only too glad to be of help. And some of them came along.
Pretty soon the crowd reached Lavender Grove, and, shouting and yelling all the while, began squeezing itself in as best it could.
It was street of little detached houses with tidy front gardens. Outside every house on the street there were law officers in blue to make sure that no one got carried away.
‘It’s frustrating isn’t it?’ said a tall man near Johnny. ‘You want to do over the whole damn street of them, don’t you?’
‘Course you do,’ Johnny said.
But the man’s friend opined that it didn’t really help to take it out on the neighbours. A neighbour’s proper role in this situation was more to come out and tell stories to Screen about the one being Named.
‘…about how they never would have thought it, and all that,’ the man said.
‘Well, I suppose,’ the first man reluctantly agreed.
There were law officers in front of number 15 too. But theywere there for a different reason. Their job was to ensure that the people inside did not slip away before it was time. They had a couple of cars ready with their engines running and red lights going round and round on top. Pretty soon the sergeant in charge decided there were enough people crammed into the street. He nodded to the officer by the door, and the officer gave a sharp rap and out came the wife Jennifer and the two children Horace and Portia, their faces white with the knowledge of their sin. For, as everyone knows, to be in the presence of sin is sin. It’s something you catch like a disease.
And the crowd booed and hissed and yelled and a couple of hotheads rushed forward to lay into them, dear good passionate young fellows that they were, and had to be gently pushed back by the law.
Cold and stern, the law put the mother and the two children in one of their cars and off it went down the street with the other car following after. You could see the law didn’t like it any more than anyone else, letting Welfare’s family get off lightly like that, but they had their job to do, and all credit to them.
‘Chuck them down a well and see how he likes it,’ yelled a fat woman, and a great roar of approval went up.
Johnny looked at her enviously and wondered what she’d got that he hadn’t. But he noticed that the crowd seemed to sense somehow that these were only words, not an actual proposal. It let the car go by and out of Lavender Grove and off to wherever it was they were going.
So now it was down to the real business. All these good honest people who’d come up here from City Hall were standing looking at the front door of 15 Lavender Grove and everyone there knew there was no more wife and kids or anyone else in there, just Named Welfare himself on his own. And it was a strange feeling, a strange exciting feeling that you felt going right through you, in your body as well as in your mind, a bit like sex, knowing he was inside there, scared witless, and knowing that somehow or other they would soon get him out.
And then there was a rustle of excitement from the back of the crowd, and calls of ‘Gangway! Gangway!’ and people moved back to make a path for Accuser himself, arriving not in a car but on foot, there in the actual flesh, moving among them. He passed so close that Johnny could reach out and touch his black robe as he went by.
Straight up to the house went Accuser and rapped hard on the door.
‘David Simpson!’ bellowed the Public Accuser. ‘Come out and face the people of this city.’
Nothing. No sound from inside at all. So Accuser, grim-faced, picked three strong men from the crowd and they all went into the house and pretty soon, after a little bit of muffled shouting, came out again with the despicable man who had let little Jenny die. The crowd, the poor wounded grieving crowd, went crazy with rage, screaming and yelling at him that he was scum and vermin.
Accuser held up his hands for quiet, and then he turned to the snivelling Welfare and demanded of him loudly and firmly and with great dignity that he own up to what he had done.
‘Do you deny that it was your fault that that dear little girl was thrown down the well?’ boomed Accuser in his great and dreadful voice.
The Welfare Officer said something that no one but Accuser could hear.
‘He says he did his best,’ Accuser repeated, as if he was handling something dirty with tongs. ‘He says it’s not always easy to know what is going to happen in advance. He says he had a lot on.’
Accuser looked out at the crowd, letting that contemptible drivel sink in. Then he roared out the rage that they all felt.
‘What could he have had on that was more important than saving a little girl? What is more important than that? Holidays in Tartary, perhaps?’
He held his hands out wide in a gesture of helplessness. Even Accuser, it seemed, with all his wisdom and experience, was still dumbfounded by the flimsiness of these people’s excuses. Even Accuser shared the bewilderment of ordinary decent folk.
‘Do we need to hear more?’ he asked
‘No! No! No!’ hollered the crowd, for it was anxious to get on.
And it trusted Accuser, it knew it could rely on everything he said. His job was to expose these wretched Welfare Officers, and lay bare their craven willingness to be led and misled by others. There was no need for anyone else to try.
As he walked away from the lynching with the rest of the crowd, Johnny felt a little… strange. Not that he didn’t felt cleansed, not that he didn’t feel uplifted. But yet all the same he did feel just a little bit uneasy.
And actually people in general were quite quiet as they trailed out through the grey old streets. A few enthusiasts were chanting and shouting – ‘Well! Well! Well! Welfare!’ – but on the whole most people were quiet.
‘It was for Jenny,’ Johnny reminded himself. ‘It was for little Jenny Sue, and to make sure it never happens again.’
And even as he thought this to himself he heard a woman nearby saying the very same thing to her friend.
‘We had to do it didn’t we? For Jenny Sue.’
Everyone talked about that little girl as if they knew her.
‘It’s not like we want to do stuff like that,’ the woman told her friend.
‘Of course not,’ her friend agreed. ‘It’s the last thing we’d want to do if there was any choice in the matter.’
Soon afterwards Johnny ran into some people he knew from the factory, Ralph, Angela, Mike and a few more, who were going to get a drink. Johnny had always been a bit of a loner, a bit on the edge of things, and people like that wouldn’t normally have thought of asking him to come along, but at a time like this you stuck together.
‘You coming for a jar Johnny, my old mate?’ said Mike. ‘I think we deserve one after all that, don’t you?’
They found a big bar in the city centre and began to drank quickly, their thirst not easily quenched. And while they drank, Screen gave out more news. There would definitely be more Names, it seemed. More would be announced next week.
‘Well,’ grunted Ralph, who’d been near the front when the Price was paid. ‘I just hope they get it right when they name these Names.’
Mike looked sharply up at him.
‘What do you mean?’ he demanded.
‘Well, if they Named the wrong people, it would…’
Ralph’s voice tailed off. Everyone looked at him, dismayed.
‘What exactly are you saying Ralph?’ asked Mike coldly.
His voice had a warning edge and he looked round significantly at everyone there to confirm that he was speaking for all of them and that he counted on all of them for support.
‘You want to be careful, Ralph mate,’ Mike said. ‘If I didn’t know you better I’d think you didn’t care about Jenny Sue.’
‘Yeah that’s right!’ said Johnny, seeing a chance to establish himself. ‘You want to watch what you’re saying, Ralph. If we don’t go after the bastards that let her die, that poor little girl will have died for nothing.’
Ralph looked a bit scared.
‘Of course I care about Jenny Sue,’ he said indignantly. ‘I’d lay down my own life if it would bring her back.’
‘Oh that’s a lovely thing to say,’ exclaimed Angela, who liked to make the peace.
‘And anyone who let her die,’ Ralph went on, ‘deserves everything they get.’
Mike was mollified. He reached out and warmly grasped his friend’s hand.
‘That’s better, Ralph my old mate. That’s the good old Ralph we know.’
But here’s the funny bit of the story. When Johnny was staggering home with seven pints inside him, he ran into six big blokes with shaven heads, stripy tops and cudgels. They came straight at him and he tried to run but he just couldn’t manage it with all that beer in him.
‘Steady! Steady!’ they told him, laughing as he wriggled and squirmed in the grip of two of them.
There was a law man over the other side of the street and he was laughing too. And even Johnny gave a rueful smile, because of course he knew these blokes were government men and were only doing their job.
‘You don’t need me to tell you who we are do you, son?’ asked the chief of them, a great neckless barrel of a man.
‘No you don’t, mate,’ Johnny said. ‘I know who you are. You’re the press gang and it looks like you’ve got me fair and square.’
‘That’s right mate,’ said their leader, ‘we’re the press gang alright, and my name’s Bobby Grab.’
He put on his special electric glasses and reached out his fat hand so that Johnny could give him his government card.
‘Johnny,’ Bobby Grab read out, ‘Johnny Jones. Works in the blanket factory for two hundred crowns a week. Well this is your lucky day Johnny Jones, because in this job we’ve got lined up for you, they’ll pay you twice that.’
‘Oh,’ said Johnny, very surprised, ‘so what service is that?’
‘The Welfare, mate. They’ve had a bit of a recruitment problem lately for some reason, so they’ve had to get us on the job. Which means you’re pressed mate. Five years national service in Welfare. Could be the making of you.’
Johnny’s face was white.
‘The Welfare? You’ve got to be kidding me. I don’t want to be in Welfare!’
‘Why not mate? Why on earth not? The money’s good and you’d be doing important work. Protecting children, protecting innocent little ones. What could be better work than that?’
‘But… But look what happened to that Welfare today… I was there… They… We…’
At this Bobby Grab’s face grew dark.
‘What are you saying Johnny boy? Are you saying that David Simpson didn’t deserve what he got? I find that hard to believe, I must say, after what happened to that poor little Jenny Sue.’
‘No, mate. of course not. ‘
‘Would that little girl have had to suffer if he’d done his job?’
‘Of course I’m sure.’
‘I should hope you are. Otherwise what were you doing there, as I could see on your card, helping out at Lavender Grove this afternoon? What were you doing there if that was a man who didn’t deserve it?’
‘I’m not saying that.’
‘Well I’m relieved to hear it, mate.’
‘But… I might not be any good at the job. That’s what I mean. I might not know what to do,’
The gangman laughed indulgently.
‘You’re forgetting something, mate. You’re forgetting what always happens when a little child dies like Jenny Sue. First the Public Accuser does the Naming and sees that the Price is paid. But what comes next, eh? What comes next?’
‘Um… I… er…’
‘Then comes the Healer, doesn’t he?’ the gangman reminded him, as if he was talking to a child. ‘The Healer comes in, dressed in white, just as Accuser comes dressed in black. And Healer looks into it all doesn’t he? And he listens to those who know about these things, and he makes new rules to ensure that it will never ever happen again. You must know that, mate! He does it every time!’
Johnny nodded yes, he supposed so. Truth be told, you didn’t pay so much attention to these things after the Naming and the Price were done. And it wasn’t on the Screens much either.
‘Trust me, my lad, that’s how it works,’ said Bobby Grab, indulgently pinching Johnny’s cheek between a fat finger and a fat thumb, as if he was a kind old uncle and Johnny was a little boy.
Bobby turned his neckless head to look at his men.
‘I’m right boys, aren’t I?’ he asked.
‘Spot on, boss, spot on.’
‘So what I’m saying,’ the gangman went on, ‘what I’m saying is that by the time you start work as a Welfare Officer, Healer will have come, and he’ll tell you just what to do, and then all you’ll have to do is do what he says and you’ll be fine. Beats working in a blanket factory every time if you ask my opinion. And it’s not as if you’ve got the build for oursort of work.’
He beamed round at the big men around him. All the gangmen laughed.
‘Just listen to the Healer, Johnny, and you’ll be fine,’ advised Bobby Grab, and he nodded to his men to let Johnny go.
‘Take the week off,’ he said. ‘That’s the law. A week on full pay. And then you’ll get a letter telling you what to do. Alright? You won’t play silly buggers will you? You know that we’d only come and find you? ’Course you do. And anyway when you think about what I’ve said, you’ll realise that this could be just the chance you need. After all a fair-minded young fellow like you wouldn’t have gone to the lynching if you didn’t know perfectly well that any half-decent human being could do a better job than Officer Simpson. It wouldn’t really have been right.’
He gave Johnny a hearty slap on the back to send him on his way, and then the gang headed off into town looking for more young men and women.
Johnny headed home. But all the way he kept noticing the Screens with their promises of new Names next week. And he dreamt that night that he was alone at the bottom of a well, like poor little Jenny Sue.
Copyright 2010, Chris Beckett