The New System
The blue van slowly turned off the main road and parked gently on the corner of the side street. It sat there for a few moments until the passenger door swung open, and a man wearing blue overalls with an identity badge on the right breast pocket came out. He stood for a few moments before the open door and spoke a few words into the inside of the van, nodding his head in reply to the person inside. Then he reached inside and took an A4 sized file and closed the door looking around about him, comparing notes with the information contained in his A4 file. He thumbed through the pages slowly and with consideration, browsing graphs and pie charts, codes and statistics, then looked up at the houses around and seemed to look at one house for a few moments, then with resolution he made his way towards it. The house was a couple of doors away from where the van was parked and it took him about thirty seconds to make his way there, all the while looking around assiduously.
He stopped in front of the gate swung it open gently and walked the few yards down the path to the front door. He gave three simple gentle knocks, a few moments later the door opened.
“Good morning Madam. I believe you are Mrs Todd.” he waved his clipboard at her with a self effacing air and smiled a smile that was all things to all people yet seemed to contain a multitude of meaning.
“Oh, er, hello, have you come to read the meter?” the lady asked, always feeling somewhat caught off-guard by men in overalls knocking at her front door.
His smile increased its element of benignity “No madam.” he paused allowing time to for the lady to relax and assess him.
He resmiled, a smile that radiated confidence:
“Nice day isn’t it?” he said, and it sounded like it had always been a nice day, that it always would be a nice day, and that nice days were the only possible kind of days available, until the apocalypse itself, that perhaps, that alone, might not be a nice day, although it couldn’t entirely be ruled out, not given the strength of his smile.
Despite his smile, the lady in her dressing gown frowned and eyed him with suspicion.
This it seemed wasn’t the required response that the man in the blue overalls with the badge and the clipboard expected so he said again, with increased emphasis, looking around and breathing in noisily
“By God it sure is a nice day!” he looked deep into her eyes seeming to peer into her, “My name’s Terrence Smith, but please call me Terry.” He paused, a pause that explicitly didn’t require a formulaic ‘pleased to meet you’ answer, a pause that was like reclining in a chair after a good meal, it was a pause that wasn’t going anywhere and didn’t expect anyone to go jumping over any fences. Mr Terry Smith wanted Mrs Carol Todd to feel at ease, and above all, not to go anywhere.
Mrs Todd followed Mr Smith’s eyes around her familiar street, his eyes seemed to delight in the most mundane and familiar parts of her neighbourhood. He smiled at the children skipping off to school, he gazed at Mrs Agger’s unremarkable floral dress as if they were the very robes of the Queen of Sheba, her rather tired and anxious face as if she were the equal in beauty of Queen Nefertiti herself. He gazed at the pock marked, hump backed tarmacked road with a rapture that might ordinarily be inspired by the majesty of a Veronese polished marble avenue, it seems he delighted in all he saw, even smiling indulgently as he heard a mother scream, “You’re asking for a clout”, at an evasive little girl. Mrs Todd followed his eyes and tried to follow his feelings of joy but all of this was far too well known to her, that road had seen the death of a 5 year old boy from up the road as he had run out trying to catch his pet cat and been knocked down by a woman driving while using her mobile phone. As for him being impressed by Mrs Agger, she put this down to him not having met her, she was shabby and common and her seven year old daughter frequently smelt of wee.
He seemed to read her thoughts because after having drawn a sufficient draught of bliss from the street he added languidly:
“Of course I’m an outsider, I don’t really know this neighbourhood but I’d sure like to. You know this is just one street out of hundreds in this town and this town just one of hundreds in this fine country, so many people all with their lives and stories to tell.”
He shrugged in that self deprecatory way, “yeah maybe I’m a bit soppy but it makes me glad to be a part of this country. You know what I mean?”
From his lips this common piece of rhetoric had an unusual almost undetectable subtlety, like the question mark was scarcely non existent and just a nicety, the real meaning of the sentence was an imperative : “know what I mean!”
“Just breathe in that fragrant morning air.” He breathed in noisily and his eyes seemed to light up, “just enjoy the notes of the morning.”
Mrs Todd, was tired after just having sent her kids off to school and was currently fighting feelings of the suspicion and resentment that this strangely picaresque meter-man’s calling had initially stirred in her heart, however there was something in his diffident, confident and happy manner that told her that she could put her guns away, that it was not necessary to arm herself with weapons of fear and distrust, that he would not hurt her, that if anything he wanted to help her. She breathed in the ‘fragrant morning air’ under his instruction and tried to enjoy the ‘notes of the morning’.
He realised he had made a mistake, and for a second he stirrings of anxiety in his heart, however he knew that he must crush these feelings as he had been taught, otherwise they would totally unravel him. He consoled himself by telling himself that he had taken a risk, an unnecessary and dangerous risk but a risk that might yet pay dividends. By now in his mind it was no longer a mistake but a subconscious tactic that so far from doing harm, may yet make a winner of him. What he had done was to become carried away, and instead of proffering a relaxing and meditative metaphor suited to her social position and her tastes, he had either accidentally or providentially used a sweetener that he should have saved for the detached and semi-detached new estates and the leafy avenues of the old villages out of town. It was unlikely that she was a wine lover, in fact his notes said it was an impossibility; in their trash only two bottles of wine had ever been discovered and this was over the Christmas period and the two bottles of wine were a flatly fizzy Italian grape based drink, the weekly presence of numerous lager cans however alerted their profilers to their preferences and therefore to the appropriate script which their street agent should follow. He had deviated from the script, now his client, the street, the town, his job, his security, his house his life and his soul hung in the balance and all could be lost. That’s why he loved this job.
Mistakes such as these could so easily turn the tide against the agents by alienating the resident and creating anything from a sense of minor confusion to outright hostility, or in other cases senses of inferiority and wounded pride, it all depended on the resident’s particular psychological makeup and whether or not they’d had their breakfast yet.
Mrs Todd smiled all the same, assuming that there was some wisdom and sense in the idea of smelling music, she was at heart a nice person and by now she almost liked Mr Smith, she already trusted him.
Mr Smith realised that he’d got away with it and thanked his stars that the dear old Mrs Todd was either poetically minded, or was still languishing under the crushing pre war burden of heading ones betters. Then he bit his metaphorical lip, and became generous, maybe she was a nice person, it happens, sometimes, he thought. That made his job all the more pleasurable.
He glanced around one more time then added, almost hidden in a whisper, “what a nice day!”
“Yes, it is isn’t it?” Mrs Todd said slowly, “but it’ll rain later.” she said, the quickly, “It was in the Telegraph.” by way of substantiation.
They both settled into a silent reverie, this was exactly where Mr Todd wanted them to be. They were in no hurry to go anywhere, it was a frozen moment and the time was ripe with the silence of expectation.
“So Mrs Todd” he began.
“Please, call me Carol” she said shyly, exactly the response he predicted and had elicited. He smiled broadly, he could afford to flirt, in fact he was paid to, he knew from his records that her husband was away working on the oil rigs, in this was the reason she’d been singled out by the psychometric programme. The programme had told their organisation that she didn’t work and apart from her children and the very occasional visitor she would be alone and that perhaps she would feel it and would therefore be more willing to chat with a stranger, another bonus was her guaranteed independence in the household, since her husband was frequently absent it was she who made all the decisions in the house.
“Well Carol, let me tell you what it is we’re doing here, we’re doing a preliminary run around this area, preparing the ground and letting our customers know what’s going on.”
Carol decided that perhaps he worked for the cable TV company.
“Now, some people are born lucky, do you know what I mean? I think you’re one of those people Carol.” She blushed because she did indeed consider herself lucky.
“I’ll tell you why I think that, well it’s because you have been chosen to have a free fitting next Wednesday.” He paused to add weight to the news. “You’ll be the first of your block to have the new equipment and it won’t cost you a penny. I don’t want to sound cheesy Carol but I must say congratulations, really, this thing’s gonna change your life, in fact it’s gonna change everyone’s lives.” He looked serious and friendly for a moment, then continued breezily:
“You know it seems these days that everything comes from London eh? New TV shows, the new fashions, the big food fads, the politics” he paused, then joked ..” and the houses prices, eh? It’s like the country’s gone mad at time, and London is the central lunatic asylum.”
“But this time, for once, it’s gonna start here, in the North. The new equipment will first be fitted all over the north of England before descending down south. That makes a nice change doesn’t it?”
Carol smiled, “They did the same thing with a new soft drink, It was fluorescent in colour and quite fruity, it was available in all the shops but only in this town, it was dead cheap too. Then it disappeared. They said they we were a testing ground but everyone I knew liked it, why did it totally disappear then? My nephew reckons it was full of bromide or something, to curb the teenage pregnancies, but I don’t really take him seriously: he’s been to university y’see.”
They both laughed at this but Mr Smith took the opportunity to reassure her that in his experience all the conspiracy theories are just that, theories and nothing more.
“Wouldn’t you like to come in Mr Smith, I’m afraid the house is in a bit of state, the kids have been playing as you can see.”
“Thanks you very much Carol, that’s good of you.” Mr Smith followed Carol into the house. The room was small but cosy with a large television in the corner, the colour scheme was turquoise, ‘the wallpaper of the universe’ he thought to himself. On the floor various children’s dolls and figures were scattered about, some lying face down others bent and on their backs their eyes wide open, he thought that it looked as if there’d been a dispute in toy town and that all the doll’s had fought to the death and now their corpses lay bent and buckled on the battlefield. Carol directed him to sit down and asked him if she could make him a drink, he asked for a cup of tea with two sugars. He smiled as Carol went off to make tea and reclined comfortable on the sofa; when she was gone he seemed to freeze, his eyes half closed and sat there rigidly still while Carol made the tea, frozen in a meditative half trance.
He heard her coming back from the kitchen presently clinking the tea cups together, he opened his eyes and adopted a relaxed easy posture.
“We can have our fitters next week, how does that suit you?” he smiled.
“Well sure, ok. But what’s it for?”
He paused, “Well Carol, I don’t want to overstuff the turkey but it’s gonna change your life, it’s going to change everyone’s lives. It may well change the world.”
“Heck! How much will it cost me?”
“Nothing, not a penny Carol, not a bean, it’s a way of saying thank-you to our loyal clients.”
“Oh well that’s nice.” She sipped her coffee, “Clients? Are you from the cable company then?”
“No Carol, not the cable company.” He said flatly and said no more, Carol wanted to ask which company but something in his tone told her that somehow that wouldn’t be the right thing to say.
Mr Smith sipped his tea. “That’s a good cup of tea Carol. You must be psychic, that’s just how I like it, not too milky not too stewed, perfect.”
“Well that’s how I like it too, I like to taste the tannins too, they’re supposed to be good for you, anti-oxidants and all that.”
“Yeah, like red wine, or so they reckon. Anyway Carol, the reason I’ve come to see you before installation is just to check my records, it’s not a big deal I’ve just got to ask you a few quick questions then I’ll be on my way. Is that ok?”
He opened up his folder, there were two distinct sections, one in transparent plastic which contained a list of questions appropriate to the householder, (this particular edition of questions for example did not ask about her ‘favourite brand of caviar’ or ‘driveability of the Rolls Royce Phantom’ but that edition did exist) the other folder was an opaque blue and contained all the information currently available on Mrs Todd herself, this was for referral in the field and the researcher was instructed to guard it with his life.
“The first question I have to ask you is Carol is, let me see, how long have you lived in this house?” He knew the answer to this one, in fact he already knew the answer to all of the questions he was going to ask, he knew that Mrs Carol Todd had moved in 8 years ago and that before that they had rented a flat above a laundrette. He knew also that Mrs Carol Todd’s mother had died at around the same time, and that this particular event had put some strain on Mr and Mrs Todd’s relationship and since Mrs Todd was, like many people, moderately superstitious, she couldn’t help drawing conclusions about the coincidence of the two events arriving so close together. Mr Smith knew much more besides, he knew that Mr Todd and Mrs Todd were, despite the professed difficulty of living apart, secretly more than happy to have the freedom to take in only small doses of each other when they looked around and saw that their friends’ love was wearing itself out slowly into something like a comfortable but faded pair of pants that when new were worn with pride when going out, and now were worn around the house to clean the floor.
He knew all of this from talking anonymously to Carol’s friends, a few well targeted appropriate questions here, a couple of free drinks in they told her anything as long as they didn’t suspect it’d get back to them, It wouldn’t get back to them.
“Er let me see, we came here in 04, so that makes it 8 years ago, 8 years ago in May. Is that ok?”
“Fancy that, isn’t life strange.”
“I moved into my house, lets see, yes, it must be eight years ago too, I moved in March though.”
“Really, my first child was born in March, Becky, she was eight last March, she would have been born when you were moving in.
”Yes” Mr Smith smiled, watching her closely “Incredible, when I was moving in you were in hospital,” he paused “in labour” He said looking straight into her eyes and smiling, he registered a slight shiver as Mrs Todd recalled the event and the pain, “Everything ok Mrs Todd?” he asked quickly.
“Yes yes, it was nothing.”
“What was nothing?”
“Er..” She broke off in confusion,
“Are you an animal lover Carol?”
“Yeah I love animals.”
“Are you a dog person or a cat person?”
“I prefer cats, dogs are too much trouble I think.”
“You prefer cats.” Then under his breath he added “Urghhh I can’t stand the mangy little bastards.” “Why do you like cats? what makes cat’s so great?” He had momentarily abandoned the nice guy smiley act and was now showing a different face, he seemed a little angry and antagonistic as if Carol Todd’s fondness for cats was personally offensive to him. Carol faltered a little, surprised at Mr Smith’s sudden transformation, then she found strength and gave Mr Smith his attitude right back in his face.
“I could ask you what makes dogs so great! Stupid great slavering beasts they are, anyone I know who’s got a dog, it’s like their house becomes a giant dog basket, there’s hair and slaver everywhere. You go around for a meal, you spend your time picking thick oily black dog hairs out of the prawn cocktail. At least cats don’t get in your dinner.”
Mr Smith smiled, secretly pleased with the result, “A very strong character” he thought to himself, “a model client, someone we can count on.”
“Yeah I suppose I do find a few hairs on my plate sometimes..” he trailed off.
“Do you have a cat now?”
“Yes.” Carol answered, with a hint of toughness as if she would defend the good name of her cat to the death, “she’s called Molly.”
“When did you get her?”
“We’ve had her about three years. We used to have a cat called Tommy but he used to kill racing pigeons, I think someone must have had enough because we never saw him again. He used to bring these great big racing pigeons into the garden worth hundreds of pounds they were. I used to feel terrible about it, anyway whoever it was got their revenge in the end, we found him in the gutter outside with his tongue lolling out. Poisoned no doubt.”
“Rotten bastard.” Said Mr Smith sympathetically.
“Well what would you do? If I was losing hundreds of pounds a week worth’s of racing pigeons I think I’d do the very same thing, I love cats of course but you know, you’ve gotta put yourself in their place.”
“How many cats have you had since moving in?”
“Well first of all there was Oscar, he got run over, then Knick and Knack, they both got cat flu and died then Tommy who you know about and now Molly.”
The questions were actually a series of Trojan horses, the actual answer to the questions was, as such unimportant since it was already known, what was important was the way it was answered, the length of time it took to answer the question, any signs of hesitation nervousness, uncertainty or nervous tics that the answer elicited, now that was the gold that the man known as Mr Smith was prospecting for.
It was next Wednesday as promised , when the fitters came to install the equipment. Carol considered it odd that she didn’t even know what it was yet but then she thought maybe it was a kind of surprise and a reward, like the man had said.
She expected to see Mr Smith but was somewhat surprised and disappointed to see that the man in the identical blue overalls and clipboard but a different identity badge on his right pocket, was not Mr Smith. He was carrying a large television size box.
“ ‘ello love, wiv’ come to fit y’box, as arranged.”
He came into the house, “It goes in the attic love, can you show me the way.”
“Of course, wouldn’t you like a cup of tea first?”
“No time love no time.” He answered almost before she had finished her question. “Wiv’ got the ‘ole street t’do before sundown.”
“Oh fair enough.” She took him upstairs and pulled out a small aluminium ladder.
“Is there anything you need?”
“No love, I can manage now, I’ll be outa y’hair in about ten minutes.”
That night Carol was sleeping deeply enjoying the most wonderful dream. In her dream she had driven up to town, parked just outside the town centre to save a bit of money on parking and walked into town. It was a nice sunny day and as the automatic doors opened she saw a familiar figure seated by the waterfall amidst the palm trees. It was her late mother. Carol walked slowly towards her, she hadn’t seen her for years, even her memories of her seemed to fade day by day but here she was in the flesh, so it seemed. Suddenly there was a knocking sound:
“Mummy, mummy, I can hear a funny noise.”
Carol woke up. “What’s that sweetheart?”
“There’s a scary noise in my room, at the window, I’m scared can I sleep with you?”
“What kind of noise sweat-heart?”
“It’s a window noise, someone’s making a noise at my window.”
“It’s just the wind sweat-heart.”
“I’m scared can I sleep with you?”
“Ok darling come in.”
Becky clambered into her mother’s bed and cuddled closely to her. Carol wondered about the strange vividness of her dream, as she drifted off to sleep she realised that it was the first time she’d ever had a dream in colour.
The next night Becky was heard crying in her room, Carol had dreamt of her mother again, it was a very strange dream, it had seemed terribly real and when Becky’s crying woke her up she had the remorseful feeling of being taken from her mother’s arms.
Her heart was beating, there had been something real about her mother, there were things that she had said, predictions about the future including an accident at the rig but that her husband would be ok. And that she musn’t blame Frank for her mother’s death, it was her mother’s time to go and now she had a husband to look after her.
As she walked into her daughter’s room she heard her daughter, not crying as she had thought, but laughing and squealing with delight.
“Mummy there are cats everywhere!”
The room was full of cats, There were four cats all running around the room, what was more, they all seemed familiar to Carol. One of them looked like Tommy, then there was a fat tabby who looked like Oscar then a black cat who looked like Knick and a ginger cat who looked like Knack. It was very strange that they all looked like cats that Carol had had in the house. But now they were dead.
Then just as suddenly all of the cats disappeared leaving carol totally dumbfounded.
“Are they our cats mummy?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“They are our cats mummy because. I know Knick and Knack have come from heaven to see us again. Why have they come back?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if they were Knick and Knack, they just looked like them.”
“Can I sleep with you again tonight mummy?”
The next morning she awoke as always before the alarm to see her daughter still clinging to her. She felt good and clearheaded. She didn’t know what was going on with the cats, and why they would all want to come into her daughter’s room.
She didn’t know what was going on but it seemed connected to whatever had been fitted in the attic, though God only knew how, and she was determined to find out what was up there, once she’d taken Becky to school.
On their way Becky met her friend Jude walking with her older brother John.
“Guess what Becky!” Jude said running towards her.
“My Tommy came back to me last night.”
“Yeah, my poor doggie ‘oos in heaven.”
Her brother John chided her:
“Stop telling that stupid story Jude. I’ll tell mum if you don’t shut up.”
“I don’t care tell mum, it’s true, my Tommy came back to see me from heaven.
He was very cold but he was very happy to see me and he was wagging his little tail and barking. He came back to see me last night very very late at night when it was very creepy. I was scared.”
Becky looked at Jude as if she’d set down a challenge that she had to meet and with pride she answered it.
“Well, my Knick and Knack came to see me yesterday too but I wasn’t scared.”
“I bet you was Becky.”
“Well I’m going to ask your mum if you was scared.”
“Oh you lot are crackers! You should be in a mental ‘ome.” John said in exasperation.
Carol looked at Jude, “Well Jude we did see some cats that looked like Bubble and Squeak but I don’t think it was them really.
“Ask her I don’t care I wasn’t scared.”
Jude turned to Carol Todd who was walking behind them as they skipped on.
“Becky’s mum, was Becky scared when she saw Knick and Knack come back from heaven?”
“What you on about Becky? Have you lot gone mad or summats?”
Carol looked at Jude, “Well Jude we did see some cats that looked like Knick and Knack but I don’t think it was them really.”
“It was mummy! of course it was!” Becky cried out.
Carol dropped Becky just outside the school gates noticing that all the children around seems to be holding the same conversation and it was all about the pets that they saw last night that were dead before but were back now.
Carol returned home feeling a little startled, but she made herself a cup of tea and put her feet up and asked herself what it could mean.
There was a knock at the door.
Standing there was a man wearing the now familiar blue overalls with a grim expression on his face.
“Oh good morning Mrs Todd, I’ve got some bad news I’m afraid we’re going to have to do a product recall on the unit we fitted last Wednesday.”
“Oh, well I suppose that’s ok, I don’t even know what it was for.”
“Well we won’t trouble you any more after this, we’re going to have to do some retinkering.”
“Oh I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well never mind love it’s one of those things. There were some safety concerns with it so we’ve been ordered to do a nationwide product recall.”
When he was gone she felt perplexed and despite questioning the blue overalled man intently, was left none the wiser by his techno-jargon laced ambiguous responses.
And so the community just put this minor mystery behind them… or under them, a small pea of discomfort which they seemed to feel against their skin and was always present as a certain understanding between them…. when in fact they understood next to nothing of the mystery. But they accepted one thing at least. That it really did happen and they had seen it.