GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2018/19
EITHER THERE WOULD BE A RAT, or most of a rat, on the back doorstep that morning, or there wouldn’t. That much was certain, Annie knew. But which would it be? Lately the odds seemed to have been increasing: she was finding body parts and sticky viscera staining the flagstones every two or three days. She lived alone, was not a cat person, tolerated no pets at all; but earlier that summer a neighbour’s ginger tom had inexplicably set out to woo her with small birds and field mice. Now, as the air and the leaves began to crisp, his love tokens were becoming meatier, and more frequent.
She made her way downstairs and into the kitchen. She crossed to the fridge and opened it, taking care not to look out through the patio door. She’d need tea before rodents.
So what were the chances? Forty percent?
There’d been no rat yesterday. Did that increase the odds today? At work, Davy had once tried to explain the difference between dependent and independent events. A tossed coin that turned up heads a dozen times in a row was no more or less likely to come down tails next time. She could ask him about it later that morning, if she wanted; he’d be at DMT.
There was a tail, it turned out, still attached to the back half of a rat, its haunches sleek and buttery; there was a head, too, an inch or two apart and set curiously at ninety degrees to the rest of the corpse; and a liver, also neatly separate; the whole collation resembling some deconstructed meat dish drizzled with a blood jus. There was no sign of the torso. Why would a cat crunch through ribs and forepaws, but leave the thighs?
That was love, she supposed.
On the way to work, between the station and the civic centre, she would pass the Post Office, outside which a queue would already be forming. Opposite the head of the queue, by the litter bin, would be a man, yawing like a dinghy on a rolling sea, his protuberant belly half-tamed by filthy braces over a filthy shirt. When he saw her approach, he would stick out his unsteady hand. Or he wouldn’t. He wasn’t there every day. If today he was, she would drop whatever coins she had in her purse into his hand, and he would shake them gently, as if sifting for counterfeits, as if saying – although he would say nothing – is that the best you can do?
She shouldn’t. Not in her line of work. She should direct him to some suitable advice agency. But what would that make her? Mrs. Thatcher said no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he hadn’t had money. Not that she’d compare herself to Thatcher. Dear God, no. But would we remember the Good Samaritan if he’d handed out cards for the Alcohol Advice line?
In the office, as she removed her trainers and slipped into heels, Julie said, “Clive’s office rang. He’s stuck with the Leader and probably won’t make your one-to-one.”
“That’s what they said.”
Which, in this rare case, meant certainly. Which meant she had an hour she wasn’t expecting and could read the DMT papers after all. Or clear the emails she hadn’t cleared last night, when she’d fallen asleep with her iPad on her face. Or both, if she really put her mind to it.
How likely was that?
There was a book on her desk. She’d heard that reading a poem before starting work each day helped clear the mind. She wasn’t sure she believed it. Christopher would have spat blood at the idea. But Christopher wasn’t here, was he? It was his book, though. Had been his book; it was clotted with his marginalia. Innocence is no earthly weapon, she read. Well, possibly. To be honest, she couldn’t make much of this one, this poet. God came into it a lot, and history, but most of the time it made no sense at all. She would chuck it, choose another. There was no shortage of poetry.
Christopher. Bearer of Christ.
“You’re so predictable,” he’d said, and died. As if anything were more predictable than that.
She fished her iPad from her shoulder bag, opened the agenda pack and began flicking the pages up through the screen with her thumb, too fast to read. Minutes. Matters Arising. Q2 KPIs. Restructuring the MASH. PA project update. Ofsted preparations. AOB.
PA. Predictive Analytics. Davy’s crusade.
It was ten past nine and already she felt tired.
When she’d left college they had family social workers and no computers. They got to know the mums, sometimes the dads. The uncles and the aunts and grannies if they had to. They spoke to teachers, GPs, lollipop ladies. They looked at the children in the round, they said, spotted the signs. That’s what they said. Of course she knew it wasn’t true. It was the seventies, for pity’s sake. The kids were being raped and battered whether they spotted it or not. Now half the social workers she employed were temps who didn’t know their colleagues, let alone their clients, going wherever Davy’s precious algorithms told them to. There were computers everywhere, now, and he was hoovering up all the data he could lay his hands on. School attendance. SATs. Predicted grades. Health records. Library records. Benefits claims. Consumer credit. Rent arrears. Housing repairs. A tenant with repeat repairs to internal doors was highly likely to be a victim – or a perpetrator - of domestic violence. Why? Because Daddy’s punching the walls, that’s why. Obvious when you think about it, but they hadn’t, had they? It wasn’t enough, of course, not on its own. But Davy said if you pulled all this stuff together you could start to predict who was most at risk. Then you could intervene before it happened.
At which point, someone always said, “Like Minority Report?” Which was supposed to kill the idea dead, but Annie had never seen Minority Report. Davy would patiently explain why it wasn’t like that.
“You can’t know for certain,” he always said. “If you’re certain, you don’t need a prediction. What we give you is a degree of confidence.” Being Davy, he meant it in a technical, statistical sense. But these days, Annie thought, they needed all the confidence they could get.
It had been years since she’d met a parent or a child, other than in court.
After the meeting, she ate M&S sushi at her desk.
It had also been years since she’d had lunch with anyone else, other than for the purpose of management development.
“You should get out,” Julie said, although it was Julie who had been to M&S. “You’ll be here till all hours with Scrutiny.”
It was true. That afternoon Annie had a meeting with the auditors, then with the MD of a chain of residential care homes; a one-to-one with Geraldine; briefing the Cabinet lead; Scrutiny Committee. She wouldn’t leave before ten, wouldn’t be home before eleven, where she’d drink a large glass of white wine if the day had been good, a glass of Scotch if it hadn’t. Tomorrow she would do the same, or something very like it. She scrolled through the diary on her iPad. It was full for weeks ahead. She could predict now – barring disasters, barring unexpected death, not necessarily her own – where she would be every minute of every working day between now and Christmas.
And the weekends?
“You’re so predictable,” Christopher had said, as if it were an insult. It was an insult: everyone knew that. He’d been trying to hurt her. He didn’t mean he could guess what she would do. He meant he was bored with her. A woman who could be relied upon to live an exciting, admirable life would never be accused of predictability. It was an insult reserved for people whose choices he could not only foresee, but disdain. Her parents had been predictable. She was predictable. It was nothing but snobbery, really. But honestly, Annie thought, wasn’t predictability just another word for character?
Shopping and the gym on Saturdays. Rowing, steps, weights; repetitions. Church on Sunday. The Lord be with you. And also with you.
He hadn’t just died, of course. Not when he said it. But it had been the last thing he said to her, à propos of what precisely she couldn’t now remember, before stamping off to give a lecture on Hardy and collapsing at the lectern, which no one had seen coming. He never recovered consciousness.
A good death? It was certainly quick, for him at least. Annie had to wait a couple of days before the doctors would broach the subject of turning off the machines. They said they’d leave her alone for a while. There was no hurry. He wasn’t going anywhere. Had that been a joke?
“Christopher, Christopher,” she had said aloud. “What have you done now?”
At her desk, a grain of rice stuck to her lower lip, she thought: I will die too. It wasn’t a prediction.
As the afternoon wore on she found herself nodding without listening to the auditors, allowing the care home manager’s words to slip past unattended. It was not unusual. She knew what they were saying, more or less. Probably. Davy could put a number to it, or a confidence interval, at least, a range within which the true import of their words would fall.
If she could say when – the minute, the hour, the day, the year, even – that would be a prediction, and it might not be wrong. Prediction was a percentage game, that’s what Davy said. A gambler won’t win every time the odds are in his favour, but he has to keep making those bets to come out ahead in the long run. Which was also what Christopher said about the poker he’d played two nights a week for years before he died. Not for the money, Annie thought, but because he thought it gave him a hinterland. It made him feel like David Mamet.
So bloody predictable.
She should have known that he would die first, that she would be alone. That was just the way things were. Actuarially speaking. But surely there should have been some years of retirement together first? Holidays in Renaissance cities. Mediterranean cruises. Not cruises. National Trust gardens. Whatever.
Scrutiny was over quicker than she’d feared. There was football on TV and the members had no desire to string it out. She was home by ten, shoes off, wine poured.
A good day?
Not a bad one, despite the rat.
And tomorrow? And the day after?
Whatever it says in her diary, she will be alone. And that will be all right. She will live another twenty years, or thereabouts. She will retire. She will travel and read and pray. She will have good days and bad days, but nothing immoderately awful will happen. She will be happy, sometimes. A few of the children she has worked for will grow up to have lives not unlike hers; most will not. She will die, in due course. Her church professes salvation by grace alone, but manages somehow to stop short of predestination. She will be all right.
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