“When did you last eat?” The woman’s voice was kindly yet matter-of-fact. The calm way her eyes rose from the paperwork to meet his suggested the case held no surprises for her.
“The day before yesterday.” William Stokes invested the reply with the measured control, all self-pity suppressed, he’d cultivated along the downward curve of the last few years. Don’t force the conversation: you piss them off when you pitch your plight higher than their ability to respond. Stokes had learnt that hunger, unless prolonged for days, was not such a big deal. In some ways it was purifying, almost narcotic, allowing your mind the wings that a diet of carbohydrate would ordinarily deny it.
“Why haven’t you eaten?”
“Can’t afford to.”
“Do you budget for food?”
“I have no budget. I owe £20,000 to the building society, two years council tax arrears, no income. I sleep rough.”
“Do you work?
“I can’t focus on anything. I had jobs but I couldn’t keep up.”
“Job Seeker’s Allowance?”
“I’m not fit for work. Missed an interview, so I got sanctioned.”
“Emigrated? Died in last year’s unrest? Maybe they have no internet access, same as me.”
“What does your doctor say?”
“That he can’t help. He hints that blood tests revealed something but I’m not within their reference range for treatment. Says there’s a lot of it about, it’s not well understood, treatments are experimental and the drugs are scarce. I’m not yet a serious enough case. Tells me to go down the public library and cheer myself up re-reading the archived copies of the Daily Gruel, reliving the life of our glorious leader who led us into a land of unfettered markets in which poverty is but a bad memory.”
“Did you try that?”
“I told him I can’t re-read them because I was never able to read beyond the front page headlines back in the days of choice. Hardly spirit-lifting. Is understanding the free market essential to health? I’d ask him if I dared.”
Stokes remembered the medic’s look of judgement. He plainly regarded Stokes as obtuse or wilful, a bit of a difficult case. The doctor had impressed on him that the Daily Gruel was the only remedy left since the cuts and it had been quite good enough for millions. What made Stokes think he deserved special treatment? He should just get on with it. Didn’t he understand there was a crisis on and that we were all in it together?
Stokes had known what to say to that. Nothing. More will come of nothing with people like that doctor.
The lady wrote on a pad of headed paper and handed him the torn off sheet.
“Take this to your doctor.”
“To him? What’s this?”
“There’s a new policy that can only be unlocked by a referral from me or a vicar. None of those left so take this from me. It recommends you to your physician for a new programme that people in your position seem to benefit from. I don’t know much about it but there are hints that the trials are going really well. You need a bit of good luck. I think you may have found it.”
Six weeks later Stokes entered the surgery of Dr Brown, a country doctor long past retirement date, sporting an overly cheerful grin, stout brogues to match his name and a houndstooth sports jacket.
“Ah, Mr Stokes, what can we do for you today?”
“The CAB have asked me to give you this, Dr Brown.”
The smile relaxed slightly as the good doctor assumed a confidential air. “Ah, I see. So, you managed to persuade them that you need a bit more help, eh? Well, I think you might have made progress on your own with a little more effort, but it is not my privilege to argue in such cases.”
He reached for his pad and wrote a letter through a prolonged, mysterious silence, passing it to Stokes to read.
‘Dear Sir or Madam
I am referring William Stokes to the drug bank. He complains of hunger, a sense of alienation and victimisation, lack of money and prospects, chronic lassitude, generalised non-specific malaise. I can’t find anything organically wrong with him. He has not benefited from the Daily Gruel cure. I am afraid that neither I nor the social and medical services of Rightown have anything more to offer. Whilst he is not as compliant as I would wish, as his physician, he is well-meaning enough. I do hope you will be able to help him.
Peter Brown, MD’
“You don’t need an appointment. Just take it along to the town council house between 3 and 5 on Tuesday afternoon, press the buzzer for attention and wait in the upstairs room. I can assure you that no patient I’ve referred there has ever come back to me for further treatment! Give it a try. Nothing to lose, eh? I’m pleased for you. I couldn’t have opened that door for you unaided. So glad you went to the CAB. Good day, Mr Stokes.”
Stokes said nothing.
At 4pm in early January the council house was already dark. Just inside the doorway was a buzzer with a sign inviting him to press it for attention before making his way upstairs to wait. He complied. Some of the oil lamps had burnt out but he managed not to trip and fall where the banisters had been removed for firewood. He walked through the door frame into the upstairs room and sat, alone, at a formica table standing on worn, grey carpet. And waited, alone, till he heard the front door slam shut and a light footstep ascending the stairs with practised tread. A gaunt figure appeared in the door frame; he could make out a blazer with an indistinct circular motif on the breast pocket. The figure said: “Mr Stokes, we’ve been expecting you. Sorry it has taken so long for us to meet.”
“Who are you?”
“We’ve been watching your case, Mr Stokes. Wondering how long before you would visit us. Some make their way here much quicker. You’ve put up with a lot. Anyway, I’m glad to say your troubles are over. We had to stop running the foodbank. Too many hungry people. We ran an alternative solution for a while but it was … messy to implement. Fortunately for you our friends at Capsule Inc. have come up with a great alternative. They make a little money, we get to alleviate hunger and the mind’s quest for sense in the absurd, and you, Mr Stokes, are going to be a beneficiary. Doesn’t that sound splendid?”
Stokes said nothing.
The stranger flicked open his briefcase and tossed a pharmaceutical carton on the desk. “Three times a day. You won’t appreciate the full benefit of this cure unless you combine it with a thorough read through the Daily Gruel archive. Come back in three months. Goodbye.” And he was gone.
Stokes took up the packet and headed toward the empty warehouse by the river he called home. Nothing to lose. Stopped to take his first pill furtively at the old parish pump. Slept better than in years and woke without any pang of hunger. Up to the library via the pub. Read the Daily Gruel for the month of August 2002, and the front pages dedicated to the problems caused by foreigners.
‘Migrant health tourists force full-scale privatisation of our NHS.’
‘Lesbian migrants’ bastard brats take our kids’ school places.’
‘Black gay migrants buggered my bulldog.’
‘Trotskyite Transylvanian transvestites trussed me up like a turkey says decent, honest, white, male heterosexual in search of harmless fun while wife away on shopping trip to Bath.’
Stokes settled down for a good read for the first time in years. As the hours went by he felt a growing gratitude to the Daily Gruel, to Dr Brown, to the CAB, to the person at the town hall and in particular to our glorious leader for having saved the nation from a tide of foreign scum lapping at the White Cliffs of Dover.
It was great to be alive, British, free of hunger and fully happy.