Short Fiction by Tim Footman
This is a story about a young man called Stanley Pidd.
Stanley Pidd’s parents would never admit that he had disappointed them. Such an admission would be unnecessarily cruel. On the other hand, neither would they pretend to be proud of him. What would be the point of that?
His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a doctor. He had an older brother, who was studying to be a doctor; and a younger sister, who rather thought she might want to be a lawyer when the time came. When Stanley was about 14 or 15 or 16, his parents asked him if which he wanted to be, a lawyer or a doctor.
“Neither,” said Stanley.
“Or a dentist?” asked his mother. “Or an architect?”
“No thanks,” said Stanley.
His parents looked at each other, slightly concerned. “Erm… a teacher?” asked his father, a slight quaver appearing in his voice.
“Not really,” said Stanley. “I think I’d like to be a musician.”
“A musician?” said Stanley’s father, the lawyer. “But we sent you to piano lessons.”
“And you gave up after two weeks,” said Stanley’s mother, the doctor. “And we’d paid a month in advance.”
“I don’t want to be a pianist,” said Stanley. “I want to be a musician. Not all musicians are pianists. I can play three or four tunes on my ukulele. Shall I show you?”
While Stanley played his tunes, his mother looked in her big books to see if he was suffering from some kind of illness. His father looked in his big books to see if he was breaking some kind of law. But they couldn’t find anything.
“Give him a few years,” said Stanley’s father.
“Yes,” said Stanley’s mother, “he might come to his senses.”
“It’s just a phase,” they both said at the same time, and they both smiled uneasily.
Stanley didn’t come to his senses. After he left school, he got a job in a café, cooking sausages and pouring tea and picking off the dried-on bits from the ketchup dispensers shaped like tomatoes. Then he got a job selling tickets in a cinema, then a job cleaning windows. Then he got a job as a dog walker.
He still played his ukulele in the evenings, but he never really called that a job. By now he could play more than three or four tunes on his ukulele; about eight or nine, in fact. He was in a band with his friends: Luther, who played the melodica; Doreen, who played the drums; and Cuthbert, who played the tuba. The band was called Cuthbert and the Bottom Feeders, and they occasionally got gigs in the back rooms of smelly pubs that weren’t quite in Camden. Stanley’s favourite song was called ‘C’mon Babycakes, Let’s Do The Wilhelm Scream (Slight Return)’. There was a ukulele solo in it. Someone once yelled “WOO, STANLEY!” when he played it, which was nice.
Then, after a gig supporting a folk-metal band called Spleen of Harpenden, Cuthbert announced that he was leaving the band to become a rabbi. Luther wanted to call the band Luther and the Bottom Feeders, but Doreen and Stanley just wanted to call it the Bottom Feeders, and they had a big fight on the bus home and that was the end of that. If a music journalist had asked, they would have said that the split was down to musical differences. But no music journalist asked. Stanley worked out that in all his time as a Bottom Feeder he had made almost enough money to pay for a new set of strings for his ukulele if they were on special offer. He missed Doreen, although he wouldn’t admit it.
Then Stanley lost his job as a dog walker. Times were tight, said his boss, and people were walking their own dogs, or just letting them stay at home watching daytime TV, or maybe getting goldfish instead, or just doing without. Stanley tried to go back to his job as a window cleaner, but now there were no window-cleaning jobs because times were tight. People were washing their own windows, or letting them get dirty, or just doing without.
So he went to the office where they give you money if you haven’t got a job. The big sign outside read ‘Job Centre’. The sign on the door read ‘Social Security’. He went inside, and saw a sign reading ‘Jobseekers’ Allowance’ and another sign reading ‘Welfare’ and yet another reading ‘Signing On’.
“Where am I?” asked Stanley.
“You’re in the Dole Office,” said a lady with scarlet hair. The badge on her beige blouse said ‘Department of Work and Pensions and Stuff’.
The lady with scarlet hair asked Stanley if he was working, and he said: “No, I’m not working”. She gave him a form that asked him if he was working, and he ticked the box that said ‘No, I’m still not working, honest’.
“Does anyone ever tick the box that says ‘Yes, I am working’?” he asked. It was a sort of joke because he knew that if you ticked the box that said ‘Yes, I am working’, you wouldn’t get any money. The lady with scarlet hair gave him a strange look. Stanley wondered whether that was the sort of thing you just don’t say, like talking about bombs at the airport check-in.
The lady with the scarlet hair pressed a few keys on her computer keyboard. Her nails almost matched her hair, but not quite.
“There’s a vacancy that might suit you,” she said. She wrote something down on a piece of paper. “Call this number. Ask for Mr Bland.”
So he called and asked for Mr Bland, who told him to come to his office in not-quite Soho at seven minutes to ten the following morning.
Stanley Pidd was very careful to make a good impression and arrived at nine minutes to ten. He had polished his shoes and flossed his teeth and ironed his shirt and shaved his face and blown his nose and drunk three cups of rather strong coffee so he wouldn’t fall asleep during the interview.
He gave his name to the receptionist and sat down on a big leather chair. There were some magazines around: Fruit News; Fruit Monthly; You and Your Fruit; Yo! Frootz, the Magazine for Young Fruiterers. He picked up a copy of You and Your Fruit and began reading an article about maximising the shelf life of lychees. He’d eaten lychees once, in a Chinese restaurant. They were OK, but he’d preferred the egg fried rice. They’d given him a fortune cookie. “IT’S JUST A PHASE,” it had said.
He looked at his watch. It was now seven minutes to ten, and there was no sign of Mr Bland. Music was playing very softly, but he couldn’t work out where it was coming from. It was a cover version of a song by the Bee Gees, played on panpipes and a vibraphone. He wondered if a ukulele might make it better. He flipped over a few pages of You and Your Fruit and began reading an article about persuading people in Gloucestershire to eat more raspberries. The photos of the raspberries were nicer than the photos of the lychees. He made a mental note of that. Maybe that could be the sort of relevant observation that would impress Mr Bland. “Personally, I find that raspberries are more photogenic than lychees.”
He looked at his watch again. It was three minutes to ten. He tried to work out the chords for the Bee Gees song. A door opened and a short gentleman came out.
“Stanley Pidd?” he asked. Stanley nodded. “Hello,” he said, “I’m Mr Bland.” Stanley wondered whether Mr Bland had seen him looking at his watch and whether he’d minded. Would he think him impatient? Or maybe eager, which was better. Nobody had ever described Stanley as eager before. Eager Stanley. King Stanley the Eager.
Mr Bland asked Stanley to come into his office. There was a lady sitting behind a desk and Mr Bland went to sit next to her, and asked Stanley to sit opposite them.
Mr Bland and the lady – he introduced her as Ms Heggie – had pieces of paper in front of them. Stanley could see his name at the top of the pieces of paper, although of course, it was upside-down. The pieces of paper also had pictures of Stanley attached to them, and they were upside-down as well. Stanley wondered where they’d got the pictures from. He hadn’t given a picture to the lady with the scarlet hair.
“Do you like fruit?” asked Mr Bland.
“Yes,” replied Stanley. He knew that wasn’t enough, and tried to think of something more interesting to say. “Yes, yes I do.” He thought back to the magazine articles. “I find raspberries especially… likeable.” He hoped the subject of lychees wouldn’t come up. Doreen had been at the Chinese restaurant, and she’d smiled ever so slightly when he admitted that he’d never eaten lychees before.
“Raspberries, eh?” said Mr Bland. “Good, good.” He paused, then said “good” again, but a little more firmly this time. Stanley wasn’t quite sure what it was that Mr Bland thought was good. But at least nothing seemed to be bad. Or if it was bad, Mr Bland wasn’t saying.
Stanley noticed that Ms Heggie had been staring at him intently but still hadn’t said a word. While Mr Bland was asking about what exams he’d taken at school, Ms Heggie stood up and came around the desk to where Stanley was sitting. Slowly, deliberately, she ran her right thumb down his cheek. Mr Bland stopped talking and looked up at her expectantly. Stanley kept his eyes fixed on Mr Bland. This hadn’t happened when he went for that job as a dog walker.
Miss Heggie nodded a little nod, and Mr Bland smiled a smile that was only slightly larger. “Raspberries are all very well,” he said. “But I wonder if you have any opinions on – nectarines.” He paused before “nectarines”, and said the word firmly, the same way he’d said “good”.
Miss Heggie had returned to her seat, but she continued to gaze at Stanley’s face.
“Er… nectarines,” he said. Actually, he’d have preferred lychees. He’d done lychees. At least he had an opinion on lychees. Nectarines were… well, what? “They’re like peaches, right? But a bit like plums as well. A sort of plummy peach.” Ms Heggie and Mr Bland said nothing. “Peachy plum?”
Suddenly Mr Bland stood up and proffered his hand. “Stanley,” he said, “I’d like to offer you a job here, starting tomorrow at twelve minutes past nine. I hope this is acceptable?”
Stanley was so startled by the offer that he accepted, without asking about pay or hours or gym membership or share options or what the job actually involved. He just knew that it was something to do with fruit and that Ms Heggie approved of his face.
That night, Stanley Pidd sat on his bed, strumming his ukulele. When he’d been in a band, Cuthbert the tuba player had written most of the songs. Now, for the first time, Stanley felt the urge to compose one of his own. He strummed a chord.
“Doreen,” he sang, and almost blushed as he did so, even though there was nobody else around. “Doreen… I’d give you my last nectarine…” It was a start.
Still keen to make an impression, Stanley arrived considerably ahead of time, at four minutes past nine. Mr Bland met him at reception, and guided him down a corridor, in the opposite direction from his office. At the end was a heavy steel door, which he opened by tapping a combination into a keypad. Stanley was impressed, and more than a little nervous.
On the other side of the door was a long table, with several sealed crates on it. Mr Bland took a knife from his suit pocket, and Stanley became even more nervous.
“Don’t worry, Stanley,” smiled Mr Bland. “I just want to show you something.” He sliced through the seals on one of the crates. “We were talking about nectarines, remember.”
Stanley nodded. He noticed that Mr Bland’s knife was a Stanley knife. Stanley. Knife. Was this whole thing a big joke? Stanley wasn’t very good with jokes. He always thought of something funny to say, but about three minutes after it stopped being funny. The loud kids at school had been better, faster. Mr Bland began to open the lid of the crate but seemed to change his mind. Banter, they called it. “You said that nectarines are a sort of plummy peach,” said Mr Bland. “And that’s about right. It’s a peach with a smooth skin. But do you know how they get that way?”
Stanley thought back to his biology lessons at school. He hadn’t paid much attention in biology; he’d spent much of the time drawing spaceships and thinking about the ukuleles he’d seen in the music shop window. But he did remember something about genes and evolution, although for some reason he thought that had more to do with peas than peaches.
“Is it in their genes?” he asked, trying to sound like a contestant on a TV quiz show who is absolutely sure of the answer, but wants to sound a little bit unsure so he doesn’t seem too arrogant. His father sometimes did that. “Wasn’t it Churchill who said…?” he’d say, even though he knew damn sure it was Churchill (although once it was Oscar Wilde).
“Well, that’s how it used to be,” said Mr Bland. “A recessive gene, to be precise. But something dreadful has happened, I’m afraid. A blight. A mutation. The world’s nectarine crop has been reduced to nothing. The nectarine is no more.”
Stanley was confused. He was sure he’d seen nectarines for sale the previous day at his local branch of Tesco, although other supermarkets are available. But he said nothing. Mr Bland smiled and took a small, tissue-wrapped object from the crate. He handed it to Stanley, who unwrapped it, revealing a peach. He ran his thumb over the fuzzy skin.
Mr Bland put his knife down on the edge of the crates and reached into his pocket. He produced a cut-throat razor, which he also presented to Stanley.
“Ms Heggie was rather taken, Stanley, by the remarkable smoothness of your shave,” he said.
Stanley looked down, to the peach in his left hand, the razor in his right. He thought he understood what Mr Bland wanted him to do, but the image that came into his mind was so strange that he still needed more confirmation. He looked up at his new boss. Mr Bland, he realised, looked a little like Stanley’s father. But a version of Stanley’s father without the exasperation, without the sense of deep disappointment in what his son had become.
“Go on, Stanley,” said Ms Heggie. “Shave that peach.”
So Stanley Pidd started to shave the peach. It’s funny, he thought, how you don’t really consider shaving as a skill. It’s not the sort of thing you learn at school, where you get a certificate. In fact, he couldn’t remember how he did learn to do it. Wasn’t it the sort of thing your dad was supposed to teach you? He pictured his own father again, but not for long.
He knew that some posh barbershops would give you a proper shave, with lather and hot towels and cutthroat razors. He even knew that the thing they used to sharpen the razor was called a strop. He remembered seeing a Western movie on TV one afternoon when he was off school, having pretended to be suffering from something non-specific. Three or four barbers in colour-coordinated waistcoats had sung a soppy song while shaving the hero; then when the black-clad, stubbly bad guy appeared, they’d run away. On second thoughts, maybe that was a Two Ronnies sketch. Stanley’s father liked the Two Ronnies. Whenever there was a repeat of their show, he said, “Oh well, at least the Two Ronnies are on tonight.”
The Two Ronnies did banter, of course. But they had scripts to work from, didn’t they? They didn’t come up with the funny punch line three minutes after they were supposed to have said it. “It’s goodnight from me,” said a Ronnie. “And it’s goodnight from him,” said another Ronnie. “But that means the second Ronnie never says goodnight,” piped up Stanley. “That’s rude, isn’t it, daddy?” Stanley’s father sighed and went back to reading his paper.
The Two Ronnies are dead, both of them.
One of the reasons that Cuthbert had left Cuthbert and the Bottom Feeders was that Luther wanted to incorporate more banter as part of their stage routine. Cuthbert thought it was enough to announce what the songs were called and to say “thank you very much” every now and then. But Luther wanted to say things like “Woah, hello Peckham!” and “I can’t hear you!” and even “Rock and fucking roll!” which Stanley thought was going a bit far. “There’s a lady present,” he insisted, and Cuthbert and Luther laughed and Doreen looked a bit embarrassed.
Maybe if he’d got the banter right, if he’d known what to say, none of that would have happened and Cuthbert and the Bottom Feeders would still be together.
Sometimes he thought he saw Doreen on the bus. But it was always someone else.
He looked down at the peach on the table before him. The fuzz had gone; it was bald; it was now a nectarine. Ms Heggie leaned over and rubbed the surface with her thumb, just as she’d rubbed Stanley’s face. She turned to Mr Bland and smiled.
“You may think this is all a bit odd, Stanley,” said Mr Bland. “But what we do here is very important. Do you know about Five A Day?”
Stanley nodded. “It’s about eating more fruit,” he said. “And veg.”
“That’s right,” said Mr Bland. “Except that nobody likes veg, so we have to stick to fruit. And if people were to find out about the nectarine blight, they may get nervous about fruit, and stick to eating kebabs and processed cheese slices and Neapolitan ice cream. Then they’d all die of constipation and scurvy and where would we be?”
Stanley nodded, then wondered whether he should have shaken his head, or shrugged, or sighed, or something else. Mr Bland continued.
“So our job is to convince people that eating nectarines is still part of a busy, fulfilling, upwardly-mobile lifestyle. And we need someone like you to ensure that people still think they’re eating them. But you need to keep this work completely confidential. Can we count on you, Stanley? Can we?”
And so Stanley Pidd began working at the nectarine factory. It wasn’t as much fun as dog walking, he decided, but it was better than cleaning windows or cooking sausages or selling cinema tickets to old ladies who wanted to know if this was the film with the good-looking lad from that thing on the telly about lawyers, you know the one. He never saw anyone else apart from Mr Bland and Ms Heggie; every morning he would go to the basement and find several crates of peaches, which he would shave, and place in different crates, while the fuzz went into a big plastic bin. After four hours he would go to lunch and when he got back, the shaved peaches and their fuzz would be gone, and there would be a new pile of crates for him to start with. Every now and then he’d notice that someone had sharpened his razor. Probably with a strop, he thought. And after another four hours, he’d go home.
One day, about three or five weeks into his time there, Ms Heggie called out to him as he was leaving. “Perk of the job,” she said, and smiled, handing him a bottle. “ARTISAN PEACH SCHNAPPS,” it said on the label. “Well, what do you think we do with all that fuzz?” she said. Stanley took the bottle home and poured a glass for himself. It was nice. He had another, then went to bed, dreaming gently of Doreen.
In the morning, he had a slight headache, but he still went to work. “We don’t want everyone to die of scurvy, do we?” said Mr Bland. “Or constipation,” added Ms Heggie. Stanley nodded. But something was troubling him.
At lunchtime, Stanley went to a sandwich bar nearby. He always ordered the same thing – corned beef and Stilton with Branston pickle on wholemeal with the crusts cut off – but none of the staff seemed to remember. He wanted to go in and have the man behind the counter say, “the usual, sir?” but it never happened.
As he was leaving, Doreen came in. Her hair was different, but not necessarily better.
“Stanley!” she said, in a way that made him think she might be pleased to see him. “I’ve missed you. What are you doing now?” she said. Stanley was about to tell her, then remembered that what he was doing was Top Secret, so he needed to tell A Lie.
“I’m a dog walking consultant,” he said. He wasn’t sure where that had come from or what it meant, but it seemed to satisfy her. “What about you?”
She looked uncomfortable. “I’ve started another band,” she said, not looking directly at him. “With… with Luther.”
“Luther,” said Stanley. Not “Luther?” or “Luther!”, just “Luther”.
“Yes,” said Doreen. “You see… Luther and me… well…”
After that Stanley wasn’t sure what happened. The next thing he knew, he was back in the basement. There was a crate, tipped over and spilling nectarines on the floor, and the remains of the corned beef and Stilton and Branston pickle sandwich were smeared on the wall. He went to Mr Bland’s office. Mr Bland wasn’t in, but Stanley knew where he kept the schnapps.
“I’m just popping out, Ms Heggie. Need a bit of fresh air.”
“Yes, it’s a bit stuffy down there, isn’t it?” said Ms Heggie. “I’ll get someone to take a look at the air conditioning.” There was no air conditioning.
Stanley wandered around for about half an hour, taking occasional discreet sips of schnapps. Eventually, he found himself at Trafalgar Square, next to the fourth plinth. Stanley knew this was where they put up different sculptures every few months, but there was nothing there at the moment. Just a ladder. He took another sip of schnapps. More than a sip.
“People of London Town!” he shouted. He hadn’t realised how high up he was. The wind whipped his words away, but a few people heard him and looked up, blank, curious. One or two raised the phones to film him. A man with a silver face, who had been standing perfectly still, looked slightly annoyed, as the people were meant to be filming him, and giving him money.
“People of London Town!” repeated Stanley. “You are being lied to. There are no nectarines left. They are nothing but bald peaches. The nectarines all died. Like the dodo. And… and cassettes! They are lying to you. To make you eat fruit. Bald peaches!”
The people below were silent. A few more raised their phones. Then someone shouted, “LIARS!” It was the silver-faced man. Someone else shouted “LIARS!” as well. Then someone shouted, “FAKE NEWS!”
They all looked up to Stanley on the plinth. Stanley wasn’t quite sure what to do next. There was a bit of a breeze up there but he still felt hot.
“Doreeen…” he sang, his voice weak and cracked. “I’d give you my last nectarine…” He didn’t have his ukulele with him, so he strummed the air. The people below stopped filming him with their phones, and started filming the silver-faced man, who was still shouting, “LIARS!” Then someone else shouted, “Let’s get the lying bastards!” and began chanting, “LIARS!” and “FAKE NEWS!” and “DOWN WITH BALD PEACHES!” They started off down Whitehall with the silver-faced man at the front, still shaking the bucket for people to give him money. Stanley knew the Prime Minister lived in that direction. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the second verse of the Doreen song.
“It’s a difficult situation all round, Mr Pidd,” said the lady with scarlet hair. “On one hand you broke the terms of your contract, specifically the confidentiality clause. On the other hand, you could be classified as a whistle-blower, regarding a government cover-up, so you really shouldn’t be penalised. On the other hand, in the ensuing riots, over £10 million worth of damage was done to government buildings and five senior government ministers were made to stand naked on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square while people threw nec… uh, peaches at them.”
That’s three hands, thought Stanley Pidd, but he didn’t say so. They were back in the Job Centre. The government had fallen. Fruitgate, they were calling it. It had been in all the papers. He had been in all the papers, standing on the plinth with his eyes closed, and the telly too. “THE QUIET REVOLUTIONARY WITH A TASTE FOR AIR UKULELE,” said the headlines. Someone said he was a meme. At the height of the riots, Doreen had phoned him and told him she loved him, but he’d cut her off and thrown his phone away.
“So, we cannot punish you,” continued the lady with the scarlet hair, “but at the same time, we cannot be seen to reward you. Obviously, the Department of Fruit Repurposing is no longer operational. But we do have another role that may make use of your skills.”
He was given an address and told to turn up at three minutes to ten. The address was very close to the old office, in fact, once he got inside, the whole place seemed very familiar. And when he’d gone down a couple of flights of stairs and along a couple of corridors, he found himself in the very same basement where he’d shaved the peaches. Except now there was air conditioning.
Even the man showing him around looked familiar, although his hair was parted on the other side. “I’m Mr Bland,” he said. “But not that Mr Bland. Obviously. He had to, er…”
“Are you his brother, or something?” asked Stanley.
“Um, yes,” said not that Mr Bland. “Something.” He led Stanley towards two large crates. “Let’s see what you can do with these,” he said, opening them. Inside one there were several cans of green paint.
And in the other was a large pile of cauliflowers.