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Mr Brown - a short story

On a dark and rainy day, recently, a representative from the Department of Social Security called at our home. We had been warned by letter that a visit was imminent and though we knew what day it was to be we didn't know exactly what time the interview was to take place. Then at precisely 9.30am there came a ring on the front door bell. Enter Mr Brown.

Once ensconced in an armchair in the sitting room Mr Brown lost no time in telling us that due to a "discrepancy" on the computer our long-term claim for benefit had not only to be cancelled but we were also in debt to the department for a large, but as yet unspecified, sum of money. You can say what you like about the wonders of the computer. It didn't do us any favours. Big Brother had been watching us.

The seventy-five pence awarded to pensioners by Tony Blair's "listening" government had done little to boost our respective pensions. We live modestly and buy our clothes from charity shops yet it had not escaped our notice that though we scraped by each week never going hungry, owing money to nobody, we were never going to go on a world cruise and if the boiler went kaput tomorrow it would make more than just a dent in our bank balance. This estimation of the nature of our standard of living was not something that obsessed us; it was no more than mere fact. Now the shattering news that our claim for benefit was withdrawn and that, meanwhile, we had been building up another debt had us mentally reeling.

Whilst Mr Brown went on doing his stuff I wondered about him. I am reluctant to describe his appearance. Smartly dressed, well-scrubbed politicians long ago sent me the message that a wholesome, outward exterior has little to do with what is going on inside a person. Let me just say this: his tones were reasonable. He didn't gloat. He even apologised for being the bearer of bad tidings. His manner was mild, his visage pleasant. He was somebody's son, brother, partner, father, nephew, uncle, I tried to remember. None of it was personal. His salary was the justification for the meting out of this kind of treatment. Had it ever crossed Mr Brown's mind that we had toiled all our lives on a restricted income only now to find ourselves in our sixties and still relatively poor? Was the representative from the DSS aware that there were rich, idle people who, though celebrated, made little, if any, contribution to this society except to flaunt their wealth? And did he know that there were businessmen who had embezzled thousands and nothing very detrimental had befallen them as a result?

Across the planet there are millions of Mr and Mrs Browns carrying out orders without ever thinking to question them. It is a common enough problem. What it all comes down to is your wages and salaries, your cars, your mortgages and your holidays abroad and if doing your job means that a few people must go to the wall then that is only what capitalism has taught us from birth. What matters most is the survival of the fittest and that attitude goes hand-in-hand with never stopping to think, never attempting to question the ethics of the work you are doing, why you are doing it and for whom? And because so few questions are asked wars are waged and people who have no vested interest in fighting them are killed or maimed and still children are dying of malnutrition.

Mr Brown tidied his papers, put them back in his briefcase and made ready to leave. "Now I will leave you in peace," he said. Because I am without words I wrote on my slate "PEACE" and held it up for him to see. He took a squint at it and said, "Sorry, I don't understand." Exit Mr Brown.

HEATHER BALL