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Short Story

At The Turnpike

Daryn Green tells a tale of partial philosophical redemption.

This is a story about a group of friends. There was Paul: a young, tall, thin, bespectacled, rather bookish chap, who tended to look down his nose at the world. There was Cheryl: a blonde of early middle age who possessed a rather sharp manner. There was Gerald: a burly, balding man with a demeanour indicative of stubbornness and belligerence. There was Olivia: a pale, ebony-haired beauty who appeared greatly sensitive – about herself, at least. Lastly there was Vince: a young, slim chap with short ginger hair, who always seemed to show a surfeit of pent-up energy and a naïve liking for his own oratory. This group were remarkable in two ways. Firstly, they shared a passion for face-to-face philosophical debate. Secondly, and more rarely (let us hope), although they all called each other friend, just beneath this pretence of bonhomie lay they all positively loathed one another. After every gathering, they would each be in a fury at the others’ comments and insinuations, privately vowing to sever their ties with the group once and for all. But always, after a month or so had passed, the need for the combat of debate would regain the upper hand, bringing them back into the ring. And so the meetings continued, on and on, as they had done now for several years.

As regards the gathering pertinent to our tale, young Vince had done the organising. The Turnpike pub had been selected, owing to general curiosity regarding its recent refurbishment. The refurbishment was so recent that when Vince and Gerald arrived, they saw that the decorators had left a building site’s worth of dust and debris on the floor. One of the staff was in the process of sweeping it up with a wide broom.

They bought their drinks, selected a table, and it wasn’t long before the others turned up. It was the group’s custom to let the organiser choose the first topic, and so, once settled, they turned to Vince, who immediately proposed the God debate. There was reluctant agreement – reluctant because after Vince’s usual tactless anti-religious address, an impasse would inevitably ensue between Vince and Gerald on the one side and Cheryl on the other, with Paul and Olivia, as agnostics, keeping mostly out of it and looking rather bored. Predictably, after only a short while it culminated with Cheryl stridently asserting, “Without God, how could you possibly explain our freedom to choose? How could you resolve the dichotomy between freewill and determinism? You can’t, can you?”

Vince, off his chair, poked an aggressive digit at Cheryl: “Tell me Adam and Eve really existed! Tell me there wasn’t a Big Bang! Go on, tell me!” Olivia intervened, with only qualified success: “Well, I want to talk about the murder of our farmyard animals – that’s the really big issue, isn’t it?”

Gerald disagreed: “Let’s sort out the human problems first – which can only be achieved by getting the workers in charge of production!”

“But the workers aren’t actually being murdered, are they!” shouted Olivia.

“Nooo…” said Gerald slowly, in the manner of an adult explaining something obvious to a small child, “not in this country at least. But we have a higher consciousness than animals, don’t we? So, to maximise happiness…” He was interrupted by Paul, who let out a derisory snort, accompanied by the remark, “Oh no! ‘Greatest good for greatest number’! Tsch!” This was typical of Paul. Often tongue-tied, he would resort to rubbishing ideas without revealing his own position. Gerald, however, had the benefit of prior experience, and was somewhat inured to this tactic. He leant forwards, sighed deeply but belligerently, and said, “Well, let’s have the greatest misery for the greatest number, if that would make you happy!”

“But we’re talking about murder with these animals!” Olivia continued.

“Well, technically that’s begging the question, isn’t it: using the word ‘murder’?” put in Vince, who had finally come to terms with the fact that the topic had changed.

“So pedantic!” said Olivia petulantly. But then, feeling that she had been put on the back foot, she presented a charming smile towards Gerald and Vince. Cheryl couldn’t resist saying, “Well; let’s discuss animal rights then; although we ladies shouldn’t have to flutter our eyelashes to argue the case, should we?” Olivia was furious; but they were interrupted by the man sweeping the floor: “’Scuse me”, he said. They lifted their legs so he could sweep up the worst of what was under the table.

Normality quickly resumed as Gerald took his chance: “You see – Marx had it right. Bosses are basically vampires, sucking our labour to get their surplus value. So we’re bound to suffer under this present system! Now in my opinion –”

“In your opinion”, interrupted Cheryl, sensing an escalating tirade, “we should all be materialists with no spiritual life or personal freedom, all dressed the same, like clones, and worshipping Big Brother!”

“Did I say… any… of that?” retorted Gerald theatrically. “Anyway, Big Brother is a corruption of Marx. We all know that.”

“But … utility… no… um,” Paul had interjected, immediately struggling for words – a struggle he won for a sentence: “Morality, social organisation… must be about… principles, and… personal dignity, not just… crude equations!”

“Well, that settles it,” declared Gerald sarcastically, “Let’s have no plan at all, and let the disadvantaged go to the wall. Would that make you happy?”

Paul pointedly looked away.

“’Scuse me,” said the cleaner, now carrying a mop. As the group again gave him room to work, Vince formulated an attack: “But let’s not forget, communism has done some terrible things to people, and to the environment!”

“Yes!” chimed in Olivia, “Exactly! Let’s think of the effects on the planet!”

“That’s not it,” was Vince’s rejoinder, “it’s a matter of politics. But we’ve got to think of future generations too, and watch what sort of disrupted, depleted world we’re dumping on them.” This was typical of Vince. He would refute someone to make himself feel the expert, then expound a position just like the one he’d just rejected. But before Olivia could retaliate, Paul, being unusually talkative, chipped in with, “Oh, utility. Here we go again. Please no! Tsch!”

“Oh come on! I wasn’t even talking about moral systems,” said young Vince: “Anyway, what I said stands whatever system you believe in.”

“Yes, don’t be so silly Paul,” put in Olivia. Although she was still mad at Vince, her beliefs obliged her to take his side: “It doesn’t matter what system does it – so long as we care.”

But before Paul could formulate a response, Cheryl said, “Yes Paul; you really must keep your comments more pertinent to the case.” She resented his clinging to a topic (although she did it herself), and keenly aware that he was presently outnumbered, was determined to kick him while he was down. After a brief pause she continued, wheeling out her own hobby horse, “Anyway, if you’re concerned with principles to guide moral choice, ask yourself how we have freedom to choose in the first place. It’s miraculous – if you think about it properly, that is.”

“’Scuse me,” said the cleaner. They all glanced up, but seeing no mop they assumed his words were directed elsewhere, and they all looked away again.

“’Scuse me,” said the cleaner once more. Their glances again failed to find a mop. However, this time they realised the cleaner was trying to talk to them. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. I hope you don’t mind,” he said. The man looked so genuine that they all murmured that they didn’t mind.

The cleaner was a short wiry man with wiry yellow hair and a great horseshoe moustache that spoke perhaps of motorbikes or Viking-related fantasy games; but for a would-be raper and pillager he had very kindly eyes. Briefly dipping the mop handle towards Cheryl, he said, “’earin’ you say about freedom to choose got me thinkin’. We are free; but we don’t have absolute freedom, do we? I mean, look at me. I’m an Arsenal fan, and nobody ever forced me to be one. But I s’pose its only’cos my old man supports them, really.” Normally Cheryl would react against any challenge, no matter how well-intentioned; but inhibited by the layer of politeness they felt obliged to show towards outsiders, and badly distracted by the gloating expressions of her companions, for once she was struck dumb.

Oblivious to the reactions he was stirring, the cleaner continued, “And when you” – he indicated Paul – “were sayin’ about moral principles. Yeah, there must be summin’ in that. But don’t principles have a lot to do with consequences too? I mean, they’d be strange principles otherwise, wouldn’t they?”

Paul, unsurprisingly, was also lost for words. But as he stared forwards, he was both reddening slightly and shaking. The others quietly enjoyed his discomfort.

“And – but I hope you don’t mind me just buttin’ in – when earlier on you” – he indicated Vince – “were talkin’ about God, I was thinkin’: yeah, we should question our beliefs. But the really religious people I know don’t treat religion like it’s just a theory. For them it’s a’ole way of life.” Vince was so keen to retaliate that he was already half out of his chair, but the cleaner continued: “And then you” – he indicated Olivia – “talked about us killin’ animals. Yeah, I love animals too. But then, if we didn’t eat’em, they’d never have lived at all, would they? All the fields would be arable, I s’pose.” Like the others, Olivia was stung by the inadvertent challenge. But she wasn’t going to stick her neck out when so far the others had said nothing.

By now the only person who felt positive about the cleaner’s intervention was Gerald. Although he disagreed with him about religious beliefs, he was still filled with the sense that here at last was one of the ‘salt of the Earth’ – a downtrodden proletarian risen up to talk some plain common sense to his bourgeois, seriously out-of-touch acquaintances. And so he got the worst shock of all of them when the mop handle dipped once more and singled him out: ‘‘And your comments about Marx,” the cleaner continued, “Well, I’m all for equality, where it’s possible. And we owe the unions quite a bit, I s’pose. But as it’appens, I like my boss, and my job. Well, mostly. Certainly hated being unemployed.” Gerald was nonplussed by this betrayal by a member of the working class, so for him too, the words would not come. In any case, the cleaner quickly continued in disarming fashion, “But, I dunno. Don’t mind me. I may well have it all wrong. No way of knowin’ for sure, is there?” He smiled and shrugged; and with that he went back to mopping the floor, quite unaware of having caused any sort of fuss.

As he moved slowly away, they thought, ‘The nerve!’, or ‘The effrontery!’, or ‘Who on Earth does he think he is?’ Then it gradually dawned on all of them that they had all had their pet theories seriously undermined. They all felt so self-conscious that nobody wanted to say anything, for fear of being overheard.

Finally Cheryl spoke, her voice stilted and a little louder than close conversation strictly required: “Look at the time! We were going to meet… er… John, at The Golden Bell?” She looked meaningfully around the group.

“Yes,” muttered both Vince and Gerald.

“Yes, we’d better get going, hadn’t we?” put in Olivia.

Trying to look casual, they drank up, and with a limp “Goodbye,” from Vince, they filed out of the pub, trooped round the corner, and marched straight through the front door of The Bell. They bought drinks, found a table, sat down, then unanimously, and predictably, set about roundly condemning their new enemy, resorting to every trick of sophistry they sensed the company could swallow. But then the most incredible thing happened, although they were hardly aware of it at the time. So united and passionate were they in their irrational dislike of the guiltless, guileless cleaner, that when they restarted their debate, for the very first time they began to try and look with sympathy at each other’s positions. Long atrophied aspects of their inner natures began to be reinvigorated to the feeble pulse of life. And with this partial softening of their hearts, and incremental broadening of their minds, something on the road towards a genuine investigation into ideas began to emerge, like the thawing after deepest winter; like the dawning of a new day.

© Daryn Green 2015

Daryn is a carer, and also works as a supply teacher in North London.

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