Preamble – This is a short story about how change happens, and a moth.
A white moth fluttered into a witch-hunt. It settled on a window pane that spilled light into the emergency cabinet meeting. Nobody noticed it. All eyes were on the Prime Minister, who was the only person who wasn’t sweating. As a billionaire, he didn’t need an expense account.
‘I’m sure you’ll all agree: we have to make an example of someone!’ The Prime Minster said.
There was a heartbeat of silence. Eyes darted from person to person then everyone started speaking at once.
‘But I swear I only used the money to hire a designer…’ Said the Minister for the Interior.
‘And I only claimed money to pay someone to clear my guttering, I can’t go up a ladder at my age!’ Said the Minister for the Exterior.
‘And I need a place in the city.’ Said the Minister for Urbanisation.
‘Ladies. Gentlemen. Please, don’t worry…I have spoken to the chief whip and I’ve made my decision.’
‘But, Prime Minister, please I feel I must say something.’ The minister for Justice spoke and the Prime Minister frowned. The Justice secretary was young, handsome and ambitious. The qualities the Prime Minister admired in himself and hated in others.
‘This hasn’t happened over night’ The Justice Secretary continued, ‘I’m pretty certain no-one has broken any rules…the guidance is clear.’
The Prime Minister shook his head ‘Martin please, we’ve been over and over this. The guidance may be open to interpretation. Yes, people are entitled to claim for ‘reasonable living’. But, as you well know. There is a recession on. The people. The people don’t see it as fair and it jolly well isn’t. And, we have an election to think of after all’
The Prime Minister said, staring him down.
‘As I said, an example must be made.’ He looked around the table, sensing any other dissenters. Most looked away, except the man from the treasury, who merely nodded sagely as the Prime Minister looked at him.
‘The Chief Whip and I agree. The biggest abuser is Norman Shift. The press are already running an expose on him. I will be telephoning him this afternoon.’
And it was done. The name was out there. Everyone nodded and talked to their immediate neighbours, agreeing explicitly with the direction. An example needed to be made, and if you needed a good example of a free-loader Norman Shift was as good as you could get. The fact that he wasn’t there as well, just made it easier. As the excitement faded away, the white moth fluttered off and out of a small gap in the bomb-proofed Victorian window.
Norman Shift was a conservative back-bencher from the black-country. He came into politics at a time when men were self-made and righteous and called to politics to make a difference.
‘I bloody told you…I’ll give it to ‘em. I’ll give those fat cats what for’ That was what he’d said when he left Solihull. He went to London to save the car industry. But he didn’t. He’d given that up as quickly as his accent.
‘I told, I fight for you. I’m one of you. You know it.’ That was his general line with the electorate, whom he engaged with as infrequently as possible. But after the headlines, he couldn’t avoid it. He’d only been at the civic hall for five minutes and he was already sweating heavily.
‘My friends, all I can tell you is that I’ve been treated badly by the system. I get up at 5am every morning and I work till 11 every night.’
The crowd murmured angrily.
‘So do I?’ A man with curly black hair and faded denim shouted ‘I don’t get to claim for heated dog blankets!’
Norman watched the upset ripple across the crowd. From the front to the back, People stood up and gestured at him. Norman waved his fat hands; his sausage fingers wobbling like his chins.
‘No. You don’t understand. I know it looks bad. But please, if you look at it from my point of view. I haven’t had a pay rise since 2004. The expense account, well it’s like my pay rise. You want me to be well paid don’t you? You want me to be rewarded for what I do for you? I fight for you. I’m one of you?’
‘You don’t look like us.’ A woman with a face creased from years of smoking shouted. ‘You don’t sound like us neither.’
‘What do you earn? How much, go on tell us?’
Norman. Big Norm folded his arms across his large chest.
‘I’m not going to answer that and I’m offended that you should want to know.’
‘He earns £65,000 a year’ volunteered a young man from the Solihull Chronicle. Norman left not long after, just before the first chair got thrown.
‘Who the bloody hell told them what I earned?’
‘Freedom of Information’ His Special Advisor told him ‘People are entitled to know what a public servant earns.’
‘No they’re not. It’s rude.’ Norman put his cigar out on the bark of a poplar tree. They were behind the civic centre, waiting for a taxi to drive up the long, muddy back lane.
‘How much longer are we going to wait here? People saw me leaving, that awful man with the hair could come out here at any moment.’
The Special Advisor shrugged, lost in that day’s copy of the Daily Mail. Norman looked over the top of his glasses.
‘How bad is it?’
‘£5,000 for dog yoga? Is that in the public interest?’ He was a young man with a ginger complexion and upset radical disposition ‘£2,000 to treat Mr Pickles’ Depression!’
Norman patted himself down. He was certain he’d put a hip flask in his jacket before he’d left the flat in Westminister. ‘Mr Pickles has an electrolyte imbalance, he was very low for months. It caused Julie no end of worry!’
The hip flask wasn’t there. Norman grunted for himself and turned on the Special Advisor.
‘Listen. I told you before, everyone was doing it. It was fine. The expenses office saw every single claim I made…’
He stopped. Suddenly conscious of a weight in his jacket pocket. For a brief second his mind returned to the hope of his hip flask. But then it vibrated and he took out his phone. He looked at his Special Adviser, mouthed the Letters ‘P’ and ‘M’ and pressed it to his ear, which was already sweaty.
‘I see. But Prime Minister, I assure you, everyone was doing it.’ He changed the phone to another ear. ‘But they were. Oh. Oh I see. Well, I suppose I should thank you…an inquiry. That will give me the chance to prove I’m in the right!’
When he put the phone back in his pocket his Special Advisor was gone. Norman stood there alone. Looking around the empty yard. Everything was covered with mud and blackened from an old garage where they had converted old cars that ran on leaded petrol into unleaded. It was a messy business. All the red brick walls and the one, dying poplar tree were covered in soot.
Norman wiped his brow. Putting his phone in his pocket. He stopped, steadying himself on the tree. As he watched, the white mouth fluttered down. It stood out brightly. Peppered white on sooty black bark. Without a moments hesitation Norman squashed it with the palm of his hand. Then he walked out through the mud to find a taxi.