Preamble – This is a story about the future of money, happiness and work. It is flawed from the get go because it projects into a future in which the UK has paper money not plastic, but go with it. I didn’t want to write it with dollars that would change everything.
Paper meant the world to Jerry and his world ended when they told him the bank was closing. All of his life he had sort the assurance of a role and the purpose that came from keeping account of things, numbers and the physicality of paper money tied him closely to the act of counting that it had become part of him long ago. Everyday, when he saw the piles of money he remembered the only story his father had ever read. It was about a young girl who’d flown in a balloon with a talking tiger to see the London mint. In the mint, they’d seen the money; crisp and fresh and magical and from them on Jerry had loved it. He had made it his life. And now his life was changing. Jerry’s bank was a regional counting station for ‘WallBank’, the worlds largest bank. His job was (and had been for twenty years) to check and audit at random all cash deliveries. This involved being patient, thorough and precise, which just so happened to be Jerry’s key character traits. He was counting money in the lock-up, a sealed cage in the bowels of the deliberately non-descript banking building, when a nice young man from the Department of Wealth and Happiness came to see him in person. ‘I’m sure you’ve heard of the new metric system.’ The young man said, smiling. ‘We’ve been working closely with Wallbank, and it’s been decided that your branch will be the first to make the transfer over to the credit system. This is exciting, because with projects like this – we should be able to phase out ‘real’ currency within the next five years!’ ‘I see,’ Jerry said. He was naturally pale, but what he could feel himself whiten further as the young man spoke. ‘Don’t worry, this will be a great opportunity. We’ll give you all new jobs! As a teller you’ll get new employment immediately in one of our decommissioning centres, the nearest one’s over in Farnborough, I believe.’ As people handed in their fortunes to the counting stations, the tellers would calculate it all then send the money to be devalued and destroyed. The people who handed it in would have their currency converted into associated ‘health and wealth’ benefits. ‘The best bit is,’ the young man said ‘you’ll be doing practically the same job. You’ll earn comparable ‘wealth’ benefits, but you’ll only have to work three days a week!’ ‘I see’ said Jerry, his large bald head slumped forward a little more.
Things happened fast. Within a month Jerry’s bank closed and he was was sent home on a Wednesday, two days before his proper last day. He spent most of Thursday wandering the old part of Reading Town centre, wondering how he was going to tell Patience, his wife. On Friday, after another day of wandering around the canals he went home in the early evening and told her about the new arrangements.
‘What do you mean, you’ve only got to work three days a week?’ Patience was in the lounge, in front of the flat screen. It was just past five and she was set for the weekend. A plate of deep-fried nibbles and a bottle of chilled, Rose wine in front of her. This was the beginning of one of her weekend ‘Talent Marathons’. From Friday evening to late on Sunday she would spend her time watching the talent channel. Back to back, shows of the general public competing for the nations entertainment. Her current favourite act was the amazing Nutzilla, a tightrope walking squirrel. Jerry stood in the doorway and explained what the man from the Department of Wealth and Happiness had told him.
‘I don’t really know what I’ll be doing.’ Jerry said, looking at his feet. He took a card out of his wallet. ‘I’ve got to show up here from Tuesday to Thursday every week.’
‘What about Monday and Friday?’ Patience snapped, ‘you can’t be here – on Monday I host the bingo-net and Fridays, well Fridays is when I watch my shows.’
‘Monday’s I’ve got to go to a health testing facility in Staines.’ He said. He wondered if Patience was going to ask just what kind of testing they would be doing on him to keep his health benefits, but she didn’t.
‘OK. But, what about my…our home. How are you going to earn the same? I’m not losing this house Jerry, not after we’ve worked so hard for it.’
‘Don’t worry Darling. That’s just it, according to the new scheme, I actually earn more! The man said that because my work was so boring, I’ll actually earn the same but we have to do it less. With the medical trials on Monday I’ll even keep our healthcare.’
Patience sat back and took a big swig of wine. ‘Well OK. If you say so. But I don’t want you here on Fridays. Are you sure you can’t work overtime? I thought you liked your job.’
‘I do.’ Jerry said. But he faded into the noise of the audience applauding a fat woman who sang karaoke without a machine. It was only then that Jerry noticed that Patience only had one wine glass. A few minutes later he went into his bedroom and sat looking out of his window until it was dark enough to sleep.
Jerry was too polite to explain to his new colleagues that he liked counting printed money. He liked the feeling of the paper moving through his hands. Everyone else thought it was tedious.
‘Come on Grandad! It ain’t like it’s going anywhere. All you have to do is count it, log it and chuck it in the bags!’ This came from his colleague, Danny, a man half his age. He’d taken a job at the counting station because it meant he could work less. Simple as that. He didn’t respect any of the things Jerry held dear. The only thing he knew about precision, was how to get out the door the moment the clock hit five.
‘A job is not worth doing if it’s not done properly’ Jerry said, again and again and other things like ‘You cannot fault precision’. Accuracy it was all about accuracy, why couldn’t they see this? Before long, he and Danny barely spoke. The space they worked in was completely different to the cozy confines of the lock-up. It was a clinical, featureless space. White benches everywhere and a chute at the end of the room through which sacks, containing bundles of paper money, fell.
Their day went like this. They would get a sack and take out a bundle of money. Then they would count it, log it to the appropriate ID and then drop the ‘devalued’ bundle down another chute for recycling. One time, as he watched the money come in and go out, Jerry remembered the story about the girl, the tiger and the balloon. It made him think he’d come to work in a place that was the exact opposite of the London Mint. This was the place money came to die. And it didn’t die quickly. It surprised just how much money there still was out there, it felt like there were always notes to be processed and values filed and often he asked for overtime.
‘I told you – that’s not how it works. You don’t get more hours.’ His manager said.
‘But I’ll do them for free. Honestly, no-one needs to know?’
His manager frowned and sat Jerry down. ‘Look Jerry, I wish I could. You’re my best worker. But listen. Between you and me, we have to do this at a certain rate. The work can’t be done too quickly. If everyone was like you, all the money would be taken, filed and stored in months. We can’t have that! As more people start to come onto the new system, we have to make sure there is enough work for everyone, you understand? Enjoy your time off, go home, spend time with you wife!’ He closed the door and Jerry went home. It was only three in the afternoon and he’d done his quota.
It was too early so Jerry sat on a bench on the old part of Reading high street. He looked at the red brick buildings and remembered how every other shop had been a bank, estate agent or an office. Now they were either small restaurants selling food from places he’d never heard of or something selling equipment for specialist leisure pursuits he didn’t pursue. Patience didn’t like him being back before five so he watched the pigeons and the busy people stream around him until he could go get the transport home.
It was a Friday. Patience was at home, watching programmes about how to claim an upgrade for your home. Jerry was in Farnborough’s memorial park. Usually, the playing fields and boulevards of beech trees were empty, but not today. It was filled with people who all seemed to know about a roadshow the government had put on about ‘How to be happy’.
‘Having a hobby, is a great way to relax. It is just as beneficial as exercise and an hour of mental exercise a day and it counts towards you wellness monitor!’Jerry smiled at the young lady explaining this to him, she’d walked straight up to him as he was passing a bandstand. She’d just smiled and started talking. She was so young, so bright. Everything seemed to be exciting to her, especially the silver bracelet she wore on her wrist that she kept pointing to.
‘Wellness monitors like this, will regulate your happiness and activity levels and prompt you to take exercise.’ She noticed him take a step back. ‘Oh, don’t worry. This isn’t compulsory, but if you wear one it will offer rewards and incentives to help you toward a healthy and balanced life. Also, the tracking data will count towards your benefits and healthcare.’
Jerry thanked her and took the leaflet that gave the information on the wristband. He wondered if one day he’d be mandated to wear one. Then he thought of Patience at home what would happen if she had to wear a wellness monitor. He walked on, passing a succession of stands – people canvassing for football, kick boxing, zumasize, model car building and virtual-life training sims but he didn’t stop until he saw a small, crumpled old man with a bald, tweety-pie shaped head and bright brown eyes. Jerry stopped in front of him. Instead of trying to sell his stand, the old man let Jerry look around at a succession of ornately folded paper shapes until, eventually, and with great care, he handed him a pamphlet. It read: ‘The Dying Art of Origami’ The small man showed Jerry his artwork. Intricate folded swans, trees and delicate, intricate models of life.
‘Less people follow these days’ He said quietly. ‘It is too slow for them to learn or they complain about the cost of paper.’ Jerry nodded and the old man ran out of things to say. After looking awkwardly at his feet, Jerry thanked him for his time and walked away. He looked back once, the old man stood alone and silent amongst a sea of activity, bustle and promises.
Jerry walked through Farnborough. He bought lunch at a food van that specialised in grilled Brazilian food. A man handed him a flat bread filled with something that was both too spicy and too sloppy. He picked at it as he walked. Then he used the leaflet about the wellness monitor to wipe his hands after he’d finished.
He carried on walking and for the first time since he’d left; Jerry’s feet took him back to the bank. Everything seemed different. Already, the business park that concealed it was empty and the building itself was boarded up and locked shut. Two months ago it had been a building full of people, now it was an empty echo of another time. Jerry sat down on patch of overgrown grass in the shade of a sycamore tree. He still had the Origami pamphlet and he took it out of his pocket. Without thinking, he found himself looking over the instructions and the directions of how to fold paper. When he looked at his watch again it was half past four. ‘Goodness me!’ he said, getting up and dusting himself down. It was a forty minute walk home. He wondered what Patience would say if he was late. He suspected she wouldn’t notice.
She didn’t. Nor did she notice when he was late back the next Monday, when he walked back via an antique bookshop and cashed in three month’s worth of credits to buy a book on Origimi. At first he just read it. Cover to cover. When he looked through the words and pictures he stopped noticing the time. It seemed to flow around him and it didn’t matter where he was. But then Patience noticed her credits were decreasing.
‘You spent six months’ worth of credits on books and paper! What’s the matter with you? You know all that stuff’s free on the web!’
‘Not all of it darling.’ He said. Patience’s face went purple. It was not a time to correct her. The Department of Health had told her that her own credits were going to be reduced until she wore a wellness monitor. In the brief discussion that followed, they agreed that she could use Jerry’s credits and he would stop his silly little hobby.
But he didn’t. He found another supply of paper.
Six months later a Policeman came to the house. He asked Patience where Jerry was.
‘I…I don’t know.’ She said, relieved that the Policeman hadn’t come to see her about that wretched wellness monitor. It was only then she realised she hadn’t seen him since he’d gone to work on Tuesday and it was now Friday afternoon.
‘I think he’s been busy at the decommissioning center.’
The policeman raised an eyebrow. ‘I’d say that’s true.’ And he explained that around 4 million pounds of de-valued currency had gone missing. ‘You see Mrs Pressman, no one can really understand it. It’s not worth anything to anyone! It’s been devalued. It won’t buy anything and he doesn’t stand to gain anything by it!’ Patience shook her head.
‘Don’t look at me officer. I don’t know what’s got into him these days, being so selfish with his work and his books.’ At the far side of the room, next to the bar and the drinks fridge the widescreen blared out – ‘And now we have the amazing Nutzilla’.
‘Oh, I love that little squirrel – have you seen him?’ Patience said.
‘Yeah,’ The policeman said, sitting back in the sofa ‘My kids love his little outfit.’ ‘I think he’ll win this round for sure’ Patience said. And so it went.
Jerry had moved back to Farnborough business park, in the lock up of the old bank building amongst a network of empty metal shelves that smelt of dust and wet cement. A few windows let in light that shone down into the lock up where he’d arranged boxes of tin cans, bottles of water and other supplies. It had been a fairly simple matter to palm a few bundles of notes every day. He was surprised at the speed at which he had amassed piles and piles of the crumpled blue, brown and red paper.
Things had worked out perfectly. He’d found the ancient printing press in the annals of the lock-up and modified it so he could flatten and glue together rows and rows of notes. The simple act of taking, ten (brown), twenty (blue), fifty (red) and one hundred (gold) pound notes, grouping them together, brushing them with a thin layer of glue and pressing them into a new, continuous layers of paper was tremendously satisfying almost as satisfying as the folding.
When the sheets were settled and firm he could fold them. After a few weeks he’d mastered the basics of origami. Moving from basic houses, flowers and swans onto more ornate constructions of animals, vehicles and people. After a month, in his lock up, in his building, he had a replication of the world he realised he’d always been trying to find.
Lots of houses, an air ballon, a tiger and a little girl and then, the crowing glory – a scale replica of the London Mint, in which he assembled piles of real money. Just like he remembered in his story. And, all the time he worked, folding and thinking and planning by himself in the quiet, still space of the empty lock-up, he was happy. Paper meant the world to Jerry.