England's Shame: Managing Risk and Uncertainty
Jerry sat awkwardly in the brown leather armchair in The Princess of Prussia, his stiff limbs refusing to sink into its soft curves. The air smelled of fresh cut onions. He cast his eye along the neat row of stools, hard against the bar, remembering the arses that had occupied them last time he’d been here, some time in the previous century. Some, he reflected dispassionately, he had fucked, while others – figuratively, at least, though occasionally literally – had fucked him. Had times, on balance, been any better then? They had certainly been a bit clearer, for all the millennial entropy.
He fumbled in the pocket of his crushed velvet jacket, and pulled out a dented silver case, monogrammed with his initials and a cheeky crucifix and Playboy bunny motif. It had once stopped a bullet in a war, though he couldn’t recall which war. Perhaps this one. He shook loose one of his few remaining gold-tipped cigarettes and hung it loosely from his cracked lower lip. Any port in a storm. At the third strike, his Lucifer guttered to a yellow light, the whiff of sulphur at least providing a momentary sense of security. He hadn’t noticed when smoking, like so much else, had become illegal but, if he’d thought at all, he’d have considered there was little chance of customers, even, much less a raid.
A shadow passing the fake Victorian glass made him tense briefly. A mitre? But no-one came in.
The walls told the tired story of Empire. A Toby jug in the shape of Shakespeare. Adverts for soap, with fat children and a cat. Why is there always a cat? Posters from the Varieties, with acts he faintly remembered, and to whom he thought he may be related: strippers, dog trainers, acrobats and blues guitarists. A plastic Union Jack, with the Saltire painted out, drooping from an ice bucket.
At last the door opened. The man who entered was smooth-skinned, with a fixed expression of surprised concern that somehow resolved itself into an avuncular grin. His tie was loose, but he was still clearly uncomfortably hot, sweat glistening across his forehead.
“Mr Smiles?” asked Jerry flatly, neither standing nor offering his hand.
“You can call me Dave,” he said, lowering himself into the seat opposite and presenting his moist palm.
The brief hiss beneath the table was barely noticeable, nor was the sharp expiration as the needle pierces the dummy’s groin. The face looked no more surprised, but began to collapse on itself, growing first baggy, then sinking into a broad smirk, then twisting through an ugly sequence of ever more grotesque metamorphoses as the body crumpled over the chair. Leaning forward, Jerry regarded the sparkling, dead eyes of what now resembled nothing more or less than the Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher.
Jerry drew on his cigarette, stood up, and turned to leave.
“Where do you think you’re going?” nagged a voice behind him.
He turned to look, and saw the puppet standing, ungainly, legs splayed too wide, head nodded like a movie zombie.
“On second thoughts,” she spat, “call me Theresa. And I can assure you, Mr Cornelius, that a change is coming. A very big change.”