“OH WELL, HERE WE GO AGAIN,” thought James Entwhistle, brushing his palms together and sending a spray of crumbs to the floor beneath his desk. “Another working afternoon in this age of uncertainty and foreboding.”
Leaning forward and whistling cheerfully beneath his breath, he replaced his plastic lunch carton in the centre drawer of his desk and rummaged through the filing trays on top.
He plucked a Job Vacancies sheet from the mass of paperwork and leaned back in his seat with a sigh, studying it absently. Then peering through his spectacles across the sheet, he stole a lingering glance at the area in front of Bob Wilkinson’s Fresh Claims desk.
New ranks of the unemployed were filing into the spacious Bleaker Street Unemployment Office by the hundred every week now.
There they were, homemade street-pollution masks hanging loose at throat: as motley and ragged a collection as you could wish for and lined up four or five deep in front of Wilkinson’s desk. The line extended in a disorderly double-loop, snaking across thirty yards of padded floor to the innermost of two heavy-duty doors.
Beyond the dusty plate-glass of the outer door, Entwhistle saw more of them arriving, pollution masks clamped over their lower faces as they climbed the stone steps to the fortress-like edifice. Some of them had sensibly donned smog-goggles, he noted.
Behind them, the afternoon sky showed blearily in dark and light bands between the grudging gaps of great tower blocks. Up-street a little and way back behind rows of terraced cottages on the far side of Ribbleston, the skeletal outlines of pylons and winter trees silhouetted themselves boldly against pale sickly skies on the horizon, like dark forbidding figures lurking at the fringe of Townsedge Moors.
A low-flying police helicopter circled above those moors – a black dragonfly flitting to and fro in the pale gloom. Brilliant white floodlights flaring out fore and aft, shearing down through the ground-clinging mist and crossing dark scraggy undergrowth, that at some distance behind a dingy huddle of shops and houses, was hidden from Entwhistle’s eyes.
In his travels westward and previously last seen between Skipton and Keighley, the latest report on the Humberside Cleaver was that he was now lurking in the mists of Townsedge Moors. A chill touched Entwhistle at that thought. He was glad he didn’t live on that side of Ribbleston.
But the Cleaver was expanding his horizons so that no one was really safe anywhere. Entwhistle ran his eyes nervously downwards over the grimed house-fronts just across the street, with their long, dark, mist-filled alleyways running ominously between them.
Even the tall bright streetlights couldn’t reach in and cut through the length of those deep-shadowed fogbound alleyways effectively. Just the sort of place you would expect a dangerous maniac to lurk. Entwhistle hoped fervently that the law would catch the Cleaver soon.
Closer at hand, the eternal fog of exhaust-fumes hugged the road-surface under an endless two-way flow of traffic, seeping up over the kerbstones and across the pavement, slithering like some sneaking snaky monster, just waiting to pounce outside the doors of the Bleaker Street office.
“Ugh! Like the tendrils of some dreadful phantom from the end of time, creeping steadily towards its prey,” thought Entwhistle gloomily while he tried but failed to repress an icy shiver.
He glanced over at the pollution-extractors set in each wall and swirling full-blast, silently cursing Sir William Mawris and Charles Orstin, who had teamed up to buy out the patent for Electric Motors more than a century-and-a-half back, only to rival each other in an endless filth-spitting escalation of internal-combustion engine production.
He silently profaned the revered ancestors responsible for all five-feet nothing of Kagasaki Yakashima, who bought out the ingenious Solar Powered Conductor several decades ago and completely stifled any chances of it becoming a part of everyday technology.
He vehemently excommunicated the Latin magnate, Sebastian Bastaloma, who only fifteen years previous bought out the miraculously safe Hydrogen Fusion Converter, so that the consumption of newfound deposits of fossil fuel could continue undisturbed. Where did they keep finding the stuff, Entwhistle wondered – wasn’t it supposed to have run out by now!
He damned all those responsible for the world’s pollution problems.
Even though he, James Entwhistle, did own a Bastaloma Turbomaster which spewed out only half the muck of a Yakashima Turboninja, which spat out but a third of the foulness produced by all the other cars on Britain’s roads – he was still as responsible as anyone else for the world’s pollution problems – as equally even, as the super-rich, who not only owned most of the cars but continued to fly regularly in noisy jet aircraft.
But he was also very thankful that he’d seen fit to have Abraham Moseley’s specially adapted nose-and-throat filters attached to his spectacles. It had been an expensive but worthwhile investment, he decided, though it did make him look a bit of a loony – like some old Twentieth-Century switchboard-telephonist or some sort of daft techno freak.
But what other choice had he – for the Health Service had become so eroded by the political guardians of the people over the years.
Why if they’d had their way it would have been entirely privatised long ago – after all, these government officials have such enormously inflated wages, that they can well afford to go for the very best private care! So why not make everyone else do the same – whether they can afford it or not?
And then again – Entwhistle considered himself very lucky not to rank among the high number of unemployed. But doubts began to assail him.
It was bad enough that there were already several million unemployed in Britain alone, Entwhistle thought glumly, absently staring at the Job Vacancies sheet held out before him.
Jobs were snuffing out like candles, everywhere, everyday, more and more of them – how long before it happened to his job, he wondered. It was a government job, so it should be a lot safer than any position in a privately owned company – but.
After all, he was knocking on a bit now – midway between fifty and sixty.
Well, a bit closer to sixty, actually. He wouldn’t find it easy to procure a position as secure and cushy as the one he presently held – not now. And not with ageism on the prowl – although in the interests of that hypocritical pretender, political correctness, that fact would have been flatly denied.
It had taken him thirty-six years to work up to his grade of clerical seniority – and to such a generous scale of pay. Bloomin’ ‘eck! Since I was but one-and-twenty years of age! Jeepers! Entwhistle shivered to think how quickly and easily decades of supreme effort could be so effectively eroded. Zap!
Even in boom-time, it would be difficult to equal his position elsewhere. Nigh on impossible! His past employment record was impeccable, but he had no real qualifications; just long diligent service, practical clerical experience and a lot of civil service jargon, useless elsewhere.
It would count for absolutely bugger-all in the world of the Twenty-First Century, he knew. Unless, of course, you were young, possessed the gift of the gab and fabulous looks – none of which he’d ever had, except for youth.
And he had a nice home and car, and expensive weekend hobbies, too – and of course, there was Mrs. Gladys Amelia Entwhistle, his dear, dear wife to support – old-fashioned soul that he was – that they both were.
Fortunately though, the children were all grown up now and supporting themselves and – luckily – doing very nicely, thank you.
But Entwhistle didn’t relish the thought of turning to either of his two daughters or son if he should become unemployed.
He had savings, but at the current cost of living, they would be severely depleted within a few years. And he was still eight years from his pension.
MORE THAN FIVE MILLION UNEMPLOYED, Shrieked the bold headlines of that morning’s newspaper from its place in one of Entwhistle’s in-trays.
UNEMPLOYED NOW STANDING AT FIVE MILLION AND INCREASING DAILY, screeched the four-inch high caption spread starkly across the front of a newspaper on a colleagues desk nearby.
There hadn’t been so many unemployed for decades now, not since the early nineties, in fact.
And it had all happened so quickly – since the British government had joined the combined forces of NATO against the latest threats from the Middle East and Africa.
Vast quantities of Britain’s funds, accumulated from years of taxpayer’s contributions, poured like water on armaments and military operations overseas.
Then, to cap it all, some silly reckless selfish bastard in the financial sector cocked things up good and proper for everyone else through pure greed and misconduct. Suddenly, the country was chest deep in recession, again.
Now, according to the media, the cities of Britain were just as full of the homeless as those with homes, and the prisons were long over-spilled.
Crime and disorder were the order of the day.
The small elite of the very rich and even the not-too-badly-off were beginning to really worry about their personal safety, as well as their material possessions.
Some of them were even now having private bunkers built, in what was left of the British countryside – which was mostly all fenced-off private property nowadays.
The only hopeful bit of news for those large portions of the populace who were very-poorly-off and quite desperate, was the Braynstom Project: the terraforming of Venus and Mars and their colonization made up chiefly from the unemployed, the homeless and the incarcerated of the western world.
“After all, we could all end up being overpowered by the emerging powers of the east and south before long,” said British billionaire, Rothchard Braynstom with a bearded grin, on a satellite-relayed broadcast from his domed, luxury home-base on the Moon.
“And even if the human race doesn’t blow itself to bits,” he said, chuckling boyishly, “It’ll probably poison itself and the rest of the Earth for millennia to come.”
“Besides,” he said, with a cheery grin, leaning back contentedly in his plushy seat so that the, SPACE IS WHERE IT’S AT, slogan across the front of his t-shirt came into view, “there are already far too many humans on the Earth and pretty soon, the old globe’ll no longer be able to support ‘em all.”
“As I see it,” he concluded, his good-natured features sobering earnestly and becoming full of purpose and zeal, “my terraforming project is the only way out of certain doom.”
The main problem with Braynstom’s lifesaving brainchild was that, although already inaugurated some years back, the amount of time required just setting the project up was simply far too long to make the proposition currently viable.
Added to that, the actual terraforming of Earth’s two nearest neighbours – especially Venus – was a mammoth undertaking, without precedent and still in its theoretical infancy.
Venus was a tricky customer to work on.
As the hottest planet in the solar system, hot enough to melt lead on its surface, It would have to be cooled considerably before a start could be made, requiring probably centuries of continual rain seeded in its atmosphere – with a masking dust cloud to help initiate the process, placed strategically in orbit between Venus and the Sun.
Nonetheless, Venus was the right size for terraforming.
Though Mars was a lot easier, it was a bit on the small side.
But even if successfully tackled, it could still take hundreds of years to completely terraform Mars.
And if Mars couldn’t be terraformed permanently after all, perhaps because it was just not quite large enough to hold a lasting atmosphere, it could still be colonized with a system of airtight domed bases.
But that would also take time – decades, at least. It was six of one and half a dozen of the other.
Moon City wouldn’t be ready for another five years and would only take a few million people – and they would have to be people with special skills, good character references and good work records.
Other Lunar bases were planned for the future and some on the larger asteroids and artificial satellites and space stations, but they were also limited in scale and access.
In the meantime, things were deteriorating at a much, much faster rate, here on Earth – and there was no new virgin Australia, all ready and waiting for every social failure. And the ice sheets in Antarctica, although melting rapidly, would take far too long thawing out enough to make it habitable – for at least another fifty years – or considerably more.
Mars was it – and Mars wasn’t ready yet – not for a long time. But it wasn’t just humans that were unemployed this time. Talk about overcrowding the planet! Several thousand of the official five million, were non-human. Not from outer space, but from right here, on earth. Genetic engineering was the cause of this.
Way back, several decades more than half a century earlier, in the nineteen-eighties, the first publicly announced chimera had been bred: A cross between a sheep and a goat, both species very closely related to begin with.
At the same time, molecular biologists had discovered that human beings and chimpanzees were even more closely related to each other, sharing ninety-nine percent of their genes.
It had come to light, that man was little more than a foetal chimpanzee, prematurely born and growing to maturity in what was scientifically termed: a neotenous state.
Which in every day language means, juvenile features retained in an adult animal – for example, the retention of gills in salamanders. Another term for the same condition is pedomorphy.
It would seem that human beings neotenous arrival and ascent is analogous to tadpoles or caterpillars that never outgrow their larval stage, reproducing in this form and adding newly mutated advantageous variations over a period of many generations.
That’s how an early branch of the hippo family became the ancestor for whales, porpoises and dolphins.
But even without a neotenous birth, a young chimpanzee is an extremely inquisitive and venturesome animal, learning very quickly and always exploring new possibilities. In fact, it was the monkeys, further back in the family tree, who originated this trait.
No wonder mankind had been continually monkeying around with the environment since arriving on the scene and slipping over the banana skins discarded by his ancestors.
And behind these scenes since the discovery of molecular biology, much hurried and hush-hush experimentation had been conducted. Several research units in North America had been rearranging and modifying the reproductive DNA of chimpanzees and gorillas.
At first, this line of research had been set up in an attempt to prove the revised theory of mankind’s evolutionary origins.
Then something happened to expose this secret project to the public eye.
Somehow, a group of animal liberationists got wind of the project. They had broken in to the premises of one of the research units one night, releasing a mixture of young chimpanzoids and gorilloids, wrecking and setting light to the unit afterwards.
The genetically rearranged anthropoids were already quite domesticated and educated in the ways of twenty-first century human society.
They were also weaker and more vulnerable than their wild counterparts, but they now had to fend for themselves and forage around just as though they were wild beasts, in the mountainous forests of North America.
Of course, a desperate search for the missing anthropoids was immediately initiated by the research scientists, but the anthropoids didn’t know this, and terrified out of their wits as buzzing aircraft hovered around overhead and searchers crashed their way through the undergrowth, kept themselves very well hidden and on the run in the opposite direction.
Even when loudspeakers were used, hailing them by name and declaring good intentions and promising safety, the anthropoids either did not hear or understand or believe the words, for they showed no recognition or trust and did not venture to reply or reveal themselves.
They spread themselves out as they retreated and dissipated like mist into the wild making it even more difficult to track them, despite all the technology at the searchers disposal.
After a while, the search was abandoned but pretty soon, the young anthropoids found it as difficult to cope with survival in the wild, as modern human children would have done in the same circumstances.
Rather than compete with the wild creatures of the forests, the anthropoids, just like the scavengers of the wilds, took to raiding outlying smallholdings and then through the gates of the backyards, breaking in to the kitchens of suburban houses at the edge of the wilderness.
Fairly soon there were sightings of these mysterious creatures that came, mostly like phantoms in the night, but sometimes also by day. Then there were reports by groups of alarmists that an outbreak of wild, manlike creatures resembling the sasquatch or Bigfoot, had been unleashed on society by some secret organisation and were at large in the wildwoods, waiting to terrorize the communities of North America.
Some were hunted down and shot with rifles by locals, who regarded the anthropoids as no more than a new breed of vermin to be dealt with.
Other, luckier anthropoids were shortly taken in by various lonesome humans and childless families and regarded as a blessing in disguise or an answer to prayers and were treated kindly and well looked after.
These more fortunate anthropoids assimilated more human culture and ideals, growing up and developing just like humans alongside humans. They were even given forenames and the surnames of the families they were adopted by.
But the rest of society did not immediately accept them as humans – or indeed as social equals of any sort.
After much campaigning by their newfound benefactors though, they were eventually granted equal social status and citizenship on the understanding that they keep their noses clean, stick to their own designated areas of residence, pay taxes and work for their living.
It was a similar situation to those of the once vanquished and reinstated Amerindians and the formerly enslaved and emancipated Negroes.
The main difference between this comparison and the actuality was that Amerindians and Negroes were merely subdivisions of one species, whereas the anthropoids were the humanised members of two brand new species: Chimpanzoids and Gorilloids.
Nonetheless, they were rapidly absorbed into the human world.
Many of the anthropoids were groomed for future careers in the realms of commerce and industry and given the jobs in plants and factories that humans had rejected.
They proved very useful and successful in this endeavour.
Within a generation they had multiplied their numbers and some of them began moving across the Atlantic to Europe, where a sudden boom in industrial technology had provided thousands of new jobs tending the great yeast-vats and hydroponic sections of vast agricultural plants set up to feed the ever-growing human population.
When these plants became fully automated with sophisticated robotics from Japan, the Anthropoids moved on to other available areas of employment.
Then, when the present recession had pounced and anthropoids started losing their jobs as firm after firm went into liquidation and closed down, they joined the swelling ranks of unemployed humans.
After all, they’d paid their taxes and were eligible, and were as capable of starving and dying as any human being.
They’d been in Britain for nearly five years now but it wasn’t until recently that Entwhistle had actually seen any of the anthropoids in the flesh.
A few months back, before the current recession had gripped the country, he’d seen small gangs of chimpanzoids returning from night shifts at a nearby Turbomaster factory and a team of gorilloids working the riverside dockyards of Ribbleston’s southwest, Grisburn district.
So far, though, Entwhistle had seen none of the anthropoids at the Bleaker Street office where he worked.
But now, for the first time, he spied a little huddle of chimpanzoids and several lone gorilloids in the dole queue – and they looked a good deal more intelligent than some the humans around them, Entwhistle thought.
He was suddenly reminded of an old film he’d seen as a young child and made about forty-odd years before he was born.
Now what was that film called? He wracked his brains for a while.
Then it came to him: Monkey’s Planet – or something similar.
Great galloping galoshes!
Hadn’t they taken the world over from the humans in that film? It would be an almighty great black pudding in the eye for the emerging powers of the East if they took the world over as Braynstom predicted they might, only to find themselves usurped by these Anthropoids.
Half turned in his swivel-seat and leafing absently through papers in a filing cabinet, Entwhistle watched surreptitiously as three donkey-jacketed male chimpanzoids approached the queue at Frank Warrender’s desk.
A gorilloid in a crumpled boiler suit and several assorted humans wandered up behind them and joined the end of the queue.
Entwhistle plucked a sheet from the filing cabinet and pretending to study it, gazed furtively over the top, scrutinizing the anthropoids intently as, one by one they were attended to by Mr. Warrender, who seemed uncharacteristically flummoxed by the whole prospect.
One of the chimpanzoids was bald headed, its bare scalp, shiny with bright reflections from the fluorescent lighting. As if to make up for this lack of cranial hair, its brows were quite bushy and a luxuriant moustache covered its upper lip, flaring out over the cheeks in a military style. Also wearing a monocle, it vaguely resembled a British army officer from colonial days.
Entwhistle mused to himself, fascinated by it all. Officer material, if ever I saw it. Wonder if he wants to join armed forces!
The chimpanzoid next to the officer type was much shorter and quite portly with somewhat of a potbelly and bizarrely enough, sporting a colourful silk waistcoat with a gold-watch and chain beneath its donkey jacket. Black horn-rimmed spectacles rested across the bridge of its snout and a neatly trimmed white beard sprouted from around its jaws.
Hmm – A labourer with designs on being a croupier, eh? Flashy bugger!
The third chimpanzoid was taller, slimmer and altogether more youthful in appearance than the other two. Its face looked fresh, clean-shaven and far handsomer, too. It stood engrossed in the pages of a newspaper while its compatriots conversed animatedly together
The pot-bellied one’s face tilted back in a burst of mirth at something its bald headed companion had said while pointing to a notice board close by.
Entwhistle wished he knew just what they found so amusing. He might have found it very enlightening to know just how another species viewed the trappings of Humanity. Or perhaps, disturbing. He studied them a while and then turned his attention to the boiler-suited gorilloid.
Hunched forward and tilting its head to one side, the gorilloid was gazing at its reflection in the darkened glass of a notice board and carefully combing the sideburns of a twentieth-century Elvis Presley hairstyle.
How very unnervingly human they are, thought Entwhistle, returning his attention to his files.
Shuffling through that day’s batch of Job Specification sheets, he searched in vain for a file that Frank Warrender was supposed to have passed to him earlier belonging to a Mr. D. Kay.
“Now where the ‘eck ‘as it got to?” he muttered.
“Excuse me, sir. Have you any vacancies on the space shuttles or stations?”
It was a very cultured voice with a trace of some unidentifiable accent.
Entwhistle wheeled his seat about and looked around. There was a stoop shouldered old man in a grimy raincoat with straggly grey hair hanging over the greasy collar – and there were two tattoo-faced youths in mock space-battle gear, studying a notice board.
“Ahem! Over here, sir,” said the voice. Entwhistle turned his head further. His eyes widened at what he saw and he flinched. A tall red-haired orangutang dressed in a blue smog suit was standing by a wide pillar and studying him earnestly, hand searching in a pocket, a brow raised politely.
It was the first genetically engineered orangutang that Entwhistle had seen. Until that moment, he hadn’t realised there were any.
In fact, it was the first orangutang of any kind that he’d ever seen in the living flesh, in his entire life.
The only reason he knew what they were or what they looked like – was from some old twentieth-century wildlife documentaries he’d viewed as a child.
Just like the other anthropoids, it stood upright and was as fully bipedal as any human being. The orang took its hand out of its pocket and carefully unfolded a wad of papers.
The smog mask and goggles hanging from its suit collar dangled on its broad chest like grotesque medallions as the orang leaned forward.
“Here are my Job Specification papers,” said the orang, handing the wad to Entwhistle. Entwhistle studied the first sheet.
Printed at the top, was the name – WALDO SERGIO BERTORELLI. Entwhistle almost snorted with mirth at that, but somehow managed to turn it into a fake sniffle, dabbing briefly at his nose with a pocket-handkerchief.
Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle – never knew as they were given human names! Ethnic ones, at that! An Italian orang, eh?
Entwhistle was mumbling inaudibly to himself as he perused the papers.
Directly beneath the name was a National Insurance number, followed by a species definition – ORANGOID. Looks like some sort of fruit, Entwhistle mused, barely suppressing a chuckle.
Then there was an address, followed by a place and date-of-birth and the gender definition of the individual – MALE.
Somehow I would ’ave felt a bit uncomfortable if it ‘ad read, FEMALE – what with grey beard he’s sporting.
The orangoid was married with a wife and two children.
Ah! Responsibility, eh! Aye! Comes with rearranged status, I don’t doubt, Entwhistle reflected. Traditionally wild male orangs were loners who fathered offspring and left them for the females to rear. Entwhistle knew this because he remembered it from his childhood wildlife documentaries.
He put the orangoid’s Job Specification papers into a filing tray and looked up at his latest customer.
“I’m sorry, lad. I’m afraid there’s nothing right at this moment,” he said.
The words flowed easily from his lips – in a way that only the practice of many years of usage can attain. And as easily as when addressing any member of his own species, too.
His earlier shock and consequent amusement at first confronting the orangoid was over, Entwhistle had completely regained his composure.
He no longer felt as abashed or overawed by the sudden manifestation of an anthropoid as Frank Warrender seemed to be, he noted, looking over at his colleague’s desk. Warrender still seemed quite flummoxed at the prospect of dealing with various anthropoids.
In fact, Entwhistle now felt quite relaxed.
After all, the orangoid behaved in a perfectly civilized fashion, was well spoken and polite – seemed quite an educated sort and; with its unique accent, high-domed forehead and studious frown-lines, even looked and sounded more like a mild-mannered, middle-aged human professor than an ancestral orangutang.
Entwhistle continued smoothly with his usual flannel:
“If you would care to call back next week at about the same time, I’ll see what I can come up with.”
The orangoid gazed back curiously – searchingly.
“You know how things are at present, so you must realise that I can’t really promise you anything. Nevertheless, I will do my level best under the circumstances to help you all I can.”
Entwhistle was well into his stride now.
The orangoid nodded very slowly, a particularly deliberate motion, his eyes deep and dark and knowing – and then his demeanour seemed to change slightly. He held his head in a sidelong glance and stroked his beard thoughtfully, lips forming into a tea-spout shape and producing a peculiar soft clucking sound.
It seemed bizarrely to Entwhistle that he was being subtly mocked and, for a moment, he felt uneasy again.
After an uncomfortable silence, the orangoid spoke.
“I see,” he said. “Well, as you can see, sir. I’ve put myself and my family on the waiting list.” He pointed a long finger almost apologetically towards the filing tray containing his papers. “If you please, I will be seeking anything within the stated category to tide me over till my name comes up.”
Entwhistle frowned briefly, unsure of what the orangoid meant. However, he would peruse the character’s papers in more detail later and probably become more enlightened. He nodded at the orangoid and smiled awkwardly. He was no longer in his stride and felt a little shaken.
“Um! Right you are, Mister –“ He craned his neck to see the name on the orangoid’s papers. “Er – Bertorelli. See you next week, at the same time. Goodbye – uh – sir. Have a nice weekend.”
Bertorelli politely mumbled his thanks. Then, zipping the front of his smog suit and fitting his pollution mask and smog goggles, turned to depart.
Watching him go, Entwhistle gazed open mouthed to see him stick one leg out at a double-jointed angle and deftly open the inner door with a gloved foot.
He shook his head in amazement as the orangoid’s broad back was swallowed up rapidly in the mists outside.
It was almost as if he had never existed, and that Entwhistle had been caught up in some strange dream. But no – there were his papers in the tray, and the other anthropoids milling around Warrender’s desk still.
“Phew! Must note the time our Mr. Bertorelli left,” muttered Entwhistle, in a slight daze whilst he examined his Ogama Fingerwatch and adjusted the reading to full magnification.
Nearly three thirty. And, yes – it was Friday, too. Good! Good, good, goody, good! He’d certainly had enough of this particular week. Just one more hour and – bingo – he was off home through the polluted streets of Ribbleston in the bulletproof safety of his Bluestreak Turbomaster.
Admittedly, there was the grim and hazardous slog midst the demented rush hour traffic using his radar and infrared to guide him through the heavier patches of fog.
But once home on the nicer suburban eastside district, in the warmth and security of his pollution-screened cottage, nestling in the cosy tranquillity of Barrowfield Mews – he could put his feet up, relax with a hot toddy, escape in the fantasy world of his holoviewer, while dear, dear old Gladys got his supper together. And no more work for a whole weekend.
Monday morning was filled with a drizzling late November rain that had absolutely no effect on the ever-clinging road-fog of exhaust fumes – in fact; it seemed to add an extra layer of steam that rose mistily towards the grim grey skies of polluted Ribbleston.
Hands in trouser pockets and pursing his lips in distaste as he frowned out at the weather, Frank Warrender approached James Entwhistle’s desk.
“You’d think rain’d clear away all that pollution muck,” he said gloomily.
“Though as there’s probably too much bloody sulphuric acid or some such foul muck in it for that. Jim! Did -“
He tailed off and looked nervously around the office. It was as yet, bereft of all but employees, being still too early for the first customers of the day.
He cleared his throat and continued more quietly.
“Did you not see those anthropoids Friday afternoon, Jim? Jeepers! Did it give me a reet old queer turn, seeing ‘em close up for the first time in m’ life! Turns out as they’re a sight more agreeable than some o’ the humans as come in here, though.”
He leaned his hands on Entwhistle’s desk and took a deep breath, waiting for a reply.
“Well, then? Did y’ see ‘em, Jim?”
“Ooh, aye, Frank. I saw them, right enough,” said Entwhistle.
He took his eyes from the document he was studying and gazed up over his spectacles, staring at the nose-and-throat filter snaking out from Warrender’s collar. It somehow made the man look as if he was constantly tapped by remote control to a life-support machine.
“And I noticed as you were blessed with a motley batch of them. As matter of fact, I’ve got one of ‘em on my books, too.”
Entwhistle patted the document he’d been studying in escalating frustration for the past fifteen minutes.
“A tall orangoid with greying red beard and receding hairline?” enquired Warrender. “Looks a bit like absent-minded professor who’s stumbled upon true nature of universe and is greatly saddened by the revelation.”
Entwhistle nodded, popping a vitamin pill in his mouth and swilling it down with lukewarm tea from a plastic cup.
“And I can’t say as I’d blame him if he had. Apparently though, he’s some kind of multi-talented, gymnastic, vocalizing, traditional-style entertainer,” said Entwhistle glumly.
“Did y’ see his feet, Frank? Talk about ambidextrous! He wears what I can only describe as a pair of gloved shoes.”
Warrender frowned, questioningly. “Eh? Gloved shoes?”
“Orangutangs are four-handed y’ know, Frank. Specially adapted for life in trees. With hip sockets allowing ‘em t’ stick legs out at angles that’d put human contortionist t’ shame.”
“How in ruddy ‘ell’s name d’you know all that, Jim?”
“Dug out natural history holo over weekend. Made in late twentieth-century, not long before a massive bout of wildlife extinctions and copied t’ holo from a granny disc by me old dad, ‘bout twenty years back.”
“Things you can find on them old discs.”
“Aye! Some pretty amazing revelations on this one, too! The orangutangs lived wild in Southeast Asia when there used t’ be great stretches of rainforest across land which is now mostly plantations and suburbs. The orangoid on my books is mutated from DNA taken direct from descendants of those forest dwelling ancestors. They were kept at a secret location in a specially covered preserve simulating their natural habitat, which by then ‘ad completely vanished from face of the earth.”
Warrender’s face was a picture of stunned fascination.
“This preserve was one of a set of completely self-contained environments, sealed-off from rest of the world, just like Braynstom wants t’ build on Mars. Sort of impregnable domes, like gigantic conservatories with double-doored airlocks, keeping the untainted tropical environment within, safely segregated from our polluted world outside it.”
Seemingly huge behind the lenses of his horn-rimmed spectacles, Entwhistle’s pale blue eyes took on a wistful cast as he continued.
“The things I learned about our orangoid’s ancestral background – and our own,” he murmured. “It must have been a strange but very interesting and varied world in those days – much more beautiful and a darn sight cleaner – even though they were always complaining bitterly about its fouled and deteriorating condition. And only about seventy-odd years back, too!”
Entwhistle shook his head as if to clear it of some malingering daydream.
“And in addition t’ the orangoid’s handfeet, there are those cheek and throat flaps that look like huge jowls. Apparently their exact purpose was a bit of a mystery t’ biologists. But with pouches like those, inflated, I’d bet thee ‘ad get up enough wind to sing thy head off an’ be heard from here t’ Ribble’s seaward end, as far off even as Preston or Southport – without any technological assistance at all. Strange though, that our mister orangoid still has those archaic traits despite genetic upgrading.”
“Ooh, aye – really?” Warrender fussed the waxed tips of his little black moustache. “Maybe that’s how the boffins wanted him, or just the way things ‘ave worked out. I’ve seen his job description, though an’ it seems those very characteristics ’ll be ideal in his career. That’s why I passed him over t’ you, Jim. You’re the miscellaneous wallah in this establishment.”
“Aye – happen I am,” said Entwhistle. “And you should see some of the unlikely job-positions some of my customers seek – almost as if they make ‘em up to avoid getting a proper job. Not that there’s bugger all for ‘em at moment, anyhow. And our mister orangoid’s no exception in the weird job-description category. Though I’ve no doubts, as he’s deadly serious about his profession. He’s even prepared t’ take on other work t’ tide him over.”
“Shining example t’ all our other customers,” Muttered Warrender.
Entwhistle rubbed his temple.
“Aye! But, Frank – where in ruddy kingdom’s name am I going to place an anthropoid whose chosen career is so unusual and old-fashioned, it’s probably obsolete? And in this black puddingless recession, too!”
Warrender grinned knowingly and winked.
“In circus, of course, Jim!”
“Circus?” Entwhistle fingered his Moseley-nose-and-throat-filter in irritation, making his glasses wobble.
“You know, Jim! Travelling show, with lots o’ caravans full of clowns an’ acrobats an’ performing animals and freaks – all set up in big tent.”
“I know what bloody circus is,” Entwhistle exploded, then dropped his voice quickly as nearby colleagues jerked their heads up from their desks and stared across. “My granddaddy told me all about ‘em when I were a nipper in Borecambe,” he whispered. “And he showed me photos of them in old-fashioned picture books. But such things don’t exist now!”
“They ruddy well do,” Warrender said, his voice also lowered. His bushy black brows lifted so high they wrinkled his forehead all the way up across his shiny pink scalp.
“They no longer have the animals though, that’s illegal now as there aren’t many about anymore. The circuses are also much rarer, so you hardly ever hear about ‘em nowadays – an’ the tents have become big pollution-proofed domes.”
Warrender paused and lifted a well-manicured finger meaningfully.
“But it just so happens as there’s modern travelling circus presently set up on Barwick Common over on south-side of town. And I’ll tell thee summat else for free, Jim.”
He opened a pack of sterilized tissues and self-propelled airbrush and set to cleaning out the conduits and junctions of his air-filter as he spoke on.
“Remember. Our orangoid is not classed as animal. He’s fully paid-up member of sentient species, sharing equal citizenship and tax-paying status with us. So he’s his own man and there’d be nothing illegal about him offering his services on his own behalf in circus, if y’ know what I mean?”
Entwhistle’s brows shot up like grizzled caterpillars emerging suddenly from their hiding place under his black-rimmed spectacles.
He picked up the orangoid’s job-specification sheet and grabbed the handset of the videophone.
“Operator,” he muttered, jabbing the signaller repeatedly.
At two fifty-three that foggy Friday afternoon in the early December of 2067: Waldo Bertorelli, the unemployed orangoid, dressed in a one-piece street-pollution suit of silver meflanide with its goldfish-bowl helmet hanging back over his shoulders, stood in front of James Entwhistle’s desk.
He looked just like a visitor from outer space, listening intently as Entwhistle began enthusiastically informing him of what he had managed to fix up at very short notice.
“Freddy Chuckleford’s Circus?” His eyes widened in horror.
“I fail to see what Freddy Chuckleford would want with –“ He broke off, hunching forward, shrewd eyes searching through the filing trays.
“I’ll bet you haven’t even glanced at my job specification, sir.”
Entwhistle frowned in consternation while he fumblingly picked out the orangoid’s papers.
“Yes, I have, Mr. ah – Bertorelli,” he said, holding them up and waving them agitatedly in the air. The tough but flimsy sheets fluttered in the air as he shook them, giving him flash previews of bits of information he’d somehow missed earlier.
He stared at one item in shock, noting that Waldo Bertorelli had put himself on the waiting list to join the tens of thousands who wanted to travel to Mars and work on Braynstom’s terraforming project.
“Here, let me see please.“ Bertorelli reached out for the papers and freed them smoothly from Entwhistle’s grasp.
He glowered at the top sheet in puzzlement, deftly unsticking a smaller flysheet partially obscuring the front.
He examined it closely.
SINGING DANCING CLOWN AND JUGGLING ACROBAT
“Sir! I am not some circus buffoon – some prancing acrobat!” he hooted
“And what is this, added on in biro?”
SPECIAL EXTRA ATTRACTION – MUTATED ANTHROPOID
“What!” The orangoid stared at Entwhistle incredulously.
Heads around the office had jerked up and then quickly looked away again. Entwhistle reddened with embarrassment.
“Please tell me, sir – that you are joking!”
“I – Er – Well – “ Entwhistle seemed lost for words. He spread his arms and hands wide and shrugged apologetically.
“Are you trying to insult me, sir? Think I’m some silly, performing animal!”
The orangoid’s demeanour was changing rapidly. His manner was now altogether more imposing, less deferential.
“Lor-o-google-mighty! You must be joking!”
Entwhistle cringed and looked at the floor longingly. Open up! Let me out!
“Ah! I see what’s happened now.” Entwhistle looked up again.
“Somebody else’s top sheet must have got attached to mine by mistake.”
The orangoid peeled it off and held it at arm’s length – which was quite a reach in his case – as though the sheet were an offensive sample of ordure, his head held high, his nostrils twitching.
He then produced a monocle from an inside pocket and carefully bringing the offending slip of paper back in closer to his field of vision, squinted at it with a condescending scowl.
“Hah! This form belongs to a MR. DAN E. KAY. I take it, he is a”human?”
The orangoid handed it to Entwhistle.
“Er – ” Entwhistle took the sheet and studied it.
Oh dear – so that’s where it got to! Warrender must have mixed ‘em up when he passed ‘em on t’ me! Thanks, Frank, old pal!
“Um – Yes, that’s right,” he said, “Uh – MR. DAN E. KAY – is – er – human! ”
“Pfwah! I thought as much,” Bertorelli exclaimed.
The orangoid was now quivering with barely controlled indignation. His entire body language began to exude contempt and disgust.
“Here, sir!” he said. “Here – is my profession!”
He was glowering disdainfully at Entwhistle.
Entwhistle reddened uncomfortably beneath that glare as he read what was suddenly thrust before his eyes.
“Ooh – er – ulp!”
ASTRO MECHANIC AND HYDROPONICS ENGINEER.
It was with an honours degree from the country’s top university.