★ ‘Morus’ by William Guppy

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In the unemployment office of a West London borough, on a musty sofa covered in flecks, Robert Morus sat, one tweed trouser leg crossed over the other. Glancing at his pocket watch, he sighed loudly and folded his arms.

‘It’s a damned disgrace,’ Robert said to the pensioner beside him on the sofa. ‘I have no doubt that these degenerates are deliberately wasting our time. I suppose they consider it an apt punishment for not conforming to their ‘work-ethic.’’

The old man smiled politely at Robert but said nothing.

“Week in and week out they carry out this charade!” he spluttered. ‘They interrogate us as if we were criminals, for God’s sake. It is our right to claim these subsidies, and yet one is made to feel like a vagabond just for exercising his freedom as a citizen of this once-great nation.’

Robert had become quite excited by this point, and was shifting his considerable weight across the sofa. The old man clutched onto the armrest beside him to resist the chasm which Robert had opened.

‘I tell you, if I have to wait another minute longer, I shall walk out. Don’t try to stop me. I would sooner be penniless than suffer much more of this indignity. You know, it could do a man of my reputation considerable damage if I were to be seen in here by one of my colleagues.’

The old man shifted in his seat uncomfortably and glanced toward the window at the far end of the room. It was a small box window flooded with sunlight. He couldn’t see through the brightness, but outside birds were chirping in the morning mist.

Robert sunk back into the sofa. ‘What brings you here?’ he asked.

The man cleared his throat. ‘Rheumatism.’

‘As I suspected,’ said Robert, becoming quite animated again. ‘I suppose they expect you to work, even in your state, the heartless bureaucrats. Any reasonable person can clearly see that you’re unfit for any kind of practical application.’

Robert had begun to wave his hands wildly as he spoke, narrowly missing the old man’s face with each gesticulation.

‘You are quite obviously decrepit, and possibly approaching senility. It is simply unreasonable to expect someone such as yourself to be able to perform even the most basic public function. It’s not fair on society, let alone yourself.’

The old man began to interject, but Robert went on.

‘I am of the opinion that people of your age and ー’ he looked the old man up and down ‘ ーability, should be properly taken care of. Firstly, you should all be rounded up and deposited in several communal homes for the elderly. No doubt you live alone in a large house with just your wife?’

The old man shook his head. ‘Dead these ten years.’

‘Worse! An entire residence for just yourself is hardly fair on the rest of us. No, I thoroughly believe in elderly-communal living,’ said Robert, buttoning up his jacket. ‘As well as opening up the housing market for those of us who still have our lives ahead of us, it would provide a greater quality of life for the elderly. For instance, you are no doubt incredibly lonely living at home all by yourself. Am I correct in this assumption?’

The old man shifted in his chair and looked straight ahead.

‘I thought so. Now imagine living in a household surrounded by those who share the same interests; bridge, crosswords and television soap-operas. You would never want for company again! You could all work together to perform simple tasks that would be impossible to perform as individuals, such as taking baths.’

The old man had pulled his cap over his eyes.

‘The government of course, would fund the project, and you could live very comfortably indeed amongst yourselves. And with all that body heat filling the house, you’d never complain of cold again.’

Robert’s energy had peaked, and he began now to grow bored of the subject. He went over to the water-cooler in the corner of the room and filled a plastic cup.

‘Of course, I offer these ideas freely to the officials here, but they never listen. Their minds are too embedded in the sludge of routine and uniformity to consider any radical solutions to their problems.’

He took a sip of water.

‘It’s a shame really.’

Robert leaned against the water-cooler and surveyed his environment. The sofa was pressed up against a whitewashed wall near the corner of the office. It overlooked hedgerows of grey slats that cordoned off each employee’s cubicle. Above them a ceiling fan hummed lazily along with the sounds of keys being hit, papers being shuffled. He looked at the old man who had retreated now into the collar of his duffle coat as the thump of stiletto on carpet grew louder.

‘Robert Morus.’ A neutral voice.

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