Sunday, 6 January 2013

And it rained.

So I'm working on some short stories these days, a sort of playful politics I suppose... we'll see what comes of them, here's one about all this rain we keep having, and what it means for food prices.

It rained. It rained and rained and after it had finished raining then so it would start to rain again. Nobody could remember a summer so wet, people felt short-changed, stitched up by nature, and when autumn and winter proved no drier, so they started to lament that the weather… like everything else… had once been better. The rain fell. It fell onto the concrete they had lain over the earth, gushing into rivers, streams and seas, spilling into those fields not yet concreted, so that the puddles filled and then grew and then spread into bogs. The earth was washed away, pulling rocks and stones and pebbles down country roads that turned to torrents, the tarmac crumbling as debris rolled over it and water forced its way into the small fissures that first opened and then gaped. The earth was washed away, stripped from around the trees so that tendril like masses of roots were first pulled into view and then upended altogether when the storms blew and the trees could no longer hold the ground. Riverbanks collapsed, cliffs collapsed, escarpments of land collapsed. In the affluent regions west of London, the rich blew tearful noses into handkerchiefs as they saw their boat houses swallowed by the river Thames, as they stood helpless in the doorway and watched the carpet turn from a velveteen red to a muddy brown. In the south west of the country the banks of aggregate that held the railway tracks started sinking into fields so that trains were at first delayed and then cancelled. In a village called Ottery, the house at the foot of the hill was demolished. The possibility of flooding meant the house had always been a fraction of the price of every other on the street, but as years passed and the floods grew worse, it became obvious that nobody would live there ever again.

In the countryside the rain seemed to fall heavier even than in the towns, although perhaps it was that there the rain could not simply rush away into gutters and drains. Vicars responded to murmurs from the pews, this was not – they assured their congregations – either a second flood or necessarily even punishment for the wickedness of mankind. Farmers stood in their doorways and shook their heads, trying to recall a time when the world had been so miserably wet. Cows were shut inside sheds and barns, the farmers fearful that the hooves of their herds would soon turn the ground to quagmires. Unable to leave their cows outside eating grass, the farmers were forced to buy straw and silage and feed for their herds, so that those farmers who did not go bankrupt altogether were forced to double the price of their milk and meat. As rivals went out of business, some of the richer farmers smiled long and cynical smiles at the plight of the small farms, for they had always used their own land to grow feed of their own. As it went on raining, and raining, eventually it had rained until the tracks leading out to the fields were washed away, so that the tractors could neither reach the fields nor harvest the crops without getting stuck in mud or causing banks of earth to fold beneath their weight. The wheat drowned, the harvest failed. The fruit trees were stunted, the harvest failed. The potatoes were struck with blight, the harvest failed. The vegetables didn’t get enough sunlight. The harvest failed. All over the world the harvest failed

As rain kept on falling down so food prices kept on rising up, floating higher on the rivers that crept slowly up their flood defences. The cost of a loaf of bread doubled and then tripled, soon it had risen so high nobody could remember by how many times the original price had been eclipsed. The price of meat stayed low, for a while at least, as farmers all over the world rushed to slaughter their dairy cows before feed costs overtook their entire income. Six months later, once that glut of slaughtered meat was over, the price of a steak was a thousand times what it had once been. After that slaughter of most of the dairy cows, a pint of milk went up tenfold, and butter and cheese went from basic items to foods of luxury. The cost of pasta went up, the cost of beans went up, the cost of rice went up, and people who had been used to full stomachs became slowly accustomed to smaller meals made up of foods they liked less. The word crisis is so terribly overused… and yet… with no word of exaggeration, here was a crisis.

Budgets were stretched as waistlines shrunk, and yet the food shortages were destined to affect some more than others. There had always been a number of people for whom eating took a greater amount of the money available to them, for whom trips to the shops had always been acts of careful prudence and sensible spending, a weekly ritual inserted into life to make them painfully aware that they had no money. For want of any better words, and cutting to the point, let’s just call these people for that they were. The Poor. The cost of food became first angering and finally heartbreaking, embarrassedly the politicians avoided mentioning how many people had come to rely on charities for their meals, and most of those with a little more money became gradually more skilled in ignoring a problem that was not their own.

The poor didn’t think to complain that this hardship was unfair, it’s an untold truth that poor people expect life to be hard, and they generally blame themselves rather than anybody else when things get harder. They kept the hunger to themselves and tried taking practical steps to improve the situation. First of all, most obviously, they started to eat less. Next… in order to save money for food… they turned off the heating in their houses. Then… in order to have more money for food… they worked harder. And yet the problem of their hunger was particularly cruel, for the poor people found that when their houses were cold they had to eat more. And the poor people found that the harder they worked the more they had to eat. Slowly the poor grew thin. As the rain kept on falling they grew thinner and thinner, and slowly it seemed that the most crowded parts of towns and cities were becoming less crowded. Those who could still afford to eat remarked that the high cost of food was a good thing, that many of the poor had grown fat. “A little bit of hardship will be good for them” was the sort of thing people would remark, and at dinner parties people made conversation about the improved health of the nation since greediness had ceased to be an option. Of course there were many who felt these opinions to be in bad taste, and lots of well intentioned people loved nothing more than going out at night to give food to long queues of the starving poor. Streetlamps shone in the curve of ladles, steam rose from bubbling pans and haggard faces slid one by one into the night, each one more empty than the last, like train carriages shunted along to a knackers yard. Many heated conversations were had around dinner tables as friends and acquaintances argued, working up great appetites in deciding whether the poor deserved their fate or were victims of a great injustice.

In time there emerged reports that hunger had led to cannibalism, that in the poorest parts of the country the poor had taken to rounding up the dead and dying, butchering them for meat and feeding the flesh to the living. Many refused to believe that such a thing could ever be true, but as the reports and evidence grew, and as piles of bones were found beneath newly dug earth in parks and fields, it became accepted as fact, and even the most well meaning of people shuddered to think that the poor could have become so bestial.

Years went by and people forgot that they had once lived in an age of different weather, an age where a week of consecutive rain might have seemed unusual or unpleasant. People seldom left the house without an umbrella, and with this and other small changes, so they adjusted and forgot what once had been. The price of food became stable at its once unaffordable rate, and the problem of the poor and how to feed them slipped from memory. Society was quieter it seemed, more peaceful and less violent… everyone remarked on how the everyday person had become better educated than they once had been, it seemed that uncouth behaviour, bad manners and shouting in public had all become things of the past. Drunkenness and fighting on a weekend night had become far less commonplace, and it was hard to argue that society did not seem to be altogether quite harmonious. Everybody knew what had happened. At the time the newspapers had reported on the graves, on the empty houses, the bones, the final crawling corpses, more dead than alive, who had been put out of their misery when they arrived at the hospitals. Everybody knew what had happened, but they refrained from talking about as much. Sometimes… sometimes… if you paid close attention, and were talking to someone a little flippant, you would catch a glimmer in the eye or a quirk to the mouth, a small and guilty smile that said everything. People were happier this way, life was better.

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