Baksheesh

Baksheesh

 

An oily underworld; secret as the esoteric rites of Freemasonry. It has been said that every man has his price, and few there have been or are on the world’s stage to contradict this shameful axiom. Many there are of course who deny the truth of it, but they may never have been put to the test and therefore preach an unreliable testimony.

Such a test however, is wont to fall on anyone high or low, from those at the top to any old Tom, Dick or George Perkins in the street.

 

The director stands at his office window looking down at the factory forecourt. He is watching a disturbance taking place just outside the main gates. Placards are being waved by a considerable number of local people gathered to voice their complaints. ‘No to Pollution,’ and, ‘What about the children?’ The notices proclaim, and there comes an angry murmur from the crowd which reaches the director in spite of his double glazing.

‘One chimney,’ he mutters. ‘All this just for one bloody chimney.’

His manager stands by his side nodding his head in sympathy.

‘I know, sir,’ he says. ‘They claim that our fumes are affecting the health of their children and causing pollution.’

They stand watching awhile, hoping the crowd will eventually disperse, but on the contrary the complaints are getting louder and the protesters becoming dangerously restless.

‘Shall I call the police?’ asks the manager.

‘No, no,’ says the director. ‘Things might then escalate and bring the journalists sniffing around.’

He thinks for a minute, many of the systems in his factory fall far below the standards of ‘health and safety’. It will mean new low carbon boilers and Teflon piping for the distillery, in fact a complete and awesomely expensive refit. He must nip this thing in the bud.

‘Send someone to the gate and say we’re willing to talk the issue over; but mind, they must choose a representative. I’m not having that lot in here.’

The manager issues these instructions and presently a factory-foreman can be seen making his way down to the gate. The protesters go quiet as he speaks and presently one of their number, a decent looking fellow is pushed reluctantly to the front. The gate is opened and the man follows the foreman across the yard and into the building. A minute or so later the director’s door opens and the man is ushered in. ‘This is Mr Perkins, sir,’ says the manager as he leaves the room and closes the door.

‘Well, Mr Perkins,’ says the director. ‘Take a seat will you? We may as well be comfortable while we sort this thing out.’

He sits behind his desk while Mr Perkins, a local plumber, takes a nearby chair.

‘Mr Perkins,’ begins the director. ‘The thing that puzzles me most about your actions is ─ Why us? We know about the fumes, of course, and have always done our best to improve our clean-up systems, but we must live in the real world Mr Perkins and so we have at times to make difficult decisions.’

Mr Perkins speaks for the first time: ‘If you must know, sir, my colleagues are not prepared to listen to excuses; this sort of thing has gone on for far too long and we intend to put a stop to it if we can.’

‘But have you thought what “putting a stop to it” entails?’ asks the director. ‘I employ almost three hundred men and women here, and you, Mr Perkins, may well have the power to make them all unemployed, and as you must know there are not many jobs going in this area.’

Mr Perkins frowns as he digests this new idea, something he had not considered before.

‘And, furthermore,’ the director goes on, ‘our subsidiaries will collapse for want of material, putting even more jobs at risk, not to speak of our suppliers who will have to lay off even more.’

These complex arguments have rather overwhelmed Mr Perkins, but he rallies and attempts to hold his ground.

‘Well it’s the kids you see, sir, coughing and spluttering in the fumes, something has to be done.’

The director gets up and goes over to the window. ‘Come over here, Mr Perkins,’ he says. Mr Perkins comes over and they stand looking out.

‘Do you see those buildings across the river there?’ He points over the water where can be seen a long sprawl of prefabricated structures joined together by a maze of silver piping. ‘Where do you think their waste is going?’

Mr Perkins has never thought about it and remains silent.

‘All right then,’ says the director. ‘Anybody caught any fish in the river lately?’

‘Well, there used to be plenty of fish there,’ says Mr Perkins. ‘I used to catch some myself.’

‘Me too,’ says the director. ‘But that river is now stone cold dead as far as fish are concerned. And that instillation is responsible for it.’

They stand looking in silence for a while.

‘So you see why I asked you ─ Why us? You would be putting your energies to far better use and in a greater cause to deal with them rather than attacking our little chimney. Also that plant is fully automated and only employs a handful of technicians.’

Mr Perkins scratches his head. He looks uncertain and the director, exploiting his advantage makes his proposition.

‘Look, Mr Perkins,’ he says. ‘Why not tell your friends to go home for now and we can arrange a proper meeting and work this whole thing out.’ Mr Perkins thinks this might be a good idea and the director goes on.

‘Look can I ask you something, are you married?’

Mr Perkins replies in the affirmative.

‘Children?’

‘Three,’ says Perkins.

‘Live locally?’

‘Just across the road inMud Lane.’

‘With three children in one of those small houses?’ The director looks astonished.

‘We get by,’ says Mr Perkins.

The director thinks for a bit then… ‘I know what. Come up to my house Saturday evening and we can have a meal and talk about this in a civilised way.’

This seems reasonable and Perkins agrees to come. As he is leaving the director extends his hospitality. ‘Bring your wife,’ he says, his manner is now breezy and they shake hands.

Down at the gates Mr Perkins arrives looking a little more self-important than earlier.

‘We’ve won the first round,’ he announces, ‘They want to talk and the director seems a reasonable man.’

The crowd look happy and one or two cheers follow his words.

‘So we can all go home now and see what comes out at the meeting, he’s invited me to talk it over at the week-end.’

There are a few more cheers at this and one or two cries of ‘Good old Perkins.’

He smiles modestly and speaks again.

‘We should have a meeting at the church-hall next week to discuss what they have to say.’ This means he will have to deal with the hire of the hall which he’d rather get out of, but surely being the leader he ought to get someone else to do this.

‘Who will volunteer to book the hall?’ he asks, and two eager hands go up. He considers, and then makes his choice.

‘You do it, Sid,’ he says, pointing to one of the men. The man nods his head and now Mr Perkins can see they’re eating out of his hand.

He feels the first delightful flush of power.

 

It is Saturday evening and Mrs Perkins is wearing her new hat; she thinks it gives her a certain style appropriate for this important evening, although if she knew what it really looked like she would probably throw it over the nearest hedge. Her confidence in the hat however, is given no support by Mr Perkins who merely grunts when she mentions it.

Having taken a bus to the nearest stop they have now entered a wide avenue of detached houses and one of these is the director’s; an imposing residence behind a large wrought-iron gate. Entering, Mr Perkins rings the bell and Mrs Perkins straightens her hat. A maid opens the door and takes their coats and they are shown into the lounge where the director and his wife await them.

‘Ah, Mr Perkins,’ says the director, beaming and holding out his hand in welcome.

‘But look,’ he says when hands have been shaken.

‘I can’t keep calling you Mr Perkins, what do your friends call you?’

‘Well George actually,’ says Perkins, looking a little embarrassed by this borderline familiarity.

‘That’s it then, George,’ says the director. ‘And you must call me Walter, after all we must keep our problems on a friendly basis otherwise we’ll never see our way through them.’

Spousal introductions are then made while the director serves drinks to their taste, and soon they are sitting at a longish table while the maid serves food from a trolley.

‘So, George,’ says the director. ‘You live in one of those houses near the factory.’ He pauses in a ruminating manner. ‘Must be a bit difficult with three children.’

George says nothing to this but Joan (Mrs Perkins) never passes up an opportunity to bewail her circumstances.

‘Difficult?’ she says. ‘Sometimes drives me nearly to the end of my tether.’

‘Well of course, my dear,’ says Mabel, (the director’s wife) ‘Particularly since in such a small place your nanny cannot possibly live in.’

‘We haven’t got a nanny.’ says Joan flatly.

‘No nanny?’ Mabel’s voice is full of womanly compassion, she seems to like the sound of the phrase and repeats it thoughtfully, as if the close conjunction of the four ‘n’s intrigues her by its oddity.

‘No nanny. Well we must have a little talk later,’ she looks towards the men who are now deep in conversation.

‘We’ll go to my room while the men have their brandy.’

Meanwhile the director is talking of some houses on this side of town.

‘Know Oakley Avenue, George?’ he says, and George admits he knows of it.

‘Some nice roomy houses down there,’ the director goes on. ‘Ever seen them?’

George has. ‘We sometimes walk round there on a Sunday,’ he says. ‘I know the ones you mean.’

‘Well I’ll let you into a secret, George.’

The director leans confidentially forward and lowers his voice.

‘As a matter of fact my company owns the freehold to three of them, and they happen to be at my personal disposal.’

George looks suitably impressed, but wonders at the turn the conversation is taking.

Mabel stands up. ‘We’re going upstairs,’ she announces, ushering Joan before her.

‘Well, George’ says the director when the ladies have gone. ‘This protest business of yours as I said before, is going to cause a lot of bad trouble with far-reaching consequences for many people, and you, George, are the man at the helm; the steersman who guides the ship onto the rocks, or into clearer waters. And so if an opportunity came, George, to steer your ship into those clearer waters, ─ would you take it?’

‘Well, put like that,’ says George, ‘I have to say I would.’

‘Good,’ says the director, ‘because as we both know your protest is composed of people still largely in a state of flux about their objectives, and therefore might easily be turned at this early stage to focus on the far more deserving case of that instillation across the river. Failing this, of course, I see only a good deal of unemployment and strikes which may spread through the surrounding area. And it’s all down to you, George.’

George is silent, he cannot find fault with anything the director has said but is reluctant to concede any of these points.

‘I want to do what’s right,’ he finally says, ‘and it doesn’t seem right to shop about like that.’

‘Seeming right,’ says the director, ‘is sometimes dependant on where you’re looking at it from. For instance, I can say quite candidly that my company would look most favourably upon someone who diverted a calamity from our operations and led merely to the downfall of a handful of poncey boffins across the river, not to speak of the fishing to be done if you were to succeed.’ He watches George closely.

‘And were such success attained, it will be the easiest thing in the world for me to personally sign over the lease of one of theOakley Roadhouses to you!’ He leans forward with the bottle. ‘Have another brandy while you think about it.’

Perkins, now completely out of his depth holds out his glass.

Meanwhile upstairs the ladies have the gin bottle out and Joan, unused to spirits, thinks that Mabel is a wonderful woman.

‘I know what they’re talking about down there,’ says Mabel. ‘I heard them before; it’s to do with those houses inOakley Road.’

‘Oh, I know the ones,’ says Joan, clapping her hands together. ‘I love walking down there and imagining what it would be like to live there. I shouldn’t do it but sometimes I just can’t help myself.’

‘Of course not,’ says Mabel. ‘But you know, Joan, Walter has a big say in what happens to those houses since the company has the freehold on some of them, and frankly, my dear, if your George wasn’t so stubborn it wouldn’t take much to find yourself owning one of them.’

‘Owning one ─ us?’ Joan has the wind knocked out of her and cannot quite grasp what Mabel is implying.

‘I wouldn’t say something like that lightly,’ Mabel goes on. ‘I expect they’re talking the whole thing over now, and I just hope for your sake that George sees the sense in what Walter is offering. Have another gin, my dear.’ And she tops up Joan’s glass.

Later, as they are leaving Walter shakes George’s hand again.

‘Come up to my office on Monday morning.’ he says jovially. ‘After you’ve had a sleep on it. I’m sure we can reach some sort of agreement.’

 

The Perkins are very quiet on the way home. George is sunk in thought and his face under the street-lights give signs of a profound inner struggle. Joan glances at him from time-to-time but lets him stew for a while, whilst holding her fire for a time when it will have greater effect. Reaching home they retire to bed and Joan, listening to his breathing knows that George is still awake and still stewing.

‘George,’ she says into the darkness.

‘Grunt,’ George’s grunt is non-committal.

‘George, we must have a talk. You can’t make serious decisions like this on your own; it’s my life you’re juggling with too.’

‘What decisions?’ asks George, surly voiced.

‘About the protest,’ says Joan. ‘I heard Walter say that he’d like you to move it over the river.’

‘But I can’t,’ sighs George dolefully. ‘I represent those protesters, which means I must do the right thing.’

‘Would they do the same for you, George? Or is the right thing looking after your family and doing the best for your children?’ Joan has her arguments well-honed and knows exactly where to apply them.

‘Why should I change things just for him?’ asks George.

‘For a very good reason George,’ says Joan firmly. ‘For one of those houses inOakley Road.’

George sits up. ‘What do you know about that?’

‘Mabel told me,’ says Joan. ‘And if you turn down the only opportunity we’ll ever have to get out of this hole, I’ll make sure you never forget it.’

‘But don’t you see, it’s the principle that counts,’ says George. But his arguments seem to be, even in his own eyes, weakening.

 ‘Oh, George,’ sighs Joan. ‘Just think of it. The kids could go toOakleyHigh School, it’s right in that catchment area.’ Now she too sits up. She puts her arms around George and gives him an affectionate squeeze.

‘Playing fields, George, and music lessons, they’d be so happy to get out of this dump,’ she sighs again. ‘And one of those houses would be our dream come true. Oh, George; Just think of it ─ but I’m going to need some money for the curtains,’ she lay down and begins to ruminate upon what colour would best suit those large windows and is soon asleep. George however, lies long into the night. ‘I wish I’d never got involved in the whole thing,’ he thinks. He is definitely still stewing.

Monday comes. George finishes his breakfast and is on his way out to the factory to have his last meeting with Walter. Joan stops him at the door. They have spoken little on the subject which now preoccupies them, and she had limited herself only to giving him frequent meaningfully hard looks.

‘Remember what I said, George,’ she says before letting him go.

‘If you let this golden opportunity go by you’ll live to regret it for the rest of your days; and I’ll never forget it either.’ A pause, then… ‘And neither will the kids.’

The director welcomes George into his office and when they are seated begins to speak in a business-like tone.

‘So, George,’ he says. ‘Now we can put all our cards on the table and get down to the nitty-gritty, and I hope you’ve had time enough to see the lay of the land and are ready to decide on your options.’ He leans back in his seat and pulls out a cigar which after some minor preparations he lights and speaking between puffs goes on.

‘I can guarantee, George, that the day after the protest moves over the river you will hold the deeds of anOakley Roadhouse. In your name. In your hand.’

‘Yes, I gathered that,’ says George. ‘But you see it’s the principle of the thing. It’s…’ But George is no philosopher and dialectics on this scale are not in his repertoire. Walter goes on.

‘Well principles are all very fine if you can afford them, George, and it seems to me that in all honesty you can’t. But look, my company has a little fund for emergencies and so on, why don’t we give you some upfront incentive to choose in our favour, after all there will have to be curtains for the new house and with those windows they won’t come cheap.

He feels around in his jacket pocket and comes out with his chequebook. ‘I’ll write you a cheque out now,’ he says, ‘just to show you that I’m a man of my word.’

Taking out a fountain pen and with an expert flourish he fills in the cheque; rips it out and standing up hands it out to George, who is so taken aback by this sudden move that he too rises and before he realises it the cheque is in his hand. He looks at it and is stunned by what he sees. Twenty five thousand pounds made out to him: George Perkins.

‘Well, George, what do you say to that?’ The money’s yours and no one will ever know, just take it old fellow; and the house, and we can all start breathing again.’

George’s brains are in high pressure mode and Joan’s last words are coming through loud and strong. An immense struggle is going on inside him but he can’t find the right words. Taking George’s silence for compliance, Walter pushes forward a small receipt pad and holds out his pen.

‘Just sign this George, will you? It’s only for the internal accounts.’ He laughs in a friendly man-to-man fashion. ‘Just so the girl who keeps the cash-box knows where it’s gone.’ George, overtaken by forces greater than himself takes the pen from the director and signs. ─  Or does he?

 

 

An analysis of ‘Baksheesh’

George of course is the archetypal innocent; a representative of the anarchist’s fond hope that beneath the surface mankind is inherently good. His problem is that his attitude is instinctual; he has never examined the rationale for it, and being innocent cannot compete with a well worded alternative. Had he developed perhaps, a more philosophical turn of mind he may well have told Walter to stuff his twenty five grand up his fat arse ─ and the house too while he’s about it.

 

 

This however, would have upset Joan and the kids no end. It is doubtful if his marriage would have survived, since the atmosphere at Mud Lane would have speedily become unbearable to him. He would have had to leave and end up alone in a rented room somewhere washing his own socks and in general having a bit of a hard time for the rest of his life.

Or, had he been somewhat less of an innocent and accumulated a little ‘worldliness’, he would have been in a position to take one look at the cheque and say: ‘Make it fifty grand and you’ve got a deal.’ And then gone on to make a very good living starting protests and then selling out.  Joan, of course, would have been pleased with her very, very expensive curtains and glad at last to have no no nanny, and the kids? ─ Expensive toys and flashy bicycles; riding lessons and tutoring for university.

What is the poor man to do?

 

Dave Tomlin from ‘Power Lines’


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