by J. W. Wood
Martin Hugginson was an ordinary man who dreamed of the extraordinary. Everything about him was average: his looks, his height, the condition of his hypothalamus – in fact, the size and condition of every organ. Including that one.
Unusually for someone so ambitious, he was also a nice boy. You know – get a job, get married, have children. Make his parents proud and have a nice life.After he graduated from the University of Coventry with a lower second-class degree in psychology (“very creditable,” his tutor said) he began to cast about for a career.
A few months of botched applications and failed interviews followed. Then he spotted an advertisement for a Junior Data Assistant at the National Statistics Office in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.
“That’ll do me,” Martin thought.
The National Statistics Office (NSO) was housed in one of those 1960s blocks which always seem to be located near a station. Wherever you live in the world, you’ve seen one like it: grey, filthy, rectangular windows and a flat roof. The kind of place that, when you pass in a train, you wonder who or what dwells within its walls. Somewhere that looks more like a filing cabinet than a place of work.
I should have told you Martin got the job, but you probably guessed. After all, Junior Data Assistant at the National Statistics Office hardly sets your hair on fire, does it? A lower second in psychology from Coventry University was more than enough to perform what was needed.
Martin’s job consisted of handling data enquiries from the public and government departments. He had twenty days holiday on top of public holidays, a final salary pension and £22,000 per year – much less than other graduates. But Martin didn’t care. It was a start.
The NSO’s Nuneaton site hid a secret. At its heart there lay a grass quadrangle. Perhaps the architects imagined an oasis for those crunching numbers inside; a place to have lunch or chat to colleagues. Maybe even contemplate boredom-related self-harm.
It was almost always deserted given the amount of rain pouring down nine months of the year. There were four sodden wooden park benches facing each other, one on each side; two waste bins for lunchers to put sandwich wrappers in, and a one-legged pheasant.
No one knew how the pheasant got there, or why it didn’t fly away. Sometimes staff spotted it venturing up to the roof, where it would squawk and cackle. But it never flew away. It probably fed on any worm unfortunate enough to poke its head through the grass, or on scraps of sandwich tossed to it by employees. Maybe someone was secretly feeding it drugs, which explained why it never left. Its feathers were dark red and it had yellow eyes. It compensated for its ambulatory disability by being the loudest bird Martin had ever heard in his life.
Martin’s boss welcomed him on his first day with a nondescript handshake and a brief grin. Paul Harfrow was two years away from statutory retirement and had worked in this building for thirty-four years. He’d long ago settled here, and it had settled into him, weighed down by a Herculean gut that preceded him everywhere.
“This is your desk,” he told Martin, pointing at a dark plastic-looking table, eight feet long and four feet wide with an old-fashioned computer on it. “We’ll look at what you’ll be doing later.”
Martin was given a week to read through the induction manual, make sure he knew where things were on the server, and hide in the toilets when he couldn’t take being at his desk any more. He undertook these non-tasks in a giant enclosure under strip lights, then went home and ate sausages or beans with potatoes – mashed, boiled, fried. Sometimes he ate a curry.
Back in the office, the nearest employee to him was twenty yards away. He was called Trevor. Trevor was bald on top with long, unkempt grey hair that stuck out and ran down his neck. He was quite old, about the same age as Paul Harfrow. Martin had noticed Trevor dozing off after lunch. He smelled of stale beer and cigarette smoke.
After a week of surfing the internet and listening to pheasant squawks, Martin started wondering if this was the right job for him. But then, that Friday morning, he met Fenella Clarke. And someone gave him something to do – at last.
Fenella Clarke was a slash of scarlet on the used cellophane of the National Statistics Office. She worked as Executive Assistant to Tom Taylor, the top dog in this place. They looked like a couple out of an office furniture ad: Taylor, a trim man in his late fifties with dark charcoal suits, a white shirt, and blue tie; Fenella in a pencil skirt and two-inch heels. She had a long wavy perm, deep crimson lipstick, and big glasses with thin frames. She was young, like Martin.
Martin found her unbearably sexy. So much so that when Tom Taylor came to his desk that Friday morning to greet him as the new recruit, he looked down and away. Even though Fenella did no more than stand behind her boss holding a tablet computer. But when you’re twenty-two and your hormones are on fire, that’s enough.
“Settling in all right, are we, er, Martin? Did Paul give you enough to do?”
Martin could tell by the way Taylor looked at him he was expected to bullshit. So he did: “Oh yes, thank you, Mr. Taylor.”
The two men shook hands perfunctorily. Tom Taylor smelled of soap – a reassuring smell.
“Good. Well, there’s something I’d like you to do for me.”
“Certainly, Mr. Taylor – just name it.”
The pheasant crowed in the quadrangle down below.
“Bloody bird. Still, you’ll get used to it,” said Taylor with the kind of quick smile that suggested he never had. “Now look. The Department of Health has asked for a multi-variant analysis of health outcomes for all children born between 2000 and 2015 split out by region and gender, parental income, and marital status. I know it’s a lot to ask, but Fenella here will give you a hand, all right?”
Martin said it was fine by him. In particular, working with Fenella was especially fine.
“Very good. Oh – and I need to see something by four PM today, OK?”
Martin nodded like a marionette on speed, and Taylor was gone. Fenella Clarke waited until her boss was out of earshot then sat down in Martin’s seat.
“Right. Let’s call the people at Health and find out what they want.”
“Well, I imagine it’s to do with policy.”
Fenella stared at him as if he’d just declared a belief in virgin births via extra-terrestrial c-section. “Or maybe they’re battling a journo and want to kill the story. Let’s see, shall we?”
And with that, her manicured nails reached for the phone on Martin’s desk.
“Simon Tickley, please,” she demanded.
The voice boomed out from Martin’s speakerphone. A voice used to ordering expensive wines in central London restaurants. Martin imagined pink-cuffed shirts, silk ties, and double-breasted suits kept buttoned up to hide a not-so-incipient beer gut.
“Simon? It’s Fenella Clarke from NSO Nuneaton. I wanted clarification on your request.”
“Fenella! How are you?”
Martin pictured Tickley’s tongue out on a stalk, his leer echoing down the phone.
“Fine, thanks, Simon.”
Either Fenella was playing it very cool or she had no interest in him. Martin suspected the latter. “We have a new colleague – Martin Hugginson. He’s going to assist me with your requests. So: do you really want multi-variant blah blah bollocks, or what’s your problem?”
A cough at the other end. The pheasant crowed. Martin wanted to kill it, even though he’d not been in the job a week.
“Fenella, my dear. You know me too well.” Tickley chuckled. “Gordon Bells on The Times – No-Balls Bells – uncovered our plans to offer healthcare vouchers to single mothers. He’s got a hair up his arse because his wife left him and he’s going to do a piece about single-father families being neglected. I need ammo for a rebuttal.”
“I see.” Fenella paused and looked at Martin like he was a particularly bland sheet of wallpaper. “Something that proves that the Southeast is full of lone daddies selflessly parenting on their own, right?”
“Right. And ask your wallah – oh sorry, Martin. Martin, if you could please prepare the full analysis to make it look proper, that would be great.”
They said their goodbyes, then Fenella pressed the OFF button. She turned to Martin, her brown eyes sparkling. Martin felt his heart beat faster. Then she said, “Do you know how to do a full-stack interrogation in SQL?”
Martin shook his head. The pheasant crowed. Inwardly, he swore he’d murder it after lunch.
That night, Martin was eating a ready-meal curry straight out of its plastic container. He’d failed to murder the pheasant. But he had given Simon Tickley what he wanted. He’d also microwaved his meal-for-one curry for the requisite three minutes, but botched the removal of the cellophane covering such that it slopped among the sauce. He watched the TV news and navigated this mixture of cellophane and chicken Madras with a plastic fork.
The health minister came on. Martin watched him deny that healthcare vouchers were prejudicial towards single-parent families headed by men. He heard the Minister talk about protecting lone fathers, who – the Minister acknowledged – did a great job, constituting as many as ten percent of all fathers in certain regions.
However, that was complete nonsense. Martin and Fenella had invented the number for Simon Tickley via a statistical dump so large and impenetrable no one would read it. Least of all Simon Tickley, a policy man who didn’t read at the best of times, and remained untroubled by reflection of any kind. Why waste time thinking when the fate of a nation rested on your expanding paunch? The ten percent statistic did serve one purpose, though: it launched Martin’s career at the NSO.
Martin became adept at creating statistical reports that proved nothing. Fish stocks that weren’t real. Bogus plastic card manufacturing plants somewhere near Hexham, Northumberland. Meanwhile his relationship with Fenella remained at best cool and professional; glacial might be a better word.
Perhaps his biggest thrill came from hearing the numbers he’d invented being used in newspapers, TV, and radio. OK, he didn’t invent them: rather, he drew conclusions the evidence didn’t necessarily warrant because he knew that’s what those asking the questions wanted to hear.
One day, Martin plucked up the courage to ask Fenella out for lunch on the pretence of staking out the pheasant. She accepted his invitation, even though his sexual confidence was less than zero after a three-year on-off relationship at uni with a woman who was out of his league and knew it. In other words, he’d been used – and was understandably wary. Not a good look to a young lady like Fenella.
“We could throw a net over it then sit on it or something. Or feed it poison seed. Or put it to sleep and drive it to Norfolk. That’s kind of like dying,” Martin mused as he sat with Fenella in the quadrangle, munching on a fish paste sandwich while trying not to think about what was in the paste.
“Martin! That’s shocking! How could you be so heartless to a poor, defenceless bird?”
Fenella tossed the last crust of her sandwich onto the grass and the pheasant hopped over on its one good leg to peck at the scrap of bread.
“Don’t do that! You’re feeding the beast!” Martin protested.
“Aren’t we all, Martin? Aren’t we all?” Fenella paused then asked, “I wonder how he stands up with just one good leg?”
Martin wondered whether he knew anything about the size of a male pheasant’s wedding tackle. When he realised he didn’t, he muttered something about resting on his tail feathers. It was clear by this stage that his attempt to manifest an air of manly hunter-gathererness had failed. Fenella stood up, wiped the crumbs from her packet of crisps off her dark skirt and tossed her empty Diet Coke can in the bin with a decisive thunk.
“Come on. We’ve got those data tables for Lincolnshire’s potato production to take care of.”
Unable to resist such arcadian overtures, Martin screwed up his sandwich-wrapper and threw it at the bin, but missed. When he went to pick up the wrapper, he thought he saw the pheasant’s yellow eyes laughing as it hopped around on its one good leg.
Though he didn’t know it, Martin’s stock was rising in what might be termed the corridors of power. Those corridors were in fact a warren of offices infested with mildly overweight younger men and, sadly, fewer women. The men had impressive yet useless degrees from grand universities but couldn’t have nailed two bits of wood together if their lives depended on it. Anyway, Martin’s name was increasingly being spoken of in said corridors.
“Get Hugginson on it,” went the cry.
Martin accompanied Fenella to the annual conference of government statisticians in London. This year, the title was ‘From Repository to Policy: Helping Ministers take evidence-based action’. The word “repository” made Martin think of the word “suppository” – but then, he was still only twenty-two.
At the conference, Martin clapped loudly after Fenella’s presentation and she noticed him doing so. He also met Simon Tickley in the flesh: Simon was as well-dressed and overweight as Martin imagined. Tickley was also going bald, and would soon reveal aggravated indigestion caused by the over-consumption of caffeine and alcohol. In other words, he farted a lot.
In his conversation with Tickley, Martin used terms he didn’t know the meaning of, such as “Pearson’s R” and “Student’s T”, in an effort to impress. It worked – mainly because impressing Simon Tickley, a man of Olympian stupidity, was not difficult.
During the conference dinner that evening, Martin sat next to Fenella while the Head of the Cabinet Office droned her way through a speech. They ate Chicken Maryland made with used engine-oil, or so it seemed, and drank a lot of low-quality wine. After dinner the entire conference headed for the bar at once.
Martin tagged along behind Fenella. As it turned out this was a good move. After about an hour, Fenella was visibly drunk and asked Martin to help her get back to her room.
Once in her room, Fenella wasted no time on preliminaries. Under the auspices of a goodnight kiss, she stuck her tongue in Martin’s mouth. After a brief moment of astonishment, he responded, and before they knew where they were, as the tabloid press would say, Martin lay on Fenella’s hotel-room bed with Fenella on top of him.
During proceedings he tried everything he could not to reach the top of his asymptotic curve. He thought about potato production in Lincolnshire, the number of public toilets in Cumbria, renewable energy installations off the Pentland Firth. He even thought about the pheasant in the office quadrangle, though this nearly softened his powers of analytical penetration to a catastrophic degree.
As a result of these thoughts and the amount of alcohol they had consumed, Martin managed to sustain his input until Fenella was satisfied with the results. After that she rolled over and fell asleep. Seconds later Martin was also asleep.
When Martin awoke, he wondered if life could get any better. His new job was going well, he had just slept with the girl of his (recent) dreams, and it seemed as if the world lay before him like an open mollusc. Only not one that was open because it was dead.
Of course, the pheasant in the office could disappear, which would improve matters further. When he got back to the office, he no longer noticed the pheasant, though he could, admittedly, still hear it croaking.
As to Martin’s self-interrogation whether life could improve further, it was about to – at least from his point of view. But perhaps not from the perspective of the British state, its taxpayers and civil servants.
You see, Martin began to gain power. And power, as we all know, is the greatest narcotic – or hallucinogen. For instance, Simon Tickley invited him to a shooting weekend. This consisted of people dressing up in clothes from the nineteenth century and blasting away at defenceless ducks and geese who died in agony from their gunshot wounds. Martin had never wanted to kill anything and the sight of dying birds made him feel sick. Especially if they weren’t that bastard pheasant.
He went anyway because he’d been invited and thought it might be good for his career – a word he’d recently learned to attach to sitting in an office and doing what he was told to do when told to do it for eight hours each weekday. He also remembered the other meaning of the word “career” – to run around wildly and with no apparent purpose.
That Christmas, Simon Tickley sent him an expensive bottle of brandy from an upmarket store in London as a gift. He didn’t mention that he’d put it on expenses – effectively, the taxpayer gifted Martin the brandy.
As Martin’s power in government grew, so he became aware of his ability to affect change. One time he decided taxing condoms would be a great idea because he didn’t like using them. So he fed the opposition parties bogus statistics about the need for better family planning. He built an argument from evidence stating that funds for this should come from the user base for family planning. The government caved in, and the world’s first “Pay as you Come” legislation was born.
However much his power grew, he had still done nothing about the pheasant. He celebrated his first work anniversary over lunch in Nuneaton’s most exclusive eatery. Fenella gazed at him across the table, her passion for him at its fullest flower. Amid such happiness, he remembered the pheasant back at the office and frowned.
As he perfected his own life, so the pheasant’s existence became more of an affront. Soon the very idea that this bird would have the temerity to squawk and shit where he worked was offensive to him, and he swore he would remove it, come what may.
Shortly after this first anniversary lunch with his inamorata, Martin experienced his finest hour. After no small amount of crafty planning and inventing numbers, Martin succeeded in bringing the UK’s first publicly funded Rock History Museum to Nuneaton, rather than London or Liverpool or Manchester or Newcastle or Glasgow or Belfast or anywhere else. He did this by supplying dodgy numbers to policy-makers too lazy or bored to check them. He also befriended an MP who liked rock music and the sound of his own voice and made sure he was properly briefed.
However, the rock-music-loving MP died suddenly. He passed away true to his policy objectives, since his heart attack occurred in a hotel room, in the presence of a forty-six-year-old stripper, an ounce of cocaine, a bottle of VSOP cognac and a carton of cigarettes.
His long-suffering wife was said by the media to be “devastated”.
After that MP’s passing, Martin’s life nosedived. An independent candidate was elected to replace the rock-loving people’s representative and this candidate was not just independent in name: she also possessed moral fibre, profound intelligence and a commitment to the truth. Her name was Stella Maryton and she was a single mother who believed in the free distribution of condoms. She had short hair and her enemies spread ugly rumours about her private life. Nobody liked her very much because she was honest.
Her many positive qualities meant that when she took over, she soon discovered Martin’s bogus statistical evidence relating to the Rock Museum. After some further digging, she also uncovered Martin’s fairy tale fish stocks, Hexham’s ahistorical plastic card factory, and the filching of public funds for everything from VSOP cognac to condoms, hotels, and restaurants.
Meanwhile, Martin closed in on the pheasant. Not with a gun or knife or some poison food. Nor even by sticking a hungry fox or gun dog in the quadrangle where it lived. No, Martin was using the deadliest weapon he knew – the power of statistics to confuse and bamboozle.
However, Martin hadn’t reckoned with Stella Maryton, the advent of her anti-statistics bill, her powers of forensic research, or her capacity for networking. During the first few months of her tenure, Stella had browbeaten everyone from the Cabinet Secretary to the media (off the record) about how the misuse of statistics was turning the UK into a banana republic. She used the term “fantasy island”, which made lots of influential people scared, because they liked to imagine both they and the country they ran mattered.
Based on statistical evidence, Martin constructed an argument for the legitimacy of denying existence to certain forms of wildlife (that is, killing them) on the basis of fundamental human rights such as air, water and food. Naturally this was tricky, since many would say that the wildlife had just as many rights to these things as humans.
However, by perverting a few numbers about guinea fowl as carriers of various nasty human pathogens, and armed with several examples of bat-to-human transmission from China which many have found useful in recent years, Martin prepared to declare numerical war on his avian adversary.
Stella Maryton introduced a private member’s bill criminalising the use of inaccurate data to influence public policy. This was an excellent idea, since those in public life had been deluding innocent people with fake numbers for more than 3,000 years.
She gave lots of abstract and high moral arguments in favour of the bill. The kind of arguments with which everyone in public life likes to agree. Misleading stats, she argued, were divisive (true), anti-diverse (possibly, though she never explained why), racist and sexist and other things (see previous bracketed description).
The MPs loved her bill almost as much as they loved to be seen on the side of moral right. So it was passed unanimously, with just one or two old MPs who represented constituencies nobody could place on a map dissenting. The new laws were associated with a long prison term and disbarment from public life for offenders. To the MPs voting for the bill, this was the modern equivalent of being hung, drawn and quartered and having your head stuck on a pike then paraded through central London.
After weeks of careful plotting, Martin had the pheasant in the sights of his public policy blunderbuss. He identified some of the more venal MPs who might be persuaded to advance his anti-pheasant cause in the House of Commons in exchange for some public title – you know, those mystical letters after people’s names that sound good even if you don’t know what they mean.
He fed those MPs lots of statistics and charts with bullet points on them. He used terms from data science, broken up into small units so the MPs could read them out loud even if they’d had too good a lunch in a restaurant they could never afford thanks to some billionaire who wanted the government to stop taxing him.
Then Martin sat back and waited. But he was to be disappointed – majorly so.
The police came for Martin when he was on the phone to Simon Tickley trying to get the Department of Health to declare stray birds a health risk. They hauled him out of his chair and shoved him over his desk and tied his hands behind his back in handcuffs. Then they read him his rights and marched him off to prison in full view of Trevor the dozing non-entity and his soon-to-be-former girlfriend Fenella Clarke, who pretended not to know Martin even though her cheeks were now as red as her lipstick.
As Martin was escorted from reception by the police, he turned around and looked through the glass to the quadrangle. The pheasant was flapping around like a demented puppet. And this time he was certain: those caws, cackles, and squawks through the glass were the sounds of that deformed bird laughing at him.
J. W. Wood is the author of five books of poems and a novel, all published in the UK, and the satire ‘By Any Other Name’, forthcoming from Terror House Publishing in the US later in 2023. His work has appeared in The Poetry Review, London Magazine, TLS, etc. and has been shortlisted or nominated for several awards, including the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Bridport Prize. A dual citizen of the UK and Canada, he is the recipient of awards from the Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council. You can find out more at his website.