A Story for May: O tempora! O mores!

May 2017

In the Scottish Office of Statistics in Leith, a meeting was being attended by Stuart Pollock, senior statistician, father of Bertie and Ulysses, and of course husband of Irene, although she herself never used the patriarchal term husband, preferring ally, which expressed, she felt, the conditional, egalitarian goals of the relationship more widely known as marriage. Not everybody, of course, understood the term ally in this context. The plumber, for instance, had looked blank when Irene had mentioned that she would need to consult her ally about the installation of a new shower head. “Stuart,” she explained when she noticed his incomprehension. “I must talk to Stuart.”

“Ah,” said the plumber. “Your man.”

Irene had bristled. “I don’t own him,” she said.

“No, of course not. But he is your man, isn’t he?”

“We are in an alliance,” said Irene coldly.

The plumber had not pressed the point, but had bitten his lip. You certainly encounter them, he said to his wife that evening. Especially in Edinburgh.

The alliance between Irene and Stuart had lasted for ten years. Irene did not think much of anniversaries, which she regarded as sentimental celebrations largely encouraged by the makers of greetings cards.

“The fact of the matter,” she said, “is that for many women so-called marriage is a sentence. Would you send a card to somebody when they’ve served fifteen years, or whatever, of a sentence? I think not.”

Stuart did not argue, confining himself to the mild observation that for some people, at least, an anniversary might be a reminder of happiness and its duration.

“False consciousness,” muttered Irene. “People don’t necessarily know what their true condition is.”

He thought he might say that people who thought they were happy probably were happy, but he did not. There was no winning an argument with Irene and he merely sighed, but not audibly, of course. Release for him came in the office, whence he could escape on weekdays from eight in the morning until five-thirty, when he returned to Scotland Street to put Bertie and Ulysses to bed. That gave him nine and a half hours of freedom, during which nobody accused him of anything, nobody corrected him, and nobody made him feel that he should be thinking – and saying – something he did not agree with.

He enjoyed his work, which was largely concerned with presenting facts and figures in such a way that was positive rather than negative. In particular, he was responsible for making economic prospects look good even if the figures suggested otherwise. So if there were, for example, a fifteen-billion pound deficit in public spending, this could be presented as a marked improvement on the sixteen-billion deficit forecast by some others.

“We have such fun,” Stuart observed to one of his colleague in another department. “It’s creative work, you know – in fact, you’d think Creative Scotland would give us a grant for what we do.”

Stuart was not overly ambitious. He had been an academic high-flier as a young man, graduating with one of the best first-class honours degrees awarded at a Scottish university that year, and this had been followed by two years of work on a PhD. Financial pressures put an end to that, as he had already met Irene and they had decided to buy the flat in Scotland Street. Stuart needed a job, and the Scottish Government post offered a reasonable salary and access to a preferential mortgage.

Over the years he got the promotions that one would expect, moving slowly up the grades, but had now reached the point where, if he were to be promoted further, he would need to go before a special board. This board was informally called The Perspex Ceiling, and it made recommendations for head-of-department appointments and above. The people who occupied these positions were known as mandarins, and were, ex officio, eligible for membership both of Muirfield Golf Club (subject to certain conditions) and the New Club, should they so desire.

Irene had no time for mandarins, but, rather in the manner of Lady Macbeth, was ambitious for her husband/ally. Apart from anything else, money was tight and the additional salary would be more than welcome; so when Stuart was told at work one day that he was to be invited before the Perspex Ceiling he realised that, whatever his own feelings about occupying a much more senior post, Irene would require him to apply.

The information about his selection came from his closest friend in the office, Morrison Purves. Morrison was only a few years away from retirement and so had no interest in further promotion, but was keen for Stuart to be successful.

“I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he said. “But …”

It was the usual preface to an important piece of information.

“Of course you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Stuart assured him.

That, too, was the standard reply to such an overture, and it meant the opposite of what it said.

“No, I’ll tell you because I know how discreet you are,” continued Morrison.

That again was very much in the script, and once it had been said, the information could be revealed.

“Three of you are going up for interview,” said Morrison, his voice lowered. “Would you like to know who the other two are?”

For a few moments, Stuart attempted to look indifferent, but then he nodded conspiratorially. “If you insist,” he said.

“All right,” said Morrison, his voice lowered even further. “That eighty-four horsepower sook, Elaine.”

“Oh no,” said Stuart. “Not her.”

“And that snivelling toady, Faith.”

Stuart cast his eyes up to the ceiling. “What a field!”

“You’ve got to get it, Stuart,” went on Morrison. “If either of them gets chosen, I’m bringing forward my retirement. Guaranteed.”

“Elaine can’t even do long-division,” said Morrison. “Let alone statistics.”

Stuart smiled. “And Faith …”

“Have you seen her with the politicians?” asked Morrison. “She sends them birthday cards. Can you believe it? She gets their birthdays from Who’s Who in Scotland and she sends a card. They love it.”

O tempora, o mores,” muttered Stuart.

“Come again?” asked Morrison.

“It’s Latin for Jeez,” explained Stuart.