First Seven Chapters Of The First Draft Of The Novel 'The Public Sector Inspector Inspector'


At the moment (April 2014) I am working my way through writing the first draft of a novel called The Public Sector Inspector Inspector. To work out the plot and storyline I first of all wrote it in screenplay format, which I put on Devtome here:

At this point I have got up to the end of Chapter Seven, which is roughly a quarter of the way through the book, so I thought I would put the work I have done so far onto Devtome so that people can see how I adapt and alter the screenplay version of the story to turn it into a novel. Of course it will have all the sorts of mistakes you would expect to see in a first draft.

P. B.

n.b. In June 2014 I finished the first draft. Chapters 8 to 32 (the final chapter) are here on Devtome:

Chapter One

The taxi drove down the long, tree-lined driveway and pulled up outside a large and rather grand country house. A scruffy young man with unkempt long hair and a bushy beard stepped out of the back of the taxi, then reached back in, pulled out a dirty, battered rucksack, and slammed the door shut.

“Don't slam the door,” said the taxi driver.

“Sorry,” said the young man. He took a wallet out of a pocket. Although the wallet was an expensive one, it had clearly seen better days. He shook some coins out from the coin section and then took out the solitary small banknote that the wallet contained. He offered the money to the taxi driver.

“Is that enough? It's all I've got.”

The taxi driver looked at the money.

“No, it isn't,” he said. “Can't you see what it says on the meter?” He looked at the young man and then looked at the house. “Are you telling me you've come to a posh house like this and you haven't even got enough money for the taxi fare to get here?”

“I'll go and get some money off my dad,” said the young man. Carrying his rucksack with him, he walked up the wide steps to the front door and rang the doorbell.

The door was opened by a serious and rather distinguished looking man with graying hair.

The young man spoke. “Dad, I need some money for the …”

The front door slammed shut.

The young man stood there for a moment, obviously wondering what to do. Then a voice came from a nearby ground floor window.

“Peter,” a woman's voice hissed. “Here's some money. Don't tell your father I've given it you.”

A hand was reaching out of the window. It held a small wad of banknotes.

Peter put his rucksack down by the front door and went over to the window. He took the money from the outstretched hand.

“Thanks, mum,” he said.

He turned round and went back down the steps and over to the taxi. He gave the taxi driver the money he had originally offered him, and then peeled off a note from the money he had just been given by his mother. He handed that to the taxi driver as well.

“Keep the change,” said Peter.

The taxi driver shook his head, pulled a disapproving face, and then turned his taxi around and drove off back down the long driveway.

Peter went back up to the front door and rang the doorbell again, and again his father opened the door.

“It's alright, dad,” said Peter. “I found I had some money on me.”

“I'm not blind, I'm not deaf, and I'm not stupid, Peter,” said David Patter. “I know what your mother just did. You'd better come in. But you're not staying long.”

David stepped to one side and let his son into the family home. Peter stepped inside, lugging his old rucksack with him. His father closed the front door behind him. Peter stood still.

David Patter walked past his son and joined the other two people standing in the hallway. The three of them faced Peter.

Peter scrutinized the people who were scrutinizing him. There was his father, David, his mother, Margaret, and …

“Hello, Peter,” said Sophie.

“Hello, Sophie,” said Peter.

“What a mess you look,” said Sophie, coming over to him. “Didn't they have any razors where you've been?”

“Sure,” said Peter. “But scruffy beards and long hair were the fashion where I was.”

“Where was it?” said his father. “Some sort of hippy commune?”

“Sort of,” said Peter. He turned to Sophie, his sweetheart from their childhood days. “Missed you,” he said.

“That must be why you've stayed away from me for two years,” said Sophie. “Is 'abroad' that fascinating?”

“Actually, yes,” said Peter. “What are you doing here?”

“I invited her,” said Peter's mother, Margaret Patter. “I knew you'd like to see her after having been away for so long. Two years is a long time to be apart from someone you love.”

“Mrs. Patter!” protested Sophie. “Peter doesn't love me. Peter only loves himself.”

“That's not true,” said Peter. “It's just that there are some things you have to do when you're young, and one of them is travelling the world.”

“And the other thing,” said Peter's father, “is working. Put that ghastly looking bag of yours down and come into my study. I want a word with you.”

David Patter walked towards the door of his study. Peter hesitated for a moment and then put his rucksack down and went over to his mother. He hugged her.

“It's good to see you again, mum.”

“And it's good to see you again too, Peter,” said his mother. “But you really must cut your hair and shave that beard off. And I hope you don't mind me saying, but you should have a shower.”

“Sorry,” said Peter. “I've let standards slip a little bit.” He turned to Sophie.

“It's good to see you again, Sophie.”

Sophie hugged him, then let him go.

“You could have kept in touch,” she said. “You know I worry about you when I don't hear from you for a long time.”

“Sorry,” said Peter. “That was inconsiderate of me.”

“Get rid of all that horrid hair,” said Sophie, “and make yourself look like a human being again.”

“Okay,” said Peter.

He looked at Sophie. Although she was tall for a woman, she was still shorter than him. She was sweet and feminine looking.

“Peter!” said David from the doorway of his study. “Come here!”

Peter gave Sophie a fleeting kiss on the lips and then he walked over to where his father was waiting for him. He entered his father's study. His father walked in after him and closed the door. David Patter went and sat down at his large, antique desk. He indicated to Peter to sit down in the chair on the other side of the desk. Peter did so.

David was about to speak, but Peter spoke first.

“Dad, a few weeks ago my allowance suddenly stopped. Every time I tried phoning you to find out what was going on, mother said you wouldn't come to the phone.”

“I stopped your allowance, Peter,” said David.

“Why?” said Peter.

David looked at his son. “How old are you, Peter?”

“Twenty-eight,” said Peter. “Twenty-nine next month. What's the relevance of that?”

“When I was your age,” said David, “I was married and I'd already built up and sold my first business. Your mother and I had our own home. I wasn't just supporting myself, I was supporting your mother as well.” He paused and gazed at his son in a not especially pleasant or friendly way. “And what are you doing at the age of twenty-eight, Peter? Gadding around the world. At my expense.”

“You've never complained about it before, dad,” said Peter.

“Perhaps I should have,” said David.

“Okay then,” said Peter, trying to make the best of what looked like a bad situation. “I'll come and work for you if that's what you want.”

“It's not what I want, Peter,” said David. “And even if I did, it wouldn't be possible now.” He got to his feet and walked over to the window and gazed out at the neatly mown grass and the big old trees that ran up either side of the driveway. Without turning around, he said, “My business has gone bust, Peter. The receivers are about to take it into administration and sell off what they can to recoup as much money as possible. I owe a fortune to the bank.” He turned around. “They're coming after me, Peter. Your mother and I are going to lose this place. Stupidly I put it up as security when I borrowed the money to try to keep my business afloat. In hindsight I should have just let my company go to the wall.”

“Dad,” said Peter, getting to his feet and going over to his father, “why didn't you tell me sooner? I'd never have kept on spending your money if I'd known you had financial problems.”

“It doesn't matter now,” said David. “But you have to realize that it's time for you to stand on your own two feet and support yourself.” He walked over towards the door of the study. “You can't stay here. You need to sort out a place of your own. Or go and share with someone. Perhaps share with Sophie.” He stood by the door with his hand on the handle.

“Do you mean it?” said Peter. “I mean about me not being able to stay here?”

“Yes,” said David. “And there's no more money coming your way from me or your mother. Not even through an open window. You're on your own now, Peter.”

David opened the door. Peter walked thoughtfully out of the room. David followed him into the hallway and closed the study door.

“Sophie's waited a long time for you, Peter,” David said to his son's back. “She's put up with your selfishness, self-indulgence and lack of consideration. Now it's time to grow up and become a responsible adult. Settle down with her, Peter. She has a job, so she doesn't need you to provide for her, but you need to make some worthwhile contribution to her life.”

“Please don't put too much pressure on Peter, Mr. Patter,” said Sophie. “He'll settle down with me when he's ready. And what you've just told him will have come as a big shock to him. He needs to take it all in and then decide what he's going to do next.”

Sophie went over to Peter and hugged him. “Everything will be alright, Peter, but you have to realize that your mum and dad are in a really bad situation. They can't afford to carry you on their backs anymore.”

“I appreciate that,” said Peter, “and I appreciate that it's time for me to grow up and provide for myself. It's just I don't know exactly how I'm going to manage that.”

“Something will turn up,” said Sophie. “Come on. You can stay at my place tonight. I've got my car in the courtyard.”

Peter looked at his mother. He went over and hugged her. “Really I'm more worried about you and dad than I am about me,” he said to her.

“Don't worry about us,” his mother said. “Your dad and I will cope. We've been through plenty of difficult situations in the past and we've always survived and come out them in one way or another.”

Peter went over to his dad and held out his hand. The two men shook hands. “Thanks for giving me this wake-up call, dad,” said Peter. “I needed it. I'll manage somehow. And you just try and do the best you can.” He turned and went over and picked up his rucksack. Sophie was standing by the front door. She opened it, and Peter walked outside into the fresh air.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Patter, Mr. Patter,” Sophie said to Peter's parents. “I'll keep in touch to let you know how things work out.” She went out after Peter, and the two of them walked round in silence to the courtyard where Sophie's Mini was parked. After they'd squeezed Peter's rucksack into the boot, they got into the car and Sophie fired up the engine. Slowly she drove out of the courtyard and set off along the drive. Suddenly she leaned across and kissed Peter on his bearded face.

“I shall be glad when we can have that off,” she laughed. “You know it hides your good looks.”

Peter was silent. Then he took his mobile phone out of one of his pockets and dialed a number on it. After a pause, someone answered.

“Hi, Nick,” said Peter. “It's me, Peter.” There was a pause. “Peter Patter,” said Peter. “That's right. I'm back from my travels. Look, Nick, mum and dad have got problems at home and they don't want me staying there at the moment. Is there any chance I could come and stay at your place? It would just be for a few days while I sort out a place of my own.” There was a pause, and then, “That's great. I really appreciate that. Look, I'm in the car with Sophie at the moment.” He turned to Sophie. They were just coming to the end of the drive where it opened out onto the road. She slowed to a halt. “Nick says he'll put me up for a few days until I sort out a place of my own. Could you run me over to his place?”

Sophie looked at him. “I thought,” she said rather coldly “that you were coming to stay with me at my place.”

“Yes,” said Peter, “but the time isn't right yet. I need to sort out my situation first.”

“Why can't you sort it out while you're with me?” snapped Sophie. “This is an opportunity for us to settle down together.”

“And we will settle down together,” said Peter, “when the time is right.”

“And when will that be,” asked Sophie, “if ever?”

“When I can provide for you,” said Peter, “like my dad always has done for my mother.”

“Don't be so old-fashioned,” said Sophie. “I've got a better job than you'll probably ever have. I don't need looking after. I just want us to be together.”

Peter looked at her. “It will happen, Sophie,” he said, “but give me a little time to sort myself out.”

Sophie was silent for a while, then she said, “Okay. I'll run you over to Nick's place?”

“Please,” said Peter. “You remember where he lives?”

“Yes,” said Sophie. She pressed down on the accelerator and pulled out onto the road and headed in the direction of Nick's place.

Peter put the phone back up to his mouth. “Nick, we're on our way.”

When they arrived at the modern apartment block where Nick lived, Sophie parked the car and she and Peter went up in the lift to the floor where Nick had his apartment. Peter carried his old rucksack. When they got to Nick's front door, they rang the doorbell.

Nick opened the door.

“Good grief, Peter!” he said, astonished at the sight of what stood before him. “What have you done to yourself? You look as though you've just come down from the trees.”

Peter laughed. “I thought our sort were descended from lizards,” he said.

“Speak for yourself,” said Nick. “My family are descended from humans. Come in.” He turned to Sophie. “Hi, Sophie! How are you?”

Sophie and Peter came into Nick's flat. It was immaculate and stylish. But then Nick had always been something of a fastidious bachelor.

“I'm disappointed,” said Sophie. “I wanted Peter to stay with me.”

“You can always depend on Peter to be unreliable,” said Nick. “I suppose you're still pinning your hopes on settling down with him?”

“One day he'll realize that there's no one better for him than me,” said Sophie.

“Quite right,” said Nick. “But is there someone better for you than him?” He turned to Peter. “What's happened then, Peter?”

“Dad stopped my allowance while I was away,” said Peter. “I couldn't get through to him to find out what was going on and I completely ran out of money. I've been living on my credit cards and they're maxed out. So I had to come home. It turns out that dad's business is about to go belly up, so he can't afford to fund me anymore. Also he thinks it's time I stood on my own two feet and earned a living somehow.”

“That,” said Nick, “is something I'd like to see. How old are you? Same as me, I guess.”

“Yes,” said Peter. “Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine next month.”

“Perhaps it is time you got your first job,” said Nick. He turned to Sophie. “Do you want a drink, Sophie?” Glass of wine or something?“

“No thanks, Nick. In fact I'll be off. I'll leave Peter in your capable hands.”

“Okay”, said Nick. “Keep in touch with him to make sure he doesn't disappear again.”

“You keep an eye on him,” laughed Sophie. “He's your responsibility now.”

And with that, she left the apartment.

Nick turned to Peter. “Beer?” he said.

“That would go down a treat,” said Peter.

Nick fetched a couple of beers from the fridge.

“So,” he said, “you're just here for a few days while you sort out a place of your own?”

“Actually,” said Peter, “I reckon dad will have a change of heart and let me go back to the house. I don't believe his business troubles are as great as he's making out. He's too smart to go bust.”

“But if he's being straight with you and he won't have you back, then what?” said Nick.

Peter shrugged his shoulders and took a sip of beer. “I guess in that case I have to get a job and go and rent a place somewhere.”

“Or settle down with Sophie,” said Nick.

Peter shook his head. “Not until I'm earning good money,” he said. “If we settle down, I want it to be like it is with my mum and dad.” He looked at Nick. “Talking of getting a job, I've never really known what it is you do.”

“I'm a Public Sector Inspector with the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction.”

“Snappy title,” said Peter. “Well, either I'm going to have to get a job with an impressive sounding title like that, or I'm going to have to start some sort of business.”

“Let's think about that tomorrow,” said Nick. “Now, there's only one bedroom in this place, and that's mine, so you'll have to sleep on the sofa. I'll go and get you some bedding, and then I'll rustle us up some food. In the meanwhile, make yourself at home.”

Nick went off to his bedroom to get some bedding for Peter, and sat down on the sofa and relaxed.

Chapter Two

As the days went by, Nick, fastidious and hard-working, became increasingly exasperated with Peter, who was almost the exact opposite, being lazy and slovenly. Nick's immaculate bachelor pad came to resemble a tip, with Peter's clothes and odd little possessions scattered around.

One day when Nick came home from work in the evening, he walked into the sitting room and there was Peter still in bed - or rather, wrapped up in a duvet on the sofa - watching television.

Nick marched over and turned the television off.

“Hey!” said Peter. “I was watching that.”

“We need to have a word, Peter,” said Nick. He went over to the sofa and sat down on it next to where Peter's knees were. “When you first phoned me and asked to stay, do you remember how long you said you'd need to stay here?”

“Ah, so that's it!” said Peter. “I said a few days, didn't I?”

“Yes,” said Nick. “And how long have you been here now?”

“Just over a week?” hazarded Peter.

“Try two weeks,” said Nick. “Has your dad said anything about letting you go back to the family home?”

“I spoke to him yesterday,” said Peter, “and he said 'no way'. I've got to fend for myself. He said he and mum are going to be evicted from the house any day now. The bank's just about to be awarded the court order necessary for them to take possession of the place.”

“Sounds grim,” said Nick. “But the thing is, Peter, I can't just let you stay here indefinitely. And look at the mess you're making of the place. You've got your stuff scattered around everywhere.”

“Sorry,” said Peter. “I'm a bit untidy.”

“You're telling me. And what are you doing still in bed after six in the evening?” said Nick.

“I can't afford to go out and do anything,” said Peter, “so that just leaves me with TV, internet and sleeping to pass the time with.”

“Listen, Peter, you're going to have to do something. You can't just carry on like this. I won't let you. Either you go and live with Sophie, or you get a job and go and rent a place of your own.”

“Who's going to employ someone like me?” said Peter. “I've got no work experience, and what I've been doing for the past few years doesn't fit me for any particular job.”

“Then you're just going to have to tell a few little white lies when you apply for jobs,” said Nick. He hesitated. “Listen, my department at work is having one of its rare recruitment drives. I don't know why, because as far as I can tell we've got as many Public Sector Inspectors as we need, and no one's left recently. I don't even know how many people they're looking to take on. But anyway they're letting people sit the public sector entrance exam next Tuesday. I reckon you should have a crack at it and try to get a job in my department.”

“Do you think I'd have a chance of getting in?” asked Peter.

Nick smiled. “I can make sure you get in,” he said. “If I was higher up the food chain I could probably get you in without you even having to sit the exam. But as I'm not one of the well-connected, high-up people, I'll have to do the next best thing.” He leaned towards Peter conspiratorially. “I know where they keep Tuesday's exam papers. I can get one of them, along with the answers, and then you'll sail through the exam.”

“But that's cheating,” said Peter.

Nick stood up. “I don't care,” he said. “I just want to get you out of my apartment, and if cheating is the only way to do it, then we'll cheat. I'll get the papers and answers, then I'll take this Friday off, and Monday too. They don't mind that sort of thing too much in the public sector. In fact your colleagues expect it of you so that it looks alright when they do the same. So, this Friday we're going to drum the correct answers into your head. Then we'll do the same on Monday. Then I thought over the weekend we could practice what you'd need to say at the interview which you'll have to have when you've got through the exam. Also they do a role play exercise to test candidates' reactions to different hypothetical situations, so I'll coach you on what to do for that. If we get everything right you'll soon be working alongside me. Now go and have a shower and get your clothes on. I'm going to take you out so we can do three things.”

“What things?” asked Peter.

“Secondly I'll treat you to a meal and a few beers.”

“Firstly?” said Peter.

Nick reached out and tugged Peter's beard. “We're going to get this shaved off, and you're going to get your hair cut. If you're going to try and get a job in the public sector, I want you to at least look as if you'd fit in with us lot, and we're reasonably normal, conventional people. I know a barber's that stays open till late, so we'll go there.”

“And lastly?” said Peter.

“When we get back later tonight,” said Nick, “we'll cobble together a CV for you. They need one with the application for the exam. We'll invent a CV that paints you in a good light. Extensive experience running the family business. Lots of travel and living abroad for work and business. A couple of fake references. That sort of thing. I'll put it in the post when I go off to work tomorrow. So come on, get up and let's get going.”

Peter rolled off the sofa and stood. “Okay,” he said. “Let's make this happen.”

By the end of the evening, not only was Peter well fed, but he looked like a new person. He was fresh-faced, smooth cheeked, youthful and alert-looking, with a short, neat, stylish haircut. He looked employable. And the CV that he invented under Nick's guidance made him sound employable too.

He was a new person.

On the Thursday, Nick managed to sneak a copy of Tuesday's Public Sector Entrance Exam out of his workplace, along with its answers. On Friday morning he and Peter were sitting around the table in the sitting trying to get the questions and answers to lodge in Peter's brain.

“So you actually pinched this copy of Tuesday's exam paper and the answers to it?” said Peter.

“In the end I decided to take copies of them,” said Nick. “I realized the invigilators would probably know how many exam papers should be in the envelope, so if I pinched one of the actual papers, that might have got them asking questions. Anyway, there was only one copy of the answers, so I had no choice but to photocopy that. Now come on, let's get you learning these questions and answers so you know them all parrot fashion by Tuesday. We'll do three hours this morning, and another three hours this afternoon.”

“Okay,” said Peter. “If it gets me a proper job in the public sector like you've got, I'm up for it.”

Peter, with the help of Nick, spent the rest of Friday learning the exam's questions and answers off by heart, and by the end of the day he was pretty much perfect, with just the occasional mistake when his mind couldn't recall a particular question and its answer.

On the Saturday, Nick rehearsed with Peter the sort of questions he would be asked at the interview, assuming he got through the exam, which was pretty much a foregone conclusion now that he had been given all the questions and answers, along with time to memorize them.

“The obvious question they're going to ask you is 'Why do you want to work in the public sector?'. What you don't say to them is that you want a cushy job that pays well, lets you go off sick all the time, and that you can retire from on a big pension with a big cash lump sum while you're still only in your fifties. What you say is that it's important that the government serves the public well with vital and desirable services and that you want to be part of providing one or more of those services.”

“Got it,” said Peter. “So I just say the opposite of what's true, and I pretend I'm not just looking after my own interests, but really I'm a lovey-dovey altruistic person who only cares about other people?”

“That's it,” said Peter. “Produce plenty of bullshit and lay it on with a trowel. Now, another thing they like to ask is, what are your strengths and weaknesses? You say your strengths are that you work hard and you pay great attention to detail so you minimize any chance of mistakes being made. Then you give a little smile and say that your weaknesses are that sometimes you work too hard and are reluctant to stop at the end of the day, and you're so focused on not making any errors in your work that sometimes you have to force yourself to realize that you've got everything as correct as it's ever going to be.”

“So I don't say I do as little work as possible, and if things look broadly okay, then that's good enough for me?” said Peter.

“No,” said Nick. “That's the sort of thing you say to your colleagues after you've landed your job. Another question the interviewers will probably put to you is, what style of management do you work best under? You say you're happy with any management style so long as a manager is absolutely clear-cut about what they require from you and what they want to see achieved. You also say that you like it when a manager explains why something needs to be done.”

Saturday continued in this way with Nick presenting all sorts of questions to Peter that he might be asked in an interview, and telling him the sorts of answers he should give.

On the Sunday, Nick and Peter practiced the sort of role-playing scenarios that Peter might have to take part in as part of the assessment process.

“What they want,” said Nick, “is for you to show initiative and be proactive, as they say. In other words, take the lead, take charge. But don't be bossy and domineering. Just be firm and assertive. You'll be doing this as part of a group, so you have to show yourself to be a leader, but in an open-minded way. Make yourself stand out from the others in the group, but appear relaxed and confident.”

“Right,” said Peter. “Normally I like to lie back and let other people get on with the hard work of deciding what needs to be done, but in this situation I'll push myself forward and take charge.”

“But make it clear that you're listening to what other members of the group have to say. If they come up with something good, adopt their idea and praise them for coming up with it. But avoid being patronizing.”

“It's not really my style to be patronizing,” said Peter.

“They always like to role-play a confrontational situation. You know. A member of the public has a gripe and they want to take it out on some member of staff in the public sector. In this case you never get angry or emotional. You stay calm. You only deal with the facts of the situation, and you stick to the line that there is a set way of dealing with complaints and nothing the other person says can change that.”

“Right,” said Peter. “So I'm compassionate and understanding, firm but fair, but unyielding in my adherence to public sector protocol?”

“Well put,” said Nick.

And so Nick and Peter carried on with examining the likely role-playing scenarios that could be put to Peter. Then at the end of the day they settled down with a few beers and some snacks to watch a film on TV.

On Monday they yet again went through the questions and answers for the Public Sector Entrance Exam the following day. This time, by evening, Peter was able to get every answer right.

“That's excellent,” said Nick. “Perfect, in fact. But I want you to do something tomorrow.”

“What's that?” asked Peter.

“I want you to get at least one answer deliberately wrong,” said Nick. “Maybe several would be better, in fact. If you get a hundred percent score, it's going to look suspicious.”

“Okay,” said Peter. “I'll do that.”

“And now,” said Nick, you should get a good night's sleep. You want to be fresh and as bright as a button tomorrow.”

“Okay,” said Peter. “Let's just watch a bit of TV, and then I'll hit the sack.”

Chapter Three

On Tuesday morning, Nick and Peter were standing by the front door of Nick's apartment. They were both looking smart in business suits. The only difference between them was that Nick had a briefcase.

“You look very smart in that suit of mine,” said Nick.

“Thanks for letting me wear it today,” said Peter. “It's a good job we're the same size.”

“Indeed,” said Nick. “Of course really it doesn't matter what you look like today just for sitting the exam, but I think wearing a suit gets you in the right frame of mind. Also we don't know that the exam administrators don't write down some observations about candidates to help weed out people who are seen as undesirable regardless of how well they might subsequently do in the exam.”

“Right,” said Peter. So it's definitely a good precaution for me to look smart today.“

“I'll drop you off by the hotel where they're holding the exam,” said Nick. “You're going to be more than an hour early, so you might as well go and have breakfast somewhere.” He took his wallet out of his jacket pocket, took some money out and gave it to Peter. “Here, have this. You can pay me back when you get your first paycheck.”

“I'm going to have a lot of paying back to do, Nick. You've been really good to me.”

“Hopefully you'd do the same for me if I fell on hard times. Come on, let's go. And don't forget to get at least one answer wrong. In fact it might be better to get five or ten out of the hundred answers wrong.”

With that, they left the flat and made their way down to where Nick's car was parked.

Peter had a good breakfast at a café down the road from the Grand Hotel, which was where he had to go to sit the Public Sector Entrance Exam, and then he made his way to the hotel. There was a surprising number of people in the lobby.

A smart looking man with a clipboard came up to him.

“Are you here to sit the Public Sector Entrance Exam, sir?” he said.

“Yes,” said Peter.

“And you're name is …?”

“Peter Patter.”

The man flicked through the sheets of paper on his clipboard. “Yes, I've found you,” he said. He indicated some open double doors over on the other side of the lobby. “You and all the other exam-takers will be called into that room at ten-to-ten. Just find a desk and sit down. The exam papers and pens will be handed out by myself and my colleagues, and the exam will begin at ten o'clock exactly.”

“Are all these people here to take the exam?” Peter asked.

“Yes,” said the man. He wandered off to greet another new arrival.

Peter hadn't expected to be competing with so many other people for a job in the public sector, but of course the prospect of well-paid, secure employment, and a terrific pension, which it was almost impossible for someone in the private sector to afford, made it an appealing form of employment to try to secure.

But Peter wasn't worried. He knew he had an advantage over these other people, which was that he knew what the questions would be, and he knew the answers to them.

He wandered around a bit, not speaking to anyone, and then everyone was called into the room where the exam was to take place. Several people, presumably government employees, including the man who had spoken to Peter, went round handing out exam papers and pens to everyone. Then instructions were given about how to mark the boxes for the multiple choice questions and how to correct mistakes. Then the man who had spoken to Peter said, “It is exactly ten o'clock. Turn over your papers, fill in your full name and contact details on the front, then turn to the next page and start the exam. You have two hours to give the best answers you can. If you feel you have completed the exam to the best of your ability before that time, put a hand up and I will come and collect your paper and pen and you may leave the room, so long as you do so as quietly as possible.

Peter glanced at the clock on the wall at the front of the exam hall and turned over his exam paper.

The biggest difficulty he had during the next hour was deciding which question to answer incorrectly. He had decided to get only one answer wrong. Even though he proceeded at what felt like a leisurely pace, when he had finished the exam and he looked up at the clock on the wall he found that only one hour out of the permitted two hours had passed.

He put his hand up. The man who had spoken to him earlier came over.

“Have you finished already, Mr. Patter?” he said.

“Yes,” said Peter.

“You still have plenty of time to go through it and double-check your answers if you want to,” said the man.

“No, I'm happy with the answers I've given.”

“Remarkable,” said the man. “That must be the fastest time in which I've seen the exam done.” He gave a little laugh. “Except, that is, by those who have just given up because they've found it too hard and have wanted to leave for that reason.” He looked closely at Peter. “Very well, you're free to go, but please do so quietly.”

With that, he took Peter's completed exam paper and the pen from the desk, and Peter got up and quietly left the room.

Back at Nick's apartment, Peter was just finishing a call on his mobile phone when Nick came in from work.

“How did the exam go?” said Nick, putting down his briefcase and loosening his tie.

“I sailed through it,” said Peter.

“Good,” said Nick. “Now it's just a question of waiting until they call you in for the role playing exercise. Then, assuming you get through that, it'll be the interview.”

“I was just on the phone to Sophie,” said Peter. “You know it's my twenty-ninth birthday a week today? Well I just invited her to come over here that evening. I thought the three of us could go out for something to eat and drink.”

“Sounds good,” said Nick. “Are you inviting any other people?”

“I've spent so much time abroad in recent years,” said Peter, “that that's where all my friends are these days, apart from you and Sophie, of course.”

“Well that's okay,” said Nick. “It'll be cozy with just the three of us. How many wrong answers did you put down in the exam today, by the way?”

“Just the one,” said Peter. “And I finished the exam in half the allowed time.”

Nick raised his eyebrows. “Either they'll be really impressed,” he said, “or they'll be suspicious. Anyway we'll soon find out. I'm going to have a shower, and then I'll rustle us up something to eat.”

Nick disappeared into his bedroom to go and have a shower in his en-suite bathroom.

The next day when Nick came home from work, there was a meal set out on the table.

“Hello,” he said to Peter, who was sitting on the sofa, watching TV. “What's going on with the food?”

Peter got up and switched the TV off. “I had a phone call this afternoon from your lot. They want me to go to a group assessment session on Friday morning. It's taking place at the same hotel where I did the exam yesterday.” He pointed at the spread on the table. “I thought I'd do a meal for us as a sort of celebration.”

“That's very good of you,” said Nick, taking off his tie. “I didn't expect anyone from my department to get back to you this quickly. But anyway it means you've got tonight and tomorrow to do more practice on what I know they regard as the correct responses and the correct behavior in the various role playing situations they're likely to put you in.”

“Okay,” said Peter. “Oh, and they'll be doing panel interviews in the afternoon for all of us individually.”

“That's new,” said Nick. “Normally they spend all day on the role playing assessment, weed out the people they don't like, then call back the people they think worth interviewing. It sounds as though they've streamlined and speeded up the whole process.”

“Suits me,” said Peter. “I just want to get all this over with and start working and start earning.”

“Quite right,” said Peter. “Then you can sort out somewhere to live, pay off your credit cards, and sort yourself out a bit.” He pointed at the food on the table. “How did you manage to afford this? I thought you were completely out of money. That money I gave you yesterday wouldn't have stretched to a breakfast and this as well.”

“I phoned one of my credit card providers and asked them to up my credit limit. They did, so I went out and bought this food. There's beer and wine in the fridge too.”

“Good man,” said Nick. “Thank God for credit cards. I'll go and have a shower, then let's get stuck in to this feast.”

Chapter Four

By Friday morning Peter was well versed in how to deal with the group role-playing assessment and the panel interview that would follow in the afternoon, so he was feeling confident when Nick dropped him off at the Grand Hotel before he himself continued on to work.

In the hotel, Peter found himself being ushered into a room where he had to sit with five other people in a semi-circle. Facing them was the man who had been in charge of the Public Sector Entrance Exam earlier in the week. On the man's lap was his clipboard with sheets of paper on it.

“Thank you all for turning up,” the man said to the assembled faces in front of him. “I'm sure you all remember me from Tuesday. I don't think I told you, but my name is Oliver. I'm sure you will all realize that for you to have been invited back for further assessment must indicate that you did well in the exam on Tuesday. What we're going to do this morning is role play a few situations that might arise in the course of working in the public sector, if you do indeed end up being offered a job in the public sector. Your performance in this morning's role playing, along with the impression you make in this afternoon's interviews, will be factors in allowing us to assess whether you should in fact be offered a position.”

Oliver stood up and handed out some sheets of paper from his clipboard to Peter and the other assembled hopefuls, and then sat down again.

“As you can see, there are six scenarios set out. I want you to choose one each and you will play the lead role in your chosen scenario. Then afterwards the others can offer some constructive criticism and helpful advice about what you said and did. I may also do likewise.”

Peter turned to the people beside him and spoke up. “To save getting bogged down in discussions about who's going to take the lead in what scenario, why don't we just take them in the order in which we're sitting? I'm in an end seat, so I could take number one. Then the person next to me takes number two, and so on.”

There was a murmur of approval from the others, although there might perhaps have been just the slightest hint of resentment from one or two of those giving their assent to Peter's suggestion.

“Right,” Peter went on. “Let's see what I've landed myself with. My scenario is 'a member of the public has complained about a member of your staff being rude and unhelpful. Have a talk with the staff member about their behavior.'” Peter paused, then looked up. “OK, so who's going to be the staff member?”

“I'll be the staff member in this first scenario,” said Oliver.

“Right,” said Peter, leaning back in his seat and folding his hands in his lap. “Well, come in and take a seat. Oh, you already have!”

Oliver smiled. “What was it you wanted to see me about, sir?”

Peter smiled back. “Please call me Peter,” he said. “We're all on equal terms here, certainly in the sense that we are all here to serve the public. And talking of the public, a member of that very important category of people has made a complaint. Unfortunately it's about you.”

“It wasn't that obnoxious man who came into the office the other day, was it?” said Oliver.

“It could be,” said Peter. “The man who made the complaint said he had been in to see you a few days ago, and although I can't say he was obnoxious, he certainly was rather brusque and he was clearly a fan of plain speaking, even to the point of rudeness.”

“That's him,” said Oliver. “Peter, I simply wasn't prepared to have him speaking to me in the way he did.”

“The problem there,” said Peter, “is that we still have to deal with him, and he isn't going to get any nicer with time. So rather than reacting to someone, no matter how dislikeable or annoying you may find them, a better approach is to switch off your emotions. Don't react. Just be cool and calm. Deal only with the facts of the situation, and explain that we have rules that govern how we handle all situations, and we have to act according to those rules. Then if it is possible to be helpful, be as helpful as you possibly can.”

“So do I have to go back and speak to this person again?” asked Oliver.

“No,” said Peter. “I've dealt with him and clarified a few things for him. He wasn't entirely happy, but he could understand the situation. But there will be other people like him that you'll have to deal with in the future, Oliver, so bear in mind what I've told you and it will make your life much easier.”

“Okay, thank you, Peter,” said Oliver. He paused, and then he looked at the other five people sitting alongside Peter and said, “I think that was a text book example of how to deal with a member of staff who has had a complaint made about them by a member of the public. Do we agree, or would any of you like to criticize Peter's performance and suggest how he could have handled the situation better?”

There were vague murmurs of 'no', but apart from that, no one said anything.

“Excellent,” said Oliver. “So let's move on to the next person and the next scenario.”

The rest of the morning passed with more role playing. Peter always volunteered to take part in the scenarios that were designed to test his companions, but whether he was involved or not, he always offered positive feedback afterwards and tried to propose ways in which improvements could be made. If he offered criticism of any sort, it was done in a neutral and pleasant way.

When the role playing had finished, Oliver reminded the six people in front of him that they had to come back after lunch for their interviews. Peter's companions decided to stay in the hotel and have a bite to eat there together, but Peter excused himself, saying he had to go out to do a couple of chores.

In reality he didn't want to be with the others and have them asking him about his background, his lifestyle, and what he had done in life up to date.

After lunch in a café he wandered back to the Grand Hotel and waited to be called in for his interview in the same room in which the role playing assessment had taken place that morning. After a short while, Oliver appeared in the doorway of the room.

“Can you come in please, Mr. Patter?” he said.

Peter went in. He was the first person to be called in out of the group of six. Inside the room there was a table at which sat an affable looking, sturdy, middle-aged man with a balding head.

“Please sit down, Peter,” said Oliver, indicating a chair that faced the table.

Peter sat down in the chair, and Oliver went and sat down next to the man at the table.

“So you are Peter Patter?” said the man, smiling.

“Yes, sir,” said Peter.

“Please call me Jeffrey,” said the man. “I'm Jeffrey Coller. I'm the Director of the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction.”

“Then you're the boss of a friend of mine,” said Peter. “Nick Jenks. He works in your department.”

“Ah yes, Nick,” said Jeffrey. “He's one of our many Public Sector Inspectors, and a very good one too. But then all of our inspectors are good.” Jeffrey leaned forward. “You know, Peter, you've put in a pretty impressive performance, today and on Tuesday. In the Public Sector Entrance Exam you produced the best results we've ever seen. Almost perfect in fact. You only got one answer wrong. And you completed the exam in what I believe is a record time.”

“I was very focused,” said Peter.

“That's the sort of approach we like, Peter,” said Jeffrey. “Then your performance in the group role playing session this morning was equally admirable. Your own role playing was excellent, and you gave some very good feedback and advice when other people did their role playing, and gave some fair criticism too.”

“I enjoy interacting positively with other people,” said Peter.

Jeffrey picked up a piece of paper. “And your CV is fascinating. Not conventional, but you've travelled extensively and worked abroad, and you've dealt with all aspects of your sizeable family business.”

“That's right,” said Peter.

“In short,” said Jeffrey, “you are exactly the sort of person I've been looking for to take up a new position in my department.”

“A new position? Said Peter. “As a Public Sector Inspector like my friend Nick, I presume?”

“Almost,” said Jeffrey mysteriously. “The position I have in mind is a sort of variation on that theme.”

Peter raised an eyebrow. “Sounds interesting,” he said.

“I think you will find it very interesting,” said Jeffrey. He leant back in his chair. “But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Everything must be done properly, and in writing. I propose to offer you employment in my department. I'll have a letter sent out confirming that, and if you want to take up the offer, put your acceptance in writing. As soon as I have that, I'll call you in and we can get started with training you up for your new role.”

“I shall definitely be accepting,” said Peter.

Jeffrey stood up, as did Oliver. Jeffrey extended a hand over the table to Peter. Peter stood and shook Jeffrey's hand, and then he shook hands with Oliver.

“I'm sure the public sector will benefit greatly from having you in it, Peter,” said Jeffrey.

“I shall do everything to merit my position,” said Peter.

“Good man,” said Jeffrey.

Oliver spoke up. “Could you show the next person in as you leave, please, Peter? Unfortunately the others may not be receiving quite such good news as you.”

“Certainly,” said Peter. And he turned and left the room.

The following Tuesday evening when Nick came home from work, Peter was sitting on the sofa looking happy.

“Had a good day, birthday boy?” Nick asked with a smile.

“Couldn't have been better,” said Peter. “I got the letter today from the head of your department confirming the offer of employment, so at the age of twenty-nine I've just landed my first job.”

“Well done,” said Nick. “And it's nice that we'll be working alongside each other, or at least in the same building. What time's Sophie getting here this evening?”

Peter stood up. “In about half an hour's time, but I've got to reply to this letter in writing confirming I accept the job offer, so I'll get that done before she arrives. Then we can post it when we go out.”

“Okay,” said Nick. “I'm going to have a shower and get changed into something a bit more casual for the evening.”

Later that evening, Peter, Sophie and Nick were sitting round a table in a bistro in a smart part of town. They were sharing a bottle of decent wine. In front of them they had plates of trendy looking food.

“This is my treat, by the way,” said Peter. “I'll put everything on one of my credit cards.” He turned to Sophie. “I'm pretty sure it won't be difficult paying the cards off with the salary that Nick says I should be getting. Also now I can start looking for somewhere to live, and at some point I'll have to think about getting myself a car.”

“And what about the idea that we might settle down together once you got yourself sorted out?” said Sophie. “It looks to me as if you are sorted out.”

“It's early days yet, Sophie,” said Peter. “For all I know I might mess this job up and be out on my ear in no time. Give me long enough to make sure that I'm secure in my work, and then we talk about living together.” He picked up his glass of wine and took a sip. “And marriage and kids too, I suppose.” He put his glass down. “Thanks for being the driver for tonight, Sophie.”

“Yes, Sophie, much appreciated,” said Nick.

“My pleasure,” said Sophie. “It means you two lads can let your hair down a bit if you want to.” She turned to Peter. “Have I got it right that you're going to be working in the same place as Nick and doing the same job that he does?”

“Definitely in the same place,” said Peter, “but Nick's boss was a bit vague about exactly what I will ultimately end up doing. He seemed to be saying that he's creating a completely new job for me.”

“I shall be intrigued to find out what it is,” said Nick. “Everyone in the department is officially a Public Sector Inspector. Except for Jeffrey, that is, as he's the department's Director.”

“I guess time will tell what he's got in mind for me,” said Peter. He looked thoughtful for a moment. “You know,” he went on. “When I was posting that letter on the way here accepting the job offer at your department, I couldn't help thinking that if it became possible for me to go back to having the life I've had up until now, traveling around the world and being funded by my parents and living at their house on the occasions when I came back to this country, I'd probably give up straightaway this job I've just accepted.”

A pair of heavy hands descended firmly on Peter's shoulders. Peter gave a little jump and looked around.

“I'm afraid that lifestyle will never be coming back for you, Peter,” his father David said. “Not unless you can find a way of funding it yourself.”

“Hi, dad, mum,” said Peter, seeing his mother Margaret was also there. “This is a surprise. Grab a couple of chairs and join us.”

David and Margaret pulled up a couple of chairs from nearby and sat down at the table. David turned to Sophie. “Hello, Sophie,” he said. “Thanks for letting us know where you were having this little celebration tonight.” He turned to Nick. “Nick?” he said uncertainly.

“Yes, Mr. Patter,” said Nick.

“Long time no see,” said David. “I hope everything is going well for you.”

“Yes, Mr. Patter, thank you,” said Nick. “Everything is ticking along quite nicely and pretty much as usual, except for having Peter living with me, of course.”

“It's very good of you to put him up,” said David, “although I think it would have made more sense for him to live with Sophie, and preferably not just temporarily.”

He turned to his son. “I'm glad to hear you've landed a job now, Peter. I understand you'll be working at the same place where Nick works.”

“That's right,” said Peter. “I got the job offer in writing today and I posted off my acceptance letter on the way here tonight.”

“It'll be the making of you,” said David. “And if you really were thinking that there might at some time in the future be a chance of getting back your old lifestyle, it simply wouldn't be possible anyway. Your mother and I effectively no longer have a home. The bank obtained a court order today to repossess it. They're also taking any assets that my company owns. I've managed to salt away a small amount of money, so I'm going to use it to empty the house of everything in it and hide it in storage somewhere. Like you I have my fantasies, and one of them is that I'll somehow be able to get back into business again and get back on my feet and make enough money for your mother and me to have somewhere decent to live with our old stuff in it.”

“I'm sure you'll do it, dad,” said Peter.

“I hope so, Peter,” said David. “The bank can't touch the money in my pension fund and your mother's, so we've got that to look forward to when the time comes. But for the immediate future we'll be living very frugally. I'll have to find us somewhere cheap to live.” He put a hand on one of his son's shoulders. “So you see, son, even if we wanted to help you, your mother and I couldn't. Your life is your responsibility now.”

The five of them enjoyed the rest of the evening as best they could, but all the time Peter couldn't stop thinking about how his life really had changed forever.

Chapter Five

The following morning, Peter went into work with Nick. Once they were inside the building that housed the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction, Nick took Peter to Jeffrey Coller's office. Nick knocked on the door.

“Yes,” came Jeffrey's voice.

Nick let Peter into the office. “See you later,” Nick whispered to Peter, closing the door behind Peter and heading off to his own open-plan office.

Jeffrey was sitting at his desk facing the door. As Peter came in, he stood up and came round to the front of the desk with his arm extended.

“Morning, Peter,” said Jeffrey as he shook Peter's hand. “Good to see you again.”

“Morning, Jeffrey,” said Peter.

“Take a seat,” said Jeffrey, indicating a seat in front of the desk.

Peter sat down, and Jeffrey went back to his rather more sumptuous seat behind the desk.

“Now, Peter,” said Jeffrey, “you know I said I was going to create a new position here for you?”

“Yes,” said Peter.

“Your friend Nick Jenks has probably told you that everyone in this department is a Public Sector Inspector,” said Jeffrey, “except for me because I am the Director. The job of a Public Sector Inspector is to inspect all the different sections of our huge public sector, including the government, to make sure that everything is being carried out according to our masters' wishes.” Jeffrey leant back in his seat. “However, Peter,” he went on, “for you I have a different role in mind.”

“So I'm not going to be a Public Sector Inspector?” said Peter.

“No, Peter,” said Jeffrey. “You see, I've been hoping someone of your caliber would come along. You produced the best results of anyone who ever applied to work here, so I think I would be a fool not to use you for this new role that I've had in mind for some time.”

“And can I ask what this role is?” said Peter.

Jeffrey leant forward. ” You, Peter, are going to be my Public Sector Inspector Inspector.”

“Public Sector Inspector Inspector?” Peter echoed quizzically.

“That's right, Peter,” said Jeffrey. “It will be your job to inspect the Public Sector Inspectors in this department to make sure they are doing their jobs properly.”

Peter hesitated. “Is that not what you do?” he said eventually.

“Indeed I do,” said Jeffrey, leaning back in his seat, “but I have many demands on my time. Meetings with Ministers. Golf. That sort of thing. I need someone like you that can help free me up, and that I can trust to do a good job.”

“It certainly sounds interesting,” said Peter. “I'd do my best. I guess I have to learn how to tell whether the Inspectors are doing their jobs properly or not.”

“I,” said Jeffrey, “am going to show you all the different sections of the public sector and explain to you what they do and what standards they need to meet. Of course both of those things can change from time to time according to the whims and commands of our overlords. Also new departments can be created and old departments can be got rid of, or changed, or merged.”

“This sounds like really interesting work,” said Peter, although it was impossible to tell whether his enthusiasm was feigned or real. “I'm looking forward to getting started on it and getting a good overview of what goes on in the public sector and then finding out about it in detail.”

“Excellent,” said Jeffrey. “Now, there are a couple of things I need to make clear. While you are training, you will technically be classed as a Public Sector Inspector and paid accordingly. You'll be on payscale 7-b.”

Jeffrey passed a piece of paper over the desk. Peter reached out, took hold of it, and read it.

“Wow!” he exclaimed “I'd never have guessed that Nick earned that much. And you say I'll be on the same while I'm training. And when I qualify as your Public Sector Inspector Inspector will I be on a different payscale?”

Jeffrey smiled. “I'm keeping that as a pleasant surprise for you for when it actually happens, which shouldn't be very far in the future.” He paused. “As I've mentioned, Peter, I have demands on my time. That means that in fact I won't always be available to show you the many tentacles and nooks and crannies of the public sector while you're trained up for this new position. So when I'm not available, my most senior and experienced Public Sector Inspector will be doing that.”

Jeffrey reached out to an internal phone on the desk and dialed a number. Peter put the payscale details back on the desk.

“Helga,” said Jeffrey into the phone, “can you come to my office please?”

Peter thought he heard a voice on the other end of the line say, “Yes, Jeffrey. Right away.”

Jeffrey putted the phone down. He folded his hands on the desk and looked at Peter. “Helga Sprott was the first Public Sector Inspector when this department was created. She has a wealth of experience and ability.”

Suddenly the office door opened. Peter turned and saw a rather stern and frumpy-looking middle-aged woman. She approached Jeffrey's desk.

So this was Helga Sprott.

“Helga, I want you to meet Peter Patter,” said Jeffrey, indicating Peter. “He's going to be this department's Public Sector Inspector Inspector.” Jeffrey turned to Peter. “Peter, this is Helga Sprott.”

Peter and Helga looked at each other. Helga's look was one of disapproval and barely concealed dislike.

“Hello, Helga,” said Peter. “Nice to meet you.”

Helga turned back to Jeffrey. “I just don't see why the position isn't going to me and instead we've had to bring in someone from outside.”

Jeffrey looked mildly exasperated. “Let's not go through that again, Helga. You know I wanted someone who could look at the people in this department with new and objective eyes, unaffected by past experiences and present associations. I have to tell you that Peter here is a remarkable man. He produced the best results ever of anyone sitting the public sector entrance exam and did it in a record time. He also performed excellently in the group role playing assessment.”

Helga looked at Peter disbelievingly. “Really?” she said. “And what about his background, his relevant experience?”

“Nothing like ours,” said Jeffrey. “That's for sure. It's far more interesting. He's been running a large family business, and travelling and living abroad to further the business and do other work.” Jeffrey paused. “Peter certainly won't have the typical public sector mindset.”

“And what does that mean?” Helga demanded.

Jeffrey didn't answer. Instead he said, “Helga, what I want you to do is show Peter around the department. Then bring him back here. I will then make a start on showing him other parts of the public sector. Can you do that?”

“Of course I can,” Helga said rather sharply. She turned and moved towards the door.

Peter stood up. “Many thanks for this opportunity, Jeffrey,” he said. “I'm going to do the best I can to meet all the expectations you have of me.”

“I know you won't let me down, Peter,” said Jeffrey.

Peter turned and followed Helga out of the office.

Peter spent the next three hours being shown around the department by Helga. The atmosphere between them was frosty, at least on her part, but Peter felt quite relaxed and he was actually rather interested in what he was being shown and told.

Peter remembered Nick had said there were about two hundred Public Sector Inspectors in the department.

“How many Public Sector Inspectors are there working here?” Peter asked Helga.

“Two hundred and twenty-one,” said Helga.

The offices where they worked were all open plan. It turned out that Jeffrey was the only person to have an individual office.

“You'll see quite a few empty desks,” said Helga, “because obviously some of the inspectors are out doing inspections. A lot of our work though is number crunching and reading and writing reports and we can do that here. Some of our inspectors specialize in deskwork, others specialize in going out and doing inspections.”

On the other side of the large office they were in, Peter spotted Nick sitting at a desk and doing something on a computer.

“That's my old school friend, Nick,” Peter said to Helga, indicating Nick. “I'm staying at his apartment until I sort out a place of my own.”

“You don't have your own place?” said Helga.

Peter realized that it might have been better if he'd kept his mouth shut.

“No,” he said. “What with spending so much time abroad, I felt it was hardly worth keeping a place in this country.” He hesitated. “Normally when I'm here I stay at the family home.”

“So why aren't you staying there now?” Helga asked, her eyes narrowing.

Peter realized he was digging a hole for himself, and it was time to stop digging.

“We're having a lot of work done there. My parents and I felt it better to be out of the house while all that's going on. My parents have gone away, and I thought that now I'm back in this country permanently I'd seize the opportunity to move out and spend a few days with Nick while I look for a place of my own where I can settle down.”

Helga was silent for a moment. Then she looked across at Nick. “I know Nick. He's one of our deskbound inspectors. He's good at his job. A great one for detail. Let's go over and say hello.”

They walked over to Nick's desk.

“Hello, Nick,” said Helga. “Apparently our new employee Peter is a friend of yours. I'm just showing him around the department.”

Nick looked up. “Hello, Helga,” he said. “Hi, Peter. Yes, we were at school together.”

“Soon he's going to be our superior,” said Helga. “His job, once he's trained, will be to inspect us. He's going to be the Inspector who inspects the work of all of us Public Sector Inspectors.”

“No way!” exclaimed Nick. “If I'd known that he was going to be promoted over us I wouldn't have helped him get the job.”

“Helped him?” said Helga. “How did you help him?”

Nick hesitated. “I just mean that I encouraged him to apply to work here.”

“Let's hope you don't live to regret it” Helga said drily. She turned to Peter. “Come on, Peter. There's more to see, and we mustn't keep Nick from his work.”

She walked off. Peter hesitated, then quickly walked round Nick's desk to see what was on his friend's computer screen.

Nick was playing a computer game.

Peter smiled at Nick and winked at him. “Keep up the good work,” he whispered. Then he turned and followed Helga.

“So exactly what is your work background, Peter?” Helga said to him when he had caught up with her.

“Varied,” said Peter.

“That's rather vague,” said Helga. “Exactly what work have you done?”

“Whatever it was, it obviously met with Jeffrey's approval,” said Peter with a smile.

“Obviously,” said Helga. “Of course you would have had to submit your CV before being allowed to sit the Public Sector Entrance Exam.”

“Yes,” said Peter.

“It will have to be kept on file somewhere,” said Helga. “And you will have given references. They will have to be taken up, if they haven't been already.”

“I believe that is the usual procedure,” said Peter.

“Then I guess everything must be alright,” said Helga.

She suddenly stopped and looked at Peter. “Even so, Peter,” she said, “I shall be keeping a close eye on you to see if you really are as wonderful as Jeffrey thinks you are. I know that I'm the best person to be the Public Sector Inspector Inspector in this department, and I resent you being given a position that should be given to me.”

She walked on.

“Come on,” she said over her shoulder. “We still have more to see. You can speak to some of the Inspectors and ask them about what they do, and then I'll get you back to Jeffrey.”

Unsettled, Peter followed after her.

When they got back to Jeffrey's office, Jeffrey was on the phone talking to someone. He was laughing.

“OK, Sir Nevile,” he said. “Peter's just come back, so we'll see you at your club for lunch in about half an hour. I think you'll like him. He's a fine young fellow. He's got great abilities. I'm glad I've taken him on. As soon as he understands what different parts of the public sector do, I'll let him get on with keeping an eye on the work of all the Inspectors here and making sure their work is up to scratch. Bye.”

He put the phone down and looked up at Peter. “That was Sir Nevile Grevile, Peter,” he said, “the Minister for the Oversight of the Public Sector. You and I are going to have lunch with him at his club. He's like our big boss, although he has another politician over him, and ultimately we all have the President over us as our 'capo di capos'.”

Helga looked displeased. “This is moving a bit fast, isn't it, Jeffrey? It's Peter's first day and already he's meeting the Minister who oversees our department.”

“Why shouldn't he?” said Jeffrey. “Did you give Peter a good look around the department?”

“Yes, I did,” said Helga, “and he had a chance to speak to a few of the Inspectors. One of them, Nick Jenks, is a friend of his.”

“I know,” said Jeffery. “No doubt it was Nick telling Peter how good it is to work here that inspired Peter to apply to join our merry band.” He got up and walked around his desk. “No doubt you've got work to do, Helga.”

He turned to Peter. “Come on, Peter. We can walk to Sir Nevile's club. The exercise will do us good and help us work up an appetite.”

Jeffrey ushered Helga and Peter out of his office, and Helga went her way and Jeffrey and Peter went theirs.

Chapter Six

Sir Nevile Grevile's private members club was situated in a rather splendid old classical style town house. Jeffrey and Peter walked up the steps and a doorman let them in. Once inside, a waiter, obviously recognizing that they were not members, asked them who they were and who they had come to see.

“I'm Jeffrey Coller and this young man is Peter Patter,” said Jeffrey. “We've come to dine with Sir Nevile Grevile.”

“Very good, sir,” said the waiter. “Follow me.”

Jeffrey and Peter followed him into a grand, high ceilinged room that had furniture in it that looked as though it would have been regarded as antique even a hundred years ago. They could see Sir Nevile sitting alone at a small dining table, looking at what was presumably a menu.

The waiter led them over.

“Your two guests have arrived, Sir Nevile,” he said.

“Thank you, George.” said Sir Nevile. “Hello, Jeffrey. This is your new young discovery, is it?”

“Yes. Sir Nevile,” said Jeffrey, “this is Peter Patter. Peter, this is Sir Nevile Grevile, the Minister for the Oversight of the Public Sector.”

“Hello, Sir Nevile,” said Peter.

“Hello, Peter,” said Sir Nevile. “Sit down, both of you.”

Jeffery and Peter sat down at the table, their seats being maneuvered for them by the waiter, 'George', who then fetched two menus which he put on the table in front of them. The waiter then withdrew.

“So, Jeffrey,” said Sir Nevile, “when are you going to start showing Peter our glorious public sector?”

Jeffrey and Peter picked up their menus and started scrutinizing them.

“This afternoon actually, Sir Nevile,” said Jeffrey. “I thought that after lunch we'd go off to one of the big police stations, then to a hospital.”

“Good idea,” said Sir Nevile. “Let the scales fall from his eyes as soon as possible.”

He turned to Peter. “What do you think the purpose of the public sector is, Peter?” he asked.

Peter thought it a slightly strange question to ask.

“To serve the public, sir,” said Peter simply.

Sir Nevile turned to Jeffrey. “Oh dear,” he said with a smile.

He turned back to Peter. “Let me disillusion you. The public sector exists to serve the public sector. It's there to give people like me, Jeffrey, and now you, incomes and perks and pensions, with the latter being taken as early as possible.”

Jeffrey turned to Peter. “A popular thing, if you actually enjoy working and getting a salary and perks, is to take your nice, fat pension, along with a tax-free lump sum, and then get another job in the public sector. Two incomes instead of one, you see.”

“So in that case,” said Peter, “what exactly is my job when I'm inspecting all our Public Sector Inspectors?”

Sir Nevile spoke up. “It is to make sure that the show is kept on the road without it going over the top and outraging the people who are not in the public sector with the fact that a lot of what we do we shouldn't be doing, and that in order to do it and keep ourselves and our friends and family in jobs and perks and pensions, we have to thieve the money off the people not in the public sector.”

Peter shrugged his shoulders. “Okay,” he said. “That sounds reasonable to me.”

“Good,” said Sir Nevile. He turned to Jeffrey. “By the way, Jeffrey, my wife and I are having a 'do' at our house in the country the first Saturday next month. We're celebrating our thirtieth wedding anniversary. Come to it. Anytime after seven in the evening. Bring Peter. Give him the address of my house and a contact number in case he gets lost.”

Sir Nevile turned back to Peter. “Do you live in town, Peter, or in the country? Or both? Or perhaps you live in the suburbs?”

Peter looked a little sheepish. “Actually at the moment I don't have a place of my own so I'm living with my friend Nick. He lives in town. But as soon as I can I'll move out and find a place of my own. I'm not really bothered where it is. Also I'll have to sort out a car for myself.”

Sir Nevile looked slightly shocked. “We can't have you without your own home and car,” he said. He turned to Jeffrey. “Let's see if we can't help him, Jeffrey.” Then he looked down at his menu. “Now, let's choose what we're going to have for lunch.”

After an excellent, amiable and even amusing lunch, during which Peter began to get a hint of what a gravy train the public sector was, at least for the people at the top of it, Jeffrey and Peter went off to a large nearby police station. There they were made to wait at the reception window until a police officer came out to see them.

“Sorry about that, Jeffery,” said the police officer, going straight over to Jeffrey and shaking him warmly by the hand. “Bogged down with paperwork as usual.”

“It's such a waste of time, isn't it?” said Jeffrey.

The police officer turned to Peter. “So this is the young man you wanted me to meet, is it, Jeffrey?”

“Yes,” said Jeffrey. “This is Peter Patter. He's going to be my Public Sector Inspector Inspector. He'll be keeping an eye on my department's inspectors.”

The police officer laughed. “I hope he'll make sure they're not too enthusiastic in their work.”

Jeffrey laughed. He turned to Peter. “Peter,” he said, “this is Bob, the station chief.”

“Hello, Bob,” said Peter. He and Bob shook hands.

“Hello, Peter,” said Bob. “Nice to meet you. Just don't get carried away with your work.”

“I'm sure Peter will make sure our inspectors don't rock the comfortable boat we all sail in,” said Jeffrey.

“I'll try to make sure they don't,” said Peter.

“Come into the back,” said Bob.

He led Jeffrey and Peter through a sturdy door into the back of the police station. Police men and women were milling around, talking to each other lightheartedly. A couple of reprobates were sitting on a bench waiting to be dealt with.

Peter could hear shouting. He turned his head to one side and saw a corridor where the cells were obviously located.

He followed Jeffrey and Bob into a small and rather Spartan office.

“Sit down, gents,” said Bob, indicating a couple of cheap chairs. He himself went and sat at his old desk.

“So,” he said to Jeffrey, “what exactly is it you want me to tell Peter?”

“Just give him some straight talking about the police in this country,” said Jeffrey.

“Well,” laughed Bob, “mostly these days we're here to hassle motorists and get money out of them.”

“But of course you solve crimes too, don't you?” said Peter. “I mean other than motoring offences.”

“Occasionally,” said Bob.”But Peter, you've got to realize that we can invent as many motoring offences as we want, and then lots of people are automatically guilty of them. It's easy work, and it's a nice little earner. Also if we believe someone has committed a motoring offence and we stop them and it turns out they haven't, we don't have to record anything. The problem with real crimes is that other people bring them to us, so we have to record them. Then usually in practice they're far too difficult and time consuming to solve, so they remain as unsolved crimes and spoil our statistics. Also there's no profit in solving ordinary crimes. With motoring offences we can charge fines. Okay, we might tackle high profile cases like murders, for example, because they get publicity, and then the public wants us to solve them. If we do, it makes them think we're hard-working and they then don't mind continuing to pay our salaries and pensions. With the petty stuff there's little publicity, so most people don't care too much about it. Therefore we don't bother too much either.“

“So you're saying,” said Peter, “that the police don't work hard to tackle all crime.”

“Of course we don't,” said Bob. “It wouldn't be practical. But we tackle the more serious crimes in order to prevent chaos and stop the cozy status quo from being upset. The way things are at the moment suits us and all the other people 'in the system' just fine, if you know what I mean. We don't want troublemakers changing the present system.”

“I guess some people join the police simply because they want society to be just and fair,” said Peter.

“We get the odd idealist,” admitted Bob, “but a few months of seeing the bad side of human nature and behavior soon knocks the idealism out of them, and they either leave the force or settle down to having a more practical view of life.” He paused, then went on. “Anyway, what is just and fair depends on who's doing the deciding and who's got the power. You become a police officer because the salary feels good and the pension feels better. The only bad thing about the pension is the work you have to do, and the time you have to spend, before you get it.”

“If it's the case that a lot of crimes go unsolved,” said Peter, “surely the official statistics you have to produce for the public would look terrible and give the game away.”

“We fudge the statistics,” said Bob. “We downgrade crimes that we record. A lot of crimes we don't record at all.”

“How do you deal with serious stuff like fraud, drugs, that sort of thing?” Peter asked.

“Drug busts are worthwhile,” said Bob, “especially if they're big. The stuff we seize we say we destroy, but sometimes we sell it on to other dealers, or even back to the busted dealer. It's a nice little earner. If it's just a small amount we'll share it out amongst ourselves. As for fraudsters, they can be quite generous if we make it clear to them that we'll make sure we don't do a successful prosecution against them, or perhaps we'll give them time to hide away some of their ill-gotten gains.”

“What if it comes out in public that a cop has misbehaved?” said Peter.

We put them on so-called gardening leave,” said Bob, “on full pay of course. Maybe we'll start an investigation, but then do nothing further. After a suitable time we usually let them retire on the grounds of ill health.”

Bob turned to Jeffrey. “I think this one's got a lot to learn, Jeffrey,” he said.

Jeffrey got to his feet. “Yes,” he agreed, “but he'll get there, Bob. I'll make sure of that.” He turned to Peter. “Come on, Peter. I'm going to take you to a hospital now and you can take a look at our wonderful health service.”

Peter got to his feet.

Jeffrey turned back to Bob. “See you at the Freemasons' meeting next week, Bob.”

“Okay,” said Bob, getting to his feet. “Now, I'll show you two gents out. You don't want to spend too long in a police station or you might get a bad reputation.”

Jeffrey and Peter walked into the hospital.

“I think we go up in the lift over there,” said Jeffrey.

They walked over to the lift and Jeffrey pressed the button to call it. A few seconds later the doors slid open. Two orderlies came out wheeling a trolley with a body bag on it.

The body bag was fall.

Jeffrey and Peter stepped aside to let the living and the dead pass by, and then they got into the lift. Jeffrey pushed a button to go up to the thirteenth floor. The doors closed.

“These hospitals get bigger and bigger,” said Jeffrey.

“Yes,” said Peter. “They're like factories - factories processing human flesh.”

“We'll get this meeting over and done with as quickly as possibly,” said Jeffrey. “I can't stand these places. They make me feel ill.”

The lift doors opened and Jeffrey and Peter stepped out into Blossom ward. Ahead of them we a pair of double doors, closed, with an intercom next to them. Jeffrey went over and pressed the button on it. A voice came back.

“Yes, what do you want?”

“We have an appointment,” said Jeffrey, “with the ward matron, Mary Tender.”

“And you are?” said the voice.

“Jeffrey Coller and Peter Patter,” said Jeffrey.

“Okay,” said the voice. “Wait a moment and I'll tell her to come and get you.”

Jeffrey and Peter stood there for what seemed like ages and then they saw a woman approaching on the other side of the doors. She was wearing the sort of loose trouser suit that some nurses wear these days.

She opened the doors.

Jeffrey Coller and Peter Patter?“ she said

“I'm Jeffrey Coller,” said Jeffrey. He indicated Peter. “And this is Peter.”

“And I'm Mary Tender, the ward matron,” said Mary. “Let's go to the staff room. We can talk there.”

She led the way through the ward. Jeffrey and Peter walked behind her.

In the ward, beds were lined up along the walls. The patients in the bed were crying and wailing, pressing buzzers and calling for attention and help. But there were no staff in the ward, other than Mary, and she wasn't going to stop.

The three of them got to the end of the ward and went through a door. On the other side of it, Jeffrey and Peter found themselves in a room buzzing with laughter and conversation. It was full of doctors and nurses and auxiliaries, chatting, drinking, playing cards, watching television, playing on computers and smart phones, and listening to music.

Mary sat down at a small table, and Jeffrey and Peter sat opposite her.

“Do you want anything to drink?” Mary asked. “We've got some neat alcohol here.”

“No thanks,” said Jeffrey.

“Me neither,” said Peter.

“So,” said Mary to Jeffrey, “Peter is going to be inspecting the Public Sector Inspectors who inspect us?”

“That's right,” said Jeffrey. “So I just want him to get a realistic view of what goes on in the various departments that make up the public sector, including the health service.”

Mary shrugged her shoulders. “Well, the pay for nurses isn't bad, but it isn't brilliant. Doctors are overpaid. Surgeons actually do something for their money. The problem is that nurses learn about nursing at university now instead of on the job, so when they actually get into a hospital they think they're too special to do basic physical things like bum-wiping and giving bed baths.”

“So who does things like that?” Peter asked.

“No one if we can help it,” said Mary, “but if it has to be done we get the foreign auxiliaries to do it. We've had such a flood of immigrants in recent years that it means we don't have much problem finding such staff, but unfortunately it also means that the number of patients we have to look after has gone up so much that we just don't have enough staff, space and equipment to cope. Of course it all comes down to money, but it doesn't bother me. I'm fifty next year and I'll be retiring.”

Jeffrey got to his feet. “Excellent, Mary. I hope you enjoy your retirement. Many thanks for giving Peter an insight into our wonderful health service.” He turned to Peter. “You don't have any more questions, do you, Peter?”

Peter stood up, slightly confused. “No, Jeffrey, I think I've found out everything I need to know about the health service.”

“Excellent.” Jeffrey turned to Mary. “I can see you're busy, Mary, so we won't take up any more of your time. We'll show ourselves out.”

Jeffrey led the way out of the room and back into the ward. Peter followed. In the ward the patients were still crying out for help. One of them was pleasantly quiet though, because she had died while Jeffrey and Peter had been with Mary in the staff room.

Jeffrey strode to the double doors at the other end of the ward and led the way out and over to the lift.

Once inside the lift and descending towards the ground floor and the exit, Jeffrey said, “Listen, Peter, I'll be busy tomorrow morning, so Helga will take you out for the day. She'll take you to see our public sector union leaders. We have two. One represents the senior staff, the other represents the ordinary staff.”

The last thing Jeffrey said to Peter before they left the hospital was, “Never go into hospital in this country if you're ill, Peter. It's fatal.”

Chapter Seven

The next morning Peter was in Jeffrey's office. He was standing facing his boss, who was sitting in his plush executive chair on the other side of the desk.

Beside Peter stood Helga.

“OK, Peter,” said Jeffrey. “I've got you booked in to see Nigel Dudley-Farker this morning. He's head of the union that represents top level public sector staff. Then after lunch I've got you an appointment to see Alf Barge, who represents the general staff.”

“Which includes Public Sector Inspectors,” Helga chipped in helpfully.

Jeffrey looked at her. “When Peter is in his new post of Public Sector Inspector Inspector,” he said, “he will be at the senior level, and so he will be in Dudley-Farker's union.”

Jeffrey leant back in his chair and looked at Peter. He smiled. “When you get back here this afternoon I hope to have some good news for you, Peter.”

Peter smiled back. “I look forward to hearing it.”

Jeffrey looked down at the papers on his desk. “Off you go then, you two. I have paperwork to deal with and phone calls to make.”

Peter and Helga left the office.

Nigel Dudley-Farker's office was rather splendid, in an old-fashioned sort of way. As Peter and Helga were ushered in by a secretary, Dudley-Farker rose from his seat behind his desk and came round to greet them. He was tall and slim and rather posh.

“How lovely to see you both. Helga, isn't it? And you're Peter?”

“Yes,” Helga and Peter both said.

“Sit yourselves down,” said Dudley-Farker. He went back round to his side of the desk, and Peter and Helga sat down in a couple of seats facing the desk.

Dudley-Farker looked at Peter and smiled. “You know, of course, Peter, that I'm head of the Federated Union of Civil Key Employees of the Realm? I hear you're going to be one of us soon.”

“Yes, Mr. Dudley-Farker,” said Peter.

“Please, call me Nigel,” said Dudley-Farker.

Yes, Nigel,” said Peter. “At the moment while I'm being trained I'm just a Public Sector Inspector …”

“… like Helga here,” said Nigel.

“Like Helga here,” said Peter. He didn't look at his colleague, but if he had done, he would have seen a little scowl flit across her face. “But once I'm trained I shall be in the new post of Public Sector Inspector Inspector …”

“… inspecting the Inspectors, “Dudley-Farker interrupted amiably. “We must have someone to guard the guardians, Peter.”

“Indeed,” agreed Peter. “Then I shall apparently be in your union rather than …”

”… Alf Barge's. Alf's a fine fellow,” said Dudley-Farker, “but I think you'll be happier on board our ship.”

“I believe I will,” said Peter.

Dudley-Farker turned to Helga. He leaned back in his seat and steepled his hands under his chin. With a smile, he said, “And you, Helga? Any sign of promotion to our ranks?”

Helga looked uncomfortable. “The only promotion available to me,” she said, “would have been if I'd been given the job given to Peter. There's nowhere else to be promoted to …” She paused, and then added with a smile, “… except Director of the Department.”

It looked as though Dudley-Farker almost wanted to laugh. “We must all have our dreams, Helga. Although perhaps you should dream of early retirement in a few years time.”

He got to his feet.

“Now,” he said, “unfortunately I must dash. I'm going to have lunch with Sir Nevile Grevile.” He looked at Peter. “Have you met him, Peter?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Peter. “I met him on my first day. A very affable man.”

“Indeed he is,” said Dudley-Farker. “And a good lunch companion too. I suppose that's because he always puts his lunches on Ministerial expenses.”

Dudley-Farker came round to Helga and Peter's side of the desk.

“Now, I shall wish you both well,” he said. He faced Peter. “I look forward to being your representative in the public sector in the not too distant future, Peter.” He turned to Helga. “Helga, I bid you adieu.”

He went over to the door of his office and opened it, and Helga and Peter walked out in silence.

A short while later, Helga and Peter were to be found sitting at a table in a cheap café - what used to be called a “Joe's Caff” or a 'greasy spoon café'. They were munching on bacon sandwiches and drinking tea from mugs.

Peter looked across the table at Helga. “Couldn't we have gone somewhere nicer? I mean, lunch is going on expenses anyway, isn't it?”

“Today, yes,” said Helga, “because we're out on business. We're working. But I don't want to burden the taxpayer any more than necessary.” Her eyes narrowed as she looked at Peter. “Do you remember what our department is called, Peter?” she asked him.

“Of course,” smiled Peter. “It has the snappy title of the Department Of Government And Public Sector Efficiency And Cost Reduction.”

“Cost reduction, Peter,” said Helga. “Cost reduction. That's what we're doing. We're keeping costs down.”

Peter's smile faded. He looked down at the table. “I guess you're right,” he said.

“Can I say something, Peter?” said Helga.

Peter looked up. “Of course,” he said.

She looked straight at him. “Jeffrey said you had the highest score ever in the Public Sector Entrance Exam,” she said, “and you completed it in record time.”

“Apparently so,” said Peter.

Helga nodded her head slowly. “There's something not quite right here,” she said. “I've met a lot of top drawer people. Even in the public sector, would you believe? We actually have a lot of talented people in the upper echelons of the public sector.” She paused and continued almost to stare at Peter. Then she said, “But you're not one of them.”

Peter shrugged his shoulders and tried to look nonchalant. “The evidence seems to contradict you,” he said.

“It seems so, doesn't it?” said Helga “But I believe the operative word here is 'seems'. I don't know how you did it, Peter, but I'll find out. Because it seems to me that you have no particular talent, and I reckon you've never managed or supervised people. In fact I reckon you've never had any significant job.” She paused. “That is if you've ever had a job at all.”

There was an awkward silence. Peter focused on finishing his food.

Helga stood up. “Come on,” she said. “Let's go. We have an appointment with Alf Barge. You'll find him a bit different from Nigel Dudley-Farker.”

She walked out of the café.

Peter finished his mug of tea and got up and followed after her.

Alf Barge's office was certainly different from Nigel Dudley-Farker's, being small and cluttered and scruffy, and the man himself was very different from the other public sector union leader. He was short and fat, and was wearing disheveled clothes. A button had come off his shirt, exposing the plump skin of his rotund belly.

“Come in, Helga,” he said, opening the door when she knocked on it. He stood to one side and let Helga and Peter enter. “And you must be Peter?” he said as Peter passed by.

“Yes,” said Peter.

Alf shook him warmly by the hand. “Good to meet you,” he said. “I'm Alf Barge, head of the Union of Servants of the Public

He grabbed a couple of chairs and put them facing another chair. Indicating the two chairs, he said, “Sit yourselves down.” When Helga and Peter were seated, he sat down in the other chair.

“How are you these days, Alf?” said Helga. “Still fighting on behalf of us little people?”

“No one is little in my eyes, Helga,” said Alf, “but yes, I'm always fighting some fight or other on behalf of my union's members. Is there any fighting you need me to do on your behalf, Helga?”

“Not at the moment,” said Helga, “but you never know. I've just been passed over for a new senior post in favor of Peter here.” She sighed. “But I suppose that must just mean that he's the best man for the job.”

“Could be sexism,” said Alf sternly.

“I'm sure it isn't,” said Helga. “It's just that Jeffrey wanted some new, young blood for the position.”

“Could be ageism,” said Alf.

“I'm sure Jeffrey reached his decision purely on the basis of ability” said Helga, sounding rather unconvinced.

“If you say so, Helga,” said Alf, “but if you have any doubts, let me know and I'll fight your corner for you.”

He turned to Peter. “I understand that once you've been trained and given this new position of Jeffrey's, you'll be eligible to join the posh people's union.”

“Apparently so,” said Peter. “I'll be enrolled in Nigel Dudley-Farker's union, the …”

”… the Federated Union of Civil Key Employees of the Realm,“ said Alf.

“That's the one,” said Peter.

Alf leant back in his chair and folded his arms. “Class discrimination, that's what I call it, Peter,” he said. “There should be only one union in the public sector, and that should be mine - The Union of Servants of the Public. At least it's got a sensible name. Like me. I've got a sensible name. What sort of name is Nigel Dudley-Farker?”

Peter shrugged his shoulders. “His family's probably to blame for it,” he said.

Alf unfolded his arms and leant forward. “I won't tolerate any sort of discrimination in the public sector, Peter,” he said, “or anywhere else in life for that matter, but sometimes I can't help wanting to discriminate against posh people.”

Peter nodded his head vigorously. “I feel the same, Alf,” he said. “I believe we're all equal, and that everyone should only get in life what they deserve and they've earned.”

Helga looked at him. “You do, do you?”

“Absolutely,” said Peter. “Everyone should only get what they deserve, and not get anything through privilege or personal connections, or by using any unfair means.”

“Good man, Peter,” said Alf. “That's the sort of thing I like to hear. Of course until you get this new post of Public Sector Inspector Inspector you're actually just a Public Sector Inspector, so that means you're automatically in my union. If there's any conflict or anything at work that you think is unfair, just let me know and I'll try and sort it out for you.”

“I will, Alf. I will,” said Peter.

“Right,” said Alf. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Helga turned to Peter. “Is there anything more you want to know from Alf?” she said.

“No,” said Peter. “I don't think so.”

Alf got to his feet. Helga and Peter did likewise.

“Many thanks for seeing us, Alf,” said Helga.

“That's what I'm here for, Helga,” said Alf.

The three of them shook hands, and then Alf opened the door and let them out of his office.

Back at their own department, Helga and Peter went straight to Jeffrey's office. They stood there in front of his desk as he sat behind it signing off some paperwork. Eventually he looked up.

“So how did it go with our two contrasting union bosses?” he said to Peter.

“They're both interesting in their own individual ways,” said Peter, “and they both obviously aim to be helpful.”

“They're certainly helpful when the people they represent have problems,” said Jeffrey, “but hopefully you won't be having any problems, Peter.” He turned to Helga. “Now, Helga, it's almost the end of the working day, so you may as well go home. On your way out can you send Nick Jenks in here, please?”

“Yes, of course, Jeffrey,” said Helga. She turned and left the office.

Jeffrey turned back to Peter. “First of all, Peter, you've got your own office now. It's the one next to mine. You and I are the only people in the department with private offices. Everyone else has to work in the open plan offices.” He pushed a key across the desk. “Here's the key to your office.”

Peter took it and put it in his pocket.

“Thank you, Jeffrey,” he said.

Jeffrey pushed a piece of paper across the desk. It had something on it.

“Secondly,” he went on, “here is your public sector credit card.”

Peter took the card and the piece of paper.

“Sign the card some time,” said Jeffrey. “The PIN is on the piece of paper. Change it if you want to. Use the card sparingly until you get your promotion, then you can use it more liberally.”

He leant back in his chair.

“Now for the news that should really please you,” he said.

He reached into a drawer and took out some house keys and some car keys. He slid them across to Peter.

Peter just stood there looking at them.

“I've found you somewhere to live,” Jeffrey went on, “free of charge, and I've got you a car you can use, again for free. Both the mews house and the car are government properties that aren't being used at the moment, so you might as well have the use of them.”

“I don't know what to say, Jeffrey,” said Peter.

“Take the keys,” said Jeffrey.

Peter picked up the keys from the desk.

“One thing I'd advise you not to say,” said Jeffrey, “is to say to your friend Nick that we're providing these things for you. It could cause resentment. Tell him they belong to friends of mine who are abroad at the moment and they're letting you use them. He'll probably resent that anyway. But it's only until you sort out your own accommodation and transport. You've got two sets of keys for the house, and two sets of keys for the car. The car's parked outside your mews house, the address of which is written on that piece of paper I gave you with your credit card.”

Peter looked at the address on the piece of paper. His eyebrows went up.

“That's a good address,” he said.

There was a knock on the door. Nick came in.

“Ah, Nick,” said Jeffrey. “Just the man. You'll be pleased to know your friend Peter now has somewhere to live courtesy of some friends of mine, and he has some transport too. It means you won't have to have him cluttering up your place any more, and after today you won't need to drive him to and from work.”

“That sounds good, Jeffrey,” said Nick. “Although in a funny way I think I've actually enjoyed having him stay at my place.”

“Try to sound a little more convincing,” laughed Jeffrey. He paused, then went on, “Now, his car is at his new home, and obviously he will have stuff at your place at the moment, so if you could drive him back to your place, let him collect his stuff, and then take him to his new home, that would be very much appreciated.”

“Certainly, Jeffrey,” said Nick. “I'll do that.”

“Good,” said Jeffrey. He looked at the two young men in front of him. “In that case I'll see you both here at work tomorrow.”

Nick and Peter nodded their heads and smiled, and then turned and left the room.


Fiction | Devtome Writers

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