Wrong Way Round, by Matthew Harrison
Steve knew he wasn’t normal. And that was a problem because his job was to enforce normality.
His colleague Jake was normal. This was Jake now, bursting into Steve’s office with a big file under his arm. Slamming down the file, he took out a photo and brandished it at Steve: “Makes you fishing angry, this!”
Steve took the photo. It was of a child licking a lollypop. “I suppose so,” he said guardedly. “Although it’s kind of innocent, too.”
“That’s why it’s so perverse!” his colleague exploded. “But, flapjacks! Why am I even telling you that?” Leaving the file, he stumped out.
Steve sat holding the photo. Chief Investigator in the Vice Department, his job was to build up the case for Jake to prosecute. But he was less and less comfortable with the job.
He opened the file. It was the Blunkett case – hard-core porn, and curious polemics with it. He browsed through the photo pack. Eastern European, you could tell by the models’ blonde hair and high cheekbones. And structured too. Photos of sauerkraut, soups and salads gave way to rostbraten, dumplings and sausage, then strudel, cakes and cream. And the models were putting food into their own mouths, even helping each other to food.
How did Steve feel about that? Of course he should have felt disgust at such depravity. But he didn’t. He just felt a little bit hungry looking at the pictures, that was all.
Steve passed Jake’s office on his way out. Through the glass a rhythmic movement caught his eye, and he saw that occupant was… Oh crumbs! He really wished Jake wouldn’t. He walked quickly on, keeping his eyes straight ahead. He definitely didn’t want to see Agnes doing her thing in the corner.
It wasn’t just on eating that Steve was abnormal. He was pretty strange on sex too.
Steve’s wife Susie wasn’t normal either, although she was careful to keep it quiet.
At the family meal that evening, each member eating decently behind their partition, Steve felt the urge for conjugal relations.
“Shall we go to Dando’s, tonight?” he suggested to Susie when the meal was over and the boys were in bed. Dando’s was favoured by their age group. It was easier to bare your flesh when the flesh around you was also middle-aged.
Susie frowned. “Do we have to?”
Steve suggested a couple of other places.
“Can’t we just stay in?” Susie said. “I feel so embarrassed taking my things off in front of everyone.”
“Come on,” Steve said stoutly, “you look great.”
But they didn’t go out, settling instead for an evening in front of the television. Perhaps it was just as well, Steve reflected. The last time at Dando’s he’d had trouble, well, performing in front of all those eyes.
Yet Susie hadn’t dropped the idea entirely. She whispered in his ear.
In their bedroom? In private? Crumpets! Steve thought. They had done that once, thrilled at their own daring. But now Steve had responsibilities. If they were discovered, he could just see the headline – ‘Porn investigator caught in the act’. He regretfully shook his head.
But why couldn’t you do it in private?
He put this question to Jake, trying not to look down. Fortunately, his colleague’s flies were fastened.
“You’ve been in this job too long,” Jake snorted. “You’ll be wanting to eat in public next!”
Steve was silent.
Jake saw his expression, and swore. “Burgers! You have been in this job too long – forgotten why you’re here!”
Then he brought out a pamphlet. “This’ll bring it all back for you. Blunkett’s manifesto. Read that, and you’ll never forget what we’re fighting.”
Steve glanced through the pamphlet. It was indeed in strong language, calling for a moral revolution. There were citations from the Bible, then the author went to the root of the problem – the Pacific Island customs that had swept Europe in the eighteenth century. ‘Down with Captain Cook!’ the pamphlet proclaimed: ‘Remember European values! ‘
“Hm,” Steve said, “I think I’ll question this Blunkett.”
“That’s my boy!” Jake said.
When Steve entered the interrogation room, Blunkett looked up unrepentantly. Lanky, with an overflowing grey-streaked beard, he looked like a fundamentalist preacher – which, Steve thought, was roughly what he was.
“Did you write this?” Steve sat on the chair opposite, setting the pamphlet down on the table between them.
Blunkett looked disdainful. “I’m not going to deny it. One day you’ll see the light–”
“OK, OK. Tell me how you came up with the idea.”
Blunkett explained. It was a movement of like-minded people, who felt that sex should be private, and who also wanted to be able to eat with their friends and families in public. “We’re growing, we’re attracting members every day.” Blunkett’s eyes gleamed. “I bet in this very building…”
This was getting too close for comfort. “Don’t talk nonsense,” Steve said sharply.
Blunkett leant forward, eyes burning now. “You think it’s natural, men and women doing it in front of strangers? In front of their own children?” He looked quickly around, and his voice dropped. “You’d be surprised, even in high places… It’s only a matter of time before people recall their true natures. This collective amnesia, it can’t last.”
Steve hurriedly thanked him and left, leaving Blunkett to vent his zeal on the empty chair.
From Jake’s account of the court proceedings, the Blunkett camp had been aggressive. Jake had been caught out.
Steve asked for the defence affidavit. When it came across, Steve read it carefully. It was indeed a bold argument – that the defendant had been denied natural justice when society enacted the present sex and eating laws. ‘Bizarre customs gratuitously imposed on European society’, ‘Natural justice pre-empted by Captain Cook’, the affidavit read.
“Far-fetched?” Steve wondered, when he discussed it with Jake.
“They’re arguing that the law shouldn’t have been enacted the way it was,” Jake explained. “They’re saying that there should have been consultation. Technically they’re right, the pasties. It’s just when it’s something so caking fundamental…”
Steve couldn’t help smiling at Jake’s idea of strong language.
“Anyway, we’ll soon find out,” Jake said, rubbing himself. Steve tried not to look. “The verdict’s this afternoon.”
“I’ll watch out for that,” Steve said. It seemed too good to be true.
Yet it wasn’t.
The following day, Susie read the verdict out from the paper as the family ate breakfast behind their partitions. “‘Eating activist wins – Government to appeal.'”
“I was hoping he would win,” she said. “–Sorry Steve, I suppose it’s one of yours?”
Steve reached out and deliberately depressed the partition. This revealed his wife with a piece of toast halfway to her mouth.
“What are you doing?” Susie exclaimed. “Steve, the children…!”
“What is it, Mummy?” the two of them cried, pulling down their partitions and revealing their own half-eaten meals. Giggling, they pointed at Susie and then at each other.
Scolding the children and her husband by turns, Susie restored order. The partitions were raised again and the family finished the meal in a silence broken only by the stifled giggles of the boys.
When the eating was decently over, Susie lowered the partitions and packed the children off to school. Then she confronted Steve. “You must be careful, dear. A porn investigator can’t be seen eating.”
“I’m not a porn investigator anymore,” Steve said quietly. “I’ve resigned.”
Susie looked at him wide-eyed.
“It’s not going to go on forever,” he said, “people are remembering. Meanwhile, I’ll find something else to do.”
He paused, savouring the moment. “Fuck it! Fuck them! I don’t fucking well care anymore.”
Susie was already breathing quickly, her lips parted.
Steve almost pushed her into the bedroom and, following, switched off the light.
Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong.
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