True tales from an austere kingdom - the great pandemic
During the great pandemic the poor and wretched were more wretched than usual. With many factories closed and most trades severely reduced, the poor had in the main given up work and had taken to begging. You couldn't walk down the street without being accosted by a swathe of begging hands, with the accompanying wails of 'spare a penny sir, I've not eaten for a week', or 'my wife has the virus sir and I need money for a doctor', or even 'You look like a wealthy man sir, take my child, give it a future, it's dead if it stays with me'. Not to mention the disgusting corpses of those that just flopped dead in the middle of the street and expected someone else to clear up their mess. At least the beggars were so weak and enfeebled I could easily outpace them.
The one saving grace of the whole period was my club. Not only did it stay open throughout the pandemic, it was so empty that I was assured my favourite table to myself at any time of the day I should choose.
You might think from the wailing, crying and dying doom-mongers of poverty that littered the streets that life was in a poor way, but in the confines of my club the mood was very much on the cheerier side. As I entered, I saw Hugo at the bar sharing a bucket-sized bottle of champagne with Sir Reginal Somethingorother.
"Champagne Hugo? I thought all was doom and gloom in the world."
"Not at all old chap, I'm having a veritable whale of it all. I've never made so much money in so short a time with so little effort."
"Good lord, what have you done, robbed a bank?"
"Haven't you heard? The stock market is rising at an all-time record. I've made an absolute pile."
"But why are stocks doing so well if all the workers are being laid off and all the businesses are closing."
"Well, if the ghastly poor we currently have all die out due to the plague, we can recruit even more destitute and cheaper workers from abroad. Long term there's a lot of money to be made."
"Of course, I'm not a share owner myself," said Sir Reginald, "I'm a factory owner."
"A factory owner!" I said. "What on earth have you got to celebrate? All of the factories have been forced to close."
"Well, I'm drinking to the government. Their emergency support for small businesses grant is making me a rich man."
"Really, I thought it was a paltry amount - isn't it a maximum of ten shillings?"
"Yes, but I had the idea of making every worker in their factory a separate self-employed business, it means if they're sick or injured then it's their responsibility not mine. So I can claim the emergency support grant for every single one of them, added together it's a tidy sum."
"Still, paying an entire workforce when the factory's closed..."
"Is something I don't have to do. They can toddle off to the workhouse. I'll re-hire them when the pandemic's over, and there will be plenty of others to replace the dead."
However, it wasn't all fun and joy in the club, for at that moment the Minister for Pandemics came in, Sir George Gravesome.
"You're glum Sir George, said Hugo, "Champagne?"
"It'll help I suppose. What a day I've had. I thought I was due for the easiest job in the world, Minister for something that happens once in a hundred years. I mean, what are the chances."
"Is the response going well?" I asked.
"No it's not. Not at all. We've the highest death count in the civilised world, only America is higher. And worst than that I was careless enough to promise a thousand tests a day by the end of the month, which is today, and we're barely managing a dozen. The tests cost a fortune, you see, and all our money's gone to friendly businesses who want the money to travel a very long way away from here. One of them's even planning a trip to the moon, would you believe. There's nothing left for medical supplies or doctors, let alone testing. My head'll be on the line for this."
"I don't see why," I said, suddenly smelling a way to make money. "I can supply a thousand tests a day for a shilling each."
"A thousand tests a day for a shilling? But the tests cost ten shillings each. Where's your profit?"
"I simply post out self-testing kits and we count each test posted. That saves the bother of waiting around for test results. You can' hit your target immediately."
"But that just adds to the cost," said the Minister, "Stamps, envelopes. And these sorts of tests don't work, the virus thing dies in the post."
"And if a few of the tests don't arrive," I continued, tipping the Minister a wink, "Well that's just the nature of the postal service."
"Ah, I see now," said Sir George, suddenly smiling.
"In fact, with careful management I can keep my costs to precisely zero. And it has the added benefit that if nobody's tested for the virus, nobody can die from it."
"Brilliant. You should join me in government, I know a seat you could buy, the PM would love to have you."
"I'm afraid I make far more money doing nothing than I ever would in government."
"A toast," said Hugo, who is always much better at finding endings to these tales than I ever am. "To the great pandemic."
"To the great pandemic," I replied. "May it continue forever."