The hard-working family had moved into number 34 at the beginning of April. Reluctantly, and with quite ineffectual feelings of guilt, everybody had soon begun to hate them.
There was a father in that boyish stage of middle-age who was a teacher in an inner-city comprehensive. The mother was a nurse or a care home worker. There were two children: a twelve-year-old girl with a pigtail and a perfectly straight spine; and a blond, chubby little boy aged seven.
The neighbours who emerged from their houses to help the hard-working family to move in returned with the thrust of their story. The hard-working family had been renting at extortionate prices from various unscrupulous landlords, and they had stayed for a season with the mother’s mother, but now they had finally gotten a foot onto the property ladder with the government’s help-to-buy scheme. They were proud and delighted, in such a gloating way that most of the neighbours could not help shuddering at the hard-working family’s delight.
The children never went out to play on the green. One evening, Mrs Adams at number 39, who was not yet acquainted with the full reality of the hard-working family, went over to invite their children out to play with her own. Perhaps she assumed that the children would not come out unless their safety had been formally guaranteed. Yet Mrs Adams was intercepted at the front door by the apologetic mother. No, the children were both doing their homework and then they had to get ready for tomorrow morning.
Mrs Adams smiled with mild distress. “They are very welcome to come and play anytime they like. Err… they don’t go to the local school?”
Mrs Adams would later report that the children attended some “academy” which, between them, the neighbours had never heard of. Their mother had, with the breathless, presentational urgency of a salesperson, outlined the school package: it had a 98% attendance rate, its children got an average of 8 A*s at GCSE, it taught Sanskrit and ballet… but she couldn’t stand about all day. The father would be home soon and she had not started making his tea yet.
Within the week the Crombies at 38 had received the hard-working family for elevenses. “A ghastly lot,” Mr Crombie later told the Levets’ barbecue. “The mother spent the whole time droning on about electricity prices and how they had to keep changing their gas suppliers. At one point, I laughed “well, it’s only money,” and they all stared at me as if I was a banshee.” They had stayed for just ten minutes – he had marking to do, she was on overtime during the afternoon, and the children were researching the Schleswig-Holstein Question for the school history club.
And so the gruesome family continued their life of unremitting hard work and their goblin children continued to attend their exotic academy. For several weeks Mickey, who lodged with Mrs Elcar, had kept out of their way. He was a lanky scruffy guy who was in the foothills of his thirties. He only worked in bars or restaurants because he did not want to earn enough to pay back the student loan. He would mow the neighbours’ lawns for a couple of pounds and one Sunday he met the hard-working father in the Co-op and notified him of this deal.
The father was uncertain: getting somebody else to mow his lawn would disrupt a planner of household chores which had been prepared months in advance; but the mother and the children were volunteering at the food bank that afternoon and it would be nice if he could get some time off to take pictures.
After his siesta and a motivational beer, Mickey trooped over with Mrs Elcar’s lawn mower and he began to methodically remove an inch from the hard-working family’s lawn. Later, he became conscious that the hard-working mother was standing frozen at the back door, watching him intently. Mickey only grasped the full significance of this the following week when he received a letter from HMRC, proclaiming that they were conducting an investigation into his illegal business activities.
He bumped into the hard-working mother on the bus and, to her credit, she was by no means abashed. In fact, it was she who raised the topic. “We work hard and we pay our taxes. Imagine what would happen if I failed to submit a tax return in time. It’s only fair that others pay their contribution and do not get a free ride.”
Even though he was incandescent, Mikey found himself unexpectedly squirming before the hard-working mother’s stern sense of righteousness. She was one of those ladies whose faces flush a bright pink when they become emotional, so that she looked ludicrous whenever she was angry. Yet her eyes remained two steady black dots in the middle of her glowing pink face. She sailed off the bus, her nose in the air, a hard-working mother who had never begged anybody for a free ride.
Faced with a £20,000 bill from HMRC, Mickey wanted to get drunk while he could still get his hands on any money. He phoned his mate Steve and asked for Steve. Steve’s mother replied, in a dazed voice, that Steve was at work.
If the same news had arrived from beyond the grave, it could not have been more extraordinary. Steve had never done a day’s work in his life. He occasionally applied for some dole money, when he had the energy, and he simply stretched it. His father had done the same, and his father before him. “At work?” Mickey whispered.
Indeed, and you can guess who was behind this. The hard-working father had noticed that when leaving for work at six every morning and looking around the street, the curtains of Steve’s bedroom were always closed. He had begun to make discreet inquiries. Soon, he and his wife had taken to phoning Steve’s house in succession. They had each separately explained, in a not unkindly tone, that Steve’s life choices were unacceptable. It was not fair that they went to work at five and six every morning, to pay for soaring gas bills and expensive school uniforms, when others did not shoulder the burden. The phone calls came again and again, like sniper rounds, at the rate of two an hour. Next, the children had winkled out Steve’s mobile number and they had started to send him politely-abusive text messages. Distraught, Steve had fled to the jobcentre and taken the first position available.
Steve made a brief appearance at the Coach and Horses that evening, but he did not drink anything because he had to get up at five the next morning. Mickey felt nauseous, and he gazed around helplessly at everybody like a man who has suddenly gone deaf. Steve no longer looked like a modern person, with an enjoyable life full of opportunities, but he was instead as defeated and depersonalised as a third-world peasant who can only automatically think about the next mouthful of rice. “It’s those hard-working pigs!” Mickey decided. “Those nasty hard-working pigs!”
After getting a few more beers under his belt, Mickey lurched off for home. On passing number 34, it sprang to his attention that the hard-working family’s lights were still on. Here was the chance to give them a piece of his mind. He would surely never again be as eloquent on the subject of their injustice as he felt now.
“Hard-working pigs!” he roared at the house. “Nasty sick pigs and piglets!”
A light pounced over the front garden and apprehensive faces appeared at the window. “Hard-working pigs! All of you!” Mickey yelled at them. “You’re not even real people! You’re some fantasy about what ordinary people should be like. In real life, people hate work. In real life, people aren’t meek and humble, or so simple that they give up their lives to collect money. You work to live, you don’t live to work!”
The hard-working mother’s voice came from the front door, a little shaky but still self-righteous. “We do live real lives. It’s you who’s not a real person. It’s you who’s a fantasy that hard work and difficult lives can just be avoided forever. Life isn’t like that. You can’t be a teenager forever.”
“Everybody hates you! You’re freaks! All the neighbours hate you! Who wants to be a hard-working family, obsessed with fucking counting up your wage bill every month to check that it’s not missing three pounds sixty? Or sitting there with the fucking calculator going through the council tax bill. We flushed the toilet seven hundred times last month and so we actually owe fifty pence less!” But Mickey might as well have been yelling at the moon. The hard-working family stood there unmoved.
The next morning, the police were at Mickey’s door to serve him with an ASBO.
[Previously on Tychy: “Earning Our Bonus.”]