'La Dolce Vita' instalment 4. of 20.
Horatio surveyed briefly his companions (even though promoted, the real privilege, front seat travel, had been retained somehow by their sergeant) from the almost prayerful, elbows-on-knees, hands-together pose of the bench-seat-wearied traveller. His eyes met first boots, black, polished, then dark overall trousers, then, with a little effort, the faces, still homogenised by expression and vision, but gradually revealing the self.
The names of the 11 are: Jack the lad, Giles the toff, Gary the mechanic, Richard in sound recording, Darren the country boy, Paul, hoping to train as a priest, Javed the scientist, Alan the craftsman, Steve in sales, Simon in the City, and Sgt Brian Sparrow.
Sussex! Home! The conveyor sped the lorry bumpily into the county, its inhabitants by now, mostly, somehow, asleep. The lorry, not the county. But a bit ‘sleepy’ didn’t hurt, thought Horatio, gazing out of the back of the lorry. They were being turned off the conveyor, and returned to self-motivation. The agri-industry gave way to a gentler non-city vision, something resembling the old ‘countryside’ which Horatio had seen illustrated in data bases, and, once, in an old painted-depiction in a non-virtual museum. How strange had the closely-cropped copse systems looked, the unkempt trees, the un-mown hills, the fearsome lack of building: no real architecture, Mr Rubens, in your empty, sad life.
Horatio was genuine in his upbraiding of that somehow remembered painted-depiction-actioner he had stumbled across in that fusty, dusty museum-shell one rainy day, in a half-forgotten city in Continental-main. Discovered that odd depiction, and met his wife-to-be! the latter event having eclipsed totally the former, until this moment of return to his home county - a county with a somehow now-seen resemblance to that far off land of primitive agri-industry-cum-wilderness.
But Sussex was proud! Surely it had some of the neatest mown hills in England! Was not the conveyor expansion programme ahead of target! Sussex was poised to become a Total County - income maximised from its whole area, in line with government directives. Remaining areas of wilderness potential in agri-industrial sites were being made subject to Compulsory-Efficiencising action. Targets were ambitious, but achievable. Tendencies contrary to efficiency were being everywhere rooted out; where this included personal attitude, special Social Intelligence Units intervened, building evidence for possible Compulsory Replacement, or Deportation, as it was becoming known . . . (Some counties were thus more or less ‘cleansed’ of undesirable elements - those whose added value fell below a certain index - while other counties, in the North, unable to match the conditions for Total inclusion, became repositories of these lesser people.)
The bloody Drainage! thought politicians and farmers alike. No allowances had been made for this in the Plans.
All surplus funds were being sucked into the Drains.
And drains were what they saw, when the lorry pulled into Fairfield Farm: everywhere coils of plastic piping, brightly coloured, dotted the mud beside their grave. Here and there half-hearted attempts had been made to entrench them: truncated arteries piercing the soil, reminding Horatio of the Transitional Habitation site as it came into being. A trenching machine observed all idly from the top of a hill; inexplicably idle - possibly spares, fuel, trained operators, or sabotage . . . inexplicably, some did not want the whole land drained, Totally organised, controlled, enumerated . . .
Horatio noted the scene with some surprise; Dave, there to greet, with Dot, looked pleased and harassed in equal measure. “Just had the highest daily rainfall ever in the county, last night - seven bloody inches!” he said, while showing Horatio the barn where the men were to sleep. Sergeant Sparrow organised the domestic side in a sergeantly manner: camp beds, boxes of rations, kit storage; and then looked around for his own privileged quarters, but Horatio had already been taken into the farmhouse warmth, the front door closed. Sergeant Sparrow’s resolve did not match the yard: the suspect mud, the dogs, the cow; he was a city boy, from Edmonton. He retreated to the barn: “Right lads, time for a brew.”
Work began next day: the platoon, as they were now officially designated, under Sergeant Sparrow, marched off down the lane and braved a field; picks and spades were wielded, but the sodden earth gave slowly. By the time Horatio, who had begun the day counting coils of piping and trying to come up with a work scheme, had found them for his inspection, they had completed but 10 yards of trench: no pipe had been laid. A quick mental calculation produced a total of around 120 years to finish the job at this rate. He despatched Sergeant Sparrow and Gary, the mechanic, to see whether the digger could be salvaged, and stayed himself to supervise the trench work. He found to his surprise that he enjoyed digging. His mind drifted to bewilderments of labourers from past centuries excavating massive works by hand: canals, roads, railways; what power, what resolve; as he slumped, exhausted, after half an hour.
By lunch time Sergeant Sparrow still had not returned. Horatio imagined hopefully that the mechanical digger would roll triumphantly down the road, or appear over a rise in the field with Sergeant Sparrow cheerful at the helm. But no such apparition became: when Sergeant Sparrow returned he reported no hope for the digger. Horatio detected the genesis of resentment in Sergeant Sparrow’s demeanour, to his distaste.
“So what have you been doing, then?”
No satisfactory, nor particularly respectful answer ensued.
Horatio now had a personnel problem, as well as everything else. When he returned for the afternoon inspection, no more work had been done under Sergeant Sparrow’s direction.
“What’re you doing, Sergeant Sparrow? Nothing has been done at all.”
“It’s not worth it, sir, we’ll never finish this job without proper tools - machines.”
“We’ll have to do what we can, Sergeant.” And Horatio pitched in, leading by example; an example which the platoon, somewhat beguiled by Horatio’s energetic presence, followed – all except the chirpy bird on the fence post.
A communication from Headquarters reached Horatio, brought down to the site by a harassed Dot: an inspection was to take place by the Area Commander the next day. Horatio surveyed his ditch, and looked further to the ditches-to-be, which every field now betokened, and shrugged inwardly: something more than 12 men with picks and shovels truly was needed if this job were ever going to be completed. All he could show the Area Commander was the scope of the task and the degree of incompletion: next to no progress had been made.
Horatio could hardly stop grinning when he captured the Area Commander stepping out of his carriage: his old boss, Mr, now Colonel, Wylie!
“So they got you too!”
“Oh yes; but I’ve landed quite nicely, don’t you think?” And indeed he had. “Of course,” he explained, “I have served before.”
Where? When? Who with? But no more was said. With Jack Wylie it just had to have been so, mused Horatio.
“Right, show me the damage.”
They marched off up the track to where the work party was commencing operations for the day: tea making operations by the look of it, Sergeant Sparrow seeming to have gone on unofficial strike. But he straightened up ‘pon seeing a Colonel approaching; stood up; saluted; this was the good old days, a real officer; then recoiled warily at seeing the two officers so chummy, and the surliness presumptuously washed back in.
“This won’t do, this won’t do” grumbled Colonel Wylie.
“I know” said Horatio. “We need . . . loads more . . . everything!”
“If this were a Transhab site, we’d be guiding in the permacabins by now.”
“The lorries, the diggers”
“The men, the materials”
“The lot . . . “
“You know, there’s talk of letting Norfolk go” confided Wylie, as they strolled, “the sea is rising so fast; pulling back to the Chilterns and making a stand.”
“You really would need some Trans Habitation then,“ whistled Horatio.
“But to the point: what you’re doing here is no good at all. I’ll rustle up some more resources. A farm a week is the rate to achieve. A farm a week!” and he was off. Off again, as usual, this time sans press; though knowing Jack Wylie, they would probably be in evidence soon!
As soon as the next day things started to arrive: two excavators on a lorry, a trickle of skilled operatives, civilian, but somehow drafted in, a portacabin of course, and more piping.
The original 12 were set to work conveying the piping to pre-determined points around the farm, whither the excavators would hurry at the completion of the last task. Hurry, hurry.
And it began to rain again: hardly to rain, but to offer relentless deluge, so that soon the soldiers had created their own Somme battlefield.
How could you drain this?
Dave had kept a very low profile all the while: Horatio thought he was having some sort of breakdown; he was certainly keeping right out of sight. Dorothy was protecting him, dealing with all matters, keeping the world away.
Horatio didn’t pry; he kept on smiling to Dot in passing, as did she to him, if wanly.
But Horatio could not get lost in diversion: he had lots to do. He was back in his old job now, on a site, directing operations, reporting to Jack Wylie.