December 14, 2012 Fiction











The Economic Problem




Dave Clark



The only time Alun ever wore glasses was to assess my naked body. Whether he actually needed them to see properly and spent the rest of the year walking around half blind, or whether they were plain glass specs he donned to make himself look more like a doctor, I don’t know, but the only time I ever saw him wear them was when I had my annual medical.


I’ve never had a day’s sickness in my entire life, but Alun insists on giving me a thorough checkup every year, hence I was standing naked in his front room while he donned his glasses.
“I don’t have any money for my checkup,” I told him, “the boatman borrowed fifty quid last week and can’t pay me back.”


Alun peered at me through his glasses. “Can’t pay you back?”


“He lost it.”
“Lost it? How can you lose £50?”


“It turns out that the investment he wanted to make was on a racehorse he’d had a tip-off about: The Spirit of Free Enterprise.”


“Ba, mugs game racing,” Alun said, taking off his glasses and walking off into the kitchen.


I gestured to my naked body. “I’m waiting for my checkup,” I said.


“Checkup’s £50,” he said.


“I don’t have it,” I said.


“I know,” he said. “Better get dressed.”

“But what if I’m sick?”


“Then you’ll need money for treatment.”


I dressed and left Alun’s house without my annual medical, counting the cost of my generous loan to the boatman.


Neither Alun nor myself were rich. Purchasing my share of the island had taken all of my savings. Though my novels were selling well, the royalty cheques were infrequent and I wasn’t due any more money for at least six months.


Usually it didn’t matter, we were pretty self-sufficient, the only money I needed was the few pounds I made every week selling milk and odd tasks to Alun and my only outlay was the money I gave to Alun for vegetables and the odd tasks he did for me. All of our power needs were met by the generator which was powered by the wind and waves. The generator produced more electricity than we could conceivably use, so we sold it to a company on the mainland. However, the next dividend from them wasn’t due for another six months. Alun wouldn’t be paid for another six months either, his only income was from the annual health-checks he provided for the neighbouring islands, but he always did these in winter, because he claimed the islanders smelt too much in the summer heat.


Now our entire economic system had broken down, we were without any money at all for the next six months, or at least until the boatman paid me back. What would this mean?


Less than ten minutes after I’d arrived home, there was a hammering on my door. It was Alun. I wondered for a moment if he’d changed his mind but he carried on as if the aborted medical had never happened.


“I’ve brought my accounts,” he said.


Alun despised paperwork and although his annual accounts amounted to somewhere in the region of five lines of figures, I always helped him with the mathematics and forms.


“That’ll be £50,” I said.


“I don’t have any money,” he said, “a client let me down.”
“Tell you what,” I said, “I’ll do your accounts for you if you’ll give me my medical.”


“I don’t do barter Jed, it’s barbaric, we’re not cavemen, we’ve evolved, we rely on a complex monetary system to underpin all of our transactions, without it the entire system of commerce and enterprise would collapse. I only work for ready money.”
“Well then,” I said, “so do I. You’ll have to do your own books.”


Alun looked at me sternly. “No problem,” he said, “I only give you the work because you need the money.” He stormed out, slamming the door behind him.


Just a few hours later Alun returned, again acting as if nothing has happened. “I’ve come for my haircut Jed, look at it,” he ruffled his few remaining hairs to make them look ruffled, “I can hardly see my hair’s so long.”


Living on the island with a total population of two people, we came to rely on each other for a bizarre range of favours and agreements.  Neither of us were an expert coiffeur, however we couldn’t afford to travel to the mainland where there were specialist barber shops and other hair emporiums, so we snipped each other’s hair once every month, to keep ourselves looking respectable.


However, this month I was in no mood to cooperate.


“That’ll be £5,” I said.


“I don’t have that sort of money Jed,” he protested, “you know I don’t. You don’t normally charge, you cut my hair and I cut yours, that’s how it usually works.”


No swapsies Alun, we’re not kids in the schoolyard, we’re fully grown adults. I’m not cutting your hair without seeing the colour of your money.


And so it continued. When I needed to borrow Alun’s chainsaw to cut down the dead tree in front of my house I was informed it would cost me £2. When Alun came for his daily bucket of milk the next morning I told him it would cost £1. Later that day he refused to let me have a turnip for my supper and I wouldn’t let him borrow my computer to check his emails.


“We seem to have arrived at an impasse,” he said.


“You’re right, we have,” I said, trying not to let on I didn’t know the meaning of the word impasse. I’m supposed to be an author!


“There’s nothing for it Jed, you’ll have to see the boatman, force him to give you the money. Our island’s falling apart without it.”


The next morning we both rose early to meet the boatman. “I need my £50,” I told him, “I have to pay Alun for my medical.”


“And I need it so I can pay Jed for my accounts,” Alun added.


The boatman looked thoughtful. “Well,” he said, “as I explained I don’t have it, simple as that. I’m not getting paid ‘til the end of next month, until then I’m as skint as you are.” He paused again. Sometimes talking with the boatman’s like being in a Pinter play, albeit with slightly inferior dialogue. “Why not just trade, you do Jed’s medical in exchange for his doing your accounts?”


“Barter!” Alun roared, “We’re not children playing swapsies in the playground. I won’t do his medical unless I get my money, so there.”


The boatman paused again, frankly even Pinter would have given him a line at this point, it was getting frustrating. “I can’t give you money,” he said dryly, “as I don’t have any. But what I will do is give you a promissory note. You can use that as currency until I get paid.”


We both nodded assent and watched the boatman slowly scrawl out the words ‘IOU £50, signed the boatman’.


“Will this do?” I asked, and Alun gave a thumbs up.


“This is for my medical,” I said. Alun snatched it off me, then handed it back.


“This is for my accounts,” he said.


I passed it back to him. “This is for load of your chainsaw,” I said.


He stared at me blankly. “I can’t change a fifty,” he said. “Haven’t you anything smaller?”


We both turned to the boatman. “Give it ‘ere,” he said with a sigh and proceeded to rip up the promissory note and duly replace it with an IOU for £20, two for £10, a £5 and five £1s.


“Thank you I said.”


“No problem,” he said, “oh, and I brought you some mail.”


It was from the Mainland Council, addressed to ‘the entire population of the island.’We opened it together. It was our annual council tax bill, amounting to £15 and 27 new pence. We managed to pay the bill eventually, but how we managed that is an entirely separate story.

Pages: 1 2 3 4


  1. Quirina December 16, at 09:24

    Beautiful prose, James, and as always the reader sinks sensationally into the setting. And the last line, so compact with the richness of freedom.

  2. Stephen Ramey December 16, at 03:50

    "a terrifying magnificence"... one of many sharply observed moments here. There is such intensity in this, almost a sense of the fantastic, and yet it's ultimately real and true. Wonderful work. Thanks for publishing it.


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