Ho ho ho!
Franz Kafka wrote The Trial in 1914 and it was published posthumously in 1925. For those unfamiliar, it’s about a man arrested for some crime he isn’t aware of and prosecuted by some remote and inaccessible system he doesn’t know of. My story won’t be as ground-breakingly, heart-breakingly and darkly brilliant, but I cite it because it demonstrates how wonderfully portentous writers like Kafka were, and how horribly accurate were my own premonitions earlier this year about the lives of those just about managing.
My story is about a character called Mike – yes let’s call him that because that’s what someone called him. For Mike, life is one long trial, and here I’ll tell his tale with some deliberation and respect for his feelings, because he writes a blog and has realised a large percentage of his readers seem to be lawyers, a fact which gives him pleasure and paranoia in equal measure.
“Mike is neither sure of the crime he might’ve committed nor why his life has turned upside-down, but he senses deep down that he must’ve erred in some wicked way for it to turn out like this, where life is just one bad thing after another, one trial, one tribulation, after another. He searches his soul and recalls stealing a pork pie from Tesco when he was seven, and more recently signing an exemption from prescription charges because he was broke and needed anti-depressants, and he wonders if these are the reasons for his downfall and prosecution. But in his defence and in more cheerful moments he sees himself as no saint nevertheless a decent, caring and honest man…
At this moment in time he’s claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance and has been dutifully and assiduously obeying the rules by applying – but not usually getting – jobs. Then a number of weeks ago there was a miracle, when he was offered a day’s work. The company who offered him the work will be nameless (given the legally eagle eyes are on Mike’s blog) but he gratefully accepted its contractual terms. Honest to the last, he declared this miracle to the Jobseekers people knowing that legally they would dock his Allowance and legally he was bound to accept. He did this because he is honest and he did this because he believed that while a day’s work wasn’t much, it might beget more work and soon he wouldn’t have to rely on the State and he could pay his taxes. He also believed in good faith that a fair day’s work would beget a fair day’s pay come the end of the month.
But sometimes mortals like Mike are up against a system he can’t control, can’t challenge and can’t even understand. And that’s why today he learned his invoice hasn’t for some reason gone through the system and he won’t be paid till the end of December. Now some would argue that at least Mike will, eventually, be paid, but others would surely wonder how this can happen, how this can happen to a man like Mike who’s desperate and who won’t be receiving his Jobseekers Allowance because he’s been honest and will therefore have to go a whole month, the month where Christmas happens to fall, with nothing. And there’s seemingly nothing he can do about it.
Again, because he fears the legal eagles are circling, Mike is nervous of having his story told, but decides to let me tell it because he’s nothing to lose and, after all, he’s only telling the truth. And furthermore he’s feeling not a little paranoid and disappointed (it’s worth adding) that the company is one for which he’s spilled blood, sweat and tears over his working life. So perhaps one could forgive his paranoia that somebody somewhere within this remote and inaccessible system is testing his limits.
One thing Mike does have is someone he loves. She talks to him often about life and how it tries us. He talks to her about depression and how it tries him, how he feels like an elastic band that’s being stretched, how he resists the tension but how sometimes, because he knows something about physics and even more about human feelings, he fears he’s going to snap. In plain fact an elastic band, like a human being, can only take so much.
Mike knows she and others are there to love and support him, and he also recognises there are people much worse off – people who have nobody, people who live under arches, people who don’t even have a decent sleeping bag, a vehicle, a metal roof over their heads. He knows it’s going to be harder for them this winter, and understands why they’ll resort to alcohol, drugs and crime. He understands this because he knows they’ll become desperate. And he now understands that being honest doesn’t necessarily pay, in fact it doesn’t appear to pay at all. So what’s the point in avoiding alcohol, drugs and crime? Why not let alcohol or drugs numb the pain? Why not pinch a pork pie if you’re starving? It’s the unlawful law of the homeless and it’s how they’re supposed to behave.
Mike’s done some research on the homeless problem. He’s read a story about a man who was up for some petty crime and begged to be sent to prison so he’d have warmth and a roof over his head. But the judge felt that would be too easy for him, so presided that more time on the streets was punishment more befitting; better to have the streets full of homeless people who can be moved on, than prisons bursting their seams with criminals.
And he’s read in the paper recently about people on Universal Credit who’re forced to live on cornflakes and tell their kids there’ll be no Christmas presents this year. With this in mind, Mike met his beautiful daughter for a coffee and she was paying. He told her there would be gifts for his grandchildren but they wouldn’t be much. For that he was banking on the pay that was due for his honest days’ work. But now, with today’s news upper in his mind, he’s going to have to tell her it will have to wait until the new year. And it will break his heart.”
So that’s the story. When I interviewed Mike he was at first reticent, scared even, to divulge. But this was more than paranoia about the legal eagles reading his words – it was about dignity. He doesn’t feel ashamed of his story and he certainly doesn’t want pity. Why should he, he says, ask for pity from others when he refuses to pity himself? All he wants, after some deliberation, is to tell his story, get things off his chest, tell it like it is and that will be that.
Because while Mike might be made of elastic he’s not one easy to snap. With dignity he’ll go on displaying innate magnanimity, he’ll go on resisting the tension, he’ll go on being resilient, and he’ll go on believing that while he can’t fight the system and can’t understand why this has happened to him, he’ll get over this famine and enjoy any feast that’s put in front of him, come Christmas and beyond. And yes, ho ho ho, he’ll manage, somehow, to laugh in the face of adversity.
Franz Kafka, arguably, might not have been so forthcoming with happy endings.