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CONVERSATION KILLER

By Bernard Haezewindt

- Hi! Joe, how was the weekend? Enjoyed yourself?

- Not exactly. Had to visit the mother in law. You know what it's like Al...

- No, I don't, you forgot that I'm a confirmed bachelor. And talking to people like you, I'm not likely to want to swap places with you.

- No, Al. I don't mean it like this. Florence's mother is a very nice person with a great heart, but...

- But she talks too much?

-No, she keeps the damn television set on while we are visiting and I can never make up my mind whether to listen to her or the set. And Florence gets in on the act and tells me off for not replying to her mother when she addresses me. If only she could survive a couple of hours a month without that damn television! I am sure that some people have their television sets on all day and are completely anaware of it. Anyway here we are, at t' mill like my father used to say...

The two men walked into the offices of the Northern Electricity offices where they worked. Albert Messenger was an office clerk and Joe Cloughton was attached to the office investigating misuse and theft of power supply. After the inevitable exchange of greetings with John Metclaffe the security man, they went their separate ways and promised to meet at the canteen at lunch time, schedules permitting.

Joe Cloughton's workload was not too heavy as most enquiries started in earnest on Tuesday morning, once the paper work, the laborious task of sifting through letters of complaint and denunciations, had been completed on the Monday. One file, however, drew his attention. It was an allegation of theft of electrical supply made against a family living in the vicinity of the Northern Electricity offices. The claim was made by a group of tenants who were complaining about what they called their neighbours from hell and, as it turned out, Joe had just read an article in this morning's paper on a similat topic. He decided that the coincidence deserved some attention and buried himself in the Bouviers' file at once.

According to the paper work, the Bouviers, had not paid their electricity for three months, despite being sent reminders at regular intervals. As it was winter, the Northern Electricity Company had a policy of not cutting the power supply off most of their debtors, mainly to convey an image of a caring company. It could take months of work -- and lost profits -- to rebuild an image shattered by the insensitive handling of some genuine cases of hardship and misfortune. It took a lot of time and effort to find out who could be cut off with the minimum of bad publicity. Joe's job was to separate the scroungers from the genuine victims of life's long list of imperfections to which there was no no need to add the Northern Electricity Company...

Joe rang the vehicle pool and arranged to borrow a van in order to pay the Bouviers a visit.

As luck would have it, there was an empty space in front of the Bouviers' apartment and Joe successfully parked his vehicle in the short space after the third attempt. He was not too good at manoeuvring the large company vans which proved too cumbersome for him, an occasional moped rider. The parking exercise made him very conspicuous, but this was also part of the routine, as the Northern Electricity Company investigators had to be seen to be investigating by the public at large. He was also seen by a very interested party, as a curtain moved at a window, on the third floor, where the Bouviers lived.

Joe ignored the lift as he felt the exercise would do him a power of good. You had to be fit to do this job. You would be surprised by the number of times some of his less healthy colleagues had to go to the top of a tower block in the course of their investigations and be totally breathless when they needed to be at their most persuasive.

Joe knocked at the door. Sounds of extreme agitation came from inside the flat. Windows were closed. Shouts of: I know, I know! and I've done it before, I'm not stupid! came from inside the premises.

After what seemed to Joe like an eternity, the front door was opened by a woman in her forties wearing a balaclava and several layers of cardigans and a quilted jacket. She enquired what the visitor wanted and, having checked his identity badge, led him into the lounge.

In the light of a dull winter morning, Joe saw a group of adults and children gathered closely around a candle. In a corner, an old woman, wrapped to her chin in army blankets, was shivering uncontrollably. The head of the household got up, slapped his sides and stopped blowing on his gloved fingers to greet the investigator:

- Good morning, and come closer to the candle, you'll be warmer. What is the purpose of your visit?

- Good morning sir, I have been sent by my employers, the Northern Electricity Company, to find out why you are behind with your electricity bills...

- Bills? What bills? We haven't got any electricity here. If we had electricity- that is to say, if we could afford to use electricity -- we would not be freezing around this candle.

- Actually, Mr. Bouviers, considering that you warm your flat by candles, it is surprisingly warmer than I would expect...

- Oh, that's because we are also warming the room with our body heat. We, Bouviers, are all warm-blooded, you know, apart from granny here, of course. And sometimes we use more than one candle. We are very adaptable. Right on cue, emerging from her burial mound of blankets, the old lady started to shout in Bouvier's direction :

- Why did you have to open those blasted...

- Shut-up, granny. We did not open anything. And turning back towards Joe Cloughton, and fixing him with his candid blue eyes he added:

- As I was saying, mister, we are coping.

Joe looked around the room and fixing Bouviers with an air of infinite good will said:

- So, Mr. Bouviers, you don't use any electricity in your flat.

- That's right. It does not mean we never have. You see, as soon as we fell behind with the bills, we stopped using electricity and we have grown accustomed to our new way of life. I'm not saying that it has not been difficult at first but you know... I say, you don't seem to be listening to me...

- Excuse-me, I was miles away.

- Yes, I was saying that, at first, it was difficult, but, since I have lost my job, that my wife was made redundant at the cafe and the twins have not found any form of employment since leaving school, you understand...

- Oh, I understand only too well. Unfortunately, I shall have to make a report recommending that the Northern Electricity Company take you to court to recover the money you owe them...

-If this is your attitude, you had better be gone before a desperate man does something that he might regret to a vulture who does not know the meaning of compassion.

- There is no need for that, Mr Bouviers, I am leaving. He made his way down the corridor. At the door he turned round and declared: And, by the way, next time you put on your act, switch your television set off.

Copyright 1998 Bernard Haezewindt

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