1 The Miracle Adjuster Simon Campbell Open Books Published by Open Books Copyright 2016 by Simon Campbell All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. Of all the offspring of time, error is the most ancient, and is so old and familiar an acquaintance, that truth, when discovered, comes upon most of us like an intruder, and meets the intruder's welcome. Charles Mackay; Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Frank and Fátima 'Are you sitting comfortably?' 'Pay attention!' 'I'm going to tell you a secret'. 'The truth will be revealed...' These were the taglines attached to the whoopla for expensive lingerie, economical cars, cheap perfume and a limited (collector's truncheon) edition box-set of series seven of 'Roy Chancy, PCSO' within the tacky pages of the in-flight magazine on Panda Air U571. The box-set came with what advertisers were flogging as 'a deluxe certificate of authenticity' and you and I would call 'a sales receipt'.
2 The counterfeit plane ticket in my pocket confirmed that I was Colin Jekyll and that Colin was travelling from Tesco Airport, Glasgow, to Wonebelong Airport, Sydney. But Colin Jekyll was not my real name. My real name was Frank Canon. And if you need to know why I was travelling under an assumed name? It's because I was a liar. It paid to tell the truth. Unless it was your job to lie to people. Sure, sure, I wasn't paid particularly well. But I worked my arse off. I lied to pensioners and pre-schoolers, to tabloid journalists and high court judges. I lied in phone booths and in public conveniences (and phone booths that had been converted into public conveniences). I lied in the Amazon rainforest and in Royal Tunbridge Wells. I would have lied on the moon if I could have done. And if I could have done then I would have lied about the moon landings while I was there. But everything I'm about to tell you? The dancing plagues and the weeping statues? The drunken weather and the biased lightning? The rat glue? That's all true. Every word of it. I sat alone in the Bangkok Airport Hilton exercise yard. Flight U571 had been delayed for several hours as our pilot was nervous about taking off in biblical rain and so my fellow passengers and I had been obliged to wait until the airline could find a more reckless pilot willing to take the risk. Panda Air didn't want to worry anyone about the biblical rain though and so the PA tried to persuade us that the flight had been delayed because they were waiting for more complimentary alcohol to be delivered. Everyone seemed happy to wait. I walked into the artificial daylight of the Long Stay Terminal and found myself if not assaulted, then certainly touched by the sweet and sour aroma of the celebrity restaurants and the white noise of the arcades with their life parodies and achievement proxies. An off-duty pilot was banging away at his flight simulator screaming; 'Pull up goddammit! Pull up!' And his blasphemy reminded me of work. I headed for the duty free but some life-sized emoticon intercepted me first and offered me a free sample of something called 'Miracle White Shining Involvement'. Now take it from me, the word 'miracle' is overused. Mostly in order to offset the entirely unremarkable nature of the noun it's providing PR for; hair gel, noodles, babies and so on and so forth. What this guy was offering me was basically chewing gum. Chewing gum that wouldn't make my teeth whiter. On the Reinhardt-Munster Scale of the Phenomenal chewing gum that wouldn't make my teeth whiter was about as far away from phenomenal as you could get. This was closer to the other end of the scale. What this wasn't, was a miracle. But for some reason I bowed my head as I accepted it and drifted into a shop selling 'Hip-Hop Philosophy' degrees and doctorates in 'American Pseudohistory'. I needed to buy some souvenirs. I just didn't have anyone to give them to. Ever since my family disappeared I'd been a bit of a loner. My goldfish was home alone and I wondered how he was doing; if he was cheerful, fulfilled, breathing etc. Conventional wisdom (something on which one relied heavily in my line of work) suggested my goldfish didn't have enough of a memory that he'd be happy to see me when I got back, but he was my only remaining companion. And I take my responsibilities to goldfish more seriously since Black Saturday.
3 I was a nurturer now. A nurturer who was away on business. In my line of work you usually worked alone. And I'd gotten to like it. I had no-one telling me what to do, no-one giving me their opinion on how it should be done or their praise when I did it well, no-one photographing me doing it well and then showing all our friends. It wasn't a bad time to be alone; to boil yourself a pizza and watch someone's phoned footage of a gig online, to download shaky video of a film that's only in theatres or turn yourself into a troll. This was a golden age for the loner. Which was lucky for me, because I'd been alone most of my life. Being a loner suited me just fine. And it suited my goldfish too. We had a lot in common, my goldfish and I. It was just that neither of us could remember what it was. I bought myself a souvenir pilot's license. And a bag of mixed nuts. That reminded me of work too. I sat down with my Happy Meal and opened it up to check on the toy, but for some reason this Happy Meal came with an apple pie flavoured condom. And it wasn't called a Happy Meal. It was called a 'Little Box'. Sometimes whoopla gets lost in translation. It was fast food but I found the time to taste the sweat and tears of the kid who'd prepared it for me. Some highly decorated businesswoman sitting opposite me opened her kid's Little Box and then swiftly headed back to the counter fighting back tears. I could have done the same, but I wasn't the complaining type. I wasn't the type to upset the status quo. I was the guy protecting the status quo. Colin Jekyll's plane ticket clearly identified his classiness but that didn't prevent his being stopped by one of Panda Air's black-shirts when she saw my bag of duty free nuts. 'Sir. Stop. Sir. Sir. Sir! Stop!' And then, with everyone's attention; 'You cannot take two bags onto this flight!' And then, keeping calm, managing her fear; 'You cannot take two bags onto this flight'. I guess she just had to keep on repeating this until I dropped my nuts. She didn't really know what she was doing any longer. Sometimes the training just takes over. The queue grew behind me. People were glowering at me like I was the reason they'd missed the Second Coming. I didn't want to stand out from the crowd (because I was undercover), but unfortunately my face had turned bright red. No-one would notice another white man with a red face once I was in Australia, but until then I stood out like a sore thumb. We eventually boarded the bus to our plane, just as the previous passengers were rolling down the inflatable slide. Our driver proceeded to drive in a holding pattern around the plane at something approaching 2mph. When we finally got on board we played musical chairs while the crew swapped those over 200lbs with the thinner passengers; to balance the plane out. If there were any martyrs on the flight they must have been praying to be let off. It was to be expected that there'd be some turbulence. It was just my rotten luck it had been planned for while I was on the toilet. Once I'd stopped shouting and bleeding I opened the door to some airbrushed stewardess and started banging on the cabin door demanding the pilots stop screwing around. You could hear them giggling on the other side of the door. Long-haul flights can get boring. So this is what pilots do. They lighten up. Eight out of ten times turbulence is just a practical joke.
4 I couldn't remember why I'd developed a fear of flying, or when, but that wasn't unusual; I had a terrible memory. It wasn't really a fear of flying though, it was more of an all-inclusive phobia; it didn't start with the plane taking off, it started with the packing, with making it to the airport on time (3 hours early). It was the meal on the flight, the queue for passport control and the scenic taxi route. It was the total loss of control, the utter obliteration of your status quo. But I tried to put it out of my mind. It wasn't about the journey for me, it was all about the destination. And the destination was Oz! I was off to see the Wizard (a Bishop, I was off to see a Bishop. A wonderful one though, not the other kind). On the plane you could watch indiscriminate episodes of cops and docs shows. If you wanted to make a TV show you had a choice about what kind of show you were going to create. You could create one set in a police station. Or if you don't want to do that, you could create one set in a hospital. I switched on the bite-size screen in front of me and was immediately confronted with 21 yearold Blimey Lowsey; sitting on a tangerine chat show sofa, lamenting the semi-conscious uncoupling of her third marriage (following a drunken Teen Choice Awards night) and being comforted by Andromeda Strain on 'Face Talk'. Blimey was a thirteen year veteran of the 'pop world' but only a thirteen week veteran of the 'real world'. I checked my in-flight menu and opted for series five, episode eleven of 'Roy Chancy, PSCO'. This was Ross Kemp as a psychic Police Community Support Officer on the streets of Swindon. In this episode ('Blood on the Tracks') Roy tackled a bunch of terrified foxes at Swindon railway station. What Roy did to these foxes, you wouldn't want to know. And neither did I. I tuned my headphones into the cockpit frequency to check we weren't 'going down hard' or 'fast' or 'hard and fast' or anything, and then I pressed play, laid back and listened to Sylvester Stallone reading a 'Grimm's Fairy Tales' audiobook. Sly (beautifully) recited 'The Donkey Cabbage' as I made notes on my Panda Air napkin. After we'd skidded to the end of the runway and the applause had died down I queued for forty minutes to meet someone important eating a falafel sandwich in a small Perspex TM box and dutifully handed him Colin Jekyll's counterfeit passport and visa entry form. I didn't look anything like Colin did in his passport photo. But then who did? Your passport photo wasn't an accurate reflection of how you looked in real life. You were allowed to smile in real life. But it was an accurate reflection of how you looked after queuing three hours for passport control. You weren't allowed to smile in your passport photo because you had to give the guys at passport control the chance to compare apples with apples. Whenever I filled in a form Colin's job description was always 'Events Manager'. It was Colin's job to manage events, to make things less eventful. Whenever some new scratch-starter found themselves pressganged into the Agency the first thing I'd tell them was; 'Get yourself a job description'. Then I'd force-feed them my anecdote; about how on my first job I'd asked some guy what his job description was before I helped him and his family adjust to the Amazon rainforest. That was one of only two times I'd ever broken the rules. He told me he was an Events Manager. I took his job description because it seemed reasonable. Nothing else about the job seemed reasonable. To be honest most things seemed to be deliberately 'unreasonable'. This job was bad for your health.
5 The head of the Agency (whose name was Wilbur Whitehall and was thus born for his career in the same way that Bill Body was born to be my P.E. teacher and Charles Atlas my Geography tutor) died of a heart attack shortly before I left for Australia. This was the man who'd recruited me, who became my mentor, and who suffered a massive coronary while waiting in line at the butcher's. When your wife's a vegetarian this is known as being caught 'in flagrante delicto'. The job was the problem. Wilbur's heart just wasn't in it any longer. As with telesales and politics it was difficult to justify all of the lies you were forced to sell people in order to give them something they'd never asked for. Sure, sure, the little white lies your parents told you were designed to protect you. But the lies we told? They were designed to protect us. Maybe I'm repeating myself here; but I was the guy protecting the status quo. Sometimes the training just took over. And I'd been trained to follow orders. The boss wasn't always right. But the boss was always the boss. Soon there'd be a new man at the top, ordering me to sell bigger lies. Ordering me not to worry about the new direction the Agency might be taking. Not to worry about the new direction that I was about to take. If you're unclear about what the Agency does, then everyone's been doing their job. I'll explain more later, but if it helps, think of the Agency as being just like any other government department. Most people had absolutely no idea what they were doing. You didn't need to know the specifics of what the Agency was up to, only that whatever it was, was for your own good. All you needed to know was that the vast majority of its time and resources were being put to good use. Sure, sure, some of your taxes might be needed for Ministers' mortgage payments, but a lot of what was left was spent on you. Specifically it was spent preventing you from discovering anything more than that. That was for your own good too. The full name of my employer was 'The Information Reclamation Agency'. Sure, sure, it was an unfortunate acronym. But we thought of it first. We had a dotted line to the Dept. of Education. And an invisible one to the Ministry of Defence. If you want to know more, its offices are on the thirteenth floor of the Blacker Building in Whitehall. But it's doubtful you'll find them. Don't get me wrong, it's nothing personal, but the reason you won't find them is that the sign on the front of the building reads; 'Centre for the Unknown'. It isn't one of those flash, show-off agencies. The Centre for the Unknown is what's known in the business as a 'façade'. Some years ago the Serious Fraud Office raided the Agency's headquarters as part of 'Operation Leprechaun' and discovered a list of secret front organisations that someone had pinned to a noticeboard headed; 'Secret Front Organisations'. There was the 'The Reality Foundation', 'The Wide Awake Club' and 'Greenpeace'. Someone took the Serious Fraud Officers to one side and explained their mistake. They posed for a few photos (holding Holy Grails TM and laughing, holding fossilised rabbits' feet and laughing) and then a few of us from the Office of Reality Enforcement followed them home while the Office of Selective Omission ret-conned the photos on the SFO's official FaceSpace page so they appeared to be posing with furry handcuffs (and laughing). The centre for the unknown; you're never quite sure what they're up to. Here's hoping they're working on the meaning of life. And not just trying to keep it from you. Colin's passport wasn't returned for more than an hour. This was routine. When you have the kinds of stamps I've collected border control staff tend to revolt against their own suspension of
6 disbelief, they tend to enforce disbelief. I know a lot about enforced disbelief. If my real job description had come with a list of responsibilities then 'enforcing disbelief' would've been top of the list. This is if I hadn't told people I was an Events Manager. The reason they gave for keeping me so long was; 'people smuggling'. Then they asked if I'd packed my own suitcase. If Colin was a comedian he could have told them he'd packed it full of cheap labour. But Colin wasn't a comedian. Colin was an Events Manager. He didn't rock the boat, or go overboard. He wanted to operate in the shadows. Unfortunately Australia is flat and sunny and covered in sand and there aren't any shadows there. But it was a great place to do business if you were in my line of work. Oz was like another world. In Australia you could have egg and beetroot on your burger and no-one batted an eyelid. I walked out of Arrivals and squinted. In the distance you could see red bushfires among the Blue Mountains. I turned away from the fires because, just between you and me, I tended to get a little awkward around flames. Flames made me sweat. And I'd only just dried out after the plane journey. Luckily I was in Australia, so I just looked like everyone else. I queued for a cab. I felt the warm sun on my face. And then I felt my face burning. The guy in front of me was on the smartphone to his wife who was bringing him up to speed on her bushfire situation. 'It's a miracle you didn't get hurt...' he told her. But it wasn't a miracle. It was just very lucky. I got in my taxi and started speaking in tongues. The tongue in my mouth belonged to Russell Crowe. Possibly it belonged to Mike from Neighbours. Having an Australian's tongue in your mouth isn't phenomenal (ask any backpacker). Having an Australian's tongue in your mouth doesn't so much reach the phenomenal end of the Reinhardt-Munster Scale as it does the other end. The 'bullshitting your taxi driver' end. It's better to give than to receive when it comes to bullshit. And I didn't have time to take the scenic route. I had somewhere else to be. And I was already very late. A couple of months later I was running late again. The thing I was late for was 'my own funeral'. But it's not easy learning how to pilot a helicopter while you're flying one. Into a lightning storm. Without an instructor. But with a fear of flying. My taxi driver didn't seem very happy with his tip, but I had a big smile on my face. I loved Australia. Sure, sure, the weather was predictable, but very little else was. Normally I wasn't a big fan of unpredictability (in England things were entirely the other way round), but you had to learn to live with it if you were in my line of work. Unpredictability paid the bills. I grabbed a newspaper and a chocolate milkshake. Thirteen people had been killed the day before in what the newspaper had christened; 'The Brisbane Beer Flood'. One had drowned, one had died from his injuries, and eleven other souls had succumbed to alcohol poisoning when 26,000 gallons of beer in the Triple X Brewery had burst its vats and sloshed onto the streets. The paper reckoned it was a miracle the other two hundred and twentynine people who'd been hospitalised hadn't been killed by all the complimentary alcohol they'd drunk. But you know what I'm going to say right? Nowadays anything even remotely accommodating, which is also slightly unlikely, ends up being labelled a miracle by somebody. Surviving stuff is especially miraculous; see 'surviving
7 Panda Air', 'surviving NHS brain surgery', 'surviving being struck by lightning' and so on and so forth. But these aren't miracles. To be clear; if you have seen the face of the blessed Virgin Mary in a slice of toast, you have not witnessed a miracle. And you shouldn't tell people that you have. What most people call miracles? They're just mistakes, continuity errors, bloopers. Maybe it's nature being impulsive, or it's the way that something's supposed to be, and we just haven't come up with a decent explanation for it yet. Chances are these continuity errors are just unexplained science experiments. For all you know, these are just 'try-outs'. The point here is: You. Don't. Know. But the church knows. They even wrote a book about it. And everyone in the Agency had a copy. The church and the Agency had a lot of history together. Sure, sure, a lot of it had been rewritten, but the church was the Agency's most loyal ally. And just like how Britain's most loyal ally was the USA; we had to do whatever our most loyal ally told us to do. If you ever overheard me promising to 'go by the book' then this was the book I was going by. Maybe you haven't heard, but the church has a lot of rules. My second job was at Fátima, in Portugal. At the Banco Lotto music festival. People said it was 'beyond belief' that Keith Carbonara was still alive and well and wearing the same leather trousers he'd worn when Emulsion released their seminal album 'Animal Innuendo' in '73. They called it; 'the night of the deep heat'. Believe me; I've heard the conspiracy theories. I wrote most of them. If it hadn't been for me Fátima would be like Lourdes, Mecca and Glastonbury nowadays; filled to the brim with the unwashed and the stoned. If it hadn't been for me you'd have heard about the Banco Lotto music festival by now. There'd be a film based on a book. Sixty-thousand festivalgoers witnessed the onstage breaking-up of The Burial Stones in the biblical rain and then watched as the clouds parted and the sun blurred, twisted, raved about, and then collapsed onto the horizon. It tried to get back to its feet and appeared to stumble towards the bar, changing colour to a sickly green and radiating that deep heat. After about two or three minutes of this drunken astronomy people realised; i) the bar was closing and ii) their clothing, which had been dripping wet only minutes before, was now dry as a bone. There were cracks in the ground where moments earlier there'd been a mud bath. People couldn't move their feet for hours (which prompted some particularly vitriolic abuse from the headline act; The Disco Brothers). The church was understandably unenthusiastic about agreeing with those who claimed some sort of Divine Intervention following the break-up of The Burial Stones. There had to be another explanation. And wouldn't you know it, there was. I'm good at sneaking about. The training just takes over. Maybe I'm not great at disguises but I'm not bad at persuading people to suspend their disbelief. I'm not bad at persuading people to enforce their disbelief either; depending on what the situation calls for.
8 So after explaining how Colin Jekyll was an Events Manger (and a little retroactive bar work) it was discovered that some poor scapegoat had inadvertently hooked one of the white wine reservoirs up to several of the water tanks servicing the bars. Everyone was shitfaced. You see, sometimes something happens that falls a little outside the normal way of the world. And people are in the habit of calling these things miracles. But that's only because they see the 'what' without knowing the 'why', the 'how' or the 'who'. Let me try to illustrate this another way; by quoting an oldie but a goodie. A great philosopher once wrote; 'And since at times one and the same cause is known to some and unknown to others, it happens that of several who see an effect, some are astonished and some not: thus an astronomer is not astonished when he sees an eclipse of the sun, for he knows the cause; whereas a lot of people from Norwich, who are ignorant of this science must needs wonder, since they know not the cause'. Must needs wonder? Must needs panic is more like it. Must needs soil yourself and run for the hills (or if you're in Norwich, drive). Think of my job like this. I took people who were astonished and made them feel like astronomers. It was my job to invent mundane explanations for the astonishing. People knew not the cause. So I gave them one. And so it was that people could argue for hours on end about 'the night of the deep heat'. But they could all agree on one thing. It wasn't a miracle.