Clutching the address scribbled on the back of an advertising invoice given to him by Shimon, manager of the Mullcogan Times, Edward Herring makes his way to the Assembly meeting.
It occurs to him that using a pile of freshly printed invoices as scrap paper suggests either a reason for The Times’s financial difficulties or a token of great market strength. As the newspaper is his employer, now he has been wrenched from the comfort of The Echo, he is interested in which explanation applies.
The streets of Mullcogan have the dreamlike quality of being familiar and yet utterly strange. Not knowing any physics, but finding himself in this parallel universe, he mentally shrugs. Quantum, he supposes.
Edward does note some differences from his hometown back in Byron Shire. For one thing, many of the buildings spared by the floods appear to have been attacked by do-it-yourself architects. Extra storeys have been stacked on shops and offices, and annexes usurp the pavements. All this construction is residential, and occupied by very rich people, judging by the exotic sports cars and supersized limousines jostling for parking space in the narrowed streets. He cannot help but compare this influx with the crowd of homeless local people he interviewed earlier among the marble ruins of the Assembly chamber.
Today, however, the Assembly chamber is temporarily a meeting room above an organic produce shop, which he finds after some false starts. There is an aroma of ripe fruit wafting around the area, and a generally unfriendly atmosphere. The Mullcogan Times press pass Edward shows at the door gets a sneer from one of the security guards protecting proceedings from the public. His peaked cap is emblazoned with the rubric ‘Meeting Enforcement’ and the same red letters adorn his tunic.
Nevertheless, Edward is admitted and finds a seat at the back of the room. Unlike the defunct official Assembly chamber, this space is cramped, and when ten Assembly persons, a score of staff members and the mayor have crowded in, there is room left for only a dozen observers.
As the Assembly sorts itself out Edward looks at these outsiders. Most are concerned citizens and one is obviously the crank you get at every meeting, but the person sitting next to him is different. There’s a notebook on their lap, a bottle wrapped in brown paper protruding from one dungaree pocket and a racing form guide stuffed in another.
‘What are you looking at?’ she says, the stub of a cigarette moving with her lips.
‘A fellow journalist, I would judge. I’m here from The Times.’
‘Shelley Cove Ripple, me. Name’s Kaylee.’
‘Never heard of you. Who’s the editor at The Times these days?’
‘Well, I am, actually.’
The woman almost spat out her cigarette. ‘Shimon must be going crazy.’
‘Have you covered Assembly meetings before, Kaylee?’
‘Nah, thought I’d try it out. I get bored with all the stories about real estate and beauty makeovers in the Ripple.’
The mayor, standing at a lectern on a makeshift platform a few feet above the rest of the room, bangs a gavel and calls the meeting to order. He straightens his ermine robes, raises his chin and turns his better profile towards the Assembly photographer.
‘We are ready to begin. First item on the agenda please, Grand Vizier.’
‘Grand Vizier?’ whispers Edward to Kaylee, who responds by rolling her eyes.
‘They do things differently here,’ she says, not bothering to lower her voice.
Several mind-numbing hours later the Assembly comes to an emergency item, which is consideration of a letter received that day from a bureaucrat in the state capital.
The Grand Vizier, known in more modest polities as the shire clerk, clears his throat and prepares to read out parts of the letter, noting that as members of the public are present, he cannot read it in its entirety.
‘Why not?’ asks one of the Assemblypersons, who throughout the proceedings has seemed less somnolent than the rest. He is dressed like a mechanic, with a set of spanners distributed around his pockets.
A long, rambling word salad ensues, in which tumble phrases such as client confidentiality, staff morale, legal implications, commercial in confidence and other expressions meaning, ‘We don’t want to.’
When the Assemblypersons are properly cowed the Grand Vizier reads the portentous missive. The gist is that the bureaucrat has decided all flood relief and mitigation measures are now the responsibility of local government. The Shelley Shire Assembly cannot refuse any development applications, even where building is proposed on flood plains and public parks. Furthermore, the Assembly must commit to increasing its housing stock by forty thousand homes within the next four years, or the shire will be taken over and run from the bureaucrat’s office.
The mayor is the first to speak.
‘Well, I think that is jolly reasonable, all things considered,’ he says. ‘We’ve been trying to get more development happening, now we can start in earnest.’
However, most people seem disturbed by the ultimatum, and reluctant to accept it.
The Assemblyperson who asked the question before stands up. ‘This is a trap,’ he says, ‘we are being set up to fail.’
There are murmurs of agreement. Murmurs turn into growls, growls into shouts, and the Assembly members all start speaking out of turn, together with loud interjections from the public. When it is clear that the mayor has lost control of the meeting, security hustles him out of the building, together with the staff.
‘I don’t suppose that was a typical meeting,’ says Kaylee.
As he trudges back to the newspaper office, Edward wonders whether that was indeed a typical meeting in this strange doppelganger of a shire.
In his cosy existence at the Byron Shire Echo, he has covered many Council meetings. They are sedate, constructive affairs, where councillors strive to decide what is best for residents, and staff strive conscientiously to implement those decisions. Cowboy developers are not encouraged, roads and drains are meticulously maintained, selling off council land is unheard of, and the public good is always put before private interest.
In his home shire the mayor and his clerk are men of conspicuous ability, well able to resist the selfish influence of wealth and the persuasive manipulations of state government. In fact, a naked grab for power, such as contained in the letter read out in the Assembly, would be unthinkable. No bureaucrat in Edward’s world would have the gall to send such a demand.
‘Penny for them?’
With a start Edward realises he has sleepwalked back to his desk and sat down, still musing on what he has learned.
‘I’ve heard the news,’ Shimon continues, ‘Kaylee stopped by and told me about the threat to the shire. At times like these I remember what our dear Founding Editor was wont to say.’
‘Oh?’ Edward doubts it would be as colourful as his Founding Editor’s language.
‘He said, politicians come in two flavours, good faith and bad faith. They’re in the business either for the public or for themselves. Listen to the former and stick it up the latter.’
‘How do you tell the difference?’
‘I’m sorry, but it’s not your problem any more, Herring. I’ve appointed Kaylee as editor. We’re thinking of going big in the real estate market and she’s just the person we need.’
Edward might have been dismayed by this, had not a severe muon wobble occurred at that moment, using ‘moment’ as shorthand for quantumistically WTF, and the so-called fifth force, which had been lurking around undiscovered since the creation of particles, shot him back to his own continuum. And here, and indeed there until we take the measurement, he remains. Or perhaps not.
The Adventures of Edward Herring – Part one
The Adventures of Edward Herring – Part two