Here is the start of a whimsical longer piece I have begun. It may get darker; the sauce could turn black!
Brother Norris has authorised the overtime. Emergency production of State Beans will begin immediately – before the winter, before power cuts, and before the haricot storage can be infected with mould. The people’s beans cannot be compromised by microorganisms. This production run will be given a new flavour of traditional Englishness. Horseradish was suggested, but thought too harsh for the daily ration. But a change has been demanded; a change from the tomato that has been the staple for these last ten years. The People are bored with the bland tomato, and English tomatoes are increasingly difficult to grow in this new damp era, and too expensive to import just for sauce. A brown sauce is now the agreed alternative. Brown has been traditional in the English kitchen for well over a century. But the old recipe requires things no longer readily available. So this new brown is a sauce bereft of tamarind, and exotic spices. They settled for apple concentrate and some kind of yeast extract, which will also balance the protein content, and a good deal of malt vinegar. It is recognisably brown, and tastes different to the tomato, and a little more piquant, thus achieving the aim of satisfying the country’s need for change and making the staple bean more appealing to jaded palates. It will find a place on the family table. Not that it is optional. Everyone gets the daily ration. But what they do with it is up to them. There are suggested recipes for savoury dishes from bean burgers to bean curry (with artificial spices). Known colloquially as ‘Brexit Beans’, they will keep fresh for years, if necessary, and will provide a back-stop to carry England through the darkest and wettest winters, even when there is no electricity.
Sister Speed presses the start button on the sauce-making process. Haricot paste has been processed into bean shapes, as normal, but will find its flavour when mixed with the new brown sauce. The aesthetics are questionable, she thinks. But, to a hungry man, or hungry woman, they will provide most of the nourishment for a day, vitamins added, fibre enhanced. They can be used imaginatively in all kinds of ways… Formed into beanburgers, with onion and stale breadcrumbs, then they are almost tasty. Daphne Speed has been a guinea pig for the testers. She has even contributed her own recipes. The bean stuffed marrow with a stale bread crumble topping has made the English Bean Bonanza recipe book, available online from Stateband and in recycled paper edition. There are always stale breadcrumbs to be used up. And marrows, apparently. Daphne is creative. She is clever. She is a scientist.
The beans are at maximum output. Brother Norris has ramped up the ancient machinery to its limit. Even without the new brown sauce, they look like a consequence of the digestive issues they are known to cause, even with the additives to balance the flora and fauna of the English gut. She has often wondered why they make beans, instead of something more, well – refined. Refined is a word used to mean both highly processed and highly cultured. Daphne hankers for the latter. Something more subtle, more creative and much more engaging on the palate. She has tried to explain this to Brother Norris, who she calls by his first name when they go out together. Dick. Dick Norris. But Dick is not interested in refinement, it seems. He took her to a restaurant as a celebration of six months of their relationship. She had hoped for a touch of refinement, but Fork England was perhaps named ironically, in recreating ‘hipster’ menus from the earlier part of the century. Mostly their dishes were retro-retro, the waiter explained (they had a waiter!). Mostly involving beans as in bangers and ‘cassoulet’ aka sausage and beans in gravy… brown gravy. It was a joke of a joke, intended to point out the pretentiousness of the hipsters of that time. The blinkered generation, whose badge of honour was debt. This was explained on the back of the menu card. People like Daphne’s parents still owed for their education, theoretically. Now the banks and financial institutions of England are State run, and debt is owned by everybody. But Daphne’s mother can make a good cassoulet, even with factory standard sausages and Brexit Beans.
Daphne checks the temperatures, the flow of ingredients for the new brown sauce: vinegar, treacle, salt, apple concentrate, yeast extract, mustard, a desultory mix of herbs and a large quantity of powder sauce thickening mix. The canners will be running all night. At least she clocks off at five. The smell of the cooking sauce makes her think of the university dormitories, where she slept with twenty other young women, a fruity, yeasty, slightly sour odour – especially when hot water was in meagre supply.
Tonight, she will have a shower before the hot water in her block runs out. She’ll do her nails, her hair, all that stuff that Brother Dick Norris assumes needs no particular attention. Daphne makes facepacks from dried egg, and uses apple peel to exfoliate. Biochemistry is a useful degree, and she had wanted to do a PhD, but science is poorly-funded these days. Now that England is high and dry (not quite dry), food production is a high priority for a country isolated and unpopular, too wet and cold to grow food reliably in its fields, and visibly losing land around the lower-lying coastal areas as the seas rise. Daphne’s job is to help make the most of cheap raw ingredients available within the shores. France now calls the English ‘RosBeans’ (and worse). Increasingly, bean protein is not grown in plants, but in vats of yeast. Daphne can imagine all kinds of wonderful alternative foods, but is encouraged to keep within the framework of traditional English fare as remembered by the State advisors, mostly old people, nostalgic for the past. Beans, sausages, bacon, bread, spag bol (with bean-based spag) and weak curry with bean-based rice substitute.
Her small flat is within easy walking distance of the bean factory. She is glad not to have to use the trams or buses, which get very crowded, and smelly at peak times. All transport is free, of course, but the short walk to work is useful exercise. Her mother told her that everyone once had a car. Each factory would have a large car park just to store vehicles when they were not used. It seems ridiculous now. Who needs a car when State Transport is free? She has faint memories of being driven by her parents, as a tiny girl. It seems improbable, but her parents had driven everywhere in their own car, they even had their own little house for it. A garage, as big as a one person flat. And, of course, her parents’ garage is now just that, inhabited by a strange old man, long past State retirement age, and now entitled to the Bare Minimum courtesy of the citizens. Her parents accepted this compromise, or they would have been re-allocated to smaller premises themselves. Mr Wiz, fortunately, did not mind sharing his accommodation with a multitude of machine parts that her father had accumulated. Her father had a fascination with machinery of all kinds, having once been a traction engine enthusiast.
Daphne is wrapped in a towel, her hair, coated in State cooking oil to condition it, is wrapped in another towel, when Dick phones her.
He is off-shift now, tired after the ‘big bean push’. It seems the canning process couldn’t keep up with the bean torrent. Some problem with the gear box. There had been a bean backlog. The canteen would be serving extra beans for staff, and everyone could take some home in a suitable container. He has a large tub of them in his fridge – sauce free and wide-open to creative interpretation.
‘Dinner is sorted for the next couple of days – save us going out tomorrow night. We could spend more time together, cook… You could work your magic and dress them up with something…’
Water drips from her bound hair, and runs down her neck.
‘I had thought of dressing myself up.’
‘Bring an apron.’
‘Sounds great, Dick.’
A trickle of State cooking oil reaches her mouth.
‘You know me, always romantic. I have some State Beer to go with it.’
By now, she is feeling chilly. She wishes him goodnight.
The heating in her flat is always off by nine thirty, even when it is cold and damp, as it often is. The jetstream has dropped over England like sagging elastic, letting in the cold, trapping the rain like a balloon full of water. Energy is a real problem, but at least England still rules the waves, and tidal energy from rising seas can be relied upon. Her shower water comes out cold when she washes the oil from her hair.
The walls and ceiling of the little flat surround her like a cardboard box in a shoe shop, and she can hear sounds from all around her of other single people in the block. Bare Minimum provision for every citizen. Even Dick wants to move up from the Bare Minimum. He is a production engineer, with some intelligence, but Daphne doesn’t understand why she goes out with him. Not that there are many men of her age in the bean factory with even half a brain. Dick has a wispy beard that he cuts with nail scissors in the style of one of his political idols of the English Recovery.
She wakes to the sound of trickling water in the adjacent flat. Someone is running a tap, never mind the daily quota. She hopes it is not hot water he or she is wasting. When she moves beyond the Bare, she will have her own heating. A proper bathroom with walls, not just a screen, and even a little garden for vegetables. Her income, alone, won’t cover it, not until she becomes a senior manager. Even then, it would be another one-bedroomed place, no room for a child, or even a cat. Only if she marries, can she think of a family home like the one her parents have, a home which she can no longer inherit. Her parents still live in the house they owned before the Meltdown, but not only have a tenant in the garage, but a lodger in what used to be her bedroom. There are habitation quotas for houses. They are allowed one spare room for family visitors. The boxroom where she sleeps is right next to the bathroom, and the current tenant – a portly lady of middle-age – is up all night with some unspecified bladder complaint. Lotte Wurtz tells Daphne that she used to be a German citizen, but became English because of her husband, now-deceased, was a Party member. She was fast-tracked as a citizen, like Mr Wiz, whose proper name is something unpronounceable. Lotte wishes, now, to return to her country, but the bar on free movement means she would have had a better chance climbing the Berlin Wall to get back to Germany. She is stuck in England, and will be buried in English soil. Right now, Lotte continues working at the stocking factory, making socks and tights from nylon and other unnatural fibres. She wears the products of her own manufacture, wrinkled tights of high denier. At least they don’t run to holes easily. Daphne is pleased that her mother gets along with her. She helps keep the house in order, and they share cooking ideas. They are creative with beans, too, and have produced some remarkable dishes, even a strange kind of beer, flavoured with State tomato sauce, but not tasting like the dark and bitter State Beer. Perhaps the new brown sauce will make the home brew taste better. Pink beer is a little weird. No doubt she will be offered this bean brew when she visits this weekend with Dick. Mr Wiz is invited too, as is courteous.
Their intimate dinner is cancelled when Dick has an engineering emergency with the powder machine. The humidity has caused the old mechanism to clog, leading to a shutdown of the entire production process. Now there is a slug of haricot paste going to waste.
‘What do they expect? Most of the machinery is getting on for a century old. We can’t make good quality steel these days. The replacements just rust. No chromium, for a start, unless it is recycled. Whatever happened to English engineering.’
The last is rhetorical. Daphne has heard often enough of the heyday of British engineering. Globalisation and Meltdown had left indigenous industry in a parlous state. The best engineering firms had been cherry-picked by foreign powers, and only the pips spat out on unpromising, damp English soil, its needs misunderstood by ignorant politicians. At the end of the day, Brexit is Brexit. He was fond of saying that. She is never quite sure what he means, exactly, but Poor Little England doesn’t have the resources to go it alone. It had relied upon the world for chromium and cotton. For tamarind and tomatoes. She resists saying that they could turn the haricot paste into a nice paté. It will end up going to feed pigs, the haricot-fed, spoiled, pigs. At least the pork will be of good quality.
‘You still want to come to my parents’ at the weekend?’ she asks.
‘If it’s not fixed by Friday, it will need a new feed nozzle assembly. It’s not an off-the-shelf piece of kit. We’ll have to get it made. Factory will have to shut anyway.’
‘Thank Universal Income!’
‘Indeed. I’ll make up for tonight.’
He sounds almost caring, she thinks. Perhaps he has more to offer than she gives him credit for.
By Friday, an order has been placed for a new nozzle, but Dick has managed a temporary solution. The powder will have to come in a lumpier form, and the blenders set to a lower gear to make the sauce mix. It is not ideal, the sauce will be a bit grainy, but at least production can continue for the weeks it will take for a new nozzle. Gloria has already suggested increasing the oil content of the sauce to help smooth it, with some added emulsifiers, it will pass muster.
Dick meets her at her flat, a bag in hand. She can see he has brought a bottle. Don’t say he has brought wine? The expense of it! English, or imported, it is ten times the price of beer. But her speculation is curtailed by the observation that he has shaved off his beard. For the first time, she can see his face. He has a chin, reasonably square, with a cleft. She had never imagined him without a beard. She reaches up to touch his face.
‘It’s still a bit raw,’ he says. ‘I didn’t have proper shaving soap.’
His skin looks a little irritated, and there are a few little cuts where he has caught his skin.
‘I like it!’ she says.
They board the tram that takes them to the railway station. Already, it is crowded. They have to stand, face-to-face. Gloria sees he has more lines than she had thought, but she has never asked his age. She guesses he must be 35. Odd, that she had never asked his age. She had simply assumed he was a few years older. But they hadn’t been going out for long. The train, too, is crowded. Since sitting is compulsory, they have to sit separately in the space-saving mesh seats, designed to hold passengers in place, and as safety restraints if there is an accident. Nationalisation has at least made some improvements to transport.
Her parents live forty-five minutes away, by train. They leave the carriage via different doors, and alight on the platform almost simultaneously. She sees how he smiles at her when he spots her. How he is just that little bit taller than most of the other men. They walk hand-in-hand to the tram stop outside the station. Here, at least, the tram is not full. They travel in silence to the nearest stop to her parents’ home. It is a leafy place, once a pleasant suburb for middle-class families. Now, the houses are fuller. Gardens are full of vegetables, and the exterior paintwork of some, looks in need of repair. At least the streets are free from cars. Only a few mobility taxis can be seen here and there, free for use by anyone in need. Gloria remembers – hazily – how once cars had roared up and down, night and day. Now, she can hear birds singing. Children playing somewhere further up the street. The sky, for once, is blue. It has not rained today.
She finds her mother in the front garden, with Lotte, picking runner beans for dinner. Her father is talking to the man in the garage about something involving welding. They have something made out of pipes on the drive, with what looks like a tiny boiler.
‘Gloria’s here!’ shouts her mother. ‘With that man from work.’
The men look up. Her father smiles a greeting. ‘Are you the engineer?’
‘Yes, I suppose so. I’m a metallurgist, really. But they wanted someone to fix machines.’
Gloria didn’t know that Dick was a metallurgist. The old man in the garage laughs.
‘Just what we need. Can you weld?’
Gloria’s mother raises her eyebrows. ‘Don’t you worry about him. Come inside.’
The smell of cassoulet permeates the hall. Proper pork, sausages and beans from the garden. In the burbling conversation, it seems that Lotte has taught her mother how to cure pork, they are thinking of getting their own pig, but can’t agree on how to slaughter it.
‘Wiszowitz says he would do it. But he won’t even swat a spider!’ Lotte exclaims.
Lotte is a little pink in the face, and Gloria suspects that she has been drinking her beer. There is a barrel on the kitchen worktop with a little tap, and several used glasses sit alongside, with some pinkish froth clinging to the side.
‘Wiz wants to distil his own hooch. Some kind of vodka, but he says we could make it into gin with a few herbs. Much more English!’
Gloria looks around at the kitchen, once tidy and smart. She sees things are looking a little worn and shabby, and the shelves, once full of matching containers, now house a number of fermentation vessels, glugging and hiccupping.
‘I see that you have been making good use of garden produce.’
‘Gloria doesn’t approve, Lotte. I can see we are getting some State Censure from her direction!’
‘Country crafts, Gloria… When I was a girl, we lived on a farm, and learned to make almost everything from what was at hand. But the wine is very much an English tradition. I found the book in the library. You can even ferment marrows…’
Gloria looks around, but there are no marrows on the shelves. Dick is still outside with the men, but Gloria can hear him, in earnest discussion.
‘Dinner smells great. Not a State Bean in sight, or smell…’
Her mother pours her a drink, but not from the barrel.
‘Sherry. This came from a shop. The real English kind, made from English wine and stored in English oak for six months.’
She sips. It is sweet, but the alcohol warms the back of her throat like cough medicine.
‘Twenty percent alcohol. Not bad, but they have to sweeten the wine with sugar. Not enough in English grapes.’
It is clear that her mother has been doing research too.
The men crowd into the kitchen, placing the pipe contraption on the table.
‘I’ll have to take the condenser into work. There is a welding apparatus there.’
He looks at Gloria as if she would immediately understand.
‘Dick has brought us some real wine!’ Her father hands a green bottle to her mother.
‘Useful bottle. I’ll save the cork. Thanks, Dick!’
‘The wine is quite good too. Made in Cornwall. It should be chilled first.’
‘Have a beer,’ Lotte says. ‘I’m told that it is quite pleasant, although it is a little pink.’