31/05/17: A story of our time describing the fractures of our broken society, and its cures.
G Nigel Cohen
It’s one minute to midnight.
My knuckles are white, my face drained of colour, my heart feels like it’s exploding. Your sister cried herself to sleep in my lap. She is the only peaceful thing in the room. I am willing you to come back. The doctors have done everything they can. They say it is now up to you. You are the one who gets to choose whether to fight or give up.
I have decided to give you your inheritance, even though I am not yet dead. I fear it may be too late to leave it until midnight. What I have for you is not an inheritance of money. No amount of money can help you now. It is a story. It is a story I hope you will hear. It is the story of how you came to be, and where you can choose to go. It is your story, and the story of Mankind. I pray you will choose to stay.
The Grandparents’ Story
I was not ready for your grandfather to die. You know I was named after him, just as you were named after me.
I remember him in my childhood memories as a big man, although all adults seemed big when you are a child. I loved it when he cuddled me. He gave me unconditional love. It made me feel safe. I loved my father.
He had what I now recognise as stress etched on his face, in the lines above his forehead, in the pursing of his lips. He was the personification of eternal struggle. Yet his eyes twinkled with kindness whenever we spoke. It always gave me huge pleasure when he sat me on his lap and told me stories of his childhood.
His was a very frightening childhood. His family had to flee for their lives. Their friends and communities had turned on “them and their kind”, blaming them for any number of problems. He was so young when he first experienced hate.
“Every time someone got ill, every time someone’s business failed, every time the rains failed, we were blamed”, he told me. “One day, when I went to school, a group of older kids came up to me from behind and started kicking me. The first kick knocked me over, the others left me bloodied and bruised”.
“What had you done?”, I asked him.
He looked at me distantly, thinking back hard, and said “At the age of five, what could I have done to deserve that?”
“What did the teachers say”, I asked him.
He looked at me sadly. “They said I must have deserved it. One of them told me to toughen up and start being more like everyone else. He said that no-one likes boys telling tales. If I was not careful, the teachers would finish me off themselves”.
“I never knew what the other kids were talking about, saying I should be more like them. I thought I was like them. But I did know what the teacher meant about finishing me off. I was too ashamed even to tell my parents. It felt as if saying it aloud would make it true, all the horrible things everyone was saying about me.”
“It was when the Red Plague came we knew we had to leave”, he told me. “People at school started coughing and shivering. The teachers said it was my fault. They called my parents, ordering them to take me home immediatey. The teachers spat at me and told me to sit in the corner until my parents came to take me away, and to stop breathing my evil on all the other kids. My friends started calling me names, running away from me whenever I came in the room. My father came home from work one day looking as white as a sheet. He said the authorities had issued an edict to round us up and take us to the castle dungeons where we could do no more harm. My father had seen this before. He knew what was coming. He piled me and my nine brothers and sisters on the back of his cart, along with as much of our clothes as he could fit, and waved us goodbye.”
His parents were not well enough to travel. It was the last time he saw them.
On the cart were five children from another family. One of them would become your grandmother, although she was little more than a toddler at the time. My father described her sitting in stony silence, barely daring to move. For the rest of her life, she was dominated by fear.
My father was one of the lucky ones. Anyone who had not managed to flee was duly rounded up and locked in a cramped, damp, stinking dungeon. The castle had been build on a lake and the dungeon was below the water level. One night, part of the cement holding the foundations together crumbled, and the icy water flooded in. Everyone drowned.
“It did not stop the Red Plague. Neither did it not stop the villagers blaming us”, my father told me. “They were so consumed with hate, they actually enjoyed believing the plague was our fault. If they had paid even the slightest attention to the filth and squalor they lived in, they could have avoided all of the pain and death they suffered.”
“But that’s hate for you,” he said, “poisoning those who invite it in with an insatiable lust for blood”.
A new land beckoned, a Land of Hope. But the immigrants were not welcomed with quite the warmth the kids had hoped for. They were received with more of a disdainful sneer. My father and his family were allowed in, but they were not allowed to work. With so many mouths to feed, the kids had to rely on charity. It came to them only after three terrifying days sleeping in a secluded street. Someone took pity on the dishevelled family and organised a single room for the kids to live in for one month, along with one week’s supply of bread.
My father watched as his brothers and sisters starved. He would beg for food, bearing the disgusted looks of the local residents as best he could, patiently waiting for the few people who took pity on him. Charity did not provide enough for everyone, so had to resort to working illegally.
Those of the locals who were disgusted at the immigrants became vocal. “Go back home, you vermin. Keep your filthy hands off our jobs”.
But others of the locals were delighted to have access to dirt cheap labour, access to people willing to do jobs the locals thought was beneath them. My father could not complain. He and his siblings would be jailed or thrown out if he did.
His saving grace was the one skill he possessed. He could sew. He worked fourteen to sixteen hours each day patching up old clothes, shortening trousers and widening waists. He was so poorly paid, there was literally no money left after rent and food.
After he and my mother married, she too, worked inhuman hours, earning a meagre wage, somehow fitting in caring for her ten children. She learnt not to trust anyone. She was very quiet and kept herself to herself. When she was ignored or talked down to, she would just lower her head and continue with her chores. Every so often, her frustration would erupt. She would scream at your grandfather at the top of her voice, if he spilt his drink or dropped some food. She would nag him incessantly. But he loved her so deeply, he would just smile and hug her. This was the only time she calmed. Safe in his arms, she melted.
Three years after getting married, your grandparents were given papers allowing them to work. That one, single sheet of paper for each, marked the start of the next stage in your family’s history.
Your grandfather was empowered. He found an employer who saw his talents. Your grandfather would chat with the customers to understand what they wanted. He came up with all sorts of innovations, stronger ways of stitching, new styles, more appealing ways of displaying clothes, new services. The more he connected with his customers, the more they came in. The more they came in, the better the business did. The owner was nearing retirement and, without family of his own, grew to love your grandfather as a son. He would visit him at home, bringing sweets and toys for me and my brothers and sisters. He increased your grandfather’s pay. By now, your grandfather was earning enough to clothe and feed his family, and start to save money. But still, he and my grandmother never felt secure. They spent as little as they could, and saved as much as they could.
My father’s employer died and our family’s fortunes changed. In his Will, his employer left him the business.
Your grandfather kept coming up with new ideas. It was simple really. He liked people. He chatted with them so he came to understand what their needs. And he took care of their their needs, whatever they were.
The business thrived. As it grew, the locals started to warm to a man who clearly loved and cared about them. Distain gave way to acceptance. Acceptance gave way to warmth. People started to search out his business as a place of quality, a place of great value and service. Your grandmother never stopped nagging her husband. She pointed out every flaw, every mistake. She complained when he was too late, or too early. She tutted when his shoes did not match his clothes, or when his accent made people laugh. But she never tired of his hugs. She died in his arms, where she always wanted to be.
Let me tell you something about his siblings.
Your grandfather was the oldest of ten. He was far too young to be looking after them all. Even with the meagre help they got, I still don’t know how they managed to survive the first few years. Two of them didn’t, of course. The kids were so malnourished, it was inevitable someone would pay the price. One died of tuburculosis. The other died of a simple cut that got infected. People did not understand about hygiene in those days. A single five day course of antibiotics and she would have been right as rain. But there were no antibiotics then and death, never far, came scavenging.
But the rest did survive, each in their own way. And in time they thrived.
Destiny played a big hand in their lives. As children, they had to hunt down any paying job they could find. They found work by chance, when they happened across someone who was looking for cheap labour, or when someone else stood on the right street corner when someone was looking for workers. The work they happened across determined their future. One of the boys ended up building houses, another built roads, one became a policeman and one a farmer. Of the girls, one became a teacher, one a nurse, one looked after other people’s children. And as you know, your Great Aunt Hope took care of everyone.
The family’s closeness was their strength.
Someone was always there to help if one of them needed it. Despite their huge wariness of the locals, they were able to trust each other completely. So when their careers became established, it meant they were well placed to predict each other’s work needs. When the housebuilder developed new houses, the road builder knew what was coming and was able to make sure the right roads were in place. When the teacher noticed outbreaks of infections, the nurse stepped in with advice for parents on hygiene before it became an epidemic. It was not just good for them, it was great for their whole community which benefited from such a well integrated infrastructure.
Yes, the more I think about it, the more sure I am this was the key to their success. They developed a sort of glue of care that kept them unified together as one. It meant they understood instinctively what each other needed. It gave them the confidence to support someone else’s business even when the gains to their own business may not have been apparent.
The Parents’ Story
By today’s standards, your grandparents were not wealthy. But by the standards of their childhood, they were. They had modest monetary wealth, but enormous emotional wealth. When your grandmother passed away, your grandfather’s health crashed. The glint in his eye ebbed, his energy waned, his life force increasing failed him. He became preoccupied with his own mortality, almost willing its coming.
When he wrote his Will, he was determined to divide his modest wealth equally between his eight children. His sister, Hope, the family carer, was not happy.
“Your boys are just starting out on their careers”, she urged. “How can you give money to the girls. They will just use it to fluff up their hair and puff up their clothes. The boys need the money for their work”.
You grandfather looked at her. “I don’t want to divide my children”, he said. “Money is at the heart of so much anger within families”.
Your grandfather’s life had become complete in his family’s love. He wanted the same for his children.
So knowing the girls as well as the boys had inherited his money, it was with huge regret that Great Aunt Hope witnessed my sister Grace self destruct. She watched from afar as her brother’s hard earned money went up in a haze of drugs.
Grace’s childhood was not like the rest of us. She did not fit in, she could not do what was expected of her. She had immense talents, but throughout her life, they remained hidden from almost everyone. She strgguled at school so she was pulled out early. She was treated with contempt, because she always came bottom of the class. Without an education, she could not get any of the good jobs. My parents thought of her as worthless, so she came to believe she was worthless. She was fit to do only the jobs that no-one else wanted to do. Cleaning, cooking, child-rearing. She was blocked from any other occupation. Had she been given the opportunity to develop her skills, her incredible talents would have radiated. She had an unusual talent for art, for caring and teaching, and for solving problems that no-one else could. She could have taken the world by storm. But no-one who is weeding appreciates their flowers. Her life was destined for failure long before she started on the drugs.
I, by contrast, had the all the luck that bipassed Grace. I had no more natural talents than Grace, but my talents lay in the areas that were measured. I had started talking by the time I was nine months old. Before I was two, I spoke two languages fluently. I was reading by the time I was four, writing fluently by five and multiplying and dividing by the time I was six. I excelled at school. I was a teacher’s dream. When Ieft school, I could have had any job I wanted.
My life could not have been more difference from Grace’s. Her failure and my success were flowers born of the same stem. Mine faced the sun, hers faced the shadow. Her pain was clear to anyone who looked. I was one of the few who did.
“What’s up?”, I asked her when she was twelve, and had just started puberty.
“Nothing is ever up in this family”, she said.
“You seem sad”.
“Why would I be sad?”
“I don’t know. You just seem to be”.
“That bloody mother of yours is driving me mad again. She just won’t get off my back”.
“She is just trying to help you do better at school”.
“No, she is.”
“No, she is trying to help you do better at school. She is trying to stop me living.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“How would you know anyway. She is always ‘my son’ this and ‘my son’ that. She wouldn’t give me the time of day if I asked for it. Which I won’t. She wants me out of school so I can help her cook, clean and wipe the arse of her favourite son.”
“That is so ridiculous.”
Great Aunt Hope did prevail with my father in one respect at least. She and your grandfather had been brought up to believe a woman’s place is in the home. Although your grandfather insisted on bestowing his modest savings amongst his children equally, not so his business. It was just the boys he brought into his business. Equal wealth did not translate to equal opportunity it seems.
We picked the business up quickly. We saw how my father had made his money from serving his customers so well. But during our school years, we had also picked up a very poor local business ethic. Serving customers took time and commitment. There was an easier way to get rich. Yes, by all means look for ways to make your customers happy, but don’t waste your own money making them happy if they are not willing to pay for it themselves. We started increasing the prices to our customers, and started cutting out services they were not willing to pay for. Instead of coordinating with our cousins’ businesses as my father had, we started haggling with them. Every penny we saved from policing or road building, was a penny more we could keep for ourselves. The business had become so large, it was no longer pennies we were saving, but huge amounts of money. Each time we grew, we had more commercial mussle to flex. We were not ashamed to take advantage of our growing position in society. As we stopped coordinating with our cousins, the physical infrastructure our parents had built became increasingly less integrated. The social infrastructure followed, becoming increasingly frayed.
“We give our cousins a huge amount of business. It is time they started being a little more appreciative”, one of my brothers told my father. One of our nursing cousins had been complaining about her ever increasing costs, and had asked my father if her company could charge more for their services”.
“What’s our customers health go to do with us anyway?” one of my brother’s once said. “If they want it, they should pay for it themselves”.
My father tried to get us to see sense, but could not shake our convictions. Neither my brothers nor I had never experienced insecurity, so we were deaf to my father’s wisdom about the benefits of trust. To him, our community was a source of life. To us, it was a cost of making money. As we became more and more focused on becoming ever richer, we stopped caring about our customers or our neighbours. In time, we were to discover for ourselves what my father already knew. Mutual care is the oxygen of innovation. Without it, society stagnates.
Despite my father wanting all his kids to be treated equally, my brothers and I were brought up to believe we could achieve anything we wanted. Gracie and my sisters were brought up to fail.
You were born ten years after your grandfather died. It is so sad you never got to meet him. You would have loved him. You remind me so much of him.
Your mother’s parents were far more wealthy than my parents. She struggled more than I did when we started out in the business. She had aquired a taste for the finer things in life. She would notice when your uncles took days off, or spent money on things we did not. As I pray you will find out, children are expensive. Two of your uncles did not have kids, so they had more money.
“We need more than they do”, your mother said to me once.
“Yes, we chose to have children”, I said. “They did not. Their time will come”.
“But we need to decorate the nursery. It is looking so shaby. They spend money on fancy cars and skanky women, whilst we have wallpaper peeling off the walls.”
“It is our choice”.
“But you work harder than they do. Every time they are on holiday, you have to pick up their work. It’s not right.”
“But I take time off to take the kids to school, to see their teachers, to look after them when we need it. And they pick up my work then.”
“Well if your bloody sister wasn’t such a loser, she could look after the kids instead.”
“She is an addict. She is ill”.
“She’s a loser! Anyway, you are taking time off to look after the kids. Your brothers are swanning off on holiday whilst we work live slaves.”
In another house, exactly the time your mother and I were talking, one of your uncles was accosted by one of his ‘skanky’ women.
“I want to get married and have kids too”, your uncle replied to his fiance.
“We can’t afford it. And we are never going to do so whilst your brother spends so much time skiving off work looking after the kids. They are incessantly ill. Your bone idle sister-in-law spends all their money on jewelery and fancy clothes. No wonder they never have enough money. They leave their kids playing in the streets, even when it is freezing and pouring with rain. That’s why they are always ill. She won’t stop bitching about needing more money for doctors. It’s not right”.
“Looking after kids is not easy. They are expensive. Our time will come”.
“It’s their choice”, mumbled his fiance furiously under her breath.
Resentment. It causes so much pain, festering and feeding on itself.
Your mother resented your uncles. Your uncles grew to resent me. My cousins felt actively hostile whenever they came across the ‘Tailors’. It became a term of derision when they were bringing up their own kids. And once resentment sets in, we become expert at justifying just about anything we want — why one part of the family deserves poverty, or why another part is so undeserving of their wealth.
It took years before your uncle and I finally linked our emerging financial struggles with the complete disregard we had for our customers and for each other.
You may be wondering why I am telling you this. Let me ask for your indulgance a little while more. Before you are ready to choose your fate, let me tell you a story. It is a story one of my teachers told me at school. I would race home to tell to my brothers and sisters. “Let’s play the games”, I would urge them excitedly.
I am going to tell it to you now, or at least as much of it as I can remember.
The Children’s Story
The story was set in times of old, where the world was dominated by dinasaurs that breathed fire and terrifying creatures that ate children for breakfast. People were frightened to go out on their own to gather food and wood for fires. Too many people went out and never come back. The villagers would hear a ferocious roar, a burning sound, bone chilling screams and then silence. That night, there would be one less villager, one more set of crying children without a parent to care for them.
But no matter how frightening it was, the villagers had to leave the safety of the village, or there would be no food or warmth that night. Everyone was afraid. When someone did venture out, it was each person for themself, praying they would not be the one to die tonight.
The children would get so hungry, they would play to help them forget the growling of their empty tummies. Things got so bad that they were happy only when they were outside playing together.
Living in the village was one very bright girl. Her name was Grace. She was especially popular because she kept inventing fun games. The most popular game she invented was called “Creatures”.
“We start the game drawing two long lines in the sand, one next to the other”, she said. “In the middle is the Creature’s den. It is this big.” She imprinted her heal in the sand, took three huge steps in one direction, they dragged her foot in the sand in a circle, around the imprint.
“The Creature is not allowed out of its den. We villagers all start over there”. She pointed at one end of the the two parallel lines. “And we run past the Creature as fast as we can. The Creature has to throw fire on us”. She held up a bucket filled with water, which she had coloured red with the petals of the Acacia flower, one of the most beautiful flowers on the island.
“If you run in the Creature’s den, you are out. If the Creature spashes you with fire, you are out. If you get to the other end alive, you wait for everyone else. And then the next round starts. Each round there will be less and less people. The person who finishes when everyone else is out is the winner.”
The kids were excited. They could not wait to start.
The game was great fun. They drew lots to see who would be the Creature. Whenever the Creature splashed them with fire, they would scream as loudly as they could and roll around hystrionically on the floor, those who were not laughing that is, pretending to die. It was great exercise. The kids played Creatures for hours on end. As they played, they become increasingly fit and strong, and agile.
For a while, the game was not much more than a race. You would expect the fastest to win. But the fastest was the one who reached the Creature’s den first. It made them easy prey for the Creature. It did not take long for the fastest kids to work out the benefits of holding back just long for everyone else to reach the Creature together. With so many more people around them, the Creature was much less likely to hit them. Once they had successfully passed the danger, their speed gave them the advantage once again.
The more they played, the more the realised the key to winning was in finding better and better ways to avoid being splashed.
Grace’s brother, Ash, was also very clever. He was one of the first to work out the advantage of biding his time, which meant he would come first most of the time. But one day, even with his speed, someone beat him. His sister. She had come up with an idea that would beat his speed every time. It came to be know as the Cloth.
Once people knew to wait for the crowd to arrive at the den, huge queues formed at its outskirts. Everyone fought to avoid being spashed by pushing as close as they could get to the outside lines. Even Ash was having to struggle to get enough space to be at the front when the time came to sprint to the finish line.
Grace got a group of her friends together. She got them to pull down vine from the trees and weave them together. They weaved leaves in between the vines, creating a waterproof cover that the fire could not penetrate. The Cloth. The friends would hold the cloth above themselves. Being safe from the fire, they no longer needed to wait for everyone else to reach the Creature. They could pass the den safely without the protection of the others. Their challenge became one of how to run at the same speed, without dropping the cloth, making sure they did not wander into the den by mistake. As soon as they had cleared tghe den, they dropped the Cloth and sprinted for the line. Once they had perfected their technique, one of their group won every time.
The technique needed refinement.
“Everyone hold their part of the cloth”, said Grace at the start of each race. “Is everyone ready?” She waited patiently for anyone was not quite ready. Then they waited for the bang, the beat of the drum that started the race. Grace, who was at the front, raised her part of the cloth up just enough that she could see the outline of the den. There was so much shouting and laughing, the friends inside the cloth could not hear her speak. So she took to pointing in the direction they needed to move, avoiding the need to shout out instructions which no-one was able to hear. No matter how much red water the Creature threw at them, the fire just bounced off the cloth.
The other children quickly copied Grace and her friends, making their own cloth of different shapes, sizes and strenght. Wherever a group made a cloth that was weak, or whenever one of the group ran at a different speed to the others, or when someone failed to hold their part of the cloth in just the right place, the Creature would find a way to splash them. The winners were always the friends who worked together most effectively.
The kids discovered that the more people they had in the group, the safer they were. They had to choose carefully who to team up with to make sure everyone could run at the same speed. But by and large, a group needed at least five people for the cloth to be big enough to protect everyone inside. Other than that, the more the merrier.
Once the kids had ironed out all the wrinkles, the game started to get a bit boring. It got to the stage that the Creature could never hit anyone with the fire. So Gracie changed the rules.
“No group can have more than ten people. Any group of four or less is free to do whatever they want. But for any group of five or more, the Creature can choose a helper. Although the Creature has to stay in its den, the helper is allowed out. The helper’s job is to pull the cloth off groups of five or more children so the Creature can have something to aim at”.
The game livened up again. The kids had great fun coming up with new ways to beat the creature, getting very wet in the process, dying and rolling about in howls of laughter.
As the kids grew in confidence, the outside lines got longer and more Creature’s dens were added. The lines become longer and longer. The kids were so absorbed in the game, they forgot something crucial. It was something that would threaten their lives. They had left the safety of the village.
Every so often, when the kids were standing at the end of the lines outside the village, one of the kids would hear a rustling noise from the trees. They would look up and see nothing. Their friends were still running and laughing and splashing so hard, no-one paid much attention. It started happening more often. Sometimes, it was more than one child who heard the noise. They would all stop for a minute to listen more carefully. But still they did not recognise the danger.
On that one sunny, frightful day, the inevitable happened.
The runners were lining up at the end of the track so far away from the village that they could neither see nor hear it. They were chatting and giggling and playing, waiting for anyone else who might still join them.
Gracie heard the noise first. It was behind her. She heard a violent rustle in the trees. She turned, and froze. Emerging from the shadows was a Creature so huge, at first she thought it was the trees that were moving. But toward the top of the massive shadow, cold eyes were fixed directly on hers. Threatening eyes, angry eyes, terrifying eyes. Below its eyes was a huge, bulbous nose. And below that was its enormous mouth, from which dozens of long sharp teeth protruded. It had green, scaly skin. Saliva dripped from its lips. Grace looked at it, up and down, to see it was standing up on its back legs, and she could feel the air move as it took a huge breath to roar. A coupe of the kids next to her had noticed her stillness and turned to see what she was looking at so intently. They, too, froze. Fear filled the air. Within seconds, everyone was silent. The Creature let out a deathly roar so loud, it shook the very ground they stood on.
If it were me, I would have started screaming and running in any directions. If the kids had done that, they would have been eaten alive. But they did not. They were rooted to the spot, just as they had rooted themselves before the start of every game. With pure instinct, each group picked up their cloth and covered themselves. They waited, in complete stillness, in complete silence. The leader of each group raised the cloth just enough to see the Creature’s foot.
Without thought, it was this simple action that saved their lives.
The Creature was a huge dinasaur whose eyesight was very poor. It relied on its razor sharp hearing to detect its prey. Since the cloth was made from the same material as the trees, the kids were camouflaged. The Creature could see nothing. Had any of the kids made the slightest sound, the creature would have known where to find them. But they had learned to stand in complete silence awaiting their leader’s cue. The Creature roared again, shaking the ground so violently, the children struggled to keep the cloth over their heads. The Creature turned its head straining to hear the slightest sound. None came. The Creature roared one more time listening for the slightest sound that would give away its prey. One of the boys needed to sneeze. The others in his group saw in horror what was about to happen. They bore their eyes into their friend, willing him not to give them away.
Too late. The creature heard the tiniest sound. It leapt into action. A bird in a tree next to where the Creature stood let out an ear piercing scream, and launched itself into the air to escape. The Creature flung itself in the direction of the bird. In just one step, it covered the distance of five whole trees. Its mouth moved through the air like lightening. The bird was no more. The Creature, now facing away from the kids, slowly finished its meal. The leaders of each group had seen the Creature move away, and understood this was their chance. Each leader silently raised his or her hand, the sign everyone understoosd to mean “advance”, and the kids crept together, silently as one back to safety.
It took quite a while for the children who had been so close to death to calm down. It took very much longer for their parents to do so. The kids were banned from playing outside ever again. But the longer the kids stayed at home, the more urgently their parents realised they needed to be out playing. “I’m bored”, became the village kids’ mantra. One by one, parents relented. The kids were allowed to play outside again, but as long as they promised never to play that awful “Creatures” game again. Water was banned, and the kids were sad.
Grace, however, spent her time sitting at home letting her imagination run riot. During the eternal hours she had to stay inside, she worked on inventing a new game.
She called this one “the Harvest”.
“We start this game by drawing a huge circle. This is the village. Outside the village, we create as many piles of pebbles as we can around the village, the higher the better. Each pile of pebbles is an orchard of fruit.”
“We start the game, gathered together in the centre of the village. Each of us has to run outside the village to the orchards to collect fruit. We pick up as much as we can, and bring it back to the centre. This time, the Creature can go anywhere inside the village. We are out if the Creature tags us. When we are out, we become another Creature, and join in tagging the villagers. The winner is the person with the biggest harvest of fruit when the Creatures have tagged the last person.”
Many of the kids had to hide their disappointment that there was no longer water in the game. They liked getting wet.
As before, the clever kids worked out brilliant ways to improve their chances of winning. They quickly realised the key to winning the game was deciding how many pebbles to carry. If they picked up too many pebbles in one go, they would be too heavy. They could not run fast, making them easy prey for the Creature. But if they did not carry enough, they would never harvest enough fruit to win.
They worked out they could increase the number of pebbles they carried without slowing themselves down if they carried out a cloth. They would hide the cloth inside their shirts. When they reached the orchards, they would pull out the cloth, fill it with pebbles and sling the sack of pebbles over their back. It meant they could run quickly and win. But as they got better and better at harvesting, they were starting to pick up so many pebbles, even with the sack it was staring to slow them down.
They started working in groups again. Some of the kids would hold the sack, others would pick the pebbles. This meant they could carry much more fruit without slowing them down. Once again, the winners were the kids who worked together most effectively.
The kids loved the game. And they went on playing it until they became quite superb at harvesting.
You may be wondering about the adults. What happened to them after the awful fright the kids had given them the last time they had been allowed to play “Creatures”?
Grace’s mother, Mercy, was furious with her daughter. Mercy had picked up on Grace’s anxiety from the moment she walked through the door.
“How could you lead so many children into such danger?”, she urged.
“We just were so excited. None of us noticed where we were,” Grade answered shakily.
“Of all people, you are so clever, so caring. You could have died! Your friends could have died”, Mercy was equally shaky.
At the end of what seemed like a never-ending hug that was so tight that Grace thought this would kill her, even if the Creature had not, Mercy eased her grip — a little.
Grace explained how the camouflage had hidden the kids from the Creature. Mercy realised something immediately, it was something the other parents took very much longer to understand. Grace had found freedom from the villagers’ eternal fear. She had come up with a way to reach the orchards in safety. Mercy realised too that the adults were going to find this more challenging than the kids. Unlike their parents, kids had no problems cooperating.
Mercy’s assessment came to be. Wheras the kids had just got on with making the cover, their parents squabbled at every step.
“Don’t do it that way. This is much better,” one husband would say. “Give it here, let me do it,” another would say, grabbing the starting threads before his wife had time to create the base. In his impatience to get it done, he ended up taking about five times longer to get the cloth started than his wife would have had he left her to it. Eventually, once he had finally succeeded, he threw it back at her to “finish off” now he had done the difficult bit.
Yet another would complain about the quality of the cover. “Look, you’ve left a huge hole here. The Creature will rip everyone under the cover to bits. You’re useless, woman!”. The truth was very different, but no-one would ever know because “useless” people rarely get the opportunity to discover for themselves what they are useful at.
It took months for the adults to reach the standards the kids had reached. And they had much less fun getting there. People ended up getting killed unnecessarily, because the adults were too proud to ask the kids for help. The kids may have perfected the technique, but that was it. They were just kids. This was an important job which needed to be left to the adults.
As time passed, one of the very critical men became increasing critical. His name was Grubby. Without anyone noticing, he slowly started to take over the expiditions. Coordiation was needed to make sure the covers were in tact and ready at the right time, and that there were enough strong ropes for the trip. During the foray to the orchares, everyone needed to move at the same pace, otherwise the cloth would tear or pull away from some of the gatherers. Grubby never stopped criticising and complaining. People found it was just easier to do what he said than have to endure his endless moans.
Once Grubby had finally worked out how to reach the orchards safely, there was a short spell where the villagers were happy. They had as much food as they needed to eat, and, for the first time that anyone could remember, no-one had to die to get the food.
Everyone was happy. Everyone, that is, except Grubby. “I should have more food because I have to spend all my time checking the rubbish work so many of you do,” he would say. “When you need a rest, you can just take it. I have to keep going the whole time, or the mistakes you useless people make will reek havoc. I deserve more because there is so much more at stake in my work. If you don’t do your work well, it just slows us down whilst I look for someone else to fix your mistakes. If I make mistakes, people die”.
Grace was less impressed. “The children made the cloth and rope without having a Mr Fussy whinging at them the whole time. They are great at harvesting and they don’t need to be told what to do every time. Why does Grubby think the harvest will fail without him?”
The good times did not last long. Leader Grubby, who never made mistakes, had forgotten something very important.
Once the villagers had established safe passage to the orchard, they had easy pickings. In those days, the villagers showed their status by piling their unused fruit at the front door. The easy pickings meant is was easy to gather more food than the villagers needed. And in order to stash new piles of fruit at their houses, they picked more fruit than they needed. They picked and piled, picked and piled. Leader Grubby’s pile seemed to grow the fastest. What he had forgotten to notice is that almost all of the low hanging fruit had now been picked.
“How come his front porch is so full?”, asked one villager. “Is he eating less than the rest of us?”.
“Judging by the size of his belly, I doubt that very much”.
Even though Grubby had been too focused on his wealth to notice the dwindling quantities of low hanging fruit, it was becoming clear to the rest of the villagers they had a challenge. They needed to work out how to pick fruit from the higher branches. But there was a problem. The trees had evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, well before humans arrived on the scene. They had not evolved with humans in minds. Their branches were so brittle, the trees could not be climbed. They would snap off if someone put even the weight of a human hand on them.
Mercy approached Grace for ideas. She knew her daughter would work out what to do. She was right. Grace had already cracked it even before the low hanging fruit was becoming sparse. She had cracked it months ago in the “Harvest” game the kids had been playing.
“It’s quite simple really”, said Grace. “We make a rope that is really, really strong. It takes loads of us to make a strong enough rope. Then we fling it up as high as we can, and wrap it around the trunk. When it is in place, we all grab hold of the rope and pull. It takes loads of us to bend the trunk just enough that we can pick the fruit without breaking the branches”.
Mercy ran excitedly to her friends, to tell them Grace’s solution. Leader Grubby’s wife heard it from one of Mercy’s friends, and Leader Grubby heard it from his wife. And, as he always did, Leader Grubby took charge before anyone else had the chance. After all, as he continually told everyone, he was the only one who could get things done properly. So even though Grace had come up with the solution, and even though Mercy and her friends were now quite capable of harvesting, the women never got the chance to discover how much fruit they could pick on their own.
Grubby coralled a group of villagers to join him in the harvest. He was careful not to take the women. “They are too weak”, he said.
Grace looked at her mother in astonishment. “Even the children can harvest”, she said. “What does he mean the women are too weak?”.
The men covered themselves with the Cloth the women had made. “That is all they are good for”, said the Dear Leader. “Yes, and the rope too”, he agreed. “They are good for that too. But that is all”. The men took off, walking especially slowly and carefully whenever they could hear that the Creature was near. Leader Grubby was firmly in control. If anyone failed to carry out his orders, he would make an example of them. One person had a cold. He sneezed. The Creature roared and searched for the noise. The Dear Leader silently ordered the man to be thrown out of the cover, using a special sign signal that only he was allowed to use. As he was being pushed out, the man cried out in horror. The Creature heard the sounds. Within less than a minute, the man was no more. Everyone else was terrified to make even the slightest noise. The men came to fear the leader more than the Creature.
“But we never had this with any of the children”, Grace said. “If someone needed to sneeze, or cough, or giggle, we worked it out. Why did he need to send the man to his death? What sort of a leader is he?”
When the group arrived at the trees, they took out the ropes as Grace had instructed. They threw ropes around the trunk as high as they could, but not so high that the branches would snap. They split into teams of fifty. It was quite easy work. Forty men would bend the tree down, and ten would pick the fruit, taking advantage of the techniques the kids had developed during their game. The villagers were quick and efficient. When they were done, they moved to the next tree.
Happiness was restored. Once again, the villagers were able to gather more fruit than they could eat. Once again, doorsteps oozed with the status of unneeded produce. Leader Grubby’s doorstep continue to grow very much faster than everyone else’s. His pile was become so large, he needed to take over his neighbour’s house just to fit the fruit. Everyone was happy, except Grubby.
“We are still not picking enough”, said Leader Grubby. “We can pick so much more. If we use less people on each tree, we can pick from more trees”. He ordered that the number of pullers on each tree be reduced. It made it much harder for the pullers to bend the tree. He also reduced the number of pickers, which meant they took longer to pick the same amount of fruit from each tree. Grubby was counting. “You are slacking”, he would say. “You need to pick more. Last week’s harvest was way more than this week’s”.
The teams started to take short cuts. They would throw the ropes higher in the tree to make it easier to bend. It meant many more of the higher branches would snap off, and sometimes the whole tree snapped. Once a tree snapped, the fruit became squashed and useless. It would many take years before the tree would grow fruit again, if ever.
“But that is ridiculous” said Grace. “We are already picking enough for everyone. Why did he need to make the men work so much harder?”
The more the Leader pushed the pullers, the more trees snapped. In less than a single season, there was already noticably less fruit to pick. At first, the pullers harder work paid off. The fruit surplus kept growing. But as the pressure kept mounting, the snapped branches started to take their toll. The surpluses started to dwindle.
Leader Grubby was not happy. Every month, he wanted to pile ever more fruit outside his house. He needed everyone to know he was the greatest in the town. “It will not do for people to think of me as weak”, he told his wife. “They might refuse to follow my orders. It will not be good for the harvest. The villagers will suffer if we don’t bring in the harvest”.
By now, Grace was shouting. “But the women already knew how to harvest the fruit. The villagers were suffering because he kept so much of the fruit for himself. His orders were ridiculous. Why did the villagers even listen to him?”
The Leader noticed his reducing surplus. It would not do. He decided to crack down on the scrounging. If someone wanted fruit, they would have to work harder for it. Making covers and rope was not work, it was a duty. The workers were the ones who picked the fruit. They would be paid. Anyone else would just have to pull their socks up. He was not bothered that two thirds of the villagers were “kicked out” from his Harvest. Three times as much fruit could be picked if he had engaged everyone. But how would he keep control, or order as he preferred to call it, if everyone received as much as they needed?
He got the strongest men in the village together. They were so strong, it only needed 15 of them to bend the tree which meant the leader only had to share the fruit with 15 others, not 40 as in the bad old days. “It’s all about productivity”, he would say. “Pick more, eat more. That’s my motto”.
“And how much did you pick today?”, mumbled one under his breath.
Each person pulling and picking would get more fruit. It was of no concern to Leader Grubby that the other villagers got none.
“They will get their fruit if they work hard enough for it”, he said. “Those who are not worthy of picking fruit will have to become resourcesful to do things the people who do pick fruit want to buy. It is good for them to work instead of sitting idly at home waiting for everyone else to feed them”.
Grace sat up. “They are sitting at home because he stops them from picking the fruit. He refuses to call anything they do other than picking the fruit ‘work’. They will never be able to earn as much if they are not allowed to have a share in the fruit they help the pickers and pullers to harvest”.
He turned to the special 15. “If you are not willing to pull harder, I am going to have to replace you with someone who is”. He said. “You are the best in the village. You are letting your fellow pullers down. You are letting the villagers down. You should be collecting more fruit than you are. If you don’t shape up, you will be out. Until you start picking more, I am going to cut your share of fruit”.
One of the men tried to tell Leader Grubby that he was pulling as hard as he could. The Leader glared at him. The man looked away.
The frightened pullers pulled out all the stops to increase the harvest. The full amount of fruit they were paid resumed once they had increased the harvest to the new level demanded by Grubby. There was an ever growing surplus of fruit that was harvested once the pickers’ and pullers’ share had been shared out. The Leader took pleasure from calling it productivity. The “productivity” was exactly the amount of fruit that was added to his immense status pile at home.
“Let me get this right”, said Grace. “The Leader inherited my idea, refused to allow the women to harvest even though the children could do it, kicked out all but the strongest men, and then pressurised even the strongest men to reduce their share of the harvest”.
“Yes”, said Mercy.
“The Leader has never once in his life picked a single fruit or pulled a single bark, or knitted a single cloth, or sewed a single rope. It takes an entire village to make the cloth and ropes, to feed and support the pullers, to harvest the fruit. And Mr Grubby is the one who gets all the surplus. Why?”
“If we don’t have order, the villagers will suffer”, Leader Grubby said again to his wife. “The harvest is what feeds the people”.
“The harvest is what wraps him in gold”, mumbled one of the villagers under his breath. “The rest of the village barely survives on the crumbs that fall from his table. He does not keep order for the villagers, he takes it from them?”
“Fear”, said Grace. “Give just enough to the pullers to get by and less than enough to everyone else. The fear of being pushed out of the group is what gives Mr Grubby his control. Even though he never lifted a finger in his life to help, he controlled the wealth so he controlled the people. And to think, he inherited the source of his control from me”.
Adam, as you lie in your bed, the clock is ticking. Each minute that passes marks either the start of the rest of time, or its end. Only you can choose.
You are the father of humanity. Your followers may be as numerous as the stars in the sky, or as empty as the eternity that surrounds you now. Your inheritance is knowledge. It is the knowledge of those who came before you, and those who are with you now, and those who might be. It is the story that charts the path to riches through love and harmony, or the path to destruction through division and hate.
In your hands lies Destiny. The path you take determines the present. The choice you make determines the future. You have witnessed incomprehensible pain and loss, just as you have witnessed the miracle of life itself. I can understand why you would choose to give up, but I urge you not to. Choose life. For the sake of Mankind, choose life. Your inheritance is unique. Use it to build love and trust. Use it to deny the one who cloaks his greed with a false promise of honey. If you give up, the wisdom of your past and the riches of your future will die with you, never to repeat. I urge you, Adam, wake up, accept your inheritance, and choose a life of goodness for the sake of Mankind.