The Set Aside Scheme
It's not something that happens overnight you know. It takes a lot of hard work, determination and dedication to achieve it. I would say it probably took me a good ten years from the time I left school and at first I really hated it and struggled to overcome my barriers. But over time you do. Over time you even learn to enjoy it despite yourself, and you find your tolerance builds and the world seems a better place.
It's true I wasn't much good at exams at school but the DSS put me on a youth training course in metalwork when I left. And then another one in woodwork. I tried for over twelve months to get a job in the conventional way, but an apprenticeship fell through and there just wasn't much around in Kegford. The DSS suggested I should move elsewhere with more prospects but I really didn't have it in me to leave the only place I'd ever known. It also struck me as wrong somehow that I should have to leave my home town to find a job. Then I was asked to attend a special interview with the DSS who threatened to stop my money if I didn't go.
Well this big man in a blue suit, must have been in his 50s, asked me what I planned to do with my life.
I shrugged. He asked me what I knew about politics. I shrugged again. He then asked if I'd ever heard of the European Union Set-Aside scheme?
I said no.
'Well it's a bit like this young man.' He said. 'They used to produce far too much food in the European Common Market and it all got wasted in butter mountains or wine lakes. There was just too much of the stuff, supply outstripping demand and all that. So rather than continue to waste vast quantities of milk and meat and everything else, they decided to bring in the 'Set-Aside' scheme where farmers were paid NOT to over-produce food and to leave a certain percentage of their fields fallow. Ever thought about becoming fallow?'
'You, you, mean, killing myself…?'
'No of course not lad. Mr Major may be anxious to reduce the unemployment figures, but we’re not barbarians.'
'Are you willing to be set-aside?'
'I mean paid for doing nothing. Your own pad in your home town with all your friends and family around, enhanced benefits and no signing on?'
'What's the catch?' I asked. 'There must be one.'
'Shame' he said. 'You're a smart enough lad - I'm sure you could make something of yourself. I normally reserve this offer for those I can see will be a waste of space.'
'Well the catch as you're sharp enough to register is you'd have to become an alcoholic.'
'Because once you're a registered alcoholic, you can sign on the sick indefinitely and get far higher benefits than being on the dole, aside from not showing up on the jobless figures. This also means less hassle from the DSS as no one really expects an alcoholic to recover, never mind work again.'
I sat in the chair stunned. Would any of my friends believe me? A man offering me money for drinking?
'Look at it this way, girls get themselves up the duff to get a free flat, but that option isn't open to a young man with limited prospects. Look, I don't expect you to make up your mind straightaway. Sleep on it and we can meet again next week. But there is one condition of the scheme you need to be aware of.'
I looked at him in askance.
'Strict and utter confidentiality is required - in fact you must sign the Official Secrets Act to take part.'
'And if I don't?'
'I don't suppose anyone would believe you anyway. But those of our set-asiders who don't toe the line get their benefits stopped immediately. And that's just the start. They can then find themselves accused of fraud and be forced to pay all their benefits back. Lose their flat or hostel space. Prison even.'
'Good. I think we understand one another. I'll get the paperwork prepared.' He said, getting up and shaking my hand.
And that, dear Eileen was the start of it. I had no other notion of what to do with my life so I signed. I'd never been popular at school, never had a girlfriend, never expected my life to amount to much. What was the point? My own dad hadn't had a job since the pit closed. My mother had never worked at all. The scheme enabled me to move into my own place and eventually escape from grim reality most of the time, once I’d overcome my dislike of the stuff and swallowed what pride I had.
I never bargained on meeting you. I was 43 and scarcely been kissed. Always too self-conscious about my pigeon chest to undress in front of a girl. Those couple of kisses with Sharon Flett after the school disco all those years ago was about it. And now my teeth were starting to grey, along with my hair. I hadn’t bought any new clothes for years though I was just about still washing them and myself regularly and not yet p***ing into milk containers and leaving them on windowsills. Then one day I overdosed and landed in the rehab clinic...and met you.'
'Oh Martin.' She held him closer. 'What are you going to do?'
'I don't know Eileen. But you can do better than a bloke in the early stages of liver disease.'
'Suppose I don't want to. Anyway, you've cut down your drinking.'
'As much as I dare. If the doctor should twig any improvement though, the DSS is bound to find out and cut my benefits and no one will want me in the jobs market now.'
'I'll support us both.'
'On your salary as a rehab centre assistant?'
'Just for a while Martin. Until you can train up and do something as well.'
'I honestly don't know if they would let me, let alone if any employer would give me the time of day with a completely blank CV. Don't forget I signed the Set-Aside agreement. I am a man surplus to the nation's requirements'
'Not to my requirements.' She reassured him with a kiss. 'You've got to stop thinking so negatively.'
'If only I could. This is the first time in years that 'Countdown' hasn't been the highlight of my day.'
'I've got you tickets to be part of the studio audience for your birthday' she beamed. 'And the Jeremy Kyle Show. In fact, why don't you sell your story? You wouldn't need the rotten government's money then.'
'I daren't Eileen. I'd get done for breeching the Official Secrets Act plus I'd have to pay back every penny I've ever had. No newspaper is going to pay that sort of money for my story.'
'We'll think of something' she said. 'This evil scheme needs to be exposed. I wonder how many of our clients at the rehab clinic have also signed it.'
'You mustn't even think about it pet. I shouldn't have told you. I just couldn't help myself. I'm so happy to have you in my life. I never thought I'd find someone who didn't mind my pigeon chest. Sharon Flett was very cruel when she felt under my shirt after the school disco.'
'I hope she dies a very lonely old woman' said Eileen.
'So do I.' said Martin 'Just thinking about her makes me need another beer'.
They married two years later in the Hospice as Martin's liver disease finally turned to cancer and set about claiming him. Eileen was devastated when her first task as a new bride was to bury him and, her second, to clear out his flat to give back to the council.
Unable to face returning to work at the rehab clinic for many months, Eileen signed off with depression. One day she idly started sifting through a box of Martin's personal papers and found that he had kept a journal of his life from the day he signed up to the 'Set Aside' scheme to the final days before entering the Hospice. She began typing it up and editing it before submitting it to a publisher. Three rejections and a year later she finally received an acceptance from a Misery Memoir publisher and Martin's journal was published.
'Set Aside' quickly became a publishing sensation and while the current government blamed John Major's government, they were at a loss to explain why the Set-Aside scheme continued to this day, unquestioned and unchallenged, and apparently still accepting new recruits with the addition of an obesity box as a career option for the long-term unemployed.
Eileen found herself invited onto the talk show circuit and received more than a few funny phone calls late at night, threatening her, though whether this was from nutty members of the public or MI5, she wasn't sure and changed her number regularly. She also lost her job at the rehab clinic as a result of all the publicity and trying to counsel clients into admitting they had signed up to the Set-Aside Scheme, which apparently counted as 'political coercion' which amounted to 'gross misconduct.' She considered going to Employment Tribunal to get it back, but was doing well enough out of the book and the whole incredible story as it was. In time, she gave up her own council flat for someone who needed it more and moved to a detached Victorian house in the leafier suburbs, treating herself to a canary yellow Alfa Romeo and planting an orchard in her beloved Martin's memory in the garden.
A year later, the day before Eileen was due to discuss selling the film rights for the book with an option to play herself, she was found slumped dead on her living room settee by her housekeeper. Alcohol poisoning. A shock in more ways than one as the housekeeper had previously never observed more than an occasional bottle of wine about the place and knew Eileen's strong views about excess, having spent her working life observing its devastation every day as well as what it did to Martin.
No further word was heard about the 'Set Aside' scheme, though statisticians noted the death rate amongst alcoholics in their 40s and 50s reached an inexplicably high spike over the following 24 months. Supermarket discounting was blamed.
By L King 2011
Copyright asserted by author.