The Road to Serfdom / by Alex Williamson

He arrived at the house in abysmal weather. An inauspicious beginning. The horizon had been obliterated by a canopy of glowering clouds. Wind was blowing in great gusts over the cliffs, driving salt water off the firth and over the gardens of the houses overlooking the water.

In his small car he idled up the long driveway to the grand-looking house, passing under swaying mature pine trees. Blown leaves had gathered in drifts around the edges of the lawn. The house was a Victorian relic, built by a local laird over a century ago. Once it had been the officer’s quarters for a regiment of Scots guards; later a hall of residence for sixth formers at an austere boarding school; after that, self-catering accommodation. Both house and gardens were ornate but in need of much remedial work to restore their faded grandeur.

Rain fizzed against his waterproof jacket as he jogged to the front door and pressed the buzzer on the intercom. A groggy, disembodied voice eventually answered. He gave his name. I’m here about the gardening job. The line went dead. Then, the source of the voice, a man in his mid-thirties wearing a rumpled t-shirt and stained sweat-pants, with thinning brown hair and a noticeable paunch, heaved the door open. He had the puffy, bewildered countenance of someone managing the competing demands of sleep deprivation and serotonin depletion. Either he was a committed pothead, a serial onanist or a father to a newborn. Possibly all three. As the man stared at him, it was also apparent he had no idea who he, the stranger on his doorstep, was.

After he reminded him of his name, the man chortled at his forgetfulness and extended a pudgy paw. Once inside, they descended the wooden staircase to the kitchen. There he was offered a seat at the kitchen table, and invited to take tea or coffee.

He could hear the small voices of young children in close by, and presently a small boy, who was introduced as the man’s eldest son, came into the kitchen and showed him a card he had made at school. The card showed a dinosaur floating above a volcano, the kind of naive tableau his own son was wont to make.

As they were talking, a pretty woman in her twenties came into the kitchen with an infant in her arms. He thought the child was roughly three months old. It was holding its head up almost without support, and seemed alert to the presence of others. Speaking to the man, she confirmed that the child was now clean, before placing him in a rocker and leaving the room. As he made the tea, the man informed him they were also recruiting a nanny and that the woman who had just left the room was helping them out for a few days. A few moments later the man’s wife entered the room, a pleasant woman with blonde hair, a lisping, sing-song voice and a nose ill-suited to profile portraits.

Over mugs of weak tea they discussed the job and the weekly tasks. These included but were not limited to: mowing the lawn and ridding it of fungi. Trimming and pruning hedges. Strimming verges.  Chopping wood. Establishing a vegetable patch. And some internal tasks as and when required. Changing light bulbs. Fixing curtain tracks. Organising the loft. He might be called upon to pick up the husband or the wife’s mother from the airport from time to time. Do you have a clean license? He nodded that he did, opting not to mention the points from an earlier indiscretion.

The family was planning an extensive refurbishment of the house, and had purchased a smaller property nearby with a large garden, which would also need to be maintained. As they walked the grounds in the rain, the husband showed him the property, a large bungalow which bordered the grounds of the lodge and which had been vacant since its previous owner passed away. He loved this bungalow, the man said. Built it himself. And that shed over there, from bits and pieces of old wood. Used to cut the lawn religiously. Bless him. The grass was almost at knee height. We are going to extend the bungalow, the man continued. Its nowhere near big enough for the five of us. So before we even start on the extension to the house, we’ll have to do this first. Then we’ll move out of the big house and live here until the work is done.

He wondered how they had the money to do all this work. Even without contingency funds, it was likely to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. There was evidently some wealth here, possibly inherited, but it seemed to express itself modestly. Wealth without ostentation. Discrete wealth.

Sitting in the family’s kitchen, talking casually about children and relocating to the Highlands, he felt a kinship with the couple. Like him, they were in their mid-thirties. He liked them, and he liked the feel of the place, felt that he would have a degree of autonomy and would be able to work at his own pace, and hoped there would be some reciprocal understanding about his financial situation. So when the husband phoned him a few days later to offer him the job, he gratefully accepted. They agreed that he would be paid weekly, and would be regarded as self-employed. The contracted hours were fifteen per week, split between Monday, Wednesday and Friday, at £10 per hour. To save the husband the paperwork, he agreed there would be no need for a contract of employment.

He returned to the house the next week in the same wet weather. Unable to do anything in the garden he was asked to do some odd jobs around the house: fixing the handle on a kitchen cupboard, changing some light bulbs, building a cot for the baby. He spent a couple of hours clearing the loft of cobwebs with a hoover, as the lady of the house was afraid of spiders. The nanny he’d seen on that wet Sunday had disappeared, and in her place an older woman in glasses whose duties ranged from tending to the three children, washing and ironing, and walking the family's dogs, who spent most of the day shut inside. There was another child whom he hadn’t seen during his interview, a difficult girl of nursery age, who always seemed to be on the brink of some thermonuclear meltdown or other.

At the end of his first day, just as he was about to head home, the woman asked him check that the chickens had enough water and food, and to bring in any eggs that had been laid. As he stalked back across the garden in the waning light he realised then that, contrary to his delusion of being self-employed, he had sleep-walked into becoming a member of the household staff, one with certain duties and obligations.

He didn’t resent their wealth, their property portfolio or the fleet of four-by-fours parked at the front of the house, but it served to remind him of his failings, his inability to provide for his own children. He had worked hard much of his life, but his endeavours had been misplaced or ultimately futile, so he now found himself with very little to show for it. Every move he had made in the past few years had been a step backwards. A reversal of fortune. The road to serfdom.

Googling that phrase, he came across a quote by Friedrich Hayek, the political theorist and scion of free market economics.

Few people ever have an abundance of choice of occupation. But what matters is that we have some choice, that we are not absolutely tied to a job which has been chosen for us, and if that one position becomes intolerable, or if we set our heart on another, there is always a way for the able, at some sacrifice, to achieve his goal. Nothing makes conditions more unbearable than the knowledge that no effort of ours can change them; and even if we should never have the strength of mind to make the necessary sacrifice, the knowledge that we could escape if we only strove hard enough makes many otherwise intolerable positions bearable.

Hayek was wrong. Unlike Hayek, he felt that the harder he strove for something, the further from his reach it seemed to move; when he wished for something which might give more value to his life, greater the grief when it failed to come to pass. All positions were intolerable, and therefore unbearable. 

Strife and striving, striving and strife. Story of his life. 

After his first week the family went on holiday to Oman for a fortnight, leaving him to his own devices. It had taken the wife almost a week to pack. As he went about his indoor tasks that week, he had to pick his way among the clothes and suitcases strewn across the landing.

For two weeks, in the late October wind and rain, he mowed and edged the lawns, battling against the temperamental sit-on mower which had a tendency to gouge the grass as it passed over it; he cut the long grass around the bungalow, grass too long to be cut and collected with the mower, so he raked and collected it by hand; he raked and collected leaves and swept pine needles from the paths; he moved cross-sectional slabs of tree trunk and stacked them in the dilapidated outhouses; he cleaned out the chickens, collected their eggs and kept their food and water topped up.

He worked consecutive Saturday’s when he should have been with his family to fit his hours in around the hours of his wife's retail job. For those two weeks he worked, he was not paid.

During that week a storm blew in from the Arctic, and when he came into work two days later, one of the wire guards had fallen off the side of the chicken coop. All the chickens appeared to be there: a rooster and five hens, feathers bedraggled, undersides caked in dirt and their own shit. He had come to resent the chickens, with their beady eyes and gnarled talons and absurd, self-indulgent clucking, their scratting and strutting. He mucked out their cages again and put down fresh straw. When he returned to collect their eggs the next day, the chickens had rucked up the straw he had carefully spread out, to get at the kernels.

When he arrived at the house the following week he was met by the woman’s mother, a well-to-do Yorkshirewoman in her mid-sixties, who immediately took him to task for being unqualified for the job, and for not doing it properly, before lionising his predecessor, who had maintained the garden under the previous owners.

He was very, very good. Knew a lot about propagating. Do you know anything about propagating? It’s very important to know about propagating. How to propagate properly. Gardening is one of the most technical jobs, you see. It takes a very scientific mind. It’s not just about mowing lawns and raking leaves. It’s about horticulture. If you don’t mind me asking, what exactly is your background in gardening? Do you know what is involved? Did you notice that the borders need looking at? They look very neglected. They get a lot of sorrel up here. All of it needs to come out before it takes over. I noticed a lot of the shrubs have started to go brown. They need to be cut right back before the winter. And a lot of the plants in the greenhouse have died. Haven’t you been watering them? They need to be fed and watered at least twice a week. Some of them are too far gone now, I’m afraid. By the way, my grandson thinks one of the chickens has gone missing since we were away. Did you notice?

She had the entitled air of the gentry, someone for whom a good standard of living was an undeniable human right, someone who had never deigned to wipe herself with singly-ply paper. He had little doubt she would have discussed at length his suitability for the job with her daughter and son-in-law, possibly over several gin and tonics, her voice raising an octave when she touched upon her favourite subject of propagating, ice cubes rattling threateningly as she brandished her crystal tumbler.

He said he hadn’t noticed if one of their chickens was missing, and asked her how long she was staying.

Oh a week or two. Possibly three. Just to help my daughter out. You know its very difficult looking after three children and running a house on your own. With your husband away all week. I do what I can but it’s very difficult. Do you have children? You do? Ah, but you wouldn’t know what its like, being a man, not a mother. What do men know about raising children? They should keep out of the way and let the women get on with it.

As the week wore on he began to enjoy their early morning engagements, consulting with her as he began a new, unfamiliar task. Her frostiness melted away, and she seemed to be the only person at the house who took any interest in the garden, or his work. With the eldest child at school and the younger children in the care of the nanny, she and her daughter would disappear for a several hours for lunch and return just before 3pm, to greet the eldest child on his return. The boy seemed to have taken a shine to him, and would run from the car to speak to him while he knelt on the wet verge of the borders, fingers encrusted with dark earth, as he pulled the strands of sorrel from the flowerbeds. Sometimes he felt that the boy wanted to talk to him, as he might his father, on other occasions he asked to help, before being called sternly to the house by a female voice. 

On that particular Friday, a robin had kept him company while he tended to the borders. He would throw the bird small worms to see how close it would come to him. When the boy came over that afternoon, he bade him remain still, that he might see the bird hopping on its splayed legs, considering them with that flitting side-eyed look of puzzlement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a robin before, said the boy. They waited, briefly, vainly, for the bird to appear, before the boy was called in.

When he left that evening, passing through the kitchen to hang up the keys to the shed, the lady of the house and her mother were nowhere to be seen. He bade farewell to the nanny, who was ironing another basket of washing with the three month old in his rocker at her feet, and drove home.

He wasn’t paid that week, and spent the weekend constantly checking his bank balance in a state of deep irritation. He texted the husband, and received no response. When he returned on Monday, he was so furious that he found himself quaking behind the wheel on the journey over. He glared at the wife as she descended the steps of the house, hurrying past him to take her son to school. When she returned, he was cleaning out the chickens. As she collected the eggs, she said, You don’t seem very happy. I’m not, he replied, I’ve not been paid again this week, he replied.

She said that she and her husband had decided that they would prefer to pay him fortnightly. He explained that he had been left short of cash over the weekend. Her apology was breezy and dismissive. She mentioned the missing chicken again, which possibly escaped that weekend of the storm. Clearly this was a bone of contention, which may later become a stick to beat him with, although one seemed to know for certain if the chicken had gone or not. Was it ever there at all, he wondered.

He spent the morning repairing the wind-shredded tarpaulin roof over the chickens’ coop, and resolved that if he hadn’t been paid by the end of the day he wouldn’t return.

That night he texted the husband to see if he could expect to be paid for the previous week’s work. There was no response.

On Wednesday he was due to return to the house. Instead, he went to his other gardening job, at the care home, and spent the day pruning shrubs and packing compost around their roots. When he checked his phone at lunchtime he had a missed call from the husband. He ignored it.

The next day he returned to his other job, and on the Friday, when he was due back at the house. Later that day he received a text message from the husband expressing confusion about his absence on Wednesday, and offering to terminating his employment. He gratefully accepted

One week later, he returned to the recruitment website to find that the job at the house had been re-posted. At least one year’s horticultural experience essential. Some handyman duties inside the house from time to time. £10 per hour. Ten hours a week in the winter. Fifteen hours a week in the summer. No mention of propagating. Or chickens.