Everything seemed normal as he approached from the top of the street. Nothing felt out of place. The car was still there, the house appeared to be intact. He had no reason to suspect anything was out of the ordinary. Yes, he’d been drinking. Yes, it was dusk, so visibility was poor. But from a distance, home still looked like home – dull, generic, unassuming. Just like all the others on the estate. Each cut from the same cloth. Or concrete, rather.
Joe registered each niggling idiosyncrasy in turn: the fascias, still desperately in need of a lick of paint; the gutters still clogged and overflowing with leaves; the grass, yellowing at the edges again. It wasn't until he crossed the lawn and fished for his key that he realised something was amiss.
For some minutes he fumbled drunkenly, trying to gouge his key into what he thought was the lock. But he was having difficulty. Sure, everything became a challenge after a heavy drinking session. Some nights it felt like his legs were on backwards and his eyes substituted for spinning tops, but he’d always managed to navigate his way back home and stumble inside. No, something was definitely wrong.
The lock was gone, and the handle too. Actually, the entire mechanism had been shorn off and boarded over. He took a step back and noticed the windows had received similar treatment. Hardboard panels had been applied and fastened down with six-inch nails.
“What’s this?” he protested, feeling suddenly sober. A prank? If so, was the whole street in on it? He did a quick 180, checked the houses opposite for signs of twitching curtains and giggling faces. But all was quiet.
He tried to prise off one of the panels but succeeded only in breaking a fingernail. He paused momentarily to let his thoughts simmer. His property, once nondescript and respectably commonplace, was now a condemned derelict with every conceivable access point sealed off.
It was then he spotted the message sticking out of his letterbox, addressed ‘TO THE OCCUPIER’ in stark red capitals. He took it out and perused its contents.
“So, I’m no longer permitted to enter my property, and any attempt to do so will be a criminal offence?” He read the message again in disbelief, but there was no justification, only a contact number for an organisation he’d never heard of – the DLPR, or Department for Land and Property Reclamation.
“‘Reclamation?!” he barked. “It was never theirs to begin with!”
Maybe it was something to do with his bank, a problem with one of his mortgage payments. But he didn’t have his bank’s number to hand. All his personal documents were inside where he could no longer get at them. Contacting the DLPR appeared to be his only option.
He listened to the dial tone in anticipation. After two minutes, the line went dead. He punched the number in a second time, again with the same result. On his third attempt, the call failed even to connect. His provider then informed him he was out of credit. They must’ve been charging premium rate! he realised, jerking his mobile away from his ear as if it’d turned into a leech. A follow-up call to the police proved equally fruitless. “Not our department,” a disinterested desk sergeant informed him.
Again, he tugged frantically at the panels, but to no avail. Questions raced through his head: Where am I going to spend the night? Where can I get a change of clothes? What about those sausages I left out?. He paced the length of his drive, puffing hot air like a steam locomotive. It was getting late and the temperature was beginning to drop.
He considered his next move. He had a friend nearby, but she was flakier than an eczema sufferer in a flapjack factory. Mother then. Hopefully, he’d have better luck with the DLPR in the morning. A dark cloud now hung bruise-like over the horizon and threatened rain. He turned and trudged grumpily uphill.
The DLPR proved equally difficult to reach during working hours. He’d made numerous attempts, courtesy of his mother’s landline, but no luck. He tried again. The hold music was excruciating. After its umpteenth rendition, Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline felt more like Bloody Annoying Caroline.
“We’re sorry to keep you waiting,” a robot interjected in a sugary tone.
“How sorry?” Joe muttered.
“Rest assured your call is important to us.”
“Why don’t you answer it then?”
An ear-crippling medley of soft rock numbers played out.
The line went dead.
“This is Kafkaesque,” Joe said, slamming the receiver down. “No, it’s worse. At least Kafka’s protagonist got stabbed in the end. I’ve just been left hanging – like a prolapsed pile!”
“What’s that, have you got piles again?” his mother asked, entering the room. “Have you been taking your cream?”
“Have you managed to speak to someone about your house yet?”
“They won’t pick up.”
“I’m going to contact the council about this,” his mother said.
Joe rolled his eyes. This was his mother’s recourse for everything – from too many takeaway leaflets being put through her door to strangers turning up randomly in her neighbourhood (who invariably turned out to be neighbours, funnily enough). Nowadays, the council treated her enquiries with a practised disregard.
“Or I might e-mail my MP,” his mother said, thinking on.
He shook his head despairingly. His mother’s MP was in his early twenties and hadn’t yet learned how to grow a beard properly. Besides looking cuddly, he wasn’t going to be of much use.
She sensed his scepticism. “Have you tried the internet?”
His mother was often full of good advice like this. Have I tried the internet? Seriously? And then it occurred to him, no, he hadn’t actually. What a great idea! Without asking, he grabbed his mother’s iPad and roused Google from its slumbers.
The DLPR’s head office was a white, windowless cube on the outskirts of town. He’d found their address the previous evening and managed to schedule an appointment with them online.
Inside the building, a large open-plan floor space stretched out, with desks stationed ten by ten in perfect symmetry. Grim-faced members of the public queued like cattle before the desks, whilst bug-like administrators scuttled between them, depositing and retrieving case files.
Joe confirmed his appointment at a touch screen help point, and a pop-up informed him that help was on the way. The conciliatory tone of the computer wasn’t matched by its human counterpart, however. A pale, unsmiling woman in grey directed him brusquely to a waiting area on the second floor.
He proceeded as directed and took an empty seat in a line of black chairs. He wasn’t the only one in the waiting area; there were several others, all with suicidal expressions. A door faced him and he fancied he could hear a low hum behind it, plus the odd cry of supplication. He wondered if he should quit while he was ahead, but remained seated like a naive lamb.
“Joe, please,” a tepid voice repeated.
He must’ve drifted off. Looking up, he clocked another washed-out functionary. He rose, freeing his seat for fresh quarry, and headed for the door, which now stood ajar. A bug-like man waited for him inside. Not another one, Joe thought. There must be a nest in the basement somewhere. There was a woman too, who looked like she’d never seen daylight. They were seated at twin desks like Scylla and Charybdis. A chair was pincered between them, and they motioned for him to sit.
“Good morning,” Joe ventured, but the bug-like man didn’t respond. Meanwhile, the female of the species cast him a pernicious stare through thick-lensed spectacles. His fingers drummed the armrests with a restless energy. “I had this stuffed through my letterbox yesterday,” he said, holding up their message as if it were exhibit A. “Since then, my house has been off limits.” He shifted agitatedly.
Something wasn’t right with the chair. “What’s going on? I’m a law-abiding citizen, an upstanding member of society. I’ve even started recycling.”
They glanced up briefly then returned to their screens, their fingers typing in perfect sync as if they were performing a piano duet.
He felt a sudden urge to spring from his chair and swat them like the bugs they were. But he thought again when he spotted the overhead surveillance camera, its red dot trained on him like sniper rifle.
“Form L, please,” the man spoke softly into a microphone.
A rumble sounded from a metal pipe above. Something fluttered down its length and landed in the man’s in-tray. It was an L-shaped folder.
“Sign, please,” the man said, opening it and pushing it towards him.
It consisted mostly of formalities, consent forms, particulars relating to the treatment of his personal data. He could feel his temper itching to get off its starting block, but managed to keep it in check. He signed each of the documents in turn, though the pen he’d been given was chained to the man’s desk and had started to retract, which didn’t help matters.
The man took the folder back and posted it through an L-shaped aperture in one of the walls. “This consultation is terminated. Our Rapid Response Team will contact you in due course.”
Joe paused open-mouthed. “That’s it? But I’m homeless!” He could feel his hackles rising to the point of no return. But before he could articulate his rage, a network of restraints sprang snakelike from the armrests and bound him to the chair. He struggled frantically, kicking his feet like an angry toddler, but the restraints held him fast. The chair then began to reverse into the corridor via a hidden conveyor, and returned him to the reception area, thrashing all the way.
Joe returned home, armed with a crowbar, his profile black against an amber sunset. As he reached the crest of the hill, he frowned. His house frowned back as if he were an uninvited guest. He brandished the crowbar angrily. “Don’t give me that look. I own you, damn it!” An elderly neighbour passed him with a troubled expression. He grinned sheepishly and got to work on the panels.
“What’re you doing there?” his next door neighbour asked, stopping mid-dog walk to see what he was up to.
Joe quickly explained his predicament, though he resented having to do so, as if he were the one at fault.
“Oh, that’s bad luck,” his neighbour said. “My window cleaner didn’t turn up today, you know.”
Oh, well that makes us equal then! “I’m moving back in,” Joe answered.
“But aren’t you technically breaking the law?”
“It’s still my home,” he answered indignantly, giving his house a proprietary look.
He eyed Joe’s neglected gutters and frowned slightly. “Maybe you should get some legal advice.”
Joe smiled furiously. His neighbour was the sort of person who, if he saw you caught in a bear trap, might say something like: “That looks nasty; you should do something about that”.
“Well, if you need anything, you know where I am.”
Another stock phrase that meant nothing in reality. That’s the last time I mow your half of the lawn! “Thank you,” he managed with Oscar-winning grace.
Eventually, his neighbour headed uphill, with all the insouciance of someone not having to suffer the same ordeal.
He breathed a sigh of relief, glad finally to be out of his tractor beam. He resumed his task. What else could he do? He couldn’t remain barred from his property indefinitely. Besides, he was still no closer to discovering why he’d been turfed out in the first place. It'd taken the DLPR up until now to tell him precisely nothing. Tectonic plates had shifted with greater rapidity than their so-called ‘Rapid Response Team’! On that basis, he considered himself well within his rights to force entry. Besides, even if he was breaking the law, he couldn’t see the DLPR suddenly springing into action. This isn’t trespassing, he reassured himself; this is my property. An Englishman’s home was his castle after all. He just never thought he’d end up having to storm his own castle!
Half an hour later, he was back inside. Wresting that final panel had given him a real sense of achievement, as if he’d well and truly stuck it to the man!
A cursory inspection assured him everything was regular. The rooms were dark and fusty, but everything was as he’d left it. He tested the taps and water still flowed. The electrics appeared to be okay too, judging from the patriotic humming of the fridge. So far so good, he thought, taking a beer. He needed one after all that hard work.
“Stop!” an amplified voice commanded. “Exit the property immediately with your hands behind your head!”
Joe went into autopilot, dropped his beer and stepped out onto his lawn. Blue lights dazzled his eyes. It seemed the entire local constabulary had been scrambled to bust his ass! ARVs filled the street and an army of firearms officers were poised for a shootout.
Bit extreme, he thought.
A Taser struck him, knocking him to the ground.
“Move in!” the megaphone ordered.
His life was a car crash. No, more like a seven-car pileup! Scenes flashed kaleidoscopically before his eyes – interrogations in the dark with red-eyed cigarette-smoking men. Then some kind of kangaroo court. Finally, he’d sat in a room by himself for a time, pickling with anxiety, waiting for the final axe of judgement to fall.
“I can’t believe this,” Joe protested. “This has been a complete miscarriage of justice. There’s been no formal charge. I demand legal representation.”
“Your cell’s just up here,” the warden said, nudging him along gently with his whacking stick. “Here’s your toothbrush,” he added altruistically, handing him something he wouldn’t clean his toilet with.
How could they treat him this way? Yes, he’d ruffled some feathers, and maybe there was a case to make for smoothing some of those feathers back down again. But still he was none the wiser as to what his actual crime had been!
“Ah, bad luck,” the warden said, tapping the cell door, which appeared to be layered with planks of wood, much in the same fashion as Joe’s house. He looked genuinely foxed for the first time in his bureaucratic life. “It appears your cell’s been commandeered by the DLPR.”
“What?” Joe blurted, pulling at the panels urgently.
“Don’t do that, sir,” the warden chided. “It’s against protocol, you know.”
“Really? Well, I need somewhere to sleep tonight. What’re you going to do? Re-arrest me? Send me to prison prison?”
“Not for me to say, sir. Not my remit.” He paused to consider. “We could chain you up in the yard, I suppose. Yes, let’s do that. It’s stopped raining now at least.”
Joe gave up. Finally, the fight had gone out of him. Finally, his nerves had turned to straw.