FRAUD AT THE POLLS by EW Farnsworth
The nation was on tenterhooks as election day promised to overturn the powers-that-be. PM Candidate Sir Hudibras of the new Transparency Party was still giving rousing speeches until the election rules no longer allowed them. The tabloids were having a field day with their lies and innuendoes. Sir Hudibras was represented on the front page of The Dustbin as a likeness of Cthulhu with his eight tentacles holding signs with abbreviations for his party platform planks. On the eve of the election, he had made history by garnering a 30% share of the national vote scattered country-wide, but with an especially heavy concentration around Picklock Lane and all the way to Dover.
The story about the attempted bribery had gained traction though the truth of the matter was lost in the heat of disputation. The one thing the status quo politicians could agree on was that the Transparency Party had to be defeated. Mysteriously, the pubs regaled voters with free pints throughout the day prior to balloting, and some reports of cash payments for votes came to Sheriff Fatty Millstone at his Cracked Bell headquarters. Though he had recently divided, he managed to keep a stiff upper lip in the fray. To his right sat Crenshaw the muckraker and to his left sat Straight the error-bender shouting at each other and pointing angrily toward the other’s headlines as drivel and swill.
“My editor already has the headline for this evening’s tabloid: “Fraud at Polls.” Straight laughed till he said his sides were about to split.
“Crenshaw, your dredging up the old chestnut about the terrorist was hilarious. I will not soon forget the angelic cartoon portrayal of that vicious suicide bomber. You deserve to be put in the stocks with rotten eggs for boys to throw at you.”
“Straight, you had the audacity to re-publish that bogus letter about bribery in last night’s edition of your yellow rag. Old news, that! And a forgery. Everyone knows the means by which Hanby’s confession was elicited. Summon the tentacle forthwith and take its statement before any judgment is rendered.”
Fatty listened to the banter with only part of his attention as he tried to hear the general comments about the voting in progress.
“I like the idea of a national income,” an old crone said as she raised her pint to toast.
“What we need is transparency,” a young voter averred between violent though colourful oaths about the corruption of the entire political class.
The young man’s girlfriend egged him on, “That’s right, Rafe. The lot of them should be put in gaol for a very long time. I voted Transparency, and, win or lose, their platform must be executed.”
The tapster, bearded Ned Rustle and his waitress, greasy Joan Harwich, had all they could do to handle the refills as everyone jostled and waited for the advent of their hero Sir Hudibras. The polling stations had closed two hours ago, and all were becoming mellow. The full range of emotions was on display.
“Come now, Madge, buck up! It’s not the end of the world.”
“Easy for you to say, Fred Bumpkin, I gave my entire savings for the cause. If my side does not win, I’ll have to go back to slaving as my mother has all her life, dear soul.” Madge patted the old woman next to her by way of consolation. Her mother was weeping copiously since Joan accidentally hit her arm and spilled her stout.
“How much are you out, Madge?”
“Two pounds sixpence, that’s what.”
“Pshaw. You’ll gain that back with your dole.”
“It’s not the money, but the principle. Like Sir Hudibras said when he refused to take Giles Hanby’s bribe.”
“Listen to this nonsense. The woman believes what she reads in the scurrilous tabloids!”
“I know what I know, that’s what. I suppose you’ll believe the one about the resurrection of the tentacle. An old wives’ take if I ever heard one. Stop weeping, Mother, I see Joan has brought you a new pint for your trouble.”
Two gentlemen were shoving each other and threatening to do worse. Fatty rose with a sigh and grabbed both combatants by the ear so he could drag them out back to settle their score.
“Here comes the great man! Sir Hudibras approaches. He is smiling and looking very much like our new Prime Minister.” Bill Tolland was ecstatic, for he had placed a bet on the Temperance Party to win a majority of seats in Parliament.
Bill’s friend Colin clapped him on the back. “You’ll be a rich man once the votes have been counted. I hope you’ll be remembering your old friends as you rise through the ranks of the new party. Let me be the first to drink to the health of our new PM!”
Sir Hudibras was beaming as he and his dame pressed through the throng. All glasses were raised as he processed back to Fatty’s table. The sheriff simultaneously approached his table from the rear door where he had just escorted the two disputants to the back alley. An informer hung on his arm whispering the inside news from the polling stations. Moon-faced Millstone looked solemn and nodded gravely. The news was not encouraging.
Sir Hudibras and his wife settled in their usual places around Fatty’s table across from the sheriff and the two newshounds. “I will address my constituents in a moment once I have wetted my whistle with a fresh pint. You would think the people were celebrating All Hallows Eve out there the way they are costumed. I must have seen forty dressed as tentacles wagging their suckers in the faces of others. Fully five green octopods memorializing Cthulhu were walking arm in arm. Stalwarts had built a float on which was enacted—perpetually—my refusal to take the infamous bribe of Giles Hanby.” Glaring at Crenshaw, the MP was diverted by greasy Joan’s ministrations.
Fatty said, “Hal, our spy at the polls, has evil news. Voters have been captured taking cash bribes with cell phone cameras. Boxes of dubious mail-in ballots have been intercepted at the post office. Voting machines have been rigged to capture only bespoke candidates. On some ballots the Transparency Party candidates do not appear. I’m afraid the entire electoral process has been broken.”
The two newshounds laughed uproariously. “That’s rich,” Crenshaw screeched. “It’s as I predicted, beyond FUBAR!”
“It’s worse than that, Crenshaw. My editor had it right: ‘Fraud at the Polls’!”
Dame Hudibras looked doubtful. “Why is everyone talking in acronyms suddenly? And what does FUBAR stand for when it’s at home?”
Sir Hudibras shook his head. “Don’t be concerned about trifles from the mouth of a guttersnipe. I think it’s time for me to address the assemblage. Sheriff, please serve as our master at arms.”
Fatty Millstone picked up a spoon and struck the side of his pint glass. The din of conversation became expectant silence. The great man was about to speak.
“All come to order, please,” the sheriff commanded. “Our candidate, who needs no introduction, has a few words to say on this historic occasion.”
Sir Hudibras rose looking like a figure from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, blinking at his constituents without actually focusing on any one in particular. “I want to thank you all for your support. We have come a very long way. We have helped change the dialogue with our platform. I hope we have changed views and brought to the fore issues long hidden by those who presume to recusant you but who only represent Mammon, filthy lucre, and pure greed. Through it all, I have stood alone against corruption. But I have done it for you, my countrymen, who are the solid backbone of our nation.”
Madge and her mother were now weeping and moaning. Something in the knight’s tone did not bode well for their wagers. Fatty saw a five-pound note pass from Straight to Crenshaw to satisfy a side bet against the house.
Sir Hudibras went on to recap his speechifying from coast to coast and from Dover to the Outer Hebrides. “As a great American poet wrote, ‘I am the man. I suffered. I was there.’ But so were you. You were beside me wherever I travelled. I saw your eyes looking up at me with the same trust and earnest longing I see in this room today. I want to take a few minutes to review our platform—I speak to you and to the corrupt press too since they will have no motive for invective and lies tomorrow at sunrise when preliminary results of the election are posted.”
Sir Hudibras then recounted the five key planks of the Transparency Party’s platform. Fatty noticed the man’s eyes well up when he touched on certain points, but he never wept, and he never lost his composure. He was talking as history, and he made it clear that he would like nothing better than a true account of his mission.
Through his speech Crenshaw smirked and shook his head. Fatty wondered at the smut he was composing for his story. Straight was attentive to the details. He had his cell phone out and on record. He might, the sheriff thought, transcribe and print the whole speech if his editor permitted it.
“So once again, thank you, one and all. It is late, and Dame Hudibras and I must retire. We shall have a busy day tomorrow however things turn out. God Bless our country, our queen and our party’s platform. Good night!”
The assemblage gave the great man a subdued round of applause as he and his lady made their way to the front door. Then he was gone. There was still time before last call, so all pints were topped off. The barkeep raised his voice to warn the freebees would be done with at closing time tonight. The newshounds finished their pints and hastened to their respective papers where they would file their lies.
Fatty sat gazing at his pint. His brow furrowed as he thought through what he had seen in the last few months. He brooded on the state of the nation and wondered whether things would every change for the better. Last call came, and greasy Joan came to top his glass off specially. She used her rag to wipe his table.
“It’s not the end of the world, Sheriff Millstone. After all, it’s only an election. And there will be others.”
The sheriff smiled at the earnest young woman and nodded as she went on to satisfy other customers.
When the doors closed for the night at the Cracked Bell pub, Fatty found himself walking home as his party’s poll spy filled his ears with the blatant signs of corruption he had witnessed that day. He was sickened to have the common practices rehearsed ad infinitum.
“And that is not all,” the intelligencer finally said, but Fatty raised his hand to silence the snitch.
“You have done well enough to deserve the gold coin I promised you.” The sheriff handed over the one-ounce gold coin, which the man palmed and thrust in his pocket. Having been paid, he filed off separately to his own dwelling and left the sheriff to his own devices. Fatty walked aimlessly most of the night. For a long while he sat on a bench overlooking the water. He reached his complex near daybreak, having bought one each of the morning tabloids.
“Fraud at Polls!” was the most honest moniker. Then, of course, there were, “Ordinary Wins!” and “Tentacles Lose Their Grip!” Fatty could not believe the divergent views could have been evoked from the same elections in the same country, but they had done so.
He met the publican at the door of the Cracked Bell when it opened. He spread the tabloids on his table and went over every word before the so-called investigative reporters arrived like black carrion crows to pick clean the carrion from the election. The Transparency Party’s best effort had gleaned only 10% of the votes—enough to skew the election toward the worse candidates, but not enough to yield any new voices in Parliament. Sir Hudibras, Fatty thought, must carry the fardel for the whole new party until the next election. The sheriff knew his friend Sir Hudibras would be dejected; Dame Hudibras would be disconsolate.
Fatty munched on a scone and drank his tea while he gathered wool. He was not one to dwell on defeat. His silver lining was clearly apparent: Sir Hudibras had remained steadfast through his trial. The people knew he could be trusted. Yet honesty, trust and steadfastness did not win elections in these iron times. Instead, dishonesty, fraud and vacillation brought the laurel wreath of high office. That was not a cheerful prospect for Fatty.
When Sir Hudibras arrived at the Cracked Bell just before noon, he was looking cheerful. He had an announcement to make to Fatty before the newshounds arrived.
“I know it is going to be hard to believe, but I have been invited to join the elected government as Finance Minister. The PM could not find anyone trustworthy enough in the eyes of the people to do the job. What do you think of that?”
“Have you given the PM your answer to his invitation?”
“I have given my affirmative answer, yes. Dame Hudibras is delighted.”
“Then I am also glad for you and our country. Your new position is most critical at this time. I have to wonder whether the plank about a universal income was instrumental in the decision-making process. We shall see. If you will excuse me, I have to see someone down by the waterfront.”
Fatty Millstone made his way to the park bench beside the water where he had sat during the night. The enormous tentacle came out of the water to commune with him. The two conversed as octopuses do, tentacle to tentacle. There were so many things Fatty wanted to say, but he could not find words to say them. Even so, the tentacle seemed to understand him. When he had let his mind run wild for a while, Fatty knew he had communicated as much as possible as he had begun to receive what the tentacle had to say as well.
The creature had slipped back into the deep as Fatty made his way back to the pub. He mulled over the message he had received from the beast: “Cthulhu would be proud.” Fatty held his round head high as he recalled the story of his hero, the green octopod. He may have departed Earth in disgust and disillusionment, but his dream continued, and Fatty was part of his ethereal vision.