insistent clanging of the old-fashioned alarm clock announced
another day for Herbert Scrottins. A bony little hand shot out
from under the crisply folded sheet, hit the off button and flopped
down by the side of the bed. Ten minutes later he was in the bathroom,
shaving with his habitual fastidiousness. At 6.30am precisely,
he put his empty cocoa mug in the washing up bowl, popped a tea-cosy
onto the teapot, placed a bowl containing two scoops of Branny
Munch onto the square kitchen table (itself covered with a plastic,
green and blue, stripy table cloth), and poured precisely a quarter
of a pint of milk onto his breakfast; before adjusting his glasses
and seating himself with a view through the window; out into the
dappled sunlight of a summer morning.
washed up, stacked everything into its rightful place on the draining
board, and drawn the curtains in the living room and office, Herbert
instinctively began to walk towards the front door. The beautifully
polished door knocker (cast in the shape of a magnifying glass)
rapped once, paused, and then three times in rapid succession.
Herbert's hand was already on the handle before the first knock
rang out, but he let his visitor complete his customary sequence,
before he opened the door of his picturesque, two-bedroom, country-style
cottage. The open door revealed the postman, in his smart blue
uniform and peaked cap, standing with a parcel in his hand.
morning... Mr. Scrottins... How are you... today?" came the
well-practiced monotonic greeting, just as the grandfather clock
in the hallway next to Herbert struck 7.30am.
well, thank you," replied Herbert, as he always did. "And are
Lovely day again."
Herbert wasn't one of the world's greatest conversationalists,
and this well rehearsed, unswerving exchange suited him perfectly.
"The parcel is for me?" He held out his left hand.
the postman gave it to him, "...thank you."
he said, handing the postman a carefully wrapped brown paper package,
which he had been holding in his right hand. "Same time tomorrow
that the postman took the return parcel from him, turned smartly
on his heels, marched back down the garden path, past the orderly
rows of flowers and closed the wooden blue gate behind him, before
setting off down the lane and disappearing from sight behind a
tall dry-stone wall. The garden was slightly damp following the
previous night's rainfunny how it always seemed to rain
at night here, highly convenient, and he hadn't had to water anything
in the entire two years that he'd been there; probably just as
well, as he'd never had a garden to tend to before and really
didn't know the first thing about it. Despite that there was a
magnificent display of hollyhocks, delphiniums, clematis, foxgloves,
geums, aquiligeas, sweet peas, pelargoniums, roses, lupins, pinks,
verbascums, honeysuckle and hydrangeas, all moving gently in the
soft summer breeze. Strangely there were no bees or other insects,
but that didn't register with him, having spent most of his life
in a city. Herbert closed his front door and carried the parcel
into his office. He placed it squarely in the centre of his neat
desk and tore the previous day's page off the calender block to
reveal Wednesday 12th July 2024. Wednesday was grocery day, so
he decided to leave the parcel until later, busying himself with
chores in the meantime.
the grandfather clock struck 9 am, a knock on the door was answered
almost immediately by Herbert. The grocery man stood on the porch
with a crate in his hands, which he rested on the ground, as the
door swung inwards.
morning... Mr. Scrottins... How are you... today?" asked
the expressionless man.
well, thank you," replied Herbert. "And are you well?"
that looks like everything," he said, pointing to the mixture
of cleaning materials, jars, tins, bottles, fruit and vegetables.
"The usual 50 euros?" He held out a pink note and the grocer accepted
here is my list for next week, if it comes to less than today
perhaps you could make up the difference with some tins of beans?"
thank you," said the grocer, taking the pink note and Herbert's
new shopping list, sliding them into the well-ironed front pocket
of his overalls.
he said, handing him an empty crate, which had been leaning against
the inside of the door frame. "Same time next week then?"
grocer took the green crate from the previous week's delivery
and set off down the garden path, closed the wooden blue gate
behind him and disappeared down the lane.
how I've never seen his van," said Herbert out loud to himself,
as he watched the grocer march down the road. "Looks very much
like the postman, that grocer, perhaps it's a family business,
looking after the needs of the village. Sounds just like my old
science teacher too." He mulled it over for a few moments, just
as he did every week. Maybe he'd ask the postie in the morning,
but probably not. Herbert was intrinsically a rather shy man and
liked to stick to the script; he knew where he was like that.
No, this arrangement suited him perfectly, no need to venture
far outside the confines of his little world, no danger of meeting
strangers or making hasty decisions, all very orderly, all nicely
organised. Yes, that suited him down to the ground, he'd never
been one for adventures, or big on social occasions, he was more
than happy with his life here. All rather lucky really, the way
a hobby could turn into gainful employment, and with the added
benefit of working from home. Splendid arrangement all round.
closed the door and hefted his groceries into the kitchen, placing
the full crate in the centre of the table. Methodically he took
each item in turn from the crate and ticked them off on a carbon
copy of the previous week's shopping list, before placing them
in their rightful places in his gleaming kitchen cupboards. He
could've walked in there in the dead of night, in pitch dark,
and still put his hand on anything he could think of, such was
the orderliness of his domestic arrangements. Once that was completed
to his satisfaction, he placed the empty crate by the front door,
made a cup of coffee, and carried it into his office. One wall
was laid over entirely to shelves, with hundreds of apparently
identical books; although 40 bulged slightly more than the rest
and were placed from the top left to the middle of the first shelf.
Opposite that was a bookcase containing a fabulous array of textbooks.
He took care to place the hot cup on a coaster, in order to avoid
any stains on the leatherette surface of the desk, and to avoid
any spillages damaging the technical equipment lined up across
the back edge.
pulled on his favourite cardigan (the one with the leather patches
on the elbows), placed a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles on his
pointy nose, tucked the flimsy arms behind his ears and sat down
in front of that morning's parcel. He'd be a little late starting
that morning, having dealt with the groceries, but he could make
that time up by working later into the evening and it would be
no hardship, as he loved his work. Picking up a sharp knife, he
cut along the joins in the box, through the parcel tape, opened
the flaps, sniffed that special aroma of gum and print that only
he could recognise, and lifted out the contents.
* * *
2021 Herbert Scrottins had received a letter from the S.P.A.D.
(the State Philatelic Authentification Department) inviting him
to join their team. It was an odd title, and he'd never heard
of them beforewhich was curious, given his obsession with
stampsbut it was a job which would suit him down to the
ground. Now in his late 30's he'd spent the previous 20 years
of his life dealing with the bureaucratic minutiae of the European
Health and Safety Commission. It meant writing a constant stream
of replies, admonishments, guidelines and threats, in the face
of an ever-increasing mass of strict measures designed to protect
the general public from accidents or contamination. Naturally,
he knew every clause and policy that the E.H.S.C. had come up
with and had dealt with each case in the same efficient, methodical
manner, all of which had served to endear him to his employers.
Ironically, however, he'd done himself a disservice in some respects,
as recent promotion meant that he now had to deal with people
directly, either over the vidphone or, far worse, face to face.
Herbert detested confrontation and was pretty uncomfortable with
social interaction at the best of times. So when this extraordinary
new job offer came in, out of the blue, from the S.P.A.D., he
didn't have to think too long before tendering his resignation
with the E.H.S.C..
S.P.A.D. job came with a country cottage, from which he could
work, along with the promise of full retirement benefits and,
best of all, a form of employment which, for Herbert, was practically
indistinguishable from a holiday.
started collecting stamps when he'd joined the E.H.S.C.. Letters
would come in from all over Europe, as much of its bureaucracy
still ran on hardcopy paperwork. With the mail came the stamps.
No one else seemed to be bothered with them, so as long as he
cut them out and sent the rest of the envelope/packaging for compulsory
shredding and recycling, he was allowed to keep them. He was considered
to be a bit of an oddity by his work colleagues, but Herbert didn't
care about that, and they were more than happy for him to dispose
of their envelopes too. Consequently his collection grew at quite
S.P.A.D. were offering him the job of verifying the authenticity
of material that had been acquired for their archive. Apparently
they'd heard about his interest in philately when he'd started
trading and buying stamps with other collectors, and had verified
his excellent credentials with his current employers. The job
would also give him the opportunity to build on his existing collection,
by supplying him with occasional batches of rarer items for his
own use. He would be allowed to trade duplicates with other S.P.A.D.
employees and by developing a private collection it would act
as insurance and a back-up, should anything unforeseen happen
to the main S.P.A.D. archive. The job offer letter stated that
they had carefully selected operatives throughout the world, all
involved in the authentification process and all sharing a mutual
love of these tiny paper antiquities; in what was rapidly becoming
a lost pursuit.
only conditions, should he accept, were that he should assemble
all of the possessions that he wished to take with him, along
with 20 sets of clothing and a bulk supply of any special requirement
items and /or medication. He was a man of simple tastes and excellent
health, so although the conditions were somewhat unconventional,
he sent the acceptance letter to the specified PO Box by return
of post. Three days later a bundle of cash, far in excess of his
needs, appeared on the doormat, along with a congratulatory covering
letter suggesting that he might like to treat himself to a few
luxuries, and outlining the next step.
more days passed and he had assembled all of the requested items,
along with everything else that he wanted to take with him, in
the bedroom of his top floor rented apartment.
he drifted off to sleep that night, he wondered which removal
company the S.P.A.D. would employ. It seemed logical to assemble
everything in one room, it would speed the whole process up. He'd
handed in his notice at work and to his landlord, and with the
promise of fully-furnished accommodation, had donated all of his
furniture to the next occupant. It was all pretty threadbare anyway.
Well, no doubt all would become clear in the morning.
awoke fully refreshed, to his customary 6am alarm. He stretched,
yawned and started running over the mental checklist of things
to do before the removal van arrived. He'd already arranged for
the utilities to be transferred into his landlord's name, once
the final direct debit payments had been made, and the S.P.A.D.
had taken care of all that at the cottage, as well as directly
funding his living expenses. It all seemed too good to be true,
but he wasn't complaining.
seemed quieter than usual that morning. None of the normal Wednesday
morning cacophony of slamming doors, servotrams rumbling past
and the sounds of his disorganised neighbours shouting at each
other as they rushed to get ready for work. He swung his skinny
legs out of bed, bleary-eyed, crossed to the window and flung
open the curtains. He rubbed his eyes, cartoon-like, not believing
what he saw. Gone were the drab, grey rows of identical buildings,
scurrying servotrams, and the morning procession of dejected workers.
Gone were the familiar fumes and pollutants. There, bathed in
the morning sunshine, were fields of wheat and maize, repeating
symmetrically out towards the horizon, where trees dotted the
landscape, and the scent of flowers and fresh rainfall on the
earth. A road ran along the edge of the nearest field, and next
to that a dry-stone wall along the edge of a garden which finished
immediately below him, against the cottage in which he stood.
Herbert made for the bedroom door - still in his night wear -
along the landing and down a set of richly carpeted stairs, briefly
explored a living room and office, before heading into a kitchen,
coming to a stop in front of a hand-painted sign which read:
TO YOUR NEW HOME MR SCROTTINS
sign was propped up against three bottles of good quality wine,
next to a pretty ceramic vase containing a bunch of fragrant sweet
he drew tentatively nearer, he saw an official-looking envelope
lying on the table, addressed to him. He picked it up and examined
the contents as the dizzy confusion gradually subsided. The letter
from the S.P.A.D. contained a full explanation.
Dear Mr Scrottins,
Welcome to you new home.
We hope that you find everything to your satisfaction.
Due to the unusual nature of your employment and the incalculable
value of the material that you will be handling, it was necessary
for our highly trained Reloc team to transfer both you, and
your assembled personal effects, overnight. A light sedative
was employed, in order to maintain your slumber status, and
to preserve total security in the Reloc process.
We apologise for any disorientation or shock that you may
have experienced, but please be assured that it was entirely
necessary, both for your personal safety, and for that of the
project. You will be handling some extremely rare items in the
years ahead. There are several criminal organisations who have
started to deal in stolen stamps, as the rarest authentic artifacts
can change hands for anything up to 50,000 euros each. Consequently
you will appreciate that the whereabouts of our operatives must
remain a closely guarded secret, as a lucrative black market,
coupled with counterfeiting, threatens to undermine the legitimacy
of our archive. Additionally, there is an appalling disregard
for the value of life inherent in the criminal mind, so we have
made every effort to ensure your well-being.
You find yourself in a carefully selected, secure location
and, as promised, all of your domestic needs will be catered
for. Each week a delivery of grocery items will be made directly
to your door. You will not have to concern yourself with shopping
trips, you will simply be required to provide a list of provisions
to be handed over with the previous week's empty container.
Low level public interaction is of paramount importance, if
we are to keep you beyond reach of the tendrils of the criminal
fraternity. Your personal profile falls well within those acceptable
parameters, which is another reason that you were selected.
The only contact you will have will be with the grocery delivery
man and the postman. We would request that you keep verbal exchange
to a minimum and enclose a set of guidelines for you to study.
All financial concerns will be met by us. You are welcome
to alter the arrangement of both the internal layout of your
accommodation, and that of the external horticultural features.
The existing plants, however, have been selected for low maintenance
characteristics. This region also has the added advantage of
high soil fertility and nocturnal rainfall, so it should not
be necessary to irrigate or tend the horticultural features.
Your daily work assignment will be delivered by post. To
assist with the authentification process a full library of philatelic
resource is at your disposal in the office area (including postmark,
gravure/intaglio, letterpress and lithography i.d.), along with
spare magnifying glasses, a microscope, Dandy roller water mark
ident equipment, long and short wave ultraviolet lamps for fluorescence
and phosphor afterglow confirmation, a chromagraph unit and
gum/adhesive analysis micro-sampler. Full instructions will
be enclosed with your first assignment. Stockbook albums for
your personal use are provided on the shelves in the office
area, as is your current personal collection. Bonus enclosures
will be made with the assignments, for you to keep and trade
with. Trading with fellow operatives will be made via specially
designed trading wallets, to be enclosed with your daily assignments
returns, as and when you wish.
If you have any further enquiries or concerns, then please
address them in a letter and enclose it with your daily assignments
returns, as all communication with us will be limited to this
method for security reasons.
Welcome to our team of S.P.A.D. operatives and to your new
carried the letter into his new office, placed it on the desk,
and started to leaf through some of the books in the library.
* * *
was early evening as Herbert taped up the parcel containing that
day's assignment returns, and placed it on the wooden shelf by
the front door. He'd treated himself to a peak at the bonus envelope
and was pleased, as ever, to find some fascinating new items enclosed.
He might go through them in detail later on, but for now it was
time for dinner.
sun had been set for over an hour by the time that he closed the
album he was currently working on. He looked across, with immense
satisfaction, at the steadily growing collection of albums on
the top shelf. Not bad for five years, he thought to himself.
Some of the trading wallets had produced excellent results and
he wondered if a few of the other operatives were as keen, or
as widely versed as he, because once in a while he'd found that
a relatively common stamp had been exchanged for something far
more valuable, but he wasn't complaining.
he climbed the stairs to bed, carrying his customary mug of cocoa,
Herbert reflected on the day. Work had gone well again, executed
with typical pride and attention to detail, and there was the
promise of another exciting bonus enclosure tomorrow.
sipped his cocoa and thought to himself how much he loved his
job, his cottage, his life. It really didn't get any better. He
placed the empty mug on the bedside cupboard, set the alarm clock
for another morning, switched off the light, and settled down
for another night's perfect sleep, lulled by the gentle pattering
of rainfall outside.
* * *
Boo-the-Fourth straightened up and chirruped happily to himself.
Out of his entire collection, the human was one of his favourites.
The challenge of designing a such a complex Reloc scenario had
really paid off with this one. His research into Earth culture
and species characteristics had taken several sheddings to assimilate,
let alone the countless Reloc proposivids that he'd gone through
before finding the ideal subject. It was, as always, all in the
planning. Hoolgrax removed the magnisnoops which enabled him to
observe Herbert's every move, via their connection with the one-way
view dock and via the links with hundreds of microports concealed
throughout the cottage and external system. He checked the Artibioenviromic
Simulator dials, to ensure that atmospheric gas levels, air pressure,
gravitational effects, solar chronometer and seasonal overlay
generator were all functioning at optimum. He briefly replaced
the magnisnoops to confirm that the Simulbot had already changed
into the Postman's outfit, and that the next consignment of stamps
had been correctly processed and parcelled. He was tremendously
proud of his unbroken success rate with all of his exhibits. It
was hard enough to design an Artibioenviromic Simulator program
to keep each one alive, let alone to maintain a local normality
illusion, as well as creating a manageable self-worth system which
would be at once both believable and satisfying to the subject.
glided along the circular wall of his exhibit dome, treating himself
to a quick peek through the magnisnoops at the morning activities
of the lizropod, as it basked in the growing warmth of artificial
himself into the regen shedding cotakin to sleep for his
speciesHoolgrax reflected on the day. The subjects were
all in excellent physical and mental health. His plans were nearing
completion for the next acquisition and should be ready for submission,
via standard etheric transmission, to the Reloc team. It was strange
that no-one else came to see his collection of fabulous exhibits,
but in truth, he really preferred it that way. Flicking off the
glowall, he settled down for another well-earned period of regenerative