A Short Story
L. L. L. S. T. L. I. L — shit, was that S? Sod it, nobody will know. T. T. B. L. S. God, they count fast. How do they do that? If I tried that there’d be ballots and blood all over the floor. S. L. S.
I lose focus and look out over the sea of perms flicking ballot papers across the trestle tables like low-rent Vegas dealers. At the far end of the parquet floors, there’s a basketball hoop with a pristine basket hanging down. This isn’t basketball country, to put it lightly.
I dash down another few letters and try to keep up as the pile of leftover papers whittles down. Ours is a Labour box. Not surprising — AB is rammed with students and lefties. They’re not exactly the flat-capped working class, but a vote’s a vote. I look over at the next table where Tim looks grim faced at the result from LB, and wiggles his stubby pencil over the tally sheet in a way that suggests a long string of ‘S’s.
The pile finishes, and I shuffle round the gaggle of excited Liberals at the end of the row to collect Tim’s sheet. 850 ‘S’, 326 ‘L’ and a few dozen Ts. About par for the polls.
Much like the urge to swear when you go live on radio, the job of the counting agent is filled with temptations. The piles of ballots are unsecured at the end of the table, in neat bundles of a hundred. All it would take would be one of those expensive floor fans you get in gyms, and the whole process would be ruined. Every time I go to a count — especially when it’s going badly — I wonder how far I could get stuffing a couple of bundles down my pants and making a run for it. The police on the door wouldn’t shoot me, surely. But they might hit me. It’s probably best not to risk it.
I remember hearing from Olga at our last branch meeting that when she lived on Skye in the 1950s, they used to have to take the ballots from the islanders to the mainland in a boat. What if there was a storm? What if the Russians decided to strike a blow against British democracy? I don’t think it ever happened, but it seemed risky. Now they use a helicopter, so I’m told. We got bored at work and called the Electoral Commission once to ask.
I collect in the rest of the sheets from our five other tellers hanging around the various tables. We’ve had to get them all cleared in advance, so in true party fashion one of them hasn’t turned up. I glance at my phone. Four missed calls. Geoffrey Walton. 26 minutes ago. I lock the phone.
I take a seat on a long, low bench, the kind we used to use as staging during humiliating school plays. It isn’t quite the same school hall where I’d suffered the indignity of being cast as a narrator three years in a row. That’s down the road. I tell myself it happened because everyone who lives there is a bloody Tory. Not prejudice, I’ve seen the data.
I quickly add up the tallies on my phone.
Henson (Labour) — 18,627
Coombes (Liberal Democrat) — 17,986
Yang (Conservative) — 4,953
Edgeworthy (Green) — 2,615
Brailsford (UKIP) — 1,459
Bush (Independent) — 158
I suck in my lips. It’s tight. We’ve missed half the results from Wentworth because Geoff’s been off bird watching or something. And we didn’t get a real sense from the postal vote opening the other day. Everyone goes along to that and pretends they can remotely tell what’s going on from the papers being opened face down. They lie, and tell their party what they want to hear. Everyone goes home happy. It’s like a warm-up for the real thing.
I glance over at Alice, who’s undone her jacket button, and is pacing the three point line near some folded away climbing equipment at the far wall. Her rosette flaps limply on her left lapel. She’s on the phone, and not looking pleased. I suppose at some point I’ll have to check on the exit poll, but not yet. I can’t bear it.
“Mind if we take a seat?” says a kind elderly voice. I nod, too queasy to speak. It’s an old Chinese lady in a blue rosette. I, possibly offensively, assume she’s the Tory candidate’s wife. He’s somewhere in the hall, looking bored. He knows, of course, that he can’t win, and hasn’t really tried. But they have to put someone up to the task for the sake of appearances, so for David Yang it’s a few cancelled business trips, a quick photo with the PM, then five weeks being heckled in school halls in the North. Polite heckling, of course — this is a university town.
I realise that Mrs. Yang is blatantly peering at my tallies. It hardly matters. We’ll find out soon enough anyway.
“Have you seen the exit poll?” says Tim, tensely, approaching on my other side.
“No” I say. A moment of silence passes. Tim fumbles with his phone, then shows me.
“Fuck” I say.
“Fuck” says Tim. Mrs. Yang leans over me to take a look.
“Oh. Eff.” she says.
We cross the hall to speak to Alice. By now they’re arranging the bundles in big towers near the council’s chief executive, who’s poring over a sheet of paper with the same speech he’s given for the last seventeen years, exposing the bald spot in the middle of his greying hair. He still doesn’t look as though he’s remembered the formula.
“Have you seen the exit poll?” we say simultaneously as Alice comes off the phone.
“Yeah. Fuck” she says. “How’s it looking here?”
“Too close to call” we answer in unison. I showed Tim the sheets on our way over.
“Fuck” she says.
“Have you spoken to HQ?”
“Yeah. Got an earful about the line just now” she says. “Keep it local, thank the police, thank the council, thank the bloody Girl Guides, just keep it off the national stuff until we know what’s going on”.
“Why couldn’t they Whatsapp you?”
“They did. I muted it. Everyone’s pissed. Celebratory Champagne in the suburbs, Commiseratory Guinness in the heartlands. And here I am on the bloody mineral water and we’re still not finished.”
“It’s tap water” I add helpfully.
The Chief Exec is on his feet. A result? No. He’s going away from the podium. The interns from Sky look bored, downing their Red Bull behind the network camera. They train it on him. I shoot them a glare. How many lip readers are up at 4am?
“Come on, you’re the agent” says Alice. I follow her dutifully over to the Chief Exec. The other candidates gather round. James Coombes in his red braces and cloying orange rosette. My sleep-addled brain thinks he looks like a show jumper without a horse. Yang yawns, in a standard-issue blue tie and grey waistcoat. Alice taps her feet nervously in the red shoes she brought as a nod to the brand. Otherwise she wears a black business suit.
“I’ll warn you now, nobody goes home happy tonight” wheezes the Chief Exec, his glasses dangling from a chain round his neck. “We’re currently looking at a tie.”
“Between who?” asks Yang, but I know the answer. I’ve got the data.
“These two, so you can stand down for now” smiles the Chief Exec, pointing at Alice and Coombes. “We’re doing a bundle recount now, so you might want to get a coffee in case it turns into the long haul”.
“Bloody bundle recount” I recount to Tim as we sip revolting machine coffee in the cinder block foyer, away from the noise of the count.
“Don’t suppose they’ve messed up and we’ve actually won by a thousand” says Tim. “I saw that happen in reverse once. Quickest drop in mood I’ve seen since Kennedy asked to feel the wind in his hair.”
“Bet they go to full recount” I say. It’s unlikely the bundles will be more than 100 votes out. “Bloody Geoff. He could have done them for a few miscounts and we’d be over the line.”
“Are you mad? Geoff? He’d have them knock one off our pile too out of ‘fairness’”.
“Yeah, apparently it’s ‘not democratic’ to steal fake newspapers out of letterboxes”.
“If anything, we’re doing a public service”.
A pause passes between us.
“Did you vote today?” I ask.
“Did a postal weeks ago” says Tim. “Why?”
“Just asking” I say. “Why ‘why’?”
“Just seems odd to ask unless the concept of not voting was on your mind” he says.
At this point, Alice crashes through the double doors, makeup running.
“I can’t take this, I can’t bloody take this” she says, dabbing at her eyes with a scrunched up tissue I hand her out of my jacket pocket. I can’t remember if it’s used, and decide not to mention it.
“Have they gone to full recount?” I ask. She shrugs.
“Might need you to go back in and fly the flag while I redo my eyes” she sniffs. “They want you to have a look over some spoilt ballots.”
I nod, and head back into the hall. The Chief Exec is standing over a meagre pile of badly folded ballot papers and postal votes, with the ragged trousered servants of democracy gathered around.
“I’m the agent” I explain unnecessarily. He nods.
He shows us a ballot paper with an elaborate cock and balls drawn across the list of names.
“Well, it’s pointing towards my name” says Coombes.
“That’s because you’re at the top of the ballot” says Yang. “If it was flaccid it would be pointing to me.”
“Nobody draws a flaccid cock and balls” I point out. “It’s spoilt. Next”. The others nod.
We are shown a postal vote where unmistakably student handwriting spells out “Ceci n’est pas un vote”, written neatly in the Labour box. It’s my time to shine.
“Well it’s a clear mark of intent in our box” I begin.
“It literally says ‘this isn’t a vote’” butts in Coombes, indignantly.
“Course the bloody liberal knows French” growls Brailsford, his Falklands medal shining on his chest. I am glad of this nascent red-purple alliance. All eyes go to Yang, who frowns.
“Well it’s more in your box than anyone else’s” says the Tory candidate in an uncharacteristic act of charity. One-nil to me.
Another ballot paper with a giant cross studiously drawn across all the boxes.
“If we scanned the ballot in, we could add up the pixels in each box and see who has most” suggests the independent candidate. Everyone ignores him, too tired even for the fun of putting him down.
“Spoilt” we say in unison.
It’s amazing the things people think constitute a valid mark on a ballot paper. One of the most maddening is people signing their ballot paper, which under the rules means automatic invalidation. This bothers me for three reasons.
Firstly, the principle of the secret ballot was fought and died for, so these morons are offending the memory of the dead.
Secondly, you could write any name, so the charge that it’s a mark by which the voter can be identified only holds true if you have changed your name by Deed Poll to Baron Von Cockwaffle, and written it in the Tory box.
And thirdly, your vote isn’t really secret anyway. The ballots are marked with a serial number that can be checked against the records taken at the polling station. I don’t imagine it’s a common practice, but apparently they used it in the fifties to root out communist spies. I would counter that they can’t have been very good spies if they couldn’t stop themselves backing the old CPGB.
After a few of these maddening examples, we move onto a whole range of characters other than an X which people have used to indicate their preferences. Once the full range of emojis has been argued over, we come out five votes to four in our favour, with one vote going to Yang.
“Five-four” I say triumphantly as I pass back through to the foyer. A newly made up Alice and a very rough looking Tim are watching the coverage on Tim’s phone.
“It’s a tie” says Tim.
“Steady on, they’ve only just finished the bundles” I say.
“No, I mean, nationally. 280 apiece, and the odds and sods don’t add up to enough either way. Unless you’re planning on bringing in the Shinners, and, well, good luck.”
“Why don’t we send some heavily armed men in balaclavas to their houses” I suggest. Neither of them laugh.
“The Chief Exec wants you” says one of the Sky interns from the door, who has clearly abandoned her camera in a stunning commitment to broadcast journalism. She looks at Alice, who dusts herself off and heads through.
“I’d better…” I say.
“You’d better” nods Tim.
I finish off the words “Full recount” before the Chief Exec can get there, and an audible groan goes up from the assembled micro-crowd. I glance around at the baggy eyes and tired faces, and wonder if there’s ever a room more sleep deprived than these 650 overnight beacons of democracy. Perhaps an American offshore jail. And they’ve got more flags.
I pace around the room, one earphone in, listening to Dimbleby’s soothing tones fail to provide a strepsil to the parliamentary sore throat we’ve ended up with. A tie. Unprecedented. Last time it happened was when Heath asked who governed, and 31 million voters gave a shrug that registered on the Richter Scale. Wilson and Heath. Imagine that kind of stature now.
The old ladies they’ve drafted back in for the recount should get paid extra for their time, but won’t. Last I heard they were on a flat fee, and the council wasn’t keen on even doing an overnight count. I suppose for the sake of their reputation, they’ll now be grateful we pressured them into it. Their hands fly like electoral martial artists, even on this slow, careful recount only dropping to just about visible.
We aren’t bothering with more tallies, but the Liberals are still at it, old men in cardigans and seven-foot students with curly hair almost at nose level with the tables, eyes peeled for errors. Errors come there none.
Dawn starts to break by the time the Chief Exec calls us back over and the orange-brown light-polluted cloud layer over the industrial estate outside dissolves into inky blue, soon to fade into uniform grey.
“So I’m afraid there’s bad news” he sighs. “We’ve recounted five times and it’s not shifted. I’m not taking any more requests. We’ve got to call it. Country’s waiting.”
“I can’t remember the last time this happened” I say, shaking my head.
“1885” chirps up a Lib Dem at the back of Coombes’ entourage.
“So what now?”
“The law says I can use any method I deem sufficiently fair to decide the outcome” says the Chief Exec. “Anyone got a coin?”
“Here you go” says Coombes, forking over a quid.
“You can’t use his coin” I say. “What if he weighted it?”
“I didn’t come into this election intended to draw” he replies. But I’ve set off the slightly paranoid independent candidate, who continues an argument my heart isn’t truly in.
“Oh, fine” says the Chief Exec. “You, can we have a coin?”
It seems a rude way to address the Conservative candidate, but he knows, as do we all, that he’s going home with more than a quid tonight. He’ll be off to a safe seat next time. That’s the system.
“Heads or tails?” asks the Chief Exec, looking at Alice. “Ladies first, of course”. She recoils slightly at the casual sexism, but ignores it.
“So tails for Mr. Coombes” says the Chief Exec.
“If it lands on the side, do I win?” asks Yang. We all pretend to laugh. He pretends to wave it off.
There is a pause. The coin is glued to his palm, so it seems. The milliseconds pass like millennia. The coin flips.
“Well, you win some, you lose some” says Tim to an inconsolable Alice.
“Well no, you don’t” I point out from the front seat, as we pull up at a pointless five o’clock in the morning red light. As with recovery from my worst student nights out, we’re going to the 24 hour Tesco before we go home. “That was rather the point of this evening.”
Alice continues to sob from the back seat.
“Come on, there’s always a next time. No more canvassing for a while. Save the shoe leather, eh?” says Tim. This does not seem to help.
“We did all we could” he says. “We all voted for you, right?”
She blubs through a forced nod.
“Right?” says Tim. I flash back through the day. The 5am leaflet drop. The board running at the student village. The last minute effort on the Don’t Knows. The rush to the count. The crisp, perfectly sealed, entirely forgotten postal vote envelope half-wedged under the toaster.
“Green light” blubs Alice. I silently drive on.