“For Their Own Ends” by Joel Lane

This 2,100 word story appeared in Black Static #23 and marked Joel Lane’s fifth appearance in the magazine, and I think I’m right in saying that it’s his shortest contribution to date.

Way back when, I wrote a flash fiction called “Triage”. I can’t remember if I got the story published or if it’s still lurking on the hard drive of the computer that died, but that’s beside the point. Triage is a procedure whereby, in emergency conditions, doctors determine the order of priority for treating patients. In my story the twist was that the person deciding wasn’t a doctor, but a finance graduate who checked their credit rating rather than assessing medical needs. And this is pretty much where Lane’s story is coming from, though he’s a much better writer than I am.

Though it only becomes apparent with hindsight, the title very clearly states the story’s agenda (and it is an agenda), that things are being done not for the patient’s good but for other, less altruistic reasons.

In the first section, Barry has a heart attack, with ominous references to something ‘he’d read in the papers that disturbed him’, though now he can’t recall what it was. And he is also close to the crematorium when this occurs.

Barry wakes in a private hospital, where the very first thing he hears is a woman saying ‘”I can’t turn it on unless you pay up front. Do you have a credit card?”‘. It turns out that she’s talking about pay per view TV, but the seed is planted, the idea that this is a facility where money matters. Remembering his recent past, Barry realises that his own actions contributed to this heart attack – he had been part of the apparatus for ‘downsizing’ at his old place of employment, laying off other employees ‘to make room for the new MD’s friends’. And naturally, management being inherently treacherous, his quisling status was rewarded with a P45, but ‘Losing his own job had been almost a relief, given how things had broken down.’

As the story progresses, we get various other signs that not all is well here. An old man walks the wards with a PDA in his hand, not a doctor but ‘the head of the finance company that’s running the hospital now’, and he leaves banknotes on the chest of an ‘unconscious’ patient (inflation has rendered Charon’s obols insufficient). Medical stafff are sent on a ‘training course in market awareness’, while untrained and indifferent part timers take over their roles. The only food on the menu without a price tag is beans on toast.

Barry considers calling his friends but then ‘Thinking about the office, the union. If he’d kept in touch with those people, maybe he’d have more friends now.’

There are hints that blood is being taken out of patients, not given to them, bringing to mind the image of capitalism and market forces as a form of vampirism. Hints also that, for practical reasons, the medical facility is near to the crematorium, with the hospital heated by the burning bodies.

Finally, in a section beginning ‘There was no light’, Barry has what appears to be an out of body or near death experience, wandering down corridors in which he sees dead people stacked up like firewood and finds a lecture hall where the doctors and nurses are all applauding the new regime, while the dead are ‘unable to get through or be heard’. And, to force home the point, ‘At that moment, he realised it didn’t matter how many of you there were. Without a voice, you were lost.’ For voice, read trade union.

And to further emphasise the point, in the afterword we’re told the story ‘was written in response to the current Government’s White Paper on health policy’.

I generally enjoy Joel Lane’s work and pretty much share his politics, particularly the fear that under the current incumbent of #10 the health service will only be of benefit to those with a couple of million salted away in offshore accounts and Dave’s personal number on speed dial.

All the same I didn’t really like this story, and that’s because it so obviously felt like a ‘message’ story, like I was being preached at.

Yes, politics should, and inevitably will, inform a writer’s work, but I’m not so keen when it appears to be the driving force behind a particular story, where the politics eclipse the narrative, and sadly that’s the case here.

Lane undoubtedly has the ability to write a moving piece on this theme, one that will catch up readers’ emotion and sway hearts and minds without beating people over the head. Contrarily this, while of course beautifully written and with some striking imagery, as you’d expect of the author, felt like something dashed off in the full heat of a moment of moral indignation and was about as subtle as an advert for the Socialist Workers Party complete with a chorus line of Tolpuddle Martyrs singing The International.

It’s hard to see who the story’s intended audience is. For those who share Lane’s concerns, “For Their Own Ends” is simply preaching to the converted, with the bonus of feeling validated because we didn’t vote for Dave and Nick. Those who beg to differ, will dismiss it as little more than glaringly obvious polemic masquerading as horror fiction.

In the end, the title seems to me every bit as much an indictment/criticism of the story itself as it is of Tory party policy.

Still a lot better than “Triage” though. That I can say without fear of contradiction.

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