Malcolm’s flight for freedom

The tale of the last remaining refusenik

Andy Lambeth

2021-08-04 11 min read

It was summer 2022 and the British Government had virtually achieved its ambitious goal of getting the entire adult population vaccinated against Covid. It was a truly incredible accomplishment and they had surpassed even their own wildest expectations. Everyone was now double jabbed and double happy to be free again. Well almost everyone...

        The idea that all accountants are boring is a ridiculous and out of date stereotype possibly harking back to the days of Monty Python. There are, however, some accountants who would not look too out of place sitting behind a desk in those old comedy sketches. Malcolm was such a man. He would be the first to admit that he lacked exuberance but maybe it would be unfair to say that Malcolm was completely boring. He did have a certain quiet charm and on occasions his dry sense of humour could actually make people laugh. Though when this happened he usually found the pressure of being entertaining too hard to handle and would quickly retreat to his comfort zone of being slightly mundane. Maybe Malcolm’s shyness was the reason he was still a bachelor at the age of fifty-one or maybe he just enjoyed his own company. In fact, Malcolm’s greatest strength was his independence and this was growing stronger as the outside world was becoming more insane. He was content in his own little world of spy novels, gardening and folk music. He was, however, as many introverts are, a little bit obstinate.

        There was a knock on the door. It was eleven o’clock on a Monday morning and so Malcolm knew exactly who it was. He answered the door.

        “Hello old chum,” said the council vaccine hesitancy officer.

        “Hello Joe,” said Malcolm. “Do you want to come in for a cuppa?”

        Joe was now coming round every Monday morning and Malcolm, though a little suspicious at first, had grown quite fond of him. Officially, vaccine hesitancy officers were not supposed to enter people’s houses but Joe didn’t really take his job very seriously. His heart was never in it from the start but it was all they offered him when he was made redundant from his position as a council youth offending officer. Joe was a loveable hard nut with a colourful past and was not entirely comfortable in his new role as an official nosy parker. In his early twenties, Joe had served in the Falklands, where he had been awarded for bravery but he had then found the adjustment to civilian life difficult and ended up doing eighteen months for petty criminal offences. After years of ducking and diving he had found his niche helping youngsters to stay out of prison but then lost the job he loved due to council cutbacks. Joe and Malcolm were like chalk and cheese but the two seemed to hit it off. With the dwindling numbers of vaccine hesitant individuals Joe’s position had become the archetypal cushy council job and now that Malcolm was his only remaining client, it was getting quite farcical. Occasionally, the two men would talk about vaccines, although Joe knew that he would never persuade Malcolm to have one, but mostly they would put the world to rights on anything and everything. On this occasion though, after the tea and biscuits were served, they touched on vaccines.

        “You know there aren’t many of you left now, don’t you?” said Joe.

        “What, accountants?” answered Malcolm, facetiously.

        “You know what I mean,” said Joe. “Do you really want to be the last Japanese soldier left fighting in the jungle after the war is over?”

        “I’m not fighting anyone,” said Malcolm. “If this is a war then I’m serving the enemy tea and biscuits.”

        “You’re just cutting off your nose to spite your face,” said Joe. “Why don’t you just give in and get the jab? It won’t kill you.”

        “Well it might do. But it’s not that so much, it’s just that I’m not a natural joiner-inner. I suppose I’ve always been suspicious of anything that has mass appeal. In any case I’ve never been that interested in all the things they’ve banned me from. I don’t like shopping, or large crowds, or air travel. I’m quite content with things the way they are. I might consider it if they threaten to stop me gardening or if they confiscate my vinyl collection.”

        “Don’t joke about it. It might happen yet,” said Joe. “In any case it’s not just about being banned from things. You could still get seriously ill with Covid.”

        “I’ve got nothing to worry about there. It’s only vaccinated people who get seriously ill from it now.”

        Malcolm had a point. The last unvaccinated person to die of Covid was over six months ago. Realistically, Joe knew he would never win Malcolm over, which is why he had given up a long time ago, but he still liked to come round for the tea and the chats. Besides which, if he officially gave up on Malcolm then he might be out of a job. The conversation changed to caring for roses and the various types of organic mulch which are currently on the market. By that time the bourbon biscuits had all gone and Joe felt it was time for him to go back to the office to write up his report, which normally took him the rest of the week. As usual the two men shook hands and parted very amiably. It was a strange sort of relationship.

        The Prime Minister had organised a private meeting with his Chief of Staff to discuss vaccine hesitancy, or to put it more accurately: lack of vaccine hesitancy. The reality was that the government had been a victim of its own success. When vaccine hesitancy was at 10 percent things were ticking along nicely. Not only could vaccine passports, social distancing and everything else be justified but also the unvaccinated could be blamed for the fact that Covid had not been completely eradicated. But with close to 100 percent vaccine take up, things were getting complicated. No-one knew anyone who had not been vaccinated and so there was no-one to blame for life not yet returning to normal. The government could not simply do away with vaccine passports, as health and safety policy is always a one way track. Besides which, asking the government to scrap them would be like taking your four-year-old boy’s favourite toy away from him.

        The Prime Minister greeted his Chief of Staff and got straight down to business.

        “The public are beginning to think that vaccine hesitancy isn’t a thing anymore. We need to alert people to the fact that the unvaccinated are still spreading the virus,” said the Prime Minister.

        “Well to be truthful there really aren’t enough of them to make any significant difference, Prime Minister,” said the Chief of Staff. “Frankly, the impact of vaccine hesitancy is quite negligible now.”

        “Really? So exactly where are we with vaccine hesitancy at this moment in time?” asked the Prime Minister.

        The Chief of Staff took an i-pad out of his briefcase and opened up his latest vaccine hesitancy spreadsheet. He started running his finger down the list of names.

        “Let’s see now...ah yes, Robert...oh no, he was vaccinated yesterday morning. Cheryl...oh no, she died a week ago. Ah, here we go: There’s a Malcolm Mulligan here - most definitely still not vaccinated. He lives in Kent.”

        “Well surely that can’t be it, can it? Just one man in the whole of the United Kingdom? That’s patently absurd!” exclaimed the Prime Minister.

        “I’m afraid that’s all we have, Prime Minister,” the Chief of Staff solemnly admitted.

        “What on earth are we going to do? We can’t blame all the Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths on just one unvaccinated man from Kent. And how on earth do we justify vaccine passports when there’s only one man in the country who is unvaccinated? We can’t be seen to invest billions of pounds into a project that essentially enables people to prove they are not Malcolm.”

        “Please don’t be disheartened Prime Minister. As long as there is still one refusenik left there is still scope to stigmatise the unvaccinated and keep everyone paranoid. We just need to encourage public abhorrence at the mere notion of being unvaccinated rather than talking about specific numbers. We’ll name and shame Malcolm. People need someone to direct their anger and their frustration at and it’s only fair for us to oblige when they’ve all been through so much over the last two and a half years. They’re not going to be too worried about whether it makes sense or not; they’ll just be happy that they have a scapegoat.”

        “But surely it could backfire on us if we admit to them that Malcolm is the only unvaccinated man in the whole country?”

        “We can be vague about actual numbers. We’ll celebrate the fact that we now have over 99 percent of the population vaccinated but warn everyone that there is still the odd person holding up the proceedings and spoiling things for everybody else. They don’t need to know that that odd person is literally one odd person.”

        “Do we know anything about this Malcolm? Is he a member of any far right groups, or has he been involved in any illegal political activism at all?”

        “Unfortunately not, Prime Minister. On paper, he seems one of the dullest and most boring men ever, but I’m sure our media teams will be able to make everything seem very convincing.”

        That afternoon top advertising agencies were given detailed briefs and sent a mug shot of Malcolm, courtesy of the passport office. The first drafts came back within the week. The Prime Minister’s personal favourite was a grid of nine faces all in squares, with their names underneath and eight of the nine saying ‘VACCINATED’ after the name. The vaccinated faces were cut out against a serene NHS blue background. Malcolm’s face was in the middle square against a bright red background with ‘UNVACCINATED!’ written after his name. The headline read ‘Watch out there’s a super-spreader about!’ and the strapline read ‘Don’t be a Malcolm – get the jab!’ Quite possibly there may have been data protection issues but this was a national crisis. By the end of the week everyone in the country knew Malcolm’s face. Posters were put up on public transport, billboards and in shopping centres. The country began to see Malcolm as the embodiment of what was preventing their return to freedom and they hated him with a vengeance.

        It was Monday morning again and time for Malcolm’s regular visit from the council.

        “You’re really in trouble now aren’t you, old chum?” said Joe as Malcolm answered the door to him.

        “How so?” replied Malcolm in blissful ignorance. Malcolm was in his own little bubble. He had stopped watching television a long time ago, he didn’t care too much for social media and as he was unvaccinated he had not been allowed to go to the shops for the last six months. He had no idea that he was public enemy number one.

        “If it was anyone else, I would think you were kidding me,” said Joe. “Your picture is everywhere! You’re in the papers, on the trains, the buses – everywhere! The government has decided everything is your fault and you are now the most hated man in the country. Congratulations, old chum!”

        “That’s ridiculous,” said Malcolm. “I don’t believe you.”

        He opened up his laptop to check the BBC website and sure enough his own face was staring back at him with the title, ‘Evil Personified’ written above.

        “How very odd,” he said rather nonchalantly.

        “Is that all you can say? You need to make a plan, old chum. Take a look out of your front window.”

        Malcolm peeped behind the curtain to see an angry mob outside his house; all wearing masks and holding various threatening looking objects. Mrs. Dobbs, the retired teacher from number 23, was near the front, holding a garden fork above her head and old Mr. Butler from the corner shop was brandishing a burning torch. He always seemed such a meek and mild sort of a man too. Placards were also on display with various unsavoury suggestions like, “Kill the plague rat!”, “Skin him alive!” and “String him up from the nearest lamp post!” The normally calm Malcolm was quite shaken.

        “Okay, I’ve got a plan,” said Joe, showing the kind of grace under pressure that you might expect from a Falkland’s war hero. “You remember you told me how much you enjoyed your stay in Florida and that you wouldn’t mind retiring there?”

        “The idea is growing on me,” Malcolm said, optimistically.

        “Well routine visa services have resumed for tourist travel into the USA, so you should be able to get an ESTA online within three days. You’ll just need a negative PCR test to travel. An old Falklands pal of mine runs a safe house that’s quite near Gatwick airport. He’s as mad as a box of frogs but I’d trust him with my life. I’ll drive you there and you can book everything you need from his place. When you get to Florida hand yourself over to the authorities and claim political asylum.”

        “How do we get past the lynch mob?” asked Malcolm.

        “Don’t worry about that lot. I’ll just tell them I’m taking you to get jabbed. They’ll still be angry but if we’re lucky we’ll get away with a couple of rotten eggs thrown at us.”

        “Why are you doing all this for me?” asked Malcolm, rather touched.

        “Let’s just say I owe you one for all the cups of tea and biscuits,” replied Joe.

        “What about your job? Surely they’ll make you redundant without me to chase?”

        Joe laughed. “Well you’ll be no good to me dead! Anyway, maybe they’ll let me take early retirement and I’ll join you in Florida. This country is screwed.”

        The two men took the long walk from Malcolm’s front door to Joe’s car. Joe confidently announced to the crowd that Malcolm was going to get jabbed and as he predicted there was a bit of jostling and some abusive language but no major violence. Malcolm’s heart was in his mouth as they walked through the angry mob and his eyes were glued to Mrs. Dobbs’ garden fork as her chubby little arms waved it back and forth. With Joe by his side Malcolm felt a bit like an unpopular politician being ushered to safety by his bodyguard. He let out a sigh of relief as they got into the car and locked the doors. There was some banging on the sides of the car and rotten eggs were thrown at the windows but they were in relative safety now. Initially all Malcolm felt was sadness at leaving his glorious roses and his record collection behind but then he started to think about how his new life in Florida might unfold. For the first time in decades he was actually starting to get excited about life and he felt empowered by his new, glamorous image as a man on the run. Things would be very different in Florida. He wasn’t boring Malcolm anymore; he was Malcolm the political fugitive.

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