STEVE FROM THE NORTH
by Jack Frayne-Reid
Robbie did not consider himself first and foremost a northerner, but a human being. Just because he hailed from the north of the country did not, he thought, set him apart significantly from his peers. They still shared a cultural understanding, but then nearly everybody did in the modern age; even the north wasn’t exempt from the process of globalisation. He resented the way the north of England was portrayed in the media as a cesspit of poverty and depravity, and fumed at poncy southern writers who substituted the condescending “fook” for “fuck.” His degree in Film had led him away geographically from his northern heritage for the first time, but in his studies he had encountered the predominantly British genre of social realism. Upon viewing a social realist classic, greyly resplendent with the sorry trappings of hardship, his cruel and austere World Cinema lecturer assured the lecture hall that “that was definitely set in the north.” Robbie hailed from a well-to-do middle-class neighbourhood in Shotley Bridge, and thought that the manner in which the north was typically represented by outsiders let his ilk fall to the wayside of any notions of northernism.
“Bye, mam. Love you,” Robbie kissed his mother goodbye as he left the house for Shotley Bridge station.
“Love you too, son. Try not to drink too much this term, won’t you?” she called after him.
“And eat well!”
Robbie boarded the southbound train. He cast a mildly affectionate glance at Shotley Bridge as it disappeared into the horizon, then opened a bottle of vodka he’d bought at the station. He looked around the compartment. Craning his neck slightly, Robbie noticed that the woman sitting diagonally from him was watching the new TV show, Moral Panic, on a tablet device. The guy directly across from him caught his eye and smiled gummily.
“You gannin’ south, son?”
“What’s ya name, son?”
“Gi’z’a swig o’ that piss.” Robbie obliged, letting him pour a few generous dollops of liquor down his throat. The man gasped with relief.
Robbie pulled into the station a few blocks from his halls some hours later. His compatriot must really have held more distaste for a place the further south it is down the map, because he had slammed the population of Leeds as “soft” before bitterly dismounting the train at Sheffield, which was “full of pansies”. Robbie would’ve preferred to dissect the north-south dichotomy in a manner less adversarial. He deposited his bags in his flat and headed back out again to satisfy his appetite.
A private number called his phone whilst he was in the waiting lobby of Pizza Town;
“Yo, sorry man, your number’s not showing up on my phone. Who’s this?”
“It’s…Steve.” Steve had a deep and slow voice, delivering words with a throaty crackle as if with great deliberation. His vowel sounds lasted an eternity, his pronunciation of his name phonetically amounting to “Stieeyuv.”
“Do I…know a Steve?”
“You remember me, Robbie.”
“You remember me from…the north.”
“Er, aye. What’s your name again?”
“…from the north.”
“Phil, is that you, mate?”
“Nee, it’s St-“
“From the north.”
“Right. Let me guess – South Shields.”
“Watch the fook out, son.”
Steve hung up. Robbie was untroubled by what he assumed was a prank call, as he had no acquaintances by the name of Steve, and thought that it sounded enough like an exaggerated parody of a northern man that it was probably just some of his friends from university poking fun at his “Third World” background. His worries allayed by drink and light entertainment, he rested his head for the night.
It was well into the small hours when his phone rang again;
“What?” he hissed in his delirium.
“It’s Steve. Where’s me fooking money?” Steve spoke quicker and more aggressively. His consonants hit harder; he almost sounded Welsh.
“Fuck off, it’s 3AM” he moaned “What money?”
“Me fooking money! You want me come down from north and fix you up proper?”
“Yo, calm down, man. Your name still means nothing to me. Tell me about yourself, at least…”
Steve appeared placated. “Aye, I were a miner…that were before Thatcher. Since then I been in t’mcat graft.”
“Is that what this is about? That’s bullshit. I don’t use mcat anymore. And when I did, I didn’t buy it off anyone called Steve.”
“Me town ‘ad running water and the lot…‘course, that were before Thatcher. See, all northerners possess a remarkable singularity. They are one and the same; poor bred, low on intellect, even worse manners…I’m Steve…” his timbre escalated “…from the north! Yer fookin’ neck-deep in debt, ya bastard. Watch your fookin’ back, I’m comin’ down!”
Robbie became increasingly paranoid. He called up his mother, but she didn’t pick up the phone. He messaged a couple of his more narcotic-minded northern friends on Facebook to ask if they knew anybody called Steve, but they too were being slow responding to his queries. He barely sat through his lecture; anxious, twitching, unable to think of anything but his mysterious tormentor. His usually sprightly demeanour became all the more hangdog as he wandered back to his accommodation. Waving his electronic key over the lock, he lumbered into the courtyard, drooping eyelids hunching him towards the floor.
His phone rang again as he was waiting for the lift. It was an anonymous number.
“Aye, Robbie.” Robbie gulped… “It’s fooking Steve from North.”
Something was not right. “Sorry, but, are you putting on a Russian accent?”
“…vot?” Steve seemed flummoxed.
“…or German? I don’t get it.”
“Been…reading Dostoyevsky…” he mumbled. “Shit.”
The call lasted for eighteen seconds. As the lift opened, Robbie joined the ranks of the flummoxed, thankful it was empty. The lift ascended. Once again, the phone rang. Robbie contemplated not answering, but curiosity got the better of him.
“What the fuck do you want now?”
“I have information for you concerning…what it is I cannot say.” It was the Russian.
“Are you him? Are you St-“
“Hush, you dafty. Meet me in hour of time in Megamarket car park, fifth storey. Good architectural design. Look behind mirror and you see of what I speak. Goodbye, comrade.”
The Steve impersonator – what’s to say, Robbie’s mind raced, that all the Steves weren’t impersonators, although of whom he didn’t know – had been as enigmatic as his presumed employer on the phone. What’s more, what he’d said about the mirror implied that he had been in Robbie’s flat. Robbie’s eyes darted between his two mirrors – the one fixed to the wall, and the smaller one that he’d brought down himself, which lay in a pile of detritus on the floor. He hoped for his own good that it wasn’t the one that was fixed to the wall. He’d try the loose one first, anyway.
Carved into the back of the mirror was STEVE, which didn’t provide any new revelations. Whoever this Russian is, thought Robbie between desperate bursts of fear, he doesn’t one-hundred percent seem to know what he’s doing.
“I am Deep Throats!” bellowed the Russian, his voice reverberating through the sparsely packed multi-storey car park. “I have intel. I spill beans on whole Steve operation. You Mr. Robbie?”
“Aye. I’m on the other side of the floor though, so maybe quit shouting ‘til I’m over?” Robbie drew closer to the Russian, who leant against a beam smoking a cigarette. He wore a trench coat, and looked more like a polar bear than anyone he had ever seen.
“Robbie, Robbie, glad to make acquaintance.” He rolled the R’s in Robbie’s name. They shook hands, and Deep Throats gave him a painfully muscular hug.
“Aren’t you worried people might hear what we’re talking about? This is supposed to be a top secret thing, right?”
“No, no, these good people. What you want to know?”
“Oh yes, Steve…from North! First, let me tell you what Deep Throats do.” He slammed his fist onto his chest “I am security expert! I spend many years undercover as Jewist, reading all of Protocol of Elder Zions and learning ancient art of Jewism, but now Britain government assign me closer to home. They make me work for organisation called STEVE, that is…wait, I knew this bit would be tricky…”
He fumbled in the deep pockets of his trench coat for something, eventually producing a small scrap of paper.
“STEVE is acronym meaning, um… Southern Trade Encouragement of Value Enterprise.”
Deep Throats seemed pleased with himself. Robbie stood staring at him for an uncomfortable period of time.
“And what the fuck does that mean?”
“Name confuse me too, ‘cause there no ‘of’ in ‘STEVE’. What it about is making north a better place. More money-making place.”
“Like…how? There hasn’t been industry in the north for years.”
“My friend, Robbie…the place you come from is being torn down as we speak.”
“What?” Robbie grew exasperated. “What are you saying? Shotley Bridge? Consett?”
“No, no. I am so sorry, Robbie, but you do not think big enough.”
“Where did Steve say he was from?”
“South Sh–“ he spluttered “The north?!”
“Yes, government is working with very powerful, rich London men to create big shop centre, spa and golf course where north used to be. It violate all sorts of human rights, but they say it worth it ‘cause of tourist money – same reason they keep royal family.”
“So they’re…they’re privatising the north?”
“You have good brain, Robbie. Take memory stick; there is serious documents on here to spill more beans on you…also great documentary on Egyptian Pyramids, four stars, amazing 3D effects – anyone who tells you they’re built by aliens is a fucking idiot, ok!”
Digging into the leaked documents back at his flat, Robbie began to fear the worst. He had received no word from his family and friends anywhere in the north. Perhaps the process had begun. Emotionally exhausted enough that the prospect of all the reading was daunting, he started with an AVI video.
“Hello, ladies and gentlemen, I’m Sir Charles Hattersley. Allow me to introduce you to the STEVE programme,” announced a greying former Yuppie who exuded the aura of uncut business “The Southern Trade Encouragement of Value Enterprise…well, I know that’s a mouthful, but the Southern Trade Organisation was really thinking acronym-first with STEVE. See, Steve is your friendly, everyday northern guy, who works hard and, er, y’know, is a cheeky northerner and whatnot. But sadly, there’s not much use for Steve in today’s world. Steve used to work at the factories, but half the board at STEVE know what it’s like to have to lay off all your northern factory workers. Steve used to work in the mines, but unfortunately Steve’s usefulness expired in that area too. What can be done, you ask, to bring Steve into the 21st century? Well, very little, I’m afraid. Perhaps through some fault of his own, through some inherent lack of entrepreneurial initiative, Steve has become dependent on a lifestyle that is unsustainable in the present economy. Consequently, he also cannot sustain the property he has been allotted – half the country – to its full potential. We must guide the northern man into the modern era. Just as the Native Americans could not have created modern America at their rate of development, the northern negligence demands we intervene. We must monetise the north. We must create a neon-lit beacon of western civilisation where a grim post-industrial wasteland once stood. And, my friends, we have the resources to do such a thing. The responsibility, however, also falls to us to reallocate the people of the north, and find a way of integrating them into society as the system allows. Property values will rise immeasurably; there will be luxury condos for miles, with the most elaborate technology to combat the vicious northern weather – a cost of living far beyond the means of modest men like Steve. Of course, menial workers will be required to man the shops and whatnot, so those who fit the profile will – with some minor, uh, elocution lessons – be provided with accommodation in return for their labour…”
There was a knock on Robbie’s door. Shaking, he paused the video and cautiously went to answer it. He asked “Who is it?” as he opened the door.
“It’s your weed guy.”
“I don’t sm-” Two men barged the door open. One of them jammed a gun into Robbie’s nose and pushed him onto the floor. The other went straight for his laptop. He rubbed his nose; “And who might you be?”
“We’re the GCHQ. We’ve been keeping tabs on you. Hasn’t been hard, your social media presence is phenomenal.”
“I don’t know anything!” protested Robbie.
The GCHQ guy resumed the video;
“…accommodation which will, of course, be fairly equal to the quality of living of the, uh…camps the rest of the northerners will be situated in.”
He paused it again, and looked over at Robbie with disdain.
Robbie could tolerate no such moral superiority; “…CAMPS?”
“Don’t know what he’s talking about.” Said one.
“No idea.” The other added.
“Right, let’s get down to business. You got a hammer?”
The hairs on the back of Robbie’s neck stood up. “A hammer?”
“We need you to smash up your hard drive.”
“But all my coursework’s on there.”
“No buts. Get the hammer and smash it.”
“I’ve already sent it to Wikileaks.”
“I don’t care if you’ve sent it to the pope. Our orders were to come to your residence and symbolically destroy physical copies of virtual documents.”
“I don’t have a hammer.”
“Shite. What have you got?”
The burlier of the two GCHQ men grabbed the skateboard from Robbie’s huge pile of detritus and began to menacingly wield it.
“Fucking great,” sighed Robbie “now I’m going to fail my course.”
“We’ve been watching you for months” said the GCHQ thug “you would’ve failed anyway. There’s no coursework on this hard drive.”
He brought the skateboard down repeatedly upon the laptop. After a few rounds of beating it lay in shards of technological redundancy, and the computer assassin tore off the back side and started smashing the hard drive itself into submission. He then set upon the memory stick, which took quite a long time because its miniscule size meant he kept missing. He’d irked Robbie.
“How come a guy like you works for the GCHQ anyway? Too soft for MI5?”
“Smart guy. Fuck you.”
“Do you work for STEVE?”
“Steve…I don’t know a Steve.” He turned to his partner. “D’you know a Steve?”
“I don’t know a Steve.”
“Guess neither of us know Steve.”
“Oh, you guys are serious bullshitters.”
“Right!” yelled the thug, grabbing Robbie “you’re a fucking pain in the arse.” He held Robbie in a headlock, gesturing to his partner to open the door “Let’s take this northern cunt to the police station and show him some real southern hospitality.”
Robbie yelled as they dragged him into the lift and out into the courtyard.
“GCHQ business,” the one who wasn’t holding Robbie told the staring onlookers, clarifying “We’re a security agency.”
They left the student accommodation block, dragging their prisoner towards their slick black SUV. Robbie struggled with the GCHQ thug. The other clicked the door open with his keys. As the car made its peep! sound of awakening, the dull, fat clanking of gunfire resounded twice, thudding into the brains of the two agents. Deep Throats shoved his gun into his pants and beckoned Robbie to the vacant vehicle.
“Fuck…fucking hell…you shot them both…JESUS FUCKING HELL!”
Deep Throats scrunched his brow as he hit the gas. “What is matter?”
“…shot them in the head just like that…” Robbie moaned.
“Listen, I have good news. Russia is joining war.”
“…war? What war?”
“Civil war. Just broke out. Russia funds North. Do you not read news?”
“I…don’t have a laptop anymore.”
“It is good news for all who not want north to be shopping centre.”
“But don’t you work for the government? Don’t you work for STEVE?”
“I works for noble leader Vladimir Putin and no other man! Mr Putin says north has democratic right to secede from Great Britain after such appalling treatment.” Deep Throats was a double agent. This explained some aspects of his peculiar behaviour, but only some. “Dude, did you watch that pyramid document–” His voice trailed off as blood began to trickle down his forehead. Robbie noticed a hole in the windscreen. The car veered off the road into a tree.
He awoke on the floor of a police interrogation cell. He had been patched up by a medical professional, but he didn’t remember it. A trio of further professionals were looking over him; a cop of some sort, a politician he recognised from the times he had watched the news, and Sir Charles Hattersley, the head of STEVE.
“I’d never expect this kind of nerve from a British citizen…” tutted Hattersley “not even a northerner.”
“Disgusting.” Spat the politician, his bald head purple with rage. “Giving information to Vladimir Putin…”
“No, sir,” Robbie began “Vladimir Putin gave information to me.” There was a silence. “Aren’t you a northerner yourself, sir?”
“Shut the boy up!” he boomed at the cop, who slapped Robbie around the face.
“This isn’t ethical! Where’s my lawyer?”
“You’re in here under the Terrorism Act,” the cop hollered. “you’re not entitled to one!”
The politician asked the cop; “How long have we had him here?”
“Eight and a half hours, sir. Gotta release him soon.”
“He only just regained consciousness!” protested the politician “Our window for interrogation has not been opportune.”
“He has compromised STEVE’s entire scheme,” said Hattersley “Everybody we know has been looking for something to do with the north for decades. STEVE are the first lot to do anything about it. The North has always posed a problem…in that it takes up half the country, and there’s not really anything of note there. Seemed a shame to waste it all…”
“You’re a fascist!” screamed Robbie “a real Nazi!”
“Let me tell you, boy, that I stroke the sword of my enemy. How dare you call me a fascist? STEVE is a democratic movement comprised of a cross-section of the wealthiest men and women in a tiny enclave of central London. Every day I am working on new solutions; new advancements for society. Right now I have experts investigating the possibility that it might save money if our architects worked with fractions instead of decimals. This is what I am about: maximum efficiency, maximum business. Thank God for Margaret Thatcher, because she reminded this land that in business, not everybody can win, and we’re all the better for it.”
“And why did you target me?”
“We, ” he coughed “’targeted’ you for the same reasons we targeted many like you. Because we need everybody in the civilised parts of the country to believe that the north is exactly as we tell them so we can tear it down and gentrify its ashes. You’re not enough of a degenerate. You compromise the vision of the north that we will profit from. You are a degenerate, but a middle-class one.” He turned to his two associates; “I’ve seen enough.”
Hattersley left the room in disgust.
“I insist that interrogation of the subject continue elsewhere,” decreed the politician gloomily. He spun around and bent over, peering at the huddled figure of Robbie. “What do you know, son, of the leader of the armies of the north?”
Robbie looked at him blankly. The politician shrugged and pulled himself up.
“It’s obvious I’m not getting through here.” He said, addressing the policeman. “I’ll contact the US embassy. We need to get this boy on the first plane to Guantanamo Bay.”