This is the second flash fiction (350 wordstory from the Change the Ending collection where local government officers imagine the future they want to see. Fiction allows the freedom to talk about and make sense of difficult scenarios. The story was also published in the Guardian and was the result of a creative conversation Andy Burns and I had at the CIPFA conference. Watch out for more stories in the coming weeks.
How It Might Start
He arrives at Anne-Marie’s house at 11pm and hesitates. It’s too late to knock, so he sits in his car, thinking. He’s been living in the shadows of Detroit, the spectre of municipal bankruptcy stalking him. He wraps himself in a thin blanket of denial. It couldn’t happen here. Surely they wouldn’t be the first to go under.
But there’s no hiding from it now. Why else would he be here? Hours pass.
Anne-Marie had offered a solution. “We can put our arms around you.” She’d been speaking metaphorically, one council with money to another with none. One chief executive with options to another with... not much time left.
“Come round and have a drink. We can talk, offline,” she’d said.
He tries to convince himself that it’s the politicians who won’t accept the help of aneighbouring authority, but he knows that’s only partially true. At this unearthly hour of the morning, there’s no escaping himself.
The first light is watery and insubstantial. That’s how he feels. He knows be should be pushing back the gloom, putting in support structures, holding up the sky, but he can’t do it alone. He has to ask for help, has to admit he’s not enough.
He knocks his head against the steering wheel. Come on man, have the conversation!
When a light goes on in the house, his mood improves. Anne-Marie answers the door in a soft grey dressing gown that’s more like a blanket. In the hallway, the smell of coffee revives him.
“It’ll be an investment. We’re not interested in a takeover,” she says. “And we’ve got about 30 minutes before I have to get the kids up.”
He wonders if they can make it work. What he’ll say to the councillors, to the management team, the staff, his wife. It’s all a risk.
“We’ll make it work,” Anne-Marie says. “We always find a way.”
Back in the car, relief floods his engine. He sits a while longer. It’s the right result. The city and their communities need a way forward. The road ahead will be rocky, the navigation a nightmare, but she’s given him a new direction.
Andy Burns is Chief Financial Officer of Staffordshire County Council.