A group of middle-aged men, most of whom have permanently florid faces, stands huddled in the growing dawn of a deserted high street.
They are waiting for a coach. A coach that will take them on a trip to the countryside. That will make a change from sitting in front of a television watching the BBC.
Except that when it arrives the coach is an old ex-local authority minibus, sold off because it would cost too much to have seat belts fitted.
The doors open and a grim-faced woman in an old waxed cotton jacket, holding a clipboard, checks the names of the men off her list as they get on the bus and push each other in a rush to get the ‘best’ seats.
Gammon finds himself seated next to a bloke that he used to work with. They exchange pleasantries and laugh about the fact they are on a mystery trip today. They also compare their financial and personal situations. Like Gammon, his friend Turkey is living alone because his wife and children have moved in with relatives who voted to remain in the EU and as a consequence have a more varied diet and lifestyle, unlimited by jingoistic prejudice. Like all the men on the minibus, Gammon and Turkey have small suitcases, rucksacks or rarely used sports bags containing their essentials.
Towards the end of the journey the woman stops at each man and asks them whether they voted to leave the EU or to remain. Brexiteers are given a yellow star badge to wear, remainers get a red one, those who refuse to say are given a yellow star badge anyway.
When the minibus arrives at its destination, the occupants trail out into a grey landscape barely brightened by the rising sun. The fields surround them and seem to go on forever, the only interruption being three large storage containers. Two have a yellow star on the door while the slightly smaller one has a red star. The woman splits the men into two groups and indicates to the smaller group that they should go to the red starred container. The others are pushed in the direction of the yellow star containers.
Gammon and Turkey are among the latter group and when the door creaks open they find themselves in a dark room largely taken up with bunk beds; a sign points to the end of the room and indicates the presence of a lavatory and bathroom. Just the one lavatory and bathroom. Belongings cover some of the beds and show that the bunks are already occupied, and the newcomers find out very quickly that they have been left the beds with thin, urine stained mattresses and skimpy blankets.
In the red star container, life is slightly better; there are two lavatory and shower rooms, the bunks are more stable with clean mattresses and blankets. There are no signs of other occupants, just a chalk scrawled notice on the wall. “Please enjoy, we know that you were our friends and did not want to leave us.” It is signed ‘EU’.
A hand bell is ringing, summoning the men outside where the farmer is waiting for them.
“Okay! These are my potato fields and I desperately need the crop to be gathered in, which is why you lot are here. I usually have a reliable bunch of Eastern Europeans who do this work but thanks to Brexit, they can’t work here anymore so I have you lot instead. You’ll have noticed that those of you who have red stars have got better accommodation, you will also get a better standard of food because we don’t need to get picky about where the food comes from. My son will teach you how to harvest the potatoes. I’ve assumed that you are more intelligent than the yellow star group and you will pick up what you need to do more quickly. If you go off with him now he will kit you out with some gloves and boots.”
The red star group – all three of them – looked at each other, grinned and waved goodbye to their yellow star workmates as they followed the farmer’s son to the equipment shed.
Whilst they were being kitted out, the farmer turned to the yellow star group. “You are the reason that I have lost money and will probably lose even more as Brexit widens its grip. Your accommodation is not particularly luxurious but that was your choice. You’ll have seen that some of the bunks are already taken; like you, the occupants chose to leave the EU and have been working here for the past week. They aren’t happy about it but they made their choice. My wife will take you to the shed once the other group are finished, and we will try to give you sufficient gloves and boots to do the job, but bear in mind that you will get the leftovers and some may not fit or be in good condition. Before Brexit I could afford to buy new equipment for all my workers; now I get them second-hand. Any questions?”
Gammon raises his hand. “I’ve got back problems. I shouldn’t be here. I’m on the sick.”
The cry rings round the group. The farmer shakes his head and laughs. “According to DWP you are all fit to do manual labour and the fresh air will do you good. Anyone found lying in bed and malingering on this farm, will get a bucket of cold water to freshen them up. This is the real world here; we can’t go sick because it costs us too much money. Any other questions? No? I bet you lot wish you’d asked more questions before the referendum now.”
The farmer’s wife gets a nod from her son, who is leading his little group to a smaller potato field over to one side. They watch him and listen to his instructions, and as a consequence are soon at work filling up sacks with potatoes.
The yellow star group crowd into the shed and scrabble for boots and gloves that vaguely match. Most of them are wearing clothes that are not best-suited to working in muddy fields; they follow the farmer to a large and very muddy field. He gives them instructions on what to do and watches as they struggle with the cold, heavy mud.
Despite their small numbers, the red star group manage to fill all their potato sacks and are given a break during which the farmer’s son makes a pot of tea and distributes biscuits – plain but nutritional. They are quite a jolly bunch now, knowing that they have decent accommodation for five days, a lift back home and the reassurance of their Universal Credit payments.
The struggles of the yellow group continue; mired in mud and hampered by clothes that grow heavy and damp in the cutting wind, gloves and boots afford little protection and their only reward is a short break and tin mugs of cold water doled out by the farmer’s wife.
Lunch is soup and homemade bread; the red star group has beef broth but the yellow stars have vegetable soup made from the farm’s own produce. There is no time for a long lunch break as the work has to be completed before dusk, when all the workers have a chance to clean up before their final meal of the day and bedtime. The farmer explains that early to bed and early to rise is the only way a farm can survive. He also adds that each worker has a quota of potatoes to meet and this will be recorded every day. Workers who meet the quote will get their Universal Credit paid. Those who don’t, in addition to cold water buckets, will have money deducted accordingly.
“That’s not fair!” says an already blistered and aching Gammon. “You’re treating us like slaves.”
The farmer shakes his head. “These are the same rules that the Eastern European workers had – except that we had no yellow star containers then because we didn’t need them. They weren’t picky about their food, they didn’t care what country it came from as long as it tasted good. They had no need for televisions because they made their own music and laughed a great deal. We miss them, but you people think you know best so stop moaning and get on with it.”