Jim struggled home with his bag of shopping, it was heavy and the sifting rain made his walk back pretty miserable. He hoped that Nell, his wife, would weave her magic with the bag’s contents and make his efforts worthwhile. She had packed him off with a list of ingredients for a number of baking projects and Jim reinforced his resolve with thoughts of her plump muffins and succulent apple turnover. He picked his way through the puddles to the front door, fumbled with the key and gratefully stepped out of the wet.
The bank of sensors in the hall, set at knee height to monitor the contents of all incoming groceries, buzzed and flashed predictions of imminent doom. One after another the display units declared Fat Alert - Butter Detected; Allergy Probability - Wheat Flour Found; Fructose Warning - Cooking Apples Present and Processed Meat Danger - Sausagemeat Hazard.
The new “Dame Sally” Dietary Vice Alarm, the most unforgiving model yet, was connected to a central computer which downloaded new information constantly. For example the Red Meat sensor which had maintained a benign silence for so long had recently developed a particularly shrill note. The Dairy cell barely knew whether it was coming or going: triggered by butter today, it may well fall silent on the matter tomorrow. Jim half expected it to self-destruct over the fat content v. calcium benefit calculation in the great cheese debate.
After the fridge had reprimanded him for using full milk in his tea and the larder gave him a bollocking for taking a solitary digestive, Jim braced himself for the savage admonishing he would receive from the ceiling monitor in the sitting-room. This remarkably sensitive device was programmed to detect the merest scintilla of alcohol and Jim was contemplating a cleansing ale which, God knows, he felt he had earned. At the first hiss of escaping pressure, before the cap had rattled satisfyingly onto the sideboard, the alarm went into electronic apoplexy.
Nell heard the racket and requested a large one from her husband. The second that the cap came off the gin the sensors went into full scale banshee mode and the screen flashed Cirrhosis! Obesity! Cancer! Brain Damage! and any other infirmity it could blame on a drink. The device also kept a tally of units consumed per week and blared, Amber Warning: Ten Units Used! AFD Required!
An AFD was the alarm’s shorthand for Alcohol Free Day. Like all governments and bureaucracies, these monitors too communicated in acronyms. They had been compulsorily installed by order of an umbrella organization within the government called the National Enjoyment Restriction Department, NERD for short, coincidently reflecting the type of cheerless, small-minded pen-pusher who would take on such a task. The execution of the order was delegated to the Sector Promoting Health Indoctrination Nationally Controlling & Taxing Alcohol, SPHINCTA which, curiously, also spoke volumes about its operatives. The trouble with such concerns is that they attract zealots from outside their offices who form amateur counterparts in hateful support. These coagulate into bigger entities and the government, typically divesting itself of expense and responsibility, farmed out the task of supervising the paperwork and collating the data to the British Association Supporting Total Alcohol Restriction Discontinuance & Sacrifice. Yup. You might wonder why nobody had checked the suitability of the acronyms, but the collective senses of humour, fun and warmth in the assembled multitude of staff combined across the three lumbering, monolithic organizations would, in the incomparable descriptive words of Bill Bryson, “fit comfortably inside a proton and still leave room for an echo.” Nobody would have noticed.
Taking his life in his hands Jim took a long, refreshing gulp of beer and idly considered if a glass or two of red with supper might be in order. He ambled through to the kitchen to deliver Nell her G & T and found her preparing greens to go with their shepherd’s pie. This was a family favourite, once deemed nutritious and a great way to use up leftovers, but now triggered dire warnings on the “Dame Sally” kitchen screen. High GI from the mash which, uh-oh, also contained butter; a red meat alert for the pie’s delicious filling and a whoa, what’s this - watch out for vitamin k in your greens? He’d only just consigned grapefruit, an erstwhile super-food, to the dustbin of forbidden delights because of the statin he took every evening. This was becoming confusing.
It was Jim’s turn to cook tomorrow and it was worrying him already. The plan had been to produce fish and chips; not something they had often, but fish was still alright for you, wasn’t it? I mean, if you use sustainable fish and the right sort of fat in the fryer? Heeding the old animal fat warning Jim had changed to vegetable oil for a while, secure in the knowledge that poly-unwossnames were good for you but saturated ones are not. Now this information had been stood on its head by a proper scientist who had said that owing to changes the veg oil underwent at high temperature, actually it would be less bad for you to use lard after all. Eh?
Apparently an hour in front of the telly is, guess what, bad for you - too sedentary or some such, so Jim and Nell retired early. Unsurprisingly troubled and unable to sleep, the pair discussed this weird turn. What confused Nell most was that in almost every case a well-respected, fully-qualified talking head would declare, eat red meat/drink wine/enjoy a little butter, only to be countered by an equally experienced “expert” in the same field whose opinions were diametrically opposed to those of his illustrious colleague. Whom do you believe, she wondered, if those trained and paid handsomely to help us can’t agree themselves?
Jim contended that not one of them, however they had interpreted the evidence, took any interest in our happiness. Eat this - it might be better for your heart/liver/brain; avoid that or it might give you any one of an impressive range of fatal conditions… but there is no consideration for your soul. How much does being happy or miserable affect your health?
Eventually they grumbled themselves to sleep but in the morning after a virtually toxic bacon sandwich, they made their determined way out to the shed while the kitchen alarms wailed inconsolably. Each grabbed a hammer and, laughing for the first time in weeks, smashed their useless, intrusive, confusing, killjoy “Dame Sally” unit to dust. Glorious silence.
Today was going to be a very good day. Well worth raising a glass to that, for the conclusion they had reached the night before was that a little of what you fancy does you good, just as Grandma had been saying all along.