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Out for the count

If the 2011 census organisers have no idea who they’re sending the forms out to, how can they prosecute anyone who doesn’t return one?

Returning to the house the other morning after dropping the boy off at school, I found no fewer than nine census forms piled on the hall table. Senatorial in their purple-edged Lockheed-Martin* envelopes, each bore the legend in English and in Welsh that “a response is required by law”. It seemed somewhat excessive to expect me to respond to all nine on pain of a fine of £1,000 or imprisonment, as I live almost entirely alone, with only a cat for company. Completing even one form then is asking a lot, given that I have no religion other than a deep-seated aversion to abusive hierarchical power structures predicated on nonsensical children’s fables; although, of course, I love the music, and the buildings, and the death squads. And I regard any questions about my ethnic origin as impertinent and very possibly overt racism, which may be why I have so much trouble applying for jobs, because I tend to say so. Nine forms? I don’t think so.

One was addressed to “The Occupier, Manager’s Accommodation”. That might do at a pinch, since I am the Manager and live on the premises, but the others? “The Occupier, Flat 1″… through to “Flat 4”, and then on to “The Occupier, Staff Flat 1″… through to “Staff Flat 4″… I began to wonder who all those ghostly presences could be? Where were they when I needed them? Who had surveyed the property, and when, to hit on this wild surmise regarding the usage of its mostly derelict rooms? How many “staff” had greeted him on his arrival? If only the house had been converted into residential flats, and fully staffed, the owners might not now be so madly taken with the idea of turning it into a surefire loss-making boutique hotel, of the kind normal people decided they hated staying in five years ago. But the Grade One listing now prevents the upheaval needed to install all those new kitchens and wetrooms. So, with the determination to “make some income” from their asset, the owners have settled on the least affordable solution.

Okay, apart from me, there’s my temporary lodger. My son has come to stay with me in term-time while he attends a local comprehensive sixth form — or, rather, doesn’t, as his teachers seem never to turn up for lessons, leaving purposeless holes in his day, despite our 100 per cent record of getting him there by 9 a.m., half-dead or alive, so he can qualify for the education maintenance cheques, perhaps the sole benefit of living in Wales. He goes home to his mother at weekends, so I shan’t need to include him on the form. Then, there’s Neil, the depressing man from the caravan in the garden. As we don’t have planning permission for the caravan, or pay rates on it, I shall have to put him down as an overnight visitor. In fact, I’ve been failing to winkle him out for the past six months, after he completed the degree thesis whose submission deadline was originally the endpoint of our very temporary residence agreement. Every estate should have one, the equivalent of the annoying Restoration hermit, all sackcloth and ashy disdain.

Now, I have lived here as the estate manager, licensee and concierge, man and oldie, for nearly six years. I think I know who else lives here, and who doesn’t. I know the previous manager, too, and she will confirm there have not been nine flats here since the last census. Admittedly, there are the owners. For two to three weeks the owners move in, taking a well-earned rest from jetting around the globe on business, and immediately knuckle-down to a working schedule that keeps them up until four every morning, micro-managing their global empire as the international dateline whizzes round. The rest of the year, I am paid to occupy their Georgian mansion in splendid isolation, defending it against squatters, ghosthunters, planning officers and starry-eyed couples pining to be married. The owners won’t be here on 26 March, and so fail to qualify for an entry. Being a Sunday, I don’t suppose the builders will be here either.

Large parts of the house — perhaps those eight mystery flats referred to on the forms — have fallen into desuetude (nice word, that). Missing ceilings and floorboards, with no heating or electricity, whole wings have been uninhabited for decades. Only the central core of the house, restored twenty years ago, is habitable, and has been used as a B&B, and as a rustic wedding venue. Also its hotelier, I am the only staff. At the moment, however, in order to gain exemption from business rates, I have to keep the house looking as though nobody lives here. Which they don’t. Except for the builders, seemingly always with us. Oh, and the couple in the stables. There’s a very sweet couple, who have lived in the groom’s flat in the otherwise derelict stables for the past nine years, pretending to be hippies. We don’t mention them either.

Thus, faced with the prospect of £8,000 in fines or eight years in prison, I ring the National Census Bureau advice hotline and, after being put through three multiple-choice voicemail options, each with five frequently asked questions, none of them related to the problem of purple-form overkill, I finally get through to a voice that passes the Turing test. I explained carefully what has happened. “Okay”, he says, “recycle those and I’ll send you another one”. “Couldn’t I just throw them away?” I ask. “Only, our waste contractor doesn’t do recycling”. It required double helpings of misunderstandings and explanations, but eventually I seemed to get through to him: there was me, and then the couple in the stables, who have just split-up and might not even be here, and nobody else. The next morning, three more purple forms arrive, each identically addressed to me by name, c/o The Manager’s Accommodation. I think I’ll try to not be here myself when the dateline comes, but I shall avoid flying on any Lockheed-Martin aircraft. Just in case.

*The US logistics arm of the defense contractor mysteriously ‘won’ the contract to carry out the UK’s national census in 2011.

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