An Inspector Calls

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Ruby Soames imagines a future in which not even the family home provides sanctuary from Her Majesty's Inspectorate

We visit the Burrows household just past the millennium at 8am. The OFALS (Official Family Association of Living Standards) inspector has been observing the family at breakfast. Mr Burrows is away on business, leaving his wife and their 11-year-old son, Steven.

Steven slouches in his chair, slapping the bacon with the back of his fork, while the inspector lances a fried egg.

"Steven, finish your breakfast," urges Mrs Burrows.

"Can't," moans the boy. Mrs Burrows smiles anxiously at their guest.

"Steven," the inspector says, looking at the boy intensely, "why have you left your food?" "It's boring."

"Could your mother have presented it to you in a more interesting way?" "Yeah. She could put those umbrellas on it."

"Yes," nods the inspector in agreement, "the aesthetic of home cooking is something you might like to consider further, Mrs Burrows. Have you got a WPCMPC?"

"A what?"

"A Working Parents' Catalogue for Mealtime Preparations Checklist. You can order one from our shop."

Mrs Burrows reaches for one of the large, black folders behind her. She turns to a section in the directory labelled "Housekeeping", whereupon she finds a sub-section entitled "Menus and Mealtimes", also divided into categories. "Meal Presentation" is empty. The inspector makes a further note.

Steven is released from the table.

"How involved is Steven's biological father in weekend activities?" the inspector asks.

"He's active in the Working Party for Children's Directed Time Activities and in the Referee Fathers for Non-Competitive Football."

"Good alliteration there," observes the inspector.


"Alliteration. That's what Steven's doing in English now: 'sound poetry'. "

"Not history of language?"

"No, Mrs Burrows. Didn't the school notify you?"

"Steven!" she calls up the stairs. "Steven! You didn't tell me you were doing poetry!"

Steven's face appears around the door.

"I did. We're not doing history of language until we do the Tudors in history - when you and Dad are scheduled to take my class to Hatfield House."

The door bell rings - Steven's school bus has arrived. Mrs Burrows seals Steven's lunch box marked: "Monday Lunch: Energy 2,381 KJ (571kcal), Protein 6.5g, Sodium 0.72g, Carbohydrate 53g. Best before 2.30pm. Love you, Mummy". The bell goes a second time.

"Hurry along, and remember: it's Ms Kinnahan's birthday. Take the present and make sure she knows it's from us."

"Ask me to tuck my shirt in," Steven whispers. "They like that."

"And don't forget to tuck your shirt in!"

The inspector smiles and tickes a box in his file. Mrs Burrows returns to the inspector.

"Time-keeping in the morning is something you might look at, Mrs Burrows. A hurried exit from the home could set him up badly for the whole day."

He finishes his sausage, slides his knife and fork together, pats his napkin and draws his briefcase to his lap.

"Could I sit in the living room and have a glance at your budgets and holiday files?"

"Yes, of course. More tea?"

She rests the cup by his side, hoping he doesn't notice that her hands are trembling.

"An interesting arrangement of photos on the mantelpiece. Perhaps more of his extended family would give Steven a sense of multi-generational presence, particularly more of his grandmother. . ." the inspector fumbles with his blue file, ". . .Vera Shannon. She claims she doesn't see Steven as often as she'd like. Are your Five-Year Projected Holiday Proposals ready?"

Mrs Burrows hovers behind him as he studies each page.

"Holiday events well planned. I notice your husband's been thorough in organising activities for pleasant as well as rainy days, something which families often fall down on.

"I like the quiz on Spanish tapas foods, but the Loire Valley Wine Word Search might be a little too sophisticated for his level. You might include a few more maps."

He puts the files down and stands up. "Could I visit the rest of the house now? It's better if I look on my own."

Mrs Burrows waits downstairs. Is he going through Steven's colour-coded shelves? Her toiletries? She prays he will notice the multicultural wall hangings inspired by the OFAL workshop on Displays in the Home. If only she'd known they would talk to Vera, Mike's mother. She was sure to make trouble - ever since the drive to reintegrate old people back into the family home.

"You keep a tight ship, Mrs Burrows. I'm impressed with Steven's recreational area. I got quite carried away on his virtual flight simulator until the timer went off!

"You obviously appreciate the efficacy of rewards and punishment. One of the doilies is a little frayed, which I'm sure you'll rectify before the insepction. Oh and. . ." The inspector puts his hand into his jacket pocket. "I found this." He holds up a cigarette butt. "It appears there's a smoker in the house."

"My husband stopped ages ago, but he's been under . . ."

"We hadn't recorded that."

" . . . awful pressure at work."

"We'll have to update our files." He takes his coat off the stand and is startled to see Mrs Burrows' white knuckles clasping his sleeve.

"It's these observations we've been having at home and work. . . and . . . the Mackenzies had their children taken away!"

"Mrs Burrows, you've made good progress in maintaining our standards but . . ."

"But I subscribe to your magazines and attend all the courses. Last week I took part in the Teaching of Sexual Education to Teenagers workshop and learned about . . ."

"After speaking to Steven's grandmother about your pre-marital life, it might be better to leave that to Steven's teachers. But it's not all doom and gloom considering . . ."

"Considering what?"

"That you didn't opt for the mock-preliminary inspection."

"But we just couldn't afford it! We've already sold my jewellery, Mike's golf-clubs."

The inspector steps out on to the doorstep - faces disappear behind curtains all the way down the street.

"But what now?" Mrs Burrows asks.

He prises her white knuckles from his arm. "Your full inspection will take place sometime between September to March. One of the inspectors is Mr Clark, who'll be staying with you a week. He's vegetarian, doesn't like mushrooms. Oh, and he's allergic to manufactured fabrics - use only 100 per cent cotton sheets, preferably Egyptian. We provide these at a reduced rate at the OFALS shop."

Mrs Burrows closes the door behind him.

"Mike, Mike! He's gone."

Mr Burrows hobbles down the stairs, his legs aching from hours spent squashed at the back of the airing cupboard. He lights his wife a cigarette, and together they breath sighs of relief.

"Well, it's over for now," says Mrs Burrows. "He didn't seem too bad, actually."

Ruby Soames is an English teacher awaiting an OFSTED inspection in November

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