Fresh from dropping his children off at school, Mr Jones ambled through the hall into his family’s sitting room, before almost immediately tripping over a toy robot and falling hard to his knees.
“Bloody kids! Why can they never put away their toys? I tell you Martha, unless they’re going to learn to be tidier we’re going to need a bigger living room.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, dear, are you all right?” Mrs Jones stepped away from the washing machine she’d been busily unloading and walked from the kitchen over to her husband to help him up. As she lifted him to his feet, she saw a grimace of pain flash across his face. “Oh no, is your back playing up again?”
“Again? I should be so lucky. It’s never been right since I fell off that ladder when we were painting old Mrs Jenkins’ ceiling. It’s this awful intermittent stabbing pain, right in the middle of my back.”
“You should go back to the doctors and get some proper painkillers for it. Especially since you’re doing the Wilkins’ front room next week.”
Mr Jones sighed. “Last time they just gave me some aspirin. Probably thought I was a malingerer looking to get out of work.”
“Well, darling, you have to go back to them again. If you tell them frequently enough, they’ll eventually believe you.”
A noncommittal grunt of acknowledgement passed Mr Jones’s lips as he turned his attention to the coffee pot.
“Well, dear,” said Mrs Jones, turning towards the kitchen, “I really should go and put that washing out. It’s such a beautiful morning. The spring flowers are really starting to bloom now.”
“Mmm, that’s all very well for you to say. Bloody pollen. I was up half the night with a stuffed nose. Couldn’t breathe, couldn’t sleep. A real… bugger.”
A look of genuine sympathy descended upon Mrs Jones’s face. So that was why John was in such a bad mood. He was always grumpy when he hadn’t got enough sleep.
“Well, dear, let me make you a doctor’s appointment. You can ask them about your back and get something for your rhinitis.”
At that moment, the Jones’s conversation was interrupted by a ring at the doorbell.
“Are we expecting someone, darling?” asked Mr Jones.
“Not as far as I know, dear. It’s probably just a salesman. Would you mind sending them away? I really do have to put this washing out.”
As his wife returned to the kitchen, Mr Jones walked over to the front door and opened it. He was greeted by an immaculately dressed young man bearing a positively seraphic smile.
“Mr Jones, I presume?”
“Yes. Who are you? Whatever it is you’re selling, we’re not buying.”
“Aha. Yes. Well. You see, the reason I’m here is that I have some surprising news for you.”
“If this is about Jesus, we’ve already heard it.”
“No, Mr Jones – this is news of a more personal nature, concerning you and you alone. May I come in?” Mr Jones frowned, but stepped back to allow the man entry. He walked straight into the living room and sat down on Mr Jones’s favourite armchair.
“Whoever you are, get on with it. And if you’d be so kind, please sit on the sofa. That comfy chair is mine.”
“Oh I do apologise,” said the stranger, resettling himself on the Jones’s slightly faded floral sofa. “Well. My name is Mr Mannering, and I’m here to tell you, Mr Jones, that you’re literally Hitler.”
Mr Jones stared at the man. Clearly this stranger was a lunatic. Best not to excite him. “Explain yourself.”
“Yes,” said Mr Mannering, uncomfortably adjusting his tie. “I had better. You see, Mr Jones, you believe today to be Friday the 20th of April, 1981, is that not correct?”
“Of course. We just had the butcher’s delivery yesterday. What of it?”
“I’m afraid to say that the present year is in fact some twelve decades later than that. We are in fact in the last quarter of the 21st century, and everything you are experiencing now is an elaborate computer simulation. And, I repeat, you are literally Hitler.”
Mr Jones considered his situation. The living room telephone was some three feet to the right of the stranger and thus inaccessible should he prove to be violent. Looking over to the kitchen, he saw his wife in the back garden, hanging up the washing. On the assumption that this man was indeed a dangerous lunatic, his options were limited. Physical confrontation was out of the question. He would have to play along until he could turn matters to his advantage, or at least until his wife returned.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. If you’re talking about that Hitler fellow from the Second World War, he died a long time ago. Suicide, as I recall. The Russians burned his body.”
“Ah, but you see,” said Mr Mannering, an excited expression coming across his face, “they didn’t burn his body. It was preserved on Stalin’s secret orders and only finally discovered some twenty years ago. That’s sort of how this whole thing came about. You see, I’m here as the, ah, agent, shall we say of one Professor Probert, a senior research scholar at the University of Harvard-Beijing-Abu Dhabi. Professor Probert obtained a large grant some ten years ago to explore the origins of evil, and it just some happened that a Chinese team had completed a full analysis of the connectome of Hitler’s brain.”
Mr Jones was only half-listening. Even if he couldn’t get to the phone, he wondered if it was worth making a dash for the coffee pot.
“So,” continued his visitor, “it was decided that a team should explore the nature-nurture question via a large scale simulation of multiple Hitlers exposed to different learning environments. By rewinding the clock of their connectomes, so to speak, we could take a cognitive duplicate of vast numbers of 2 year-old Hitlers and place them in a variety of ecological settings, so as to better assess the role that environment as opposed to genes plays in the formation of evi- ah, Mr Jones, are you still with me?”
“Ye-es. Very interesting. Do you mind if I pour myself some coffee?”
“Not at all, go ahead. Anyway, as I was saying, the hope was to isolate the essence of evil. Hence the Billion Hitlers project.”
Even Mr Jones – convinced though he was that his visitor was a madman – could not ignore this. “I beg your pardon, did you say a Billion Hitlers?”
“Yes indeed! The third largest simulation experiment every carried out by the Harvard-Beijing-Abu Dhabi sociology department. In short, we inserted Hitlers like yourself into a wide variety of settings. Everything from far future robot dystopias, medieval monasteries, Qin dynasty China, and, well, um, in your own case, late 1950s Slough.”
Mr Jones considered this statement. He had started drinking his first morning coffee and had no intention of making any rash moves until he’d finished it. The stranger’s story was outlandish, but he had watched enough science fiction films that he could follow the vaguest outlines. “So, what, this is all some kind of strange computer game, and you put Hitler clones in different places and settings, to see if they’d do something awful?”
Mr Mannering beamed. “Yes! And no! But you’re correct in many of the basic points. I must say, it’s far easier talking to you than to the Pleistocene Hitlers. They’re rather crude, you see.”
“But that’s nonsense. That is, not to offend you, but I’m a respectable man; this is a respectable house. There’s nothing untoward here.”
“Yes, well, that’s rather the problem, you see. As I said, we were keen to explore the essence of evil. Is it nature or nurture? Everything thinks it’s nurture, of course, but we were hoping we’d find something properly provocative. If, for example, a large proportion of our billion Hitlers were grow up to be raging madmen, then we’d have evidence that evil in the genes, and we might get some spectacular publications out of it. As it is, however, they’ve mostly turned out to be rather mediocre — like yourself.”
Mr Jones grunted in annoyance. It was one thing to interrupt him before his morning coffee and subject him to deranged rantings, but quite another to insult his competence. But he still had half a cup of coffee to finish, so said nothing.
“Anyway,” continued Mr Mannering, “I was rather hoping I might be able to get some insight into your, um, underling values, shall we say? With your permission of course.”
At this point, Mr Mannering reached into his messenger bag and pulled out a clipboard. This took Mr Jones by surprise. As he saw it, madmen did not as a rule carry clipboards. “Fine, get on with it, please.”
“Excellent. So. First question. Do you have any strong views on politics?”
“Strong views?” Mr Jones chuckled. “I should say so. Have you seen what they’re doing with the bike lanes around here? It’s a travesty. The roads are choked with cars and the cyclists don’t even use them half the time. And as for the pedestrianisation of the city centre, well, it’s outrageous. Only last month I wrote to the Slough Observer to complain about it.”
Mr Mannering did not appear enthused by this answer to his question. “Well, that’s… admirable. Very well, moving on, ah, do you have any strong views on –“ at this point he narrowed his eyes and almost spat the words – “modern culture?”
“Well, when I hear the word culture, I reach for my Browning.” A look of hope dawned on Mr Mannering’s face as Mr Jones reached down to a nearby shelf, but faded almost immediately as he emerged holding a tattered book. “A true Victorian gentleman and man of words. The Ring and the Book is an unduly neglected masterpiece.”
“That’s not quite what I was thinking of; when it comes to music, perhaps some of it strikes you as degenerate…”
“Ah, like the Rolling Stones? Yes, I’m a Beatles man and a proud of it. Nothing beats Revolver.”
“I… see. Well, moving on, have you by any chance made any efforts to form a local militia, fraternal brotherhood, and/or citizen’s brigade?”
“I’m the local neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, if that’s of any help.”
Mr Mannering sighed. This was not a promising visit. Time for one last bold attempt.
“Mr Jones, do you by any chance – and I’m aware this may be a leading question – do you have any strong views about the races? That, for example, some are naturally superior to others?”
At last, thought Mr Jones. A topic he could properly address. “Yes, yes indeed. In fact, I have had many conversations on this subject. You see, there are some out there who think that the Monza Grand Prix is without equal, but any serious motorsports enthusiast can see that Silverstone has unique qualities that make it peerless. For one, the British climate-“
“Mr Jones, I am afraid I must stop you there. It seems that you are utterly without redeeming evil qualities and in light of our funding goals I must pronounce this visit a failure.” Mr Mannering slipped his clipboard back into his bag and stood up from the sofa. At that moment, Mrs Jones reappeared from the garden.
“John, dear, would you introduce me to our visitor? Should I put the kettle on?”
“Thank you, Mrs Jones, but I was just on my way out,” replied Mr Mannering. “Before I go, however, if I may, I would say one last thing to your husband. Mr Jones, I will be frank. Things are not looking good for the Billion Hitlers project. Mediocrity and moral adequacy seem to the general rule among the billion, and the percentage of wicked madmen is barely above chance. Unless matters improve significantly, we are looking at running out of funding within the next 12 months, which will mean the end of your life, the lives of your family, and the lives of billions of others.”
Mr Jones was now firmly back in command of the situation. He had Mrs Jones besides him, he had finished his morning coffee, and he had repositioned himself so as to bring a stout cricket bat within easy reach should the occasion demand it. He opened the front door and gestured Mr Mannering towards it. “Sir, I’ll kindly ask you to leave. I won’t be threatened in my own house.”
“Yes, I understand that,” said Mr Mannering, edging towards the door. “But honestly, if you could do even a little bit of evil for us – a bigoted joke here or there, a vicious slur against a neighbour, or! Perhaps a barroom brawl…”
“Get out!” shouted Mr Jones, raising his voice for what was – to his surprise – the first time in his interaction with Mr Mannering. The stranger briefly bowed, and scarpered from the front door.
“John, who on Earth was that?” asked Mrs Jones, staring wide eyed at the retreating man.
“A lunatic, is all I can presume. Told me I was literally Hitler. Seemed to think I wasn’t being evil enough. He even had the damned cheek to call me ‘mediocre’.”
“Oh, what a ghastly fellow! You would have been well within your rights to call the police, darling.”
“Yes, well,” said Mr Jones, shutting the front door and returning his gaze to the coffee pot. “We probably shouldn’t be too hard on the man. It sounded like he was just following orders.”
“As you say dear. Now, don’t forget, we’re eating with the Thomsons later. Another of their dinner parties. They’re dreadfully boring people, I know, but you know how hard I find it to say no to Angela.”
Mr Jones frowned. Although the man had clearly been a lunatic, his words had not been entirely inert. Perhaps he was a little too concerned with his reputation. Could it really hurt…
“You know, dear, I have a sudden feeling that I’m coming down with something nasty. A stomach ache. Wait, no! A severe migraine. Yes, I’m quite sure now. I don’t think we can possibly attend the Thomsons’ dinner tonight.
He winked at his wife, and she shot him a surprised smile. “Darling!” she said breathlessly, her eyes alight. “How delightfully wicked of you!”
Henry Shevlin © 2019