Jacob's Ladder

Submitted into Contest #120 in response to: Start your story with the line ‘Back in my day…’... view prompt


Contemporary Speculative Drama

“Back in my day, we could use a ladder whenever we liked,” says the bearded man in the green boilersuit wrestling a 4-foot collapsible metal step ladder onto a shelf in a tidy storeroom. 

Mr. Brown nods politely. He does not want to get into a political discussion with Mr. Abernathy or his prodigious facial hair.

Instead, by way of greeting, he says, “Good afternoon, Mr. Abernathy. I’m in need of a twenty-foot extendable ladder.”

“Oh, that’s a long ‘un, what’s it fer?”

“Cats,” Mr. Brown sniffs.

Mr. Abernathy raises a hairy eyebrow as he slides a 10-page form across the check-in desk.

Mr. Brown takes a pen from the breast pocket of his impeccably tailored suit, uncaps it, and fills it in with his precise handwriting. Twenty-minutes later he hands it back to Mr. Abernathy.

“Alright now, Mr. Brown, you gotta return it by five pm. If yer gonna be late, you hafta call the head office, fill out a Tardy Return form, and get a notary to sign it.”

Mr. Brown nods. He never complains about the rules and paperwork that have proliferated since the Adjusters won the election six years ago, he voted for them after all, believing in their promise to make Britain ‘a safer place for everyone.’

Recently the government passed a law prohibiting private ownership of ladders which moved ‘death from falling off ladders’ from twenty-second place to twenty-fifth on the list of the most common household accidents.

Mr. Brown checks that the ladder is secured before getting in the van. He ignores the blasting horns and angry faces of drivers behind him. If he wants to drive five miles under the speed limit, that’s his prerogative.

As he grips the plastic steering wheel, he notices the nicks and scratches. Fondly he recalls the soft grey leather of his Audi's steering wheel.

“Like butter,” he mutters. 

He sold the Audi shortly after he lost his job as an accountant when the Adjusters deemed that all positions should be filled with certified specialists. Regrettably, Mr. Brown did not qualify. He wasn't alone. Many people had to train to meet the strict criteria for the new jobs. After two years of training, he passed the final exam three months ago, becoming a qualified Ladder Service Intermediary.

Mr. Brown taps his finger on the steering wheel, humming a section of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from memory. Before Law 42 was passed, which outlawed activities that could lead to distracted driving, he listened to music frequently, enjoying the purity of the high-end sound system he'd installed in his Audi.

He tries to recall whether Law 42 resulted in 3% or 5% fewer traffic incidents due to distracted driving, when he nearly hits a black cat lounging in the middle of the road.

“Son of a… nutcracker!” he exclaims, as the tyres squeal and the van skids to a stop, a few feet from the feline.

The cat stretches its front legs languidly, before gracefully rising up from the pavement. Its yellow-green eyes regard him coolly, then it saunters off with a swish of its stumpy tail. 

“Cats,” he says, trying to slow his breathing. He checks the street sign, sees that he’s a few minutes from the Requester’s address. Driving slowly down Blackberry Lane, he spots a woman, early-thirties, wearing jeans and a red jumper, waving from the drive.

“Are you with Newport Ladders?” she asks. “We’ve been waiting a few hours now. Salem and Tabitha are still in the tree.”

A skinny boy, about seven years old, observes furtively from the front porch.

“Good afternoon, I am Mr. Brown, Certified Ladder Intermediary for Newport Ladder Service,” says Mr. Brown. “I’ve brought the extendable ladder so that you may retrieve your pets from the tree.”

“Oh, okay, great, Mr. Brown. I’ll show where the tree is,” she says, walking towards the backyard.

“Mrs. Pine, first there are few matters we must attend to before I release the ladder. I’ll need three forms of identification.”

A tight smile. “Of course you do, I’ve got them right here,” she says, walking back to him while reaching into a pocket in her jeans.

“Darnit, I left my driver’s licence in the house. Jacob!” she shouts to the boy on the porch. “Go get my licence, it’s on the kitchen table.”

Jacob turns toward the house, the top of a slingshot poking out of the back pocket of his shorts.

“And you’ll need to sign a few forms,” Mr. Brown says, handing her the Liability Waiver and Service Agreement. "And breathe into this.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a Breathalyser, to make sure you’re not intoxicated before you climb the ladder.”

“What? I have to climb the ladder? I thought you’d do that."

“We only provide the ladder, Mrs. Pine, and do our best to ensure it’s properly used.”

“That’s not much of a public service,” she says, as she breathes into the instrument. “Can’t believe my taxes are paying for this nonsense.”

“Be that as it may, it’s the law, ma’am.”

Jacob returns with his mother’s license.

“Hey mister,” he says, tugging at Mr. Brown’s crisp sleeve. “I can get the cats out of the tree with no ladder.”

“It’s not my concern, Jacob, how the cats are retrieved from the tree. I only provide the ladder.”

“Okay. But we can use the ladder for something way better. I need to get into my treehouse.”

“Mmm,” Mr. Brown mutters as he reviews the signed documents, the three forms of ID, and the results of the Breathalyser. “Where are the cats?” he addresses Mrs. Pine.

Mother and son point to the backyard. “In the maple tree,” Mrs. Pine says, “next to the oak tree with Jacob’s treehouse. Do you need help carrying the ladder? Jacob could grab one end--"

"No. That's not permitted, I'm afraid," Mr. Brown says as he removes the ladder from the van. "Only the Intermediaries may move the ladder."

He follows Mrs. Pine and Jacob to the backyard. A large grey dog, alternatively growling and barking, stands on hind legs with its front paws resting on the tree trunk. From the branches, still covered with orange and yellow leaves, emanate sounds of mewing and hissing.

“You'll need to remove the dog before I can start setting up," Mr Brown says, as he lowers the ladder to the ground.

“I don't think I can get on that ladder, Mr. Brown. I’m not good with heights.” Mrs. Pine says. “And I’ve still got to decorate the cake, and blow up the balloons and..,” she shakes her head as she trails off.

“It is permitted to have another householder use the ladder, as long as that person is between the ages of eighteen and fifty-seven. Of course, I’ll need ID, and a Breathalyser test, and—"

“My husband deployed five months ago. It’s just me and Jacob for now,” she says as she ruffles the boy’s dark hair.

“I see. Well, I’m not sure there’s much I can do.”

“I gotta get to the treehouse,” Jacob says. “Dad put a present there, before he left. He said I had to wait, not to open it til it was my birthday. We don't have a ladder anymore 'cause the men came and took it away."

Mr. Brown looks at the ramshackle treehouse, perched precariously on the lower boughs of a giant oak tree. A strong gust wind could probably knock it down. He notes at least three blatant violations of safety protocols, considers reporting it, but that's not his job.

“The Request Form clearly states the ladder is required to rescue cats, so I’d have to go back to the office to get a new form, and maybe a new ladder, because I think a 12-foot straight ladder would work better,” Mr. Brown says, eyeing the distance from the base of the oak to the treehouse.

“Oh.” Jacob says. “Can you be back in time for the party? We're gonna have cake and firecrackers, and open presents. You could join. It’ll be fun. Mom bought extra firecrackers and we have lots of cake."

“Well, I…The thing is, there’s not enough time for me to get back to the office and fill out all the paperwork before the equipment room closes,” Mr. Brown says.

Mrs. Pine sighs and calls to the dog, “Here, Pepper, come here. Good dog.”

The large dog ambles over, wagging his shaggy tail. “You did your best, girl,” she says.

The cats, no longer held at bay by the dog, emerge from the fiery leaves of the maple. Their sleek black bodies leap gracefully onto a garage roof that's littered with leaves from the nearby oak tree. As they stretch and bask in the waning warmth of the autumnal sun, Mr. Brown recognises the cat with the stumpy tail, and wonders if it is some kind of omen.

“We’ve been trying to get a ladder for days now,” Mrs. Pine says, bending down to scratch Pepper’s speckled belly. “But they said there’s a backlog, and only doing emergency calls.”

Mr. Brown looks down at the ladder and back up to the cats. Their yellow-green eyes lock with his, seeming to peer into his soul.

With effort Mr. Brown turns from the penetrating feline scrutiny to face Jacob. “Pick up that end of the ladder, and we’ll carry it to the treehouse. And then we'll review the safety protocols for firecrackers. And I'll need to confiscate that slingshot young man, did you know they are the sixty-third reason why people lose an eye? Some people think that running with scissors is the main cause, but that would be..."

Jacob winks at his mother, as he helps carry the ladder toward the oak tree, listening politely to `Mr. Brown's lecture.

Peering down from the treehouse, a pair of yellow-green eyes observes in silent appraisal.

November 14, 2021 12:22

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K. Antonio
20:03 Nov 15, 2021

I loved how this was speculative, how it alludes to a the future. The amount of conversation really works with the piece, in a way making it a quick read as your just zoom past the dialogues. For some reason I smiled at the -"Like butter," he mutters. Thought that was super cute and quirky. The characters really shined in this piece.


H L Mc Quaid
14:10 Nov 18, 2021

Hi K! the 'like butter' he mutters also made me smile. Glad you thought it was cute and quirky. Thanks for reading and for the feedback!


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Boutat Driss
08:02 Nov 21, 2021

I love it. well done!


H L Mc Quaid
09:12 Nov 21, 2021

thank you. :)


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Kendall Defoe
02:35 Nov 21, 2021

I really liked this one (is this the future we are heading towards?). And I will never forget ''Certified Ladder Intermediary''!


H L Mc Quaid
09:28 Nov 21, 2021

haha, I had fun coming up with the idea for this, trying to think of a ridiculous job. Who knows what the future holds, it's a continual push and pull between freedom and responsibility. ;)


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Mister X
02:43 Nov 19, 2021

HL, this is classic satire. I think it’s so smart the people it makes fun of won’t realize it. I loved the detail and statistics. I’m guessing you just made them up but I believed them anyway. Great job. Really great job. I wrote one using the same prompt. I’d love it if you gave it a look see. Thanks in advance. 😀


H L Mc Quaid
09:29 Nov 19, 2021

thanks for reading, just returned the favour. But I need to cool down after reading yours (hits too close to home! ;) I made up the stats, tried to make them as ridiculous as possible. Glad it worked.


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Shea West
04:10 Nov 16, 2021

This was great! It almost read like a narration from someone telling us what was happening to this ladder intermediary. Similar to a Wes Anderson movie even. It gave me a great laugh, and the title is so clever!


H L Mc Quaid
14:25 Nov 18, 2021

Thanks Shea! I ❤️ Wes Anderson movies. So quirky and thought-provoking. Glad it made you laugh, that was the goal. :)


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Deidra Lovegren
12:59 Nov 14, 2021

There ought to be a law against how good of a writer you are . . . heh heh (See what I did there?) Loved this, as this was only slightly less ridiculous as getting a teacher certification in the States. (And they wonder why there is a teacher shortage.) Full of your trademark wit and intelligence, just the perfect read for a cold Sunday morning. Monty Python has a sketch written for their next reunion special!


H L Mc Quaid
13:15 Nov 14, 2021

well, thank you, so glad you enjoyed it. Monty Python would *Kill* this as a sketch (long live Monty Python. :) Also, disturbing to hear about the ridiculousness of the teacher certification process. :(


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Howard Seeley
04:52 Nov 27, 2021

Great effort. Keep up the good work!


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03:00 Nov 24, 2021

Very clever, and scary to think we might be headed that way. Love the title, too.


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Mellanie Crouell
19:01 Nov 20, 2021

Really enjoyed the story! I think about Dennis the Menace and Mr, Wilson in the ending. Mr. Brown does have a heart....LOL


H L Mc Quaid
19:38 Nov 20, 2021

ha, thanks. That brings back some old memories!


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