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Very Progressive People

M. J. Nicholls


very year, my husband and I attend the Hoxton Yachting Club’s annual raffle and always leave empty-handed. In 2021, the top prize was a chrome-encrusted mizzenmast from Lester Yubb-Yubb, the world’s premier aft enhancer, which went to the Forsythes who already own twenty-nine luxury sailboats and a million litres of the Adriatic. In 2022, the top prize was a ceramic reimagining of the Battle of Britain, recreated in painstaking detail by Vyvyan Whyte-Blyck and crisped in a special kiln at 556˚ F. These treasures—nor the consolation prizes of private boxes at Glyndebourne, invites to brunch at the Kremlin, or a quarter of a million pounds—ever seem to pass into our unworthy hands, no matter how many tickets we preorder months in advance.

This year, however, we were shocked and surprised to receive third prize, and extra shocked and extra-extra surprised when the prize offered to us was—brace yourselves for a surprise!—a negro servant. The crowd applauded somewhat half-heartedly when a strapping young black man, bald and muscular, the very spit of that chap from that Oscar-winning movie about moonlights or what have you, in a pair of chequered britches and tight beige shirt, came meekly toward us with a flat cap in his left hand, and stood by our side as the crowd swiftly turned away. At first I was mightily tickled and said “Very amusing!” to my husband Jeremy as the others awkwardly evaded our gaze and the raffle moved swiftly on. Our prize, whose name was Clarence, sat with us silently at the table for the rest of the evening and was not served any champagne.

Feeling rather awkward and unsure how to proceed, we cornered Dame Phyllis Norway, the organiser and deputy charwoman of the Royal Yachting Concern, who explained to us that Clarence was a real negro servant who had been kindly donated by an anonymous family in Hampshire, who no longer had need of any hired help, but would be paying his wages for however long we required his services. I readied myself to explain that Jeremy and I would feel rather ill-at-ease accepting such a prize in the current political climate, but I found myself reluctant to be a bother after such a pleasant evening, so we left the club with Clarence, who sat rather regally in the back of our BMW.

“Clarence, you understand we are very progressive people,” I said to break the ice.

“Yes ma’am,” he said.

“Oh, you needn’t call me ma’am. Please call me Lorraine.”


“As I was saying, we are very progressive people, we think the Afro-British people contribute massively to our society, and some are in very prominent positions now, such as Trevor MacDonald or that portly chap in the Labour party.”


“I must say, what a fine American accent you have. Were you raised there?”


“Oh, I see.”

The atmosphere remained a smidgen icky until we arrived at the house, where I showed Clarence to our daughter Pollyannabel’s old (and very pink) room, apologising for not having prepared less feminine sheets, and provided him with a fresh towel and a pair of Jeremy’s old pyjamas.

“Very grateful, ma’am. This’ll do me fine.”

“Good night, Clarence.”

In bed that night, I had fevered conference with Jeremy.

“We can’t possibly have a young negro servant following us around, think what this would do to our reputation for progressivism!” he said.

“We could actually use some help around the place, darling. Since Anneka left us we’ve struggled to find a regular cleaner, he might be a godsend, if he’s willing to clean for us. Do you think he’d clean for us?”

“I’m not sure, do negro servants clean?”

“Don’t call him a negro servant, Jeremy. It’s black servant. And anyway, his ethnicity has nothing to do with it. Just call him a servant.”

“Right, sorry.”

“We’ll check with him in the morning.”

I slept poorly that evening, not because I was worried about having a strange black man in the house—his ethnicity was never an issue for me, you must appreciate our reputation in this regard—for example, Jeremy had recently raised the wages of two Asian chaps at his office, merely for doing their work ruddy well—but because I was concerned about the to-do that might result if he refused to do the cleaning. We invited Clarence to eat with us at the table that morning.

“I can take breakfast in my room, ma’am,” he said.

“No no, we insist,” I said.

He sat awkwardly at the table and accepted the omelette Jeremy had prepared.

“Listen, Clarence,” I said, putting on the old Denby-Calton charm, “you should know we have nothing but respect for your people. What Martin Luther said about having a dream, where one day men would be hired based not on the colour of the skin but the content of their character, was one of the most powerful pieces of oratory of the 1970s. We don’t want to do anything to make you feel uncomfortable, so we ask you, would you be willing to do the cleaning?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“You wouldn’t have a problem?”

“No, ma’am.”

“And we might need you to pick up the shopping for us, and drive us around sometimes, can you drive, Clarence?” Jeremy asked.


“Please, no need to call me sir, Clarence!”

“Not yet,” I said, with a wink.

Vivere in spe, honey.”

So, most unexpectedly, we found ourselves the owners, or should I say, the employers (although we weren’t paying him—the keepers?) of a very retro servant indeed! We found Clarence a diligent and thorough operator, uncomplaining and obliging to a fault, and slowly our embarrassment at having a young black man speaking American street dialect in the house was nonexistent. When we were next at the Yacht Club, we recommended him to our friends.

“Once you overcome the initial squeamishness, the social taboo, they’re actually very effective workers. You can see why those Southern families in America were reluctant to part with them before the whole civil rights thingy,” I said to spinster Barbara Woolworth.

“But do you not feel awkward having him around all the time?” Marge Doughty asked me.

“Not at all. On his first day, we sat him down and explained that we understood the struggle of his people, Rodney Luther King and all that, so he didn’t view us as modern-day plantation owners, whipping him into shape, how awful! Yesterday he broke a plate, and we didn’t even dock the expense from his wages, although we don’t control his wages. I wonder how much he makes, Jeremy?”

“Worth checking,” he said.

Our recommendation slowly led to an upsurge in well-to-do families looking for black servants. Many recent asylum seekers from African countries were found, and swiftly recruited as live-in helpers.

“And if I may say so, they make for fine eye candy too!” I said.

“Oh, Lorraine, you vixen!”


ur story continues, and brace yourself for weirdness! As Clarence was cleaning around us we noticed his skin becoming increasingly black—not in terms of pigmentation—remember, we had learned as very progressive people to be colour blind—but in terms of the actual Pantone colour chart. Let me explain.

A week into his time with us, his skin had turned carbon-black, black in the sense the scientists understand blackness—the complete absorption of all visible light. Even when Clarence was stood in a shaft of sunlight, his skin was as black as the darkest cosmos.

A day later, we noticed his eyeballs, previously wide and bulging, and his thick protruding lips, had begun to dim.

The next day, they were scarcely visible, his sounds barely audible.

Later, we were unable to hear him at all.

Then his clothes began to absorb the blackness of his body.

Clarence, in the space of fourteen days with us, became an eerie void in the shape of a human being. His entire frame from top to bottom was black as black was black—vantablack, Jeremy learned was the blackest black known to man—as he hoovered the front room, polished the brass fittings, and featherdusted the bookshelves.

“What are we to do about him?” I asked Jeremy worriedly in bed.

“I don’t know. We can’t possibly dismiss him, we’d be accused of discrimination . . . you know, firing him for being too black.”

“But he is too black. He’s starting to absorb some of the furniture, have you noticed? When he was hoovering under the chesterfield, the backrest started fading to black in real time.”

“Oh my, really?”

“Yes, and the hoover nozzle itself is completely black, as is the feather duster.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Honey, I had a terrible thought.”


“If we stand too close to him, could we too turn black?”

“Heaven forfend.”


“What? Oh, I didn’t mean it like that, you know my progressivism on the race question. I meant that we don’t want to ourselves turning into odd, human-shaped blackholes like this poor chap.”

“I have a sneaking suspicion, you know, that this so-called anonymous family in Hampshire who donated Clarence to the raffle might be the Mercurats. You know, that mad scientist lot who were sued for conducting experiments on people?”

“Oh my, yes, that would make sense. I mean, there’s no current scientific reason why a chap would turn completely black and slowly absorb everything around him, is there?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“I’ll make some enquiries tomorrow.”

The curious kerfuffle escalated before we could really knock our heads together. When I peeked into Clarence’s room that morning, I found his bed had become a bed-shaped blackhole and the surrounding curtains and bedside tables were dimming too. Our tabby cat Eleutheria had been sleeping on his bed and had lost her charming stripy coat to become a black cat, or rather a blackhole of a cat.

“Good heavens, he’s going to absorb the whole house!” I muttered to myself.

We had no choice. We had to have words with poor old Clarence that morning.

“Clarence, you know we value your work,” I said, staring into the void that was once the handsome young black—lighter black—man, “but this metamorphosing into a blackhole business is really concerning us. I know you can no longer speak, but I hope you can understand me. I’m afraid we will have to let you go for the moment until we can get to the bottom of this. Do you have somewhere you can stay?”

He seemed to nod his head, if you could call it a head, or indeed if you could call him a him.

“I am pleased. Don’t take this as a comment on the quality of your work, which has been exemplary, and I believe your previous owners—I mean employers—are still paying your wages, so you will not be out of pocket.”

“We wish you all the best, Clarence,” Jeremy said, showing him to the door.

As he vanished across the fields, a science-fiction blur vanishing up the narrow farm road to heaven knows where (we couldn’t bring ourselves to drop him at the train station in case he absorbed our car), we returned to the kitchen for a stiff shot of whisky.

“I think that was the right decision, darling,” Jeremy said, pouring me another.

“Those bloody Mercurats!” I fumed. “Taking a perfectly nice young boy and experimenting on him like that. I’ll be having words with them, if we can ever track them down. Now everyone will think we fired him. Do you think we will lose our reputation for progressivism?”

“No, and anyway the poor chap can’t speak, and no one knows he’s turned into a blackhole. I think we should keep mum for the time being.”

“Yes, probably for the best. Now, should we search for someone else, perhaps a nice Ukrainian lady fleeing that awful war?”

“I’ll have a look tomorrow.”

We never saw our prize, or what had become of him, again. A fortnight later, we read a strange story in the local paper that part of the River Osh near our house had turned inexplicably dark—all the waves absorbed into a Clarence-like void. I shuddered when I read it, I must say, but I suppose on balance, it’s for the best, as long as the rest of that beautiful river is not completely depleted of all observable light. I also read later—connected, I am certain—that the Mercurats made a splash with their first so-called Humanish Helper, a person-shaped outline you could decorate with the colour of your choice, controlled by your laptop thingy, a silent servant that was set to revolutionise the world of domestic drudgery. It has to be said, I found the whole thing incredibly sinister. Those bloody Mercurats!


M. J. Nicholls