My interview with Paul Oxley appeared on the late evening news, and we watched it, largely out of inertia in my case. I noticed with relief that the part about my supposed “close connection” with Ewan had been excised. Aunt Judy sat beside me, and I rested my head against her and tried not to think.
At the end of the programme, the producer of my interview appeared on-screen, with a small inset of me behind.
“I’m Don Dalrymple. I’m the producer of the interview with Jack Marchmont which you saw earlier in that programme. While we were recording that interview in Jack’s house, we came upon something truly remarkable, and tomorrow we’ll be sharing it with you. Here, this time tomorrow, presented by the Minister for Children, Max Margrave. Don’t miss it.”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I couldn’t work out whether to be proud or terrified or appalled.
“Well, boys,” said my uncle. “Shall I go and work for Marietta Borley in London?”
“It would mean leaving Auntie Judy,” I said, hugging her. “That would be really sad.”
“No,” she said. “They’re offering me a job too. Managing the hotels on the Government site. It’s quite a big job.”
“Do you want to move, Auntie?”
“I don’t mind for myself. But Mat and Marcus—I think it would be good for them to get out of this town. The people they know here are really frightening. So I say go.”
“I say go too,” I said. “It’ll be good for Auntie and her boys, it’ll be good for Uncle, because I know he wanted this job before, and it’ll be close to the foxy Lakshmi for Neal!”
“Shut! Up!” he said, blushing and laughing.
“Yes, Jack, but how about you?” said my uncle. “We don’t know who your mentor will be, but he’ll probably be here.”
“It’ll be good to have an excuse to get out of town. The next six years are going to be pretty miserable for me, no matter what. At least with you away I’ll be able to look forward to going to London for the weekend, or whatever. If we lived here, I’d never know when he was going to turn up.”
“It may not be that bad,” he said. “He could be a good and sympathetic person, Jack, you can’t judge him in advance.”
“I know you’re right. I just find it hard to see it that way at the moment.”
“Give it time.”
“There isn’t much. We give in our forms tomorrow, fourth, fifth and sixth years, and the ceremony’s a fortnight later.”
“What happens?” asked Aunt Judy.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but they announce the selections and then straight away they hand us over to our mentors. We go with them for a month after that. No contact with the parents. We’re supposed to turn up for the ceremony with all our clothes packed. It terrifies me.”
“A lot of people will feel like that,” said my aunt. “Your Request will give some of them hope. Some of their parents too, because it’s not exactly easy for them either.”
“To get back to moving,” said my uncle. “For me, it’s a job which is far better paid, and there’s a chance of doing some real good. The schools are better there, which may only affect Neal, but still. And it’s a chance to get out of this town, which has really horrible memories for all of us. Okay, the motion before this house is that we should move to live near the Centre. As many as are of that opinion, say ‘aye’.”
“Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.” “Aye.”
“The contrary, ‘no’... I think the ayes have it; the ayes have it.”
Following family tradition we gave a small cheer.
“Okay,” said my uncle. “Tomorrow we start the ball rolling. Objective: to be moved by Christmas. Agreed?”
I went to bed early. I could hear the sound of the others chatting, but by the time Neal came to bed, I was asleep. It was later that the nightmares started: my parents’ death, and people being burned at the stake, only now it was Neal and my uncle and aunt; and me, being dragged out into the gardens, me screaming as the others had screamed, and instead of Greencross and Cutts it was Ewan, Ewan holding the burning torch aloft...
I wish I had another lifesuit, I thought the next morning as I dressed; the ones I have are far too happy and frivolous. Next time I’ll get a brown and black one, maybe, or grey, because that’s how I feel, grey at heart. And you have no option, of course, you can’t wear anything with the lifesuit, except the cloak, nothing to change the effect. That’s the idea, to cut down your options; that’s it, that’s what being a controlled child is about. No change of clothes, careful what you eat, lay off the ciggies, exercise, keep away from churches, don’t skive off school...
“Don’t forget this,” said my uncle, holding out my draft of the Request, as I suppose I had to call it.
“Hey,” he said, when he saw my face. “Come here.”
He hugged me for a long time, and Neal and my aunt came round and hugged me too, and I could feel my uncle kissing the top of my head, something quite extraordinary from him.
“Go and do it,” he said. “Remember, that is your manifesto. If anything can get you a good man as your mentor, that’s it. We’ll be back at four o’clock.”
“You were asleep when I came to bed,” said Neal, as we walked to school. “You had bad dreams all night. I didn’t know whether to wake you, you were almost screaming sometimes.”
“I’m sorry. It’ll get better.”
“I didn’t say, but... Don’t have Ewan for a mentor, Jack! He’s just being horrible to you, and I can’t see why, you’re never nasty to people, you’re the nicest person I know. There are lots of nice men in the world, I know there are. Any of them would be better for you. Get someone new and nice!”
It broke my heart to see him so distressed. And then, a little way off by the school gates, I was shocked to see a familiar figure: Ewan himself. Obviously he was waiting for me. There was no other way in; I had to pass him.
“Hey, there’s Pete,” I said quickly to Neal. “Weren’t you going to ask him about that trig question?”
“He was going to ask me, you mean,” said Neal scornfully; but he was off.
Ewan stood squarely in front of me. His face was without expression, but again I noticed a strange, frightened look round his eyes. I was shaking by now. I felt I was going to faint.
“I asked you not to contact me,” I managed to say.
“I need to be sure that you remember what I said.”
“I have no intention of nominating you.”
“Just so long...”
“I will not nominate you,” I said. “I’ve now told you that three times. Since the selection is private neither you nor anyone else will know for sure. You’ll have to take my word for it.” I looked at him flatly. “I also asked you not to contact me. Please do as I ask. Goodbye.”
I turned abruptly and left him, and at that moment there was a screech of fury behind me.
“What are you doing here? Go away! Go away! Leave Jack alone, you—you—bully!”
The thought came to me that Ewan might draw his sidearm and shoot Neal; and then, more sanely, that dozens of our schoolfellows would see what was happening. In fact Ewan simply stood there, his face twisted in astonishment, as my brother literally danced in front of him, screaming. I grabbed Neal by his arm and pulled him away.
“Come on, brother, let’s go,” I said.
I led him into school without even looking back. It was a truly vile start to the day.
“Right, everyone. This isn’t an exam,” said the teacher.
The main hall was set out as if for an exam, though, with each of us on our own little table. And on each table were two copies of the form.
“Remember what you have to do. You can write the name of a single person, or even of more than one person, at the top. Or, you can write in the bottom part what kind of person you want for your mentor, what you expect from you mentor, how you see the relationship between you. Go over the page if you wish. You can use any notes you’ve prepared. You can ask me any questions you like as you go along, but don’t talk to each other. And remember: anything you write is completely private. Only the selectors will see it. The forms will be burnt once they’ve finished. Okay? Take as long as you like. When you’ve finished, give the completed form to me and leave. Any questions?”
“Can we do both? Nominate someone and say what kind of person we want?”
“Sure, yes. In fact, if you nominate, I would definitely advise filling in the other section as well. At the very least you need to indicate whether you want a man or a woman as your mentor. Remember what Dr Borley said about this, and how important it is to be honest. Okay, please start.”
I should be just writing his name and leaving happily. I should... Well, that wasn’t how it was. I drew a firm diagonal line across the top part. That does it, I thought. Then I took my notes out of my belt-pouch. REQUEST TO MY SELECTORS, I wrote firmly, and began to copy. And soon I had finished.
Then I gave the form to the teacher and left. I’d done it.
The rest of the day I scarcely noticed. I thought of skiving off, but now I was wearing the Golden Circle, that was impossible, of course. So I endured. And I wondered whether Ewan would be there at the gate at the end of the day. Maybe he would, and say it was all a terrible mistake. Maybe he really wanted me to nominate him, to prove I really loved him. Maybe...
But finally the school day came to an end. I was waiting disconsolately in the corridor for Neal to come out of his last class.
“Hello, Mr Andrews.”
“The thing you wrote on your selection form—do you have a copy?”
He was one of the selectors, of course. I smiled wanly.
“Yes. Don’t worry. There’s a copy.”
“It’s rude of me to ask, but I must. Did you write it yourself?”
“What? Yes, of course I did. Er—all except the title,” I added scrupulously. “Originally I called it just MY MENTOR. Is that a problem?”
“No, Jack, of course it isn’t. Who told you to change it?”
He looked at me sharply.
“Ah. I see. Well, I promise we’ll do our best for you, Jack. We really will.”
“Thanks, Mr Andrews.”
Fortunately at that moment the door opened, and we were inundated with racing twelve-year-olds. I found Neal; and when I looked round, Mr Andrews had disappeared.
Of course, there was no Ewan waiting at the gate, just Corporal Roberts as usual. Neal chatted happily with him as we walked home, and I was glad of the peace.
And then I noticed: all the billboards had been stripped. They were empty. Waiting. And I knew what for.
“I can’t understand why he should come to the school,” said my aunt. “What’s the point?”
“He said he wanted to check that I wasn’t going to nominate him. I said I wouldn’t. Again.”
“I was so angry,” said Neal. “There he was, after everything!”
“You made a scene,” I said. “He hates scenes.”
We looked at each other and smiled.
“Everyone’s getting Golden Circles tomorrow,” said Neal, while we were eating supper. “We’ll all be controlled children then.”
I hated it. I hated the thought of the State bearing down on my carefree brother; it seemed as if such a heaviness was about to fall on his bright child’s life. But there was no point in saying this, in making him hate the inevitable.
“It’s no problem, brother,” I said. “You don’t even notice the Circle after a while.”
“Are they disabling your implants too?” said my uncle.
We were still eating when Corporal Roberts returned, accompanied by two squaddies.
“We’ve been told to mount a guard here tonight,” he said. “Not sure why. Don’t worry though—we’ve eaten.”
“That’s okay, we know what’s going on,” said my uncle. “I’m sure it’s just a precaution.”
We were just marking time. My broadcast was going to be in the Government slot. I was as nervous as if I was going to be doing it live. Nothing else I’d done on TV had been so terrifying.
Finally, the moment came. My uncle invited the corporal and his mates in to watch; I wasn’t sure about this, but it would have been rude not to, and they sat behind us. I squeezed in between my uncle and aunt, and Neal sat on the floor between my legs. They’re all round me, I thought. These three people always support me, no matter what.
“Listen, Jack,” said my uncle. “Watch it as a professional. Check what’s well done, and what’s bad. Be dispassionate, as if it were somebody else, not you.”
I smiled up at him; it was exactly the right thing to say.
The Government logo. Suddenly, stupidly, for the first time I realised what it was: the Golden Circle itself. And then it was Max.
“Good evening. You may have seen the interview with Jack Marchmont which we broadcast yesterday. As it happens, I went with the crew to Jack’s house, because there were things I wanted to discuss with him and his family. Jack has a lot on his mind at the moment. His school is currently selecting mentors for the fourth, fifth and sixth years. Kids are asked to submit a form, saying what kind of person they want as a mentor, and today was the day that Jack had to do this.
“Well, Jack did the interview in his usual professional way, and I wish I could broadcast the jokes he cracked to the crew. But we could tell his mind was elsewhere. And purely by chance, Don Dalrymple, our producer, picked up a piece of paper from the kitchen table, and read it. On it, Jack had prepared the text which today he submitted to his mentor selectors, describing what he expected from his mentor.
“We managed to persuade Jack to allow us to hear it, and we’re going to broadcast it now, read by Jack himself. No comments till after. Hear it yourself.”
And then I appeared on the screen. The background was fairly dark, but I was brightly lit: just my face and the top of my lifesuit-covered shoulders. To read, I looked slightly down and to the left; but then up, to meet the camera. It worked well.
“Request to My Selectors,” I started. I was fascinated by my voice. Of course, I’d heard it before, but this was different, because I wasn’t just chatting. This was a performance, in some sense. As before, I was struck by how young I seemed, how light the voice was, a high, light tenor; and how young the face looked in closeup, not a trace of beard or moustache as yet, and the eyelashes were long and fair, against the dark brown of my head.
I was reading well. I was connecting, and against my will, almost, I was pleased. Those who knew would be impressed that it was all a single take. But no one could doubt that this reader was sad. There was a deep melancholy behind the eyes, and it became clearer and clearer as the reading went on. When I came to the last but one paragraph: ...will not deceive me, nor betray me... I realised that my eyes were filling. He will speak the truth. He will keep his promises —and a tear ran slowly down my cheek. The last paragraph was spoken in not much more than a whisper.
It was overwhelming, it was almost terrifying. I gripped the hands of my aunt and uncle madly. I couldn’t weep now, not in front of the soldiers.
On the screen I looked down again, and the picture held my face for two seconds or more, and slowly faded.
“Cry if you like, kid,” said the corporal. “I reckon I am.”
I was, quietly; I couldn’t stop myself. And then it was Max again. He paused for a moment.
“I expect you can imagine the effect it had on us there, hearing and seeing that for the first time. Some people watching this evening will know the background to that broadcast, and why it affected Jack that way. If you’re watching, Jack, we continue to think of you and hope for the best for you, because if anyone deserves it, you do.
“But the Request to My Selectors is more than just the expression of a heart in pain. There is a mind at work here, and it’s turned to the question: what should be the nature of the mentor/pupil relationship? It’s a very timely question, with selections starting this week in Jack’s home town of Chedley, and moving out over the country over the next month, and after the holiday. What Jack has given us is a kind of checklist, an agenda for selectors, for mentors and for pupils, and I’d like to start to discuss it this evening.
“With me are Dr Marietta Borley, the Minister for Health; Terry Downing, who’s directing the mentor programme at the Children’s Ministry, so I’m his boss; Prof Abdulrahman Maitland, director of the London Institute of Education; and Charlie Endsleigh, of the think-tank RATIO. I’d like, if I may, to focus in turn on four themes which run through the Request: love, leading forwards, control and trust. Perhaps we can start with love. Charlie?”
I listened with mounting astonishment as the discussion progressed. It wasn’t that I disagreed with what was being said: it was just that the implications of what I had written had scarcely been in my mind at all when I wrote, as far as I could remember. They were finding things in what I wrote, and behind what I wrote, which I had no memory of putting there. And they weren’t using intellectual language; I realised that the corporal and his men were listening intently, and so, even, was Neal. Sections of the text were being displayed on the screen, with words underlined; occasionally the discussion got quite loud. For my part, I was finding it hard to concentrate.
Suddenly there was a sound, and for a moment I didn’t recognise it. In fact, it was my uncle’s phone, and he leant forward to answer it.
“Alan Marchmont... Oh! good evening sir...” He gestured for the sound to be turned down, and my aunt did it. “Yes, sir, he’s here. We’ve been watching it together. Yes, of course.” He passed the phone to me with a grin. “General Baxter for you.”
My eyes widened, and I felt the soldiers freeze.
“Jack Marchmont speaking, sir.”
“I’ve been watching. It was very moving, Jack, and Max is quite right, there’s a lot of thought in there too. Are you listening to the discussion?”
“To be honest, sir, I’m finding it hard to pay attention. I’ve—I’ve had quite a hard day. And I don’t seem to remember writing all the stuff they’re finding there.”
“I believe you,” he said. “But that stuff is actually there, Jack. And it’s important. It’ll help people to understand what a mentor should be, what the word means, and at this stage, that’s vital. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir. Just so long as they don’t ask me what it really means.”
“Ah. Well, what I want to know is, why were you crying? And what the hell has happened to Ewan Hart?”
“I—I don’t know where he is, sir,” I said. “He’s on leave, Max said.”
“Yes, I know. So what happened between you?”
“I’m not sure if I should say, sir.”
“You should. Are you aware that I am a military dictator?”
“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it, sir,” I said, with a giggle.
“A diplomatic response. Do you have soldiers there, guarding you?”
“Yes sir, Corporal Roberts and his guys are here.”
“Well, you ask Corporal Roberts if he would arrest you at my orders.”
“Like a shot, Jack,” said the corporal with a smile, when I relayed this.
“Good man, Roberts! You tell him that. So, you’d better tell me what I ask, hadn’t you?”
“Okay, sir. Well, Ewan told me not to nominate him. He said it would make people think that the selection was rigged. And there are about a thousand mentors in Chedley, so that means there’s really almost no chance of me getting him. He said it’s just something I have to accept, and told me not to be childish when I objected. But I am a child, and I’m finding it very hard, sir, I’m sorry. You see, the submissions are private, aren’t they? No one will know. So I can’t see how it would make people think the selection was rigged.”
“I see. So you think he just wants to get rid of you?”
“I don’t know, sir. I’m not certain what he wants. Can I leave it like that?”
“There are people there, such as the good corporal, who you would prefer not to hear?”
“Exactly, sir. But Max knows what I think.”
“Good. I want you settled properly, young man, because you have work to do. Don’t argue, minion! The dictator speaks! Disobedience is not an option!”
I laughed aloud.
“That’s better,” he said. “Now, you listen to the TV discussion as well as you can, because this is not going away, Jack. I know you must be feeling pretty bad. But Max and I will look into this. Are you impressed?”
“Very impressed, sir. Max is very impressive.”
“I’m glad you recognise that. Not many do. So, try to get some sleep. Go to school tomorrow, and try to deal with what will happen there. Then it will be the weekend, and I would like you to come to the Centre, with the rest of your family. I understand that Neal will be particularly pleased to come.”
“So Max is a gossip as well,” I said.
The general laughed, which was very gratifying.
“A good politician is always a gossip, Jack, remember that. I’ll see you at the weekend. Your uncle has Bill Tansley’s number at Pub-Ed. He’ll make the arrangements.”
“Good night, then. And trust your neighbourhood dictator, okay?”
He hung up.
“I’m to tell you, ‘Good man, Roberts!’”
“Why did he ask that, Jack? Whether I’d arrest you?”
“He wanted to prove he was a military dictator. He said: ‘Don’t argue, minion! The dictator speaks! Disobedience is not an option!’”
Everyone laughed, and my uncle turned the sound up. The discussion was just coming to an end.
“That’s all for tonight,” said Max. “One thing: I understand we’ve had hundreds of calls from people wanting to be Jack’s mentor. I’m afraid that the deadline for his school has passed, but up and down the country there are hundreds of thousands of children waiting for mentors, boys, girls, all ages from twelve up. So if you think you’ve got what it takes, get in touch with a local school. You’ll be doing a favour to a child who really needs it, and indirectly to the country. Thank you for the thought. Tomorrow we’ll hear from George Padmore, Minister for Constitution and Society. He’ll be looking at the ethical bases of the Request, and their wider implications. Join him.”
And then, to my horror, they showed the piece again.
“Damn, it’s still good,” said my uncle.
“Yeah,” said the corporal. “I’m going to have to think about that. Not sure if you can be a mentor when you’re in the army...”
“Won’t be in for ever,” said another soldier.
“The General wants us to go to the Centre this weekend,” I said. “All four of us. He said he understood that Neal would be particularly pleased to come.”
“He didn’t!” Neal shouted.
“How do we get there?” said my uncle. “Where do we stay?”
“You’re to ring Bill Tansley in Pub-Ed and he’ll make arrangements.”
“Well, we’d better go, hadn’t we? And you, Neal, you have a phone call to make, I think?”
He blushed and took Uncle Alan’s phone into the office.
“That was so good, Jack,” said Neal, once we were in bed. “I didn’t have a chance to say before, but it was.”
“It’s mad. I just wrote it down, it only took a morning, and now everyone’s...”
“It isn’t mad, because it’s really good. To him, nothing in the world will be more important than I am... Wow. Don’t laugh, Jack, but if Lakshmi ever thought that about me, I’d think I was the Emperor of Space!”
“I’m not laughing. I think it’s sweet, you and her.”
“It isn’t just sex.”
“Now I should laugh, sprout,” I said.
“No, you don’t understand. I’m not ready, I know that, and actually I was a bit frightened that—that I might have to do things, you know? And if you tell anyone I said that I’ll kill you. But supposing she’s my mentor and she’s like what you said. Then, when I gradually grow up, she’d be there to show me, bit by bit...”
“That’s exactly how it’s meant to be. That’s what I was saying, not just about sex but everything. That’s it.”
“Yes, but you see, Jack, I understand that because of what you said. As I grow, he will not be afraid to guide me through our love. Really... Jack? Dad, he always wanted us to write things, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, brother, he did,” I said.
It brought a lump to my throat. And it made me happier than I’d felt all week.