The next morning I remembered that in school I would have to cope with the backwash from the “gay” paragraph in the Request. That had been such a minor concern in all the events of the last couple of days that until now I had almost forgotten it. Now it came to me that I could be in very real and physical danger. So could Neal.
“Maybe it would be better if you kept away from me today,” I said. “On the way to school, as well.”
“Why? Ashamed of me?”
“He’s talking about the paragraph that mentions gay sex,” said my uncle. “Well, almost mentions. Maybe gaybashers...”
“Oh boy. You don’t get it, Jack, do you?” said Neal. “Sometimes I think you just wander around asleep at school, brother. Look. You turn up on TV with Max Margrave and people like that. General Baxter himself spoke about you on the TV, he spoke to you, even. Posters with pictures of you are all over the town and everywhere else. Every evening, Corporal Roberts meets us at the school gate with his automatic rifle. You’re the coolest of the coolest of the cool. And it’s completely obvious that you’re right in there with the Government and all the bullies are scared to death of you. If you said “boo” to them they’d run a mile.”
I stared at him, completely astonished. I knew that I had mysteriously become cool recently, but I’d never guessed at this.
“There’s nowhere I could be safer than right next to you,” Neal went on.
“Er... Well, okay then.”
“Sometimes I think you need Neal as a guide dog,” said my aunt.
I laughed at the image.
“Yeah, maybe,” said Neal. “But Jack said: He will be gentle with the weak and the oppressed, and fierce with the cruel and violent. I’ll never be able to write that sort of stuff.”
“Oh, please,” I said. “That’s over now.”
“It hasn’t even started, Jack,” said my uncle.
So we set out to school, Neal and I with my uncle; and almost at once we came to a brand new poster with a different design. It had me on the left, looking down and towards the right of the poster, as I had at the end of the recording, and in front of me a hazy Golden Circle; and on top the wording.
Before everything he will love me,
and to him, nothing in the world will be
more important than I am
—Jack Marchmont, Request to My Selectors
“Oh, help...” I said.
I’d anticipated it, but nothing had prepared me for the impact.
“I think that’s my favourite bit in the whole thing,” said Neal.
“Maybe you’re right,” said my uncle. “I like My mentor will be sane but not conventional myself. He’ll be dancing naked in the streets, but not totally psychotic. I like that.”
I laughed gratefully, but not for long, because the next poster was just along the road.
I will be his comrade as well as his pupil,
and our partnership will astonish the world
—Jack Marchmont, Request to My Selectors
There must have been seven or eight along the way. And each one of them spoke to me only of loss, only of what I had glimpsed, had hoped for, and then had torn away. The last one was right outside the school.
He will teach me to sing my own song
in harmony with his for the rest of my life
—Jack Marchmont, Request to My Selectors
“Jack?” said my uncle. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. You know. It’s—well, it’s bitter seeing those posters.”
“I understand. But lots of kids will see them, and they’ll help some of them deal with the idea of a mentor. Maybe possible mentors will see them too, and get some idea of what’s expected of them. You’ve done a good thing, Jack.”
“Maybe. I’m sorry, Uncle.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. Off you go, now. The army will be at the house at five o’clock to take us to London, okay?”
That gave me something to look forward to. I longed to be out of Chedley.
“Yes, Mr Andrews?”
“You made quite a splash, didn’t you?”
“I—I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s all rather got out of my control.”
“Don’t apologise, son. I’m proud to be one of the people it was addressed to. Look. Everyone else is getting their Golden Circles today. I was wondering if you could just, well, say a few words to the assembly about it, try to reassure them. Especially the little ones. Could you do that?”
“No embarrassing questions about mentors?”
“Promise,” he said. “We have a visitor for the day: Tony Denholm from the Children’s Ministry. He’s in charge of the Golden Circle programme, it seems.”
“I’ve heard of him.”
“We’re the first, and he wants to see how it goes for our students.”
“Including Neal. I—I don’t much like it, Mr Andrews.”
“You don’t? It hasn’t been a problem for you, has it?”
“Not much,” I said, “but it just seems such a heavy thing for him. He’s just my little kid brother, you know?”
“Does it worry him?”
“No, not a bit. He’s much more of a Rationalist than I am.”
“Just go with it, Jack. You can’t stop it, and you know that it won’t really do him any harm. Actually, it might help him not to grow too quickly, in some ways.”
“Maybe. Okay, I’ll speak to them...”
So a little later I found myself on the platform in the main hall, with Mr Andrews, who was increasingly taking over the role of headteacher, Tony Denholm and Miss Gimson, a motherly teacher who I’d always liked. Mr Andrews introduced me to the guest; he was a large man, at least six foot six, and like Max, he gave the impression of a social worker on holiday, or a very wild and woolly teacher. He smiled at me as he shook my hand. I asked him for a Circle to show the kids, and he gave me one.
“Well, everyone,” said Mr Andrews, “as you know, today you’ll all be given your Golden Circles. And as it happens, we have in the school Jack Marchmont, who’s the only person in the country who already has his Circle, and I’ve asked him to tell us a bit about what it’s like. Jack?”
I looked out into the hall. All five hundred of my fellow-students were there, and my heart sank. There was a strange feeling in the air, and I couldn’t recognise it, or understand it. What could I say to them?
“I—I’ve been wearing the Golden Circle since Monday,” I started. “Let me show you.”
I started to undo my lifesuit buckle, and at once Tony Denholm stepped forward to help. A gasp, almost of horror, ran round the hall, and I twisted away from him.
Seeing his shocked face, I went on quickly.
“It’s okay, I guess he hasn’t been around people wearing lifesuits before,” I said to the hall. “Sorry, Mr Denholm, but you never touch someone’s lifesuit buckle without asking their permission.”
“No, I’m sorry, Jack. I didn’t know.”
I folded back the top of my lifesuit so that the hall could see my Circle.
“There it is. You can see it really does look golden, although it isn’t actually gold; it’s some other kind of metal. It’s completely comfortable and most of the time I don’t even notice it. I’ve got another one here,” I said, holding it up. “Maybe you can see it better. I tell you what, why don’t people ask me questions about it.”
Mr Andrews smiled at me and began to pick out people who raised their hands.
“Did it hurt when they put it on?”
Not then, I thought. Not then. That came later.
“Nope. Completely painless. But they’ll also disable your implant and that’s, well, a sudden ouch and that’s it.”
“Someone said that it’ll hurt you if you wear non-standard clothes.”
“No, it’s just a sort of teeth-on-edge feeling all down your back. It’s nasty, but it doesn’t hurt exactly. You couldn’t ignore it, that’s definite.”
“Is it true you can’t eat sweeties or ice-cream any more?”
“No, it’s not true. It’s just that it’ll stop you eating too much of anything. It’ll stop you eating so much you get fat. You will not be a fat teenager.”
“Is it true you can’t smoke or drink?”
“No. It checks your blood for infections and poisons and misbalances. But it doesn’t worry about a small drink for someone who’s fifteen or sixteen, say, and it won’t bother with a couple of ciggies a week. You can smoke all the ciggies it’ll let you and not get addicted. They’re going to tell us later what other things it does allow.”
“Can they track you down wherever you are?”
“Yes. But keeping track of all the kids in the country all the time is too much. Too much information. They say they’ll use it when they want to find you: like, if you get lost, or kidnapped, or you run away. Or if you skive off school. Skiving off school is a thing of the past.”
“Will it stop you having sex?”
“How do you know?”
A ripple of smutty titters ran round the hall.
“Can you take it off?”
“No. It stays on till your twentieth birthday. Except that hospitals will have a special thing to take it off if you’re ill.”
“I don’t want to have it. My dad told me to refuse.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but it’s compulsory for you, just as it is for me and everyone else. You just have to get used to it.”
I saw Dezzy put his hand up, and because I knew him, I could sense quite clearly his disquiet.
“It’s taking away our freedom. I—I don’t like it, Jack. I really hate it. You know Max Margrave and General Baxter and some of the other ministers. Can’t you get them to not do it?”
The whole hall was silent and tense, and suddenly I recognised what it was that they were feeling. It was fear. My fellow-students were terrified. I remembered what Ewan had said about the army coming in if there was a riot. Neal was there, and they were my friends, some of them, and I cared about the others as well, I discovered. I had to think of something to say that would help them deal with what was going to happen.
I had never done anything like this before, but I had to do it. I sat down on the edge of the platform, passing the Circle through my hands on my lap, and trying to think what to say. In front of me was a group of first years, eleven-year-olds, and their serious faces revealed their disquiet.
There was no point it trying to minimise what was going to happen, that was obvious. They were entitled to the honest truth.
“You’re right, Dezzy,” I said, looking at him. “It does take away our freedom. You will only wear the Standard Clothing, you can’t eat what you like, you can’t smoke or drink what you like or take all the drugs you’d like, you can’t run away or skive off school, you have to take exercise. And you won’t be allowed to go to religious and political meetings, and there’ll be no religion in the schools. We’ve lost those freedoms. We are controlled children, till we’re twenty.
“People will tell you that doesn’t matter. Kids have always been controlled, they say, this is just making it a bit more efficient. But I don’t buy that. If you change something enough, it becomes a different thing. You make a plant bigger and bigger, and it becomes a bush; bigger still, and it’s a tree. The way they’re restricting our freedoms isn’t at all the same as your mum saying, ‘Don’t let me catch you smoking again!’ Because this” —and I held up the Circle— “this is the State saying it, and the State can make it stick.”
The hall was dead silent. They were listening hard.
“So don’t believe people who say it’s not different. It is different. And in fact Max Margrave admitted it was. He said to me that it was an imposition on kids. That was the Standard Clothing, and it’s all part of the same thing. George Padmore said that children would be ‘relentlessly controlled’. And the Government always means what it says, it seems to me. Our freedom is being taken away.
“Why is the Government so keen to do this? I mean, seven or eight million of these things,” —I threw it into the air and caught it— “they must cost a bomb, and all the hassle of distributing them and putting them on. And the cost of the Standard Clothing, it’s enormous—why not spend all this money on something else?
“The reason is, the Government thinks all this is really important, probably the most important thing they’re doing. They really want this, and there’s absolutely no chance we’re going to change their minds, Dezzy, no chance at all. And the reason is, they want to change the whole country, and everyone in it.”
There was a ripple of unease in the hall. But I knew what to say now; it was what we’d been thinking about for weeks and months.
“We’ve all seen what happened this year and last. I saw it, I sat in my house and heard the screams when they burnt people in Vicky Square, and hanged them and stoned them, and all those sermons on and on and on, it’s God’s will, God hates perverts, God hates Jews, God hates Muslims and devil-worshippers and queers and blacks and feminists! Kill them! Burn them! It’s God’s will! And that was how it was here, we had crazy Christians, in other places it was crazy Muslims and crazy fascists and crazy trotskyists and crazy nationalists, and other kinds of people so crazy you couldn’t even tell what kind of crazy they were. How did all that happen?
“Because it isn’t by itself. It doesn’t come from nowhere. People believe that stuff, because they believe all kinds of other crazy and stupid stuff about God creating the world in six days and aliens from space kidnapping people and pink crystals stopping pollution and ancient runes and ley lines and astrology controlling your life. And all kinds of daft nonsense about sex and health, and how to run society, and on and on and on. People have been filled with nonsense, and that’s why they’ve gone crazy. And some of the nonsense seems harmless, but it leads straight on, straight on to those fires in Vicky Square.
“And the crazy people pass their craziness on, they give that craziness and that stupidity to their children and to the children who go to their churches and mosques and so on. Don’t get me wrong! It’s not their fault they do this, because they got all that craziness from their parents, and they got it from theirs and so on, back and back into history. It’s not their fault!
“But the Government is saying: enough! It stops right here. We will not pass the craziness on any more. There will not be any more fires in the gardens. We will draw a deep breath, we will count to ten, and we — will — change.”
It was a new experience for me, speaking to so many people. But it turned out that I could do it; and now that I knew where I was going, I didn’t feel frightened at all.
“That’s why they’re taking our freedom. They’re saying: yes, we know it’s an imposition. Yes, it’s going to be rough on you, but it’s necessary, because whether you want to or not, you are going to grow up sane, not crazy. And the children you bring up in your turn, they will be sane too, and society will change.
“Society will change, and it will be a great thing, the greatest revolution there has ever been. And we are the ones doing it! We are the ones making the sacrifice, the children of the country! Because our parents, and their parents, they trashed this country, and we are going to mend it, to make it well again.”
Once or twice before I’d had this feeling of pride in myself as a controlled child, and I’d mentioned it in my interview with Paul Oxley. But this time it was clearer and more precise: pride in myself and in these kids, and in what we would be doing. I was getting to them, I could sense it. They were taking what I was saying. And I could feel my way to the end now.
“When you look at yourself in your mirror, and you see yourself in your lifesuit, wearing the Golden Circle, you can think: Yes, I am not free. I’m not free, because I’m part of a huge movement to mend my country and to mend society, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of being a controlled child, and my own children will be proud of me, and they’ll thank me, and they’ll say: my father, my mother, they were controlled children after the Change, and it’s because of them that society is sane now.
“I tell you, people, we’re going to be good. We’re going to be healthier, and fitter, and better-looking than people have ever been. We’ll be better educated, and above all we’ll be sane. We’re going to be fighting an enormous battle, a battle to save the country, and we will be the heroes. We will be a mighty generation! I look every adult I meet in the eye. I may not say it, but I feel it: I’m a controlled child. I’m helping to mend this country. Don’t you dare to put me down!”
To my astonishment, at this point there was an enormous cheer.
“So let me tell you what’s going to happen. Everyone’s going to go and get their Golden Circles, and we’re going to do it proudly and with a smile. And if anyone is scared, then we’ll help them along, help them to do it. Because crazy people destroy each other, but sane people help each other, and we are going to be sane. Because this, the moment when the children enter the Golden Circle, this is the real Change, when people change, and the country starts to become a kinder, and a better place, where wonderful and extraordinary things will be done by us and by our own children, when the time comes.”
There was another huge cheer, and I tossed the Circle into the air again. I believed every single word I’d said; I realised that despite all my misgivings and doubts, I had understood and accepted what the Government was trying to do, and this surprised me a little.
“Okay,” I said, “Mr Andrews has the arrangements.”
And I got up, and went to the back.
“Score another success, Jack,” said Tony Denholm.
“I couldn’t leave them frightened. They were terrified. Were you just going to leave like that? There could have been a riot!”
“No. We were going to get Jack Marchmont to talk to them, and we did.”
“Oh, boy, I’m wacked,” I said. “I’ve never done anything like that before. I was absolutely terrified; when Dezzy asked that question I thought I was going to faint!”
“Didn’t show. It’ll look good on TV, that. And in the other schools.”
“Oh yes,” he said. “In the broom cupboard back there.”
“You’re not broadcasting that without my uncle’s permission. Let alone taking it to other schools.”
“Of course we won’t. But—well, Jack, other kids will be frightened too, you know.”
“So he said it was okay if I agreed.”
“That’s it,” he said. “Will you?”
“As usual, the sodding Government gets me into a spot where I can’t say no. Okay, go ahead.”
“Thanks. I’m amazed you could get that ready in so short a time.”
I said nothing. There wasn’t any point in boasting about it.
“Oh, I get it,” he said. “Off the top of your head, was it?”
“Shit, Jack. I wish I had shares in you. I could retire in ten years, I think.”
“If you grab any more kids by their lifesuit buckles, you won’t live that long.”
I was actually rather liking Tony Denholm.
“Yeah, what is this about the buckles?”
Mr Andrews had joined us now. I noticed the way he looked at Tony; obviously he already had some idea about this.
For a moment I thought of evading the issue. But then I thought that I had nothing to lose by being frank with them. And again, I didn’t really care what they thought of me. I had changed from the bashful child I had been ten days before.
“Well, you have to think about the lifesuit,” I said. “The thing is, it’s a sexy thing to wear. It makes you feel sexy. It’s tight all over your body and it sort of rubs you in—in interesting places when you move or walk. Boys and girls the same, and of course it’s intentional. They want to keep us on edge all the time.
“And remember we’re all teenagers, and teenagers tend to be very self-conscious about our bodies, and the lifesuits don’t leave us any privacy about that. If you think you’re weedy, or fat, or if you’re worried or embarrassed that your breasts or your penis are too small or too big—well, that’s just too bad. You’re on display all the time. In many ways, you might as well be naked.
“We can’t have the ordinary taboos, because if you’re a bunch of kids going through a school day, you’re always jostling people, sitting close to them and so on. Because of the lifesuits, those situations affect us, they arouse us. Ordinary day-to-day contact is sexy for us, in other words, and we have no choice and no privacy when it comes to this. So the lifesuit buckle has become very symbolic. When you take your lifesuit off, or someone else’s, the first thing you do is undo the buckle. It’s our taboo. You may touch it only with permission. Undoing someone’s buckle without permission is like undoing their flies without permission. It’s a sexual assault.”
“Wow,” said Denholm. “I’m very sorry, Jack. But that’s amazing! I didn’t know anything about it.”
“Well, we’re the first school to have the Standard Clothing, aren’t we? I think the taboo will spread, and I think that teachers and people like you should be warned.”
“Point taken. Well, Mike, would it be okay for Jack to spend some time going round to the various places where they’re putting on the Circles? To hold someone’s hand, if they need it?”
So that’s how I spent most of the day, moving from room to room, where the kids were queuing up for their Circles, chatting, joking. When I arrived in Neal’s room, he was two or three from the front of his queue, and he and his mates gave a cheer.
“Come on, Jack, you put my Circle on,” he said. “Can he, Mr Dermot? Only, I helped to put his on. Can he?”
“I don’t see why not,” said the teacher who was presiding. “What did you do, Neal?”
“When Jack’s implant was disabled, I held one of the pad things.”
“Oh yes. Well, Jack, why don’t you hold that one, put it just there, and I’ll hold this one, and then...”
“Youch!” said Neal.
“All done,” said Mr Dermot. “You were the noisiest by far, Neal. Is he like that at home, Jack?”
“Okay, here’s his Golden Circle. You just put it round his neck, and slide it like that... That’s it.”
I shifted Neal’s fair hair away, and under my hand his Circle snapped into place round his slender neck. It was an extraordinary and bittersweet moment as he bounced around the room showing it off.
In the next room I found a queue of first-years. I gave them a hello, and as they replied I saw one tiny girl who was obviously not happy.
“Hello,” I said quietly, drawing up a chair to her.
Instead of replying, she started to cry and buried her head in my chest. Embarrassed and sympathetic, I held her awkwardly: this was not really a school-type situation.
“Hey,” I said quietly. “What’s the matter?”
“What’s your name?”
“It won’t hurt, Mary,” I said. “Maybe just a prick as they disable the implant. But the Golden Circle doesn’t hurt. Look at mine.”
I opened my lifesuit again, and let her look.
“Do you think it’s pretty?” I said.
“Adornment is a temptation of Satan.”
“Oh. Who says that?”
“Uncle Stan,” she whispered.
“He lives with me and mum. He’s nasty to us. He says that if I get the circle thing, he’ll cut it off me.”
“How is he nasty to you?” I said.
“He makes me read the Bible aloud all night sometimes and he shouts at me all the way through and he pulls my hair when I make a mistake. He frightens me and I get very tired.”
“Oh. Have you told Miss Gimson about that?”
Miss Gimson looked at me from behind Mary and shook her head.
“No,” said Mary. “I’m frightened that Uncle Stan will hurt her. But he won’t hurt you, cos General Baxter will protect you.”
“General Baxter will protect Miss Gimson too, Mary, I promise. Will you tell her all about it?”
“Okay,” she whispered.
“He will stand beside me against everything that threatens me,” said Miss Gimson, as I stood up.
I scowled at her, but she just laughed.
It was another ancient military Range Rover, but it had recently been resprayed, and on the door someone had put a new unit identification.
TerrAd Area 27 Chedley
Gentle with the weak and the oppressed
Fierce with the cruel and violent
I sighed as we climbed on board. In the front was our old friend Corporal Roberts and one of his men, who was driving.
“They specially asked for me!” said the Corporal.
“They probably want you to practice arresting me right under their noses,” I said, “just to check that you know how.”
“I get a couple of days in town,” he said. “It’s great!”
“Who put that motto on your door?”
“I did,” he said. “But the CO selected it. He wanted to put a decal of your head too, but we didn’t have one.”
“Thank God,” I said.
“Twenty gross of them arrive next week. He’s really proud that you were born in his area. He’s going to put them everywhere.”
I groaned, and next to me I could feel my uncle laughing.
“You just have to get used to this stuff,” he said. “It’s not going to stop any time soon. Try to cultivate a sense of humour.”
“Even though his heart is serious, he will celebrate each day with laughter,” Neal proclaimed.
I jumped on him and he collapsed, shrieking.
“Jack made a speech,” he announced treasonously as he came up for air.
“Oh, is that what it turned out to be?” said my uncle. “They just said you were going to answer a few questions.”
“Yeah, I did. But the kids seemed so completely terrified I was worried there’d be a panic. I was just trying to make them feel a bit better.”
“Well, it worked,” said Neal. “Everyone cheered and after that they were happy.”
“They’re going to broadcast it. And use it in other schools.”
“So you agreed.”
“They said it would help other kids. I dunno. Maybe I’m just kidding myself, because there’s a bit of me that’s really pleased by this stuff. The rest of me’s disgusted.”
“Do you ever say things you don’t believe?” said my uncle.
“On these programmes? No. But they don’t always tell the whole story. Like that speech. I believe everything that I said, but that’s not the whole story.”
“Do you lie, Jack?”
“Then you’ve no cause to be ashamed. You’re not expected to say everything you think every time you open your mouth.”
It was dark by the time we arrived at the Centre. The first thing I saw was a new floodlit board announcing its identity:
The Provisional Administration
Kindly and firmly he will guide and control me,
and take me forwards step by step.