“Could I have your autograph, Jack? My daughter, she’s twelve and she worships you.”
It was the first time I had done this, and it was impossible to say no. The sergeant on the gate passed an envelope through the car window, and I signed.
“Her school’s getting their Standard Clothing next week,” he said, “and their Golden Circles. She’s—quite worried.”
“Tell her from me, it’s no problem at all,” I said firmly. “The Circle doesn’t hurt and she’ll like the clothes, they’re not at all bad. Really. Tell her I’ll be thinking of her.”
“Thanks, Jack... Right, Corporal, the message is to take these good people round to Hotel 2, that’s down there. After that, you carry on round the perimeter road to the security segment, report to building 76. All right?”
“Carry on, then.”
Hotel 2 was different from Hotel 1, where I had stayed before. It was enormous, about twenty stories high and brightly lit, something I hadn’t seen for months; these days most buildings were dark at night. The entrance was busy, and as we got out of the car, a man approached us.
“The Marchmont group?”
“Yes,” said my uncle.
“Welcome to the Centre. We have two rooms for you, a single for Ms Pargiter and another with three singles. If you would come this way? Mr Margrave will be here in twenty-five minutes and he suggests you should meet him in the bar.”
“The first thing I do if I’m manager here is give the place a name,” said my aunt, as we went up in the lift. “Hotel 2? Honestly, sometimes Rationalists are beyond parody!”
My uncle laughed, and I noticed our porter was trying not to do the same.
Our room was huge, with a bathroom, and a view over the whole of London. I unpacked my few things into a drawer; we had no time to do more than wash our faces. My aunt came to visit us, and sorted out Neal’s hair and my own.
“What are you smiling at, Jack?” said my uncle. “What’s the joke?”
“I’m just so pleased to be out of Chedley,” I said. “I don’t know why, really, because there could be all sorts of problems here too. But it’s just... oh, I don’t know.”
“I think I understand.” He put a hand on my shoulder, and at that moment I appreciated it. “Come on. Let’s go and find Max.”
“It’s funny,” I said, as we went down in the lift. “I’m quite looking forward to seeing him. He really annoys me sometimes, in fact sometimes he really shocks me. But somehow, I can deal with him.”
“You speak the same language,” said my uncle. “I’ve noticed that.”
“Why don’t you have Max as your mentor?” said Neal.
I laughed at the idea.
“No chance! It’s not that sort of thing at all. And he’s got a wife and ten adopted kids! He’s got no time for a pupil and he’s straight. Anyhow—well, he’s too—it wouldn’t work.”
I was going to say: too close to Ewan. If it wasn’t going to be Ewan it would have to be someone completely different.
Max called to us as we entered the bar. It was a large place with lots of tables and at the moment it was crammed. At one end there was a large TV, and I could see that most of the chairs were placed to have a clear view of it.
“Sit down, sit down,” he said. “Look, I thought we’d look at the Government programme and then maybe have some food in the restaurant through there, and talk about plans for the weekend.”
“Are these all Government people?” I said.
“Pretty much. This place has a good TV so there’s always an audience here. We’re political animals, Jack, I’m sure you understand.”
I did understand. In the ten days since I had last been here, I had missed this, missed the sensation of being at the centre of power, and this bar was humming with it. I enjoyed being among people who shared this fascination, and in a strange sort of way, it was a homecoming. Max and I grinned at each other; I realised that we did indeed share something from which the others were excluded.
“Well, Bill and I have made some arrangements for you for the weekend,” Max went on. “You all have an invitation to visit Tom and Sally Baxter at five o’clock on Sunday. A car will come and pick you up here. Have you decided if you’re going to move down here?”
“Yes, that was the general decision,” said my uncle.
“I’ll have to spend a lot of my time in Chedley, though,” I said. “I’ll come down here when I can.”
“Why’s that?” said Max.
“Because my mentor will be there. After the 16th, anything I do will have to be cleared with him.”
Once again, Max and I exchanged a glance. There was a slight pause.
“Okay,” said Max, “Tomorrow morning we thought you might like to check out some places to live. Here are some house summaries. There’ll be a car available for you to go and see them. After lunch here, there are arrangements for each of you. I know that Neal and Lakshmi wanted to meet and she’ll be here at 1:30. The plan would be for her to bring him back here tomorrow at lunchtime. Alan, we’ve arranged for you to meet some of the Health Ministry people, and for you, Judy, the management team of this hotel and Hotel 1. In the evening Bill managed to find a couple of cinema tickets and a meal out for the two of you, if that would be okay.”
“And me?” I asked.
“Well, Tom Baxter and I have arranged for you to meet Dan Threadgold and his partner. I’ll come with you, and if you feel okay after a while, I’ll leave you there. They are people who know about relationships which involve dominance and control. They’re old friends of Ewan and me, and I hope that they’ll be able to help you sort out some of the feelings you have about what’s been going on.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” said my uncle.
“Dan’s is entirely reliable. He works for the Security Ministry, and the arrangement will be that you can phone at 4, 7, and 10 o’clock, and at 1 and 7 am, to speak to Jack and check all is well. Alan, I understand your concern, but this is a good man, and a chance to make some progress here. Please?”
“Very well,” said my uncle after a pause. “I agree, and I accept the conditions. Provided, of course, that Jack is happy.”
“I’m happy,” I said, although didn’t imagine it would do much good.
“Right! Tony said he brought back a recording from Chedley with you in it, Jack.”
“You haven’t seen it?” I said.
“Nope. No clue, it’s been frantic today.”
I looked at him pointedly.
“Like that, eh?” he said.
“It’s been so weird since the Request came out. People quote it all the time, on the posters and so on... I don’t know what to think.”
“It struck a chord, Jack. What do you expect me to say?”
“People quote it at me when they’re talking. It’s bizarre, because all this stuff, often it’s nothing like what I mean it to say. Like on the car we came in, they’re using it as a motto for Chedley TerrAd: Gentle with the weak and oppressed, fierce with the cruel and violent. But I didn’t mean that to be about an army, but about one person’s attitude to the world...”
“But it does apply, and well,” said Max. “If you were running an army, wouldn’t you like them to have a motto like that? Instead of Crush the skulls of the infidels!, that is?”
“Or the Provisional Administration: Kindly and firmly he will guide and control me, and take me forwards step by step. It shocked me, a government thinking about the people it rules like that, in the same way as a mentor thinks about a child.”
“Yes, it is a bit shocking. But it’s completely accurate. That is how we see what we’re doing. We’re a dictatorship at the moment, and for very good reason. People need exactly what you said. But hang on—the programme’s starting.”
“Good evening. This evening’s programme is in two sections. In a few minutes we’ll be hearing from George Padmore, the Minister for the Constitution and Society. But to start with we’re once again joining Jack Marchmont, the boy whose Request to my Selectors was broadcast here yesterday. Today he was in a very different mood. The occasion was a chat to the other students of his own school in Chedley, where today they were given their Golden Circles. Jack received his a few days ago, so it was natural for the school to get him to tell the other kids about it. Here’s what happened.”
And they showed the whole thing, starting with me undoing my lifesuit and showing the Circle. Everyone in the bar was watching in silence. I felt my performance was being assessed by experts, by people whose business and life were politics. Suddenly I very much wanted their approval.
“Excellent, Jack, very good,” said Max, as the question and answer session went by. There was a ribald laugh in the bar at the bit about sex; and then, when Dezzy asked his question, the room froze.
On screen I was walking to the front of the platform.
“I realised just then that they were all shit scared,” I whispered to Max, and he nodded.
On the sceeen I started my little speech. And people in the bar began to cheer and clap as I spoke. It was a strange experience to watch myself sitting on the edge of the platform there, passing the Golden Circle through my fingers and occasionally spinning it up into the air, and talking quite quietly and conversationally to the kids, while around me, people were responding to what I was saying.
“But the Government is saying: enough,” I said on the screen. “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.“
“Fuck, Jack, that’s brilliant,” said Max, as all around people cheered.
They cheered every sentence, they cheered along with the kids on the screen. And at the end, as they were still cheering, Max picked me up under my arms and stood me on the table.
“Friends, comrades, Mr Jack Marchmont!” he shouted, and at that moment everyone in the room realised that I was there, and stood to clap me. And I loved it. For the first time in my life I experienced and accepted that wild thrumming of the blood which comes from driving a crowd, and it was intoxicating. Just for a moment, the sardonic doubter within me was silent.
Max didn’t seem particularly impressed by the food in the restaurant, but for two teenagers who’d been on porridge and potatoes for months, it was a miracle. My uncle looked at us affectionately and a little sadly as we attacked.
“You spoke bloody well, Jack, as usual,” said Max.
I started to cut a piece off my steak. It was as tender and as rich as butter.
“The thing is, I had to say something,” I said. “They were scared out of their wits. Right in front of me there was a group of first-years, and they were completely white. There was one I had my eye on, I really thought he was going to faint.”
“Yeah, in my class some of them were the same,” said Neal. “There are some people spreading rumours, that the Golden Circle’s going to make your balls wither up and drop off. The Government wants to turn us all into eun—eun—”
“Eunuchs,” said Max. “I wonder who they were.”
“Wannabe Christian crazies,” said Neal. “They say they’re members of the Hand of God, but I think they’re just idiots.”
“Anyhow, that’s why I had to say something,” I said. “I was worried there’d be a panic and then the army would be brought in.”
“I doubt if it would have gone that far.”
“Well, that’s what I was worried about. Because of what Ewan said with the implants thing. I spoke to Tony Denholm afterwards and asked him what was the plan to cope with kids being scared, and he said, to get Jack Marchmont to talk to them. Well, that’s pathetic, Max. What if I hadn’t shown up? What if what I said didn’t work? In any case, I won’t be at the other schools.”
“So, Max? Not looking at my talk?”
George Padmore came bustling up to our table. Up close, I was surprised at how small he was, but the impression of energy and activity was still there.
“These guys were hungry, George. They wanted food, not a lecture on ethics.”
“Oh, my goodness! Jack Marchmont! My dear boy, how delightful to meet you. And this must be your family. And didn’t you want to hear my thoughts on the ethical bases of your Request?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t think I’d understand them. And we were very hungry.”
“You didn’t think you’d understand what I said I think you said?”
I blushed. This was the man who had defined Rationalism and built the Party; he was the foundation of the whole vast revolution and everything that had happened. His sharp, amused eyes skewered me, and I could scarcely speak.
“Er... Well, often, I mean, I don’t understand much of what people say, when they talk about the Request. I mean, I didn’t really think about it, you know. I just wrote it. So I don’t see how all that stuff could be there.”
“Ah,” said Padmore. “Well, now, I wonder if you remember rightly.” He drew up a chair opposite me and helped himself to a glass of wine. “I think, Jack, that I know better. I know you don’t like talking about it, but can we look at just one little piece?”
He grinned at me. There was a West Indian lilt to his speech which you didn’t notice on TV, and I found it immediately attractive.
“Oh, okay. One little piece.”
“Right then. The motto Tom Baxter chose for the gate here. Kindly and firmly he will guide and control me, and take me forwards step by step. Now, you say you just wrote that without thinking about it. How about this. Why did you say kindly? Why not gently? You use gentle elsewhere. Why not here?”
“Because if you’re kind, you may not be gentle,” I said. “Kind is more about the way you feel, what you intend. Gentle is about being soft and tolerant and easy-going. The mentor may not be those things, but he would still be kind.”
“Aha!” said Padmore triumphantly. “So you did think, right? You didn’t ‘just write’ it. And why kindly and firmly? Why not kindly but firmly?”
“Because but would mean that they were against each other, that they were opposite each other in a way. But that’s not it. They support each other.”
I noticed that other people were coming to stand round our table now. It was a strange feeling; as if we were sitting on the floor of a tiny stadium.
“So why did you say kindly and firmly and not firmly and kindly?”
“Well, because kind comes before firm. If he’s kind, he can be firm when he has to be, and still be kind. And because firmly balances forwards.”
“I’m sorry, Jack, I don’t get that last point,” said Padmore.
“It’s very rhythmic prose,” said someone behind me. “The second beat in the first clause, if you like, is firmly, and in the second clause it’s forwards. The way they are, the two f’s reinforce each other and hold the sentence together.”
“I never thought of that,” said Padmore. “But you say that you did. See? Well, how about guide and control. Don’t they mean the same thing?”
“Well, to me, guide is about encouraging me to go the right way, and control is more about stopping me from going the wrong way. So they balance kindly and firmly,” I said.
“And that balancing I never thought of either,” he said. “So how about take me forwards step by step? How is that different from control and guide?”
“We’re talking about me being on a journey, that’s the feeling. And he’s encouraging me to go the right way, and stopping me from going the wrong way. And, he’s encouraging me to keep on going, not to slack off.”
“Why take, though? Surely lead would be more usual.”
“Lead makes you think of me being pulled forwards. I didn’t like that. Take makes you think of phrases like take me across the road, with two people side-by-side.”
“Why step by step?”
“It’s all step by step,” said Neal. “What he does with me, has to depend on my age. It goes by stages. By steps. Like it says, Although each year I will be older, he will remember that still I am a child.”
“Jack told you that, did he, young man?” said Padmore.
“Yeah,” said Neal. “He’s my brother!”
“So you see, Jack, you actually thought about that one sentence in detail, in lots of different ways—the exact meaning of every word and phrase, the different parts of the journey metaphor, how certain ideas, like step by step, appear elsewhere, the ordering of the words, the use of words like but and and, the rhythm of it, the individual sounds even. And that’s just one sentence. So can you be surprised that people look at it so carefully?”
“I think when I wrote it, I was in a particular situation, and to me it’s to do with that situation, that’s what it means. It’s hard to think of it meaning anything else.”
“Whereas when we read it, we read it in our situation, so that’s what it means to us.”
“What was your situation, Jack?” someone asked.
“What you see. I’m a boy who’s going to be given to a mentor on the 16th. I don’t know who he is or what he’ll be like, but he’ll have all kinds of powers over me, I don’t know what. To start with I thought I knew who he was going to be, but it turned out that person didn’t want me after all, and now it could be absolutely anyone. I appear on TV and everyone thinks I’ve got everything organised, but I haven’t. I’m fourteen years old, and I’m scared. The Request is a kind of frantic hope. If I believed in God it would be a prayer: please, please don’t give me to some bastard...”
“Jack, every possible care will be taken,” said Max. “You won’t be given to some bastard. And the mentors will be enormously strictly supervised...”
“There will be mistakes. You know there will, Max. There have been already.”
“He will allow anyone to earn his trust,” said Padmore. “Won’t you allow your mentor to earn your trust, Jack?”
“I will try,” I said. “I promise I will. But I’m still scared. It seems as if for everyone else the Request is something exciting and happy. But you see, for me it’s about losing people and disappointment and fear. That’s why it’s hard for me to talk about it.”
“You have me and Judy as your parents,” said my uncle. “Our job is to make sure you’re safe and well looked after. And we will, Jack; you know me, I’m not easily put off.”
“You need to know something else, Jack,” said a woman. “I work for Max’s ministry, and you just wouldn’t believe how closely we’ve studied the Request over the last two days, and how important it’s becoming for our work, what we’re learning from that. And your speech this evening, that’ll be the same, it was incredible. There’s no one who hears these things who doesn’t think of you as their child or brother or lover or friend. You are so deeply loved, Jack, by so many people. Don’t forget it.”
That’s all very well, I thought. But the one person I had loved myself couldn’t wait to get rid of me.
“You were dreaming last night,” said Uncle Alan. “It didn’t sound good.”
We were coming down in the lift for breakfast, just the two of us.
“Don’t apologise. How long has this been going on for?”
“Since Ewan dumped me,” I said. “It’s—well, you know.”
“You were shouting out. Neal went and hugged you till you quietened down. I was so touched. Want to tell me about it?”
“It’s—it’s the fires. In the gardens, you know. The screams.”
“Damn. I thought you were over that.”
“It’s about losing people,” I went on. “Our parents, Ewan... And there’s a feeling, you know, that it could happen again. I mean, I’ll have to stay with my mentor and what if he is a bastard? He mightn’t let me see you. Or Neal, or Auntie Judy. I could lose everyone and be alone. I know that’s not likely but it’s the feeling, you know? Loss.”
“Maybe Max’s friends will help.”
“Why?” he said.
“I was going to have a mentor I love. Now I won’t. They can’t fix that, so they can’t fix the loss.”
“Let people help if they can, son. People really want to help...”
My uncle spread the house summaries over the breakfast table, and the others got into looking through them with enthusiasm. Aunt Judy had decided not to live in the same house as us. She felt that Mat and Marcus might do better by themselves, which I took to mean she was worried that they mightn’t get on with us. So we were looking for two houses, fairly close together, and not far from the Centre or from the school that Neal and Judy’s boys would be attending.
This narrowed the range quite a bit. Soon we found two possibles in the same street: a fairly upmarket London suburban terrace in Parford. Sure enough, the car was waiting for us, and we set off to look at them.
It was a depressing drive through the shattered suburbs. The street atlas couldn’t help us with the blocked roads and burnt-out and demolished buildings; once we came upon a whole ruined street, a mile or more of devastation. Squads of soldiers were patrolling, their weapons at the ready. Here and there we saw signs of things getting back on their feet: open shops, cars, people walking on the pavements; but it was slow so far.
The two houses were both early twentieth-century terrace houses, three floors and quite narrow. I noticed several other empty houses and wondered why people had moved away; the area seemed nice and peaceful and with a good mixture of races. Parford High, the school where Neal would go, and several functioning shops were within walking distance.
The seller of the houses was listed as North-West London TerrAd. My uncle thought this indicated that they had been abandoned for some reason, but they seemed in good condition, and there was some usable furniture. There were enough rooms for Neal and me to have one each.
“That doesn’t really matter,” I said. “I won’t be here much.”
“Wherever I live you will be at home,” said my uncle. “Listen to me, Jack. This house will be our home, yours and Neal’s and mine. Judy will be down the street. You will have your room here, and you can stay in it whenever you like, and for as long as you like. Okay?”
“Thanks, Uncle. That means a lot.”
“Maybe you’ll want your mentor to come and stay as well. Why not? Why shouldn’t he be a nice person? I expect him to become a friend of the family.”
I stared at him in astonishment. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that this could happen.
“Yeah,” said Neal. “Why not? After all, if Lakshmi’s my mentor, I think she’ll come and visit. I mean, you all like her, don’t you?”
Neal wanted to say more, but my uncle gestured to him to stop. He knew that I would want to think about what they’d said. I followed them silently through the inspection of the house and small back garden, where we could see that some of the season’s potatoes were still waiting to be dug.
We liked the house. Judy’s was fairly similar, but had several apple trees in the garden, as well a greenhouse.
So we returned to the Centre and discussed it, but more for form’s sake; we’d already decided to do it. My uncle and aunt went to phone the estate agent, and Neal decided to change to another lifesuit for his date. I sat in the bar and brooded.
While they were all away, Lakshmi Anderson arrived, wearing a pair of jeans and a blouse. She looked stunning and I knew she would knock Neal into the middle of next week.
“Hi! Neal’s upstairs—he’ll be down in a moment. The others are talking to estate agents.”
“So you’re moving?”
“Yes, it’s arranged. The house is in Parford, not far from here and it’s handy for Neal’s school as well.”
“I wanted to talk to you about Neal, Jack.”
“You don’t worry that if I’m his mentor, I’ll take him away from you, do you? I know he’s worried you’ll think that.”
“What? No, if you’re his mentor, that’ll be so good! Someone we know and we know they’re nice. Honestly, I’ll be really pleased. I know that as we get older, of course we’ll both have other people, I can see that. It’s just a question of who and I think you’ll be ideal. Just—well, he’s very young. Give him a chance to grow, won’t you?”
“I know what you mean, Jack, it’s okay. I’m gradually getting to know him, and I’ll learn where he’s frightened, where he’s okay, where he doesn’t know what’s happening. He’s only twelve, and we’ll have eight years. That’s plenty of time, and we’ll pace it carefully, I promise.”
“He’s so lucky. Having the person he wants.”
“Yes, Jack, believe me, sometimes the world is shit. Everyone goes through this, loving someone who doesn’t love you back. It’s one of the things that grownup people have in common. We just have to learn to be kind to each other, that’s all. You can demand someone’s kindness, but not their love.”
“It’s rough, when you feel like this, to be given to someone else who you don’t even know, whether you like it or not.”
“Yes, it’s rough,” she said. “A lot of kids will be going through it, though. If the mentors are careful and kind, it’ll be all right.”
It was a gentle rebuke, but it was there. I looked at her, trying to think of a graceful way to acknowledge it.
“Yeah, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own problems. Sorry.”
“No one’s done more than you to help the other kids, Jack. Don’t beat yourself up.”
Neal came running across the bar. He was wearing his most dramatic lifesuit, flaming reds and oranges, and the way it outlined his shape and highlighted his blond hair made me realise something which had been right in front of me for years: my brother was beautiful.
He slid into the chair next to her, and then did something which simply blew me away: he lifted one of her hands off the table, and kissed it.
“Wow,” I said quietly.
They both looked across the table at me solemnly: the Minister for Science and Technology and my twelve-year-old brother.
“Complaints?” said Neal.
“Absolutely not, brother,” I said, grinning at him.