I was awaken from deep sleep by the sound of our bathroom door. Neal was coming into the room, rubbing his hair with a towel.
These days it wasn’t unusual for us to see each other naked, but once again I was struck by how beautiful he was. He was gathering his clothes together.
“You’re awake! You’ve been asleep for hours, you’ve missed lunch and everything. I’m not surprised, after spending the night with some kind of kinky sadist! Are you insane, brother? Shit, I was worried!”
“I’m absolutely fine, I promise. So? What happened with Lakshmi?”
“She showed me round the labs here. It was great. There’s a huge fab plant and a really enormous computer system. They make all the chips for the Golden Circles right here, you know? And she showed me the comms centre, really it’s the only one in the country which is working just now, and all sorts of other things. Then we went to her place, which is just a little cottage on the other side of the Centre, but she has a fabulous disk setup. We had supper and then we watched a movie, and we snuggled together all the way through.”
“Did you sleep with her?” I said.
“No. She didn’t offer, and I didn’t know how to ask. Anyhow, I felt a bit, well, shy about doing that just now. So I slept in her spare room, and she came and kissed me goodnight, and sat on my bed holding my hand for ages and talking about things. Should I have made myself ask?”
“No, brother, not if you felt uneasy about it. The good part about having a mentor is you don’t have to worry about that stuff. When it’s time, she’ll arrange it and ask you.”
As we talked, Neal had been getting into his third lifesuit, which I hadn’t seen before, and to my astonishment it was brilliant white from top to toe. I’d never seen one like it before, and I just stared at him.
“What are you staring at?” he said.
“You, brother. Does Lakshmi know you’re going to be wearing that?”
“No.” He looked a bit unsure. “Do you think she’ll like it?”
“Trust me,” I said, “she will.”
“Do me up, will you?”
He sat on the edge of my bed, and I joined the edges of his back-opening together, as we always did for each other.
“You know what, Neal?”
“I think she’s got herself a good deal, here. You’re turning into a good-looking guy.”
He giggled and jumped away.
“Keep your hands off me, perv!”
“Okay, okay!” I said, laughing. “Only I’m the gay brother, right? I’m the expert in good-looking guys, and I can tell you: you’re a good-looking guy.”
“Mm. Okay, that’s nice. Look, I’m off to talk to Lakshmi and Auntie, they’re waiting downstairs. Uncle said he’d be up in a few minutes for a chat.”
“Okay. Look, Neal...”
“Er, thanks,” I said, and I could feel myself blushing.
“Thanks? What for?”
“For supporting me, and—and being on my side, and not minding that I’m gay. And making me laugh, and—just being there. I—I need that just now.”
“You’re thanking me? Jack, have you any idea what some other big brothers are like? Lots of them are just bastards, but you’ve been helping me out ever since I can remember, you’ve always been there. And you’re still doing it, cos I know you spoke to Lakshmi about being my mentor. And you’re the one who’s making sense of mentors and all this controlled-child stuff, not just for me but for everyone else. No one else is helping us with it at all, and sometimes it can be pretty spooky, you know? So if you want to thank me, fine, but...”
He ran down, and we stared at each other, both blushing. Then we began to laugh.
“What happened last night?” he said.
“Tell you later.”
He left, and I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling pretty good about things.
I opened my eyes, and my uncle was sitting on the bed beside me.
“Hi. I must have dropped off again.”
“You’ve had hours of sleep,” he said. “Perhaps it’s time...”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
“Is it comfortable sleeping in a lifesuit?”
“It’s okay,” I said. “But this one’s getting rank. I think I’ll have a shower and change. I didn’t want to take it off when Neal was here.”
“No. Dan said it looks a bit lurid.”
“Yeah. I suppose you’ll want to check.”
“Yes, please. I’ve locked the door,” he said.
I started to undo my buckle, and he reached out a hand.
“No, Uncle. Don’t ever touch someone’s buckle. It’s taboo. It has, er, sexual implications. I should think that a doctor shouldn’t ever do that. Except in an emergency, I suppose.”
“Who knows that?”
“Our teachers do,” I said, “they’re very careful about it. I think the Ministry for Children do by now, I told them myself.”
“I’ll pass it on. Damn it, our communications are still so dreadful... Oh, my.”
As I wriggled out of my lifesuit and pulled it off my legs, the marks of Dan’s switch became clear.
“Jack, son, this must have been agonising. My God!”
“Actually, it was the position I was in which was the worst part.”
I slid out of my trunks.
“Oh heavens. Jack... Dan spoke to me, and he seemed a humane and intelligent man. But this...”
“It’s okay, really. I understood what was going on and I agreed to it.” Which was true, in a way. “And it worked, Uncle. It sorted out such a lot of things. He’s done me an enormous favour.”
“I’ve heard of such things, but I’ve never... Could you lie down, Jack, I’d like to go over you carefully.”
And he did. In a few places he used antiseptic cream; but at the end, he had to admit that there was no significant harm.
“It must have hurt like blazes, but you’re okay,” he said. “It’ll take a few days for all these welts to fade, but that’s about it. So, what have you learnt?”
“That the reason why I was angry with Ewan was because I’d lost him, not because he’d deceived me, or whatever. It was loss. I’m not good at dealing with losing people, and I learnt a bit about why.
“And I’m a submissive, that’s the kind of person I am. I understood what Dan and Jeff were doing straight away, it just clicked. And in my relationship with Ewan I was a submissive, and he was the leader, the, er, dominant. I knew this at the time, it’s quite clear, even though it was only just starting.”
“Yes,” said my uncle. “I recognised that.”
“So he had the right to control the relationship, because I gave him the right. If he decided to end it, then I have to accept that, even if I hate it, and get on with things. I can’t say he’s broken any rules or understandings or whatever.
“We went through all the possibilities and everything that happened. Probably Ewan does still love me. There are lots of possible reasons for what he did, and I have to accept that I don’t know which it is. I have to trust him, that’s all.
“So I have a way to cope, whether or not I get Ewan as my mentor. It may not be ideal, but I can do it.”
My uncle sat looking at me seriously as I said all this.
“Well, that may be fair enough from one point of view, although to me it doesn’t seem to tell the whole story by any means. But if it’s given you a way to cope and move on, I suppose it’s positive. There’s a lot to be said for ways of thinking and feeling which work. How did he do that? Just by flogging you?”
“No. It was more a kind of interrogation. But I was trying to be helped, remember, I wasn’t deliberately holding back. He was using a long leather switch, it really just stung. He used it to keep me concentrating, concentrating really, really hard for hours on end, even though my body was screaming at me to stop. I’d no idea I could do that.”
“I find it pretty hard, thinking of you going through that,” said my uncle. “And it distresses me a bit, to think that your life’s moving into areas where I simply can’t follow it. But you have my support, Jack, and anything I can do I will.”
Greatly daring, I touched his hand.
“And I learnt a lot of other things too, Uncle. Like how much you’ve done for me, and—and how little I’ve thanked you for it.”
“Oh, Jack. You know, when I took on Neal and you after your parents died, to start with it was really just something that had to be done, a trust, if you like, a duty left me by my brother. Fortunately you were nice kids and dealing with you was a pleasure, but it wasn’t how I’d planned to run my life. But that changed; gradually the way I felt about you changed, Jack, because both of you are such tremendous people. I came to love both of you, and gradually, you became the centre of my life. And now, when I see you doing the work you do, or Neal with Lakshmi, I feel so proud of my life that I can scarcely breathe. So thanks are entirely unnecessary.”
“For you, maybe. They’re pretty important for me.”
He patted my hand.
“Go and get your shower,” he said. “It’s half-past three and we’re going to see your friend the dictator.”
My uncle was wearing a grey suit, with a shirt and tie: something I hadn’t seem him do since before The Problems, and he looked tremendous. Not for the first time I was aware of what an attractive man he was, and I wondered why he apparently had nobody close in his life. My aunt was wearing a fairly conservative frock. To look at them, they had both just come home from church. Clearly, to them, visiting a dictator was something to take a little seriously.
I was wearing my red-and-gold lifesuit for the first time in a week or more. I felt I had something to celebrate. Lakshmi had gone to change.
“Hey, look at you!” said Corporal Roberts, spotting Neal. “An angel in white...”
Neal made a deeply un-angelic noise, and the corporal laughed.
“Neal, really,” said Aunt Judy.
“How do you know Colonel Threadgold, Jack?” said the corporal.
“Colonel? Is he a colonel?”
“Yeah, he is. Special forces, he was. I was with him in Azerbaijan, it was good to see him again.”
“Max introduced us,” I said.
“I didn’t know you were special forces, Corporal,” said my aunt.
“Yeah, well, that was then. You do it for a few years, and that’s it. Still, I suppose that’s why they gave me this job.”
“Which job?” I asked.
“The powers think you need a bodyguard, Jack,” said my uncle. “So they told off the Corporal, and Tanner out there and five others, and they’ll be around pretty much all the time.”
“I thought—I thought that was all over.”
“I’m afraid not,” said my uncle. “Think about it. There are crazy folk around.”
I stared at him.
“There’ve been threats,” I said.
“Yes. Probably nothing, but you can’t be sure.”
For an instant, terror swept over me. I drew a deep breath, and tried to clear my head.
“Well, you call me Jack, Corporal, so what’s your name?”
“It’s Fred, Jack. Fred Roberts. And outside there is Tanner. He likes to be called just Tanner.”
“Well... Thanks, Fred,” I said. “I—appreciate it.”
“Jack, I can’t think of a better job at the moment. Believe me.”
“Okay, we’ll make tracks,” said my uncle. “Are we going with you, Fred?”
“Yes, doctor, this way. Don’t worry, the Centre is regarded as secure.”
They had a people carrier waiting for us, but it was only really a few hundred yards. It wasn’t much of a Presidential Palace: a largish brick house in two stories, sandwiched between an office block and a military parking area. In front, a temporary building housed a small guard unit, and someone had set up a name board.
Residence of the Chief Executive
I will be his comrade as well as his pupil,
and our partnership will astonish the world
“Oh, God...” I said.
“Jack, do you mind if I say something?” said Fred.
“I reckon you should be pretty proud that people write your stuff on boards, and so on. You shouldn’t be embarrassed. If they didn’t think it was good, they wouldn’t do it, right? I reckon it’s time you got a bit more of a swagger in your step. Not a lot, no one likes a show off, but they like it if you appreciate what they do, you know?”
“Fred’s right,” said my uncle. “You have a job to do, son, and part of it is looking secure and confident. Not too much, just a bit.”
“Not flash, just cool,” said Neal.
“Yeah, that’s it, Neal,” said Fred.
“You paid your dues last night, Jack,” said my uncle. “As far as I’m concerned you can look anyone in the eye.” Fred turned to look at him, and their eyes met. “Yes, Fred, I’m his doctor as well as his uncle.”
I looked pointedly at Neal. My uncle patted my hand, and I tried to think about what they had said.
Tanner parked the car in a row of five or six others, and we climbed out; secure area or no, I noticed that Fred and Tanner placed themselves carefully until we reached the door, and it opened. We went in and they stayed outside.
The man who opened the door was clearly a squaddie in civvies. He led us across an entrance hall, on the other side of which open double doors gave onto a large drawing room, with windows over the garden beyond. There were three or four steps leading down into the room, and I stood for a moment to take in what was happening.
There were about fifteen people there. I could see General Baxter, in mufti, accompanied by a woman I assumed was his wife, waiting to greet us. Max was there, looking pretty much the same as usual, and those were presumably three of his adopted children, none of them in lifesuits. I noticed George Padmore in conversation with another man and several other people I didn’t recognise.
“Jack! Nice to meet you again. And you must be Ms Pargiter and Dr Marchmont.” He shook their hands. “And you’re Neal?”
“Yes, sir,” he said, and the General shook his hand solemnly.
“Well!” said his wife. “I made Tom invite you all, I hope you don’t mind, but I get fed up with Government people all the time, stuck in here. I hope you aren’t Rationalists, are you?”
“I am,” said Neal. I stared at him in astonishment. “Lakshmi gave me a copy of The Rational State and I’m reading it.”
“There you are, Sally,” said the general. “We’re taking over the Marchmonts. What else would you expect? How about Jack, Neal? Is he coming over?”
“He has sentimentalist tendencies,” said Neal plonkingly, and the others laughed.
“You need to be sure you understand what’s meant by ‘sentimentalist’, Neal,” said George Padmore. “Actually, Jack isn’t a sentimentalist in the way I used the word. The Request is a very Rationalist document, in fact.”
I could see it dawning on Neal that the man he was talking to had actually written the book he was reading, and this boggled his mind so much he couldn’t speak. But at that moment Lakshmi appeared at the top of the steps. She was wearing trousers and a long tunic in the Indian style, in white and pale blue, and Neal’s mouth literally fell open.
As she came down the steps, Neal went towards her; and as before, he took one of her hands and kissed it, bowing over it. She stroked the side of his head, and he stood and turned with his back towards her, and they both faced us, Lakshmi’s hand on his shoulder.
“Our partnership will astonish the world,” whispered my uncle.
“Does that bother you, Jack?” said Max.
Neal and Lakshmi had moved onto a sofa together. There was a buffet table covered with delicious things to eat, and I fell on it. I had had no lunch.
“Bother me, Max? What do you mean? That’s the Minister of Science and Technology with my little brother. I’m so proud of him I can’t describe it. Don’t you think that white lifesuit is incredible?”
“Pretty wild. Actually, three of mine are getting their Standard Clothes and Golden Circles on Monday, and it’s—well, it’s harder than I thought.”
I gave him a look. It would have been easy to be cruel, but I managed to refrain.
“Are they here?” I said. “Shall I talk to them?”
“They’re here. And yes—yes, I’d be grateful, Jack. But first things first.” He moved me away from the others. “How did it go with Dan?”
“Well, I think it’s given me a way to cope, at any rate. And I think I understand myself a bit better.”
“Could he work out what Ewan’s up to?”
“Basically, no. We eliminated various possibilities. Maybe later I’ll know; until then I just have to live with the uncertainty.”
“I had them switch your assault control back on.”
“Thanks. It’s odd; I do feel safer, knowing that. Hey, look! He’s here!”
Dan and Jeff, looking completely conventional in grey suits, were being greeted by General Baxter and his wife.
“Hi, big guy,” I said, as they came up to us. “Hi, Jeff.”
“Jack, isn’t that very disrespectful? I mean, he’s been your master!” said Max, seriously.
“Master, this abject worm begs the Master to punish it for its disrespect,” I said in a stricken voice. “Shall it strip for the Master’s convenience?”
“Yes, strip,” Dan growled. “Slave? Fetch my crop!”
“No, no, not here!” said Max. “Jesus! There are children...”
The three of us burst out laughing.
“You’re priceless, Max,” said Dan. “Honestly, I’m baffled. Whose idea was the Golden Circle?”
“Mine, mostly. Ewan helped, and Tony Denholm, and Lakshmi on the technical side.”
“It’s the most perfect thing ever invented for what we do. I suppose they haven’t told you about the mentor controls yet, Jack, but that thing is unbelievable. You plaster Jack’s Request all over the damn country, and if you read that in the right tone of voice... And yet you honestly haven’t a clue, have you?”
“I’ve read books!” said Max.
“Priceless! Who’s that cute kid in white?”
“That’s my brother Neal,” I said. “Perv.”
“Perv? I’m no perv. I may flog you, Jack, but I’d never fuck you.”
Our eyes met for a long moment; and both of us became aware that he had just lied. Jeff and I giggled.
“Anyhow,” I said, “I told Max I’d speak to his kids...”
I found Max’s three boys sitting on the floor in a corner, looking at a book of pictures of the Middle East.
“Hey! You’re Jack Marchmont. You’re famous!”
“So what?” I said. “Max is famous.”
“Yeah, but he’s our Dad. We see him every day.”
“So, what are your names?”
“Hussein Margrave.” “Wajdi Margrave.” “David Margrave.”
“How old are you?”
“We’re ten,” said Hussein. “Except for Wajdi, he’s nine.”
“It’s Baghdad. Wajdi and me are from there. But we don’t remember, cos we were only two when Dad adopted us. David’s from Beirut, though.”
“There’re some pictures of Beirut, too,” said David.
“No one’s as famous as you,” said Wajdi. “You’re the most famous kid in the world!”
I laughed. All three of them were staring at me, completely unabashed, and it made me feel strange. I sat down on the floor beside them.
“I dunno about that,” I said. “Your dad said you’re going to get the new clothes next week. And the Golden Circle.”
“Look at this book!” squeaked Wajdi. “Look, there’s a picture of—”
He looked away and started turning the pages quickly, almost tearing them.
“He does that when he’s frightened,” said Hussein. “Charges off after something—”
“Hey, Wajdi,” I said quietly, laying my hands on his, “look at me.”
His eyes were filling, and his hands writhed under mine.
“Look at my clothes. What d’you think?”
“Touch my clothes, Wajdi,” I said. “C’mon, what do they feel like?”
His hand reached up to my chest and felt it, at first as if it might burn him, and then firmly. Slowly, he smiled at me.
“It’s slippery! No, it isn’t, but it’s—kind of smooth. It doesn’t feel like clothes at all!”
“It’s clothes, but it’s made of a special stuff. It keeps you warm, but look, if I bend my arm—see? There’s no fold. It sort of squishes round so that it’s always flat. Do you know how it does that?”
His eyes were wide, but he was still looking at my elbow and touching my chest.
“Well, they invented this stuff to make spacesuits with,” I said mysteriously.
“Wow! Really?” said Wajdi.
“Yes. So, it’s light but really strong, you almost can’t make holes in it, and it always stays flat, it never make creases or gets baggy anywhere. But it lets the sweat out so that you don’t get all yucky inside. And then they made them all different patterns. What d’you think? I tell you, I’ve been wearing them now for two weeks, and I think they’re great.”
“Do they hurt?” said David. “Only a kid at school said you—you can’t pee in them, and that’s bound to be nasty after a while, isn’t it?”
“Course you can pee in it,” I said. “It opens the usual way, down here, but—I’d better not show you, not with Mrs Baxter here! And Lakshmi and the other ladies!”
They tittered, even Wajdi, as I knew they would.
“It doesn’t hurt at all,” I said. “It feels kind of nice. You’ll understand when you get it.”
“What about the Golden Circle?” said Hussein. “Someone said, if you wear non-standard clothes, it stabs your neck!”
“What? Course it doesn’t. C’mon, give me that jersey.”
David had hung it over the back of a chair, and he passed it to me. I put it over my shoulder, and felt the familiar nails-on-blackboard sensation.
“See?” I said. “It hasn’t stabbed me. It just made me feel a bit odd, so I take it off. Want to try the feeling?”
“We can’t!” said David. “You can’t take it off, can you?”
“Yes, but I’ve tried this. See, it undoes here, this buckle... No, don’t touch. Never touch someone else’s buckle, you just—don’t. See, there’s the Golden Circle. Go on, touch it.”
Wajdi reached out.
“Well, it’s been on me, hasn’t it? Now, you all touch it, while I pick up the jersey. I’ve done this with my brother, and it doesn’t hurt, I promise. Go on!”
Hesitantly they all touched the Circle, and I put the jersey back.
They sat back looking at me.
“See?” I said. “It didn’t hurt, did it?”
“No!” said David. “But it—well, it didn’t feel nice. I can’t describe it.”
“Well, that’s the idea, isn’t it?” I said. “To make you stop doing that.”
“I guess. But what’s it for? Why can’t we wear our ordinary clothes?”
And that’s the big question, I thought, doing up my buckle. I’ve got to give them an answer which counts. I thought for a moment.
“Okay, guys,” I said. “Move round here. Come on, facing each other.”
We sat cross-legged, all four of us, on General Baxter’s Wilton, Wajdi in front of me, the others on either side.
“Catch hands,” I said quietly, and they did. “We are the future. We’re going to make a better country, a country where people don’t hate each other, but look after each other. Where people don’t kill each other because of what colour they are, or what clothes they wear, or because they think God wants them to. One day we’ll be grownups, and we’ll be a new sort of grownup, the sort that doesn’t hate people, the sort that’s kind to other people. That’s what we’re learning to be. And that’s why we have the Golden Circle and the clothes, to train us to be that kind of person. That’s why, later on, we’ll each have a mentor. It won’t always be easy, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s important. It’s an important job, an important task, and we’re the only ones who can do it. We can do difficult things, if it’s important.”
Once again, I paused, and it came to me what I was doing, what needed to be done.
“Okay, this is the important bit. This is where you join the future. Say this.”
We wrapped our arms round our shoulders, and faced downwards, our heads together. Between the four of us, it was intensely private. I scarcely needed more than a whisper for them to hear me.
“I am the future...”
The phrases came to me, one after another, and they repeated each one. I could feel it working.
I am the future;
I am not afraid.
I take up the task
of building a new world
free from hate
free from superstition
founded on love
To carry forward this task
I give up my freedom for a time
And face the world with pride
as a controlled child.
All who take up this task
are my brothers and sisters;
I will help them and protect them
And share their joys and tears.
I am the future;
I am not afraid.
“Really you should only do that when you have your Golden Circle,” I said, and we still held each other. “But now you know. It’s just for us, not for the grownups. Because they don’t understand what it’s like to be a controlled child. Not really. Let’s say it again.”
We did it several more times, until Hussein at least knew it by heart.
“Is it a secret?” said David, as we separated. “What’s it called? Can we tell grownups?”
“You can tell them. But they can’t do it. Only controlled children can do it. Really, there should be one who’s been controlled for a while, and some new ones. So that we can pass it on, and the new kids won’t be afraid. It’s called ‘Joining the Future’.”
“Let’s tell Dad!” said Wajdi, and off they went to do it.
“Why didn’t you do that with me?” said Neal, walking up.
“I just this moment made it up. Because they seemed to need it.”
“Well, you’d better bloody do it with me, that’s all.”
“What, now?” I said.
“No, idiot. Later.”
“Hey, Neal. I’m sorry. It just sort of happened. I didn’t think you’d need that.”
“I need it. Things can get spooky, like I said.”
“Lakshmi will help,” I said.
“Yeah, she does. But she’s not a controlled child, Jack, it isn’t the same. I said, out of everyone you’re the only person who knows what they’re talking about with this thing.”
“What’s all this, Jack?” said Max, coming up behind us, with Bill and Susan and his kids in tow. “The kids said you did some kind of ceremony with them.”
“It—it seemed to be what they needed,” I said. “A kind of becoming-a-controlled-child ceremony.”
“Jack,” said Max in an exasperated tone of voice, “why do you keep thinking of these dead obvious things? Of course they need a ceremony. Why the blazes didn’t we think of that?”
“Because it’s not your problem, Max. You’re not controlled children and you’re only beginning to understand what it’s like to be one. That’s why the ceremony is a kid-to-kid ceremony.”
“We’ve spent the weekend thinking about things after they broadcast Jack’s speech,” said Bill. For once he appeared quite serious. “The theory we’ve always gone on is that we tell kids: it’s nothing, you won’t even notice it, don’t worry, it’s nothing. But from the surveys we’ve done at Chedley High, it just hasn’t been working. Kids don’t believe it’s nothing, and of course it isn’t nothing. Now that the controls have been described, anyone can see it’s not nothing and when the mentor controls are published it’ll be even worse.”
“I wish you’d consulted us about that speech at Chedley, though, Jack,” said Susan. “There are certain emphases we’d have wanted to change...”
“I didn’t have a chance,” I said. “The teachers just shoved me out on the stage and said ‘Deal with them’. The kids were terrified out of their wits. I had to say something. But I’d better say: I don’t work for the Government, Susan. I say what I like. I don’t mind you suggesting things, but I don’t take directions. Not from you, not from Max, not from anyone. Perhaps it’s better to think of my stuff as raw material for your ministry, rather than something you produce.”
“No one wants to tell you what to say, Jack, and I entirely agree about your stuff being raw material; that’s rather a good way of looking at it, actually. But we do know about this, and we can contribute. Like this ceremony, for example. Four kids in a huddle just doesn’t do it. You need to make something of it, make it something to remember.”
“I don’t agree,” I said. “The only way you can make positive sense of being a controlled child is the thought that we kids are doing something special, something really vital, which the grownups can’t do. Of course, the grownups are involved, but our role is central. Because the other way of looking at it simply says: the grownups, they’re taking over your lives, and they’re the people who trashed the world in the first place.”
“Well, Jack, of course you’d take that view,” said a man.
I recognised him as the one who had been talking to George earlier. He had a quiet voice, and a strangely distant way of talking, accompanied by a small chilly smile.
“Your whole position and status is based on this business of children having some kind of role in our affairs, but in my view, they don’t. Far too much is being made of what they feel, what they want, what they think. The whole point of controlling children is that we don’t negotiate with them, or mollify their feelings, which are by definition irrational. We tell them what to do, and make sure they do it, so that they grow up into responsible adults the way we want.
“And to be frank, Jack, a good start would be to send you back to your school, and put a stop to your ridiculous strutting around in the media. That you should presume to come here and tell important Government officials like Susan what to do is impertinent and absurd.”
“Er, please excuse me,” I said, “but I don’t know your name. Could you?...”
“Douglas Parton-Gray, Security,” he said.
“Well, Mr Parton-Gray, I’m not really defending any particular position or status. I do things when I’m invited to, I’ve never tried to get any role for myself at all. If the Government didn’t ask me to do things, I’d get back to normal life, and that would be it. You don’t imagine I’m being paid, or something, do you? But if people ask my opinion, I give it. In this case, Max asked me to chat to his sons in order to make them feel happier about becoming controlled children.”
“People shouldn’t be asking for your help, Jack. It’s wrong and unfair on you. You’re a child. Max should look after his own children, or enlist the help of qualified adults. I agree entirely that the blame for you taking over the media lies only partly with you. Who, for example, wrote that mawkish rubbish that has been published over your name?”
“I did,” I said.
“Oh, please. You must think I’m completely naïve. You can’t expect me to believe that a fourteen-year-old child wrote that.”
“Of course I can’t prove that I did. On the other hand, I’m not too worried about what you believe, or anyone else. Please continue to think as you wish.”
“He wrote it,” said Dan.
“Oh, pooh, Dan,” said Parton-Gray. “How can you be sure of that?”
“Because yesterday he spent ten hours strung up in my dungeon, during which time he received nearly one thousand cuts of my whip. I know all there is to be known about him.”
There was a slight pause after this remark.
“That’s his business and mine, Doug, not yours. It has nothing to do with sex, in case you’re wondering.”
“I’m certain he wrote it,” said George Padmore. “I questioned him minutely about a particular sentence in it, and his answers made it clear that he had thought about it right down to the phoneme level. He wrote it, Doug.”
“Be that as it may, it’s inappropriate to have a child involved in the Government’s central work. It’s not surprising when you consider that he’s a protégé of Ewan Hart and of Max, and apparently Ewan’s lover. It really is time that Ewan’s position was regularised and the Pub-Ed Ministry put in competent hands. And it’s increasingly clear that Max’s position needs examination as well.”
“Oh, is this all about Ewan and Max?” I said. “In that case, I suppose I’d better defend myself. It’s like this. There’s a statement on record about how this régime will deal with children. We are to expect ‘care, love, total protection and relentless control’, and adults who harm us will be punished without mercy.
“You could run the controlled-children programme the way Mr Parton-Gray suggests. If you did, you’d be ignoring everything they think and feel and imposing your will regardless, yes? Well, I don’t think that care or love. You aren’t caring for someone or loving them if you completely ignore all their thoughts and feelings.
“So of course Max and Ewan have been trying to find out what kids are thinking and feeling. Bill was saying, they’ve being doing surveys at Chedley High, and so on. But another thing they’ve been trying to do is to change the way the kids are thinking and feeling. Why? So that they’ll be happier with what the Government is doing. People who love and care for someone want them to be happy, and that’s what Max and Ewan have been trying to do.
“One of the ways they’ve tried to do it is by using me. They’ve actually been quite subtle about it. They’ve found that I can sometimes get through to kids. They haven’t told me what to say; they’ve tried to influence the way I think, just a bit, and then left me to it. And they’ve picked out bits of what I’ve said, and used them.
“That speech I made to Chedley High, it said something which is important, I think. I think it is possible to explain to kids that being a controlled child is a good thing, that it’s worth-while in itself. I absolutely don’t agree that it’s better to ignore children’s feelings than to teach them that.”
“And who taught you that little speech?” said Parton-Gray. “Really, Jack, you just demean yourself by acting as a parrot like this. The point is, of course, that if we ignore the feelings and thoughts of children, it doesn’t mean we’re lacking in care or love. By definition, our feelings and thoughts are better than theirs, more valid. It’s careful and loving to impose our thoughts and override their feelings, if they differ from our own.”
“You seem to forget” I said, “that in the end these ignored, imposed-upon and overidden children will grow up and be free. Heaven help us then.”
“Okay, okay,” said General Baxter. “I’ve had enough of this. To me what you’re saying sounds like lunacy, Doug, fascistic crap. I can’t imagine where you got those ideas, but they certainly didn’t come out of any Rationalist current I’ve ever heard of. You need to get back to your cell and thrash this out with them, because you are way off-beam. And if you’re allowing your personal career aims to affect your ideological work, your commensuracy is flying out of the window. Please think about this.”
The general’s voice was quiet, but terrifying. Suddenly calling him ‘dictator’ did not seem so wild a joke, and I hoped earnestly that I would never hear him speak that way to me. Parton-Gray looked at me venomously, and stalked out of the room. It was clear that I’d made a serious enemy, and it disturbed me.
“Well, well,” said General Baxter. “Now, the question about the ceremony. This is clearly a Children’s Ministry issue, so it’s in your court, Max. But keep Susan and Bill involved.
“Jack, you’re getting your mentor on the 16th. I’ve spoken to your uncle about this, and until then I would like you and him and Neal to do some work for us, visiting schools who are getting Golden Circles. Do you agree, boys? Good. Then I want a special meeting tomorrow morning early, Bill, Susan, Max, one of Max’s guys, Jack, to deal with this ceremony business and plan those ten days. Okay?”
Now that the argument was over, a reaction was setting in. I wasn’t used to this sort of thing, and I found my hands quivering.
“I’m sure we can sort something out, Jack,” said Susan. “Doug is a fright. He’s been trying to claw Ewan out of Pub-Ed for yonks, and I don’t think he actually has any real opinions about the treatment of kids one way or the other.”
“He’s had it in for me too,” said Max, “but only because I’m an ally of Ewan. Thanks for what you said, Jack.”
“Yes, thanks, Jack,” said Susan. “Especially as I know you aren’t getting on well with Ewan at present.”
Our eyes met, and there was a lot of history on both sides. I wasn’t sure what to say; but at that moment, General Baxter tapped my shoulder.
“Could I have a word over here, Jack?”
“Could you join us, Alan?”
The three of us moved to the other side of the room.
“Please,” I said. “Could I sit down? I don’t...
“Here, Jack, here,” said General Baxter quickly, guiding me to an upright chair. “Wait one moment and I’ll get you something to drink.”
My uncle sat next to me.
“Look,” I said, holding up my hands, which were still shaking. “It’s pathetic. I almost fainted.”
The general came back with a glass of water, and I sipped it gratefully.
“I’m not surprised,” said my uncle. “A head-to-head argument over something which really matters is very stressful. You have to deal with all the bad feelings coming from the other person and think about the issues as well. But you did very well, son.”
“I agree,” said the general. “You did very well indeed. You put a clear case, you didn’t lose your temper even when he was notably unpleasant, you clearly won the argument and you got the audience on your side. You didn’t do what I feared you would do, which is back down. Although it took a threat to Ewan and Max to make you stand up to him.”
“Well, sir, he said he wanted me to stop doing this stuff. That wouldn’t bother me greatly, so I didn’t oppose it. But when he mentioned Ewan and Max, I realised that he was just using me to get at them, and that annoyed me.”
“I have a confession to make, Jack,” said the general. “I set you up.”
“I’m sorry, sir?”
“I knew what he was like. I invited him on purpose, expecting him to get into an argument with you. Obviously you would think, if he were here, that he is important and dangerous. In fact he is neither. He’s a notorious automachist, as we say, someone who stirs up irrelevant conflict on his own account. He is not taken seriously.”
“I need to know that you can stand up for yourself, Jack. I know that you feel embarrassed and ashamed when much is made of you, when people applaud the Request, for example, or when quotes from it are used. I suppose that’s better than the opposite. But there are occasions when it’s necessary to say: I am right, and I will stand by my opinions. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir, I suppose I understand.”
“Sir, it doesn’t make me happy that my nephew was put through that,” said my uncle. “He nearly fainted. It seems hard...”
“It is hard, Alan. Look. Your job is to look after Jack, and I’m very pleased you’re doing that. But I have to help him grow and unfold. I lead the Government. I take risks. I have to take risks with people sometimes as well. That’s how it goes. Rationalists believe in people taking risks. Jack does as well, in fact: he says it: He will take chances. It’s chancy being around us; you’ve found that already. This country will not have an easy, somnolent time with us in charge.
“I have many followers, and Jack is becoming an important one. I have to think about their welfare, but I also have to think about the Government and what it’s trying to do, and sometimes it’s my job to put that ahead of individual people. It’s rough, but all rulers have to do this.
“Take Jack. At every level, Jack, you’re becoming a power in the land. You’re one of the most visible faces of the Government. Your opinions have to be taken into account whenever we’re thinking about principles or policies or plans in the areas of children and propaganda, and both are vital. You’ve preserved your independence, which is a priceless asset. You have loyal friends in extremely high places. There’s your family, which is beginning to make connections of its own. And finally there’s the Request, the influence of which is becoming so enormous in every aspect of what we do that we haven’t begun to see the end of it.
“I have to take account of you, Jack. To be blunt, you’re too powerful a cannon to be allowed to become loose. Do you understand me? Sometimes that won’t be easy. But I’m very pleased that when it comes to it, you will maintain your position, and defend it competently.”
“I assure you, sir, that we have no intention of causing trouble,” said my uncle.
The general laughed.
“Alan, please don’t worry; that’s not my concern. My concern is not that you’re going to cause trouble, Jack, but rather the opposite. You have to fill your shoes, or other people will fill them for you. Do you understand? I hope you understand at any rate, Alan.”
“Yes, I understand. I agree, in fact. It’s just like what Fred Roberts was saying, Jack. What was it he said? You need a bit more swagger in your step.”
“Is that my friend the corporal?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Excellent. Now, you have ten days. Go to the schools that Max suggests, keep Susan and Bill happy as far as you can but remember that schools are Max’s province, do your ceremony, and get a feel for things. Very important for you, because so many of your actions are intuitive. Take Neal and Alan with you, and have fun. Plot with Max and make plans. Then go back to Chedley for your indenture.”
“After that, sir, whatever I do will depend on my mentor, whoever he is, which makes any plans rather pointless.”
“Well, we’ll see. I’ll expect both you and your mentor to act in the public interest. I’m sorry, Jack, but to some extent I shall require your participation in our activities. Consider yourself partially conscripted. That’s how it is. He will set me hard tasks and insist that I work on them with all my skill and all my heart.”
“Tom?” called Max. “We’ll have to be off now. I have to get these guys to bed.”
His three boys were hanging round him bashfully.
“Am I going to their school?” I asked.
“You bet,” said Max. “Tomorrow morning, Marsley Road Junior.”
“I’ll see you then, guys. Do you remember it?”
“Yeah,” said Hussein, “we went away and wrote it down.”
“Then shall we say it for the general and Max and the other grownups?”
I wasn’t sure I could remember it myself! Still, I lined up with them, and started them off.
“This is called ‘Joining the Future’,” I said. “I am the future...”
We recited together the pledge I had invented. We soon got well into it and finished with quite a swagger.
“Yeah!” shouted Wajdi, and the grownups cheered.
“Thank you so much, Jack,” said Max. “That’s tremendous. Wajdi was in tears earlier.”
“Okay, guys, now remember,” I said. “If anyone gets scared, don’t make them feel bad, just help them along. And once people have got their Golden Circles and you have too, you can teach them ‘Joining the Future’, just like we did. Is that okay? Looking forward to it?”
“See you tomorrow.”
“You see, Jack,” said the general, as Max led the boys away, “you are something of a genius. That little thing will turn what’s happening to them from something to be feared into a celebration, and yet politically it’s spot on. Wonderful.”