“Alan?” said Dan. “Could I have a word with Jack?”
We were all gradually moving out through the entrance hall. It was dark now and getting late, and I was tired.
Dan moved me round a corner and then, not entirely to my surprise, pushed me against a wall and held me firmly. I felt his hand over the lifesuit grabbing my dick and balls. I was already hard—in a lifesuit you usually are—and the extra stimulation was devastating.
“I’ve changed my mind about you,” he said. “We both have, haven’t we, Jeff? I do want to fuck you. Hard. Right deep down inside you. I want to hear you moan, boy, I want hear you come. But... it’ll have to wait. Maybe your mentor will be cooperative, who knows? What do you say to that, boy? A master wants to fuck you. What do you say?”
I was both terrified and completely turned on.
“Ugh! Thank you, sir!”
“Yes. Well, before we really shock Max’s arse off, we’d better stop this. There’s a deep, beautiful river of submissiveness in you, Jack. I hope, I really hope, that your mentor will be up to the challenge of dealing with it, because it’ll be infinitely worth while. May I kiss you?”
“Please. Please kiss me.”
And after that, his kiss was quite gentle, even shy. He tasted of red wine. I wondered when I’d meet him again.
“Keep in touch, brother,” said Jeff. “I want a piece of that arse too, you know...”
And he kissed me too, and he was fierce, demanding and invasive. Slightly staggered, I went back to my uncle, as they both laughed behind me.
“Are you all right, Jack?” said my aunt, as we got into the car. “You seem a bit flustered.”
“Did he really hit you a thousand times with his whip?” said Neal.
“Course not. He was just winding Max up. And I think he wanted Parton-Gray to think I was some kind of great hairy he-man, you know?”
“How many times did he hit you?”
“I wasn’t counting. They weren’t hard hits, anyhow, really just flicks. Uncle’s examined me and there’s nothing wrong, is there, Uncle?”
“Nope, Jack is fine,” my uncle said shortly.
I managed to catch Neal’s eye and then look at my aunt, and he shut up.
“Who was that man, Thing-Gray?” said my aunt.
“He’s apparently known to be a clown,” said my uncle. “By the way, the general agrees with you, Fred. He thinks Jack should be a bit more forward. What he said was, Jack has to fill his own shoes or other people will fill them for him. In other words, people might use Jack’s position and reputation to make trouble.”
“The general knows what’s what,” said Fred.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Look, don’t worry. No one’s going take me over, okay?”
“Good,” said my uncle.
“Right, boys,” said my uncle, as we walked up the hotel steps. “Jack, you’re needed at the Children’s Ministry at seven o’clock for the meeting the general ordered. They’ll feed you there. Neal and I will join you there at eight, and then we’re off round the schools, wherever they decide.”
“And I will be starting work!” said my aunt.
“What?” I said. “You mean here? In the hotel?”
“Yes, as manager of the two hotels and general services for the whole site. I’m going to complete buying that house and go and get Mat and Marcus and bring them down here. I can’t wait. I spoke to them by phone earlier, and they’re really excited. I think we’re going to do well.”
We all congratulated her.
“Boys, I had them clean your clothes for you, you’ll need them. Take a bag tomorrow, I’ve no idea where you’ll be staying. And I’ve put a basket in your room. Any time you’re back, put dirty clothes in it and they’ll be cleaned. Like the things you’re wearing at the moment. I can’t be chasing you with this stuff now, I’ve got a hotel to run. So do it or you’ll be turning up at schools in smelly lifesuits. Okay?”
“I want to know,” said Neal, as we went up in the lift.
“What? Well, what happened with you and that Dan. What the general said to you. And that ceremony, which you did with those boys in front of everyone, leaving me out! Well?”
I could see that he was genuinely hurt.
“Of course I’ll tell you. Neal, listen. I’m doing all kinds of stuff now, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I tell you, there’re only three people in the whole world I really trust, and that’s Uncle, Auntie, and you. No one else, because although all sorts of other people may be helping me and so on, and they may really like me, they’re still just using me to do other things. If they had to, they’d drop me. I don’t complain, because they’re mostly trying to do good things, and it’s just childish to object to them being like that, and some of them I like a lot. But it’s good to have some people who want to look after me, just for my sake. And that’s you three, and no one else.”
Neal smiled at me. We were in our room now.
“Okay. You’re forgiven. But first I want to see. You didn’t take off your lifesuit this morning, and I know why. C’mon.”
There wasn’t any getting out of it. I undid my buckle and stripped. The welts didn’t look as inflamed as they had in the morning, but they were still there. There may not have been a thousand, but there were certainly several hundred, and Neal went completely white. For a moment I thought he was going to pass out.
“You... you let him do that to you? I... Jack, I... Fuck, I hate him. I hate people who hurt you, Jack! You never hurt anyone, you’re nice to everybody, and what happens? Some bastard comes and flogs you all over... Just look! Oh, Jack!...”
He was staring at me, on the point of tears, and I sat on the bed beside him.
“Hey, listen. It’s not like that. It’s to do with the kind of person I am. I needed that, to help me sort out some stuff. I’m not angry with him. Actually, I’m grateful.”
“How could you need that? Look...”
He ran a finger along a welt which ran from the middle of my chest all round to my side.
“They call me a submissive. Which means, when it comes to sex and stuff, I like to be told what to do. Do you get that feeling sometimes?”
“I dunno what you mean. But Lakshmi and me, we aren’t doing much sex stuff really. We just kiss a bit.”
“But sometimes, would you like it if she just told you what to do?”
“Maybe. But I dunno. I don’t think I... I dunno.”
“But for me, that’s what I like. It’s taken me a time to work it out. But that’s how it is. Remember what I said? He will take the lead. That’s been part of the problem about not having Ewan. I was getting to feel good with him like that. Anyhow, Dan understands all that. He’s very dominant, which is the opposite, and Jeff is submissive for him.”
“But Jeff wasn’t some kind of wimp. Nor are you, Jack.”
“Being submissive doesn’t mean you’re a wimp. You don’t do this sort of thing if you’re a wimp, do you?”
“Yeah, I see what you mean.”
“Anyhow, he tied me up and then it was like an interrogation, you know? Everything about me, and what I was like and wanted and so on, and if I hesitated or didn’t pay attention...”
“It really sounds horrible,” said Neal. “Why? Why do this?”
“To sort out my feelings about Ewan and having a mentor I don’t know, and so on. And it worked, pretty much. The thing is, if I’m submissive, and Ewan is running it, and he says, ‘It’s over’, can I complain? After all, he’s the boss. He may have very good reasons for doing that. I just have to accept it, that’s all. And I do now, in a way. If I don’t get him back, well, I’ll just have to move on.”
“If—if you really have accepted that, then that’s good. But I don’t like it. I’m an ordinary person, and you’re my brother and I—I love you. I don’t like people being cruel to you and letting you down, the way Ewan did. And I don’t like people whipping you. You may decide to like those things or accept them, but I can’t, Jack.”
“I can’t make you like them,” I said, “but I can ask you to let me go my own way. You’re reading Padmore? Look up about autonomy and respect.”
“Okay. Of course I won’t interfere, but, well, whatever happens I’ll always help you out, Jack, you know? If it goes wrong?”
“I know that, brother, and it means a lot.”
I got up from the bed and found one of my tunics to put on. I hadn’t worn the tunics much. After the tightness of the lifesuit, the way it hung softly on my body felt exotic and sensuous in an unfamiliar way.
“So, what did the general say to you?” said Neal.
“Well, he was worried because, well, I’ve become so important.” I blushed. “Sorry, Neal, but that’s what he was saying, that I was a power in the land, what with the Request and so on, and friends like Max and George Padmore and—and Ewan, and being on TV so often, and my family (that’s you and Uncle and Auntie) having important friends too. So he was worried that if I didn’t stand up for myself, someone might move in and take me over and cause problems.”
“Yeah. I can see why he’s worried, but it’s okay. The thing about you is, you never fight or quarrel about unimportant things, but when it comes to something important, nothing stops you. I know, you fought for me several times when I was little.”
“Anyhow, he brought in that Parton-Gray person to test me out. It was a setup. Everyone knows he’s an idiot.”
“Really?” said Neal. “What a crafty old general he is!”
“Yeah. Actually, it made me think, you know, it can’t be easy being the ultimate boss, can it? You have to tell everyone what to do, and maybe some of them will be killed or badly hurt, but you still have to do it, because otherwise everyone will be hurt. It’s about taking risks, and risk means risking things that matter, otherwise it isn’t a risk. That’s in Padmore’s book too.”
“So what was all that stuff you were doing with Max’s kids? And why did you leave me out?”
“Leave you out?” I said. “Because you were busy—busy with a capital ‘L’...”
“Bastard! Come on, tell me!”
“Okay. Come and sit here, opposite me.”
I turned out the main lights, and put a bedside light on the floor, so that we could sit beside it.
“On the floor?” he said.
“Yeah. Kids are okay with sitting on the floor. Usually there’ll be four, two people who know, or maybe one sometimes, and the others have just got their Golden Circles, right? And we hold hands round the ring.”
We took each other’s hands. The light glinted off the whiteness of his lifesuit.
“This is for kids only. Grownups don’t take part. If you’re leading it, and we’ll be doing it lots, explain to them quietly and privately what it’s about. Adjust it for the age.”
“Then you explain it to me, Jack,” said Neal. “Cos sometimes—sometimes I really don’t understand myself.”
“Society’s screwed,” I said. “It’s full of people who are prepared to kill anyone—anyone at all, even kids, because of their crazy ideas. And wreck everything. We’ve seen it; the country’s been wrecked. Sometimes it doesn’t go that far—it’s just some people oppressing some others, attacking them and keeping them out of jobs, or interfering in their lives. And often it comes from people believing all kinds of mad ideas about the world, and about people, and about God, and these have other effects as well, with really important things like people’s education and health and peacefulness and love and the safety of the world coming second to stupid and unimportant things.
“It can’t go on. We have to change. And there are lots of things to change, the way things are organised, and so on; but the most important thing to change is the people. And it has to start with the children. We have to stop all the rubbish being passed on to another generation. And that means controlling each kid. It means saying, no, you won’t identify with a religion, not till you’re grown up. If you have mad ideas about race and sex, or if your head is full of superstitious nonsense, then that must change. You’ll wear the same clothes as everyone else. You’ll be shielded from religious indoctrination. And the mad ideas of your parents will be challenged by your mentor.
“It’s going to be tough for a lot of kids. We’re going to be taking their freedom and making conflicts in their lives, and for some of them it’s going to be horrible, far, far worse than it will be for us. And we don’t know what the mentor controls are yet, but I bet they’re pretty frightening. Kids need to understand that what they’ll be doing, the sacrifices they’ll be making, will be for a purpose, a great purpose, and that people understand what they’ll be going through, and respect them for it. And that’s why, to help them understand, we’ll teach them this little pledge, and it’s called Joining the Future.
“When I did this with Max’s kids, I was doing it to show them. But you’re my own brother, and this time I’m not showing, I’m doing it for real, with you. This is the time when it’s our turn to do it. Arms round their shoulders, like this, so that we’re talking together, privately. This is a kid-to-kid thing, because the grownups don’t really understand what being a controlled kid is like. They don’t understand the scariness and the helpless feeling and the feeling of the weight of everything bearing down and the feeling that people are messing around with you and you don’t know how; they don’t get that stuff. But we do, and so we have to help each other and look after each other. And this is what we say.
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.
“And then we just hold for a few seconds, and think.”
It’s true, what I said, I thought. Neal and me—we really don’t have much to complain about, compared to those kids living in tents, and kids with crazy parents. I can’t begin to imagine how those kids live. If we can help them just a bit to win their fights...
“Thanks,” said Neal. “I—thanks, Jack. You just made that up when you were talking to them?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You’re so good at that sort of thing. I won’t forget that, I really won’t.”
“Time to get up,” said my uncle quietly. “Have you got your bag ready?”
“Uh... Yup. What time is it?”
“Quarter past six. Okay, get a shower and dress. And it’s chilly—take your cloak.”
It was dank, drizzly day, and Fred and Tanner walked with me a few hundred yards through the grey light to the rambling collection of temporary buildings which housed the Ministry for Children. A security guard told me where to go: it turned out to be a room with windows down one side, and a long table, on which a breakfast of cold toast and marmalade, together with meeting pads, had been laid out. On the wall was a laminated poster of the text of the Request. Max was nursing a cup of coffee moodily.
“Where are the others?”
“There’ll be here shortly.”
I slung my cloak over a chair, and sat across from him, looking at him quizzically. Finally, he smiled at me.
“Sorry, Jack, I’m not really a morning person. Bill and Susan and George came over to see Carrie after the party, and it got a bit, well, reminiscent...”
“Okay, okay, you evil little brat,” he said. “Tony Denholm will be here, and Susan and Bill are on their way. About the ceremony: what we do about that is up to me, but we must try to accommodate Susan and Bill if we can, okay?”
“Yes, I’ve been thinking about that. I think...”
Max looked at me oddly.
“You know, sometimes you...”
“Nothing, dear child. Look, have a cup of coffee and hush for two minutes. Have some mercy...”
I grinned at him and filled in the time by working on one of the pads. As I finished, the others arrived together and helped themselves to coffee and toast.
“I see that Mr Sunshine is with us,” said Tony nastily.
“Ha-bloody-ha,” said Max. “Oh well. All ready? Here we go.”
He took a disk machine out of his pocket, put it on the table and started it.
“Special meeting: 6 October 2042: present, Susan, Bill, Tony, Max, Jack Marchmont. Item 1: Golden Circle ceremony. Jack to lay out his idea; Susan to comment; Jack to reply; Max to decide. Jack.”
My mind went back to our family: meetings with my parents and in my uncle’s office in Chedley. This was territory that had been familiar to me for as long as I could remember.
“Thanks. I’ve been thinking about this. I think that some of what Susan said yesterday was fair enough, so I’ve tried to include that. My idea is that the thing I wrote called Joining the Future should be taught by kids to kids. It’s a kid-to-kid thing, emphasising how important the kids’ contribution is and trying to make them feel that they’re all in it together. This is to work against the bad feelings that being a controlled child brings, which most adults don’t understand.
“Ideally one or two children who already have Golden Circles would come to the school. They give the Joining to the first kids who get the Golden Circle, and they give it to the next ones, and so on throughout the day, as the kids get their Circles. The Joining would be done in little groups on the floor, the way you saw me do it with Max’s kids, though with some of the older teenagers a table might be better. After a bit, the whole school would be buzzing with people learning it and reciting it. At the end, all the kids line up and recite it together to the grownups. That would be the grand climax of the whole day.”
“Yup, I think that’s much better, Jack. That gives a shape to it. My suggestion would be to confirm that with a printed copy of the, er, Joining, which the child would sign with a date, and it would also be signed by the kids who had taught it to them.”
“Jack, in reply?”
“Agreed, I think that would be great. I think we should have it printed nicely, with maybe a picture of the Golden Circle behind the words. But the printed version should only be given when the kid has the Joining word-perfect. It’s part of the job of the teaching kids to make sure that the kids they’re teaching have it off pat. As an example of helping others with their tasks. Of course we can’t visit every school, so the kids we do will carry the word to the other schools in the area, until everyone’s been done.”
“Okay,” said Max. “We have an agreed way. Fine, let’s do it. How long to produce the first batch of the cards? What would you call them, Jack?”
“Joining cards. They should be small enough to fit in a belt-pouch without folding.”
“Right, how long, Susan?”
“Give me the wording and I’ll have a few hundred in an hour.”
I had the wording written on my pad; I made a few amendments and passed it to her. She slipped out of the room with it.
“Item 2: plan for the tour of schools. Here’s the draft schedule. Jack’s indenture is on the 16th, that’s Thursday week. We’ll end up in Chedley on the Tuesday, you can do the Joining at your school, Jack, even though they’ve already got their Golden Circles. In the evening Susan wanted a final interview with Paul Oxley. I’ve left the Wednesday empty. Okay, pause two minutes to read the schedule; then intro by Max, then Jack, then Bill, final schedule by Max.”
He passed out the schedule. One school nearby this morning; two in the afternoon. TV broadcast from centre by Max, followup by Jack. And then a manic tour over the entire country, a total of nineteen schools, with a weekend off at the Centre in the middle. Southampton, Plymouth, Cardiff, Manchester, Glasgow, and on and on: it looked completely insane.
“Okay,” said Max. “At the moment we’re only doing kids from primary fifth up, that’s nine-year-olds. What we do for those younger than that needs to be thought about some more. This is a hard schedule, and that’s intentional; we need to spread the ceremony about a bit, and we need to keep Jack busy, rather than brooding. Jack?”
“One, information: who’s going on this trip? Two, you’ve included some schools after my indenture, but I can’t commit to anything then without consulting my mentor. Three, I can’t keep this level of work up for long. I need to study.”
“Jack, the party will be you, Neal, your uncle, and Tony; sometimes Susan or Bill or me, together with Fred Roberts and Co. I appreciate that you can’t say anything without consulting your mentor. However, we are planning on the basis that he will go along with what will be a fairly direct expression of the Government’s desires on this. We will let up after your indenture. We accept that you need to study and this will be built into any future schedules, although for the first month after indenture kids don’t have to attend school. Let’s leave it at that.”
He took a bite of toast. Wondering when I would find time over the next few days to eat, let alone sleep, I did the same.
“Okay,” he went on, as Susan slipped back into the room. “Item 3: Mentor controls. Tony to report. Jack to reply. Brief free discussion. Decisions: Max. Okay, Tony.”
“Jack is new to this,” said Tony, “so a bit of old information. There are nine mentor controls on the Golden Circle. They’ll be controlled by a device called the Wheel, which will be issued to each mentor when the indenture starts. It looks like a ring, and the mentor can wear it on a finger. Initially as this is all new, only one control will be enabled. The others will be announced later, and mentors will have to go back to the schools to have the new controls enabled.
“The first control is called ‘the discipline’. It enables the mentor to cause a sharp pain in the pupil. Use of the discipline will be closely monitored and those who misuse it will be punished. This will be announced by Max this evening on TV, after which there will be a discussion between him and Jack.”
“Jack?” said Max.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. I stared at him, appalled. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Susan shaking her head, but I was so shocked that for a moment I couldn’t move.
“Brief adjournment,” said Max. “Jack...”
I got up and went to look out of the window, my hands shaking, and struggled to get my mind under control.
“Jack...” said Max, coming up behind me.
“Leave me alone, please,” I said evenly.
I heard him move. Think! An appeal to feelings? Pointless. What then? But what else? Anything, anything... I took a deep breath.
“Okay,” I said, sitting down.
“Resuming,” said Max. “Jack.”
I could see the concern on his face, and it came to me that he actually cared for me in some way. But what difference did it make? What difference had it ever made, to any of them? To Ewan, for that matter?
“This won’t fly,” I said, and my voice croaked. “We have four million kids, that’s say, seven million parents. Most of them are not bad people and they love their kids. You’ve already told them that their position with their kids is going to be threatened by this new mentor person, who’ll be a complete stranger in most cases. Now you’re telling them that this stranger will have the power to electrocute their kids whenever they want. There’s no way you can sell that. Ask Susan and Bill.”
“Jack’s right. There’s no way we can sell electrocuting people’s kids in three days. We said this before, Ewan said it. Why has this come back again?”
“We have to start somewhere,” said Tony. “In fact the discipline isn’t as harsh as it sounds, Jack. I’m surprised it should bother you, given what you’ve been through with Dan.”
“It’s not about what bothers me. It’s about what bothers parents, Tony. Max, it’s about some stranger zapping Hussein’s neck whenever he wants to, less than two years from now. Can you feel it?”
“That’s not valid,” said Tony. “It’s an appeal to emotion.”
“No it isn’t,” I said. “The emotions of the parents are an objective fact for us, and we have to deal with them.”
“We can’t do it, Max,” said Bill. “There are some things that just can’t be sold, and ‘we will electrocute your kids’ is one of them.”
“Suggestions?” said Max.
“What’s the next control to be enabled?” I said.
“Silence control. The pupil can be stopped from talking or making any sound.”
For a moment I stared at him, and something started to scream inside me.
“You can sell that,” I said. “Everyone has wanted their damn children to shut up. You could make a joke of it. The fact that it’s nearly as cruel as the discipline is neither here nor there.”
“Yup,” said Susan. “We can sell that, just about.”
“Can we switch at this point?” said Max.
“No problem at all,” said Tony.
“Okay, we’ll do that. But we’ll need to sell the discipline somehow.”
“Start a debate on corporal punishment,” I said, flatly. “Someone can say how the problem is that using sticks and things isn’t exact enough and can injure kids and lead to abuse. The discipline is the solution, a scientifically-measured dose of pain, guaranteed not to damage the child’s skin or flesh nor leave nasty bruises which the neighbours might notice.” I felt Max wince. “Aim it at the people who’re going to be mentors and who’ll be worrying if they can really hack it. It’s a new constituency which doesn’t exist yet.”
“Yup, that could work, given time,” said Bill.
“Okay, that’s what we’ll do,” said Max. “Silence control first, discipline delayed. Anything else? Okay, meeting closed. Jack, please...”
I got up and went to the window again. Outside a field of greyish vegetation mixed with rusting junk lay under the autumn drizzle.
“How are we getting to the school?” I said.
“We leave from here in fifteen minutes. Fred will bring a vehicle round. Look, Jack...”
“Give me five minutes. I’ll meet you out the front.”
“Leave me alone, Max. If Neal is there, send him in.”
I heard him leave. Once again they had hit me with something really horrible in a way that excluded me from responding. Never trust them, I thought, especially when they’re being nice. They don’t actually care about me or any individual. They’re revolutionaries. Their eyes are on the wonderful plan, and that’s all that counts. Omelettes and broken eggs. And so it gets hard. It’s getting hard for us, and it’s going to get harder and harder. Pain at the twist of a switch... What next? What will they do to us next?...
“Neal. Come here, brother. Let’s do it again. I need to do it again.”
We sat on the floor and embraced, and quietly we muttered the Joining together. It helped. To carry forward this task I give up my freedom for a time... And my ability to speak and weep. And I accept instant pain. And who knows what else: it can only get worse. But if that’s what it takes... That’s what I’ll have to tell them, because the Government has left me no alternative.
“Thanks, brother. I needed that,” I said.
“Very. C’mon, let’s hit the road. I’ll tell you later.”
I brushed Max off again as we organised ourselves onto the minibus. Including Fred and three of his guys, there were ten of us, plus our baggage. The Joining cards had arrived in a box, and we put them on board. Finally we were under way. I sat next to my uncle, but I couldn’t avoid Max any more; he knelt beside me in the aisle.
“Jack, I was sorry to break that on you. We had to deal with it today, there’s the TV...”
“We’re going to your sons’ school now, aren’t we? What do you want me to say to them? Your dad is fixing things so that some bastard can zap your neck and stifle your screams, all by twiddling his ring? Is that your vision for their teenage years, Max?”
“Of course it isn’t and that isn’t going to happen!”
“Then what damn use is the silence control?” I said. “If not just to humiliate and torment?”
“The silence control is for when a child won’t shut up and listen, Jack. It’s an instrument of control, not of punishment and oppression. It’s hard, and that isn’t news, that’s what you’ve been saying all along. Being a controlled child is going to be hard, it involves a loss of freedom. It’s in Joining the Future, Jack, you explained it yourself!”
“Yes, and now I wonder if I had any idea what I was talking about. Are you sure you want to put me on the TV this evening, Max? Because I’m an angry boy just now. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather twiddle your ring and shut me up?”
“Not on your life,” he said. “The really hard thing for you, Jack Marchmont, is that you’ll be doing just exactly what we want.”
“Yes, I know. That’s the only reason I’m here. And you’re right—sometimes I forget it, because I’m an idiot. This morning has certainly been a damn good reminder.”
“There’s not a lot of point in talking to you in this mood. However, just for the record: I love you, Jack. So does bloody nearly everyone who knows you, and there are various reasons for that. But it doesn’t mean you aren’t useful, and I don’t see what’s wrong with loving your usefulness, among many other things about you. We are professionals, and whether you like it or not, so are you.”
He moved away, and I turned my face into my uncle’s chest, and wept as quietly as I could.
“Uncle,” I said to him finally, “I said to Neal yesterday: there’s you, and him, and Auntie Judy. There’s no one else I trust. Not really.”
“I know,” he said. “You’ve said that before, but now I think it’s a shame. Because I don’t know that Max has ever lied to you or deceived you, has he? You may disagree with him, but that doesn’t have to mean that you distrust him. I said nothing just now, and do you know why?”
“Because you and he are involved in a disagreement about your work. You’re colleagues. Colleagues have disagreements. That’s normal and if they get on well, it doesn’t really matter.”
“But it’s important!” I said.
“Of course it is. You wouldn’t have a flaming row about something trivial. So what? Has Max ever lied to you or deceived you?”
“No. I don’t think he has.”
“Then on the personal level you have no cause for complaint, it seems to me. He will allow anyone to earn his trust.”
“I hate the mentor controls they were speaking about,” I said.
“Yes, son, I heard. Lots of things are happening to you which are not a lot of fun, and there’s nothing you can do about them. You just have to eat them up. Those things humiliate you. You have to get your pride the way you said yourself, by the value of what you do. Just like you told those kids. Just like Fred and the general told you. Take some pride in what you do—and as for the controls, just put up with it. Remember what Dan taught you, too.”
“You’ve changed your way of looking at this a bit.”
“Yes,” he said. “Because yesterday evening I realised an important thing. And that is, that you are now one of the rulers of this country, Jack. You’re a controlled child, you’ll have a mentor who’ll have all kinds of powers over you, in your private life you’re a deep submissive—but you’re still a powerful person, far more powerful than most adults. You’ve just spent a hour with the senior members of two ministries, discussing high policy issues, just the five of you, and taking decisions which are going to affect the lives of millions of people. So it’s simply inappropriate for me to whine about you being mistreated. If you are being mistreated you have remedies that most people could only dream of.”
“It sounds like you’re telling me to grow up.”
“Exactly. If you have serious issues with Max and work, don’t rant and sulk. Send him a properly-worded private memo. If that doesn’t work and you still want to give him a bad time, send a note to General Baxter—but in that case, understand that you will make an enemy of Max and his allies. A real enemy. You’re playing with the big boys now. Do you see? Max said, both you and he are professionals. That’s a fantastic compliment to a fourteen-year-old. It means he’s treating you as an equal. You should try to measure up to that and stop whining.”
“He sprung something on me in the meeting which he knew I would hate.”
“That was possibly unfair,” he said. “I hope you didn’t yell at him or burst into tears.”
“No,” I said, “Susan and Bill and me, we argued against it and Max and Tony changed their minds.”
“And that is bad precisely how? You won an argument against the minister and that is bad?”
“The new policy isn’t a lot better, the way I see it.”
“That’s how it goes in the real world. Unless you can find some way of radically changing things, you have to put up with it.”
“Hm.” I thought for a while. “Excuse me.”
“That’s my boy,” he said, as I slipped away.
Max was sitting next to an empty seat. I slid into it.
“Max, I’m sorry,” I said. “I said some hurtful things.”
“Hey.” He smiled at me. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’re only fourteen.”
“You took me unawares. I wish you wouldn’t do that, Max. Ewan did the same. I don’t think it’s fair, and I don’t think you get the best out of me like that.”
“It was unintentional, really, and I agree it wasn’t good. But you coped, Jack. It was a useful discussion.”
“The fact is, I hated both the controls we discussed. I suppose the others are even worse. I’m not sure that the kids will be able to stand it, Max, and I can’t imagine what frame of mind they’ll be in when they reach twenty after being treated in this way every since they were twelve.”
“But they won’t be. The controls will be used with care and love, Jack. If need be he will be strict, but even then he will continue to show me his love. Who do you think the mentors will be? The worst people in the country, or the best?”
“I expect a lot of really good people, some people with different strange ideas and a tiny group of true frights. That’s what I expect. And I wonder which kind I’ll get. And Neal. And you’ll be wondering about Hussein, and David. And the year after, Wajdi. This is all very real, Max.”
“All right!” he said, and something seemed to snap. “I’ll say it, because it’s true! I’m shit scared of what will happen to my kids, I’m terrified! I fucking sweated blood to save them, I killed, I literally killed, to save Wajdi’s life, admittedly only some terrorist arsewipe kidnapper, but still. Carrie and I, we spent every penny we had, all the wealth of my family here and in Germany went into it. For us, those kids are the centre of the world. I don’t have to take lessons from you or anyone else about loving kids, Jack!”
I looked at him, and the shame I felt at that moment could not be measured.
“I seem to be learning a lot today, Max. I’m truly sorry.”
“I’m terrified but I still want my kids to have a chance of a good mentor, I still want the country to be a place which is fit for them to live in, and their kids in their turn, not a shit-heap like we found it. That’s why we’re doing this, remember? It’s in what you’ve written yourself! And you—you have a vital role to play, because you can help the kids to do it, don’t you see? You can help to see them through, and you’ve done so much already. And you’re meant to speak for them as well, and voice their fears right in the Government’s face. It’s crucial that the Government, and grownups in general, should understand what kids are going through. That’s why you’re there!”
It was all pretty obvious, really, what was going on, once he’d said it.