The Golden Circle

by Nial Thorne

Chapter 19: Justly respect

Reading further constitutes an unambiguous gesture of assent to the statement: I am not a minor person, nor in the company of a minor person. The story is copyright © 2004 Nial Thorne. You may copy it for your own private use; all other rights reserved. See chapter 1 for more notes. Comments very welcome at

It was a strange, wild week which started that Tuesday morning, a week of endless journeying, of snatched meals, short, restless nights, and a cataract of faces—teachers, Ministry personnel, TerrAd troops, and above all, girls and boys, thousands of them—and of talking, explaining, persuading, cajoling, comforting. I had never done anything like it before; I’d never worked so consistently and so hard for so long, never been so tired. Although many of the details have blurred over time, I’ve never forgotten the feeling of that time; it was then that so many things opened up for me, so many things started to unfold.

I hadn’t seen my aunt at all on Monday, so I was surprised when she woke us. It was about five-thirty.

“Hello, sweeties, I’ve brought you some breakfast to eat here, because things aren’t really working downstairs yet. I’ve had as many of your clothes washed as I can. Wherever you stay, ask the hotel to wash any dirty clothes—ask them the first thing when you arrive, so they have some chance of getting them done. Tell them they can be washed in the normal wash and lifesuits and trunks don’t need to be ironed...”

Her face was concerned. It was months since we had been separated for more than a day. I hugged her.

“Thanks for everything you’ve done for us,” I said. “Since our parents—”

“Yes, darling, well; it’s been a pleasure. I’ll be here when you get back on Friday, and I’ll look forward to seeing you. Come on, get up and eat now, your plane will be waiting if you don’t hurry.”

It was still dark, and raining. I’d never seen a ramchopper up close, let alone flown in one; its size was frightening. We ran across the strip in the watery floodlight with the rotors swishing over our heads. Then the rising whine as we took off, and the roar of the jets as we slid away, faster and faster, higher and higher. Neal and I were boys, and we never got over the excitement of these moments.

Our first stop that day was Cardiff. Tony and I spent much of the flight discussing what we would be doing, what the school was like and so on, and arranging logistics with Fred. It was the first of many such discussions, which gradually built Tony and me, and to lesser extent Neal, my uncle and Fred as well, into a team, a group of people who trusted and understood each other.

That day Tanner was piloting the plane, and he had Neal sitting beside him all the way, learning how a ramchopper works and what the controls meant, and his enthusiasm was infectious. By the time we reached Cardiff I was ready.

It was a small junior school, just 150 children from nine to eleven joining; then it was off to Manchester, eating our lunch on the plane, and planning for the next school. Derrick was passing round coffee in spill-proof cups when my phone rang.

It was Alison Smith, one of the first students we had joined the day before at Wendall Park Community College. Now some of the students there had failed to come to school, and she wanted my advice. I gave it as well as I could; before I could even put my phone away, there was a call from a teacher at Penningford High. They would be taking the Joining to another school in the area. She knew the kids were supposed to do the actual Joining, and she wanted to know how she should support them. I gave some answers; Tony looked at me.

“That’s not going to stop,” he said. “In fact, its’s going to get worse. Look, Jack, redirect your phone to mine; I’ll filter the calls and pass on the ones you really have to handle. Otherwise it’ll be impossible.”


“Most of them I can pass on to my team at the Ministry, the Golden Circle team.”

“I’m not sure...”

“You can’t deal with all of them yourself, Jack, therefore you have to delegate,” said my uncle. “Otherwise you’ll kill yourself and the job still won’t be done. Tony’s absolutely right. It’s a lesson you might as well learn now.”

“You just have to set up the guidelines, and my team will follow them. They’re good people, Jack, they know how to do that.”

For a moment I felt as if I was being swept away into something so big I couldn’t possibly control it. I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths and tried to clear my mind, as my uncle had taught me. I take up the task... The others were looking at me; I felt their support, and it helped.

“Okay, Tony,” I said. “Do it. But make sure I get my fair share, okay?”

“Okay,” he said, and smiled; and at that moment, the phone rang again.

The school at Manchester was an enormous and extremely prestigious high school, and there were nearly 2,000 students joining, from eleven up. It was a ferocious, chaotic and wonderful afternoon. That was where we met Ibrahim Malik and Aurora Desai, the pair chosen by the school to start the Joining—the pyramid points, as we would soon call them. If it hadn’t been for them and their friends, the whole exercise would have been impossible. With the higher years we did Joinings round a table, rather than on the floor, and the introduction was more like a sixth-year seminar. But it still worked. I was pleased that the same text which worked with working-class nine-year-olds in Cardiff also caught the imagination of these elite senior students.

At the end of the day we chatted for a while with Ibrahim and Aurora and a few of their friends. They were all in their last year at school, seventeen or eighteen years old, and the way they deferred to me, and even to Neal, was a little unnerving. Together we worked out ways to spread the Joining to other schools nearby. This became the basis for what we called the ‘neighbourhood team’: a group of students from a school we had joined, with one or two teachers, taking the Joining to neighbouring schools, with these schools then contributing more members. And I could feel it was going to work.

“I’m glad we’re doing this,” said Ibrahim. “I’m glad we’re at least starting to think about religion. It’s about time.”

“It was bad here,” said Aurora. “There were many, many deaths. And the two of us, well, it was especially hard for us.”

I realised that these two, Muslim and Hindu, were in love.

“Both our families have rejected us,” said Ibrahim. “We were very lucky to survive, and we’re still not out of danger. I’m apostate, as far as my family goes, and Aurora’s a dishonoured woman, her own father wanted her burnt alive. We’re candidate members of the Party and I support what they’re doing, but I don’t think it’s going nearly far enough.”

“How do you mean?” I said.

“We have to face facts,” he said. “Religions are inherently oppressive, and inherently hostile to each other. They all insist on conformity and obedience from their members, and demand that their beliefs should spread and be adopted by other people. They may accept a truce for a while, but what they want is hegemony. There’s no room in their world for any viewpoint except their own. I said this in my cell: I think the Party should openly challenge the religions, all of them. People like our families—”

“Many people have tried to do that over the years,” said Tony. “It’s never worked. We’re not fools in the Party; we’re not going to bust our guts trying to do the impossible. If we go head-to-head with the religions, they will win and we will lose. And in any case, despite all the bad stuff, they all provide a valuable ethical framework which people accept. We need that.”

“Okay, maybe we can’t challenge them,” said Aurora. “But I’m not taking my ethics from honour-killers and limb-loppers and witch-burners. No way.”

“They have no ethical standing any more, they threw it away,” said Ibrahim. “They have nothing at all to offer us. We need to build to our own ethical framework, Tony. And we can. We have our own resources.”

Their faces were hard; they were enormously impressive and just a bit frightening. I could see they’d been through a lot, and it had changed them. If they were the future of Rationalism, I really hoped they’d find some ethics soon.

“Is that the new clothes for the bairns?” asked our waiter at the hotel at breakfast.

We had arrived in Glasgow at nearly ten o’clock the evening before. We grabbed a bite to eat and then, exhausted, we stumbled into the hotel rooms reserved for us. All the same I had not slept well; I was still having nightmares, and the howling of the ramjets seemed to be ringing in my ears.

“Er, yes,” I said.

“My wee lad’s getting his this morning. He’s eleven.”

“What school’s that?”

“Magnus Road Junior.”

“We’ll be there,” I said.

“Will you? Aren’t you Jack Marchmont?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Aye, well, he’s Jack too, Jack McGlashan. Will you say hello to him?”

“Sure I will,” I said.

So we had our way in for that school, and Jack was a bright lad who happily acted as pyramid point there. And after that fairly small school, it was away to Newcastle, and just a brief stop at a large school there, enough to join a few selected bright kids and start the ball rolling. At least by now the staff knew what we were up to, because of the TV coverage. Then, after a short discussion about neighbourhood teams, it was back north, to Edinburgh.

I can’t begin to describe the rest of the week. If Max wanted to keep me so busy that I would have no time to brood, he succeeded completely. Each evening after supper we dropped into bed totally exhausted.

It was two or three schools a day, small and large, and it could be any age range from nine upwards. And we learnt how to do it, Neal and I, with Tony’s help: how to organise the day, how to set up our pyramid, how to talk to the whole school and to the individuals. We learnt a hundred stories of The Problems, many of them worse than ours, and a hundred more arising out of those same things which had made The Problems inevitable: hate, violence, religious bigotry, ignorance, superstition, stupidity. And gradually we learnt how to start to deal with them.

I learnt a lot about Neal, his courage and straightforwardness and his bottomless anger at cruelty. It was together that we worked out how to deal with the stories the kids brought us, and how to rid our own minds of the horror. We learnt how to use the Joining ritual as a way of balancing and centring ourselves, of remembering the importance of what we were all doing, and using that to dispel the pain of the moment.

I learnt to value Tony too, a large man with a deep rumbling voice, whose vague and bumbling surface hid a fiercely efficient organiser and an almost terrifying idealism. To my surprise, once we started to talk, I found he was the most ardent Rationalist I had met so far. And as the days passed, he learnt more about us, too, more about the way that controlled children felt and worked.

Our uncle stood mostly in the background, talking to the school staff and keeping ready to offer support, especially when medical problems came up. He understood the organisation of neighbourhood teams and could talk to the teachers about this while the Joining was still going on. I got a lot closer to him during those few days. It was good to end the day in some pub leaning against him, dozing in front of the fire, one on either side.

The other person I learnt about during that week was myself. I didn’t realise it at the time, because I was mostly too tired to think, but I was discovering what I could do, and becoming more confident in myself, as we worked through school after school. I found out where my weaknesses lay, too.

The joining sessions with hundreds and sometime thousands of kids would have been enough to tire us out without the endless ramchopper journeys, which seemed to go from end to end of the country as often as not. That Wednesday we flew from Edinburgh to Southampton, then down to Plymouth, and the next day back to Norwich and Leicester. No one had ever told me how noisy a ramchopper is for the people inside it, but that was yet another thing I learnt, along with the smell of aviation fuel. The last school of a long day would too often find us tired, hungry and tetchy with headaches.

Our pyramid points and neighbourhood teams from all over the country gave us very little rest, sending us every kind of problem, dealing with teachers and the TerrAd authorities, with the Ministry, with schools, with parents, above all the problems of particualr kids. Tony and his team helped to deal with what they brought to us; and as time went on, I encouraged the neighbourhood teams to take up these problems locally. But still I had to deal with a lot of calls myself, especially the things which Tony always left to me: how to explain to the kids what was happening; how to help them deal with it; how to live as a controlled child.

And many of the pyramid points and teachers rang simply to chat, to discuss where things were going, to agree, to complain, to argue. I put them in touch with each other, and we shared what we had learned. We were becoming a network.

At lunchtime on Thursday we touched down briefly at Chedley TerrAd to let my uncle and Neal off. I wouldn’t see them again until Tuesday evening. I flew on to Nottingham with Tony and Fred Roberts and his team, feeling rootless and unnerved. It was a year or more since I’d been separated from my family for so long, and I was completely unsure about how I would manage a joining without Neal’s assistance.

As it turned out, the last school of Thursday was enormous and took hours to complete; but there were no serious problems. Exhausted once again we retired to a pleasant, warm pub in Nottingham for supper and bed.

“Jesus, you’ve been working hard, Jack!” said Tanner.

He was off-duty, so he was allowing himself a pint.

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t so bad this afternoon.”

“It’s bad enough just keeping up with you, leave alone sorting out all these kids.”

“It’s not easy doing it without Neal,” I said. “Yeah, it went okay today, but still...”

“I think it’ll be okay tomorrow too,” said Tony. “You just need to concentrate on getting the pyramid points started, so they can drive the actual joining from early on, and you can stand back and pick up any problems. The schools aren’t too bad, anyhow. The first is the worst, about five hundred, and you won’t be able to stay to the end. Then there’s one in Oxford, only a couple of hundred, although there are lots of crazies there. Then it’s Parford High, which shouldn’t be too bad. It’s really almost a Government school.”

“Yeah,” said Fred. “Lots of kids with parents in Government or the forces at the Centre. Still, I reckon you’ll be pleased to have a weekend off, Jack.”

Oh, boy, yes. I was looking forward to it.

We arrived back at the Centre at noon on Friday, and ate in the minibus on the way to the school.

Parford High was quite a modern-looking building, and unscathed apart from a long line of bullet holes across the front wall. And waiting for us in the main entrance was my aunt Judy.

“Oh, Auntie!”

I was in her arms in a moment, and she was stroking my hair, and it was good.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“I’ve come to see the show,” she said. “Mat and Marcus go to school here now.”

“They do? Auntie, that’s incredible! Have you moved down here now?”

“Well, yes, but at the moment we’re living in Hotel 2. Our house will be ready next week. I just had a good offer for my old house, someone who could pay in marks, so...”

“How are they doing here?”

“Not bad,” she said, “except that they’re miles behind at school. They haven’t had any proper education for years. But they’re quite bright. And it helps that no one’s ever heard of their father.”

“And they’re getting their clothes today, and their Golden Circles? Isn’t that rather early for them?”

“They insisted. They saw you on TV and when they heard that you were coming here to do it, they insisted even more.”

“Are you adopting them?” I said. “Have they changed their names?”

“I want to adopt. It depends on the Children’s Administration in theory, but that really just means the Selectors for this school at the moment. I think they’ll agree. At the moment they’re using their mother’s name, that’s Turner.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “I’ve never had any cousins before.”

“Oh, Jack.”

“Come on. We’ll go and join these guys.”

The children had already been measured and they were waiting in the canteen. I could see Mat and Marcus across the room, and they gave me a wave. I scarcely recognised them, they looked so happy and alert. I decided to use them and a girl from the sixth year as pyramid points, so off they went to get their clothes. A few minutes later, they were back. Mat and Marcus looked absolutely tremendous in matching lifesuits in swirling blues and whites, and so pleased with themselves they could hardly talk. To my surprise they learnt the words without any difficulty; I signed their cards and we were off.

And in no time, it seemed, the hall was full of joining groups; and then, everyone was done. And we all stood together, and I called to them from the platform to recite it to the grownups, and jumped down to join in. It was good.

Mat and Marcus and I met my aunt at the front entrance, where she was talking to Max. A crowd of parents and lifesuit-clad children carrying bags milled around us, and the atmosphere was light-hearted and happy. I felt it had gone well.

“Oh Jack, how good that was!” said my aunt. “When you all recited it I shed a few tears, I can tell you. And don’t the boys look great?”

“I think so. What do you think, Max?”

“They look completely tremendous. Congratulations, Judy, I think you’ve done an amazing job.”

“A lot of people helped. Mostly the boys, in fact. They’re pretty remarkable, and now they’re my foster sons. Soon I shall adopt them.”

“You said we’ll be your cousins!” said Mat.

“Yes,” I said. “We’ll be cousins, you two and me. And Neal. Because our Auntie Judy’s adopting you.”

“I don’t understand what ‘adopt’ means,” said Marcus. “Not really.”

“Well,” said Max, “I tell you what. You all come round and see us tomorrow afternoon, and you can meet my kids, because they’re adopted too.”

The wind was chilly as Max and I walked across the Centre to his home. I’d often wondered about Max’s house. What kind of place could accomodate ten kids, as well as him and his wife?

It turned out to be not a house, but a row of houses. The Centre enclave included several streets of old terraced houses, and four of these had been knocked together. The entrance door was in one of the middle pair, and we found Carrie Barton, Max’s wife, in the front garden digging potatoes, helped by three tiny children.

She was wearing a shapeless top and a pair of jeans, her hair was long and golden, and she smiled in a way that told you she smiled a lot. The word ‘buxom’ was invented for Carrie Barton. I loved her instantly.

“So, you’re this Jack Marchmont I keep hearing about. Why the hell haven’t you come to see us before?”

I shook her hand, but she gathered me into a hug.

“Max sent me all over the country, that’s why. Thirteen schools this week!”

“That’s my Max. Get inside and warm up, son, unless you want to help us with the spuds.”

So I helped them dig the spuds, and I learnt that the little ones were Danny, Noraddin and Rivka. I’m good at finding spuds; we all had fun wriggling our fingers through the soil, and we collected a good bucketful. Shortly after that, Hussein, David and Wajdi came home from one school, and the remaining four kids from another. Then Carrie and Max cooked a meal for us, potatoes baked with cheese, another unfamiliar item, and it was delicious.

After supper, the youngest six were sent to bed with surprising ease, and Max and Carrie sat in front of the fire to relax with me and the three boys I already knew; also Stellios, who had turned nine the week before. I understood that this was a daily ritual for the older kids, and that Stellios had just started to attend.

“Well, Jack, how’s it been?” said Max. “Tony says it’s been fine.”

I looked at him, baffled. I didn’t know where to start; he laughed.

“Oh, I think it’s been okay,” I said. “One or two problems, but okay. I’ve learnt a lot.”

“Like what?”

“I knew in theory how horrible it’s been up and down the country. But when you actually meet it, you begin to really understand it. The stories we heard... It was far, far worse than I imagined. Quite a lot of the time we seemed to be acting like counsellors or social workers. And often when we said to kids, have you told anyone about this, they’d say, no, what’s the point? No one would believe us. Sometimes you could persuade them to speak up, sometimes not. You know, I think there were far more killings than people thought.”

“Yes,” said Max. “That’s what we think, too; we’re beginning to count the people who are missing. You know Chedley, and the killings in Victoria Square. But the other day they found a mass grave in the old allotments to the south. They’re still digging but it seems there’s probably at least ten thousand bodies there.”

“Why—why do they do that?” said Hussein, distressed. “I mean, I’ve heard people say, it’s hatred and superstition and so on, but I don’t understand. I mean, people say, you shouldn’t steal things, and I wouldn’t, but I can understand why a person would steal something, if they really wanted it. But I can’t understand why anyone would kill ten thousand people. I—I don’t understand!”

“No, darling,” said Carrie. “That’s because you’re a gentle soul. You always have been. You don’t have to understand it that way. Just know there are some people who like to kill, they just enjoy killing. And there are other people who need to do it. They don’t necessarily enjoy it, but they need it.”

“It’s made me understand a bit better why we need to control the children,” I said. “I guess I don’t mind the idea of the controls so much now. We really need to do something to stop this kind of thing happening, and if that means we kids have a rough time for a while, I suppose it’s worth it. So maybe I owe you an apology, Max.”

“That’s very generous, but I don’t think you do, really. We didn’t handle you well.”

“But we’d better bloody get it right. Millions of controlled kids. It had better be right. They won’t be controlled for ever.”


“I’m really not too worried,” said Carrie. “I don’t see that being a controlled child is so awful. Our three seem fine. It’s a bit of a worry who’s going to be their mentors, but there are a lot of good people in the world and they’re far more likely to get one of those.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s more stuff I’ve learned: more of what it’s like to be a controlled kid. Your three seem fine, and I seem fine, you’d say? What d’you think, guys? Is everything okay?”

“Mostly. Most of the time,” said David.

“What?” said Max. “What’s wrong some of the time, David?”

“It’s—well, it’s nothing in a way, but it’s the feelings, remember? You said, Dad, we’ll get being-controlled feelings, that it’s something that we’ll get used to. But sometimes they aren’t good, and we aren’t getting used to them, not really. In some ways, it’s getting worse.”

“I’m finding that, in a way,” I said. “I don’t think you can expect the feelings to stop being bad. Your Dad said you’ll get used to them, but that doesn’t mean they stop being bad. You have to get used to the badness, that’s all.”

“Jack—” said Max.

“You’ve got each other. Help each other out when it feels bad, do the Joining and have a hug. It doesn’t usually last for long. And remember we’re doing this to stop things like all those people being killed. That’s the task, and we’re all working at it. Of course it’s hard. That’s how it is.”

“Jack, I’m sure it can’t be as bad as you say.”

“Do you remember saying that before, Max? ‘It’s just a pinprick.’ I’m not making this stuff up, and I think it’s pretty disrespectful to say I am. We know what we’re talking about with this.”

“Um. Okay, suitably chastened,” said Max. “I admit, we didn’t anticipate this.”

“It’s okay, we can deal with it. We can deal with it, can’t we, guys?”


“It’s part of the task, Max. We just have to accept it.”

“Stellios is asleep,” said Carrie. “Come on, kids, off you go. You too, Jack, I can see you’re dead on your feet.”

I slept the night in a room with a double bed, and when I awoke I found I was sharing it with Danny, Noraddin and Rivka. Hussein was shaking my shoulder and offering me a cup of coffee. I looked at my clock; I’d been asleep for ten hours.

“Where did they come from?”

“Oh, they always do that when we have visitors. Usually you get Roxane as well.”

“She was too shy,” shouted Danny. “Cos she hasn’t spoken to Jack before and she thought he might have no clothes on!”

All the kids giggled.

“Get up, Jack!” yelled Max from downstairs. “Judy and her boys will be here shortly!”

They arrived while we were still eating. Today they were wearing new lifesuits, rather unusual ones with a pattern of blue and yellow squares and red lines. Someone had obviously decided they should be given matching clothes. I wasn’t at all sure that this was a good idea.

“Hi cousins! How does the Standard Clothing suit you?”

“I love it!” said Marcus.

But Mat seemed a bit more worried, and Aunt Judy asked me to have a chat with him about it if I could. It wasn’t easy to arrange in the endless rampage of the Margraves’ home. It was chaotic and lively, full of rows and reconciliations, and I loved it; but it made quiet chats difficult. Then Max explained that one room was reserved for just this.

“C’mon, cousin,” I said to Mat a bit later.


“Just you and me. C’mon.”

He grinned and followed me. The room was at the top of one of the four staircases; it was small but well-lit, with a window looking out over the Centre’s strip, three comfortable chairs and a shelf of books. There was a label saying GO AWAY! which you could hang on the outside door knob.

“This is the private place,” I said. “It’s for talking privately. Cos you’re not happy, cousin, and maybe you can tell me why.”

And after a little coaxing, it all came out: the lifesuits were making him feel sexy, and his dick kept getting hard, which he’d been taught was an offence. He felt disgusted with himself, and he thought he might turn into a sex maniac, and rape people. And worst of all, the people who made him get hard were mostly other boys.

“Please don’t tell anyone,” he said, weeping. “Please, cos Judy’s so nice and if she knew she’d send us back to the home...”

“No, she wouldn’t. I’m attracted to boys and she knows that. She doesn’t mind at all. Max knows as well, and Carrie. They really don’t mind.”

He stared at me, open mouthed.

“But... It’s an abomination! God hates—”

“I’ll tell you what I think God hates, if he exists, and that’s the sort of things you put on your list of real offences,” I said. “I don’t suppose he’d care at all how people love each other, or what they do when they’re together. What he hates is people being cruel and hurting each other.”

“But my dick shouldn’t get hard all the time like this,” he said.

“Hey, that’s what happens at your age! Plus it’s the lifesuits. They do it to everyone, Mat, it just happens. Look, you can see mine right now. You just have to get used to it. Lifesuits make you feel sexy.”

“Sex is bad.”

I could see him snatching glances at my dick for the rest of the conversation. Of course, that just made me harder. As I said, he was a very pretty boy.

“No! No, it isn’t bad!” I said. “It’s only bad when it’s used to hurt someone. Sex is nice, it’s fun, it feels good and it helps you to get closer to people. How can it be bad?”

He stared at me, amazed.

“Okay,” I said. “That’s a bit hard to take on board. Do you want to talk to Judy about this?”


“Well, you’ll have a mentor soon. You can talk to him about it. But before then, you can talk to Max, I’m sure, if he has time. Can I talk to Max about it?”

“I guess,” he said.

We didn’t get much further than that, but it seemed that at least he wasn’t quite so worried about getting hard.

“What was the problem?” said Max, later.

We were walking the few hundred yards to one of the Centre shops.

“I can tell you, but you mustn’t tell anyone else. It’s just—well, you’ve been taught that getting a stiffie means you’re going to turn into a rapist and go to hell. Then they put you in a lifesuit...”

“I see.”

“He can’t talk to Judy,” I said. “It’s a boy problem, and anyhow, he’s worried that if she knew how depraved he is she’d send them back to Masson House.”

“Poor little wretch.”

“He really needs a mentor. In the meantime I said he could talk to you if you have time.”

“Yeah, I guess. It would be better if you had the time. You’re obviously good at this stuff. Let’s see what happens.”

“It’s like everything else round me,” I said. “Waiting till I know who my mentor is.”

“You’ve changed over the last week. You’re much more confident. You trust yourself more. Do you mind me saying this? I think you’ve grown.”

“Yeah, I’ve done some stuff. There are things I’m good at, Max, I know that. Also things I’m bad at, of course.”

“I wanted to get to the Joining yesterday,” he said, “but in the end I missed it. I want to see how you’re doing with that before long. Tony is very admiring.”

“We couldn’t have done it without him,” I said. “He’s just a brilliant organiser. Also, he really believes in it, you know? That’s all he’s interested in, it’s really important to him.”

“Yes, Tony is an idealist. Not many people can see that. I hope we haven’t driven you too hard, have we? Only...”

“Seriously, I’ve loved it. It—oh, I don’t know. It makes me feel that I have a role. Cos I’ve got to say, I said it to my uncle. I like the political world, I enjoy being with you people. I feel chuffed that I know people like Max Margrave and General Baxter, you know? I like being an insider, I can’t help it. But it’s better when I know I’m doing serious stuff which is really hard work, and I’m not just a cute kid with some good lines.”

“You were never just that,” he said. “But I know what you mean.”

“Maybe my mentor will want to keep me out of all that. At least I’ll know I did some good before.”

“On the other hand, maybe your mentor will support you. Maybe he’ll be pleased. Dammit, the chances are that having Jack Marchmont as his pupil will make him fucking burst with pride! Good God, boy! Can’t you see it? You’ve got as much chance of having an unpleasant mentor as of being hit by a truck. Try to look at it positively!”

“Yeah, I know, Max. You know how it is: if he’s not Ewan, he’s not what I want. It’s very difficult to shake that off, and I have tried, honestly. Everyone says, oh well, lots of kids don’t know who their mentor will be, and that’s right, but my problem is that I do know who he won’t be.”

“I thought you’d accepted this,” he said.

“I have. If that’s the way Ewan wants it, then I accept that. But that doesn’t make me like it. I am dealing with it, though. I’ll be okay in the end.”

Before Mat and Marcus left, I took them and the three eldest Margrave kids into a corner and joined, and made them all promise to look after each other, and the other Margraves as they were gradually controlled over the next few months. I’d no idea when I’d see Mat and Marcus again, and all five of them them were becoming important to me.

Aunt Judy hugged me and kissed my head.

“You mean so much to me,” she said. “And you’re one of the nicest people I know. I can’t believe that it won’t work out for you. Please keep in touch through Neal, we really need to know what’s happening.”

That evening, Max, Carrie and I stayed up after the four eldest had gone to bed. The heat of the fire seeped into my bones, making me sleepy and relaxed.

“You’re not sleeping well, Jack,” said Carrie. “I heard last night. Nightmares.”

“It’s what happened during The Problems,” I said. “They burnt people just outside our house, you know? It comes back to me.”

“I expect it does,” she said. “But that wasn’t all, was it? I heard, Jack.”

I sighed.

“You know the story. Max said he’d keep me busy, and I appreciate it, I’ve really had no time to think about Ewan and who’s going to be my mentor and so on. We’ve all been either working or exhausted. The trouble is it comes back to me when I’m asleep.”

“Yes,” she said, and she was talking more to Max than me. “Honestly, I’m going to kill bloody Ewan when I see him. I know what’s behind this, it’s one of his sodding dominant mindfuck games. We’ve seen it before, he pushes them way beyond all sense. God knows what this one is about, I’m really not interested, but he’s got no business doing it to someone who never consented, especially a child. It’s abusive, dammit!”

“Darling...” said Max.

I didn’t know what to say. I knew that many of the people close to me were angry with Ewan on my account, but none of them had expressed themselves so clearly in my presence. Part of me recognised that what Carrie had said was just; but my loyalty to Ewan immediately came into play. Carrie looked at me, and must have seen some hint of this.

“I’m sorry, Jack,” she said. “I suppose I should have kept my mouth shut, but I’ve never been good at that. I’ll tell you what, though. I’m going to give you a Trannox, and make sure you have one good night’s sleep anyhow.”

I took the little pill, and it was like a miracle: dreamless, perfect sleep. It’s a shame you can only take them one night in five.

The next day was Sunday, but Max still had to go into the Ministry to work. Carrie decided to take all the kids on a walk round the inside of the perimeter fence, which would take quite a long time, with a stop off for ice creams. I opted to stay behind.

I had kept my phone turned off over the weekend, so even though Tony was fielding most of the calls, there were now several messages waiting, and all of them required some thought. I set myself to deal with them, and it took quite a while.

After that I looked through the Margraves’ library, a room crammed with books and periodicals. There were several things there which I’d been hoping to read but couldn’t find. And there was a copy of the latest issue of RATIO, the Party’s analytical journal, apparently published at the Centre just before the Change. I read it from cover to cover and I was astonished at its openness. Be Ready, by Tom Baxter. The Party and the Armed Forces, by Kenneth Parrot; somehow this one sounded an off-key note. The Strategy of Reconstruction, by Karen Townsend. Territorial and Central Administration in the Provisional Phase, by George Padmore. Expressing Our Ethic, by Charlie Endsleigh. And more sombrely: Settling Accounts, by Hilda Perkins.

They’d obviously been preparing for months, I thought. If they’d been able to take over just a month earlier, those two little girls would have lived.