Porridge for breakfast, as it had been for weeks, and no coffee. But we drank the tea the captain had left, and the radio was actually working, with a news broadcast describing the events of the last twenty-four hours. It seemed that overnight dozens of militia headquarters had been occupied, and the leaders of most of them had been arrested, as had the leaderships of several extremist parties. In all, the programme thought, about seven hundred and fifty people had been killed since the coup, including twenty-seven soldiers. I felt sorry about the soldiers, but as for the militia members, I remembered the screams in the gardens, and just for a moment I was glad.
Uncle Alan checked us over and made us take off the cheap silver crosses he’d bought for us to wear during the last few months. We weren’t a religious family, so this didn’t bother me at all. Then we set out, all four of us, to walk to Chedley High.
It wasn’t more than a couple of miles, but that was further from home than I had been for months. It was a crisp autumn morning, and I felt full of life.
“Good, eh, Jack?” said Uncle Alan, grinning at me.
I grinned back.
“Yeah. Very good.”
Somehow my feelings overcame the awfulness of our surroundings. Chedley, the town where I had grown up and lived all my life, was a mess. Most of the shops were looted, many of them were burnt-out shells and the hulks of cars lined the streets. Ferocious NCRF and Hand of God posters covered the walls. But as we walked, we began to meet more and more family groups on their way to the school, and some of them included friends of ours, people we hadn’t met for months. Gradually it became a lively and joyful procession.
At the school gate we found one of the teachers, whom I knew only by sight, and another young officer with a squad of half-a-dozen soldiers, all armed with automatic rifles. They looked pretty business-like, and it somewhat quenched my spirits. Two or three people with a video camera were prowling around.
“I’m Dr Marchmont,” Uncle Alan told the officer.
“Oh, yes, Doctor, we were told to look out for you. There’s a room on the first floor, front corridor—we set it up for you. Dr Kingsway’s already there... Come to help, Mrs Marchmont?”
“I’m not Mrs Marchmont, but yes,” said Aunt Judy, as the other soldier checked us over. “See you later, boys!”
“Okay, boys, join the queue,” said the officer.
Rather nervously, we did. Right in front of us was a stout, bearded man with two sons a bit younger than us. All three were wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with a huge bloody cross, and the slogan BEWARE THE HAND OF GOD. And I recognised the man: his name was Morgan Greencross, and a shiver of fear ran through me.
The queue moved along fairly quickly; one soldier was taking names, and two others, one a man and the other a woman, were giving each child a once over. On a nearby table a small collection of crosses, Stars of David and the occasional political badge was mounting.
Neal gripped my arm as Greencross and his boys reached the front.
“I’m sorry, sir, your boys can’t come in wearing those shirts.”
“And why not? Do you dare to stand against those who do God’s work?”
“I don’t know about that, sir, but your boys will have to take off their tee-shirts.”
“I defy you, tyrant!” He flung back his head and stretched out his arms. “People of Chedley! Rise up and speak for the Lord! I am the Consul of Christ!”
“You’re a murderer!” shouted Neal suddenly. “I saw you in the square, burning people and stoning them and hanging them! You’re a murderer!”
“I defend the honour of God in this town! And you, child—you will endure the fire this very night!”
“Yeah, right!” shouted Neal. “You and your fat belly versus General Baxter. Like he’s scared!”
People round about us laughed.
“You die tonight!” yelled the man, towering ferociously over Neal, and suddenly I felt something break open inside me.
“You lay off my little brother, you evil child-murdering lunatic!” I yelled. “We’ve all had enough of you and your horrible gangs! Get lost!”
To my astonishment, a huge cheer from everyone greeted this. Still screaming threats, the man grabbed his two boys by their upper arms and dragged them off. The soldier we now confronted grinned at us.
“Okay, boys, who are you?”
“I’m Jack Marchmont and this is my brother, Neal.”
“No one messes with the Marchmonts, eh?”
He wrote down our names, and then we were quickly frisked. We were about to move into the school when we stopped to watch the boy after us being checked. He was only ten, thin and small for his age, with red hair and a tee-shirt bearing a small slogan: Jesus, Give us Peace.
“What’s your name, kid?” asked the soldier.
“Well, Andy, I’m sorry, we can’t allow that.”
“Really? I thought that would be okay, you know, everyone wants peace, don’t they?”
“Yes, sure they do, but that’s a prayer to Jesus. I’m sorry, you’ll have to take it off.”
“But—but I haven’t got anything else to wear here!”
“Well, it’s not that cold, especially inside.”
“I—I can’t go around half naked! It’s—it’s a shame before God!”
“Oh, rubbish. You’re a good-looking kid, Andy, there’s no shame in letting people see that!”
Neal and I exchanged a look, and somehow each of us knew what the other was thinking.
“Hey, don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll take our shirts off as well.”
“So will I,” said another kid, about Andy’s age.
“And me.” “And me...”
In the end there were nine of us, and we surrounded Andy as we went in. The soldiers and a few other people stood on either side and clapped us, and somehow we felt we’d achieved something, both for Andy and ourselves.
And that’s how our first day of schooling after The Change began. The school had been comprehensively looted, of course, with many of the windows smashed, filth in the classrooms and not much furniture. Some of the outbuildings had been burnt. Many of the teachers were absent, and the parents were helping out, teaching and mending things, cleaning and organising. We felt like pioneers and the excitement was amazing.
We found later that the Hand of God had especially targeted teachers. Amongst those who had died at their hands was Mr Venables, the headteacher.
And all the time, the sensation of being half naked was a strangely liberating one, once we had got used to it, once we had got over the embarrassment. To start with, we thought the teachers would disapprove, but they didn’t; they seemed to be pleased that we were helping out another kid. We were going through our day without shirts, just the nine of us, and we found ourselves playing together, making excuses to touch each other. Several of the crowd of assorted grown-ups in the school that day I found were watching us covertly, and it amused me to catch their eyes, and smile. The thought that there would have been no question of behaving like this only two days before made me happy and optimistic.
At the end of the day, we were all gathered together in the main hall, about five hundred of us kids, and all the helpers, the soldiers and camera crew; and Mr Andrews, one of the teachers, gave us a little peptalk. We all left the school feeling great.
At the school gate, Aunt Judy, Neal and I were met by a corporal and two soldiers.
“Corporal Roberts, Ms Pargiter. We’ve come to see you home, ma’am.”
“Morgan Greencross. That man the boys had an argument with? He threatened to kill them, and he’s number two in the Hand of God. He’s under arrest now, but he has friends, ma’am.”
“Where’s Dr Marchmont?”
“Gone to HQ, ma’am. We’ll bring him home shortly.”
So we walked home with a friendly but extremely alert escort. We made them a cup of Captain Hart’s tea, after which they stationed themselves, two by the front door and one in the back garden.
Shortly before six, Captain Hart brought my uncle home in his jeep.
“I bear gifts,” said the captain, producing a dozen lamb chops and some fresh milk.
“You shouldn’t do that,” said Aunt Judy quite seriously. “It’s not fair on other people.”
“Corruption is the bane of military régimes. And it starts in small ways,” said Uncle Alan.
“Mm. You have a point. Okay, no more. But this time, in return, could you cook them for us and Corporal Roberts and his boys? We don’t really have the facilities...”
“I’ll be pleased to,” said Aunt Judy. “Just this once. Fetch some potatoes, Jack, could you?”
So I peeled some potatoes and Aunt Judy put the chops under the grill. After months without meat, just the smell was heaven.
“Can we watch the news?” said the captain, looking at his watch. “I’m afraid—well, you saw the camera crew...”
“Oh, no,” said Uncle Alan.
“Let’s see. Can I bring the boys in?”
So the soldiers sat down behind us. The bulletin had just begun, and the first part consisted mostly of troop movements, meetings, reports of further arrests and closures of offices, and reactions from overseas.
“We thought it would interesting now to focus on one town, and see what’s been going on there,” said the announcer. “This—this is Chedley.”
“Oh, no!” said Uncle Alan, with a laugh.
But what followed was sobering. A sequence of shots from round the town: burnt out and looted shops, trashed warehouses, a factory destroyed, the council offices in ruins. And then it was our square.
“And this is Victoria Square, where the Hand of God slaughtered around five hundred people, men, women and even children—burnt at the stake—hanged—stoned to death—shot...”
The camera panned over the gardens, showing the remains of the fire, the gallows, the burial pit. Seeing it on the screen made it even worse, somehow. We sat, frozen with horror.
“But today, things started to change in Chedley. This is Chedley High, where kids turned up in their hundreds today, with their parents, following the Central Council’s instructions.”
The camera covered the scene, centering on various people; then it picked out Morgan Greencross.
“This is Morgan Greencross, number two in the Hand of God. It seems that not everyone is a fan.”
The entire scene in the queue played out, with everyone in the room cheering what Neal and I said.
“That was Jack and Neal Marchmont. Their house is on Victoria Square. For months they’ve been watching and hearing the burnings and executions—and this was their moment.”
“Yes!” said Corporal Roberts. “That is so good!”
“And a moment later—here they are again. It’s another kind of problem this time...”
And they played the scene with Andy, ending with us taking off our shirts and everyone clapping us.
“The Marchmonts and their friends kept up with Andy all day, in fact.”
“Boys, I’m so proud of you,” said Uncle Alan, and I felt his arm round my shoulders—the first time he had ever done that.
“Meanwhile, their uncle, Dr Alan Marchmont, was arranging a makeshift surgery upstairs, to screen the kids on their first day back in school...”
And we saw a sequence describing my uncle’s day; the long queue of kids waiting to be checked, helped by a nurse in ordinary clothes and another GP. They had nothing, no drugs or equipment—but they were there.
“Drs Marchmont and Kingsway examined about 150 kids. They’ll be back tomorrow. The score so far: 62 cases of lice. 32 of malnutrition. And worse: 8 cases of TB. As Dr Marchmont said, it’s like working in the third world. And at four o’clock today, Dr Marchmont was surveying the scene at Chedley’s cottage hospital. It’s a ruin, as you can see. One nurse is dead: burnt as a witch. Two doctors are dead as well: one accused of being a paedophile; one of being Jewish. All the staff who are left will be back here tomorrow. Dr Marchmont argues with the army for necessary equipment, access to transport, drugs and consumables...”
And then my uncle was shown argung with an officer.
“I can’t accept responsibility for providing your linen!”
“Dammit, Squadron Leader, if you decide to run a military dictatorship, in the end you’re responsible for everything!”
—and as you can see, he’s not above banging a few tables! He mourns his colleagues, and carries on... Meanwhile, back at the school, his sister Judy is busy...”
“Oh no, not me too!” yelled my aunt.
“She’s a hotel manager by trade. She knows what to do. She soon has the helpers organised to clear the place up...”
We saw Judy directing the parents, cleaning, mending broken doors and windows, in the end painting the corridors and classrooms. She stood in the kitchen door and watched, and we all gave her a cheer.
“One town, one family. Good luck to them. That’s it for now—our evening broadcast from the Central Council will be in half an hour.”
“They’ve made us a kind of poster family,” said Uncle Alan. “How absurd! It’s like Soviet Russia—the good Stakhanovites! Pure propaganda.”
“What do you expect, Alan?” said Captain Hart. “These aren’t normal times. Do you really think the piece was unfair?”
“It could have been a lot worse,” said Aunt Judy. “None of it was staged. And they did show the bit with you arguing with that squadron leader.”
Corporal Roberts laughed.
“He was an idiot,” said Uncle Alan. “I wasted half an hour trying to explain to him why a hospital needs clean laundry. Honest to God...”
Then we brought the food in. Our table was too small for everyone to fit easily, but we pulled up chairs and squashed together. It was the best meal of my life—the food tasted like heaven and there was a feeling of hope and excitement and relaxation. I don’t think I had ever been so happy—certainly not since our parents had died. I was sitting next to Captain Hart, right up against him, I could even smell him, and that just increased my excitement.
“I don’t think I’ve had such a good meal for months, Ms Pargiter,” said Corporal Roberts. “Thanks.”
“The captain brought the chops,” said Aunt Judy. “Where did you get them, captain?”
“Um. Well, er, that was when we went to arrest Greencross. The chops were lying on the table. They would only have gone bad, so I—I liberated them. And if you tell anyone, Corporal...”
“Not me, sir. I helped eat them.”
“What’ll happen to his kids?” asked my uncle.
“I know about that,” said my aunt. “It’s—well, Alan and boys, it’s time for me to move back to my own house. Don’t worry,” she went on when we protested. “You’ll see me often enough, but I want to start to pick up the strings, you know? And—and I’ve arranged to foster some kids. There are a lot of kids without anyone to look after them.”
“You mean—his kids?” said Neal.
“Yes, that’s right. Matthew and Mark. They’ve been moved to Masson House, it’s being used as a children’s home, and I’m going to visit them there and see if we get on together.”
“But—but they’re crazies. You saw...”
“No, they aren’t,” said Aunt Judy. “They’re victims as well. Just think what it would be like to have that man as your father.”
“I just can’t begin to imagine,” said the captain. “I really admire what you’re doing...”
“I think we’d better get outside,” said the corporal. “It’s getting dark. Especially after that programme...”
“Yes, Corporal,” said the captain. “Carry on.”
“Are they really going to stay out there all night?” said Uncle Alan. “It seems a bit...”
“Yes, they’ll be there,” said the captain. “And tomorrow and as long as necessary. Believe me, just at the moment it’s necessary.”
I helped Aunt Judy clear the dishes out to the kitchen and wash up. By then it was time for the Government’s programme.
“More propaganda, I suppose,” said my uncle as the Government’s logo appeared.
“Don’t be too cynical. Remember you said you’d give us a chance, Alan.”
To my embarrassment the programme started with a replay of our altercation with Morgan Greencross—then it faded into the studio with Baxter, still in uniform, and another man whom I recognised as a member of the council.
“Wasn’t that great?” said Baxter, laughing. “And I can tell you, Neal, if you’re watching—no, I’m not scared of Greencross or his fat belly. And what Jack said is right. We’ve all had enough of the Greencrosses and all their various horrible gangs. Let’s just tell them—get lost!”
“Did you hear what he said?” said Neal. “Did you hear? We’re famous!”
“Shut up, you smug little brat,” said my uncle, tickling him.
“With me this evening is Max Margrave, who’s the Minister for Children on the Central Council. We’ll be hearing from him quite a bit over the next weeks and months. Max.”
Margrave was a man in his mid-thirties, maybe, with an unruly mop of reddish hair, wearing jeans and an open-necked shirt. As he spoke, he moved back and forth across the studio, illustrating his points with large photos and charts.
“We look on the care of children and young people as probably the most important task the State has to perform. Of course, we can’t do it alone. We need teachers, social workers, the medical professions, people in the media, you name it. Above all, we need good parents.
“The trouble is that over the last while, things have really gone astray in this area. Children and young people have become a battleground. Religion, politics, ethnic tensions, the lot—all the crazies we’ve had to deal with, their first target is kids. Do you know, in Chedley, the town where Neal and Jack Marchmont live, the militias actually burnt at the stake no less than 97 children under the age of twelve? When Morgan Greencross said that Neal, who’s eleven years old, would ‘endure the fire’, he wasn’t exaggerating at all. Just think what that means!
“That’s why the protection of children is one of our priorities. People who have harmed children will get long, very long terms of imprisonment. People who have killed children can expect to stay in jail for the rest of their lives. We have no place for such people.
“Outside of that, the main aim of the crazies is to convert and co-opt and enrol children into their various madnesses, so as to carry them on to the next generation. In this country, that has always been defended on the grounds of freedom of speech, freedom of religion. Schools have even been handed over to religious groups to run, and indoctrination of children in religious beliefs as been protected.
“All that is going to stop. Religious instruction and religious symbolism, religious celebration of all sorts, will be excluded from schools. And more: children up to the age of twenty will not be permitted to attend any kind of religious event.
“That may seem extreme. Let’s be frank about this: the Rationalist movement, which is the guiding principle of this Government, does not acknowledge the existence of God, and regards religious belief as a delusion. Despite that, because we believe in freedom, we permit the religious organisations to continue. More than that, religious observance will be strongly protected; we will not permit people to attack religious buildings, to interfere with religious practice or to attack or discriminate against people because of their religious affiliation. Religious groups can proselytise as much as they like: but only to adults, not to kids.
“Surely that’s fair. You can’t expect a child or a teenager to address these things with maturity. I can’t believe that a responsible religious group would want to overbear the mind of a child. Surely God wants willing adherents, not brainwashed children.
“Of course, if we say kids can’t wear religious symbols to school, we risk getting the sort of thing which happened at Chedley today. You remember?”
And here he paused to show the incident with Andy being made to take his teeshirt off, and the rest of us doing the same. I began to feel that I was quickly going to be fed up with these clips.
“Andy’s just a sweet kid who wants to live in peace. No one could object to that, and no one wants to put kids like Andy through that sort of thing. Jack and Neal Marchmont instinctively knew what to do about that: if everyone is the same, there’s no shame, no problem. That’s why we’ve decided to institute a code of dress for children and young people up to the age of twenty. There will be a set selection of clothes which they may wear, what we call Standard Clothing, and wearing anything else will be prohibited.”
“What!?!!” I said.
“Hush,” said Uncle Alan, and gave me a squeeze. “Let’s hear what he means.”
“Of course, people can’t be expected to lay out for clothes for their kids at the moment. So we’ll be distributing the first sets of Standard Clothing free, at schools over the next two or three weeks. After they receive them, kids will be expected to wear them all the time. No exceptions: and all the time, in school and out. If a child doesn’t wear them, their carers will be fined. Third offence: they lose custody.
“It’s quite an imposition on kids. Let me say to any kids who are watching: it’s not as bad as it seems. You’ll get used to it. The clothes aren’t bad, and everyone—rich and poor, cool and not-cool, will be wearing them. Once you’re used to it, you’ll find it reduces stress and makes life easier.
“But there’s something else here. George Padmore mentioned it yesterday. We are going to protect kids. We are going to make sure that they’re cared for and loved. We’re going to give them a good education and good health care and they’re going to have fun, lots of fun, I guarantee it. It’ll be a good time to be young. But the other side of it is: kids will be controlled. It’s the job of adults to look after kids, and sometimes that means making them do things which we know are necessary, but which they may not like much, especially to start with. Standard Clothing is one of these. Get used to the idea, because this is not the end of it.
“Okay, we have in the studio a number of people to discuss what I’ve been saying: educationalists, carers, teachers, religious leaders. Some are Rationalists, and some are not...”
They started a long and sometimes quite heated discussion, and my attention wandered. I began to think about what Margrave had said, and dark thoughts began to come to me. I didn’t like the idea of wearing Standard Clothing, the same as everyone, like the kids in the private school on the other side of town, grey suits and clodhopping shoes. And the idea of being controlled was uncomfortable as well. I stiffened and moved under my uncle’s arm, which was across my shoulders, and in the end he noticed.
“What’s the matter, Jack?
“What he said. What Margrave said. I—I’m frightened.”
“Frightened? Turn the sound down, Judy. You’re frightened?”
“About being controlled. I—I’m not sure I want to be controlled. Who’s going to control me and Neal? Some general or some teacher? Somone—someone like Greencross?”
“Well? What do you say, Ewan?”
The captain looked at me.
“Mm. Tell you what—just wait a moment.”
He took down his shoulder radio and began to talk. Astonishingly quickly, it seemed to me, I heard Margrave interrupt the studio discussion.
“Hang on, people. I’m told that we actually have a call on the line from Jack Marchmont, the boy you saw on the film clip. Jack, are you there?”
“Talk quietly right into the mouthpiece,” said the captain.
He passed his radio mouthpiece to me. I gulped, and my heart sank into my boots.
“Y—yes, sir, I’m here,” I said.
“Welcome. What are your thoughts on this?”
“I—I’m not sure about everyone wearing the same clothes, like school uniforms that some schools have. Every kid in the country wearing the same clothes—it’s very regimented, isn’t it? I mean, are you planning to turn us all into little soldiers? I know this is a military régime, and so on. And all this stuff about controlling us, is that what it is? We’re all going to be in the army, with orders and saluting and so on?”
I felt I was almost incoherent, but Margrave took me quite seriously.
“No, Jack, that’s absolutely not the idea. We’re not turning the country into an armed camp. And the Standard Clothing isn’t going to be like military uniforms, or like ordinary school uniforms either, I promise you. What we’re worrying about is that many kids are really out of control now, they’re causing problems and they’re not growing up right. We don’t want another generation of crazies in this country.”
I was getting more confident now. To my surprise, I didn’t feel nervous at all.
“Right outside my house, there’ve been adults burning kids alive for months now. You said about that yourself. I don’t see why I should trust adults to control me, or my brother. I don’t see that adults are so much better than us, or wiser or whatever. I don’t trust them. To be honest, why should I trust adults, when they burn kids alive? You say that adults should be allowed to force us to do things we don’t want to do, because they’re good for us. That’s just the sort of thing the Hand of God used to say. Why should we trust you?”
“There’s no reason why you should at all. Trust has to be earned. The point is that adults have responsibility for children whether either side wants it or not. That’s just the way things are. Kids can’t run the world themselves, that’s obvious. In the last year, adults have betrayed kids, it’s true. You have every reason in the world to accuse us, Jack. But I believe this Government can earn your trust. We’re going to protect you, and care for you, and make sure you’re educated and loved. And part of that is controlling you, in the right way.”
“Being controlled—it makes me feel uncomfortable, that stuff. It sounds—well, weird. Fascist, kinda. It makes me want to kick back and resist. I don’t feel comfortable...”
“Well, here you are, arguing with a Government minister on prime-time TV. That doesn’t seem fascist to me. But I think I understand what you mean about feeling uncomfortable with this idea, and you need to discuss this with adults you know. Are there any adults you trust?”
“Sure, my uncle and aunt. You saw on the news.”
“Okay. You can see that they’re worthy of your trust. And there are others who you’ll learn to trust as well. And when you do, you’ll find that being controlled isn’t a problem. Controlling you is a responsibility which we have; it’s a thing we have to do, even if you resist. But if you learn to trust people, you’ll be able to relax into being controlled instead. You can feel good about this, Jack, I promise you. Thanks for calling. Okay, let’s move on...”
The discussion went on again, but Judy turned the sound down.
“You feel uncomfortable with this, do you?” said the captain.
“Yeah, I still do.”
“I’m not surprised. But you said—maybe some teacher or general or crazy like Greencross will be controlling you. In school it’ll be teachers, of course, but most of the time, in fact, it’ll be your Uncle Alan. That’s not so bad, is it? Is he so cruel and evil?”
“No, of course he isn’t. It’s—oh, I don’t know, it’s the sound of the phrase, being controlled. ‘Relentless control’, that’s what Baxter said. I don’t know, it gives me a funny feeling in my tummy. It makes me sort of want to run away and hide...”
The captain gave me a very strange look.
“Hm. Let’s talk about this some other time. But I promise you that nothing terrible’s going to happen to you, or Neal. Really.”
Our eyes met. And it was electric. I didn’t understand what was happening at all—but it left me breathless.
“Grown-ups always control us,” said Neal, once we were in bed. “What’s the difference?”
“They’ve never talked about it before. Not in that way, and it really makes me feel strange. ‘It’s something we have to do, even if you resist’—that’s what Margrave said. It—it makes me feel strange.”
“That’s cos you’re gay.”
“Who says I’m gay??”
“I do. It doesn’t matter though, you’re still my brother, you backed me up against that fat crazy.”
“Yeah. How about being on the telly, then?” I said.
“Wild! Everyone at school must have seen it.”
“Not so good. Some of them are crazies.”
“There are crazies,” said Neal. “They’re everywhere, in school and not. We can’t be afraid of them. You heard what Baxter said. He’s not afraid, and we mustn’t be either, that’s what he meant.”
“We did well every way today,” I said. “We’re national kid stars now. We have to be excellent.”
“You argued with the minister. You’re a real brain, aren’t you, Jack? I’m sure the captain fancies you.”
“He does. He was just staring at you, just gazing at you all the time you were talking to the minister.”
I said nothing, but I found I was smiling in the darkness.