Monday morning; and I would get my mentor on Thursday. I joined again with Hussein, David and Wajdi, enjoying their enthusiasm and happiness. It dismayed me to think that I had no idea when I’d meet them again.
“I won’t see you till after your indenture now,” said Max. “Your directions from Tom Baxter are for you to phone him as soon as you know who your mentor is. His number’s in your phone. Understand? No one countermands that order.”
“Come here, Jack,” he said, and hugged me fiercely. “Good luck. Everyone’s rooting for you. I love you so much, kid.”
Carrie hugged me too. I walked to the strip with the feeling that there were actually people who cared about me.
Tony and Fred Roberts and his team were waiting for me. The ramchopper took off, and once again I was flung into the frantic routine of the Joining. There were three schools that day, and another two on Tuesday, and each of them was difficult in its own way.
Finally, in the middle of the afternoon, we were back in Chedley. Our ramchopper came down at the TerrAd camp outside the town. It was a grey, miserable day as we carried our bags and boxes to the waiting minibus.
“Nice to be back, Fred?” I said.
“Like fuck. I always hated this place. Too many crazies of the very worst kind. Er, if you’ll excuse me.”
“I agree,” I said. “It’s nice that my family’s moving. Trouble is, Fred, my mentor will probably be here. So probably I’ll have to spend most of the time here, and only get down to Parford at weekends if I’m lucky.”
Tony was passing round coffee.
“Yeah, well, we’ll be there, wherever you are,” said Fred.
“I appreciate it so much, Fred.”
“No problems, Jack,” he said. “We had to look after a minister in the old government once. He was a shit. Gold-plated, mind you, but inside, pure shit, know what I mean?”
“Jack’s too pure in heart,” said Tony, “but I understand exactly, Fred.”
I laughed. And then, queasily, we were off to Chedley High.
Standing by the entrance were Neal and my uncle Alan. It was only five days since I’d seen them, but it was a tumultuous meeting. Neal and I gripped each other, and my uncle, to my surprise, picked me up and swung me round and round, screaming.
The place seemed much the same, apart from a new board at the front.
Chedley High School
All these things he will share with me.
“Jack?” said Fred. “No embarrassment, please, or I’ll tell the general.”
“The general, hell,” said Neal. “How about me? To see that there is just—just like icecream in summer!”
Obviously, all the kids already had their Standard Clothes and their Golden Circles, so this was going to be a bit different. And some of them, like me, would be getting their mentors two days later. Mr Andrews was officially head now, and he greeted us warmly.
“You look fine, Jack. You too, Neal. Could you introduce us?”
I did the introductions, and explained that Fred and one of his men would have to accompany me all the time, which he seemed to accept. Then I asked him to assemble just seven bright kids, one from each year, in the main hall. From my year, I asked for Dezzy.
We did two Joinings, Neal with the three younger ones and me with the four older. Everyone knew what was going on, so it wasn’t hard to explain. Then I called for another eight, and joined them, and so on. In the end we had the entire school there, as usual, but this time I spoke to them before the final recitation. It occurred to me that this could be my last Joining, and I had to make it count.
“No one has been controlled children as long as we have,” I started. “We were the first: the first with Standard Clothing and the first with the Golden Circle. More than anyone, we know what it’s about. That why I know you’ll understand me, when I say that I want to talk about spooky feelings.
“I’ve had them. Neal has had them too. I’ve spoken with some of the people here, and they have had some of the feelings that I have too. I’ll say them, and you shout if you’ve felt this way.”
And as I listed them, people yelled out “Yeah!” after every one.
“That things are out of your control.
“That the control through the Circle seems to weigh down on you from above.
“That because you know the Circle is checking on you, you feel as if someone’s looking over your shoulder all the time, even at the most private moments.
“You can’t help listening for the ticking at night and holding your breath for the next tick.
“You imagine that the Circle might suddenly tighten round your neck and strangle you, or do something else to you without warning, and you sit there, waiting for it to happen.
“That sometimes the Circle seems incredibly heavy, or painfully hot.
“Sometimes you have an urge to grab the Circle and smash it or pull it off yourself.
“Sometimes you find yourself gripping the Circle and crying.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to concentrate on anything except the thought of the Circle and what it means.
“No one seems to understand the feelings you have.”
By now, the atmosphere was extraodinary: I could tell that anger and tears were both only just below the surface.
“The first thing I want you to know is, that these spooky feelings are not unusual. Most people have some of them. Sometimes they’re strong, sometimes they fade away. And what are they? They are the loss of freedom. They are what being controlled feels like, and that’s that.
“So, do we just have to put up with it?”
They were listening. They were listening hard; this affected every one of them.
“Not quite. There are things that you can do. The first is to recite the Joining. Not by yourself, although that helps sometimes, but with a friend, or two or three, just the way we did it today. Sit down, on the floor if you like, that’s what I do, make a private space the way we did, and recite it together. And think, think why we are doing this, think of how the important the task is. Think of how people respect you for what you’re doing, and feel proud of it, proud of the sacrifices we are making for everyone, even for all those grownups who don’t seem to care much. So if you start spooking, just ask your friends to join for a bit. Just say, ‘I’m spooking, man, give me some time.’ They’ll know what you mean. And if someone says it to you, you help them.
“Another thing: just talk. Talk to your friends, or just go to another controlled kid, say you’re spooking and you need to talk. If both of you feel comfortable with it, hug. It helps to be hugged by another controlled kid.
“And keep busy. Don’t moon around and let the spooky feelings get to you. Get up and do something. Play sport. Read. Join a club. Form a club. Play games. Play music. Help your parents in the garden. Anything.
“And keep this stuff to controlled kids. There’s no point talking about it to grownups; I’ve tried and tried, but they simply can’t understand. Some of them will be sympathetic, some will simply deny that you’re feeling any such thing. Go to your brothers and sisters who’ve taken up the task. That doesn’t mean you can’t get support from grownups. Of course you can, from your parents or whoever looks after you. Tell them you’re feeling low, or you could do with a cuddle, or you’d like something to do to keep busy. Some of them may understand a bit that being a controlled kid sometimes gets you down, but skip trying to explain the spooky feelings.
“Some of us, like me, are getting mentors on Thursday, because this school is the pioneer as usual! I don’t know who my mentor will be, and I expect most people are the same. That is scary for sure. Maybe you heard me talking about that on the TV last week, and about the silence control. But I think we also need to think that most of the mentors will actually not be freaks or weirdos, let alone axe-murderers. Most of them will be nice people who want to help someone. Most of them won’t use the controls viciously, and if they do, you can complain. Come straight here, and complain to Mr Andrews, who’s one of the selectors. We’ve been promised, again and again, that we will be protected. I know the people who made that promise. They are good people, and I trust them. Let’s take them at their word.
“But let’s not sidestep this. We are controlled children, and the mentors are part of that control. It’s not bad. It’s good. It may be difficult, and scary, but it’s still good. And this is a good thing we’re doing, something we’ll be proud of for ever.
“Okay. Now let’s show these guys the Joining. Let’s recite it, and make sure they hear it. C’mon!”
We recited it, and it was big. It was very big. And after that, I met the pyramid points and Mr Andrews, and Tony and I helped them to plan Chedley High’s neighbourhood team, just as we had done for all the other schools we had been to.
“Well!” said Mr Andrews, as we broke up. “Are you sure you’re actually Jack Marchmont? That mousey kid who sat at the back and never spoke to anyone, and read books about politics in breaktimes?”
“Have I changed that much?”
After that, we walked home through the twilight.
“I was ashamed,” said my uncle.
“Eh? What for?” I said.
“When you recited that list of symptoms, and all those kids said they had the same. And yet everyone just tells you to get over it.”
“I’ve given up worrying about that. After that discussion in the hotel last week, I just said: sod it, we’ll look after ourselves. We had to invent the Joining ourselves, and work out what to do with the bad feelings, how to get beyond them. We’ve been saying this to all the kids for the last ten days, wherever we go, and the neighbourhood teams are carrying it out to all the other schools. We can handle this, uncle, it’s okay. It’s just part of the task.”
“There’s the TV lorry,” said my uncle, as we entered the square. “Let’s get that over with and then we can relax for the evening.”
It was Paul Oxley again, with Don Dalrymple producing. I felt easy with these two, and we got things set up quickly.
“Anything off-limits?” said Paul.
“Can’t think at the moment,” I said. “Oh, yes: nothing about Neal and his possible mentor. And no actual addresses; I’m under death-threat alert.”
“Okay. All ready?” called Don. “Cue Paul.”
“I’ve been here before, but things have changed since then. The Jack Marchmont I’ll be talking to today is the author of Request to My Selectors, the organiser of the Joining the Future phenomenon, a boy who somehow seems to combine high-level and intimate contact with the government, with being its most trenchant and up-front critic so far. And yet, on Thursday, just like any other controlled child, he will get a mentor.
“Jack, how do you feel about this?”
“Mixed feelings, Paul. I wrote the Request, so obviously I’m a supporter of the idea of the mentor, actually a keen supporter. But like many children, I’ve no idea who my mentor will be. There’s no denying that it’s scary.”
“Last Monday, you were fairly withering about the silence control and the possibility that it might be misused by abusers.”
“Actually, it wasn’t abusive people that worried me so much,” I said. “It’s more—well, think of all the people you know. How many of those would you want to have that kind of control over you—for the next six years, in my case? Okay, there’re a few. I think everyone knows a few really good and wonderful people. After that, there are some more you could put up with. And after that, there are people you dread having too much to do with—not because they’re abusive, but because they’re strange, worrying, weird, they have peculiar ideas about all sorts of things. They’re okay people at a distance. But a mentor is not at a distance. A mentor is right up close, and for a lot of the time.”
“I see what you mean. Won’t the vetting procedure rule these people out?”
“One person’s meat is another’s poison,” I said. “I’m sure the vetting will most of the abusers, although there are sure to be mistakes. But I can’t expect them to exclude people just because Jack Marchmont doesn’t like them or because he thinks they’re weird. So I could end up with someone like that. People tell me that, well, I should make the effort, and I will. I promise I will. But you can’t stop me worrying.”
“When we last met,” said Paul, “I asked you if you had a special connection to a particular person, and you said no. Can you add anything to that now?”
“Oh, how tactful, Paul! I don’t mind saying this, because it’s pretty widely known. For a short while I was very close to Captain Ewan Hart, who’s an officer in the TerrAd here at Chedley, and also works for the central government. We met here, and got close. For a while the plan was for us to nominate each other for the mentor selection, which, as you know, Paul, would make it very likely that we’d be selected for each other. However, in the end Ewan said he’d rather we didn’t do that.”
“But last time, you said there was no special connection between you.”
“There wasn’t,” I said. “You interviewed me the day after it ended.”
“I see. But that day you also recorded the Request. Is that why you were weeping?”
“I’ll pass on that.”
“The Request was written in response to Captain Hart breaking off with you?”
“Either you nominate someone,” I said, “or you say what kind of mentor you want. I couldn’t nominate, so...”
“You wrote the Request. Bad for you, good for everyone else.”
“Nice of you to say so. But it could be good for me too. How can I tell? I don’t know who I’ll get.”
“I suppose you could get Captain Hart after all,” he said.
I laughed nervously.
“Unlikely. All told about a thousand people put in to be mentors here in Chedley. In any case, to be hitched up with someone who doesn’t want you could be uncomfortable. No, I think I can skip that possibility.”
“I asked at the school who was your mentor. They said the decisions are sealed till tomorrow and even the selectors couldn’t get at them!”
“The procedures are pretty strict, I think,” I said.
“Tell us about this Joining the Future business, which we saw on TV last week. Max Margrave said you devised it to help his children.”
“Yes, I did to start with,” I said. “But people from the Children’s and Public Education ministries helped to draw up the final scheme. It wasn’t just me.”
“But you wrote the text.”
“Yes. The idea is it comes from a controlled child—that’s me—and is passed from child to child. Being a controlled child is something to be proud of, I’ve said this several times, and that’s something I want to pass along to everyone else, and to get us to support each other.”
“It places a lot of emphasis on not being afraid,” he said. “Do you think that some children get afraid of all this?”
“Of course. They’re children. What the rest of us need to do is to help them along to fight the fear and get rid of it. That’s what we’re trying to do: to stop the fear, to accept our role, to be proud of what we’re achieving.”
“General Baxter has said that he was present when you invented it.”
“Yes, he was,” I said.
“According to one informant, you made a foolish spectacle of yourself and insulted a senior official.”
“Er, well, naturally I take the view that I didn’t.”
“Do you have anything to add to that?”
“Not really,” I said. “It was a very nice evening, and I was honoured to be invited.”
“Do you have any comments on Mr Douglas Parton-Gray?”
I could see Paul grinning at me from out of shot, and I suppressed an urge to give him the finger.
“So, what are your plans after the indenture?” he said.
“Well, Paul, that depends on my mentor. The rules are that I spend the next month with him, without contacting my parents—well, my uncle and aunt in my case.”
“What happens if your mentor prohibits you from working with the government?”
“Then I don’t do it,” I said.
“Could the government overrule your mentor?”
“I’ve no idea what the legal position is, or even if there is one as yet. However, the government itself has said again and again how important it thinks mentors are.”
“Will they want you to continue?” he said.
“I couldn’t say.”
“What’s your opinion of Max Margrave? You were pretty scathing about him last week.”
“No, I wasn’t, Paul. I disagreed with some things he said and I said I was very doubtful about some of the things he decided. That’s completely different from being scathing about him. In fact Max has been a very good friend to me and I like him a lot. I feel privileged to know him. He’s a great revolutionary leader and a kind and humane person.”
“What do think of General Baxter?” he said.
“I don’t know him as well as Max. But I’ve met him twice now, and each time I was impressed by the way he understood and controlled all the things he had to deal with, and by how polite and careful he is with everybody. He’s been very kind to me personally, and I’m very grateful.”
“And Captain Hart?”
“At this point I don’t feel I know him well enough to comment.”
“Thank you, Jack. And very good luck on Thursday.”
“Thanks, Paul. It’s been a pleasure.”
“He was pretty aggressive,” said Tony, once the TV crew had gone.
“I’ve had worse,” I said. “He wasn’t difficult.”
“You were quite forthcoming about Ewan this time,” said my uncle. “I was surprised.”
“I may not have a chance to comment on it in the future if my mentor wants me to stop this stuff. So I wanted to get something fairly bland on the record. All I said was, we had a thing, it came to an end. That’s it. If Ewan wants to say something else, my story is at least there.”
“But what on earth would he say?” said Tony. “He’s not going to attack you, is he?”
“I’ve got absolutely no idea of why he’s doing what he’s doing,” I said. “Therefore I’ve no idea what he’ll do next. None at all.”
“Tony, could you give it a rest? Sorry to be a pain, but I’d like some quiet time here.”
“Shit, I’m sorry, Jack. Look, I’ve got to meet some people here, and I have to check into the hotel. It’s just possible I’ll see you tomorrow...”
The next day there was a school holiday, to prepare for the ceremony the next day, so I went to visit Dezzy, hoping that Ron would be there as well.
I found them in the kitchen of Dezzy’s house, quite openly holding hands in front of his mother. Obviously things had moved on.
“The Joining was really excellent,” he said. “Because we’ve been having those feelings, haven’t we, Ron?”
“Yeah. Really badly, sometimes, especially at night.”
“Keep joining,” I said. “Talk them out, don’t keep them to yourselves. Have a cuddle. And keep doing things. That’s it, really.”
“If you’re looking for something to do,” said Mrs Marshall, “you could dig over the potato patch and chop some wood. Also there’s no harm in getting your homework finished, is there?”
We all laughed.
“And if lover boy there isn’t around, Dezzy, your old mum will be happy to oblige with a cuddle.”
Dezzy got up to hug her.
“You’re on the neighbourhood team, Dezzy,” I said. “That’ll keep you busy. What are you thinking about mentors?”
“We’ve got it sorted!” said Dezzy. “There’s this gay couple in Oxton, Terry and Conrad, they’re old friends of mum’s, and they’re really nice guys. So I nominated Terry, and Rob nominated Conrad, and they’re doing it back. Fingers crossed, we’ll be selected like that.”
“Are you expecting an easy ride, then?” I said.
“If they are, they’ll be disappointed. Terry and Conrad are nobody’s pushovers,” said Mrs Marshall.
“Actually, I don’t want a pushover,” said Ron. “I want a proper mentor, who’ll teach me things. We wanted Terry and Conrad because we know they’re good people. And we know they won’t separate us, because we asked.”
“They are good,” said Mrs Marshall. “I’ve known them for many years.”
“I suppose you’re all fixed up with the captain?” said Dezzy.
It was a long session with Dezzy and Ron, trying to explain what was going on; trying to explain, also, the sort of relationship which Ewan and I had been starting, and which Dan and Jeff had. They didn’t understand, but Mrs Marshall winked at me. She understood all right.
The rest of the day was strange. It was probably going to be the last I would spend in our house on Victoria Square, the last day we would be together as a family here. When I returned after my month with my mentor, it would be to the new house in Parford. I had come to hate Chedley and the Square in particular, but it would still be a wrench, and another part of the complete uprooting of my life over the previous few weeks.
I spent some time catching up on my phone calls, without Tony’s help, which was new. It felt strange to be making decisions and plans for the future of the whole Joining project, when in fact I might not be involved at all.
After that I helped my uncle and Neal with chores around the house and in the vegetable garden; then we went shopping, and I tried to feel ordinary—as ordinary as I could, accompanied throughout by Derrick and Tanner with their automatic rifles. Walking back to the house, with the evening already drawing on, we found Tony was waiting for us on the pavement. I was pleased to see him, and I noticed my uncle was smiling as he shook his hand. There was something reassuring about the presence of this big, gentle man.
“I’ve brought some cakes and coffee—could I stay for supper? There’s something I want to show you.”
Derrick and Tanner had now been joined by two more of our bodyguards and they insisted on staying outside. They seemed on edge and wary.
My uncle had splashed out on some mince for this occasion. We had potatoes, although not enough fat to make chips, and he’d also managed to find an onion and a couple of carrots. We chatted as my uncle and I made some burgers, boiled and mashed the potatoes and put together our meal. It wasn’t much, but compared to the way we had usually eaten here, it was a feast, and the cakes Tony had brought made an extravagant dessert.
We had lit the fire in the sitting room, and we sat to drink Tony’s coffee. I put some Mozart on. It was warm and calm; it reminded me of the time when this little room had been our refuge from the horrors outside, and we had managed to pretend that here we were safe. But now we had Tony with us. The four of us had worked hard together during the school tour; it made us easy in each others’ company, and it was good. I sat next to my uncle and stared into the fire, and for the moment I was at peace.
“I’ve got a disk here,” said Tony, as the music came to an end. “Can I show it? I think you’ll be interested.”
“What is it?” said my uncle.
“It’s an interview George did with AFBS. They’d doing a series of reports on us.”
“Don’t the Americans think we’re Satan incarnate?” I said. “666 and The Beast and all that?”
Tony laughed, and the disk began to play.
“Now we’re continuing our series of reports on the revolution in Great Britain,” said an announcer. “This evening, JoAnne Rossi will be talking to Dr George Padmore, the leader of the Rationalist Party, who’s also a minister in the revolutionary government.”
The scene changed to show George sitting with an elegant middle-aged woman.
“Dr Padmore,” she said, “it’s about six weeks since the Rationalist Party seized power in a military coup. As leader of that party, how can you justify such an act? Tearing up the constitutional order in one of the world’s oldest democracies?”
George was at his most avuncular; the West Indian accent was very obvious, and it ocurred to me that he would not be above using it deliberately. I could feel that he was enjoying himself.
“Well, JoAnne, we didn’t tear it up, really. It was already in shreds. There were massacres and atrocities and fighting everywhere, and the government wasn’t functioning at all. The currency had collapsed, industry wasn’t working, communications had come to a halt. People were really on the edge of starvation. The armed forces had no option. And if you’re after the constitutional niceties, well, the King invited us.”
“But what you’re building here is a socialist dictatorship, isn’t it?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. For example, most of the industries which were nationalised in the early thirties we are now returning to private ownership. On the other hand, the banks, which had really stopped working altogether, those we have taken over, at any rate for the present. Similarly, we’re running telecommunications at the moment, because no one else is, and a modern society can’t function without that. We’re entirely pragmatic about such things, JoAnne, we just want to do whatever works.”
“Well, you’re the founder of the Rationalist Party and you’re known as its main ideologist. How do you see the objectives of the military regime?”
“Now, that’s an interesting question. Let’s see. Do your viewers know anything about my very dear friend, Jack Marchmont?”
“Oh, no!” I said. “Did you know about this, Tony?”
“Yes, Jack. This is why I brought it.”
“Yes,” said Rossi, “we did a report about him yesterday.”
“Well, Jack says that the task is: building a new world, free from hate, free from superstition, founded on love and understanding. That’s a pretty good summary, JoAnne.”
“It sounds pretty idealistic.”
“Yes. And a good thing too,” said George. “If you start off with high ideals, then maybe you’ll achieve something, even if not everything you aimed for. If you start off aiming for nothing, you’ll get nothing.”
“What do you mean by hate and superstition?”
“I don’t know what conditions have been like in the States recently, JoAnne, but if you’d lived here for the last eighteen months, you’d be pretty clear what hate is.”
“And superstition? Is that just a code word for religion? Is this just a hidden way for your régime to attack religion?“
“Absolutely not. Religions have produced many great things, great ideals, great works of art, great examples. What we’re talking about here is superstition. That is when religious beliefs, or supernatural beliefs in general, step outside their sphere and attempt to exercise hegemony over science and politics and other realms. Then we have superstition. Religious beliefs, supernatural beliefs, have no competence in these areas.”
“I’m not sure I understand that.”
“Well,” said George, “if someone announces that the world was created in six days, and it must be true because God says so, that’s superstition, because the question of how the world started falls in the realm of science. If someone says that God ordains particular punishments for particular crimes, that’s superstition too, because crime and punishment fall in the realm of politics. These things are outside the competence of religion.”
“Do you believe in God, Dr Padmore?”
“No, as it happens. Rationalism is not a theistic philosophy.”
“How can you make sense of life in a world without God?”
“What a splendid question, JoAnne! And I thought we were going to have a boring discussion about electoral rolls and so forth! Well, as it happens, Jack tells us about that too. He says about his ideal mentor, His love for the world and its people will be the meaning of his life; on the world he will build his understanding and from its people he will draw his hope. The meaning of something comes from its context; that applies to everything, to a poem or a piece of music, a book, a law, or a single word. Or a person’s life. The meaning of your life lies in its context, which is the world, and its people, and your love for them.
“And there’s that word again: understanding. It’s a very Jack word. People go to the notion of God to gain understanding, but Jack says: build your understanding on the world; he means, by studying the world, by studying the way things are, by science. And people go to the notion of God to get hope, to address the problem of their own mortality, but Jack says: draw hope from people, from our fellow human beings, from their history and their future, carrying on in all their glory and creativity and variety where we leave off. That’s what he meant when he spoke about a society based on understanding and love. It’s all there, you see, it all fits together. That’s the philosophy that on which we base our politics, in a nutshell.”
Rossi seemed non-plussed by George’s little lecture.
“I’m frankly amazed that you should base the politics of your revolution on the words of a fourteen-year-old boy,” she said.
“I don’t agree, JoAnne. We take all our children seriously to start with. But by any standards Jack is a very remarkable person, and if you met him you’d see what I mean. There’s a kind of self-possession there, you know? A precision, an exactness of perception. You can see it in his eyes; it’s quite startling. Of course, his world-view comes out of a long tradition; it’s not new. But he has a way with words which is quite remarkable. I write chapters full of indigestible jargon to express what he does in a couple of phrases, phrases which strike right into people’s hearts. That’s why General Baxter called him ‘the soul of the revolution’. He’s formulated for us a world-view and an ethic which is simple, comprehensive and engaging. People base their lives on what he says, you know?”
“Perhaps it is time we spoke about electoral rolls...”
Tony stopped the disk. I sat staring at the fire, utterly confounded.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said.
“You don’t need to say anything,” he said. “I wanted you to see that, and so did George. I’ve been with you going round the country, going to schools, watching you bust yourself to help those kids, and I’ve seen how much you still hurt. I just wanted you to know, when you go off to get your mentor, how much you mean to some of us. How important you’ve become.”
My uncle patted my hand, and Neal hugged me.
“I’m a Rationalist,” Tony went on. “I love the revolution. Does that sound stupid? But I really do; it’s my life, I love it almost like a person. But I can see its biggest failing, and all revolutions have the same one: the grand vision obscures the individual people. It isn’t too bad to start with, but if you’re not careful it gets worse and worse, and it ends in the concentration camps and execution pits. What you’ve given us, Jack, what you’ve done for us, is to force us to remember the individual, to remember people and their feelings and needs, their quest for meaning and purpose and right. And that will save us, if we let it. And that’s the biggest reason why we love you.”
For a moment I wanted to brush what he said aside, as I usually did when people praised me. But then I realised that would be trivial and rude, because Tony and George were giving me something, something I hadn’t known I needed, something beyond price: the knowledge that I was understood.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
There was a hint of melancholy in Tony’s gaze as it gently rested on me; I understood it, and it made me sad too, because I had come respect his strength and love his humanity.
“No matter what happens,” he said, “this Party and this Government will be there to support you. No matter what happens, we will do everything we can to make sure that you and your family come to no harm. And no matter what happens, you will have your place among us. I’m bringing that promise to you, and it comes from the top.”
“Thank you,” I said again.
“I think you should send a copy of that disk to those kids in Manchester,” said my uncle.
“I’m ahead of you, Alan,” said Tony. “I already have.”
Later, after he’d left, Neal and I sat on the floor in our room and did the Joining again. Then we slept together in my bed in that house for the last time, and his presence, his warmth and his smell, and the small, familiar sounds of his sleep, were deeply, intensely consoling.
It was dark when my uncle awoke me the next morning. Neal was instantly awake as well. My bag was packed, everything was ready. We ate breakfast together in that house for the last time; and then it was time to leave.
I stood and swung on my cloak; and suddenly everything was too much. I gave a horrendous wail, and my uncle grabbed me. And then Neal; and they were hugging me as I wept.
“It should all have been so different!”
There wasn’t anything they could say. All the words of consolation had been said and used up long before. It was time to accept the inevitable, as I had told Dan I would. I drew a deep breath.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, let’s go.”
Fred with his entire team were waiting for us on the pavement. I’d never seen them all on duty together before. They hugged me as well and wished me good luck.
The streets were still dark, but these days there were at least a few street lamps. We moved through the still air from one lightfield to another. All the posters were hidden in the darkness, and I was glad of that. We were still a few streets from the school when we started to meet the parked cars; dozens, scores of them, and finally I guessed what they were: they belonged to all the one thousand possible mentors. In one of these cars, maybe, I would be driven away to start the rest of my teenage years.
The school itself was lit, and my classmates were passing in through a side entrance, each accompanied by their parents, as we had been instructed. A teacher in the door directed us all to the main hall, smiling as if this were a joyful occasion.
“Our orders are to wait by the main entrance,” said Fred. “There’s perimeter security here.”
And it was true: there must have been a couple of hundred troops on guard at the entrances to the school grounds and to the buildings. Someone was clearly nervous.
In the main hall, we waited in our family groups. Most people seemed to be quite happy, even excited. I couldn’t imagine they had all nominated, so obviously it was possible to be happy just with a random choice.
Finally it was seven o’clock, and the hall was fairly full. At that moment, a teacher read the familiar roll of my year, and we replied in the same order, as we always did; as always, Dezzy answered immediately after me.
“Welcome to the indenture ceremony for the fourth year,” said the teacher, not one I knew well. “This is the procedure we will follow. To start with, please leave your bags at the back of the hall. They will be taken round to the main entrance, where you can pick them up afterwards. Each family will bring their child to the front at my invitation, and hand the child over to the keeping of the school. Actually, this just means that they’ll wait in the staff common room over there. Then I shall ask the families to leave, and after that I’ll bring the children back in here. More later.”
She smiled. It was, really, a happy occasion for her. She began to read the names again, and one by one the families came forwards; the child went into the common room; the others left.
Finally it came: “Jack Marchmont.” I went forwards with my uncle and Neal, and embraced them for the last time. “I love you more than life,” my uncle whispered in my ear, and Neal hugged me madly.
And then I left them. The common room was half full of my classmates. Dezzie joined me, and a bit later Ron, and gradually the numbers rose. We chatted desultorily about this and that: something made us think that to talk about why we were there would not be right. Finally we were told to return to the main hall, which was now empty.
There was a pause. And then another door opened, and five people came in, three men and two women. One I recognised: Mr Andrews. The one in uniform was, presumably, the CO of Chedley. I knew none of the others.
“Mr Chair of the Selectors, I give you custody of the students of this year. They are:”
And then all our names were read again. And then she left.
“Okay, everyone,” said Mr Andrews. “Best relax, as this will take a short while. We’re going to take you two by two to the two small rooms down this corridor. Before we lead you down, you’ll be blindfolded, and your hands will be tied behind your back—only loosely, you can get out of it if you have to. It’s symbolic, okay? We lead you down the corridor into one of the rooms, and there you kneel. And your mentor will come in from the other door, and see you. After that it’s up to you, and him or her. Okay?”
And the first two were led away fairly quickly. The rest of us were quiet now; it had suddenly become very serious indeed. As I knew well enough, I was number 35 in the year, so I would be in the eighteenth couple along with Dezzie. Time went slowly past. We were served coffee. We waited.
And then, finally, it came: “Jack Marchmont.” I went to the front with Dezzie.
“Hi Jack,” said Mr Andrews. “Okay, first the blindfold. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt.”
How often have I been told that recently, I thought. But it didn’t. The black strip of cloth was wound tightly round my head three times, and tied.
“How can we be sure we’ve got the right one?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, one of us will be with you and we’ll check. Hands behind your back, Jack.”
I obeyed, and it was true: just a very loose turn of cloth went round my wrists.
“The blindfold means that you don’t choose your own mentor. Your mentor is chosen for you. The bound hands mean that you can’t push your mentor away. Let me say that the mentors have been chosen out of many applicants, and we know that they are all kind and caring people who want to help you. You have nothing at all to fear, and everything to hope for. One of us will lead each of you into the room. When you are there, kneel. When you hear a door open, wait till your shoulder is touched. That will be your mentor.”
I sighed, and making a conscious effort, bent my will. I am now ready, I told myself, to accept the decision my master has made for me, and to do so willingly.
It was Mr Andrews; his arm was on my shoulder and he guided me slowly down the corridor: he stopped, turned me and opened the door; and I entered. I moved forwards until he pressed gently, and then knelt.
I seemed to wait for a long time. Quietly, a door clicked. I stayed still; I could hear movement. And then, then at the very end of everything, there was the touch on my shoulder. I felt a hand on my head, and it was gently pushed back; and then the blindfold slipped off. I blinked, and looked.
It was him, of course. It was Ewan. I couldn’t understand how I had imagined it might be anyone else.
For a moment I sat back on my heels, frozen. And then I was overwhelmed. I rolled forwards, and with my head on his feet, began to weep.
“Hey, Jack. Hey,” I heard him say.
“I didn’t nominate you, I didn’t, I promise I didn’t... Please...”
“It’s okay, I know you didn’t,” he said. “Lying isn’t your way. You didn’t nominate; I did.”
“You nominated me?” I said, stupidly.
“Yup. C’mon, let’s get out of here.”
He knelt beside me and helped me to my feet; and then I was in his arms, and it was like a reprieve in the hour of execution.
“My wrists are tied,” I said. “You’re supposed to untie them.”
“Am I? Well, walking the streets with a pretty slave boy in shackles has always been a fantasy of mine.” He turned me round, and I felt the binding tighten. “That’s better.”
“People will talk,” I said.
“Probably not, today.”
“My bag’s in the entrance hall.”
“Well, I’m up to carrying that,” he said. “Let’s go.”
So we went out through the door he had used and through the corridors to the entrance hall, me in front of him with my hands bound. And I was so full, so bursting with joy and happiness that I felt like dancing. He picked up my bag and we stepped outside.
Only Fred and Tanner were there now, I noticed.
“Hi Fred,” I said. “Meet my mentor.”
“It’s you after all, sir?”
“You don’t seem 100% pleased, Corporal,” said Ewan.
“We can talk about that later, sir.”
“What are you doing here, anyhow?”
“Operation Stand Beside, sir. Bodyguard for Jack. There’ve been threats. Jack, I was to remind you to phone the general.”
“Oh yes. Perhaps you’d better untie me, Ewan.”
“You have to phone the general?” he said. “Why?”
“To tell him who my mentor is.”
“Really? Oh well, orders is orders. Is your phone here?”
He rummaged in my belt-pouch and found it.
“The number’s in there,” I said.
“So it is. You have the Chief Executive’s private number. Hm.”
He dialed and held the phone to my ear. I noticed a chunky ring on the middle finger of his right hand: the Wheel.
“Baxter. Hello Jack.”
“Hello, sir. I have my mentor, and he’s Ewan Hart.”
“A-a-ah. Well, well. After all, eh, Jack? Is he there?”
“Put him on, please.”
“General Baxter for you,” I said, and he put the phone to his ear.
“Good morning, sir... Yes, that’s right, sir... Well, yes, sir... Yes, sir!”
He put the phone back in my pouch.
“We’re ordered to the Mayburn Hotel. He was quite brusque. I wonder what’s going on?”
I didn’t know. I didn’t care. All thought was lost in the wonder of having him back.
“Do you have transport, Corporal? Care to hop in the back of my car? Okay, it’s just down here. Did you see the new board in front of the school, Jack?”
“All these things he will share with me. That’s a peculiar turn of phrase. I wonder what was in their minds.”
I looked at him oddly, and began to giggle.
“What’s up?” he said.
“Not much. Where’ve you been since... since...”
“At my house in Suffolk. I drove through this morning. It’s pretty much off the beaten track and there’s no electricity yet. So I’m completely out of touch, no TV, nothing, I’ve no idea what’s been going on. Have you done any more TV interviews? There were some lined up, weren’t there?”
I heard Fred snort.
“I didn’t do those,” I said, “but some other stuff came up.”
“Why didn’t you do them?”
“My uncle vetoed them.”
“Really? Why?” he said.
We were at his car, now. With difficulty I manoeuvred myself into the front seat. Fred and Tanner got in behind us.
“He wasn’t—wasn’t pleased with the situation,” I said guardedly.
“With me, you mean. No, I suppose he wasn’t.”
He obviously wanted to say more, but was holding back in front of Fred and Tanner. We passed a large poster; fortunately, perhaps, this had no picture of me, just a group of children of all kinds and ages in lifesuits, with the inscription:
I take up the task
of building a new world
free from hate
free from superstition
founded on love
“That’s good,” said Ewan. “That’s really excellent. I wonder who wrote that?”
I began to giggle. The combination of my joy and excitement and the bizarreness of the situation was pushing me dangerously close to hysteria.
“What’s the matter?”
“He wrote it himself, sir,” said Fred. “Everyone knows that.”
“You did? That’s pretty good.”
I was still giggling as we turned into the hotel carpark. He helped me out, and something made me say: “Perhaps it would be better to untie me now.”
“Yes,” he said. “I wonder what’s up.”
It was obvious that since our last visit, the hotel had become a combination of headquarters and billet for the central government. Their notice was at the front:
The Provisional Administration
Kindly and firmly he will guide and control me,
and take me forwards step by step.
“Now that is really odd,” said Ewan. “Where does that come from?”
This time I managed not to giggle. I met Fred’s eye.
“I’ll explain later,” I said. “You should really get a portable TV for your house. Or a radio at least.”
“Out of touch, am I? It’s not much more than a fortnight.”
He was right. For a moment I was staggered.
“It’s a revolution, Ewan. Things move quickly.”
And waiting for us in the entrance hall was Tony.
“Tony?” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Come and see. This is a secure area, Fred, you could stand down.”
“Sorry, Tony. Just at the moment I’m not leaving Jack till I get a direct order.”
“Okay. Follow me, all.”
Up in a lift, along a corridor; and we found ourselves in a meeting room. And to my astonishment, Max was there. And Dan Threadgold, in uniform. And Marietta Borley, and Lakshmi. And another man whom I didn’t know. And Neal.
“Wow! Everyone’s here!” I said happily. “Is it a party?”
“Not quite,” said Dan. “Captain Hart, you are under arrest.”