When we came back, the others were already leaving. Neal ran to be with Lakshmi. I saw Dan with Ewan taking the stairs, and I went to join them.
“You look after him so carefully,” said Dan. “He’s a lovely child, full of compassion and courage. The fact that he doesn’t understand what we do is completely irrelevant compared to that.”
“Thanks, Dan,” I said. “I love him. He’s always been there, you know? Ever since I can remember, there’s always been Neal and we’ve always looked after each other. I can’t be happy about what he’s gone through today.”
“Neal’s changed,” said Ewan.
“Yes,” I said. “He has. So have I, Ewan.”
“It was beautiful, what happened,” said Dan. “You know why? You made a real act of submission, Jack. I could see it happen. I hope you understand the generosity of this boy, Ewan. It’s not clear to me that you have any idea yet of what he went through, or what he’s achieved.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Anyhow, I’d like to see both of you on Sunday afternoon at my house. How about two o’clock? We have work to do.”
“Yes. We’ll be there,” said Ewan.
“Good. Come here, Jack.”
I went to him, and for a long moment he looked into my eyes.
“You have changed. How long was it? Not even a fortnight yet... Well, well. You’ve got some thinking to do, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“How interesting!” He hugged me. “I look forward to seeing you again, soul of the revolution.”
“Have we got food for all of us on the ramchopper?” I said, as we walked across the car park.
“Yeah, it’s there,” said Tony. “And the cards and stuff.”
“Are your guys ready, Fred?”
“They’ll be there, Jack.”
“Okay, we’ll meet you at the strip!”
I jumped into the front of Ewan’s car, and Max and Tony slid in the back. Fred and Tanner had their own car and would be following us; Neal said he’d rather go with them.
“Wow!” said Ewan, as we pulled away. “Mr Bossy!”
“This is Jack’s show,” said Tony, rather crossly. “And Neal’s. It goes easiest when they run it. We’ve been doing this for nearly two weeks now, and we know how it works, so please just back off.”
“Besides,” I said, “I’m just compensating for being treated like a whining brat in front of everyone.”
“I thought you said it was good,” said Max.
“I don’t mind Ewan doing it. I didn’t like my friends seeing me being—reduced in that way.”
“You said this, Jack,” said Max. “I’m a controlled child. I’m helping to mend this country. Don’t you dare to put me down! And don’t you dare to put yourself down, Jack, and don’t you dare to insult us by imagining that we think less of you because of that! Because what we saw was you, carrying out the task!”
Ewan put his hand on my knee and for a moment I thought I’d lose it.
“Where did that quote come from, Max?” said Ewan.
“From Jack’s speech to Chedley High. I know your ministry’s been keeping a disk of all this stuff for you, Ewan. I think you’d better go through it. I’ve asked Susan to meet us in Birmingham and bring it. I thought you’d like to consult with her.”
“Did you make Neal feel a bit better about what happened?” said Ewan.
“A bit,” I said. “But nearly everyone in that room knew how he feels about DS relationships, and how protective he is of me. It was pretty obvious how he’d react to that—demonstration. Why the hell was he there?”
“You know why,” said Max. “He was representing your family.”
“Yes, but there was no need for him to be there for that bit. Anyone could see it would do no good at all, not to the meeting and definitely not to him. You could have got him out of the room, or you could have postponed the test till later. Didn’t anyone even think about this?”
“Lakshmi did. She proposed doing the test some other time, but everyone else wanted to go ahead. Apart from Tony.”
“Didn’t you think why she said that? He’s only twelve! It wasn’t fair on him. Now it’ll take him even longer to come to terms with Ewan. And God knows what he’ll say to Uncle.”
“You’re right, Jack,” said Max. “That was not good. I guess it’s more of what they say about Rationalist cluelessness with human feelings.”
“People say that but it’s bullshit,” I said. “You’re not clueless when you do think about human feelings. It’s just that sometimes you sort of forget to think about them at all. I suppose it’s because you’re revolutionaries...”
“Actually, Neal’s tougher than you think, Jack,” said Tony. “If we were going to do that to you at all, I think he was entitled to be there. He’s your brother.”
“You were against doing it, Tony,” said Max. “Why?”
“Not for Neal’s reasons,” said Tony. “DS relationships don’t bother me at all. But Jack is our colleague and our comrade, and it was shameful to trick him like that. I was amazed that anyone even suggested it.”
“It wasn’t much of a trick, Tony,” I said. “Dan was speaking the truth when he told me what the plan was. He just chose to say it a way that got up my nose, that’s all.”
“It was for Jack’s benefit, Tony, you know that,” said Max.
“Right,” said Tony. “We demand his trust and simultaneously deceive him. After that we tell him to explain to the nation’s kids how trustworthy we are. Hello? Just who do you think we’re messing around with here?”
“It wasn’t that important, Tony,” I said. “It’s been a pretty shitty morning all round.”
“I’m really sorry, Jack,” said Max. “I just don’t see what else we could have done.”
“The last thing I feel like doing just now is another school, damn it. Oh well. Ewan, can’t you get together with Max and arrange some time just for us? I mean, that’s what this month is for, isn’t it?”
“After tomorrow there’s nothing till Wednesday,” said Max. “I’ll talk to Ewan about what to do after that.”
It had become a brisk, bright day when we arrived at the strip, and I dug my cloak out of my bag. The ramchopper was standing on the pad, idling, and Fred was waiting for us, with Neal and three of his guys. I greeted them and the pilot, and then we were off.
The cabin on this model was fairly well sound-proofed, enough to enable us to carry on a conversation over the whine of the rotor and then the howling jet. We arranged the seats to face each other, handed round the sandwiches and dug in. I was sitting between Neal and Ewan. I could feel Neal’s tenseness and resentment towards Ewan, but there was nothing I could do about it in this situation.
There were four voicemails waiting for me. I dealt with them between bites, discussing them with Tony and Neal; I was starving. They were nothing unusual: a teacher with a pupil who was spooking badly; a neighbourhood team being denied access to a school; a pyramid point whose school was being unhelpful; another who was having to deal with a boy who had helped to murder her own parents. I noticed Ewan and Max listening to us closely, but they didn’t intervene.
“Okay, Tony, now tell us about this school,” I said, once we had finished.
“Madigan High School, it’s an inner city school, about 2,000 students, 11 to 18, although the top years are a bit thin. Most of the students come from backgrounds which range from modest to dirt poor. About 65% of them are from ethnic minorities: about 40% from Muslim families, with big Sikh and Hindu groups too. There are two rival Muhajiroun factions, as well a Sikh militia, the Khalsa Warriors. There’s a strong heretical Christian group called the Reachout Church of Christ which was really ferocious. None of their kids came to state schools before, so they’re pretty resentful. There are also political groups, libertarians, neo-Maoists, fascists and so on.”
“Oh boy,” I said. “It sounds like the worst ever. What’s the school’s plan?”
“They’re going to do years four up today, and the young ones tomorrow. That’s about a thousand each. They’ve been at it since seven o’clock this morning and about half of them should have been fitted by lunchtime. We should turn up at the end of lunch. The plan is to show Jack’s speech at Chedley High, and maybe you could answer a few questions or whatever. Then we start the Joining, bringing the kids who’ve already been fitted from their classrooms and mixing in the new ones. Finish about five o’clock.”
“What’s the Joining?” said Ewan.
I took my Joining Card out of my belt pouch and gave it to him.
“We teach them that. Neal and I do, and they teach each other. It’s a kid thing.”
He looked at it.
“It was on that poster!”
“Yeah, that’s right. Tony, who’s our contact teacher?”
“He’s Nasrullah Khan, sounded like a nice guy, very worried about religious extremists. The head’s supportive too, Mrs Parr.”
“Could you talk to Mr Nasrullah,” I said, “and line up the pyramid-points, one girl and one boy. I think they should be from the minority groups, and they really have to be good this time, you know? Cool and respected by everyone, sensible, intelligent. Then about ten second-lines, try to include someone from that Christian group if they aren’t too crazy. Max, could you deal with Mrs Parr? See if there are any other problems we could hit.”
“Jawohl, mein Heer!”
“Aw, don’t be like that, Max! You know all this was only set up to stop me brooding.”
“Not this one,” he said. “This was set up to show your mentor the kind of work you do.”
“To show me being torn to shreds by four different militias at once, more like. I have a bad feeling about this one, especially speaking to them all completely cold. Tony? Could you make sure they have a speaker system for that meeting?”
“Okay,” said Tony. “You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?”
“Yeah. This time you’re right, though. But tell them, batons and tear gas only.”
“Okay,” said Tony.
“You act as contact, okay?” I said. “They won’t listen to me.”
“Er... Did I just hear you tell Tony to call out the troops?” said Max.
“Oh God, Max, I’m sorry,” I said. “We have this discussion every time but this is the first time we’ve ever done it. But they won’t be there, just on stand-by.”
“Don’t worry,” said Max, “I think you’re entirely right. But when you’re giving an instruction that’s as important as that, you need to be absolutely clear about it. Like: Tony, what are you suggesting?”
“That we ask Birmingham TerrAd to put 100 troops on stand-by, with lorries, riot shields and batons, and tear gas only.”
“Okay, I agree. Please do that, and please act as our contact with the TerrAd. See? Then everyone knows what’s happening.”
“Field Marshall Max deploys his armies,” said Ewan.
Max made a rude noise.
“If you’ve run out of sarcastic comments at my prudent deployment of peacekeeping assets (well, actually Jack’s, in fact) perhaps we could all have a chat about policies on ethnic and religious groups in school and elsewhere...”
We spent the rest of the flight doing just that. Ewan sat next to me and I leant back into him, his arm over my shoulder. I could feel his breath in my hair as he spoke, and I felt a bit better. But Neal still sat beside me, tense and unhappy, and I couldn’t reach any kind of peace.
The discussion that Max led was good, though, and by the time the ramchopper came down at Birmingham TerrAd I felt somewhat better prepared. To our astonishment, we were met by a convoy of APCs full of troops in battle dress and armed to the teeth. I was extremely glad we had Max and Ewan with us; they finally persuaded the officer to wait for our call, and that Fred and his people could give us all the protection we needed.
The whole atmosphere of Birmingham TerrAd alarmed me. Everyone seemed to be nervous and on edge and I felt they would make any situation they got involved in worse. I said this to Ewan.
“Yeah, I agree, my Pupil. I think when we get back we should take it up with Ken. Birmingham’s too important to be left to these guys, they’re acting like jumpy kids. And I heard some racist remarks—just what we don’t need here.”
Susan was also waiting for us.
“Sorry, Susan,” I said. “Seem to have ended up with Ewan after all.”
“Oh, the general knew Ewan would get you, and I agreed.”
“The general knew? How?”
“He said he couldn’t believe that anyone who fancied boys would pass up a chance at you.”
“He’s right,” said Ewan. “Those eyelashes. I’d kill for those... Oops! Sorry, Susan. She’s very easily shocked, you know.”
“Yeah, right,” I said.
“Well, I don’t know what the hell you’ve been doing for the last fortnight, Minister,” said Susan, “but here’s a disk of relevant TV programmes and some other stuff which will tell you what your pupil and the rest of us have been up to. I heard a rumour that you were unaware of the existence of the Request until today.”
“Yes,” said Ewan.
Their eyes met for a long moment.
“Ewan, you are such a stupid fucker sometimes. If you mess up that child, I will personally kick your arse to kingdom come.”
“Yes. Well, if I mess him up, you have my permission to do just whatever the hell you like with me, Susan.”
I was appalled by what we saw of Birmingham on the trip to the school. It was obvious that there had been long and serious fighting here, just as there had been in London. Unlike London, however, almost nothing seemed to have been done towards clearing up the mess and reconstructing the city. The walls were still streaked with the remains of bloodthirsty militia posters, and long stretches of the main roads were bounded on both sides by ruined and burnt-out buildings.
“Those TerrAd guys haven’t got a clue,” I said. “This is the worst of any of the cities we’ve seen.”
“I agree,” said Tony. “This is awful.”
Madigan High was housed in a rambling collection of mid-twentieth-century buildings, all glass and concrete and now very run down and seedy-looking. Lots of glass panes had obviously been smashed during The Problems, and many of these were still boarded up. Immediately opposite the front gate there was a huge hoarding which had only partly been removed, threatening God’s curse on Muslims, Blacks, Jews and all sorts of other people. I noticed that there was no proper perimeter fence and the place was effectively indefensible.
Tony had phoned ahead, and Nasrullah Khan was waiting for us, a tall, elegantly-dressed man who had the knack of getting children to do what he said without even raising his voice. I found him very attractive, something which both Ewan and Susan spotted at once. Max took the lead and introduced us all.
“Can’t you get rid of that god-awful hoarding?” he said.
“Regrettably not,” said Mr Nasrullah. “It’s on private property and the owner cannot be located.”
“Well, I’ll see about that,” said Max, pulling out his phone. “Now, I have my instructions, which are to neutralise your headteacher while you people get on with the real work. Could you point the way?”
“Mrs Parr does not require neutralisation; you will find her very positive and helpful. However, a discussion with her would be a good idea, in my view. We are not without problems of various sorts here. By the way, a TV crew turned up—they said you’d authorised it, Mr Margrave.”
“I did, yes. They won’t show any kid’s face who’d rather not.”
“Very well. Possibly it will be useful.”
“Tony said that you’d like me to talk to the senior part of the school,” I said. “You were going to show them my speech at Chedley?”
“Yes, but I’d like to introduce you first.”
“How are people feeling about this?” I said. “The impression I’ve got is that there might be problems.”
“There’a a substantial group who dislike the whole thing intensely,” said Mr Nasrullah, “mostly religious people, libertarians and communists. There are others who are very supportive. However, we managed to measure everyone and fit about four hundred this morning without any problems. I think if there are problems they will be now.”
“Well, I’ll have to be good, won’t I?”
As we moved through the school, I found time to pull Neal to one side.
“Hey, brother. This is going to be hard,” I said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“I know you’re still unhappy about Ewan, but I don’t know what to say to make it better.”
“I’m—I’m sorry, Jack. It’s just—even after that whole meeting I still don’t understand why he treated you like that. It doesn’t make any sense to me. So I don’t know what he’s going to do to you next. I know you’re okay with it, but I can’t...”
“Yeah, I understand. But we can’t deal with it now; we’ve got a school to do. Can we just shelve it for now? We’ll work on it tomorrow, okay?” I turned him to look at me. “Please, Neal, I can’t concentrate when you’re like this.”
He looked into my eyes for a long moment. Suddenly he grabbed me, and we hugged.
“Sorry, brother,” he whispered. “I’ll try.”
“Ring Lakshmi,” I said. “Don’t be frightened to tell her what you feel. And we’ll have a proper meeting about it tomorrow, okay?”
I kept my arm round his shoulders as we followed the others into the school’s main hall. The students were already filing in, a good proportion of them already in lifesuits. We stood on the platform at one end, and I explained to Ewan what Susan and Tony already knew, that Neal and I would stand at the front and take the lead, and the others would keep out of the way. Tony was talking to Mr Nasrullah, I supposed about the pyramid-points, so I was able to watch the gradually-filling hall and try to catch some feeling of the mood of the school.
Finally Mr Nasrullah came onto the platform, carrying a microphone.
“Confident?” he said, fitting it round my neck.
“Not very. I’m winging it here. I don’t have much of a feeling for your kids yet.”
“They’re kids, Jack. Most of them have seen horrible things here, many have been mistreated or have lost family members or been burnt out of their houses. Of course many of them have acquired all sorts of dreadful ideas from their people, but fundamentally they are just children, suffering, and one must never forget it.”
I could see the concern on his face, and it came to me that he genuinely loved the children in his care, no matter how unappealing they were.
“I like you, Mr Nasrullah.”
You can get away with remarks like that when you’re a child.
“I’ve been following you on TV, Jack. You’ve been doing good things, but it seems to me that you’re a child suffering too.”
“I have been. But things are looking up.”
“I’m glad,” he said. “Well, let’s start. I’ll introduce you, and then do you want to speak to them before we show the video?”
“Yup, I think so.”
He stepped to the front of the platform and lifted his hands, and instantly there was silence.
“Jack Marchmont,” he said simply, and stepped back.
The response was extraordinary: a wild mixture of cheers and boos. For a moment I was at a loss. Then I just raised my hands and started laughing, and gradually they quietened down.
“Fuck!” I said. “Booed in Brum!”
“It’s a first for me, I must say. Look, I want to do a poll. And it’s not about who booed and who cheered, because that’s not very important. My poll is important. Here we go: Hands up everyone who lost a family member in the Problems.”
Even I was surprised at the result.
“Look round, everyone. It’s about a third. Next question: Who lost their house?”
About a third again.
“Who’s been attacked themselves, or robbed?”
About a half.
“Who has seen someone die?”
Perhaps a quarter.
“Are you seeing any patterns? Are you seeing only Muslims raising their hands? Only Sikhs? Only Reachout Church? No, you aren’t. Nor am I. Tell me, who hasn’t raised their hand even once?”
No more than a scattering.
“Do you see? It’s everyone. It’s everyone. You’re all affected. And don’t forget the ones who aren’t here to raise their hands—aren’t here because they’re dead themselves. What can you say, about a society where kids are being killed and attacked and losing their families and houses?
“I’ll tell you! It’s shite, that’s what it is! Am I right? Tell me, am I right?”
“Am I right? Am I right?”
“Okay, if you want to boo, now’s the moment. What do we think of these murderers and robbers, the people who’ve trashed our country and trashed our families and trashed Birmingham? What do we think of them?”
“Right. Now I’m going to say something shocking, and it’s this. Many of those people, it really isn’t their fault. Why? Why do I say something so shocking to hear? Well, let’s ask ourselves: why did those people do those things? Why were they out there killing people and ruining the country?”
There was dead silence now. They were listening hard.
“Because their minds were filled with crazy wicked rubbish, that’s why. Because when they were kids people told them things like, it’s right to hate people if they’re Black. Or if they’re Muslim. Or if they’re Christian. Or if they’re Jewish, or gay, or Catholic, or feminists, or whatever. It’s right to hate those people, and they were told it again and again and again until they just sucked it up and they couldn’t think any other way. And then one day they had one of those hated people at their mercy, and maybe they were angry or drunk or full of zeal or whatever and—paff! a human being has been killed. A man, or a woman. Or, more likely a child, because we’re easier, aren’t they? We’re easier to kill.
“But we can’t go on with this, can we? We can’t live in a shite society, we can’t bring up our own kids in that kind of shit-heap, can we? Can we?”
I’ve got them, I thought. It’s working, it’s actually working.
“So how do we stop it? It’s like this. We have to stop the wicked rubbish from being passed on. And the trouble is, that it’s not easy to spot. Sometimes you can. Sometimes you can spot an organisation, or even a person and say pretty definitely: they are passing on wickedness. Whether they know it or not, they are murderers, directly or indirectly, and we have to stop them, and that’s easy. But it’s not enough. Because often the wicked shite is mixed up with okay stuff, or with only slightly nasty stuff, and you can’t disentangle it.
“Everyone knows what I mean. I’m looking out in this hall, and there are people from five or six different religions here, and all of them in their history have done good and beautiful things. And every single religion has been involved in the horribleness in this city. Not all their members, but some. Every single religion. Am I right?”
“Not good enough, people! Can anyone honestly claim that no one has been killed in the name of their religion? You know it isn’t true! You know that there are groups in every single one of them which have blood on their hands. Am I right? Please, people, be honest. I know it hurts, but am I right?”
It was not a happy shout. They were indeed hurting, I could see. Many were weeping. I noticed a Muslim girl in the front row, wearing a headscarf and with tears pouring down her face, hugging a friend.
“But we can do something about it. We can. What we need is people who can spot the nastiness and reject it. Who can see through the confusion and layers and layers of history, and find what is good in each religion, and build on that. But you can’t do that if you’re mixed up in the whole thing. You have to take a step back.
“And that’s what all this is about. We are all going to step away from our religions, and from our races, and from everything which divides us. We’re going to step back from all that until we’re twenty. We’re going to learn to think, and learn to reject the things that make us hate.
“That’s what the government is asking of us. That we sacrifice our freedom, our freedom of religion for one thing, for that time, so that our country and our communities, and even our religions can be renewed, built on the fact that we’re all human beings, not on hatred.
“It’s our task to do that. No one else can. The adults can’t, they’re all too mixed up in it. It’s not their fault they are; remember, I said? It’s not their fault. But it’s up to us to sort it out, because they can’t. That’s the marvellous thing about being a controlled child. I said before, we will be a mighty generation, and people in the future will gasp in wonder at what we will achieve.
“That’s what I’m asking everyone to do, to help me, to help us, to do this. Please, everyone. I’m begging you. Will you help?”
There was a slight pause. Then:
“Let’s hear it again. Make the grownups here jealous of us.”
“Thanks... thanks.” I was trying not to lose it now. “Okay, my brother Neal is here as well, and, girls, everyone knows he’s the cutest boy ever...” Neal came up trumps by punching me on the arm. “Ow! Shit!” Laughs. “Together we’re going to be starting the Joining, I expect you’ve seen on TV, and people will be brought back here gradually from class, and as they have their Standard Clothes fitted, and at the end we’ll see how loud we can shout. Brothers and sisters in the task! Are you with me?”
“Okay, Mr Nasrullah? Who’s first in line?”
“Rajinder Singh, and Paca Ortega.”
They got a cheer, and as they pushed forwards, I said to Mr Nasrullah: “Skip the Chedley speech, I think.”
“Indeed. Believe me, that was enough, Jack. Thanks.”
“Chat to them for a moment, brother,” I said to Neal.
People were moving around now, as the students went back to their classes. I went to the back of the platform, where I found Ewan hiding behind a pillar.
“Well? What did you think?”
“Do you really need to ask? Do you really, Jack?” His eyes were shining, and his whole face was alight. “Come here, my beloved boy!”
And then I was in his arms, gripping him as hard as I could. This, at last, was how it was meant to be, with his strength backing me up and urging me on...
“How the hell can I measure up to you?” he said, holding me at arm’s length.
I moved close to him and murmured in his ear.
“Remember showering in the darkness with me?”
“Tonight,” I said, “I want to do that... with the silence control on.”
“Fuck, Jack, you bastard!”
I laughed at him and danced away down the platform, and found Neal with Rajinder and Paca waiting for me.
“Okay, let’s get off the platform... Now let’s sit on the floor. That’s right, catch hands. What do you think of this, Paca?”
I spoke to them briefly; Catholic and Sikh, seventeen years old, and they were just exactly what we needed. We did the ritual with them, and as I did these days, I explained how they could use it to help the spooky feelings, and how this was something they owed to other controlled children. They quickly learnt the words, and we signed their cards. Then we did four more, Neal with Rajinder and Paca with me, and we were off.
In no time the hall was filled with kids doing the ritual, helping each other, practising. It was hard for some of them, and it was hard for us too. Many times Neal or I intervened, helping someone through tears or anger, pointing the way to go. This was work we were beginning to understand, now, and that day it was always positive. I felt that many of these children were dumping a lot of pain on the floor of that hall.
Through it all I could see Rajinder and Paca moving, deploying people, helping, laughing, hugging. Mr Nasrullah had made brilliant choices.
It was an extraordinary afternoon, and as always, it seemed to go by in minutes. Then everyone was back, now all in their lifesuits, and I spoke to them for the last time.
“It’s been a long day. Thanks, everyone, for sticking with us. Remember, we are doing a good thing. Before long everyone will have a mentor to help them along, but it’s still going to cost us. There’s no way to do a good thing without cost. And one of the costs is the feelings that come from being controlled, the spooky feelings. Remember, if that happens to you, find a brother or sister and join. And if someone asks you for that, make time to do it. The crazies destroy each other. We don’t. We help each other.
“Tomorrow, the younger years will be joining too. Help them along. They need you.
“Now, brothers and sisters, let’s show the grownups here what we have learnt today. That we are ready for the task. That we will pay the price. And that we’re proud of what we’re doing. All together! I am the future...”
As usual, I made them do it again, louder; then it was over. I gathered up Rajinder and Paca and Mr Nasrullah, and Tony, Neal and I talked with them as we always did, about the formation of a neighbourhood team and how to take the pyramid to the other schools in the city. I didn’t envy them the task.
Mrs Parr came to thank us. When Mr Nasrullah shook my hand, I just gave him a hug, leaving him looking very shocked. Finally, Neal and I took Rajinder and Paca aside to join quietly. And then we left. I noticed that the hoarding had gone.
“Are we the best?” yelled Neal, fists clenched above his head, as our van turned out of the school gate. “I mean, are we the best?”
“Yes!” yelled everyone, Fred and his guys included, I noticed.
“And what did we do?” said Max.
“We Joined nine hundred and eighty-seven of the most screwed up, suffering kids I’ve met so far,” I said.
“I made survey contacts with teachers in every year,” said Susan.
“We got a new neighourhood team set up,” said Tony.
“I got that ghastly hoarding removed,” said Max, and we cheered. “I also spoke to Mrs Parr and got the lowdown on the TerrAd here, which I’ll give to Ken. There’s gonna be some changes made...”
“Tanner and Mat checked out the security on that campus,” said Fred, “which is pretty much none.”
“Then there was Jack’s speech,” said Neal.
“Yes,” said Max. “That was a real humdinger. And you seemed to have a lot of personal problems with the kids.”
“Yeah,” said Neal. “There was a lot of that. For example, I had five kids come and thank me for the assault control. They were all being beaten up by their dads or uncles.”
“I had three of those,” I said. “And lots of others. That boy from some other Christian group who was gay, and his parents were beating him and exorcising him every night...”
“Pretty good, boys,” said Max.
“Yeah,” I said. “I thought we did more good today than any of the other days. Rajinder and Paca were total stars. Nasrullah is a kind of saint, really. And I was dreading this school.”
“Well, I didn’t contribute much today,” said Ewan, “because I had no idea what was going on to start with. So I crept off and borrowed a disk machine and found out what Jack and everyone else have been up to in my absence. It’s pretty wild stuff. Apart from that I’ve just been keeping my eyes open, and it’s given me a lot to think about.”
“Yeah. There’s sure to be a report from Madigan tonight,” said Max. “By the way, Bill has issued a press statement that Jack’s mentor is Ewan. We had to; after the interview on Tuesday there was so much interest. There are certain to be people waiting at Sheffield to talk to both of you. What are you going to do?”
“Ask my mentor,” I said.
I smiled. It was a delicious thing to say.
“I’ll answer a few questions on the fly,” said Ewan. “Jack can smile and look pretty. The whole mess is my responsibility, so I’ll deal.”
“Did you see my interview on Tuesday?” I said.
“Yes. Why did you say anything about it?”
“It could have been my last chance. If my mentor...”
“Yes, I see. Never mind, I will fix.”
“How wonderful,” I purred in his ear. “My mentor will fix. Oh yes...”
Once we got back on the ramchopper there was more work: a couple of calls to deal with, and an article I was writing, to be included in a pack for parents of children starting their indentures. Tony helped me with these, but after that I slept through the flight and the landing at Sheffield. This time we arrived not at the TerrAd but the civilian airport, which was actually working in a preliminary sort of way. And sure enough, we were greeted by a small mob of TV people with a couple of cameras, as well as radio and print journalists. I spotted Paul Oxley, and directed Ewan to him.
“Jack?” said Paul, sticking a microphone under my nose, “Pub-Ed are saying that Captain Ewan Hart is your mentor after all. Have you got anything to say?”
“I’m Ewan Hart, and yes, I’m Jack’s mentor.”
“Why did you tell Jack not to nominate you, Captain Hart?”
“I wanted Jack to have the experience of not knowing who his mentor would be, like millions of other kids. I didn’t want anyone to be able to say that he got an easy ride.”
“But you mightn’t have got him as your pupil!” said Paul.
“Unlikely. I nominated him myself, and it was well-known in Chedley that he wanted me as his mentor. Under those circumstances, the Selectors were almost certain to put us together.”
“Well, Jack certainly hasn’t had an easy ride, Captain, as everyone knows. Do you regret putting him through this?”
“If I’ve been unkind,” said Ewan, “believe me, I’ll make it up to him. Perhaps we’ll talk some more about this later, but for now, well, it’s been a long day and we’re all very tired.”
“What have you been doing today, Jack?” asked someone.
“Joining at Madigan High School, Birmingham.”
“There’ll be a report on this evening’s news,” said Max.
“Mr Margrave, do you have any comment on Jack’s indenture?” asked someone else.
“Nope. That’s entirely the business of Ewan and Jack. See you later, folks, we’re going to eat and crash.”