By the next morning, Corporal Roberts and his men had gone off duty, and three more soldiers were there. Aunt Judy gave them some tea and porridge, all we had. Uncle Alan decided to come to school with us to continue with the screening of the kids. Aunt Judy said she was going to look at her own house and start to get it ready for her to move back.
We noticed that people were starting to clear up the mess along the way. Some of the burnt-out buildings were being demolished, and work had started on repairing some of the others. The vicious propaganda posters of the NCRF and Hand of God had mostly disappeared. Wrecked cars had been removed from some parts of the streets. There was a feeling of optimism and movement in the air, and smiles on many faces.
“Heard on you the TV, Jack! That was good, son!”
I gave our neighbour an embarrassed grin as we passed.
“That was so cool when you were arguing with the minister,” said Neal. “I never realised before how clever you are, Jack.”
“Neal’s right,” said Uncle Alan. “I didn’t have a chance to say before, Jack, but I was so proud of you. You made your points clearly and politely, and you weren’t intimidated. Do you still feel uneasy about what the minister said?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t know if it’s the thing itself, or just the feelings it gives me which I’m worried about. I need to think about that.”
School that day was gradually beginning to settle down. Very few people came with religious symbols or clothes. Andy was wearing a plain white teeshirt, and I spent some time with him. I liked him. Even though he was religious, he was nothing like the fanatics we’d had to deal with.
I’d never had very many close friends at school, although I was popular on the whole. Looking back, I think this was partly because I was in some way aware of my gayness. There were a lot of religious crazies in my year, and instinctively I avoided them. The nearest to me, I suppose, were Dezzy and Ron, both rather like me, bookish but still fairly good at sports and games. Both of them were intrigued by my brush with Max Margrave. We spent a lot of time discussing what the Government’s intentions were, both for children and in general.
They were a relief from some of the joshing I got in the playground, even though most of it was good-natured. Neal just laughed his way through it, of course; he was that sort of boy. I found it more difficult, especially as a few of the older boys gave me a pretty hard time, wanting to know who I thought I was, going on the news and arguing with the coup leaders. I tried to explain, but really they just wanted to torment me. Still, over the years I'd learned not to take too much notice of this sort of stuff.
We left school that afternoon with my uncle, and to my astonishment, there was a TV crew waiting for us on the pavement. It seemed that my uncle was expecting this, and he stood behind me, offering silent support.
“Jack?” said the interviewer. “Did you and Neal know the militia man you spoke to yesterday?”
“I’ve seen him often,” I said. “In the gardens in Victoria Square.”
“What was he doing?”
“They were killing people there. Hanging them, burying them alive, burning them at the stake. That man was the organiser.”
“Were you frightened to meet him, you and Neal?”
“No, of course not. There were soldiers with guns there, and we weren’t in any danger. We weren’t frightened, we were angry. People we know died there, you know? Grown-ups and children, people we know. My uncle’s partner, Dr Pike. The girls from across the square. We were angry. I accuse him of murder, murder many times over, and in the cruellest possible way.”
“What should they do with him?”
“He should be put on trial,” I said. “He should be tried fairly, and if he’s guilty—well, remember what Mr Margrave said? People who have killed children will be jailed for the rest of their lives. That’s what we should do. We have to show that we care that those people died, we have to show that it matters. After that we can forget him and get on with making things better.”
“How old are you, Jack?”
“I’ll be fourteen next month.”
“Were you frightened when you spoke to Max Margrave?”
“I was a bit nervous to start with. I thought I wasn’t making much sense.”
“Are you still worried about Standard Clothing and this business about kids being controlled?”
“I want to know what it all means in practice. I said, what they’ve been saying about controlling kids makes me feel uncomfortable. But you’ve got to think—Greencross has two boys, a bit younger than us.”
“Should they be punished too?”
“Of course not! It’s not their fault what their father did. We have to make sure they grow up as good people, and it won’t be easy, will it? Not after that kind of childhood. I think that’s the sort of thing that Mr Margrave’s thinking about.”
“I think that’s it,” said my uncle. “Let’s go, boys.”
Corporal Roberts shooed the people back, and we made our escape.
“Did you mind doing that, Jack?” said my uncle, as we started to make the supper. “Ewan asked me for permission, but I forgot to ask you. I’m really sorry.”
“It was okay. I’ll be interested to see what I look like.”
“It’ll be on the news,” said Captain Hart, who was leaning against the kitchen wall. “Did he do well, Alan? No bits that’ll make him blush and get really embarrassed?”
“You noticed the blushing,” said my uncle.
He gave the captain a strange look, which he returned evenly. I blushed, of course.
“Actually, I thought it was okay,” he continued. “Well, see for yourself. I’m not quite sure what you wanted from it.”
“Are you doing the supper, boys?” said my aunt, coming in.
“Jack and I are,” said my uncle. “Ewan is just standing there, making leading remarks.”
“Does that mean you’re staying for supper, Ewan?”
“If I’m invited. I’d like to stay for the news, at any rate. Just in case Jack blushes again.”
“Yes, it’s very fetching, that, isn’t it?”
My aunt’s remark was accompanied by a smile. I was conscious of something different, of the rules changing. It was disconcerting and exciting.
Supper wasn’t much, of course; as usual, potatoes and baked beans. The corporal and his two men ate with us. But at the end, my aunt produced four apples, the first fruit I'd eaten for nearly a year, and we divided them between us all. I can't describe how delicious they tasted, the crisp sharpness and the aromatic skin. It made for a light-hearted and optimistic meal, and after it we all gathered to watch the news together.
The interview was broadcast complete. It gave me a strange feeling, that the person I was watching both was and was not me. My voice seemed higher-pitched that I expected, and my face far prettier. That was my main thought: that this person was too slight, too pretty, for the heavy things he was saying.
When it was over, my aunt turned off the sound, and for a moment there was silence. I wondered if the captain would say something awkward about blushing, but he didn’t.
“What did you think of it, Jack?” he said.
“It was okay.”
“No. It was far better than okay. It was clear. It was dramatic. You had some really important things to say, things that lots of people will be thinking, and you said them. It was excellent.”
“From our point of view, you made the just the points we would have liked. What you said about Greencross’s kids was very well put. I’m afraid you’ve become an asset, Jack. We will have to do that again. That’s if Alan agrees, of course.”
“We’ll see,” said my uncle. “I can see why you might want him. I didn’t grasp it when you were doing it, Jack, but now I’ve seen it, I couldn’t agree more with what you said. And thank you for mentioning Vincent. That was very moving.”
That night, Neal slept in my bed, as he did sometimes when he needed reassurance or company. Although we never did anything overtly sexual, I always liked this: the intimacy, the warmth of his body and his clean little-boy smell.
“It’s a shame people don’t know you,” said Neal. “Cos you’re the nicest person I know. For you to say, lock this guy up for ever—that’s quite something. But I think they should. And I think they should read out the names of all the people he killed at the trial. That’s what I think.”
“I’ll come with you to school again,” said my uncle. “There’s still come kids to check over. And you may be surprised by the, er, landscape on the way.”
I looked at him oddly. And in fact, to start with the walk wasn’t much different from the day before. But then to my astonishment, we came upon a new hoarding. It carried on the left a faint but gigantic picture which only after a few moments did I recognise as Neal! On top of him was the wording, in huge letters:
You and your fat belly
versus General Baxter
Like he’s scared!
“Yes. That’s quick work,” said Uncle Alan. “It was only Tuesday evening that I said they could use that.”
“I’m famous,” said Neal smugly.
“Not just you. Look over there!”
And a little down the street, on the other side, was another hoarding—only this time the picture was of me, and wording said:
We’ve all had enough of you
and your horrible gangs!
“Wow! That’s so great!” said Neal.
“Propaganda posters,” I said. “We’re propaganda for the régime. Uncle, I’m not sure if I even like the régime much.”
“Mm. Well, I’m sorry if you don’t like the posters,” said my uncle. “But it seemed more like anti-crazy propaganda, rather than pro-régime. Do you mind being quoted saying that?”
“No. Actually, no, I don’t mind,” I said, more decisively.
“I think the thing is, we have to look at the régime and say not ‘Is it perfect?’ but ‘Is it better than the alternatives at the moment?’ Do you see what I mean?”
“I guess. Oh well, it does no harm, I suppose. Although it’ll be more embarrassment at school.”
“You know they’re all over the country, these posters?” said Uncle Alan.
“Look!” said Neal. “Look, there’s another!”
If you decide to run a military
dictatorship, in the end you’re
Responsible for everything.
“That’s—that’s truly odd,” I said.
“Why?” said Neal. “It’s a good picture of Uncle.”
“Well—it’s not really very pro-régime, is it? It could just as well be anti. I’m surprised.”
“Captain Hart said they’re meant to be ‘think pieces’. They’re meant to get people thinking about issues. I did really say that, so I couldn’t object to them putting it up. Actually, I was quite impressed that they should want to.”
Something puzzled me at that moment about Captain Hart, but it slid away before I could grasp it.
“I think there’ll be some more on Merlin Road,” my uncle went on. “Boys, I think you can see: somehow or other, we’ve become serious celebrities. It’s crazy, but there you are. Just—well, I don’t want to cramp your style or anything—just remember that anything you do could end up in the papers or on TV. Here we go...”
Merlin Road is a section of the Chedley ring road which leads to our school, and there have always been several large hoardings on it. Sure enough there were two more of Captain Hart’s ‘think pieces’ there, facing each other across the road.
Why should I trust adults
When they burn kids alive?
I believe this Government
Can earn your trust
“Wild,” I said. “They put up two posters disagreeing with each other! Well, it’s definitely different.”
“It’s like Uncle said. They want to make people think.”
“Hey! Amazing!” I said. “Just look at that one!”
Corruption is the bane
of military régimes
And it starts in small ways.
“I’m impressed,” said Uncle Alan. “I never thought they’d use that one.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” I said.
“I like Captain Hart,” said Neal. “He’s nice. I’m sure he wants to do good things.”
“They all start that way,” I said. “Haven’t you done the communists yet in history? They all start meaning to do good things, and end up doing dreadful things.”
“Come on, you don’t believe Captain Hart would do dreadful things, do you?” said Neal. “I thought you liked him too. He likes you.”
“Neal!” I said, blushing.
My uncle laughed. I caught him looking at me quizzically.
I assumed that the ribbing I would have to endure would have to be worse than the day before, what with the posters and the interview. There was some, or course, but considerably less than I expected. Some people came to me to say how much they agreed with what I’d said. It was nice.
And on the way home for the weekend, we found another poster had been put up, right outside the school entrance.
We don’t want another generation of
Crazies in this country.
“It’s a bit, well, shouting at the kids, don’t you think?” I said. “You know, you get in there and learn not to be crazy, or else...”
My uncle laughed.
“Tell Captain Hart,” I said. “Maybe he’ll be interested.”
“You tell him,” said my uncle. “You’re going out to see Pete tomorrow, aren’t you, Neal?”
“Yeah, ten o’clock. I’ll be back for supper. It’s been a long time since we got together.”
“Well, Ewan suggested you might like to go for a ride with him, Jack,” said my uncle. “Not much, just see his headquarters and so on, maybe talk about stuff. It’s up to you, of course.”
I could feel the blush. I could feel Neal holding himself back, too.
“Yeah, okay,” I said casually. “Sounds okay.”
It was the first time I’d been in any kind of vehicle for nearly a year, and it was wonderful. It was an open jeep, too; I could feel the speed, rushing into my face and through my hair. For a while I just abandoned myself to the excitement.
“Hey! This is great! Let’s go really fast!”
“Not here, I think. Too many smashed cars and potholes.”
I saw him looking at me sideways, and his smile, the sound of his voice and just the way he drove, together with the speed, overwhelmed me for a moment.
“Where—where are we going?”
“I thought we’d go to our camp, just for somewhere to go, really. Then we could think about anything else you might want to see—”
“Watch out! Shit!”
We had rounded a corner and a huge burnt-out container lorry was turned over in the road. We swerved round it at the last moment.
“Jesus!” he said. “Sorry about that. How the hell did that turn over there?”
“I expect it was used as a barricade. When the NCRF was fighting for the town in April. Before that it was the Democratic Front here.”
“Yes. When did you get interested politics?”
“I suppose when the war started, that’s when I remember. I was nine.”
“Odd for such a young kid.”
“I don’t understand why kids aren’t interested. Your dad’s conscripted to go to war and militias are fighting up and down your street, and you’re not interested? I mean, hello?”
He laughed. We were driving up to the disused airfield on the edge of the town, and I saw that the armed forces were very much in residence. The perimeter fence had been mended; there was a guarded entrance and a large notice: TerrAd Area 27 Chedley. Beyond the gate I could see rows of temporary buildings and military installations.
“Wow! This place has changed. I used to come up here with my dad and practice driving on the old runways. It was completely empty then. What does ‘TerrAd’ mean?”
“Jargon. It’s ‘Territorial Administration’—the people who run each of the areas. Let’s just see now...”
We stopped at the gate and were let through. Inside the camp, all was activity and movement, and he had to weave his way through the traffic with care. Shortly we stopped outside a large temporary building which housed a canteen for civilian workers.
“Fancy an ice cream?”
“Oh my God! Really?”
I couldn’t resist. It made me feel guilty, but I had to have one. He had a cup of coffee and although I didn’t drink it myself, the smell was full of nostalgia for me. The canteen was heaving, and we sat next to a window from which we could see the stretch of old runway which they were using as a strip, and watched ramchoppers take off and land.
“Amazing! There’s a lot going on here.”
“Yeah, there is. Running a military dictatorship is big business.”
I couldn’t think what to say. It’s an adolescent’s nightmare, isn’t it? You find yourself in the company of the person you most want to impress—and you’re completely tongue-tied. I blushed.
“You’re blushing. Why?”
“I—I can’t think of anything to say.”
“Mm. Well, in this sort of situation, it’s the grownup’s responsibility to make sure there aren’t any awkward silences. So don’t worry, all you have to do is wait for me to say something. I suppose you could give me an encouraging smile, or something.”
“Why did you want to take me out?”
“Okay, two reasons. One: you’re potentially useful for my work. Two: I like you. I like you very much.”
Do you know that feeling? The moment when suddenly you discover that someone actually likes you, and what you thought were daydreams might actually happen? The joy and the terror? I think I just stared at him.
“Ask me a question about the Standard Clothing. Go on.”
“You brought me here to talk about that?” I said.
“Why not? You’re interested in political things, and so am I. I’m a paid-up member of the Rationalist Party. C’mon. Ask me.”
“Okay. What’s it for? I mean, everyone from five to twenty, that’s millions of people. It’ll cost shiploads of money. Why bother?”
“All right. Speech coming up. We’ve all seen the terrible things that have been going on. That’s the worst and most obvious illness in our society, but there are lots of others, and what they boil down to is that people don’t think straight. Because of that they’re simply unable to take decisions that anyone can see are necessary. Reorganising industry to stop wrecking the world, for example. Sorting out the various big problems, like over-population, under-development, epidemics. Arranging that modern technology means that everyone can work less, not a few more and the rest not at all. And lots of other things. The fact is that we have the resources and the skills to solve all the important problems that humanity faces. The only reason we don’t is because we can’t think straight.
“How can people make sensible decisions about anything if they think that it’s the will of God that suffering continues? If they think Black people were invented by God to be servants of the whites? If they think that Jews are all evil or homosexuals are all corrupt? If they think that God created the world and every single one of the thirty million species in six days? If they’re totally irrational on the subject of sex? If they have no rational ethical system?
“That’s the cause of it all. People are like that, and that’s bad enough. But what’s even worse is that they pass it on to their children, they and the schools and churches and TV stations and so on, and so the whole thing continues. And we’re not going to allow it. It’s too important to allow it. We’re going to steer children away from that, and they’re going to grow up in a rational way. That’s why they have to be relentlessly controlled, as George said.
“The Standard Clothing is just the beginning. It’s going to start to separate the children from the races, the religions, the politics of their parents and their churches, their parties, and so on. The Standard Clothing will the psychological basis of all that, of shaking them out of their factionalism by giving them all a common ground. There’s more to come, lots more, and we’ve brought the best minds in the country in all sorts of fields to think about this.
“That’s why we’re spending so much effort and money on it. Controlling kids is not an optional extra. It’s a priority. It’s central to our whole strategy, and planning for this was part of the planning for the takeover right from the start.”
I was stunned by what he’d said, by its ambition and scale.
“That’s—that’s pretty frightening. Creepy, even. Changing everyone, that’s it, isn’t it? Redesigning the people. When does it start?”
“Your school gets the Standard Clothing on Monday week.”
A thrill of excitement and fear stabbed me.
“And you want me to back this policy on TV and so on?”
“No, Jack, absolutely not. I’m not a fool. I want you to say what you think, never anything other than that. But when you do agree with us, I hope you’ll say that too.”
“Of course I will. I’ll have to think about all this. But it creeps me out at the moment.”
He smiled at me and bought me another ice cream. And after that, he showed me round the rest of the TerrAd base, and then we had lunch there; it included an omelette, which was the first eggs I had eaten since the year before. And I found I had no problems talking with him, telling him my story and getting parts of his in exchange, telling him my hopes. I was liking him more and more, and finding him more and more attractive. It was surprising, in a way, because I could feel that he wasn’t just a blandly pleasant person. There were hard bits there too, parts that could be cold and maybe even cruel. And there was no doubt, when you were with him, who was in control of things.
On the way home we saw a fresh poster.
We have to show that we care
that those people died
We have to show that it matters
“That’s good,” he said. “That’s just exactly how I feel. And lots of other people will too. You have a real knack with words, Jack, you know. When you said ‘I accuse him of murder’, it made my hair stand on end.”
I returned home bewitched with him. When he told me that he would be away until Monday evening, I felt almost bereft. I hated it when people went away, even for a few days.
The rest of the weekend was quiet and uneventful. Neal pumped me for information about what had happened on my ‘date’ with Captain Hart, as he called it, but I wasn’t saying much. Whenever I thought of him, and it was often, I flew into confusion: sadness at his absence, and excitement tinged with fear at the thought of seeing him again.
And I still couldn’t understand what I thought about the whole issue of being controlled, as the régime put it. At the top, I told myself that it was nothing new, just the way kids were always treated by adults. Under that was a layer that resisted it as a fascistic imposition; but under that, another layer, which felt there was something wrong with it in another way, a darker way, a way to do with strangeness, maybe even with perversion, with things that seemed to hover on the edge of terror. And under that, deep, strong and terrifying, was the lure of precisely those things: the feeling that there was a world there to be explored, a world of fascination and excitement and unknown exotic pleasures. I couldn’t have expressed myself at the time in such terms, but that was the origin of my complex feelings about it.
On Monday morning, Neal and I got ready to walk to school with Corporal Roberts.
“By the way,” said my uncle, “they want to send a TV crew to interview you again, Jack. This afternoon, after school. Is that okay? I said I’d let Ewan know if you agree. It’s the current affairs people.”
“I guess,” I said doubtfully.
“Do they want to talk to me?” said Neal excitedly.
“I don’t know, Neal, but I don’t want you speaking to them, not this time, okay? You can talk to them later, when I’m a bit more certain what’s going on. But they may want a shot of you together, if you don’t mind.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it. I don’t see how I can refuse.”
“They’ll be there are five o’clock, and Judy says she’ll be back by then. But school closes at half past three today, and I want you to come straight home after that. Corporal Roberts will be here to go with you. Don’t stray from him, okay? It’s really important.”
At school, we were told that our Standard Clothing would be issued on Monday of the following week. It seemed to me that not many of my fellow students really understood the implications of this. We wondered what the Standard Clothing would be like. No one could tell us.
Finally it came round to half past three. Neal and I met at the gate, and sure enough, Corporal Roberts was there.
“Okay, boys, ready to go?”
He led us back home, chatting all the while about himself and his mum, who lived in Northampton, and whom he’d finally managed to speak to that morning, using an army hook-up—the phones still weren’t working. She was okay, and so was her house, and this made him feel so relieved he couldn’t stop talking about it. I liked his company—it was nice to meet someone who was simply happy.
Outside our house there was a large lorry waiting, and I realised that the TV people had arrived early. Corporal Roberts knocked on their window, and a head stuck out, high above our heads.
“You here to interview Jack Marchmont?”
“Yup. Is that him?”
“Yes. You’d better come inside. I was told you’d have your own security people, is that right?”
By now people were getting out of the lorry and starting to unload equipment.
“Yes,” said the man who was apparently in charge. “See Jake and Tim over there. Are you planning to stick around?”
“Nope, I was told to leave you in charge, provided you’ve got adequate security cover. There’ve been threats against these boys’ lives.”
“Fair enough. Okay, boys, I’m Doug Donohue, and I’m the producer. Could you let us into the house?”
“Sure,” I said, getting out my keys. “I’m Jack, by the way, and this is Neal.”
“You got power, boy?” another man shouted from across the pavement.
“Yes, most of the time,” I said.
The moment I had the front door open, our house was invaded by people. The cameras, sound gear and lighting was set up in the dining room in no time at all, and a cameraman prowled around, filming the room ‘for background shots’, I was told. I was introduced to the interviewer, Jim Harcourt.
And what followed was one of the most actively unpleasant half hours of my life. I had never encountered anything like it before; I was completely unprepared, and throughout I felt I was messing it up badly. When they finished, I sat blankly on the sofa, as they packed their equipment away. That was when Aunt Judy appeared.
“You’re early!” she said. “We weren’t expecting you till five. Where’s Corporal Roberts?”
“We have our own security,” said Donahue. “I’ve just called Roberts back—he’ll be here in five minutes, Ms, er...”
“Pargiter. You mean, you interviewed my nephew with none of his carers present?”
“No one said there had to be a carer present. Don’t worry, we’ve got our disk and we’re off.”
“Tell that man not to smoke in our house.”
She stood in stoney silence, checking their every move as if she were afraid they’d steal the spoons. And in five minutes they were gone.
“So, Jack? How did it go?”
“It was—it was awful. It was just awful!”
To my horror, I found myself bursting into tears. I ran to our room and collapsed on the bed. It seemed to me that I had made a complete fool of myself in front of the whole country. It felt like the end of everything. I heard my aunt knocking on the door, asking to be let in, but I ignored her. I couldn’t face her.
But a few minutes later, Neal came in anyhow.
“Leave me alone!”
“What’s wrong? What’s the matter?”
“You heard! You heard how awful the interview was! Everyone will think I’m a complete wally. They were just—so nasty!”
“I don’t think it was that bad. Come on, Uncle Alan’s back, and Captain Hart...”
At the thought of them seeing, actually seeing my humiliation on TV, I was swept by another wave of misery. I sat there rocking, trying to get control of myself, while Neal sat beside me, his hand on my knee.
“Come on,” he said reasonably. “You’ll have to come out sometime. I promise it’s not as bad...”
“Captain Hart will see it.”
“I think he’ll love it,” said Neal, grinning. “I think he’d love anything with you in it.”
I couldn’t help a tiny giggle.
“Up yours,” I said.
“That’s better. Come on, it’s nearly suppertime.”
So I emerged, feeling too wretched even to be embarrassed by my tears. My uncle was sitting in the sofa.
“Come over here, son,” he said, patting the sofa, and I was touched, because he rarely dared to call us that.
I cuddled up against him, and he put an arm round my shoulders.
“When we got home, they were already here.”
“What? I said, five o’clock.”
“Well, it was about four o’clock, and they were here. Corporal Roberts went away cos they had their own security men. So it was just us and them, and the interview was awful. It just—I don’t know, it just wasn’t anything like what I expected, he was so nasty to me all the time! I’m so sorry—I’ve messed everything up...”
“Ewan?” said my uncle, and his voice was hard. “What is this? Why were they here early? Why did Roberts leave them with the boys?”
“I didn’t want it to look like we were supervising them. Really, Alan, they had their own security men...”
“You arranged this? You arranged for them to be early? You arranged on purpose that my nephews would be without any adult support at all, you just entrusted them to a bunch of total strangers?”
“Scarcely that. We know exactly who they are. They wouldn’t dare...”
“You tricked me and Judy into leaving our boys in the hands of people who have mistreated them. I’m gravely disappointed in you, Ewan. I had thought that you cared for the boys, and I was pleased, because I hoped you’d be a positive influence. But it seems I was wrong. It seems that as far as you’re concerned, they’re just expendable resources.”
Captain Hart looked as if my uncle had slapped him in the face.
“Alan—please, I don’t think any such thing, of course I don’t. I have a very high opinion of your boys, and in no way do I think they’re expendable. In fact, I think I have a higher opinion of Jack than he seems to have of himself. Could we please watch the interview before you come to any conclusions? Because I’ve a feeling you’ll be surprised. Please, Alan, I beg you. This family has become—important to me, and I don’t just mean politically.”
Their eyes met for a long moment. Finally, my uncle sighed.
“Okay, Jack, do we let the good captain stay and watch the interview with us?”
The possibility of Captain Hart leaving my life was completely unbearable, impossible to contemplate. I gasped.
“Yes... please, uncle,” I whispered.
“Fair enough. In that case, let’s have supper.”
“It’s just baked beans and potatoes, I’m afraid,” my aunt called out. “But I’ve put my name down for some eggs tomorrow. How about that? They say they’re going to start a rationing system, and I must say, that seems only fair at the moment...”
Somehow she managed to defuse the moment. And in a few minutes we were sitting down to our rather spartan supper. Most of the conversation was between the corporal, my aunt and Neal, in fact, and my uncle and the captain did not speak to each other at all. I said nothing, and the others respected my silence. Just once, my eyes met those of the captain, just for a moment, and what flashed between us left me reeling. From that moment on, I was certain that there was something happening, something involved us both and which would have to be explored.
“Do you want to watch the Government programme tonight, Alan?” asked my aunt. “It’s just starting.”
“It’s about foreign relations,” said my uncle. “Let’s skip it. Padmore’s on tomorrow—we’ll catch him.”
“We’re getting our new clothes next Monday,” said Neal. “They told us.”
“Have they said what they’re like?” asked my aunt.
“Nope. Not a clue.”
A slight silence greeted this.
“Jack’s interview is after the Government slot,” said Captain Hart. “The deal is they have to broadcast the entire interview, without cuts and without editing. The whole disk.”
“Is that usual?” said my aunt.
“No,” said the captain. “But I insisted.”
“Why?” said my uncle, addressing him for the first time.
“Because I knew what was likely to happen.”
Once again, silence fell. The corporal stepped outside for a smoke, and I helped my aunt clear away the meal. And finally, horribly, it was time.
I sat on the sofa between my aunt and uncle, and Neal sat on the other side of my aunt. The corporal and Captain Hart took chairs on either side of us; I could see the captain whenever I wished.
The news magazine programme started with the the presenter addressing the camera.
“We’re devoting this programme to an interview with Jack Marchmont, the boy whose thoughts have been plastered on hoardings from end to end of the country over the last few days. I’ll be watching it for the first time myself, so I’m as interested as you. The interviewer is Jim Harcourt. The interview is, by arrangement, broadcast unedited and complete. We apologise for any, er, rough edges. Bear in mind that journalism is a high-pressure profession, and people can’t always be expected to use drawing-room manners.”
I felt my uncle snicker quietly. And then the disk started straight in. We could see me and Neal standing there, with Donohue and Harcourt, and people carrying things around us. Someone placed three chairs facing each other.
“Come on, come on!” Donohue called out. “I want to get this done before anyone else gets home. Now, Jack, you sit here... Are we running? This has got to be one take, broadcast as is, no edits, that’s the instructions, okay? Running? Fine. Okay, Neal, you sit here...”
“No,” I said. “No questions for Neal.”
“The deal was...”
“My uncle told me, Neal is not being interviewed, okay? If you want to take it up with my uncle, fine, but till then, no questions for Neal.”
“Jesus!” said the corporal. “You’ve got some balls on you, kid!”
“Listen, kid, said Donohue, “you don’t know anything...”
“If my brother says no interview, then it’s no interview,” said Neal.
The corporal gave a little cheer. Neal’s hand crossed in front of Aunt Judy, and I gave it an open-hand slap. I saw the captain looking at us smiling, and my uncle gave me a squeeze. I could see myself on the disk looking at Neal gratefully. He could have really messed things up for me, but he hadn’t. We’d seen too much to break ranks in a crisis.
“You do what your brother says?” sneered Harcourt. “Ickle kiddy does what he’s told, eh?”
Neal just looked at him scornfully, and said not another word.
“Okay, okay, Jack, no questions for Neal,” said Donohue. “Let’s get on with it, for fuck’s sake.”
“First blood to you, boys!” said my uncle.
I saw myself sitting where they pointed, in an ocean of blinding white lights. Harcourt sat opposite, and looked at me nastily.
“So, Jack, why did you object to us asking your brother questions?”
“Because my uncle told me that he wasn’t to be interviewed.”
“And I suppose you always do what your uncle tells you.”
“No, I’m not a perfect child. But when it’s important, yes, I do.”
“So why do you think your uncle said that? Has Neal got something to hide?”
“No. What could he have to hide? I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
“How come your ‘uncle’ is looking after you? What kind of an ‘uncle’ is he? Is he a friendly ‘uncle’?”
“He’s looking after us because our parents were killed in a car crash. He’s my father’s brother. I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“You didn’t answer my question, Jack. Is he a friendly ‘uncle’? Does he get you nice presents, if you’re specially—nice—to him?”
“Oh, I see,” I said, and I could hear the disgust in my voice, “You’re saying that he’s a paedophile, is that it?”
“Did I? Did I say anything of the kind? That’s your word, Jack, not mine.”
“It was obvious what you meant. No, he is not a paedophile. Are you a member of the Hand of God?”
“What?” said Harcourt. “No, I am not!”
“Well, you sound like one. Can we talk about something serious?”
“Yes!” said Corporal Roberts. “Brilliant! What—an—arsehole!”
“Corporal, there’s a lady present,” said the captain.
“Rubbish!” said my aunt. “I agree with the corporal.”
“I think this is serious, Jack. I think maybe you’re too young to understand just how serious this is...
“Too young? Look! Come over here!” And I stood up and walked to the window. “Bring the camera over here. Look out there! There! Do you see the gardens out there! Just out there, can the viewers see?”
“Yes, Jack, they can see,” said Donahue’s voice, as the gardens wobbled on our screens.
“That’s where it happened, just out there. They used to burn the people right there, and Neal and me, my uncle and aunt used to put us in the back room, but we could still hear the screams, we could see the flames flickering on the skylight, sometimes—sometimes we could even smell them,” I whispered. “My uncle’s a doctor, they burnt his partner just because his wife was dead, so he lived alone, they said he was paedophile. And the man across the square, his wife left him with two kids, so they burnt him as a paedophile. They burnt the kids too... We heard them screaming, those two little girls screaming as they burnt them, one by one, first one with the other watching, then the other. They were twins, seven years old.”
“God Almighty...” said the corporal.
On the disk I sat down again and as the camera wobbled back into position I went on.
“That’s what happens when you start sniggering and hinting and whispering things like ‘isn’t your uncle friendly to you’. And don’t tell me I’m too young to understand, because I saw it with my own eyes.”
“But there are evil doers in the world, Jack,” said Harcourt. “They have to be dealt with. When you’re older you’ll understand this, I know...”
“Then you put them on trial, and prove they’re guilty, and if they are you put them in prison! You don’t slander them and gossip about them and attack them in the street and then burn them with their kids!”
“Okay, then, Jack, let’s just skip your little crusade for paedophile rights for a moment. So why did you obey your uncle when he said no interview for Neal? You must have some reason.”
“Sure I do. He’s my uncle. He has a lot of experience of things, and he thought it wasn’t a good idea. So I did what he said.”
“But why did he think Neal shouldn’t answer questions, and you should?”
“I guess because he’s younger than me, and it might stress him out.”
“Stress him out? Why should it stress him out?”
“Why should it stress out an eleven-year-old child to be interviewed by you? Well, let’s just leave the viewers to answer that, shall we?”
“Okay, you snide little brat...”
“Jim! Uncut and unedited, remember?” said Donohue.
“Fuck... Okay, so you obey your uncle. Why are you telling people not to obey General Baxter?”
“I’m not telling them anything like that at all. General Baxter and the Central Council are the Government. It’s them or chaos and the crazies back. I think I’ve already said enough to show why I’d prefer General Baxter to that.”
“You said you didn’t like being controlled. And yet you accept being controlled by your uncle.”
“It’s one thing to accept being controlled by a grownup who’s looked after you for years, your parents or your uncle. It’s quite different when it’s grownups you don’t even know. I don’t find it easy to trust grownups these days.”
“Like General Baxter. Or Max Margrave. You find it difficult to trust them.”
“I certainly trust them more than some, I can tell you. Mr Margrave was very kind and polite to me.”
“But you criticised the Goverment! Surely it’s our duty to accept whatever the Government say, and obey them no matter what.”
“I don’t think the Government want people to suck up to them. That’s not their way at all. If you think that, I don’t think you’ve got any idea what they’re on about. As for obeying them, yes we should. I’ve said what I think, and Mr Margrave listened to me, and now I’ll do what they say. The new clothes will be at my school next week, and I’ll wear them just like everyone else, because the alternative to General Baxter is the crazies.”
“I suppose it makes you feel pretty smart, that some elements in the Government have plastered the things you say all over the country.”
“Actually no, it’s embarrassing. The other kids take the mickey. What do you expect?”
“I don’t know why you’re reacting in such a hostile way to me.”
“Don’t you? Well, let’s leave that to the viewers to work out. I’m fed up with this. Can we stop now?”
“Just one more question. Have you got a girlfriend?”
“Why not? Do you prefer boys? Or is your uncle keeping you for himself?”
“You make me want to puke,” I said. “Run away back to your crazy friends.”
The disk stopped running with a bump, and we had the presenter back.
“Wow. I hadn’t seen that before. Oh, my goodness gracious. Well, no time to talk about it now. That’s all for tonight—see you tomorrow.”
“I’m really, really sorry,” I said. “I did my best. I’m sorry.”
I buried my face in my hands, and I couldn’t stop the tears from coming back. Then I felt my uncle gently pulling my hands down, and turning my face towards his.
“Hey, Jack. Hey. Now look at me. You think it was bad, but it wasn’t. It was absolutely brilliant, son, and I’ve never been so proud of you, never. You were straightforward and clear, you stood for no nonsense, you stood up for yourself, for me, for Neal, for the Government, and the people who died in the gardens, and you wiped the floor with him. It was devastating. You totally demolished him. Don’t cry, Jack, because you won.”
I looked at him, uncomprehending.
“But all those things he said!”
“They don’t matter a damn. You destroyed him.”
To my astonishment, the captain came and knelt in front of me and put his hands on my knees. I looked into his eyes, and I saw that they were wet too, and my heart lurched.
“Listen to me, you sweet child. What happened was exactly what I hoped would happen, because I’m beginning to know what you’re like. There’s a lot of strength in you, and it came out this evening. I know, I put you in a difficult position, but I did it on purpose. I wanted you to show what you’re capable of, and you did. And as a result, that whole pile of nonsense which he slung at you has lost a lot of its power. And that’s important. It could save lives. I’m sorry you had a hard time of it, but I think it was worth it. It shows that innocent people can bite back.”
“What about me?” said Neal.
“You were pretty good too,” said my uncle. “If you’d let Jack down, he’d have looked like an idiot. But you stuck with him. That was pretty good.”
“You’re a good family,” said the captain, getting up. “You look after each other. Am I forgiven, Alan?”
“Yes. I guess you do understand Jack, at that. But you’re a bloody challenging friend to us, I must say. And I suppose you’ll be a challenging friend to Jack, too.”
For a long moment their gaze met. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I had a sense that it was epoch-making.
“Yes,” said the captain. “I will be. But never, never less than a friend.”
Once we were in bed and the lights out, Neal asked if he could get in with me. I said yes.
“Anything up, bro?”
“I was—I was thinking about mum and dad. Do you think about them?”
“Every day,” I said.
“I was just wondering what they’d think. Because you’re famous, now.”
“So are you.”
“Not as famous as you. All the arseholes at school, they’ll lay off you now. You’ve been on telly twice now. You’ll be the cool of the cool.”
“As if it matters.”
“Yeah, things like that don’t matter to you,” said Neal. “Which is lucky.”
“Because things are going to happen with Captain Hart and you. I can see it. Uncle can see it too.”
I paused, because I knew he was right, and it both excited and baffled me.
“Does that make you feel bad?” I asked, finally.
“No, course not, I said: you’re my brother. But... don’t forget me, will you?”
“Forget you? What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Just in case.”
“No, I’ll never forget you, bro. Go to sleep.”
We could hear outside the voices of the grownups chatting, as we drifted off.