I went to the school gate, carrying the box which held the clothes I wasn’t wearing. Every step was an erotic event; I wondered how long this would continue. Some of the other kids were wearing the new clothes too, and we caught each others’ eyes. The girls’ clothes were identical to mine, apart from the tailoring.
I found Neal waiting for me at the gate. His lifesuit was a bright red with orange highlights; it suited his blond hair exactly. For a while we just stared at each other, open-mouthed.
“So, what do you think?” said Corporal Roberts, walking up.
“Absolutely fabulous. Completely amazing!” said Neal. “I love the Standard Clothing! It looks brilliant, and it feels brilliant. How about that cloak! I want it to rain just so I can wear it! My other lifesuits are incredible, too. Wow! This is the best present ever!”
It was impossible not to be pleased for him, he was so happy.
“What do you think, Jack?” said the corporal. “Like it?”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” I said, trying to sound keen. “Certainly feels wild.”
“You look great. You look really sexy,” said Neal, apparently unaware that this remark would have got him burnt at the stake two weeks before. “I’m sure the captain will like it!”
“Neal!” I shouted, and the corporal burst out laughing.
“Nothing gets by you two, does it?” he said.
I looked at him balefully, and he laughed some more.
“Neal’s right, though,” he said. “You’re both as cute as buttons. Come on, give me your box, Neal. Let’s get you home.”
All the way, Neal was talking excitedly to the corporal, showing off the clothes, the shoes (he was wearing the trainers), the way the cuffs worked, the belt. I walked behind, loving his excitement and joy, but feeling quite sad and incomprehending for myself. I was still angry, deeply angry; it seemed the Government had betrayed me, and I couldn’t work out whether Captain Hart was a party to the betrayal. If he wasn’t, then he had been betrayed himself. If he was, then—then I didn’t know what to do. One thing was certain to me: I wasn’t going to be a party to any more Government propaganda.
All this was complicated by the erotic flashes which accompanied any unexpected movement. I was completely hard; several times I thought I was on the point of coming.
And then we turned another corner, and I was confronted by the poster: “His wife left him with two kids. So they burnt him as a paedophile. They burnt the kids too. They were twins, seven years old.” My own words. I stood stock still in the street, staring at them. I had used those words, and I remembered the little girls’ deaths, and suddenly my own problems seemed totally and utterly insignificant. I remembered saying: I’ll wear them just like everyone else, because the alternative to General Baxter is the crazies. That was the point. If my quarrel with the Government hindered what they were doing, I was letting down those little girls. If I was annoyed with Captain Hart, that was one thing. But I would have to continue to help. If I could. And that included criticising when that was right.
I followed the others, still in a brown study, trying to make sense of my feelings. When we reached the house, Neal bounded up to the door, and it was open.
“Here you are!” said Aunt Judy. “Oh, my goodness gracious! Just look at you! At both of you! Alan? Just come and see this!”
She stood gawping at us in amazement and delight.
“Jesus Christ!” said Alan, coming into the kitchen. “I never imagined... Well, boys? What do you think of them?”
“They’re brilliant! Incredible!” said Neal. “Look!”
He twirled with his arms out, and my aunt and uncle laughed at him.
“What’s in the boxes?” asked my aunt.
“More clothes! We have to be able to wash them, don’t we?”
“But of course. Silly me! Oh yes, here we are. Different patterns! And a pair of boots like Jack’s, very serviceable. And the cloak! Very nice. What are these?”
“Tunics. To wear round the house or in the summer.”
“Hm. I see. Are your things the same, Jack?”
“Yes. Different patterns, though.”
“Uncle?” said Neal. “I think you should have a Talk with Jack. He’s sad about something.”
I looked daggers at Neal. My uncle made a gesture with his head towards his practice office, and I followed him; actually I was quite pleased.
“You don’t like the clothes?” he said, gesturing to a chair.
“It’s not that. Actually, the clothes are much better than I expected. It’s something else.”
I stood up and undid the neck buckle of my lifesuit, and allowed it to slip forwards so that my shoulder was bare.
“Can you see something just there?”
“Yes. Small wound, like someone taking blood, maybe.”
“They injected an electronic implant. They pressed a special gun there, and injected it through the muscle against the bone, they said.”
“My God! What for?”
“It’s to check we are only wearing authorised clothes. Our clothes have a special thread in them—if we wear anything else, the implant will sting. After half a minute, it calls the cops.”
“I didn’t know it was going to happen. Captain Hart always said, it’s just new clothes, nothing to worry about. But when I went in to get my clothes, they grabbed me and did that.”
“Didn’t you protest?”
“I was first in the queue, and Neal was second. They said if I made a fuss, he would get hurt. I thought they were threatening him, but later they said they meant there’d be a riot and people would get hurt.”
“Just wait till Captain Hart hears about this!”
“He was there, Uncle. He was right there. He was in charge.”
He stared at me, appalled. He understood the implications all right.
“He took me off to a room afterwards and I just yelled at him, but by then I’d been done and so had Neal. I think Neal thinks it was some kind of inoculation. The captain said he didn’t know they were going to do this, it was some people in another ministry.” I sighed. “I’ve no idea whether to believe him. And I just hate the idea of being chipped like a—like a criminal, I hate it.”
“Yes. I can see why.”
“The Government lied to me. Maybe Captain Hart did too. And they used me to sell the whole thing to people and to kids. Even today, they made me accept it so that the kids would accept it. It’s like you said: I just feel like an expendable resource. Who cares what I think? I’m just a kid. And I—I thought Captain Hart liked me...”
“I said to him, I’m not doing any more propaganda for you. He wants me to go to London and do an interview about the clothes.”
“Yes, I agreed to that.”
“I told him to stuff it. And I meant it. But then—when we were walking back, I saw that new poster, the one about the twins, did you see it?”
“Yes, dear lad, I saw it.”
“And I thought, I said that. And what’s happened to me is nothing compared to that. And it’s really true that the Government is the only alternative to the crazies. So I think I’ll have to do it. I don’t see how I can refuse, even if I can’t trust Captain Hart, and whatever he thinks of me.”
“Maybe he’ll stop the implants now he knows.”
“No, he won’t. He thinks they’re a good idea—he said so. Just that people hadn’t been prepared for them.”
“He said that? Hm. Then maybe he wasn’t lying. If he was lying, he’d go along with what you feel.”
“That’s what he said. But he’s clever enough to think of that himself.”
My uncle snickered.
“And you’re clever enough to think of that, and so on. The thing is this. We know that Captain Hart isn’t above trickery to get his job done. But ask yourself this: do you think he would directly lie to you, knowing it was a lie? That’s what you have to ask. Can you answer that?”
“Until today I’d have said ‘no’. Now I just don’t know.”
“He’ll be round later. He begged to be allowed to come round. And I just—I just couldn’t say no.”
“Yes, Jack. I understand. I’ll let him visit, because you want it. But it’s also my house, and you’re my nephew. I’ll want to speak to him too.”
“There’s something. He didn’t tell me not to tell you, but I think it’s secret, so please don’t tell anyone else. But you’re my guardian so you should know. He’s actually a member of the Central Council. He’s the minister in charge of propaganda.”
“I see.” He sighed. “So if he’s telling the truth—it’s dissension within the Government. Within the military Government. Oh, Jack, my dear boy, please be careful.”
“I called him ‘Dr Goebbels’.”
“You did? Wonderful. Did it annoy him?”
“No, I think he was just amused. Sometimes I think he’s amused by everything I say, and the angrier I get, the funnier he thinks it is.”
“So you feel the Government has deceived you. You thought that Captain Hart liked you, but now you find that possibly he has lied to you, and manipulated and exploited you to support the Government. You hate the implants, and you’re ambiguous about the clothes, but you feel you have to support the Government, because of the danger of the crazies. Despite that, you are attracted to him as a person. You feel confused, angry, hurt, humiliated and used.”
“That’s about it. There’s something else. It’s difficult.”
“Maybe I know.”
“It’s—it’s about this thing, being controlled.”
“I hate it. But—but there’s something in me that’s attracted to it at the same time. I said I hate the implants, and I do, but it’s not just that. The thought that—that all the time that thing is controlling me, every single moment—it’s—well, it kind of fascinates me.”
“Yes. That’s what I thought. That sort of feeling isn’t all that unusual.”
“The thing is, I think Captain Hart knows about this. And it amuses him more than anything, that I’m, sort of, writhing there, unable to sort out my feelings. That’s what I think, and that is so awful.”
“Just because you’re amused by someone, it doesn’t mean that you don’t feel for the person, or that you don’t think much of them. For example, parents often find their children amusing, but the amusement comes with great compassion and love.”
I stared at him for a long moment.
“Thank you, Uncle.”
“You’re entirely welcome. May I discuss some of this with him? I’ve recorded this talk as usual, can I play bits?”
“Yes. I trust you, Uncle. I think I trust Neal, Auntie Judy and you. No on else.”
“Thank you, son. That’s such a nice thing to say. And now I think it’s time for supper. When will Ewan Hart favour us with his presence?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Okay. He can damn well do without supper, then, for making my boy miserable!”
We sat down for supper, and Neal was still bursting from excitement with his new clothes.
“I think this lifesuit has got the best design of any that I’ve seen. Look at the colours! I’ve never worn anything which is so bright. Do you think it’s good, Jack?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, trying to smile. “It goes with your hair.”
“Yes, Mr Andrews chose it for me, he said.”
“You didn’t chose it yourself?” said Aunt Judy.
“No, there wasn’t time,” I said. “But they said we can choose the next ones.”
“Look what happens when I bend my arm. Look... See? The material squishes up on one side and stretches on the other. There aren’t any creases at all. How does it do that?”
“Hey.” It was interesting. “Yeah, look, it does the same with your knees, and round your tummy when you sit down. Cool.”
“Ask Captain Hart what it is, the material.”
“You ask him,” I said shortly.
Neal looked at me closely.
“You’re annoyed with him.”
“You could say that.”
“That injection they gave us.”
“That—that was pretty nasty,” said Neal. “I think that’s the most painful injection ever, even worse than those rabies shots. They knew it was going to hurt, too, they had Mr Dodgson hold me still.”
“Did they tell you anything about that?”
“No, I missed the talk, like you.”
“It’s an electronic implant,” I said. “It can check if you wear anything except your Standard Clothing, and if you do, it pricks you. If you keep on, it tells the police.”
“Really? That’s pretty cunning.”
“You don’t mind?”
“No. Why should I? I don’t want to wear anything else.”
I left it at that. It was just cruel to spoil Neal’s happiness.
“I spoke to that kid, Andy, remember him? He had this beautiful lifesuit, all in light greens and yellows, kind of leafy patterns, it really suited him. And he told me that they were the first new clothes he’d ever had. He always used his big brothers’ clothes, he’s got five brothers, and they’re always full of holes and thin bits, and his mum always has to darn things, and the other kids would take the mickey because they were so poor. And getting shoes was awful for them, so his were always too big to start with and he only had one pair. There’s still four of them under twenty so they get all their clothes free now, it’s a major thing for them.”
“I can well believe that,” said Aunt Judy. “Kids’ clothes are so expensive these days, and you just can’t get shoes.”
“Anyhow, now he’s just as cool as anyone else,” said Neal. “So I think that’s good.”
“They look well,” said Aunt Judy. “I’m quite surprised, actually.”
“Yes,” said the corporal. “Some of the older girls... Phew!”
“I thought you already had a girlfriend,” said my uncle with a laugh.
“You can’t help looking!”
We were just finishing off the meal, and I was carrying out the dishes, when we heard the captain knocking at the door, and my uncle went to answer it. Because I was in the kitchen I could hear what they said.
“Hello, Ewan. You’ve got some explaining to do.”
“I know, Alan. At least you’ll let me explain, I hope.”
“I’m not an unfair man. But I don’t take kindly to people who make my nephews unhappy. I profoundly disapprove of unnecessary medical procedures on children, and I think that lying to them and mindfucking them is contemptible. At this moment you are in my house simply and solely because Jack asked me to let you in. Come to my office, please.”
They passed through our living room without a word to anyone. I didn’t know what to do. The captain’s face was without expression; it occurred to me how humiliating it must be for a minister and a military officer to be spoken to like that, and I wondered why he put up with it. Suddenly Neal’s happy prattling was unbearable. I gave my aunt a look, and went up to our room and tried to read.
A while later, I heard my uncle call for me to go through to his office. I went with my heart in my mouth.
They were both sitting at the table, and there was a place for me. Captain Hart’s face was unreadable to me; my uncle gave me a smile which was full of kindness, and it reassured me.
“It’s so difficult, this,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever found something so difficult. You’re my nephew, Jack, and I love you. I’m unlikely ever to be a father, and I look on you and Neal as my children, a sacred trust left me by Adam and Julie. I’d die for you. I’d kill for you, for that matter. Now you’re beginning to develop a—friendship—with a grown man, and although I don’t necessarily disapprove, I have to be concerned by the difference in ages. Moreover that man is an extremely powerful individual. I have to take seriously the question of whether he can be trusted. That’s the first point.
“Then, I’m concerned by the activities of the Government. If Ewan is to be trusted, it can only be that the Government is lying, whether because it meant to, or because it’s disorganised in the way Ewan describes, which I find almost incredible. If the Government starts to lie to the children it claims the right to control, that’s despicable.
“Lastly, there’s the way that Ewan is making use of you for progaganda purposes. It makes me suspicious of his motives for forming a friendship with you.
“You told me a bit before about how you feel, and I understand those feelings very precisely, and share them in a way. But I think we can only get your feelings onto an even keel if we address those questions. What do you think?”
It was a typical speech from my uncle on an occasion like this, and pretty much like what I remember of my father. I was used to this sort of thing; it’s how things were dealt with in our family. I had taken part almost since I learnt to speak, and it made me feel safe. What I had to say would be listened to with care, and I would be expected to frame my contributions in clear, precise sentences. I was good at it. And just slightly, it pleased me to see that the captain was completely knocked sideways by what we were doing.
“Take the middle first,” I said. “I don’t know what happened, whether the Government is lying or whatever, if it did it on purpose or it’s just disorganised. If they’re lying, I agree it’s bad. But even at the worst, the Government would be much, much better than the way things were before, and it’s the only alternative just now. I think it’s right to support it, I think we have to do that. So although it’s an important issue, whether they’re lying or not, it doesn’t make much difference to what I should do at the moment. It’s bound to affect my feelings, however, and I don’t see that I need to change that.
“Which brings in the third point. I said I wouldn’t do any more propaganda for the captain, but that’s wrong. That stuff needs to be done and it’s not relevant to that what I feel about the captain, or the Government. And from his point of view, it’s not relevant what he feels about me, so long as I’m good for that function. I don’t see that even if he uses me to do that stuff that it means he doesn’t care for me. After all, people, well, form friendships with the people they meet at work, don’t they? All the time. For me to feel badly about being used in this way is silly. I should stop that.
“Then there’s the first point, and that’s the important one. Do I trust the captain? Because if I don’t, I don’t see how I can be his friend. I could work with him, but that’s not the same. And—and I just don’t know. The trouble is, Captain, you’ve been so good at making me do what you want, that it’s easy to think that you’re trying to do it again. At the moment I don’t know the answer, and so I can’t arrange my feelings sensibly.”
“And this,” said the captain in a low voice, “this is how you think about everything?”
“It’s how we work on things in this family,” said my uncle.
“Well,” said the captain. “It seems that the crucial thing is whether you trust me. I don’t know how to convince you, Jack. I’ve heard what you were saying to Alan earlier, and what you said just now, and as always I’m astonished by your mind, and—and your sense of what is right. I can only say what I said before: that I didn’t knowingly lie to you. I would never do that; never. If I can’t convince you now, the only thing I can do is to beg you for the chance to prove it in the weeks and months ahead.
“There’s one thing. You said you felt that I was amused by you being angry and struggling to sort out your feelings. But that’s not right—it isn’t amusement, or not only amusement; it’s delight. Absolute delight. And part of the reason for it is that you won’t have the least idea why I should feel that way.”
For a moment there was silence. I avoided catching his eye, because I knew what would happen if I did.
“Do you trust the captain, Uncle?”
“I won’t tell you. If you’re going to build a friendship with an adult, you need to be able to answer that question yourself, Jack.”
Again there was silence; and then Neal’s voice.
“Uncle? Jack? Captain? The Government programme’s just about to start.”
“I want to catch this,” said my uncle. “Let’s adjourn. Please join us, if you wish, Ewan.”
We went to the sitting room. I sat on the floor near my uncle’s chair. The sofa was empty, and it was the captain who sat in it, right at one end by himself, and it hurt me to see his isolation.
The Council’s logo cleared, and General Baxter faced us.
“Good evening. In a moment, George Padmore will be talking about constitutional developments over the next few months. Building a new constitutional dispensation is vitally important. It will enable us to move from our current military régime to something more permanent and capable of development. It will involve many things: a new police force, local administration, the evolution of a franchise and of representative bodies, and a system of courts. It may seem like dry stuff, but it’s vital.
“But before we hear from George, I have something very important I want to talk about. And it’s this: the Government made a mistake.
“This mistake is a bad mistake, because the Government broke its word. It broke its word because different people within the Government did not communicate properly with each other. There are all kinds of reasons for this; we’re new to this game, we are still getting things organised, we haven’t entirely decided who is responsible for each issue, and who reports to whom. People step out of line and interfere in each others’ work.”
I heard the captain snort.
“None of that excuses us, when we end up saying one thing, and doing another, and the Government is seen to be breaking its word. If we do that, we won’t be trusted and in the end we’ll fail.”
A picture of me filled the screen, and everyone in the room gasped.
“This is Jack Marchmont. I expect you’ve seen his posters and maybe his interviews on the TV, or heard his questions to Max Margrave. Jack doesn’t pretend to agree with everything we do. But he supports us. He supports us, because we have put an end to the terrible things he’s seen in his home town, Chedley. Like most people, I can’t help loving that boy.
“As it happens, Jack and I have a friend in common, a man for whom I have enormous respect. This man has been discussing things with Jack, and he’s the one who made the posters you’ve seen. And he explained the Standard Clothing policy to Jack, and although Jack wasn’t sure about it, he accepted that it would happen and said he would cooperate. He trusted our friend, and liked him. And our friend said to Jack that that was all it was, a new set of Standard Clothing.
“But when Jack turned up at school today to get his new clothes, that isn’t what happened. Instead, Jack was forcibly restrained and injected with an electronic implant, an implant which will ensure that he only wears his Standard Clothing. Our common friend, you see, had been overruled by someone in the Government system, someone who apparently thought that keeping our word to kids like Jack didn’t matter. As part of the procedure, they recorded what happened, so we can show you.”
And we saw me coming into the cubicle and being implanted, and Captain Hart telling me to keep silent (though you couldn’t see his face), and my greeting to Neal.
“Jesus, Ewan, you manipulative bastard,” said my uncle.
“Mind you,” Baxter went on, “a little later, Jack had a few words to say, and I’d better warn you, if you think you’ve seen him angry, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
And then we saw me. Naked (they blurred some bits) and furious, I was striding back and forth gesticulating and my face was contorted with anger.
“You threatened to hurt my brother. That makes you scum in my book, no better than a crazy. You made out that you were my friend, and then betrayed me. You lied to us—you said this was just some clothes, then you stuck that electronic thing into us. You tricked and deceived me—twice now, once last week, once today. My uncle was right about you, I’m just a throw-away to you, someone you use to manipulate other people. You pretend to like me, but all you really want is to use me to control the others. Well, you can stuff your interview, and you can find yourself another fucking poster boy, Dr Goebbels. Just give me my Standard Sodding Clothes and let me out of here.”
“That’s the accusation,” said Baxter. “And this was our friend’s response.”
We could only see Captain Hart from behind, looking over his shoulder into my angry face. His voice sounded flat and without emotion.
“Unfortunately, someone else thought that this would be a good place to try out the implant scheme. It was dreamed up by some guys in Security and the Children’s Department, and it has been considered by the Council. So far they haven’t approved it. But yesterday evening, those guys managed to squeeze it through a subcommittee as a ‘pilot project’.”
“To which Jack made the obvious reply,” said Baxter. “If it wasn’t you who lied to me, then it must be the Government.”
On the sceen, there were tears on my face; and my voice was quiet now.
“But Margrave and you—you managed to persuade me that it wasn’t too bad. It’s just clothes, you said, but it was a lie. The Government lied to me, because it isn’t just clothes. And once again, you made me help. Once again, you used me to make the others comply.”
“Jack’s right,” Baxter continued. “Either our common friend deceived him, or the Government did. Now, I don’t know whether Jack will believe me, but the answer is that the Government did. Not on purpose, but it did. It broke its word.
“Why am I bothering with this, you may ask. Why am I bothering with the problems of a single boy? Because they are an example of what can go wrong. I’m talking mainly to Government personnel now, when I say: this sort of thing must stop. We have a chain of command. We have procedures for specifying a project, and for defining who is responsible for it and the process for carrying it through. It’s completely impermissible to do whatever you like, just because it seems like a good idea to you. You do not know the whole picture. Specifically, technical problems are not just technical. People are always involved. This is a basic ideological point.
“We are a government. We will operate as a unity and according to a plan. We will not permit people to carve out empires for themselves by plotting and building factions, by tricking their colleagues or even worse, by lying to our citizens. And government personnel, at any level, who do these things will be rigorously punished. This is not lightly said, believe me.
“As regards the issue of the implants, we will take counsel, and discuss this, here and elsewhere. There are important points both for and against. There are possible alternatives. I expect a reasoned discussion. If Jack wants to take part, I won’t be at all surprised.
“And in addition I want to say to Jack: Please, lad. I can’t order you to do this, but if you want me to beg, I’ll beg. Please, give our friend another chance.”
I looked across the room, and Captain Hart, the Minister for Public Education, was leaning against the end of our sofa, disconsolate and alone. I didn’t know what I could say to express what I felt. So I crossed the room and sat down beside him, and cuddled my body against his. And gently, his arm came to rest across my shoulders. I looked round: and in the glare of the TV screen I could see Neal, and my uncle and aunt, and Corporal Roberts; and all of them, every one, was smiling at us. I felt small, and loved, and very happy.
I don’t think I heard a word of George Padmore’s talk. I just leant against Captain Hart, felt his arm around the tightness of the lifesuit on my shoulders, and smelled his particular smell. I felt exhausted, but the pressure of the lifesuit all over my body put me in a sweet, delicious erotic haze. I was brimming with life. And a new thought came to me: he’s suffered for me today, he’s been humiliated again and again, by the implant guys, by me, by my uncle. But he hasn’t given up. And nor shall I.
It came to me: General Baxter thought enough of Captain Hart to appeal directly to me on national TV. The head of the Government did that for him.
I smiled in the darkness, and leant against him hard.
“I don’t understand why you were annoyed with him,” said Neal.
Going to bed that night was different. We helped each other off with our lifesuits, and Aunt Judy helped us work out how to hang them up. She looked them over carefully, and pronounced them good for another day. The tunics she hung up as well, and the other clothes were laid out in our chest of drawers; our old clothes (apart from Neal’s sweater) she bundled into a box to get rid of. It was both exciting and a little sad; our lives had definitively changed.
Of course, we weren’t allowed to wear pyjamas any more, so we slipped into bed in our trunks. It was a weird feeling the first time.
“I said. He told us over and over again that all that was going to happen was new clothes. But it wasn’t true, because we were all chipped, like criminals. He got me to tell all the kids it was going to be okay, but what he said to me wasn’t true. I—I hate that.”
“I don’t believe the captain would do that on purpose,” he said. “He probably didn’t know. He likes you, Jack.”
“I had to decide. I’ve got nothing to go on except the way I feel. Now that I’ve calmed down, I just can’t believe that he would lie to me, or that he would really harm me. So I had to give him another chance....”
“Like General Baxter said! General Baxter spoke just to you, over the TV! Wow!”
“He wanted to make a point about the way the Government works. It wasn’t really about me.”
“That part was. Captain Hart is his friend and he was talking just to you. You know he was! You’re going to be an important person, Jack. You already are, in a way.”
“It scares me,” I said after a bit. “I’m going to London with the captain tomorrow, to do an interview, and I don’t know what it’ll be like. What if I do something wrong?”
“Just stay with the captain. It’s obvious what’s going to happen in the end, anyhow.”
“Well, you’re gay, aren’t you? And he obviously fancies you. You’ll be his boy...”
I said nothing. As I said, it scared me; but it was a good sort of scared, an excitement of the new. Suddenly I felt there wasn’t anything I couldn’t achieve.