I bounded out of the car and up the steps into the house, where I could see Uncle Alan waiting for me, and gave him a hug. I could feel he was taken aback, but I didn’t care; I was pleased to see him.
“Where’s Neal? Where’s Aunt Judy?”
“Neal’s gone to see Pete, and Judy’s at her house. Come in, Ewan, nice to see you.”
“So, young man, I saw you on TV, and it was excellent. You’re getting so good at that, son. I’m impressed. What else happened? Meet any interesting people?”
“Well... Would you call General Baxter interesting?”
“You didn’t!” shouted my uncle.
“I did! And Max Margrave, and Dr Borley, and Lakshmi Anderson and Admiral Parrot!”
“Amazing! And what did you talk about?”
“Implants. My implant.”
“What about your implant?”
“Alan,” said Ewan, “the thing is that the techie troglodyte who inserted Jack’s implant took it upon himself to conduct a little experiment. He moved the site of the implant, so that it impinges on an important nerve, with the result that when it triggers, Jack—Jack suffers really severe pain.”
“For God’s sake, Ewan,” said my uncle slowly. “Why are your lot so fucking stupid when it comes to dealing with people? When are you going to get a grip on this?”
“I hope right now, Alan,” said Ewan. “The man responsible is under arrest, charged with assault. The implant programme has been abandoned, and the Standard Clothing programme is on hold until we can find a way to enforce it humanely. A committee reporting directly to General Baxter is working on ways of neutralising Jack’s implant, and by extension, the other implants at Chedley High. There are several leads and I’ll have news next week.”
“I said to you before, unnecessary medical procedures on children are simply wrong, Ewan. You end up hurting them. These ethical rules exist for a reason, you know. Are you still supporting the Government, Jack?”
“Yes. I’ve now spoken to six members of the Council itself. I trust these people, Uncle. They make mistakes, sure, but they do care about the kids. They’re in the middle of taking over a country, but they made time to deal with one kid’s problem.”
My uncle looked at me carefully.
“Okay, Jack. And I suppose that Ewan plans to be your mentor.”
“I asked him to be.”
“Hm. We’ll talk about that later. Hang on! I’m not against the idea in advance, I just want to speak to you, Jack, when Ewan isn’t here. Is that fair?”
“Yes. It’s fair,” I said. “Remember, you’ll always be my parent. I haven’t any other parents, and I never will have.”
He turned towards me, and his face was serious.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“I—I’ll be leaving,” said Ewan. “I need to go away for a few days. May I come back on Monday evening? For Jack’s birthday? I think I’ll have some news.”
“Yes, Ewan,” said my uncle. “Please come. And—and thanks for everything.”
And Ewan got into his car; and drove away. And for a moment I thought I was going to die, it was so bitter.
“Do you know, Jack, some of the shops are open? And there’s tea and milk. In fact, there’s a fresh pot in the kitchen. Why don’t you get yourself a cup, and then come into my office?”
I wiped my eyes and grinned at him. He could always read me like a book, and I loved him.
“I never heard you say—the f-word before,” I said a few minutes later, as I sat down opposite him.
“I was angry, Jack, very angry. That’s what those words are for, you know—to use when the alternative is hitting someone. I’m astonished you were so cool.”
“It was old news to me, Uncle. They tried it out at supper yesterday—someone put a napkin on my head. It really hurt. I screamed blue murder and fainted dead away...”
“Don’t worry, Dr Borley was there. They didn’t believe it would happen. They were very sorry, of course. I could have wrecked Ewan at that moment, Uncle, because he didn’t believe me, but I didn’t want to wreck him. I—I love him.”
“Ah. Then things have moved on,” he said.
“Yes. I—I’m gay, Uncle.”
“Oh yes, I’d assumed that.”
“I said that to half the Government and they didn’t turn a hair. Do you wonder that I support them? After—that?” I gestured to the gardens. “I’m prepared to put up with a lot of mistakes to keep that sort of Government in power. Not that I don’t criticise, of course.”
“And what has happened between you and Ewan?”
“Um. You want anatomical details?” I said.
“Physiological, rather. On this occasion, yes. I’m sorry.”
I blushed. But there were certain rules to our discussions in this room, and one of them was complete frankness on such matters. He would never ask unless it was important; and if he asked, we would answer—that was the agreement.
“We’ve kissed several times,” I said. “Last night, he licked me all over and, er, sucked my dick. I helped him to—to masturbate. We slept together, I slept in his arms.”
“That’s it? No anal intercourse? You didn’t suck him?”
“No. And no.”
“He made you happy?”
“Very happy,” I said. “I felt safe, and loved, and relaxed. I had no doubts at all. I was nervous, but never frightened.”
“Then that’s good. He’s obviously a careful and courteous lover, and that speaks well of him. And—well, when a young person starts to have sex, you can generally tell if all is well by the atmosphere that comes from them. In your case it’s good: calm and happy. So I’m pleased, son. Come here.”
He hugged me, and I found myself smiling with happiness.
“Now,” he said, “I suppose he will be your mentor—and what word do they use for the opposite of that?”
“They say ‘pupil’.”
“Very well, you’ll be his pupil. Where will you live?”
“That’s what I asked him this morning,” I said. “He told me a pupil will spend the equivalent of four or five nights a week with their mentor, averaged out. But it’s not clear where he’ll be, here or the Centre. I think he’s juggling various arrangements at the moment. We’ll see him on Monday, but after that I think he may disappear for a while. If he does leave Chedley, it won’t be before the mentor programme starts.”
“Mm. So then, Jack. What are you allowed to tell me?”
“Anything I know. Ewan says he trusts you, and if you don’t trust him, the whole thing won’t work.”
“Okay, tell,” he said. “What happened?”
I went over everything with him, and as always he listened, critically and intelligently.
“They are pleased that Ewan has found a lover, a pupil,” he said finally.
“Seemed like. Max Margrave especially. They opened fizzy wine to celebrate, and he got seriously tipsy. He and Ewan have been best friends for years and years.”
“How reassuring! The Rationalists are human after all!”
I was quiet for a moment.
“There’s something which worries me more than anything at the moment, Uncle.”
“Who will be Neal’s mentor?”
My uncle looked at me.
“My God,” he whispered.
“I don’t think he’s gay. That means his mentor would normally be a woman...”
That Wednesday evening it was just the four of us again, and that was good too. I told the story of the interview, the people I’d met and the experiment with my implant. Neal thought it was hilarious that Penny had asked me about going to the loo, and that bit had been edited out.
“I’m glad you liked so many of the ministers,” said Aunt Judy. “That’s reassuring.”
“I liked Max Margrave,” I said. “He’s very funny. Dr Borley is a very nice kindly sort of lady, and Lakshmi Anderson was really beautiful...”
“Hey!” said Neal. “I thought you were gay!”
“So what? I can still see she’s beautiful.”
Neal looked at me very oddly, and my aunt and uncle laughed at him.
“Admiral Parrot—well, I wasn’t too impressed,” I said. “He seemed rather dull, but maybe that’s better for a Minister for Security.”
“Hmm,” said my uncle. “Apart from General Baxter, there’s Air Marshall Peat and Admiral Parrot. Maybe Parrot’s just there to fill a chair.”
“General Baxter—he can be quite funny too, in a dry sort of way. But he really tore a strip off the others, and right in front of me. I was quite surprised. I think if you worked for General Baxter you’d have to watch out.”
“George Padmore’s on TV this evening,” said my aunt. “You didn’t meet him, did you? He’s going to be talking about sex, though. Do you think Neal should watch? I mean...
“Auntie Judy!” shouted Neal. “I’m nearly twelve!”
“Still...” said my uncle. “I’m not sure... Perhaps you should go to bed.”
“Uncle! I need to know about these things!”
My aunt burst out laughing at his desperate face.
“I can’t keep it up,” she said, laughing. “Gotcha!”
Neal looked daggers at her.
“I haven’t met him,” I said, “but I’ve heard stories.”
“Really?” said my uncle. “What about?”
“Something about a whorehouse in Iskenderun, and several future ministers...”
“What’s a whorehouse?” said Neal.
“Maybe you should be in bed at that,” said my uncle.
We all laughed at him and went through to the sitting room.
“Good evening,” said Padmore. “I’m going to talk this evening about sex. Okay, I know it’s boring”—and he smiled—“but please don’t turn off. And please don’t send the kids to bed either. This is important for everyone.”
“See?” said Neal.
“The Government’s view is that we’ve become fairly crazed about sex. Sex is a way for people to relate. It can be used to create new people, which is pretty important, but it can be used for all sorts of other purposes, some good and some bad.
“One purpose, and one of the best, is to form part of a deep, emotional tie, a tie of love. I suppose that’s the ambition of very many people, maybe of everyone at some level.
“But that’s not the only good way of using sex. Another is for companionship. To help someone who’s in pain. For pleasure. In our view, all these are good things, and one of the ways we have become crazed about sex is that we make these things something to stigmatise and denounce and make people guilty about.
“Unfortunately, there are also bad ways of using sex, frightful and horrible ways. To assault. To oppress. To torment. Another of the ways we have become crazed about sex is by using it that way, and allowing people to use it that way far too much.
“Different people can have sex, and in different ways. You can have sex by yourself, with one other person or with several. You can do it with people of your own gender, or the opposite. With old people or young. And there are all sorts of different ways of doing it, too. None of this matters. What matters is that we use it for good purposes, not bad. Recently, many people have become obsessed with these things—who has sex and what exactly they do. That obsession, we think, is another way we have become crazed about sex.
“We need to get away from these crazinesses. We need to teach young people coming up that sex is good, that it can we used for different purposes and done in different ways. And we have to teach them how to use sex with kindness, thoughtfulness, courtesy—and skill.
“That will be part of the task of the mentor. In some cases, it will involve sexual contact between the mentor and pupil; in other cases it won’t. That will be for the mentor to decide. The mentor has the task, and the responsibility, to lead the pupil in this area, as in others. And the mentor will be held to account for the way in which this responsibility is discharged.
“Many people will be shocked by what I have just said. But think. Why is sex the one field in which it’s assumed that no one needs experienced instruction? Why is it assumed that the best person from which to learn about the practice of sex is an inexperienced, emotionally vulnerable adolescent, just like yourself? It’s idiotic! Is it any wonder that sex becomes such a minefield, such a swamp of guilt, cruelty, exploitation and violence?
“Why is sex something which can’t be discussed? Why do kids learn almost nothing about it in school? We have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and teenage STDs in Europe—and yet, there are simple, easily available techniques for avoiding these things. Why aren’t kids taught to use them?
“We’re not prepared to allow these things in future. Our kids will be taught how to be skillful, affectionate, courteous and loving users of sex. It will make society better, families better, life better.
“It’s understandable if people react strongly against this. Let’s be clear. Sex between a mentor and a pupil is something which we will expect to happen only if it suits both of them. And we will expect it to develop, if it does, in line with the general develoment of the pupil, so that it suits the stage they’re at. As I said before, the mentor will be held responsible for this, as for all other aspects of their relationship with their pupil. There will be every kind of safeguard, to protect children from being treated cruelly. Those are all vital parts of our policy.
“But I don’t apologise for what we plan to do. Sex is something young people have to learn about, and learn to use in a humane and civilised way. And it’s part of a mentor’s job to teach them.
“Thanks for listening. And please try to think carefully about what I’ve said.”
“My goodness!” said Aunt Judy. “That’ll raise a few eyebrows!”
“Why?” said Neal. “It seems pretty sensible to me.”
“Well,” said Uncle Alan, “he was talking about sex between a mentor and their pupil. Between an adult and a child, in other words.”
“You don’t get a mentor till you’re twelve,” said Neal. “So it isn’t little kids.”
“Still, most people would call that paedophilia.”
“That’s just a word,” said Neal. “You told us not to follow words, but to go for the meanings. What he said was, our mentors should teach us about sex. Why is that bad?”
“Well, suppose your mentor is some old woman...” said Alan.
“Suppose she’s someone really foxy,” said Neal with a grin, and Uncle Alan threw a cushion at him.
“No, really,” said Neal. “Suppose she is an old woman. You could learn a lot from her, about what’s good with sex and what isn’t, even if you never did anything. And if she was nice, she wouldn’t make you do things you didn’t feel good about. And if she was nasty, you’d have problems anyhow. I’m not worried...”
I looked at Neal with new respect. I hadn’t expected such a complex thought from him.
“Not bad, kid,” said Uncle Alan. “You’re growing up.”
“Will Captain Hart be your mentor?”
For some reason, Neal wanted to share a bed that night. It was strange, after Ewan, but good.
“Hope so. We both want to.”
“Does he know you’re gay? Did you have sex?”
“I had supper with about half the Government and told them all I was gay, and he was there. So yes, he knows.”
“And?” he said.
“A few things happened.”
“Sorry, no more information,” I said. “But—well, a few things happened, like I said. There’s a big difference between a few things happening and nothing happening.”
“Who do you want for a mentor?”
“Dunno,” he said. “But not a man. I’m pretty sure I’m straight.”
“Cool. My straight brother. We’ve got everything covered. You have a wife and babies, I have fun and nephews and nieces.”
“Bastard! Hey. You know? When I see you on TV, that makes me feel good. I mean, Jack, I’m glad I’ve got you for a brother.”
I smiled in the darkness.
I woke on Thursday morning, and instantly missed Ewan. It was a gnawing background sadness, which I couldn’t place to start with. It had a familiarity which I couldn’t pin down.
I put on my blue lifesuit, and we went off to school, escorted by Corporal Roberts as usual. I wondered if there would be any new posters; and sure enough, there they were, facing each other on Merlin Road.
I understand all the reasons for it.
But to be honest
I still hate it.
Of course he has a point.
We’re making an imposition on the kids.
But we think it’s necessary
They were just as Derek had suggested, I found myself thinking.
“Hey Neal. Don’t make a big thing at school about me doing the TV and meeting the Government and stuff, okay?”
“Got it. Yes, that would not be cool.”
“Zero flash, okay?”
But I had to bring it up myself in class a bit; I was asked to describe to a current affairs class what the Centre was like, and that seemed a fair thing to do. Everyone knew I had met Max Margrave, so it was okay to talk about him, too, and he had a sizeable fan club amongst the girls. It was my first full day at school with us all in the Standard Clothing, all five hundred of us in lifesuits. I don’t think I had ever spent a school day in such a sea of hormonal stimulation. It was a wonder any of us got any work done at all.
“You seem to be pondering something,” said my uncle over supper. “Can we help?”
Neal was out visiting Pete, so it was just the three of us. I blushed.
“I’m missing Ewan. It makes me feel so sad. I mean, I’m longing for him to come back, and I know he will, really. But the feeling, it’s as if I’ll never see him again, you know?”
“Do you recognise the feeling?” said my aunt.
“Maybe. I’m not sure.”
“I think what Judy means is, you lost your Mum and Dad,” said my uncle. “Any time you lose someone, even for a short while, there’ll be a tendency for those feelings of loss to come back. I think for a while you’ll have problems with situations like that. You have to keep telling yourself that he is coming back. Every time someone you love goes away and then comes back, it’ll get better. I suppose until Ewan came along, no one you love has actually gone away, since your parents died.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Yes, I think that’s it.”
And it gave me another thought: I realised that I had enjoyed my contact with Government and the knowledge that power was being exercised around me. I’d relished the feeling of being on the inside. Now I felt excluded and ignored.
“I wonder if I’ll be a politician when I grow up,” I said.
My uncle looked at me kindly.
“Missing it already? I know for some people it’s like a drug. Just don’t forget what it’s all for...”
On Saturday I went to see Matthew and Mark. At Judy’s suggestion I went without her, to see if they could make a connection on their own.
“I think you’ll be surprised,” she said.
Neal lent me his bike to get there. It was a fine day and I enjoyed the trip. The route lay through the town centre, and it was good to see more and more shops open and people around.
I found the boys in their room, but this time they were playing chess, and smiled as I came in.
“Hello,” said Matthew. “We’re playing chess.”
“Yes, I see.”
“You don’t understand. According to our Dad, chess is the devil’s playground. You mustn’t play it, it’s an offence.”
“But you’re playing it,” I said.
“Yes. Our Mum taught us. That was before all this happened.”
“What happened to your Mum?”
“She died,” said Matthew.
“My Mum died too,” I said. “So did my Dad.”
“Yes, Judy said,” said Mark. “We’re going to live with Judy! Did you know?”
“She said, she hoped you’d want to,” I said.
“Is that the new clothes?” he said. “Will we have to wear them?”
“Yes,” I said. “But they’re okay. I’ve been wearing them for a week, and they’re fine.”
“What’s snooker?” said Matthew abruptly.
“It’s a game. Is there a snooker room here?”
They both looked at me, baffled by the need to ask for something. I took pity on them.
“C’mon,” I said. “I’ll teach you.”
So we went along to the snooker room. As it was Saturday morning, no one was there, so we were able to play for at least two hours without interruption. Once they’d got the hang of it, they weren’t at all bad. Then one of the staff brought us sandwiches and tea. She caught my eye and gave me a thumbs-up sign.
“We don’t want to be Matthew and Mark any more,” Mark said, as we ate.
“Because of the way Dad said them,” said Matthew. “Like just saying them made him angry. Matthew! Mark! But we don’t know what names to have.”
“Well, did your Dad ever call you Mat?” I said.
Slowly he grinned.
“No. He never did.”
“There you are,” I said. “How about you, then? Er... How about Marcus?”
“Yeah!” he sighed.
“Okay, Mat and Marcus then. Is that right?”
“Well, tell everyone. Tell Judy. I won’t tell her, just in case you change your minds.”
“No, tell her,” said Marcus. “So she can say ‘Hello, Mat and Marcus’ when she comes to see us next time.”
“We’ve got something to show you,” said Mat. “In our room.”
So they took me back, and produced a sheet of paper. It was covered in corrections and crossings-out, but I could read it, and when I had, I sat on the bed, gathered them to me, and for a long time I struggled not to cry. Then I asked if they would lend me the paper so that I could show it to people, and they agreed. In return, I took another sheet of paper and wrote MAT and MARCUS in big letters, so that they could see how to spell them, and they made a notice saying Mat and Marcus and stuck it on the outside of their door.
Once it was straight and looked right, we went and played some more snooker, and a few other kids turned up. I suggested a game, and when I saw that Mat and Marcus were trashing the other kids, I thought it was time to go.
“How was it?” said my aunt.
“Well, we played snooker for about three hours. They were getting pretty good. Then they started playing with some other kids, so I left.”
“They were playing with other kids? That’s wonderful.”
“They want to be called ‘Mat’ and ‘Marcus’ now. ‘Matthew’ and ‘Mark’ remind them of their father. They told me to tell you, so that you’ll say ‘Hello, Mat and Marcus’ when you go to see them. That’s important for them.”
“Of course I will, darling. How marvellous!”
“I’m not sure how marvellous this is, though,” I said, getting out the paper. “Last time, when Mat was rabitting on about offences, I asked them to make a list of real offences for me. And they actually did, and here it is.”
I smoothed it out on the kitchen table, and my aunt and uncle read it over my shoulders.
- Burning poeple
- Making poeple whatch sombody burning right close up
- Hurting poeple
- Making poeple suck poeple’s willys by hurting there brother
- Stealing other poeple’s stuff or smashing it
- Killing poeple’s cat
- Saying somthing is God’s will when its just what you want to do and not realy God’s will at all
- Wipping kids so much that they bleed
- Killing poeple for no reason
- Doing things with ladys even when they screem and say no no stop no
- Eating all the food even when other poeple is hungrey
- Telling lies all the time
- Making poeple sign psams and hynms all night and wipping them if they fall asleep
- Not allowing luaghing
- Making poeple pay money to Jesus or they will be killed or there wife or kids will be
My aunt gripped me and my uncle, and started to cry. It was a shocking sound for me as I’d never heard her cry before. But some things really are unspeakable.
The next day was quite odd: Sunday, no school, no Ewan, birthday tomorrow; a cold, drizzly day. There had been no question of buying a present for Neal: I had almost no money. There were shops at the Government Centre, but people there were paid in marks, the Government’s new currency, and I didn’t have any; we were still using a local currency, the ‘ched’, which the Democratic Front had issued when they ran the town. I’d made a present for Neal, though: a drawing of him aged twelve, with me and our mother and father all hugging him. I’m not a bad artist, and I thought it was pretty good. So that Sunday I begged some paper from Aunt Judy, and carefully rolled the picture up inside it, labelled it, and gave it to her to look after.
In the afternoon I decided to go and visit Dezzy. I knew that Ron’s house was close to his, so there was a good chance of us all getting together. Dezzy lived in a pleasant suburban street of semidetached houses a couple of miles from us. I hadn’t been there since before The Problems.
The street was fairly untouched, although a number of houses had been boarded up. I knocked on the door and it was answered by his mother.
“Hello, Mrs Marshall.”
“Jack! How lovely to see you. Come in, you must be freezing. Dezzy’s upstairs with Ron—I’ll give him a call.”
I was hanging my cloak in their little hallway when Dezzy and Ron appeared. Both were about my height and age, although Dezzy had bright red hair. They smiled at me.
“Hey, Jack! Big media star!” said Dezzy. “Didn’t think you’d want to speak to us!”
“Get lost, Dezzy. Anything interesting up?”
They exchanged a glance. There obviously was something up, and it made me uneasy. I wondered if my TV career was going to lose me even this fairly low-key friendship.
“Come upstairs. We’re going upstairs, mum!”
“Okay—take your shoes off first, Jack!”
I did, and followed my friends to Dezzy’s room. He was a classical music fan, as was I in a small way, and this bizarre taste made us inevitably friends of some sort. I recognised a disk of a Mozart piano concerto.
“Okay, guys, what is it?” I said.
“How do you like the Standard Clothing?” said Dezzy.
His own lifesuit was truly beautiful, a pattern of light and dark greens which made me think of forest glades.
“It’s okay. There’s a side of it which worries me, but the clothes themselves are fine.”
“Do they make you, well, randy?” he said.
“Yeah, they do,” I said. “They do everyone.”
“Yes, there’s a guy in sixth year, apparently he actually shot off during a maths class!” said Ron, and we all fell about.
“It’s bloody cold doing football just in trunks in this weather,” said Dezzy.
“Perhaps we should be using the tunics for that,” I said. “People think the tunics are too camp, I think.”
They exchanged a glance.
“How much do you know about the Government, Jack?” said Ron.
I wasn’t sure what to answer to this. No one had ever said that what I’d been doing in the Centre was secret, but I suspected that discretion was assumed. Also I really didn’t want to be known as someone who bragged about such things. But there was clearly something going on here, and it could be important to them. I decided to trust them a bit.
“Well, when I was in the Centre the Public Education Ministry was looking after me, and I met some of the ministers. They told me a bit about the plans for children, but not much more than anyone knows.”
They looked at each other again and nodded.
“Do you know what they think about gay people?” said Dezzy.
I looked evenly at them, but inside it was like an explosion of excitement.
“Do you guys want to tell me something?”
“Er... not necessarily.”
“Okay, if I tell you a bit more, will you keep it quiet?”
They agreed eagerly.
“Right. I went to supper in one of the Centre hotels, and there were six ministers at the table, including General Baxter himself. And not one of them even turned a hair when I—when I told them I was gay. In fact they seemed quite pleased.”
I don’t think I’d ever seen someone’s mouth literally drop open from astonishment. But both of theirs did.
“You’re... gay?” said Ron.
“You just told Baxter and six ministers you were gay, and they were all okay with it?”
“Sure,” I said. “But I knew they probably would be.”
“How did you know that?”
“Because I’d already spoken about this sort of thing with some of them. Really, they have no bad feelings about gay people. Didn’t you see George Padmore’s broadcast?”
“Yes, but I couldn’t believe he really meant it,” said Dezzy.
“He meant it,” I said. “One thing I’ve learnt about the Government is that they always mean what they say. Look, are you guys a couple now?”
“Yeah, I guess we are,” said Dezzy.
Their hands crept towards each other, and caught hold. Their faces were all smiles of happiness. I was seriously touched.
“That’s really great. Congratulations! But in that case, I can tell you that I’m part of a couple too. Only my guy is an important Government official. He was there too, and they all congratulated us. They drank a toast to us. Honestly, guys, they are okay with it, I promise you.”
“Then we’re going to be all right.”
“Well, there could still be problems, couldn’t there?” I said. “There are lots of arseholes in the world. But it’s quite definite that the Government is on our side and wants to improve things.”
We talked for an hour or more, and I invited them to our birthday party the next day. I returned home feeling that at long last I’d acquired some genuine friends in the school.
And Monday was our birthday: I was fourteen, and Neal twelve. It was decided to keep the festivities till the evening, and I went to school full of the thought that I would see Ewan that evening.
Uncle Alan came to collect us, and when we got home, there was a small party in progress. My uncle said that Ewan had returned, and with him, to my utter consternation, were Susan, Bill, Marietta Borley and Lakshmi Anderson. Corporal Roberts was there with his six soldiers, but as guests, and from school Mr Andrews, as well as a few of Neal’s friends, and Dezzy and Ron. Outside on the pavement guard duty had been taken over by a very serious-looking group of special forces troops.
Somehow, my aunt and uncle had managed to find some food for us to eat, and Ewan had contributed some genuine Coca-Cola, which Neal and his friends fell on—I never liked it much myself. Music was being played and Neal and his friends were dancing in the living room.
I worked my way into the kitchen, where the grownups seemed to be, and pushed up to Ewan.
I could hardly speak. My mouth had gone dry and I was shaking. It suddenly came to me: what if he had changed his mind? But then he turned to me, and his face abruptly shone. It wasn’t any use; I couldn’t not: I moved straight into his arms, and let him hug my head to his chest. Suddenly, everyone in the kitchen was cheering us.
I saw that Dr Borley was in deep conversation with my uncle, and Susan had found a good-looking soldier to chat up. My aunt was presiding over the food and drink, such as it was. Dezzy and Ron were making eyes in a corner. I wasn’t in a talkative mood; I just wanted to be held, and to soak him up.
“Thanks for coming,” I said. “I hoped...”
“Try and keep me away. I had a good conversation with your uncle before you got back, though. It seems he approves of us. Mind you,” and he whispered close to my ear, “he doesn’t know about my sex education plans...”
My insides lurched, and I grabbed him frantically.
“Get a room!” Bill called out.
“Sod off, Bill, it’s my birthday!” I said.
There was laughter all round.
“When do we do presents?” Ewan said.
“We’ll wait until Neal’s friends have left. None of them will have brought presents, you see, there’s nothing to spare for such things.”
He hugged me to him, my back against his body, and I felt protected and happy, and couldn’t stop smiling. Aunt Judy came to bring him a drink, and he made as if to let me go, but I pressed back against him, and she leant over to kiss my head.
I wasn’t really following what was happening, but finally I realised that many of the guests had left. We assembled in the living room, Neal and I, my uncle and aunt, and Ewan, Susan, Bill, Dr Borley, and Prof Anderson. I sat next to Ewan, with Dezzy and Ron on my other side. But when Neal came in all the chairs were taken. Prof Anderson moved up on the sofa to make a small gap for him, and he squeezed his lifesuit-clad body in next to her. I caught his eye and winked at him; he went totally puce, and I saw her smile.
“There’s a protocol to this,” said my uncle. “The boys give their presents to each other first.”
And Neal gave me a bar of chocolate. I have no idea where he got it, but the thought of him not eating it so as to give it to me almost reduced me to tears. As for my picture, it did reduce him to tears; Lakshmi Anderson held him and stroked his hair, and I saw that her eyes were wet as well.
And then the other presents. My aunt and uncle usually gave me clothes, which of course were now forbidden. I got a disk from my uncle, a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, and from my aunt a book of Wilfrid Owen’s poetry, which I’d already read. I knew that these were not things they’d bought for me, but treasured possessions of their own.
Then Ewan had a present for both of us: a huge tub of hair gel, which delighted us, Neal especially—I had told Ewan about our impending shortage.
“I have a present for Jack, but it’s a bit different,” said Lakshmi Anderson.
Her briefcase was on a table beside her, and she opened it. I couldn’t make the contents out: they looked like electronic equipment.
“Come over here, Jack.”
Two pads dangled off wires leading from the briefcase. She pressed them carefully onto my shoulder, getting Neal to hold one of them in place.
“Hold quite still,” she said. “You’ll feel the implant trigger, but only very briefly.”
There was a whining noise and then, sure enough, a sudden stab of pain.
“Sorry. That’s it—the implant has been deactivated. We can’t remove it, but it’s now inert. Go on, try it.”
I picked a towel off the table and put it on my head. Nothing.
“Hey,” I said. “That’s wonderful. Oh wow. Thank you so much...”
“Can you deactivate mine?” said Neal.
“We could,” she said. “However, since yours only just pricks you, we won’t until there’s a substitute available. We have a substitute for you, Jack, though.”
“This is it,” said Ewan. “I hope you’re ready for this, Jack.”
I smiled at him and sat beside him, and he gave me a flat black card box.
“It was developed by Lakshmi’s people,” he went on. “Open it.”
I did. It was a golden ring, as thick as a finger and maybe five inches across.
“What is it?” I said.
“You’ve heard of it. This is the Golden Circle. It’s mostly stainless steel, in fact, but there’s a special coating which makes it that colour.”
“This? The Golden Circle? What is it?”
“It goes round your neck,” he said. “It’s a collar.”
I stared at him.
“What does it do?”
“It’s compulsory,” he said. “I put it on, and then I tell you what it does. At the moment, it’s only compulsory for you; soon it will be for all kids.”
I was looking into Ewan’s eyes; they had a strange look, a look of tenderness and implacability mixed. I understood: this was something I had no choice over.
I unbuckled my lifesuit collar. Ewan did something to the Circle, and part of it slid back under itself. He passed it round my neck and pressed it together; a sharp click, and it was fastened.
I looked at him wildly.
“It’s permanent,” he said, and kissed my ear. “It comes off only for emergencies. Hospitals will have special keys which will open any Circle. Apart from that, it stays on till you’re twenty. Then you’ll be able to take it off.”
“What does it do?”
“It’s a substitute for the implant. Try now.”
I put the towel on my head, and a strange shivering feeling ran down my back, like nails scratching on a blackboard.
“It works,” I said. “You couldn’t possibly ignore it. It’s pretty unpleasant, but not exactly painful. I can live with that.”
“It has other functions,” said Ewan. “It makes you a controlled child. But I’ll talk to you about that later.” He looked me straight in the eyes, a slight smile on his lips. “Say thank you.”
It was a direct assertion of power over me: I was being asked to thank him for his control, for his authority. My eyes fell. There was the familiar double response: a current of submission, of joyful acquiescence; and an undertow, a current of rebellion, of rejection, something that said: no, never, stop, stop, go no further...
“Choose...” he whispered. “I know what’s happening. Choose.”
My eyes met his.
“Thank you,” I said, and relaxed into his arms.
It’s happening again, I thought, I’m going off into his realm with him at night and I’ve no idea what to do next, and I don’t care. My uncle had come to me himself to say that Ewan had asked for me to stay overnight with him.
“Goodnight, Captain, Mr Marchmont,” said the special forces sergeant, to my surprise, as we came down the steps.
“It’s up to you,” my uncle had said. “You have a choice. Don’t be bullied, son.”
I had smiled at him. He knew what I meant.
Dezzie and Ron had cornered me after the present-giving, to tell me how wonderful it was, they’d been cuddling in front of everyone and no one had minded; and Dr Borley had actually spoken to them and held their hands and said how good they looked together; and how handsome and cool Ewan was. Greatly daring, I had kissed both of them gently on the lips, leaving them completely astonished.
We wished the sergeant good night. I hadn’t been outside at night for a long time. The street lights were smashed, of course, and the square was strange in the light of the full moon, the trees of the gardens taut and still. Our footsteps rang loud in the silence. We got into Ewan’s car.
“Where are we going?”
“To where I stay,” he said. “The Mayburn Hotel on Maple Street.”
“You live in two hotels. Haven’t you got a house of your own?”
“Yes, actually. In East Anglia. Maybe we’ll go there one day. If it’s still standing... I loved your present to Neal. You really look after him, and that’s so moving. I could see that Lakshmi was touched too.”
“She was stroking his hair,” I said. “He was completely smitten, I know him and I can tell. We both blush, but he’s fair! You don’t suppose...”
“You don’t suppose she might be thinking about being a mentor?”
“Why don’t you ask her?” he said. “We’ll see them for breakfast, they’re all staying in the same hotel.”
“Then—then they’ll know we’ve spent the night together.”
“Well, yes. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Remember what George said the other day? It looks like you’re going to be around us Rationalists, so you might as well get used to it. We aren’t abashed by things like that. You can certainly expect to be quizzed by Bill, and niggled at by Susan, and given motherly advice by Marietta...”
“Here we are,” he said. “Perhaps you’ll know the person on the desk!”
I took a deep breath.
“Who cares?” I said. “I am the pupil of a minister, and I’m proud of it.”
“Right! So, we are going in there, with my arm on your shoulders, and at the desk you are going to call me ‘love’. Okay?”
I looked at him, and something thrilled with fear and excitement and wildness. The possibility of disobeying him simply didn’t arise. He parked the car in the road, locked it and put his hand on my shoulder, and we went in, with me leaning against him as I wanted to do, my arm round his waist.
“My key, please,” said Ewan.
“Here you go, Captain,” said the porter; and I did indeed know him. He was the father of one of my classmates.
“We need to get up at seven, love,” I said. “I have to get to school.”
“That’s right,” said Ewan. “Could you book us an alarm call?”
“Sure. Hello, Jack.”
“Hi, Mr Campbell. I didn’t know you worked here...”
“Moonlighting. Glad to get the work. I liked your interview with Penny Trump, by the way.”
“Well, that went okay,” said Ewan as we stood in the lift.
“I think being on TV lets you get away with things,” I said. “However, he’ll tell everyone what happened. He works in a pub on the High Street.”
“It’s not always going to be easy being my pupil. I said that before, but it’s true...”
“Just at the moment, if you told me to jump into a tank of piranhas, I’d do it. I couldn’t not do it. Something happened back then when I said ‘thank you’.”
“I know. It’s what I wanted. In the end you’ll feel like this all the time. You’re so good, Jack.”
“Remember,” I said. “I’ll do whatever you say...”
His smile was meant to terrify me, but it didn’t at all. He took me into his room, and lay on the bed and told me to strip, and slowly I did, to his delighted commentary, until there was nothing left but the Golden Circle. Then he stripped himself.
“Don’t speak,” he said. “Show me with your body what you feel just now.”
It was obvious, so obvious. I knelt before him, bent over and touched the floor with my forehead. And I waited, waited to be told what to do, waited without a breath of rebellion or resentment, till he touched my head and told me to stand; and tears were running down his face. He took me in his arms, and we kissed for a long time, and I felt my spirit relax in his closeness.
And he took me into the bathroom and we showered; but to do this he turned off the lights and we showered in the dark, and he said we should not speak. And we washed each other in the soft, warm, steaming, hissing darkness, hands and mouths and bodies touching and rubbing without speech, hands and mouths and bodies talking by touch, learning each other in the darkness, exploring in gentleness and freedom, until both of us came, and I came a second time. Then he dried me, kneeling before me in his turn, and carried me to bed, and before I got there I was asleep, asleep once again in his arms.