Part Five – The Days Before Christmas
Copyright © 2016, Nick Lucas
Whilst the rest of the world carries on regardless, the future of Reformism hangs in the balance as the great and the good return to Meadvale for the festive season. Alistair Forbes and Richard Buckingham are still negotiating but little real progress has been made, as both sides jockey for position to get what they want from any potential deal. Meanwhile, our by now familiar cast of characters, both old and new, come together for their favourite time of the year.
Miss Archer laced Catriona into her corset with care. The girl was still sore and fragile after donating some of her precious bone marrow to little Angus. It was a reasonably simple procedure, and she only had to stay in the hospital for one night, but it was painful and the guardian was gentle. In her opinion, Catriona was more or less tame. She still made mistakes, but her best efforts to avoid another beating were quite genuine. It was important to give her some credit, and although her usual routine would be disrupted at Broomwaters she deserved some amusements.
“Comfortable, Catriona?” Miss Archer asked, standing back to admire her handiwork.
“Yes Miss Archer.” Catriona responded, although that was a lie. She had once complained about her corset and was almost immediately laced down another inch, so she did not complain anymore. She was a maiden, and she had no say in such things at all.
“I shall be taking you downstairs in your muzzle. No doubt some of the girls will be free to talk, but you are too inexperienced so it is best for you to just listen and learn…I shall remove it for tea, if you behave.”
“Yes Miss Archer, thank you Miss Archer…I will behave, I promise.”
“Good girl, now open.”
Catriona did as she was told and lost her voice. She heard the familiar click and felt the pressure on her tongue. Downstairs in the ballroom, she had her first experience of a Broomwaters Christmas. Dozens of maidens were sat together, some able to talk but most, like her, just there for the experience. Their mothers formed an inner circle in the large room, circled around Mrs Harrington, the First Lady, Lady Osborne, Mrs Munroe, Mrs Radcliffe and Mrs Miller.
“How is Kieran, Chloe?” Elizabeth Munroe asked, speaking for everyone.
“Not in any pain is the honest answer.” Chloe smiled, feeling the love and support of her friends. “Sebastian has been visiting him a lot…that is a great comfort…but I do not think it will be long now.”
“Alistair has gone this morning I believe.” Mena added, feeling for Chloe.
“Everyone has been very kind, but he is in God’s hands.”
As always, the boys wanted to be outside. The old men remembered watching their sons in the past, but now they were there for their grandsons, accompanied by their sons, and everyone accepted the passage of time. It was not a time for business. It had been agreed that the negotiations between Richard Harrington and the President should pause for Christmas, and the two sides had called a rather uneasy truce. It was cold, but well wrapped up, they took a stroll along the river when the football on the lawns started to bore them, and it was on the path near Buckingham Bridge that Bishop Osborne found himself walking beside Alistair Forbes.
“I hear you have been up to your old tricks, Alistair?” Sebastian smiled, his hands in the pockets of his thick coat and a woollen hat pulled down over his ears.
“Excuse me?” Forbes looked surprised, and the archbishop shook his head sadly.
“I never liked you…I told Radcliffe that he should never let you succeed him, because you were not here to serve anyone except yourself…it gives me no pleasure to be proved right, of course.”
“You are not noticeably suffering as a result of your many years of service, Sebastian?”
“No, that is true…it is a fair point, but my income is a matter of public record, not hidden away from prying eyes…and I have never used threats or strong-arm tactics to get my own way Alistair…at least nothing overt.”
“Have I offended you in some way Sebastian?”
“Only in that one of your attempts to shackle your opponents involves my wife’s past, I believe.” Osborne stopped and looked out across the water at the old Cathedral, choosing his words with care. “I won’t have Brogan embarrassed or demeaned by the likes of you…so, I just wanted to make myself clear. If you use this information and cause it to become public knowledge, I will call for an immediate election citing a number of issues I am aware of in your past. It would hurt others, but I am required to stay out of politics, and I have. Believe me, Alistair…if you make the mistake of crossing me you will lose the backing of the Church and I will not stop until I have destroyed you…I hope I have made myself clear…in God’s love.”
Euan Miller needed a drink, badly. But he was not going to have one. He had been living rough ever since crossing the channel, living off the land or stealing what he needed as he went, but he was well-trained by the SAS, and his hands were not shaking as badly as they were. He could still fire his gun and hit what he aimed at, he reckoned, and he had just proved that he could get into position for a clear shot. He could have killed Forbes at least four times that morning. But he wanted to get closer if he could, to see his face. One last time. He owed that to Erica, and to Ophelia. He wanted to do something right, for once. So he hunkered down in the undergrowth to wait for darkness. Then he could retreat and plan his next move.
The trouble with being sober was that the past haunted him all the more. He kept seeing Erica when he arrived to get her out of the country. Her father had been a total bastard, pimping his daughters out to the highest bidder for a variety of demeaning sexual favours. But he had always stopped short of allowing his customers to rape his prized assets. Erica had told Euan her story at the charity where they both did some volunteer work, and Euan had checked her out, too streetwise to get sucked in by a hard luck story. But he had seen it with his own eyes. He had been thinking of getting out of Britain anyway. He had tired of the army life, and then got involved in African relief, but he could do that from anywhere. He already mistrusted Reformism and the politicians behind it, and the activities of Damian Martin and his friends pushed him over the edge. He arranged to go and get Erica, her mother and her sister on an evening he knew Martin had to be out, and consequently walked into a nightmare. It was just pure back luck and coincidence. If he had arrived two hours earlier, he would have saved them all and had them out of the country before anyone knew anything about it. But he chose the day Damian Martin made his biggest sale. He had been saving his daughter’s virginity for the right price, and Miller walked in on the lucky customer enjoying his purchase. He had come armed, just in case. He noticed some sort of security around the house, but it was really only a car out front, and he went in the back, as arranged with Erica, only to look through a window and see the Prime Minister, in a state of undress, taking a paddle to Erica and her sister.
He often relived that moment at his darkest ebb, because it was his finest hour. He had won medals on the battlefield, but his reactions were different class that night in suburban south London, apart from one huge mistake. He killed the entire security detail in a brief gun fight and got Erica into a car and away before the police arrived, but he could not get her mother or her little sister, and he could not kill Damian Martin and Alistair Forbes. His father had been supposed to get to Martin first, to help him get the women out, but whatever the excuse, it had not happened, and it all turned to shit. Erica could not live with it, or with what Forbes did to her. She had already been taking something provided by her father to keep her calm, and she was into heroin before Ophelia was born, but worse afterwards. His life had spiralled downhill from there.
But that was Alistair Forbes biggest mistake. He had picked on a man who had nothing left to lose. And that man had been trained to kill by the best in the business.
Brogan sat on the bed, almost ready for dinner, watching Sebastian dress. He was not wearing his robes of office. He said he wanted to be off duty for once. But he was hopeless with a black tie. Smiling at his efforts, she stood up and did it for him, and he took her in his arms.
“I feel I know you at last…as well as you know me.” He said, kissing her cheeks.
“If I had known, I would have told you before.”
“No, you did nothing wrong…not even then…it was your job…and you would have been caught up in the renaissance sooner or later.”
“Probably…I do not think I would have moved abroad…so I would have got into trouble.”
“So you were saved?”
“In a way I suppose, but not how you mean, my good bishop.”
“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform…”
“He certainly fooled me…and I must have atoned for my many sins, because He gave you to me.”
“I would still argue that it was the other way around, but I concede the basic point, Brogan.”
“Is the President going to heed your warning?”
“He is not just fighting me…but yes, I think he will, in the end…your secret is safe.”
“Good…it is all so long ago, I hardly even recognise myself in the story anymore.”
“Cigars used to be a guilty pleasure.” Richard Harrington chuckled, joining Forbes on the terrace. “Smoking them outside has largely ruined that for me in the winter.”
“I like the cold…and the peace.”
“Yes, this is always quite a bun fight…and we have other things on our mind.”
“Shall we walk? I think there is enough moonlight to see the river?”
“If you like…” Buckingham shrugged and followed his opponent, his enemy, off the terrace.
“I am going to retire…on some conditions.” Alistair Forbes said in the darkness. Richard was shocked, and disappointed that he could not see the man’s face. But it was too easy. He could not believe it could end like that, on a walk in the dark, with the end of a dinner party reaching them on the breeze.
“Immunity from prosecution for one. Total immunity.”
“Ok…I am not going to agree to anything now so let me hear it all, Alistair.”
“I get the message. Everyone wants me gone. They are queuing up to stick in the knife. So I will go…a health issue should do as an excuse. But both sides have dirt, and I want it buried forever. I will appoint you as my interim successor and you can arrange an election in your own time. The constitution would allow you to see out my term first, but I know your family has a penchant for a mandate. So immunity from any prosecution is the deal breaker, but you also leave my family alone and include my son in your administration…a junior position…he can prove himself from there. And I shall need a house. Not here. I don’t see why I should pay out for being made homeless, so London somewhere. But a nice one. I want my legacy unblemished, my son’s future secured on the ladder and a house. Not much to ask after everything I have done.”
“Ok…I’ll think about it and let you know. I don’t see too many problems but I will take some advice.”
“Run back to Daddy you mean? You need to do something on your own, Richard…the old man won’t last forever.”
“I’m going back inside Alistair…I’ll let you know.”
Forbes watched him go. He was not particularly bitter. He bore grudges but he did not let them rule his life. Instead, he made his mind focus on the positives. It probably was time to go. He was still young enough to enjoy retirement, and he had tied up the last of his loose ends in Catriona. Immunity would silence everyone else.
“No sign of your security detail…did you slip away?” Euan Miller stepped out of a bush in front of him, holding a gun, and Forbes almost laughed. He was on Broomwaters land, and all the security was on the outside. Not doing a very good job from the look of things.
“Shoot me, if you like. But it won’t get her back…or help your sister…or your father.”
“Catriona…or Ophelia if you prefer…is legally my daughter, and Philomena is my wife. In the event of my death, my son Archie would become their legal guardian…and whilst I doubt if he would marry your sister off, he will not allow her to cause him any embarrassment. In my will, I suggest that she retires to a convent, but Archie would decide. Catriona will be trained and married off…both of them are chipped, so one of your midnight flits would cause them both considerable pain…as I am sure you are aware. So your grand gesture would not change anything at all…but it might make things worse. Archie is his father’s son and he does not share any particular bond with either of them, especially Catriona. I would be dead, but that holds no particular fear for me. I raped Erica for fun, Euan…her father wanted fifty thousand for each of them, and he would have got it if you hadn’t appeared, all guns blazing…he had provided girls before. Your father was one of his customers, did you know that? I was never quite sure how much he helped you, or what he told you, but Erica knew him…I know that for sure.”
“My father got us out of the country but failed to stop you silencing Erica’s mother and sister.”
“Yes, I knew about that…it made him a lot more amenable to my plans after that…his independent streak was nicely muzzled by his guilt…she was just a woman Euan…is she really worth all this? In the end, the girl is my daughter.” Forbes held out his arms as if appealing to a court, a smile still on his face. “Your father knows the value of a woman and his hands are almost as dirty as mine and I have just agreed to resign…this has beaten me, so you don’t need to kill me. No woman is worth this…least of all a girl who carries my blood, not yours…you won’t get her back Euan.”
“Oh yes…she is worth it…say your prayers, Mr President.”
“Are you going to kill your father too?” Forbes laughed but then fell silent as James Miller and the head of Broomwaters security stepped out of the bushes beside Euan, holding what looked like a boom microphone and some sort of portable recording device.
“Shit, what a mess.” Charles Buckingham sighed, running his hands through his hair.
“He confessed…well, his conversation was taped, by his father-in-law of all people.” Peter Munroe explained, having spoken to the police commander, who was acting as head of security, himself. “It has to be hushed up, Charles. For the good of the country.”
“Too many people know, surely?”
“No, the policeman is an old friend of James Miller’s. He will testify that it was suicide.”
“Forbes was shot through the mouth and he has the evidence all over his hands. Powder marks or whatever they call them apparently. I don’t plan on asking too many more questions. Suicide solves a lot of problems.”
“Get James and Euan Miller out of the way then. Euan really needs to disappear. But I cannot imagine Archie Forbes will take this lying down…Alistair was the least suicidal man I know.”
“Once the party have been consulted…that’s going on now…and assuming they all agree to Richard being made interim president…and they will, because he is the only viable candidate…Richard will have to twist his arm.”
“So, it’s over?”
“I think so…bar a little shouting…and now the next generation can take over.”
“About bloody time…I am too old for all this nonsense Peter, far too old.”
“Oh I don’t know…all in all, I think we did rather well.”
“Miller will need to persuade Archie to give up the girl…and Mrs Forbes.” Buckingham sighed again, looking troubled as he thought the problem through. “Both will legally be Archie’s responsibility…it’s not going to be easy Peter.”
“My father would not commit suicide.” Archie Forbes said, glaring at the man who was replacing his father long before the body was cold. He was still shaking with shock, and Richard Buckingham felt rather sorry for him. He knew what it was like to be the eldest son of a powerful and successful man, and he could at least empathise.
“All the evidence points to it Archie…and I am afraid he had his reasons.” Richard Buckingham replied, stifling a yawn as his lack of sleep started to show. He had survived the night on adrenalin, but he needed more coffee.
“I demand an investigation…this is not right…”
“I think that would be unwise…”
“Of course you do, you are the major beneficiary of my father’s death…”
“He would have gone to gaol Archie, and your family name would have been ruined forever. If there is an enquiry the latter will still happen…it is not a pleasant business.”
“Does that really matter? He was your father; there is no need to hurt yourself anymore. But he confessed, under no duress at all, so I really think you should leave it there. Concentrate on your son, for goodness sake.”
Forbes agreed in the end, and Richard slumped in a chair. He took out a pen and started sketching out what he would say to the people. The media would go berserk, and as acting President he had to address it. So he was annoyed when the door opened and one of the civil servants rushed in.
“Damn it man, I am busy!”
“Sorry to interrupt you Mr Buckingham, I know it has been a long night…”
“Oh it’s ok…I guess I am going to have to get used to it…what is it?”
“More bad news, I am afraid, Kieran Radcliffe passed away in the early hours.”
The Traditional Christmas Disaster
Hugh Blackstone was reading the post and only half listening to the news on Radio Four. It was Christmas Eve, but the postal service seemed to cope better with the seasonal demands under the Reformists. Even the local newspaper had arrived but he did not read the headlines until after he had opened his gas bill, which never cheered him up. His wife, his daughter and his granddaughters were all sitting around the kitchen table as he stomped into the room, banging his stick against the door, and Miss Walker was letting young George help her make toast and serve everyone. Catherine Baraclough sorted through the letters he tossed moodily into the centre of the table, searching for her name on the envelopes. She was an avid correspondent and she was due a letter from her friend in Florida. Florence Baraclough looked miles away, listening to the radio, and Chelsea was eating her cereal whilst looking at the newspaper her grandfather had left open on the table beside her.
“Considering most of this family are covered most of the time, I fail to see how we can possibly use so much gas.” Hugh said grumpily as he flopped down into his seat, letting his stick fall loudly to the floor. George automatically stopped what he was doing and rushed over to pick it up and lean it against the kitchen cupboards.
“And who is it who insists the conservatory is always heated so he can sit there?” Caroline Blackstone demanded as their daughter gasped and waved her hands at everyone.
“President Alistair Forbes had been under incredible pressure, friends are saying that he had been ill and that discussions for the handover of power to Richard Buckingham had taken all his energy. It is said by government sources that whilst President Forbes had issues with the moderate wing of the party, he had already decided that due to his failing health he needed to stand aside. Even so, his decision to take his own life has surprised and dismayed everyone and will of course make it impossible to give him the state funeral his status and many years of service deserved.” The radio voice said into the suddenly quiet room, the words only slowly sinking in as the family listened in disbelief. “However, this news was only just emerging in the early hours of this morning when a separate announcement was made. Former President Kieran Radcliffe passed away at around the same time after months of illness, in the Meadvale nursing home. Acting President Richard Buckingham will be returning to London this morning for an emergency sitting of the House to ratify his position, and he is promising a full statement then, but as of now we are not getting any more information, but I repeat, President Forbes has apparently committed suicide, and former President Kieran Radcliffe has passed away in his sleep.”
“If Richard Buckingham is made president, we will have won…he is a moderate.” Catherine said, turning to her grandfather and managing not to smile.
“Won’t there have to be an election?” Florence asked, looking stunned.
“As far as I am aware, the ruling party can nominate a successor to serve the rest of the term.” Hugh responded, the gas bill still in his hand. “I just can’t believe a man like that would commit suicide.”
“If he was seriously ill…” Caroline suggested, letting her sentence hang in the air.
“Sam’s Dad is in the local paper,” George piped up, reaching across Hugh to point at the picture on the front page.
“Good grief…so he is…damn it Catherine, do you see? Do you see what you risked?” Hugh snatched up the paper and quickly scanned the story, his glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose. “Edward Hammond, an Alfriston butcher, was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to various offences including failing to protect his daughters from unhealthy interests and running a disorderly house. His two daughters have been called up for National Service with immediate effect, for their own good, and his lady wife has been released to his son on the condition that she is properly disciplined and supervised in future.”
“Gayle and Maria are to be nuns?” Catherine gasped, holding her hand to her chest, and her mother quickly took hold of her hand and turned to look at Miss Walker.
“Already in a convent, I shouldn’t wonder…and all because of your precious sewing circle!”
“What is it about Christmas? Some bad shit always happens…tsunami, shipwrecks, two presidents dead in one night…makes you really wonder about God’s love.” Robbie Beckford sneered, after a little too much champagne at the office party. But no one disagreed with him, or was really much more sober. Trading had closed for the holidays, and the stock exchange had wobbled considerably on the news of the Forbes’ tragedy, but KHM had done all right, as it happened, after receiving a tip off before the opening bell even rung. They had sold early and at reasonable prices and would buy back when the market got used to the idea of a new British President.
“Shit happens but KHM always makes a buck my friend…how is that daughter of yours?”
“She probably hates me.”
“Oh right, like most teenagers then…but is she learning her lessons?”
“Oh yeah…Miss Garfield makes sure of that…the bitch still scares the fuck out of me.”
“So how much did you know?” Archie Forbes demanded of James Miller. “You and Dad were always partners in crime and I doubt if he was the only one playing away from home?”
“You should have let it lie, Archie.” Miller sighed, pouring himself another coffee. Harrington had let them have use of the small drawing room at Broomwaters, to keep Archie away from everyone else. Miller had told the guardians to keep the women out of the way upstairs. “He was trying to do you a kindness…you didn’t need to know.”
“And have you bastards laughing at me behind my back for the rest of my life?”
“No one would do that…hardly anyone knows the truth, Archie.”
“My father was not a common criminal…he would never do such things…and he would never commit suicide!”
“I am told the evidence is pretty conclusive.”
“So did you know?”
“I know lots of things Archie.”
“I will not have the family name disgraced…the suicide itself is an embarrassment…so I will not be pushing for an investigation into this nightmare.” Forbes told his grandfather, although in truth there was little affection there. Archie had worked closely with his father, and had picked up on his father’s opinions of his colleagues. In return, James Miller found his grandson naive and dull-witted, having lived a life saying yes to his domineering father. Little Angus was their only meaningful link, and James knew that Mena had little affection for the boy. She felt responsible for him, and tied to him, but he was damned hard to love. It would not be hard to separate them emotionally, but legally and practically might be a different matter.
“Archie you need to sleep…and we need to tell the ladies…but that is the right decision.”
“Stop telling me what to do…I am the head of my family now.” Forbes stared at his grandfather, still visibly shaken and white from shock and lack of sleep. “I am leaving this house today and moving back to London…I have sent instructions for the women to be prepared.”
“I asked the guardians to keep them quietly upstairs…”
“And I overruled your instructions.”
“Angus is in the hospital here, boy.”
“I am not your boy Grandfather…and I am being allowed one last use of the Presidential helicopter. Angus loves it and he will be back in Great Ormond Street before teatime.”
“I want to be with Mena and Ophelia…they should stay with me, Archie…it would be better for everyone.” James suggested carefully. He had always known that manipulating Archie would be the hardest part of his plan. Both Mena and Ophelia were chipped, and legally Archie had inherited control of them, and the parameters programmed into the software could only be changed by him. James had not been able to check Ophelia, but Mena’s chip had been deliberately implanted in a position which made it dangerous to remove. It was common practise of course. The technology was designed to stop women being smuggled out of the country and there would be no point in it if the chips were easily removable. So it was likely that Ophelia’s chip would present similar problems.
“I think not…my father will be mourned, and his grieving widow has a part to play in that, whilst Catriona is my sister now and she will stay close to Angus.” Archie Forbes said as firmly as he could manage, glaring at Miller. “My father condemns you in his confession Grandfather…whilst that may never be made public, I can no longer allow myself to be associated with you I am afraid…I hope you will understand my position and respect my wishes.”
“Of course, but after the funeral, I will take my daughter to live with me…and Ophelia…Catriona…should come too…she will still be able to help Angus, Archie…and she means nothing to you and everything to me.”
“Sir, you will take nothing…and I will give you nothing…certainly at this time. But I will not make any definite decision on their futures now…I have other, more important things on my mind.”
“Of course…it’s too much…we can talk later.” James Miller held out his hand but Forbes ignored it and walked out of the room without another word.
Mena did not know what to think but Miss Peters did not give her much of a chance in any case. She had been taken to bed without seeing Alistair after dinner and although she lay awake in her sleeping gown for what felt like hours, she did not feel him lie beside her. Then in the morning Miss Peters did not remove her muzzle. Instead, she was dressed in black, including a blinding mantle and her headphones. Her guardian selected a long loop of obedience lessons and Mena was effectively cut off from the outside world, her studies only sporadically interrupted for a change of her diaper or her feeding bottle. The colour of her costume for Christmas Eve was obviously telling and she had to assume that someone had died. Someone very important to disrupt the festivities of a Broomwaters Christmas. So she guessed Kieran Radcliffe. Everyone knew he was gravely ill and that the end was near. Alistair would certainly want to show his predecessor every public respect, and Mena felt a pang of regret that a period of mourning would rob her of the pleasing annual holiday.
Catriona had been in her sleeping gown earlier than her mother, having been taken up to bed straight after dinner. Miss Archer was still handling her with some care, but the guardian had taken some objection to several of the responses her charge had given during dinner and therefore Catriona went to sleep weeping into her muzzle after thirty strokes of the paddle. In the morning Miss Archer put her into a training hood before she was even fully removed from her sleeping gown and she had no idea that was dressed in black from head to toe. She simply assumed that she was being kept in disgrace, and as her lessons started she felt her punishment chip start to throb at a low but still painful level to confirm her assumptions.
In the Archbishop’s palace across the River Mead, Brogan Osborne bit into another slice of toast and listened to her husband talking on the telephone. Neither of them had got to bed much before dawn and they had slept late. Sebastian had woken first but he had stayed in the bedroom, catching up on emails and texts. As soon as his wife woke up, he sent for breakfast and sent the young guardian, Miss Taylor, away. Brogan had not slept in her sleeping gown since her husband discovered the truth about her, and husband and wife spent every private moment together talking about everything from the past to the future. She was so glad that the overcrowding at Broomwaters had allowed them to stay home, because it gave them more time together to continue their conversations. Before going to sleep, he had told her all about Alistair Forbes. He had promised never to keep secrets from her again. He said she had lived through enough secrets to last her a lifetime.
“Sorry my dear…I have two funerals to organise.” Osborne said as he finished his call and put his iPhone down on the table beside their bed, offering her a rueful smile.
“Can Forbes have a state funeral?”
“Opinion is divided…although suicide is a sin, of course…a heinous one.” Sebastian sighed, lowering himself onto the bed next to her and taking hold of her hand. “His son seems to be demanding one…and I cannot blame him for that…he has a legacy to protect, like everyone else.”
“May I speak my mind, Sebastian?” Brogan asked rather shyly and he smiled and nodded, pleased that she still showed him due respect as he believed a proper wife should. He had not changed inside. He was what he was, and the feelings he had for his wife could not change the facts of life. But he had learned to listen and to love. “I am concerned for Philomena, and for Catriona especially…she did not choose to come here.”
“Both are Archie Forbes’ responsibility unless he chooses to relinquish it, Brogan…that is the law.”
“Could you not advise him?”
“If he seeks my advice…I have never been close to the family.”
“Catriona came to help her little nephew and although we do not know the details, she has been…transformed…against her will…I cannot believe that our loving God would condone that.” Brogan said stiffly but still choosing her words with care. Her husband did not reply at once. He found himself wondering what it had been like for her, all those years ago, trapped inside a world she did not understand by her own foolish ambition. Remarkably, she did not blame anyone. She accepted that she had put herself in a dangerous position, possibly illegally, and someone had imprisoned her there.
“God has His own plans for us all…I believe. But you are right; I do not know the details. I promise you that I will try and talk with Archie.” Sebastian said, speaking as he made the decision inside his head and squeezing her hands. “He will have to speak to me about the funeral, and it would be appropriate for me to ask after his family and discuss his plans.”
“That would be the kind thing to do…will you support Richard Buckingham?”
“Yes I will, as I think he is the best man to be president of the Republic at this time.” Sebastian said decisively. “Are you really expecting him to be moderate?”
“Almost anyone would be more moderate than President Forbes…God rest his mortal soul.”
“Oh that’s certainly true. But be warned, Richard is not a moderate.” Sebastian stood up as his phone beeped again and rubbed his eyes. “I do believe he wants fairness…something I think the first phase of the renaissance lacked, in hindsight…but he will not be promoting radical change.”
“Nor should he…I cannot deny that Reformism has worked…but I should hope that he will allow people some room to develop with the doctrine, to find a more comfortable place to live.” Brogan said thoughtfully as her husband checked his message.
“If you are up to it, the private dinner is going ahead tonight?”
“If you are going I would like to be at your side.”
“Good…I shall send Miss Taylor in and take myself off for a bath.” He kissed her on the cheek and she closed her eyes, soothed by his affection, and relieved that her secret was not a secret anymore. It was almost as if a barrier had been removed, as if Sebastian thought more of her, not less, once he knew what she had once been. He left the room and she stood up, letting her silk nightdress fall down around her ankles, and soon the door opened to reveal her latest guardian, Miss Taylor. Brogan slowly curtseyed as Miss Taylor closed the door and turned, ready to take charge.
“Open,” Miss Garfield demanded and Kayleigh obeyed, tilting her head slightly backwards to make things easier, as all good maidens learn to do in time. Her muzzle had only been out of her mouth for a few moments, so that her guardian could clean her teeth, but she knew better than to show her disappointment. She had accepted her lot during her father’s secondment. The other girls she had met had convinced her that it was a fact of modern corporate life. Bankers and traders moved around the world to gain experience and make contacts. London was one of the major financial centres and if her father wanted to move up the career ladder, she had to support him, as all wives and children did. Reformism had not changed that, and she could be anywhere in another year, Frankfurt, Hong Kong or even back in the states. She did not like it much, of course. But she had to admit that her studies had improved no end, closely supervised by Miss Garfield. “I shall be lacing you down another inch for this evening child, your dress for this party demands it.”
Kayleigh nodded her response as the muzzle locked into place. She was attending the Bank of England’s Christmas party along with all the other daughters of her father’s colleagues and opposite numbers in other banks. Everyone had been talking about the event for weeks. Her father had no wife, so he would take her in on his arm, and he wanted to show her off, so Miss Garfield had promised her a special costume. But another inch would hurt, and she would certainly be earning God’s love in the Savoy ballroom.
“Our prayers are with the families of our two Presidents, cruelly taken from us on the same night, two out of three great men who have shaped our modern renaissance.” Richard Buckingham spoke confidently into the camera, sitting beside the fireplace in the main drawing room at Broomwaters, dressed in his most sombre suit. “Along with my own father, thankfully still with us and still robustly giving me his most welcome advice, Kieran Radcliffe and Alistair Forbes have guided us through forty odd years of dramatic social change and unprecedented success. It is without doubt the end of an era…in the world of politics there are no more representatives of the class of 2019 left serving the people. It is time for my generation to pick up the baton and see what we can do with the splendid legacy left to us.”
“Obviously there will be further announcements about funerals and memorial services, and although it is Christmas and a time to rejoice in the birth of Jesus Christ our saviour, we find ourselves entering a week of national mourning. It is inevitable that we will all feel a sense of loss, because we have lost two old friends, but I want to take this opportunity to promise the good people of this country that you are in safe hands. I have been asked to assume the Presidency on a temporary basis until the party can get together early in the New Year to vote for a permanent successor. As you are all aware, I was already talking to Alistair Forbes about the future direction of the party, but what we could not tell you was that some of that momentum was driven by President Forbes himself, because he knew he was ill. Only on the night he died, he had agreed to step down in the next few weeks, once our agreement had been reached over the festive holidays. For my own part, I shall be seeking both my parties’ recommendation as President in the interim and a popular mandate, but on the basis that there will be an election in May. I will not take up the legal right to finish Alistair Forbes term without letting the people decide.”
“Reformism is in robust health…despite the difference of opinion I had with President Forbes, the distance between us was relatively small…and can be best put down to natural generational change. I really do think this is an end of an era, and that our task now is to build on the solid foundations laid by my father, Kieran Radcliffe and Alistair Forbes. All three have taken things further than their predecessors and this country is all the better for their foresight, determination and bravery. But now the challenges before us are rather different, I think. This is a Reformist state. The dream my father had when he first stood as a Christian Democrat for the old House of Commons has come true. In rebalancing British society we have created full employment and eradicated all kinds of anti-social behaviour and criminal depravity. The family is at the heart of everything we do and our health and education standards are unrivalled. We have the lowest borrowings of any country in the world and armed forces that are equipped with all the latest equipment to ensure that we can hold our place at the top table. But we have to work hard to maintain these standards and we have to keep developing our society. President Forbes was ready to hand over to me, and I will leave you with something Kieran Radcliffe said to me when I visited him just a few days ago…a meeting we both knew would be our last.”
“We were talking of his legacy…something that concerned him towards the end of his life. He reminded me of a quote from James Balog who once said that ‘hindsight can be merciless. People of any given era often look back in time and wonder how their predecessors could have been so dim-witted.’ It is of course exactly the point my father made, during that first election campaign in 2019, because he did not want to waste time in recriminations and in looking back at what had happened before but instead concentrate on what needed to be done. I told Kieran…rather presumptuously since he was one my godfathers I suppose…that we all make mistakes. No one is perfect, as any guardian will tell you, and we all need to learn our lessons. It is now my job to take stock of where we are and present the people with a manifesto for the future. In doing so, I hope I can draw on the wisdom and lifelong fortitude of two great men, and when you are all in Church tonight, please ask God to keep them safe in His loving embrace.”
“Open,” Miss Walker said firmly and Catherine obeyed as always. Not quite with her normal enthusiasm however, as the news of her friend’s fate had rather unsettled her. She wondered if Gayle and Maria really were already in a convent, a fearful nightmare they all hoped to avoid in God’s love. National Service was not for girls of their class, or so they told themselves. They were all good Reformists and they all expected to marry with their parents blessing and assistance, without following such a dreadful fate. Stories of the convents were legion, of course. Most trained guardians had completed their National Service before training at a recognised college, since regulations had been tightened when Robin Sullivan was Health and Education secretary under Kieran Radcliffe. Guardians such as her beloved Miss Walker had been qualified by experience, but anyone appointed since then had been a nun for at least five years. It was inevitable that girls like Catherine heard stories. She had been told many times when being told off or punished that her behaviour would have earned her much worse castigation in the convents and her teachers at school were quite obviously kept under the strictest discipline. It was mostly hearsay and gossip, but there was so much of it that Catherine found it easy enough to believe. So the thought of Gayle and Maria being forced to take their vows with their father in prison appalled her. It was all over so little. But it did prove that her grandfather had been right all along. It was better for them to keep their noses clean, and concentrate on themselves. Catherine knew that she needed to find a husband to avoid following Gayle and Maria, and for the first time in her life she realised that she was running out of time. “Mrs Balcombe is an ex-guardian, Catherine…I expect you to be on your best behaviour tonight.”
Catherine nodded and kissed her guardian’s fingers as she locked the muzzle. Her grandfather had invited one of the men he had trained, years ago, as a heart surgeon, for Christmas Eve dinner. It was because he had a son, of course. Catherine had suffered a dozen or more similar social engagements since she turned eighteen, but she had never taken it seriously before. It was such a shock to her. Alfriston was a small village, only four hundred people lived there. It had been ninety percent of her world her whole life, with only the need to go to school taking her away from home. She had lived a blessed life, conforming to the new ways but still wrapping herself in the benevolence of her grandparents. But she could not do that for the rest of her life. It was an impossible dream to think that they would find a match for her as good as her father had been for her mother. She had to stop being so naive and live up to her responsibilities. Miss Walker heaved her best corsets up and around her shoulders, but Catherine stood as still as a statue. She just stared into the mirror whilst she was being laced and watched herself disappear beneath her usual undergarments, not flinching once. She was diapered, and as soon as her peach and white evening gown was in place, Miss Walker put her in her mittens. She was being unusually strict with her eldest charge, but they had all been shocked by the news.
“Do your girls visit London often?” Mrs Balcombe asked an hour later, once their guests had settled in the drawing room, or the lounge as Catherine’s grandparents still called it. Catherine and Chelsea were sitting on an old piano stool, leaving the better chairs for their elders and betters, carefully positioned by Miss Walker, still muzzled and mittened, like their mother. It was a very formal start to the evening largely because Mrs Balcombe had a daughter as well as a son, and thus she had arrived with her own guardian, a rather dour looking woman called Miss Robinson. “I do try to get Melanie up there once or twice a month just so that she experiences a more robust environment…there is a danger that we all get a bit lax in the provinces. And of course Graham is studying at University College London, so we always visit him there.”
“Perhaps not as often as we would like,” Hugh Blackstone replied, as his wife was playing the subservient partner in their relationship for once. Caroline would not enjoy it, but she was a good judge of people, and it was obvious that Mrs Balcombe wore her piety like a badge. Hugh was surprised, as Duncan Balcombe was never overly pious, but regardless of that his son still represented an opportunity. Not the best one he had ever seen, because the boy would never move into Dunroamin and be a part of their little family commune, but he was getting desperate. “Do you find Eastbourne and the surrounding area a little provincial, Mrs Balcombe?”
“Oh my wife was brought up in London, Hugh…and after National Service she worked briefly as a guardian for a family in Knightsbridge. That was how we met, as I replaced two valves for her employer. Hannah has found Eastbourne just a little backward in some respects, but that is hardly surprising way out here.” Duncan took over, smiling at his former mentor. “We love our house, and this village is charming…but we feel that Melanie needs a broader perspective. Perhaps Catherine would like to accompany her on one of her trips after the holidays? I am sure Miss Robinson would take good care of her? Graham would certainly treat everyone to tea, as long as I pick up the tab of course.”
“Oh Sebastian, what a day!” Richard Buckingham exclaimed after the ladies had left the room, finally feeling that he could relax amongst people he could trust. “And I am sure you have had to re-write your sermon for tomorrow…and you still have the midnight mass to perform…I don’t know about you but I am dreaming of my bed.”
“Get used to it son, sleep is at a premium in the hot seat.” Charles Buckingham chuckled, passing the port to Peter Munroe whilst Daniel Harrington produced a box of Cuban cigars. They had an hour before they needed to leave for the cathedral, but the Archbishop would have to go before that, to prepare himself. He had stuck to water throughout the meal, preferring to keep a clear head for an important service.
“Still, whilst the pressures of the job are often intense, you have to admit that this has been rather eventful,” Peter Munroe suggested, stifling a yawn. “Have we heard anything else from Archie?”
“Not a thing…and I am hardly surprised…I do feel a lot of sympathy for him.” Richard replied with a grimace.
“I spoke to him briefly to discuss funeral arrangements…he is expecting a state occasion.” Sebastian added, weakening and taking a small glass of port. “But I have had an idea about that…if you will humour me?”
“Oh I think we could all use the wisdom of the clergy right now Sebastian…what is your idea?” Charles Buckingham asked and the others nodded, all comfortable in each other’s company.
“I would like to suggest to both family’s that they have private funerals and allow us to arrange one memorial service. There is no precedent for this of course, as we have never had a president die before, and it gets us around the tricky notion of giving a full state funeral to a man we all know should have been driven out of office and into prison in disgrace. I think it would allow me to avoid the embarrassment of honouring a suicide, and it would save foreign dignitaries the bother of attending two separate occasions.”
“Elizabeth told me that Chloe is dreading the idea of a state funeral…I certainly approve.” Peter Munroe said as he lit a match for his cigar.
“I am loathe to treat Kieran and Alistair the same, if I am honest…it seems like a betrayal of him.” Charles Buckingham was suddenly serious and his son frowned before turning back to the archbishop.
“I think Kieran would like the idea of taking Alistair with him, as he had come to regret handing him the job in the first place Charles.” Sebastian commented, draining his glass. “And he would approve of us saving face, even if it is at his expense. Think about it, I won’t have to get back to Archie for a couple of days. I already told him that nothing could happen until early January and that I would be looking to finalise things on the twenty-seventh. Come on, let’s go and sing some carols…my spirits are sorely in need of uplifting tonight.”
Reformist Generations is continued in Part Six – Decisions, Decisions.