Reformism Revisited – Part Four
The Law is the Law
by Nick Lucas
Natalie Hughes found her first impressions of London confusing rather than disturbing. She had fully expected to see veiled women on every corner, but in truth the city was much as she remembered it when she left at the age of nineteen. She was told off about the length of her skirt when they arrived at Paddington, its knee length not satisfying a policeman as they queued for a taxi, but she saw two Muslim burka’s before she saw her first mantle. During the short drive to Richmond she saw a typically cosmopolitan European city full of diversity and difference, but it was October and she did not really expect to see anyone out in shorts. Her Uncle Steven was annoying rather than extreme. She had met Christians like him before. They went to church on a Sunday for a good singsong and carried on regardless, their faith no more important to them than the gin and tonic at the golf club afterwards. Uncle Steven was technically a Reformist, but she got the distinct impression that it was a business decision as much as anything else. Her cousin, who was almost the same age as Natasha, who Natalie was pretending to be, told her on the first night that any piety was strictly for public consumption. Emily said lots of her friends were the same. Their Dad’s all said that attending a Reformist service once a week and paying what amounted to lip service to the doctrine was a good investment in the future, and the girls dressed up once a week and curtseyed to the Pastor to get ticks in all the right boxes. Emily had only one Church gown, with a matching cloak, bonnet and mantle, but she wore gloves with it and no muzzle.
But she was not like any teenager Natalie knew or how she remembered being at that sort of age. For a few days, she and her father basically stayed in the house, getting to know their relatives, and as it was half term she spent a lot of time with Emily up in her room, which she was sharing for the duration of their stay. For a start, Emily had no computer, or laptop, and no mobile phone. ‘Natasha’ expressed some surprise, but Emily merely said that she used the family computer downstairs for her school work and that she ‘did not need’ a phone. The bedroom was less of a surprise. It was the sort of room Natalie had enjoyed when she was a teenager, and similar to Natasha’s room at the flat in Paris, lots of pink, some soft toys, a sleepover bed that pulled out from under Emily’s, and lots of pictures and posters on the walls. Not pop stars though, Natalie noted, when she scanned lots of colourful snaps of girls including Emily, mostly in smart school uniforms, and a couple of more arty prints. Emily’s bookshelves spoke more of school than fun, and she had no music system, just an old radio. Uncle Steven was not poor, and he could have afforded lots more for his only daughter, but it all seemed almost politically correct.
And Emily showed no particular desire to get out of the house. No friends called her on the house telephone, and she did not call anyone else. It was only when Colin Hughes suggested a trip to Richmond Park that Emily agreed to go out, after checking with her mother first. Aunt Rachel was not exactly unfriendly, but she seemed to spend most of her time in the kitchen, or keeping the house spotless, and Natalie was amazed when she called her husband, who was at work, more or less asking permission to go out for a walk. Natalie decided that she was imagining things, or perhaps over analysing them, because it was all a bit strange. They were not exactly a close family and she had not been back to England in years, so sensing a little tension in the air was probably understandable. Her Dad was taking advantage. But then Rachel and Emily made a huge fuss of getting ready to go out, because the skirts and tops they were wearing were not suitable. It was insane. Modesty was clearly a law and Natalie had brought lots of knee length skirts and long sleeved tops with her, making the effort her father said would be expected by everyone. She had fitted in well enough in the house. In fact, clothes had not even been mentioned, although she thought her aunt looked a bit worried when they mentioned the incident with the policeman at Paddington, but then again no one liked to upset the police. So she followed Emily upstairs, full of curiosity.
“Are you really going to change?” She asked, sinking down onto the bed as her cousin headed for her wardrobe.
“Of course…I can’t go out looking like this…what are you going to wear?”
“Boots, for a walk in the park…and maybe a jumper…it’s not cold outside.” Natalie shrugged, but then she got a glimpse of the contents of the wardrobe.
“Oh no…you have to change…these are just house clothes.” Emily carried on, clearly getting the idea that Natasha did not have a clue. She had pulled a long dress out, and held it up against herself. It was undeniably modest, but Natalie could not remember seeing anyone wearing anything like that on the journey. It did not make sense.
“OMG Emily…that is a sack, and we are going for a walk, for goodness sake.”
It was the wrong thing to say in a Christian household, of course. Emily shrieked, and her mother came in, so Natalie had to admit that she had, inadvertently, blasphemed, and there was much more of a fuss than there needed to be. Natasha was told off for using totally inappropriate language, and informed that her father would undoubtedly have something extremely serious to say about it. Aunt Rachel shooed her daughter out of her own room, dress still in hand, and told Natasha that she was grounded until further notice. Natalie had to struggle to keep a straight face. It was so ridiculous. Saying OMG was a teenage addiction for her sister, a slang expression with no real meaning or importance. But Emily had looked as if she had slapped her around the face and her aunt had evidently been furious. Her father came up a few minutes later, and admitted that he was supposed to be telling her off.
Rebecca Fitzgerald lay still inside her sleeping gown listening to the familiar early morning sounds. Not that she was Rebecca Fitzgerald anymore. She was Sister Hope, about the start the third day of her national service, which she had been told would last for three years, if she behaved herself. Not as bad as her sister, but bad enough, she thought, still traumatised by her initial experience. She had thought that being a nun was an honour, that her big sister had been blessed, even if her and her mother missed Samantha terribly, because everyone in their congregation admired her dedication. She had seen a lot of nuns in the last few years, and they were serene, dutiful, mysterious visions of diligence. When her call up papers had arrived, she had told herself that it would not be too bad, because she knew her father would not apply for a deferral. It was a maiden’s duty to serve God before marriage. She had been collected from home, by bus, all dressed up in her best gown, muzzled and mittened, and although she was upset to leave her parents she tried to be brave. But then she arrived at Ribble Valley Convent of the Holy Virgin, after endless hours covered on the bus, and her life became a nightmare.
She had been taken inside and stripped, before a nun shaved her head and private parts. It was not done kindly. She had tried to pull away and got her first taste of the switch, before being chased through a long sunken bath of water that smelled like disinfectant. Halfway through it, another nun used a long pole to push her beneath the surface. Then a team of nuns dressed her in her habit and attached a bottle of feed to her muzzle. Her basic training had begun.
Beaten but Unbowed
Brogan thought of her revenge as working to rule. It was not much, really. She simply did what she was told and spoke only when she was invited to do so, limiting her responses to the demands of obedience and etiquette. Harry tried to get her talking a few times in the week after her beating but she refused to respond, other than with unfailingly polite deference. She did not mention her punishment, even when he alluded to it, and every time she ended up in her sleeping gown she thought of it as a minor triumph, imagining his frustrations. He could do what he liked to her, but she refused to complain, because she had begun to realise that he liked crushing her spirit. She did not intend to give him the pleasure anymore. Instead, in his absence, she concentrated on the girls. Miss Howard did not make that easy for her, but the children were all she had, and she did her best to comfort and console them. She could not do anything else.
Her own fate was sealed, and she did not think about herself anymore. She lived for her boys, and the baby growing fast inside her, and for the girls, who she felt most responsible for. Her boys would be fine. Reformist Britain was a man’s world, but the girls needed to be helped to find a way to survive.
“Surely you had Superdry in Paris?” Emily asked, glancing back at Natasha as she fingered a rack of dresses beneath a display at the front of the busy store. Natalie offered no response. But she was right, of course. Natalie remembered the store, and some of the things she and her sister had bought there. Hoodies, the only ones to be seen in, except for maybe Jack Wills or Hollister, and the cutest little jackets. It was one of ‘the’ teenage labels, and beyond, a young look, American influenced, but still cool, although maybe not as cool as it was. But no Superdry store she had even seen looked like the Richmond one. “So trendy…Mum sort of thinks it’s a bit flash, but all the girls at school shop here. I love the colours…being modest doesn’t have to mean being dreary does it?”
“Suppose,” Natalie replied, starting to understand how much Britain had changed under the Reformists. It was not so much about extremism as far as she could see. It was more a sickening change of behaviour and attitude. Emily seemed excited about the prospect of buying a dress that was rather more Victorian than twenty first century, and she thought it was high fashion, just because it had the right label and everyone else she knew wanted to wear one.
“Of course these are only casual clothes…decent enough but fun for the girls.” Rachel explained to Colin, who was also fascinated by the changes he could see.
“I haven’t seen many people dressing like this around here?” He commented, watching Emily pointing out her favourites to Natalie.
“Oh well, you have hardly been out and about really and nice girls aren’t out and about anyway these days.” Rachel replied as if it was obvious. “Which reminds me, if you want Natasha to out without you are Steven, you need to get her identification documents…we can do that online but she will need them for going to and from school, at any rate. If you can get her in that is because Richmond High School is very popular. Hopefully having a cousin there will help.”
“Oh yes, I read something about them…”
“Colin, you are being so casual about everything…things are different since you were last here.” Rachel sighed, moving a little further into the store. “Responsible parents don’t let their children out on their own much, even at this age…and dressing them properly is essential…the police are really hot on anything borderline. That’s why you were checked at the station, so quite frankly nice families don’t take any chances. And I know the identification papers must seem like a nuisance, but she will be checked if she is on her own, without a man, so you have to sign the permission forms. Steven does it for me and for Emily on a daily basis…it keeps everyone safe.”
“Safe from what?” Colin asked, genuinely surprised about her attitude. Rachel was always something of a snob. He clearly remembered her being appalled when they turned up for lunch at his old house in Putney and saw that Natalie had cut her hair short and died it ginger, but she was no fanatic. She had been equally appalled when ‘Natasha’ had said OMG, but not from any religious outrage. He had got the distinct impression that she was scared, and Steven had given him a huge lecture that evening on it being ‘not the done thing’ without any reference to personal offence.
“Street crime…honestly don’t you remember what this country was like? It was hardly safe to walk on the streets, and thanks to the new laws it’s much better now…but the FID’s are the price we have to pay for that safety.”
“Ok, I’ll apply if she needs it for school.” Colin agreed, although he did not intend to be there long enough to have to put Natalie into the school. He had already been told that she could not start mid-term and he intended to be gone before Christmas if at all possible. He would get a surprise job offer, too good to turn down, and they could get home. But he was already putting together a background picture that it was impossible to get from news coverage. Great Britain was not exactly a pariah state, but its European partners and other allies were largely disapproving of the Christian Democrats. No one had gone as far as imposing sanctions, although it had been talked about, mostly because London was still a thriving financial centre. Even more importantly the British economy was thriving under Charles Buckingham. Rapid debt reduction, full employment and huge budget savings were delivering huge growth, so it was a hard regime to criticise beyond women’s rights, and the Arabs, who still paid for most of the things in the world one way or the other, stopped anyone making too much of a fuss about that. In fact, although decency laws and concerns about extremism had slowed tourism down from America and Europe, Arab visitors were up two or three fold, as was Arab investment. Reformists and Muslims shared an ideology of sorts. It led to a confusing picture for anyone living abroad trying to find out what was really going on. Some reports tried to highlight the strict new laws, but as they always struggled to get anyone to talk on camera it usually ended up being pictures of covered women, when the reality actually was that you could not see that many covered women on the streets. But others highlighted the successes, and there was never any shortage of people to talk about all of that, both men and women, smiling happily about how wonderful things were. Sir Charles Buckingham had an impressive public relations machine.
Natasha had borrowed one of Emily’s dresses for the shopping trip. Natalie felt a bit ridiculous, but her relatives were quite right in the end, what she was wearing was fashionable. Not that she saw lots of other girls around dressed like her, but because the shop windows were full of similar designs. Richmond was an affluent town, and it was a Friday morning in a school holiday but there were not many young people around at all. She saw a few, with their mothers, and they were wearing more than the skirts Aunt Rachel did not consider suitable for wearing out, but not much more. She did not see one mantle. In fact, yet again she saw more Muslims, fully veiled, than she did Reformists.
“Sorry…too crowded in here.” Colin grinned apologetically at another man in the pub, as he nudged him accidentally with his shoulder, trying to get away from the bar.
“Always is on match days, mate.”
“Yeah, I forgot…been living abroad for a while.”
“Oh right…seen a few changes then?” His new friend asked, sipping his pint. It was an Arsenal pub, near the Emirates stadium in North London, an old haunt of Colin’s. He was a cosmopolitan, happy in many cities, and he had not missed much about Britain when he moved abroad, but he missed Arsenal, and the chance to catch a game was too good to refuse. It was also a good opportunity to talk to people on neutral territory.
“Quite a lot…don’t women come in here anymore? I used to meet up with a girl and her brother here every week…thought they might be here.”
“In a pub, are you kidding? The police would hassle them out, for sure. No actual law against it, but only one sort of woman would be in a pub full of men right? It would freak everyone out…sex outside marriage, adultery and all that shit…really not worth the trouble mate. “How about at the game?”
“Oh there will be a few there…with male escorts…there is a family stand these days. Not many though…it’s sort of discouraged like a lot of things these days.”
“Stand still Natasha…this is very important, and your father may take a casual attitude to it, but we don’t…and you are in my care for now, not his.” Rachel snapped, smacking the back of Natalie’s leg to stop her making a scene. They had not managed to get a church gown the day before. Not the one Rachel wanted, and with Colin preferring his football to another day around the shops, Steven had taken them into Kingston, a better shopping centre.
“Ouch… but…” Natasha started to complain, but Rachel was ready for her.
“Open, or I will smack you again.” She said firmly, holding up the brand new muzzle. Natalie was tempted to refuse but they were in a small changing cubicle, and in the circumstances Natasha would not argue. Her father had told her, in front of her aunt and uncle, to do as she was told, or else. There had been several talks around the dinner table over the last few evenings all aimed at her, and Natasha knew she had to get a church outfit and wear a muzzle. Her aunt was very serious about it, and she had clearly had enough of Natasha’s attitude. So Natalie stood still and opened her mouth wide, like a chastened teenager might under duress. It was the moment she had dreaded since agreeing to go along with her father’s plan, and it was a totally horrible experience. Rachel pressed the pliant gel over her upper teeth, getting it into the right position and then pushing hard, before doing the same with the lower set, which forced the harder base over her tongue. Finally she closed the two halves together and Natalie heard a solid click as the device locked around her feeding tube. “Honestly child, I know you aren’t used to how we do things here, but this is your home now and you have to behave.”
Natasha was soon kitted out, and much to her dismay Rachel decided that she could wear her new outfit home. She had to get used to it, her aunt said, as she was going to Church the following morning, and her aunt did not want her relatives letting her down in public. She suffered in the enforced silence, and hoped that her father really was getting paid a lot of money for this job. She had a feeling that she was going to earn it and more besides.
Social Democrats Conference, Blackpool
“I have learned the lessons of what the Prime Minister calls the old politics.” Ben Cartwright said quietly, using the stage and talking without notes, in shirtsleeves, keeping it casual and personable. “I think he was right when he says that everyone was sick of both major parties blaming each other rather than focussing on solutions. I am not going to repeat that mistake. In fact, credit where credit is due, because in basic economic terms, and measured by several important key performance indicators, both this government and their coalition predecessors have delivered outwardly impressive results. But I still maintain that many of their policies, whilst sometimes effective on one level, have damaged this country on many others. However, not only must I respect that Charles Buckingham has delivered on his promises, but he did so after receiving an undeniable mandate from the British electorate. In six months the people will vote again, and the campaign will not be fought in the old ways. I am not going to stand here and tell you that Reformism is an extremist ideology because everyone has heard all that before. The people of this country voted in their millions to cure a number of perceived social ills, and we are where we are. Our manifesto for the next election must reflect that, and challenge this government on delivery rather than questioning their motives. I believe that the restrictions placed on women are too onerous. Yes, the crime figures tell us that women are not being assaulted…rape is down by some over half in just five years…but at what cost to personal freedom? Without permission from a father or husband, a woman is not allowed to go out on her own anymore. That leaves every woman beholden to a man, and I do not believe that is right. Police officers are harassing women out on their own, or in certain places, checking their identification and making them feel uncomfortable about doing simple things like having a drink or a meal on their own or with friends. Is that really the sort of country we want? Yes, less people are at risk because of this, but were the risks really that high? Stigmatising relationships outside of marriage…in fact making sexual relationships outside of marriage illegal, is Draconian…it has, whether the Prime Minister accepts it or not, set this country back over one hundred years. I do not think that is what people voted for. So I am proposing a major review of restrictive legislation and women’s rights if we win the election. Not to discard everything because there were good intentions there, but to sense check things…to get the balance right. I guarantee not to withdraw any legislation without full consultation, and indeed will not look to change any laws during my first year in office. I recognise that many people welcome a return to the idea of a Christian democracy…the moral code inherent in Christian faith has always been close to the hearts of the British public regardless of personal faith…but it is my belief that we have all been high jacked by a Reformist agenda, not the moderate creed the majority of British people would prefer.”
“So, Harry Trevor…have you high jacked the political agenda?” Jeremy Paxman asked as the report from the Social Democrat conference ended and the camera cut back to the studio.
“No, over two elections we have convinced the electorate to vote for something new…and Mr Cartwright and all of his rather desperate colleagues are still not willing to accept the will of the British people.”
“But he is promised not to change anything for a year and to use that time to consult with all parties concerned?”
“Great, because the only people concerned are the British people. Look, this is still old politics…consultations, focus groups, the odd Royal commission…some highly paid lawyers making a lot of headlines by asking other highly paid professional experts what we should do. We asked the people. We will ask them again in the spring and we will abide by what they decide. Most of us are sick and tired of the arrogance of people like Mr Cartwright…he thinks he knows best and that everyone else is wrong. He can’t blame us for anything because our policies have worked. Budget deficit down to lower levels than any other country in the world, unemployment down to the lowest recorded percentage of the working population, crime down, education standards up, heath standards up. These are the things that people care about, not whether a woman feels comfortable boozing in a pub on her own, for goodness sake. So is he the man to vote for to bring back this country’s old binge drinking culture? Does he really want to return this country to that state?”
“European ministers are concerned about women’s rights in this country though? President Clinton has admitted concern as well…surely a review is sensible?”
“I will not be lectured by Europeans who still want us to give prisoners the vote…their ridiculous human rights legislation was a curse on us all…remember David Cameron struggling to expel a known terrorist sympathiser because his human rights could have been breached? The people of this country were enraged then, and they will not be lectured now. Our French partners banned traditional Muslim dress…they are very selective about the human rights they care about, aren’t they? We proposed a fundamental change to working practises in this country and the electorate supported us. It is not anti-women to get family men with responsibilities off the dole and into work…it is pro-family. Millions of mother’s, supported by tax credits that cost us a lot less than unemployment benefits and associated costs, can now all stay at home and fulfil their most important role as full-time mothers and housewives. Yes, it is hard on the generation caught up in this social change, because they were taught to expect a career, as if any government can conjure jobs out of thin air. But we our adjusting our education policies to make young girls leaving school in future to value themselves as God’s children, and to understand their value to a well-balanced Christian society in the modern age.”
“After they have served God in your national service programme?”
“Once again, Ben Cartwright is out of step with the people. The idea of young men and women who do not go onto study at university spending three years in national service resonates with the people. Our armed forces are a perfect training ground for producing disciplined, skilled young men to come back into the workforce more rounded and mature. I have guaranteed that every young man will come out with a driving licence and a recognised employment skill, and frankly we have seen what happens when any government leaves entire generation to rot on the dole. These boys will be soldiers, but we are not planning to send them off to war…we still have our regular troops to do that…but they will get involved in community service, taking the pressure off the other services when needed, and adding that bit extra to the country. I can assure you, that is a very popular vision with the people that pay your licence fee.”
“But what about your angels of mercy? Forcing young women into a blatantly religious order?”
“No one is being forced to do anything Jeremy and you know it. Every young woman, in consultation with her parents or legal guardians, can apply to defer national service, and as long as she is married or engaged when the deferment comes to an end she will be excused service.”
“How about criminals being press-ganged?”
“Once again, a popular policy…if any woman is sent to prison for an offence not involving murder or violence, she may be offered the alternative of national service in line with the length of her sentence. It is a rehabilitation programme…serving time in gaol sewing mailbags or whatever, or serving the people in our hospitals, schools or local communities. These girls will come out as changed individuals, with unblemished records, and we all benefit. You use inflammatory terms such as press-ganged, but the reality is the people agree with us…this is all basic commonsense.”
A Reasonable Man
Pastor Brown took Megan’s arm as she carefully negotiated the steps down into the back garden, hampered by her gown and cloak and her mantle and veils. She was not particularly graceful, and Pastor Brown thought that she needed more practise. He had a strong faith, being the son of a Meadvale man who adopted Reformism early, soon after hearing Pastor Michael Winstanley speak, but he realised that spreading the word was a gradual process. In fact, his superiors thought that the rapid growth of the Church over just six years really was a minor miracle. But there was a general realisation that many of the new congregations were not as committed as they should be. Part of the job for a young Pastor, especially one without a rich father to help him secure a better post in a more established community, was to encourage more commitment from his hopefully burgeoning flock. In visiting the Robinson household, he had got to know the two daughters, and although young Bethany was perhaps the more enthusiastic he found Megan more of a challenge. He did not know why exactly but he rather enjoyed her company.
“Such a fine sunny afternoon, but winter is in the air I am afraid…mind the path Miss Robinson, it is rather rough.” He said not letting go of her arm, delighting in the feel of her leaning on him for support.
“Oh…thank you, Pastor.” Megan replied, as her muzzle had not been replaced after lunch, for once. Normally when the good Pastor came over, her father made sure his girls put on a show for him, so that was a bit of a surprise. Her father took his Church responsibilities seriously, being a naturally self-important sort of man, and his friendship with the Pastor was something of a social triumph, so his visits coincided with her most unpleasant days. Sundays were always the worst, but they had to put on a big act even at home.
“I hope my sermon did not bore you this morning?” He asked, as they made slow progress down the garden, with the nosy neighbours no doubt watching every step, Megan thought, but she had to mind her manners.
“Of course not Pastor…I always find your sermons very interesting…and instructive.” She lied, because if she offended him her father would go completely berserk, but she did not hate the Pastor. He was ordinary apart from his obvious faith, and he was nice to her and Bethany whenever he came.
“Good, because I wanted to speak to you about something…I am afraid I asked your father for the opportunity although I am sure you wanted to settle down with your sister and study this afternoon…my sister is just the same.”
“Oh I can do that later, sir.”
“Of course…you and your family are leading lights in the local community and excellent examples to others…and that is why I have asked your father for your hand in marriage.” Pastor Brown continued, rather blurting it all out, instead of the planned speech he had prepared. “I am delighted to say that he agreed, but I asked to tell you myself…I have so many plans for this congregation, and I think you will be the perfect partner to help me spread the word of God’s love.”
Colin Hughes watched the careful preparations for Church with some distaste. He knew the rules but his revulsion was more focussed on Steven and Rachel turning into fanatics just for appearance’s sake. It was no more than that, as far as he could see. It was not about genuine faith, or God would have cropped up in conversation during the week, and it was not fear, at least not any tangible fear he could identify. It was more like casual acceptance. Rachel would not let him watch the dressing process, of course. She considered that entirely unsuitable. But he had talked to Natalie when he got back from the football, and he could not understand why any parent would put their child through that without at least a strong belief. Not that faith justified the sheer severity of the doctrine. He put on his best suit and joined Steven downstairs.
“Rachel will look after her, Colin…don’t look so worried, old chap.” His cousin said, clapping him on the shoulder.
“Steven, we are your guests…and I know things have changed here since I moved abroad…but I do find all this quite difficult to get my head around…I find this dress code, for want of a better word, so severe…”
“Oh I felt the same…I found it hard at first…but if you can’t beat them, join them, eh? It all oils the wheels of commerce quite nicely and the country is in much better shape. I just decided it was the way things were going and we didn’t want to be seen as being anti Reform…not when it was so clearly necessary and all…and the Church is full of good people. Rachel doesn’t muzzle as she acts as a guardian to Emily of course…and to Natasha whilst you are here. It doesn’t do the girls any harm to have a little bit of discipline either…ah here they are!”
Colin only recognised Natalie by her height, as she was taller than Emily but shorter than Rachel, and his first thought was that he wanted to throw up. He was not sure that he had gathered any meaningful evidence thus far, but he had learned that the modern renaissance was growing like a cancer. He just wondered, after a few days taking stock, if anyone was going to be able to find a cure.
“She is allowing us half an hour, every evening to talk, to discuss our lesson plans.” Sister Esme informed her team after their muzzles had all been removed and the supervising Sister had left them in peace. “I doubt if it will always be unsupervised, but we can but hope.”
“I plan to beat the poor creatures as little as possible, and give no one any reason to beat me.” Sister Rose murmured, and most of the others nodded in agreement, their covered white faces making them look like ghosts to Caris. Each one had blue braid around their mantles, to distinguish them from the novices. Their supervisors wore green, which Caris thought appropriate as the sight of them always made her feel nauseous.
“Sisters, I share your concerns. We all know that the order can be harsh, in God’s name.” Sister Esme sighed, and Caris felt a familiar surge of frustration and annoyance. No one could make her believe in God’s love. Not after so many years as a slave to the Church, and she found Esme’s still unshakeable faith incredible. They never got much chance to speak to each other, just the odd snatched conversation over dinner, so a regular meeting would be something to look forward too. But Caris did not want to look forward to anything ever again, because it hurt too much when it was snatched from her. She had learned to take each moment just as it came. “However, these girls will be healing the sick, and we are best placed to give them the basic skills they need to do a good job, regardless of the conditions here.”
“Sister, most of them are too frightened of being punished to concentrate.” Caris pointed out, to more nods.
“I shall be making that very point to Sister Rosalind as soon as I get the chance. But this is early days. We were the first few to take our vows, but now they are coming in their thousands. We must have faith and pray that God hears our prayers, but in the meantime we can only do our best, Sisters.”
Caris bit her lip to stop herself saying something she would regret, because she had seen Sister Esme running away from the dreaded switch the same as anyone else. She was not immune. But she remained good and faithful, and Caris thought of her as some sort of saint as a result, and despite her misgivings it did give her hope. Because she recognised that things had gone wrong at St. Theresa’s, as much as she hated to admit it, from the point of view of the authorities. Mother Esme’s regime had allowed too much scope for it, allowing things to slide too far the other way into sin and shame. She shivered as she thought of Sammie in her cot, of her warm body next to hers. She was trying to be objective. If she ignored the injustice of her incarceration as a nun and considered the order as a project, she could understand the need for discipline. For a few blissful months, they had all lost their minds. But Ribble Valley had gone back too far the other way of course. It was brutal, and inhumane.
“Emily is worse than useless, she doesn’t know anything about anyone.” Natalie moaned, as she walked beside her father in the general direction of the Female Identification office at Richmond town hall, wearing her own casual dress. Rachel had made noises about making more of an effort, considering why they had to go, but her father had saved her. “I need to speak to some of her friends, or the girls at church, but as we were all gagged that was impossible.”
“I am beginning to wonder if either of us will found out much here. It’s not exactly a hotbed of the revolution…Steve seems to think it’s a good networking opportunity more than anything else. Most of these people are just going along with things for some sort of real or perceived advantage.” Colin replied, checking the sign and heading for the right door. “I am sure some of the men have put pressure on their wives and daughters to conform, but that’s hardly a surprise. We already knew that the new laws would encourage a bit of that, but it’s not systematic abuse. Maybe once we have the right paperwork we can move on and see if we can kick up some dust elsewhere?”
“I am really not sure I want too…the weekend freaked me out. I mean, I was completely helpless. I can’t explain what it feels like, but it’s bad…really bad.”
“Ok, well let’s think about it…I didn’t expect miracles, but I did want to get a first hand feel of it.” Colin agreed, holding the door for her and stepping inside. He approached the desk and explained what they needed, handing over the completed forms and his online reference number. According to Steven, the visit to the office was just so that they could see Natasha, face to face and check her against her passport photo.
“Oh yes…Mr Hughes…and Miss Natasha Hughes…just wait here a moment please.” The man behind the desk said, and they took seats whilst he disappeared into the back somewhere. They stood up again when he came back. “Just about all done, and everything is in order, but Miss Hughes has been chosen for a random physical check…nothing untoward, it just so happens we have the team here today and it is just procedure. They like to do random checks, just to pick up any irregularities…I am sure you understand sir?”
“Oh right…well yes, if we have to.” Colin said uncertainly, glancing at Natalie. “What sort of physical check?”
“Oh nothing to worry about…just drink and drugs. Random checks act as a good deterrent to older ladies renewing their documents, but as Miss Hughes’ age I am sure it is nothing for you to worry about, sir?”
“Just answer the question, Mr Hughes.” Detective Inspector Reid sighed, trying to calm the man down and get a little sense out of him, finally. “How did your fifteen year old daughter come to lose her virginity?”
“I…I don’t know…I didn’t know she had…but what right have you got…” Colin Hughes spluttered, but DI Reid did not let him finish his sentence.
“Mr Hughes, your daughter is under age. She has technically been raped, even if the act was consensual, and you don’t seem to be too concerned about that, for some reason?”
“Of course I am concerned, but we have been living in France…”
“Even the French have laws, Mr Hughes…and this is exactly what random health checks are for…to keep girls like your poor daughter safe from abuse.”
“Natasha has not been abused…”
“Sex before marriage is illegal in this country Mr Hughes, let alone statutory rape of a minor.”
“She has not been raped…”
“I mean I am sure she hasn’t…”
“You are sure your sexually active child has not been raped?”
“She is…look, this is crazy for goodness sake…you aren’t accusing me of…”
“I am not accusing you of anything Mr Hughes…I am investigating a crime. As of now I think you need a solicitor, and I have called social services to take care of your daughter.”
“Social services…her aunt and uncle…”
“Obviously we cannot let her go to them, because the gentlemen concerned…Steven Carter…is a suspect too, until we can prove otherwise.”
“Surely I don’t have to get involved in any individual cases, Mark…can you just summarise it for me?” Peter Munroe asked his principal private secretary with a sigh, tossing him the file. It was the end of a long day and he wanted to go home.
“Oh this is just awkward…a potential issue with our European friends, I think…specifically the French, Minister.”
“How can the French be involved in a sexual abuse case?”
“It seems the young lady involved has been resident in France for several years, only returning last week, and she got caught by one of our random medical checks when her father applied for her FID.”
“She is a minor, there is nothing controversial here, is there?”
“Giving her or the father a custodial sentence for a crime committed in France, where the punishments are rather less severe than ours, could cause problems. The parents are divorced, the father has joint custody and clearly the mother would have to be informed, sir.”
“She is a British citizen and her father brought her here?”
“Yes sir, but we have always tried to avoid causing public problems, especially with foreign implications. It is not a situation we can control as we usually do, sir.”
“Yes, I see that, we need to take care. Where is she now?”
“Social services would usually send girls like this straight to a convent…her relatives here are actually Church members so that would be the default position before putting the case before a judge. In this instance, the social worker used his discretion and put her in the care of the local Pastor, who knows the family, as a temporary measure.”
“And the father?”
“At best he is guilty of failing to protect his daughter from abuse. He is being questioned right now as I understand it, and will be held until the inevitable court appearance.”
“Ok, he is not embarrassing…unless he can conclusively prove the abuse happened when the child was with her mother, and he knew nothing about it, which I would imagine would be his defence. The child is much more problematic I suppose. Issue a temporary care order on my authority and ask the Pastor to treat her as a guest, rather than a novice. That buys us enough time to come up with a more permanent solution.”
Natalie felt someone moving around her. She could not hear them, because she was wearing headphones, blaring a loud and annoying sermon into her head, and she could not see them because she was wearing a blinding mantle. She had no idea where she was, or what was happening to her. She had been dressed in a black and white, rather like the nuns she had seen at Church with Emily, muzzled and mittened, and more or less left ever since. She had a feeding tube and a diaper. Then the headphones finally went silent, and she felt someone sit down beside her.
“Natasha dear, you have to be very brave.” Her aunt said, putting an arm around her shoulders. “No one knows what is going to happen yet, so the Pastor will keep you safe here. Everyone is praying for you, dear. Uncle Steven and I have offered to be your legal guardians if your Daddy goes to prison, but social services have a lot to decide. Just tell the truth and trust in God’s love dear, it will all be all right. I think they might give you a little operation, to restore things…down there…but you aren’t to worry about it Natasha…you are still a child, and this is not your fault.”
Reformism Revisited is continued in part five The Bonfire of the Sanities.