Reformist Generations – Part Three
The Choosing of Sides
by Nick Lucas
The Sewing Circle Lecture
“I have done a few of these talks…around the constituency, of course…so I thank you for having me.” David Harrington said, as the polite, muffled applause of mittened hands faded away to silence. “I am sure some of you had some difficulties obtaining your father’s formal permission to come…and I am equally sure that several stalwart members of your circle have urgent engagements elsewhere this afternoon…because politicians are not supposed to talk to maidens or gentlewomen anymore. I find that both strange and disappointing in this day and age…you do, or will soon, have a vote. If politicians do not make the effort to reach out to you, to talk to you about the big issues affecting us all, how will you ever be able to make a reasoned decision in any future elections? It is commonly assumed that your fathers or husbands will discuss the issues with you, and advise you how to vote in line with their own views…the infamous family vote…which does save a lot of time filling in endless forms, I must say. But that is both undemocratic and unchristian in my opinion, and that is why I am campaigning for reform of the family voting system in the House.”
“But do not mistake my position, or the position of my friends in the House who are raising this matter and several more at the highest possible levels. I am a committed Reformist with a large capital letter…I am the son of the first chairman of the Christian Democrat Party and I believe in the benefits of the social change introduced during what historians now call the modern renaissance. I do not want to dismantle the reforms my father and his colleagues worked so hard to put in place some forty years ago…but I do want to tinker a little around the edges, to improve things for everyone.”
Catherine Baraclough led another round of muffled applause. Mr Harrington was right, of course. Several girls had not been allowed to attend the Sewing Circle’s monthly lecture. Several more had been allowed to attend, but had been left in their muzzles whilst Miss Walker and her colleagues released everyone else. And they were all still in mittens, even Catherine and Chelsea, perhaps as a reminder that they were still under control, as even the most enlightened gentlemen in the community had expressed some concerns about the lecture. Catherine had talked her grandfather round, with some help from her mother and grandmother, but he was not exactly happy about it.
“I have chosen to seek opportunities like this to speak to girls…ladies…such as you, because the entire Reformist movement was founded on the will of the so-called silent majority…and that is the position you find yourselves in now. Our female voters are largely silent these days and that is something we want to change. In rebalancing society and putting the family and the Church back at the centre of our lives…something our grandparents lost in the past I am afraid…we must not lose your voices. Modesty is important and I am sure Alfriston is a shining example of piety but whilst you, I am quite sure, believe that you are in your proper place, you have every right to a say in your own future. But the family voting system…if abused…denies you that right ladies, and it is something I want you to help me change.”
Sister Caris plumped the pillows for her patient and then helped him rest back against them, before holding a glass to his lips so that he could drink some water. He was frail, and looked ill, although Caris had no idea what was wrong with him. She had not seen his notes, or been given any specific instructions, but that was nearly always the case. Since being moved out of accident and emergency, where her age slowed her down too much these days, she tended to be on the geriatric wards, with hardly any responsibility other than to offer compassion and care. She found it quite amusing in many ways. Her and Sister Esme, who was now in her eighties, geriatrics themselves, tending to their peers. Caris was almost seventy and still quite capable of running for the showers. Especially with a switch encouraging her to hurry.
“Thank you, Sister…now leave us please, I have guests.” Her patient said, and she curtseyed, before turning for the door, only to find Charles Buckingham and Peter Munroe standing in front of her. She curtseyed again, shocked into reverence, and then hurried away. She did not know who her patient was, because she had already been a nun when he came to power, but he had to be important, considering the identity of his visitors.
“Kieran, how are you feeling?” Charles Buckingham smiled as he took one of the guest chairs.
“Old Charles…I had hoped to outlast you, but I fear that is becoming increasingly unlikely.”
“Oh come on old chap, don’t say that…” Peter Munroe said brightly as he sat down beside his oldest friend.
“No point in denying it, and my imminent demise is why I asked to see you both.”
“Oh yes?” Charles asked, immediately intrigued.
“I am worried about Alistair.” Kieran Radcliffe said, in no mood to beat about the bush.
“He is a monster we all created…it should not pain you in particular.”
“I learned from you Charles…I tried to be a benign dictator in my time. I knew what we had created, and I had hoped to find an alternative to Forbes…but my first heart attack forced my hand…and now someone needs to control him, before it is too late if it is not already…or at least have the means to do so.”
“Not us, surely?” Buckingham smiled again, sitting back in the uncomfortable plastic chair. “Kieran, we are yesterday’s news and so far out of touch we might as well be in a bed next to you.”
“No, not you, but you will know who to give it to…if the opportunity presents itself.”
“Give what?” Munroe asked, frowning a little.
“Some…information. It belongs to me…and a friend…he kept it to protect himself, should the need ever arise…but it is just about the only thing that could stop Forbes in his tracks if it were ever necessary to do so.”
“So what would you like is to do?”
“Go and speak to Christopher Slade…let him show you what he has…I can give you the password…and then you will see what power it gives you. I can’t die without knowing that someone else knows what to do, and frankly I can’t trust anyone else. It is a nuclear deterrent, not to be used lightly my friends, but I do not believe Forbes should stand for another term in office. I would like to see the project back in safer hands…someone like Richard perhaps, Charles…and this really might help him to achieve his ambitions. Not as cleanly as you would like perhaps, but there is no such thing as a fair fight with Alistair Forbes.”
“That much is true.” Charles Buckingham agreed, turning to look at Munroe.
“Coffee, Richard?” Alistair Forbes asked as his secretary showed his guest into his office.
“Thank you Mr President.” Richard Buckingham smiled and shook the proffered hand, resisting the temptation to wipe it clean on his trousers. He did not like the man. He considered Forbes to be an ominous presence throughout the history of the modern renaissance. He would never tell his father his opinions, but he thought of Forbes as the movement’s one glaring mistake.
“Thank you for popping over…I hope the House can spare you?”
“Oh I am sure it can, for an hour or two.” Buckingham said, taking his coffee.
“I wanted to try and head off this…sniping…at the government…I know your motives are sincere, but I am afraid it gives the wrong impression of the party…and the press are starting to talk about divisions.”
“Obviously there are alternative opinions…that is healthy in any democracy wouldn’t you say?”
“Sometimes, but rarely in public…that has never been the Reformist way Richard, we present a unified front to the electorate or we risk losing their confidence.”
“I believe that I am representing the opinions of a significant proportion of that electorate, Mr President.”
“Oh I am sure you do…and there is an interesting debate to be had…but not on the floor of the House, and not on the BBC my boy…it is not the way I like to do things.” Forbes grinned, brushing a speck of something off his lap, and then returning his gaze to his guest’s face.
“That’s just it, Mr President…I am not your boy.” Richard replied, staring right back. “I am not going to let you suck this into a closed committee and talk it out until you get what you want, and I am not going to be bought off with a ministry and some of your reflected power. I want to appeal to the electorate.”
“I welcome a challenge.” Forbes said quietly, refusing to bite. It was a blatant accusation of bribery but in a private meeting with no witnesses, and Forbes never recorded his conversations. In fact, he went to great lengths to make quite sure that no one ever recorded his private meetings. He had the office swept clean several times a day. He was not offended, because he had bribed many people in his time. He had blackmailed a few too, and finished others. “But I fail to see the need to fall out with you over this? Nun’s rights? Family voting? Honestly Richard, are these really the issues you find most important?”
“Oh there are others, Mr President…but just like my father I am focussing on the ones that will resonate most with our voters I suppose.”
“You are taking a very courageous stance.”
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Richard said with conviction, a smile playing on his lips.
“Are you quite sure of that?”
“Quite sure, Mr President…are you?”
History Repeating Itself
“Suffrage is a dangerous idea to even mention, in my opinion…not that my opinion counts for anything much around here anymore.” Hugh Blackstone grumbled, buttering a scone.
“Obviously we will not chain ourselves to any railings or throw ourselves in front of racehorses, but very few suffragettes did that anyway Grandpa…it was a campaign for the right to vote, and Mr Harrington believes that a peaceful but determined cry for reform that we…”
“No, I won’t have it…not until you and Chelsea are both safely married…then, if your husband allows you to pursue such mad ideas, he can clear up the mess.” He interrupted Catherine, raising his voice. Both girls were surprised, because they had never considered themselves as not being safe.
“Catherine, your grandfather is quite right…it is not seemly for you to be involved in such things.” Florence told her daughter as she cut into her chicken, glancing at her own mother.
“Surely I can…” Catherine began, but her grandfather did not let her finish her sentence.
“Miss Walker, Catherine needs to go to bed and consider her behaviour.” Hugh Blackstone said, his voice clearly serious as if he wanted his granddaughter to know that it was not a joke.
“Yes sir…come along please Catherine.” Miss Walker said, stepping forwards to her side.
“Open,” Miss Walker said sharply and Catherine fell silent, looking around at the others before opening her mouth, tears of frustration already forming in her eyes.
“And either take your paddle to her or use the punishment chip…the next time Catherine joins us I expect to see a dramatic change in her attitude.” Hugh Blackstone growled, attacking a carrot with his usual gusto.
“Good afternoon Ma’am,” Ophelia murmured, completing a passable obeisance. She looked pale, and sad, but Mena was not surprised by that in the circumstances. She had received shocking news with her resistance still low after giving so much blood to Angus, and the thanks she got was having her life ripped apart before her eyes. It was not just or fair. Mena could not help but feel that her husband was to blame, but she did not see how he could be. Not this time.
“Sit, Ophelia…please.” Mena replied, patting the space beside her on the sofa. Ophelia did not move well, her elaborate clothes hampering her rather than enhancing her. Mena remembered feeling like that, under the eagle eyes of Miss Freeman, fretting about a crease in her gown, or about lowering herself into a seat with suitable grace and elegance. Such things were natural to her after almost thirty three years, but she was watching it happening again and it brought back far too many memories. Her heart was breaking for both Euan and Ophelia, because she could not believe either of them knew about it before Alistair and the doctor’s discovered the news. She had never known Erica, or anything about her, but her father had told her that it was a terrible mess at the time. He had been worried about Euan breaking the law and throwing away his career to run away with this mystery girl, but Mena could not see how she could possibly have been pregnant by someone else. That was almost an impossibility in Reformist Britain, and therefore it was so shocking to Mena that it took her breath away. She had not been given any details at the time. She remembered Alistair being cross that her father had even told her about it, but somehow a scandal had been avoided and Euan, and Erica, had left the county.
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
“Ophelia…despite this…news…I am still here for you…I always will be.”
“But you are not my aunt anymore, Ma’am.” Ophelia said quietly as Mena took her mittened hands and placed them in her lap, drawing her closer.
“I hope I can be something better dear…I hope I can be your friend.”
“I am told your husband…the President…is my legal guardian, Ma’am…not my grand…not Mr Miller?”
“As I understand it, yes dear.”
“So he can do whatever he wants with me…he can keep me here.”
“Ophelia, nothing has changed…not really…Alistair wants you to help us save Angus, I am sure he has not thought about anything else. I don’t think you realise how shocking this is to everyone here. I know it was devastating for you, and I am sure my brother is beside himself, but these things do not happen here. It is unthinkable.”
“Everything has changed for me.”
“Ophelia…I know this is hard for you, but despite this news, what you are doing for us makes you special to us. No one will forget that, and no one here wants you to come to any harm, or be unhappy dear. I really can’t tell you what is going to happen because I have no idea…but my husband pays his debts. He may be many things but he loves Angus and he will love you for saving him…I promise.”
“Christopher…is this secure?” Peter Munroe asked, looking up from the screen with a frown on his face.
“Completely…that machine is not online.” Chris Slade grinned, perching on the edge of his own desk. “I can assure you that it would take a very competent technician several weeks just to turn it on, and the massive hard drive is full of so much junk you would be bored just ploughing through it all if you did not know where to look. I got rather carried away with making sure my little secrets would stay out of harm’s way.”
“Some of this is absolute dynamite.” Charles Buckingham said, still scrolling down the page.
“Kieran and I are like-minded…he liked to know things, and I helped him find them, but I also realised that I needed some protection myself…or I thought I did…luckily I never needed to use it, of course. Then when we both retired, Kieran and I rather dabbled here for fun, solving some mysteries and riddles that had escaped us whilst in office.”
“You were protecting yourself specifically from Alistair Forbes?”
“Oh no, not really…although I have to say I always considered him the greatest threat if things should turn nasty. I primarily found evidence, or at least a suggestion of it, whilst he commonly fabricated it. I always worried that if he came after me I would need rather more than a good lawyer. But I have worked for him since I retired, on several private matters, so we are not enemies.”
“So are you happy to pass these secrets onto us?” Peter asked, squinting a little at the small fonts.
“I am here because of Kieran, and you gentlemen…I consider it a part of my service.”
“But you won’t let us print anything out and take it away with us?”
“At this stage, I consider it too much of a risk. If the police broke the door down now that computer would be secure before they got through the hall, but once the information leaves here, and goes onto paper, we are exposed, and we can’t do that without a good cause.”
“So, this represents our deterrent?”
“Or our gun to the head…I’ll load the bullets when the time is right, you just choose the targets.”
“Can’t Catherine come too, Miss Walker?” Chelsea asked, glancing at her big sister in the corner of the lounge. She was still covered by a blanket, as she had been before lunch, and most of the morning.
“Catherine is in disgrace Chelsea, you pay no mind to her and concentrate on not getting into trouble with Miss Cameron please.” Miss Walker sighed, putting a mitten on Chelsea’s left hand as she spoke.
“Yes Miss Walker,” Chelsea replied uncertainly. It was not like Catherine. It was not like her grandfather either. Her mother had tried to explain things to her, but she did not understand what all the fuss was about the sewing circle. She had gone to the lecture but she was very careful, partly because her grandfather was not too keen on the idea but mostly because she thought it dull, and she had taken little notice. She liked to sew and chat with her friends, in a relaxed atmosphere, not listen to stupid politicians causing trouble.
Florence stood to one side, watching her old friend finish putting the mittens on her youngest daughter and then muzzle her for her afternoon out. She did not think about that, because she was used to such things. She had been born into the first phase of the modern renaissance, and she would never dream of approaching the front door without her muzzle. Miss Walker had once been her friend, but she had long since adjusted to her being the family guardian, so that was a different relationship. It had been quite common at the time, but they had not cheated anyone. Miss Walker was kind, and loved the family, but she was good at her job. She had punished Florence many times, and she had watched her punish her daughters, but she was worried about Catherine. She did not seem to understand her position. It was precarious, and Florence herself had no wish to be put in any danger. For a start, she had no wish to remarry. She was still, just about, young enough to have children, and many fathers would have tried to find her another husband, who might not want to live with the entire family. Both her daughters also needed to be safely settled, ideally keeping them within the family home or very close to it, with young gentlemen who would treat them nicely. It was selfish of her, perhaps, but what they had at Dunroamin was very special, and she knew her father worried that he would die and leave them all at risk. That was what prompted his unusually harsh treatment of Catherine, and she knew Nina Walker was just as concerned as she was.
“She is young and bright Hugh, but she is a good girl…she would not do anything stupid, you know.” Caroline Blackstone told her husband as she settled opposite him in her armchair.
“She doesn’t have to…she only needs to be connected to someone who does.” He growled, his attention on his newspaper and his mood still foul. “In case you hadn’t noticed this glorious republic does not take kindly to any opposition, and in our situation it would be foolish in the extreme to get involved with this nonsense.”
“You don’t think it is nonsense any more than I do.”
“My opinions don’t matter…the future happiness of the girls does.”
“Agreed, but you could try explaining that to Catherine rather than pretending to be a Reformist father.”
“So, he actually threatened you?” Charles Buckingham asked his son, frowning at the news.
“Come on Dad, don’t pretend it surprises you, but I stood my ground…don’t worry about me.” Richard replied, passing his father a glass of port with a smile.
“Oh it may surprise you, but I don’t…not in that sense at any rate.” Charles grinned, raising the glass in thanks. “Alistair Forbes was a necessary evil in my time, and I think Kieran needed his hob-nailed boots more than once, but he should never have been allowed to become President, of course. He is a schemer and a bully but I am not sure he can bully you, Richard…in many ways you are the perfect man to stand up to him…if you have the courage.”
“I am not scared of Forbes Dad…I have clean hands, and a clear conscience.”
“I remember you only got into one fight at Eton…you beat that boy who had been bullying the youngsters to a pulp in your fifth year…if I recall it rightly your housemaster said you destroyed the lad, although he was twice your size. Your master said he could have stopped it earlier, but he was distracted by a blocked toilet, which he considered more important…he said when he told his colleagues in the staff room they gave you a round of applause.”
“Someone needed to stand up to him…”
“Of course, but it speaks volumes for your character. I remember you apologising to me for your behaviour…I think you got sent home a few days earlier, as more of a treat than a punishment, but you were mortified, and seemed sure that I would beat you or something.”
“I was not ashamed of what I did, but of letting you down…”
“Precisely…and you see Forbes in the same light, but there are no rules in politics. People always think there are, but anything goes, as long as you don’t get caught…your squeaky clean image might protect you, but is that true of your friends and supporters Richard? Forbes is more unpopular than he thinks, and a meaningful opponent will flush out the doubters, but he will terrify as many of them as he can…it is the only way he knows.”
“I will not stoop to that level, Dad…I just want to moderate our approach…”
“No Richard, don’t talk like that…you can’t go into this expecting to reach a compromise. Many other people have made that mistake, not necessarily with Forbes, but the result will be the same. If you carry on with this you must run for President and you must fight to win.”
“No half measures?”
“No point, he either kills you or you kill him…that is what you have to be ready for. It may not come to that but you have to assume that it will, so that you are prepared for anything.”
“Will you give me your public support…it would mean a lot to me?”
“Oh yes…I think I can do that…and perhaps a little more…”
“In 1946, my grandmother wanted a career, and her father told her that her options were to become a nurse, a teacher, a secretary or…if she wanted something really exotic, an air-stewardess.” Hugh Blackstone told Catherine, quite out of the blue, as he stomped into the drawing room with the usual crash of his stick against the furniture. “She could not go to university as she did not have the right background, let alone the qualifications required, and she felt stifled and suffocated, as if she did not have a future.”
“She had a vote, Grandpa.”
“She most certainly did, from the age of twenty one I believe. I am telling you this, because there is this misconception among some people that Reformism ended years and years of unrivalled freedom and opportunity…but that is a lie. Even in the sixties the permissive society still relegated women to the position of housewife. My mother worked in a bank for a year, until she met my father, and she did not work at all from the day she got engaged until the day she died…she was happy at home.”
“I do not expect a career, Grandpa.”
“Good, because the options are more or less the same, without the exotic one or the secretarial, and the addition of a nun’s habit, Catherine. You cannot change the world we live in, and you should think about what we have.”
“No one can change anything alone.”
“I think I have given you a good life.”
“You have, Grandpa.”
“And you are not settled yet…your father’s death leaves you, your sister and your mother vulnerable. If I should die before we find someone…”
“Grandpa, I will do as you advise.”
“I know you will Catherine, I will make sure of it, if I have too. But I would like you to understand why…your grandmother seems to think that you deserve an explanation and you know how she goes on…I am not a tyrant, and when you are old enough to vote, if you are still living in my house you will vote as you choose.”
“I understand that Grandpa, and you know I love you…but I want other people to have that choice.”
“So do I…but not at your expense. Have I made myself clear?”
“Yes Sir, I shall leave the Sewing Circle.”
“Good…you can bake more cakes…your sister is a terrible cook…almost as bad as your mother…if we did not have you and Miss Walker I am sure we would all starve. Now I am going to read my newspaper…could you all please try not to start a revolution in my absence?”
“Ophelia…I must apologise for the recent turn of events.” Alistair Forbes said, once the guardian had settled the girl in his office and left them in peace. She looked the part, at any rate. He was no particular connoisseur of good maidenhood, although he had learned most of the basic principles over the years. She was trying to be graceful and gracious, no doubt under various threats from her guardian if she should offend him, and she was making a reasonable job of it as far as he could see. She was sitting quite straight, assisted by a tightly laced corset, of course. He had often laced Mena into hers for fun, to see how tight he could pull it before she fainted, but Ophelia was young and slender, and her waist did not look under particular stress. However, the boned support would hold her straight, and her skirts seemed to explode from her hips like an avalanche of velvet. She was bare-faced as he had requested, and unmuzzled, but she was wearing mittens. He always liked the sight of them, the idea that the hands were still there, hidden inside their stiff covers, and rendered completely useless. He could imagine the feeling of impotence. In fact, he had tormented Mena for years, enjoying her helplessness, and playing on it when it pleased him to do so. He had closed down her life, slowly but surely, like turning off lights in a house. Ophelia had a lot to learn, but unlike his own daughters, who had known no other life, she would be like Mena. She would miss things. She would resent things. “I never imagined that by coming to our aid you would suffer such a shocking change of circumstances.”
“Thank you, Mr President.” Ophelia replied, responding as Miss Archer had demanded, and fearful that she would be punished again if she displeased her ‘generous host.’ He was no longer her uncle. Miss Archer had made that clear, after Mena had told her about the blood tests. Not Auntie Mena. Not anymore. She did not know who she was anymore. She did not know what to believe.
“But ironically you have come home.” Forbes smiled, waving his hand as if the news she had received was of no consequence to him, or anyone else. “What did you know of your mother, child?”
“Only that my father smuggled her out of England, because she hated her father, Mr President.” Ophelia answered honestly because it was not a subject her father, or rather Euan Miller, liked to discuss, sober or otherwise. “She gave birth to me within that first year and then died of a heroin overdose.”
“She certainly did, and obviously you are aware that she was English, and that your father’s…excuse me, I mean Euan Miller’s actions were illegal, as Erica Martin’s father had not authorised her to leave the house, let alone the country. This was some seventeen years ago, before the compulsory fitting of tracking and punishment chips made such midnight flits impossible. I am told that you have experienced the…discomfort…of the punishment chip…you would feel that pain, and more, if you strayed beyond the boundaries set by your legal guardian…it is a rather ingenious device.”
“Yes Mr President, I am sure it is.”
“I am not aware of all the facts, but Mr Miller was working at a charity at the time. I am told it is likely that he met Miss Miller there. There was an enquiry after her disappearance, and her father says that she spent some hours each week stuffing envelopes for an African charity along with several other maidens from her church…Mr Miller had just returned home after some months abroad digging wells and other such endeavours.”
“My mother loved my father, Mr President.”
“She loved Mr Miller, you mean…he is not your father, Ophelia…and that is our mystery. Mr Martin has no idea what happened the night your mother left her family home, and his wife and your aunt are living in God’s love, so it would be rather complicated to ask them…although they were questioned by the police of course. They helped Erica leave the house, but always claimed not to know anything about anything else.” The President paused, still staring at the girl, trying to judge her emotions as she took in the little information he was giving her. “So, you came here as a Miller, hoping to help Angus, your cousin, and of course you have had to cope with our little ways…thinking it an imposition, a restriction on you, dear. But I am sure you were a little excited as well, to visit the land your mother escaped from, to see the wonders of Reformism up close. It is understandable you know…we still get lots of tourists and we make hardly any allowances for them anymore. Mena was the same…her father asked her to come back as well…a strange coincidence there, don’t you think? He wanted her to help his career, in return for a place at the Sorbonne? Again, a coincidence. She was here a few weeks, drinking in the culture, but also preparing to help him by learning to adopt some of our customs…and then…bam…all of a sudden, he turned her into a good little maiden, with the help of a guardian from hell, and married her to me. But…coincidences aside…your situation is different, Ophelia. Whether by design or just dumb luck, you are not being forced into anything alien to you…instead, you have been brought home.”
“This is not my home, Mr President.”
“Now Ophelia, don’t argue with me…I am sure Miss Archer warned you to be polite.” Forbes grinned, immediately seeing the flash of fear in her eyes. “Your dear mother was a criminal, but she was English, and your father, whoever he might have been, was certainly in England when he committed his heinous crime. Your mother was smuggled out of the country illegally by Mr Miller, and you were named as a ward of court as soon as you were born, my dear. You are English, and you are already a ward of court…you are home.”
“I don’t want to be here…”
“Of course you don’t, but that is because of your upbringing as a heathen dear, and that is something that we can eradicate. I had intended to ensure you were returned to Mr Miller, as I agreed with your grand…Mr Miller Senior, although that would have entailed…disregarding…the law as you were still technically a ward of court. I thought it was the least I could do, as you were only here to help my grandson, although it could obviously cause me some embarrassment if it was discovered…but this change in your circumstances is a different problem altogether. You are my responsibility now as you are English, and as Mr Martin has apparently disappeared, presumed dead…and frankly could not reasonably be expected to take care of you anyway considering the behaviour of his daughter…I have decided to adopt you and make you part of my family.” Forbes paused, watching her expression, and rather enjoying the look of horror on her face. “So, I have asked Miss Archer to start training you properly from now on, around your assistance with my grandson’s treatment…and I have decided to change your name.”
“Yes dear, your name.” He smiled again, enjoying himself at her expense. “Obviously you will be a Forbes, but Ophelia is the name of your shame. I am giving you a fresh start here. I am going to cleanse you of all your sins and help you find God’s love in the bosom of my family and I am proud of my Scottish roots…so from now on you are Catriona Forbes. Come on now Catriona dear, run to your guardian and embrace your new life…you are part of my family now.”
Robert Beckford Junior drank a third glass of neat bourbon straight down and coughed a little. He had made the decision, but he was not at all sure he could live with all the consequences, regardless of the confidence of his human resources director, who seemed to think it would be a breeze. He had to think of his career, he told himself, for the thousandth time. No one could have a career in a multi-national bank like K H Morton and not accept secondments. It was all part of the deal for any partner; serve your time in the major financial centres, and the satellite offices. No one rose up through the ranks, otherwise. So, if he stayed in New York he would continue to be passed over, until, sooner or later, he would be surplus to requirements. His daughter simply had to accept that, and frankly, as the HR guy had reminded him, she was not doing so well at school that a move could actually make things worse. He was thirty four years old, and he needed to move up. He was earning $150,000 dollars a year, and with a good bonus he could turn that into $400,000, but the secondments were potential goldmines. London was the strongest market in Europe, and the guy he was replacing had earned $2,500,000 in two years.
But London was the problem, of course. In the states, Reformism was a political movement for most people, and not a way of life. In some states, like Florida and the mid west, and New England, it was all a little more serious, but elsewhere, other than a lot of decency laws, church schools and hospitals, it was less of an issue. New York had all the decency laws, but they were hardly draconian, unless your name was Kayleigh Beckford, of course. She was driving him insane. His college mistake had dragged him down ever since her mother had done a runner in the middle of his finals. Not that he blamed Kerry. She was twenty and shit scared by the responsibility a drunken fumble had left them both with, and her dear parents were from west Florida, where all the Reformist crap started in the states. She had run back to them and left him literally holding the baby. But he had got his act together, got his degree, got a job with KHM and they had a good life. He got Kayleigh into a decent private school that he could only just about afford at the start, but he had turned down two foreign assignments to keep her there, so he could not afford to turn down anymore. He could not use Kayleigh as an excuse forever, and for some reason she was not doing as well at school as she had been, so he did not see that he had so much to lose. His HR Director had always been sympathetic, because Robert was highly thought of, but the guy had started to make the point that two years in London might do Kayleigh some good, too. She was certainly rebelling in New York, and girls had to be sensible these days. The President was pushing for more and more restrictions, following the British model, and Kayleigh had got two tickets from the police for stupid violations, not to mention a stack of demerits from the school for equally stupid things. It was all kids stuff, but the bank liked their senior executives to be whiter than white. So when the bank offered to sort things for him and make London possible, he ended up saying yes. He had arranged some tuition for her in London, because she could not go to school over there. But lots of kids in America did their schooling online, so he did not see that being an issue. But she had to behave. His HR guy said he could sort that, and not to worry about it, but they were due at the airport in a few hours and she still was not home.
Then he heard the bell and almost jumped out of his skin, because he could not imagine Kayleigh was going to be too pleased about his decision, somehow.
“She will sit here quietly until it is time to leave, Sir.” Miss Garfield told Robert Beckford, as she finished settling Kayleigh on the couch, although he had to take her word for it that it was his daughter. Everyone was used to Reformists, of course. He had grown up seeing pictures from Britain, and he had been nine when Aaron Lumsfield and Shap Nixon formed a Reformist coalition twenty five years ago. Even in New York, there were veiled women on the streets, regardless of the state being seen as moderate compared to some. But he had never had one on his couch before. Miss Garfield would have been shocking enough but the blob of dark green velvet purporting to be Kayleigh astonished Beckford, and almost gave him second thoughts. He had been told not to worry about the details. That was what human resources were for, to let their boys get on with the job without distractions. Beckford was used to having his life run for him; his secretary paid all his bills, sorted his dry-cleaning, managed his diary and generally ran his life.
“She hasn’t said anything?”
“She is muzzled Sir, and currently she is listening to a lesson I prepared for her, and that is a blinding mantle, so she can’t see anything either. I doubt she even knows where she is, Mr Beckford…in the circumstances, it is better if she is kept calm and under the strictest possible discipline. Your daughter has had a shock, and the flight to London will be distressing for her, so it is better if you let me deal with her, Sir.” Miss Garfield replied, speaking from behind her own veils and mantle. Beckford excused himself and went out on the balcony to call HR.
“Chad, is this really necessary?” He said, as soon as he reached the right guy.
“Sure is Bobbie, if you want London Kayleigh has to do it right, and you know it’s what she needs.”
“Chad, she is sitting on my couch deaf, dumb and blind, for goodness sake?”
“Cool, bet it’s the quietest afternoon you’ve had at home in years, Bobbie. Look, you’ve been beating yourself up about turning down the secondment and Kayleigh messing up at school, and this kills two birds with one stone. The guardian is part of the perks man and she is tax-deductable. Get your shit together and get to London…remember the old saying…you look after the bank and the bank looks after you, Bobbie.”
A Call to Arms
“It was never my intention to stand for higher office.” Richard Buckingham said, smiling at his audience. “I saw what it cost my father in stress over the years, in missed birthdays and working when he should have been playing football with me, but the thing is, it is in the blood, you see. I am a strange mixture of old Reformism and new politics, in that my mother is part of one of the oldest families in Meadvale, one of the first to follow the doctrine of Michael Winstanley, and my father was the political heavyweight brought on board to tackle Westminster. I represent a new generation, and I am afraid the fact is that President Forbes is not moving with the times. Throughout this summer, we…the members of this House…have tried to suggest many changes to legislation sought by the President, but we are not being listened too. That of course is his prerogative…but I think that leaves us no choice but to seek an election to decide the future. My father is a democrat, and he taught me that we should let the people decide. President Forbes is an honourable man, and I look forward to debating the issues with him on the stump, not to seek power for myself, but to ensure that we as a party continue to represent the will of the people. He cannot duck out of this now gentlemen, it is too important to leave until the scheduled end of his term in office. I believe a vote of no confidence in his presidency from this house will be enough to convince him of his responsibility. I think we need to know that the electorate supports our continued governance of this country. We need to have a clear mandate to follow because we should never forget that we serve the people. I know this is an unusual move. It is not taken lightly. My father has encouraged me to challenge President Forbes because it is time for a new Reformism, time to show more compassion and more love. No one knows more than my father that in order to achieve real social change his government had to be strong and use tough love. President Forbes is just about the last member of his generation left in government, and it is time to say thank you for all your hard work, but in today’s Britain we need a new approach. By the terms of our constitution, we have to give seven days notice of a vote of no confidence. Do I have a seconder, please?”
“No one can be that clean.” President Forbes growled, his eyes darting around his senior team, looking for support, or some sort of suggestion, but they were not used to thinking for themselves. He knew that, because that was exactly the reason he had chosen them in the first place.
“Alistair, he has never had a parking ticket, let alone a speeding ticket. I bet he has never even shagged his wife outside of her sleeping gown…there is nothing there.” The Home Secretary sighed, offering his boss the file.
“How about his friends? His family? Has old Charles got anything hidden in his past we can use?” Forbes pressed, clutching at straws.
“Charles Buckingham has plenty of dirt in his past Alistair, as you know better than us. The trouble is your own hands were over most of it, so if you attack him you attack yourself.”
“I do not want an early election…I am not even sure I would stand for another term…”
“So do a deal…it’s what everyone expects.” The Home Secretary suggested, with nods coming from all around the table. “He did this to flush you out…if you tell him you won’t stand at the end of your term and toss him a few crumbs.”
“I already tried that…he threw it back in my face.”
“Try again, Alistair. Charles Buckingham’s support is giving him credence. Munroe is even glad-handing the non-entities on the backbenches. If we don’t nip this in the bud, we will find it hard to stop.”
“The truth is he is a lousy politician.” Peter Munroe suggested, rather enjoying being back in the game. “Alistair was always an aggressive operator, getting results behind the scenes, but he is not a natural leader. He had a seamless transition because he took over Kieran’s team, but now he is surrounded by yes men and distinctly average ministers. He has never had an opponent in an election, and the people just accepted him when Kieran retired because there was no one else. He is no orator, and he likes to stay in the shadows. If we can flush him out into an open debate, we will be winning the battle.”
“He will try again to reach a deal…that much is inevitable.” Charles Buckingham agreed, sharing Munroe’s feelings of being useful again, like a new lease of life.
“I don’t want a deal…I want him gone.” Richard said firmly. “We can’t trust him, and if I can’t take his word on anything I can’t do a deal?”
“I don’t know about that…he has his…weak points. Son, would you let Peter and I talk to Alistair? I can appreciate that you don’t want to at this stage. But Alistair is proud…he won’t want to lose in public…if we can offer him something that appeals to him we might get a lot in return.”
“Ok, if you think it is worth the time…but I am not getting fobbed off with titbits. He underestimates the strength of feeling in the House.”
“Yes he does, because Kieran and Alistair neutered the House. They could not do away with it altogether when they formed the Republic but as you have discovered you can delay his plans but never truly prevent them. That is why pushing for a vote of no confidence is the best option…because he will consider it little more than an irritation, but what it says to the public will cost him a lot more.”
“Mr President, are you concerned with the challenge to your authority coming from the House?” The BBC interviewer said to the screen, as Forbes was beamed into a few million homes live from Buckingham Palace. The answer to the question was obviously yes, as the President avoided interviews like the plague. Newsnight had not had him on live for five years, since he was first elected to replace the ailing Kieran Radcliffe, and that had been about foreign affairs.
“Of course I value the opinions of my colleagues…I served the House for many years as Prime Minister, and I understand the frustrations of the tedious legislative introspection that goes on there. It is vital that each line of legislation is challenged to ensure our laws work in practise, but it is not the job of the House to decide policy.” Forbes was trying to be at his most statesmanlike but the interviewer thought he sounded rattled, and pompous. He was a hated figure in the press. Every journalist grew up on tales from his years as a press secretary for Buckingham, and he had chewed more balls than anyone in Westminster.
“So you think that the House is an irrelevance?”
“No, I think my colleagues there do an important job for the people that voted for them, but to question policy decisions included in my presidential manifesto and suggest that I do not have a mandate is…unhelpful, Mr Buckingham is grandstanding for his fifteen minutes of fame. He is just wasting everyone’s time; because he is not his father…he is just a boy trying to make a name for himself.”
“Grandstanding? Many polls would suggest that people support his comments concerning convent reform and family voting amendments?”
“Oh you can produce a poll to support most things…I think the voters are rather more concerned that the order continues to provide quality teaching and nursing care. It is a successful scheme, one we have imported successfully around the world, and I am not about to change it because a few bureaucrats born with silver spoons in their mouths think they know better than their President. Every man and woman over the age of twenty five in this country has a vote for the presidency every ten years and that is not going to change because Richard Buckingham has no confidence in me. He has only got press coverage because of his surname.”
“Charles, Peter…do sit down…I arranged coffee, but I can’t give you long I am afraid…things to do.” Alistair Forbes shook hands whilst showing the two older men to the comfortable chairs near the window in his office. He had to see them, of course. He could not ignore two party heavyweights even if they were meaningless dinosaurs.
“Of course…kind of you to see us at such short notice.” Charles Buckingham said, his smile irritating Forbes.
“Not at all…I was wondering when someone would come.”
“Alistair, the administration needs a…refresh…but Richard does not want to drive you out of office.” Munroe suggested, taking the direct approach, as always. Forbes had always found him businesslike. Weak, but businesslike.
“Oh he won’t…I am not taking it particularly seriously Peter…disloyalty is not tolerated in this party.”
“He is not disloyal to the party Alistair…quite the opposite.” Charles Buckingham maintained the smile, but Forbes could see the ice in his eyes.
“Then he is disloyal to me, something I never was to you, Charles.”
“Come on Alistair, this is a policy disagreement between the last of the old dogs and the young leader of the pack. I think you need to embrace him, as Charles embraced Kieran and Kieran in turn embraced you…don’t you think?” Peter Munroe cut in with a calming spread of his hands. They were working him as pair, Forbes decided, outflanking him, good cop, bad cop and wondering which of them would get to twist the knife.
“No offence meant, Alistair…we are both older than you of course.”
“And you have both long since retired…your interference is unwelcome.”
“I think we are the ideal people to provide the party with a conscience…and incidentally Kieran would be here if he could be old chap. Do you really intend to stand for another term?” Buckingham asked, as perceptive as ever. It was the key question because Forbes was sixty two. If he finished his current term he would be almost sixty seven, and he did not want to go on forever. He had achieved his goals. He had made his fortune. The only reason to carry on was to position Archie as his successor or at least in a senior role. But he could probably do that from outside the Palace.
“Only if I am forced into an early fight…I will not be bullied out of office.”
“And Richard won’t be bullied out of standing against you…so make a deal, Alistair.”
“Why should I?”
“You need an incentive?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, we have had these lily-livered moderates before.” Forbes exploded, punching the arm of his chair. “Kieran ate them alive. Do either of you really care if a nun serves five years or seven, just because her parents can’t find her a husband? If you did, you should have sorted it thirty years ago…and Charles, you introduced the family vote.”
“I think Richard made his position quite clear…the past is the past, what is best now?” Buckingham responded with his usual measured calm, still in control, even in his eighties. “It is how we won the silent majority in the first place…fix the problem, don’t apportion blame.”
“Convenient for you Charles, considering you are to blame.”
“Ok, I will go on television and admit my mistake, if it makes you feel better.”
“Suppose we make some proposals, Alistair?” Munroe interjected, like a peacemaker. “You are short of time tonight, but I am sure you could squeeze in a meeting before the vote?”
“So you are holding a gun to my head? It might work if you had any ammunition gentlemen, but I am not worried by a vote of no confidence in the House.”
“Do you remember what Kieran did to Robin Sullivan, Alistair?”
“He made him his Minister for Health and Education, Charles.”
“After using his past against him…and his crimes against the state pale into significance when compared to yours.”
“Crime is a very serious allegation, Charles…I was acting on behalf of the Prime Minister, not taking cash for getting people out of the country.”
“Oh not your public service, old chap…some of that was distasteful, of course, but mostly necessary and I would not castigate you for that…but there are other things.”
“Such as?” It was the sixty four million dollar question, of course. Forbes knew they were playing a game. But was it a game of bluff or double bluff, or were they just running a flag up the flagpole to see if he was about to salute? “If this is in the interests of the party, I doubt blackmailing me would be seen as a positive move. We are all up to our ears in the past, our dirty fingerprints are all over so many things I doubt if our reputations or the project itself could survive our exposure. If you go down this road I will retaliate…I would have to retaliate.”
“Of course you could retaliate. It might harm me…I doubt it would harm Peter, and it certainly wouldn’t touch Richard. I am proud to say that he is an upstanding young man…the worst you could come up with is one fistfight at Eton, after that I think he might well have lived the life of a modern saint, if such a thing exists. I actually think he would pull the party through that sort of stink and you would be destroying not only what you helped build, but your family as well…and I think that is important to you Alistair. You have a son too…I am sure you are grooming him for greater things. But if the Martin story ever got out, or the full list of your personal investments around the time of Aaron Lumsfield’s decision to adopt Reformist policies just before his election in the states ever became public knowledge…those were not government authorised activities, Alistair.”
“Suspend the vote and we can talk.” Forbes replied, his face suddenly pale.
He had no choice. He felt suddenly helpless, as helpless as a maiden in her mittens and muzzle. After the two old men had left he just sat in his chair, staring into the middle distance. How did they know? He had covered every track, he had tied up every single loose end he could think of, but still they had found out. Or were they bluffing? Did they know it all?
Reformist Generations is continued in Part Four The First Chill of Winter.