All facts, in the course of their unfolding, become fiction.
Victory became defeat, labour became new, and the union became traded.
Iraq invaded Blair and the credit burst into debt.
And those who had once managed found they no longer could.
He had begged him to stay away, but his brother would not listen. He had tried to show him how the party favoured his offering, but his brother would not see. When in defeat he packed his bags, he pleaded with him not to leave. But his brother left, passing over water and into exile. And for many years, he heard from his brother not.
Year’s end was fast approaching. Edward was alone in the bathroom cleaning up. As he washed his hands the soap stung beneath his pink nails. They were bitten to the wick.
He splashed his face and looked in the mirror, wiping the puckered grooves beneath his eyes. He was in his forty-fourth year, no longer a sapling, but now risen to the full stature of the mature English male. Half a decade’s preening was drawing to a close.
Inspecting his nostrils, he listened to The Red Flag on his wife’s MP3, wincing as he pulled at an enclave of hair. The anthem of British labour poured into his ears:
The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold
His pocket trembled. It was big brother:
“Happy New Year from New York! Love from David and family.”
Since Ed won the party leadership contact had been a rare thing. That was five years ago. Their contest had been brutal, and the party blood-soaked by its conclusion.
He often wondered if it had been worth the price: to win a party, and lose a brother. It was something he had never fully come to terms with, the terrors of an ancient cannibal past seizing him whenever he recalled the brutal days of struggle for the party leadership.
He stroked over the message, scrolling it up and down, and the sting of his bitten wick was momentarily dispersed. Oh, how he longed for his brother’s return…
Look ‘round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,
The sturdy German chants its praise,
In Moscow’s vaults its hymns are sung
Chicago swells the surging throng.
He returned to the mirror. His face had crumpled somewhat since his ascendancy; a consequence, no doubt, of the guilt he still carried.
It was either that or the diet forced upon him: nothing but cottage cheese and saltless nuts and mean milligrammes of fruit. He was allowed the occasional piece of protein, but no red meat. As a consequence his waking moments were forever dogged by hunger. How does one manage a party when forever famished? His friend Eddy said it was the only way to manage, though he was one to talk. Ed could not remember the last time he had a steak.
One of his consultants even suggested smoking, discreetly of course, the better to mark a little experience upon his baby-cursed face. Burn away the ‘puppy fat’, they said. But he declined. His face was as battle-ready as it would ever be, and people would just have to jolly well get used to it. Next year this fuss would stop. Next year he would be his own man and sink his teeth into as much meat as he liked.
It waved above our infant might,
When all ahead seemed dark as night;
It witnessed many a deed and vow,
We must not change its colour now.
He was about to reply to his brother when from out of the dark edges of his vision a man migrated into view. Ed jumped. He thought he had been alone among the plastic plants and patchouli that masked the smell of urine.
The attendant was a small man with big, kind eyes, dressed in a grey-striped waistcoat and white bow-tie. Ed thought of his nostrils. These chaps must see all kinds of things… The man offered Ed a set of white teeth and a towel.
‘Oh, yes, of course,’ he said nervously, acclimatising to the man’s presence.
As he dried himself he peeked at the man from behind his towel. To Ed’s eyes there was something… uncertifiable, about him. What kind of establishment would employ someone to work in a toilet in this day and age? And on New Year’s Eve? It did not add up. Could it be that he had been taken to one of those places that was still exploitative of labour? He looked at his watch. It was later than he thought.
The evening had suddenly become uncertain. He thought of the great British public that his team were forever explaining to him in bold, colourful graphics. He knew what Eddy would say. Why take the risk?
Then again, why should he not converse with whomever he liked? He was the leader, after all. It did no harm to make conversation with the general public from time to time. The attendant eyed him curiously. On the other hand, was it wise to risk becoming the recipient of ‘difficult information’? This man might disclose the details of his arduous journey to this fair and green land. He might disclose the conditions his masters kept him in, once his shift had ended. Did his shift come to an end? Or did he live here, in the laundry baskets, under the stairs?
What if, after being bludgeoned by such a revelation, this fellow took matters further? What if he ended up in a court of law and he, the leader of the British Labour Party, was forced to give evidence? The towel hung from his chin as he looked toward the exit… Could he scurry off without so much as a wet-flannelled thanks?
It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.
No, it would not do. His only option was to engage his attendant in a pre-emptive prattle. It was a technique he acquired when but a lowly Doncaster MP, and had worked quite well when the little people had become overexcited. He lowered the volume on his earphones and prepared to engage the man on the subject of his ‘living’ – a conventional opening move.
‘You know, it’s really quite funny, I was just pre-preparing a focus in this… arena,’ said Ed, with a gestured smile and sweep of the bathroom. ‘This arena, that you’re… transitioning. It was about the robots coming out of Japan. Are you briefed, at all, on Japan?’ The attendant offered him some cologne, but said nothing.
‘They’re engaging in some cutting-edge initiatives, don’t you know? Very cash-neutral. Even in secondary quintile arenas – such as journalism, for instance.’ He was momentarily transported to a world of automatically generated headlines. The machines will be our friends.
‘Once the Tory cycle goes offline, we can re-contextualize growth-orientated efficiency savings, and move on from their failed economic paradigm.
It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man’s frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.
The attendant furrowed his brow and rearranged the golden platter of condoms and aspirin, gum and cologne, chap-stick and lubricant, all sat beside him in cellophane wrappings on the bathroom shelf. It dawned on Ed that his friend might not speak English, but he resolved to roll up his sleeves and persevere:
‘Envision, if you will: fully automated re-distribution of all these… quality deliverables.’ He flopped an arm at the attendant’s carefully arranged effects. ‘A Labour government would empower its core base by upstreaming such initiatives and diversifying front-line ownership models.’ The man maintained his smile. A toilet flushed.
‘It’s the future, don’t you see? Machine journalists, digital teachers, virtual nurses, robotic… bathroom strivers. It’s absolutely shifting the dial!’ But the man said nothing. It seemed Ed’s message was not getting through. A hairline of exasperation thread its way into his voice:
‘You do understand my meaning? Clearly we’re not pitching “personalised repurposement” – that you become, in any way… “automated”. Wouldn’t dovetail.’ He pondered on the thought. The attendant again said nothing. The poor fellow clearly did not speak English. Fancy coming all this way, only to find you were in need of a severe upgrade.
With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.
He may have not been in a position to help the man, but he had staved off an outpouring. The least he could do was tip him for his trouble. Pushing his fingers down into his silken linen pocket he found only a bank card and a twenty-pound note. The exchange had been trifling, but was it worth a twenty? He rubbed the note against the raised plastic impressions. His fingers sung out.
‘Awfully sorry, are you… contactless?’
‘How can a robot order cologne?’ declared the man.
He spoke English after all! He knew they had been speaking the same language. If one was only prepared to be patient with them. He was forever telling Eddy to speak with Femi, the large Nigerian lady he often met vacuuming party HQ late at night, when everyone else had gone home. She was jolly good fun. But her schedule seldom seemed to overlap with Eddy’s. Labour should be tough on immigrants, yes, but that doesn’t mean foregoing civilized conversation. Ed ceased his feigned fumble and pulled out an earphone.
‘Well, you make an absolutely valid point. Labour-saving technology: it’s such a fraught issue, isn’t it?’ Then he lowered his voice and drew closer to the attendant, as if to enter upon a conspiracy: ‘Zero-hours – is that the bottom line? Final Quintile Precarian?’ The attendant went dumb again. Ed hoped he had not caused offence.
‘Don’t worry – we’re on the same team, you and I. Clearly, we all need to make savings in these difficult times. It’s in the national interest. Your gov’nor would say the same. He needs to cut costs, of course, but we’d insist he had insurance, software updates, maintenance checks, health and safety – you know? Rebalanced, but in our direction.’ The attendant nodded unconvincingly.
Were there cameras in this bathroom? Perhaps his friend felt unsafe. He looked up at the ceiling, but saw nothing. It was his understanding that some of the wealth-creators could be rather forthright when it came to their upward strivers.
Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.
‘Let me be clear – we’re moving the goalposts, not downsizing them. At the end of the day, they need labour like us.’ He straightened up and broke the conspiracy. You need Labour like us… Britain needs Labour, like us… Britain likes to Labour, with us? He stuck a pin in it.
‘I mean, theoretically, robot attendants might be remotely prioritised. Automatic re-stock triggers. And don’t even get me started on 3-D printing! But in that case, I’m afraid there wouldn’t be any real need for robotic stock coordinators. But you might become a warehouse mobility facilitator. Or a vehicular goods enabler? You know, some of these Robots even sprayed perfume out of their finger?’ Ed’s eyes bulged with terrible, swollen possibility. ‘Incredibly amusing,’ he said, no longer seeing his new friend, but looking through him. He was transported to a distant world that was just around the corner.
Then he turned back to the mirror, pleased with himself, and checked his hair and revisited those marks beneath his eyes. The lights in this place are awfully bright. He placed one sore, bitten finger on the thin skin below his eye, exposing the pink flesh beneath. He had quite failed to notice that The Red Flag had come to an end. Silent hissing played out the final seconds.
Then the track shuffled, and a familiar song began to unwrap in his ear. It was the melodious plink-plonks and toddling soft steps of a turn-cranked music box. It sang:
Never smile at a crocodile
No, you can’t get friendly with a crocodile
Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin
He’s imagining how well you’d fit within his skin!
Comfort wrapped him, and he was removed from the hard lights and the masked urine on the bathroom floor. He was amid the bold, xylophonic colours of his children’s playroom; he was wrestling with the after-school bundles of energy that clung to him around his knees as he walked through the front door. He was with his wife, and the hot little souls of his boys, fast asleep on his chest…
A sense of unease crept upon him and the moment did not last. The work-life balance was upsetting. Fishing the device from his pocket, he mashed the buttons and his thumb seared. His childrens’ song was no more.
Ed smiled his embarrassment at the attendant, reading for signs of betrayal. But the attendant seemed blissfully unaware of any misdemeanour, merely offering a smile in return.
He relaxed, but even as he did, he sensed that the bathroom had closed in on him. He brought his face to the mirror again. Narrowing his eyes, he caught sight of something floating over his shoulder. It was a human head.
‘Peter!’ He jumped. ‘I didn’t hear you come in.’
Nobody ever heard Peter come in, for he was the Lord of Silence. He slipped in and out of Party HQ as an apparition, leaving one unsure as to whether he was in the building or not. And so in this way he was always present; the wise among them working under that presumption. Often the first one knew was his words unfurling in your ear; or the dumb frost that had fallen upon a room and choked the air dry.
‘Conversing with the help, my boy?’ Ed stood aside and yielded Peter his basin, though two beside were free enough. Peter rolled his sleeves and daubed his fingertips in soap and water and stroked them over his old, elegant hands. His skin was translucent, and Ed thought he discerned the faint outline of a liver spot beneath the surface.
Lord Peter was a ‘senior’ gentleman, in the language of the party, and carried himself immaculately. Viewed straight, his face appeared borrowed from a younger man, and traced only a few lines. Around him he carried a cultivated air of accomplishment, and a grey badger’s undercoat dignified his kempt side-parting. It was only the pink skin around his neck, beginning to slacken into a jowl, that betrayed his years.
‘Is this man bothering you, Kenneth?’ asked the Lord, taking a towel.
‘No, boss,’ said the attendant, laughing. Ed cocked him a suspicious eye.
‘And how are you, young Edward? Looking forward to the great campaign, I should not wonder.’ Lord Peter towelled his hands drily. His manner of speaking was mild, but not weak. Rather, it was the speech of one so self-assured that he could not but filter through the world as he received it, while others, impatient in their haste, were forced to adjust themselves to his presence.
‘Yes, yes, all systems go,’ said Ed, his smile rooted to the spot, fighting the urge to address his Lord as ‘Sir’. He had never been Ed’s boss directly, but that was of little consequence. Lord Peter was grand among the grandees, and someone not to be trifled with. He was looking straight into Ed’s eyes through the reflection in the mirror.
‘You remind me of an old friend, my boy. He was much like you: young, enterprising, the world at his feet and a twinkle in his eye.’ He saw Ed’s smile falter. ‘But also, not without the occasional butterfly in his stomach.’ He was paternally seductive and eased upon Ed rows of sympathetic teeth.
‘Obviously, the polls have not been… despite our best triangulations,’ said Ed, his voice shrunken.
‘Pay no heed to the polls, my boy. You must look to yourself; that is all one can ever truly do. Believe in yourself and the rest will follow. The polls will fall in line and the whole world will dance to your tune… if you wish it.’ Ed was impressed.
‘If I might be so bold, I think you have been through a rough time of it these past few years, ever since the leadership contest. Perhaps more than you like to let on?’
‘I… suppose you could say that.’ Ed felt something was reaching inside of him, holding him calm.
‘And it is not the gossip, dear boy, nor the party members; they are all right behind you, that you must understand. But what I believe you have a hard time with is that unfortunate business with your brother. Am I being fair?’ The Lord seemed to know something of his anxiety. He was probably one of the few people with the experience to understand his position, thought Ed.
‘The path to Downing Street is not easy, my boy. It is lonely and perilous. One hundred hours of weekly service, a mean-spirited media, and a party staffed by creatures who, shall we say, are not known for their approachability? Rather, you are kept awake half the night by their phone calls and second guesses. And by a boy that wets the bed.’
‘How did you…?’
‘All little boys wet the bed, Edward. This job can get the best of you, if you are not careful. If that were not the case, we would not be human.’ His eyes flickered.
‘But remember, your brother is a big boy. We talk often, and he often asks after you, did you know that? He bears you no ill-will. He is across the pond now, building bright causes of his own.’
‘He just sent me a New Year’s message.’
‘Well, there we are then. We all go through crises, my boy. And Lord knows, you’ve been through tougher times than most of us should have to. But crises are part of life. Birth is a crisis; so too is adolescence; and, as I am sadly discovering, old age is a crisis also,’ he said, offering Ed a confidentiality. Ed drank down the medicine Peter spooned him. It felt like a vote of confidence, an intimate sort of comradeship – something in short supply at party HQ. He wanted to share something in return, although he was not sure what.
‘What can one do?’ said Ed, a punt for all occasions
‘All one can ever do: You must weather the storm, my boy. A weak man will allow a crisis to consume him, but a strong man weathers his crisis and emerges stronger for it. I can see an inner strength in you, my boy, an inner… formidability. You will come out of this, and tempered, you need not worry.’
‘I have some concerns, Peter, about our message. Our ‘big idea’, so to speak. How does one exactly… square the circle, if you get my meaning?’ The Lord bade him continue.
‘Well, the Prime Minister is bottom-lining the debt. More with less – I understand that. But how does one proactively facilitate our obligations whilst dovetailing it within our own ecosystem? How do we unite the nation under our guiding principles? Especially after Scotland. It’s such a fraught issue.’
‘Trivialities do not concern you,’ said Peter. ‘Polls, message, ideas; the polls do not rule us, they have never done. Whatever position you wish to set out, you really have very little choice. You can only say one thing, and that is what comes from within.’ He adjusted his tie and checked his cufflinks.
‘You still opinion-irrigate at the leader’s office? Self-represent? War-game?’ It appeared from Ed’s puzzled look that they no longer carried on any of the old practices. Not altogether unexpected.
‘So you think we should long-grass the issue, going forward? Until after the election?’
Peter peered into Ed’s eyes, as if trying to read something in them of which he could not be certain.
‘Because… well, I think it would be far more productive if we could stick a pin in it until the election’s been and gone. But Eddy, he wants to nail our colours to the mast. “Manage expectations”, he says. Yes, the ratings are rather dim, but won’t they be even dimmer if we do something like that? Damn these polls! Everything’s so blasted presidential these days. What your face looks like, how you speak, how you eat…’
‘Poppycock and balderdash,’ said Peter, with a new firmness. ‘You are the leader, are you not?’ Ed confirmed that he was.
‘It is you who will have to rule this country, not some brown-nosed lickspittle. The direction of travel is the way the leader sees fit. Otherwise, you are not leading, you are being led. Your troops selected you, and now they must be right behind you, my boy. You are about to go over the top – there’s no turning back. Only conviction begets leadership, young Edward. You must make your own path – it is the only path you know.’
Ed looked into the eyes of the Lord and realised that he was right.
‘You know,’ Peter continued, softening once more. ‘I do not think you realise how much you have done for our little party. One cannot very well begin to lead, if one does not first understand what one has already accomplished.’ He placed a hand lightly between Ed’s shoulder blades and looked up toward the bathroom ceiling.
‘The responsibility we must presume, is something of… an art, my dear boy – quite beyond the comprehension of most party members; even beyond the likes of the Prime Minister and those foolish Tories.’
Ed did so hate the Tories. Even in his Oxford Union days he could never quite bring himself to eat and drink and sleep with them after the debating had finished, like the other Labour boys and girls.
‘We really must talk more often,’ said Peter, pressing his hand into Ed’s vertebrae and steering him toward the exit.
They were half-way out when Ed remembered his friend. He turned back and made the scribbling gesture people make in restaurants, mouthing that he would leave a tip at the bar. Then the door swung open, and they were gone.
The attendant was left alone. He shook his head and dropped the towels into the laundry basket.
On the other side of the club sat the brothers, Chuka and Tristram. Not brothers in body, but nonetheless of a spiritual fraternity; a fine meeting of minds and the great hope for the future. Brothers, but from different mothers, they confided intimately to each other when taken by the bubbles, and each other.
They lounged in the VIP area beyond the velvet rope, either side of a divan, cupping their crystal brandy glasses and taking good care not to crease their crisp suits. But the thin velvet line had no special significance that evening as there was no one present to man it. The party was a free event for all with an invitation:
“When everyone is a VIP, no-one is a VIP”
it read, in a navy blue font. But the raised platform was their usual spot, and upon arrival they quickly sought to claim their rights, putting distance between themselves and all before them.
At their feet gathered herds of Labour MPs, and MEPs, and grandees, all with their staff of courtiers and other special friends of Labour. It was the modern, moderate, majority wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party – the PLP – and they shook the disco floor.
A disc jockey had been hired, but he was under strict instructions not to turn the tables. His sole responsibility was to facilitate the disco lights that swung their beams emptily over the corners and crooks of the room that had filled with the sound of MPs bellowing thir resistance to the theme of the evening. Others had not understood the rules:
‘Bring our own music? Next they’ll make us bring our own drinks! Honestly, this party…’
Others heaved at the sides, breathless, overtaken by the great novelty of it all, regardless of whether they had understood or not. The entire basement converged into a raucous cattle drone that rose like trapped methane beneath the streets of London, serving to drown out the other sounds that sweeten the air when hundreds of politicians and their hangers-on toss their flabby bits in close quarters.
The brothers bore witness to this indignant spectacle. It disrupted their ability to converse far more than the banging of tunes that usually played out their evenings. They watched on, hypnotised by the herd, until they were distracted by an unusual sight. They spied the leader emerging from the bathroom, and right behind him, PM. The two men were nodding away, holding each other’s shoulders in deep conversation.
‘Looks like PM has snared himself a wabbit,’ said Tristram. Chuka looked on, sipping his soda stream.
They were still observing the wildlife when a woman approached the velvet rope from off the dance floor, perching herself on Chuka’s side of the divan. She was of little consequence, not even an intern, merely a treasurer of one of the local London parties.
‘Are you two ever going to get off your bums and come dance? Or are you just going to mope in the corner and drink your expensive brandy?’ Chuka ignored her, too interested in the movements of the leader, who had now parted company with PM and was doing a sort of walking dance across the floor toward the bar.
‘It’s Italian Irn Bru,’ said Tristram, leaning forward. ‘Bespoke. I acquired a taste for it on our campaign this summer. It’s crafted by an Italian soda grandmaster, far greater depth than the stuff they sell in the shops.’ He swirled the fizzy rust before his eyes.
‘Soda? You do realise you are at a New Year’s party, don’t you?’
‘It’s not that type of party.’
Looking around the disco the young woman saw everywhere her fellow party members drawing from bottles of mineral water, or glasses of colourful bubbles that she had taken for shorts. She looked down at her gin and tonic and felt ashamed. Why didn’t they tell me?
‘But, what about John?’ she asked, flicking her head in the direction of the former Deputy Prime Minister, stood holding a pint of bitter and sharing a set of earphones with his wife and looking lost.
‘That’s John, he’s old fashioned,’ said Tristram. ‘You’ll see a lot of the younger crowd wear sobriety bracelets these days – helps them stay the course. It’s important for us to stay clean in our game. Of course, there is a bar. No-one’s forcing you not to drink.’
She did not like that one bit and marched away to order a mineral water.
‘The leader’s just knocked Margaret’s drink over!’ shrieked Chuka with a singular joy, startling his brother. ‘The little worm – right down her dress!’ He studied the scene intensely and chuckled to himself, and his brother joined in.
Then his interest in the unfortunate scene extinguished as suddenly as it had begun. His eyes deadened. He turned to Tristram:
‘That reminds me: You need to get her to clean her walls and bleach her feed if you’re going to progress any further.’ Chuka slumped against the arm of the divan. His joy had died.
‘You wanna go down MDen’s? This place is depressing.’
Ed barricaded himself at the shoulders, not wanting to catch an eye at the bar. His comrades conversed in huddles, none of whom had failed to notice the cherryade that had just gone flying over Margaret’s striped shirt-dress. One of the waitresses had taken her away to the kitchen. He fixed his eyes on the fridge behind the bar and waited for his soda and wished they would all just go away.
He recalled his brief encounter. Was this the same man who so many had warned him against? Who had been so unspeakably encouraging? Who had at least listened to him and did not smirk at his misgivings, but had advised him to be himself and speak his truth? Hardly the Machiavellian master of shadows his detractors made him out to be. He sighed. It’s all just politics.
What’s more, his advice seemed so honest in its simplicity that he could not help but wonder whether he had not been barking up the wrong tree all these years. He really should have made the effort to meet Peter earlier and not allow himself to be guided by lickspittles.
The barmaid brought his soda. It was his fifth of the evening, and he could feel the bubbles had gone to his head. He loved to belch, especially a suppressed burp in good company that burned through his nose like horseradish sauce.
He thought back to his time in government. He used to suppress all his burps around Gordon in those heady days in late 2008 when he was forever running Downing Street’s corridors with hods of paper at his shoulder, hods he and nobody else would ever read. He thought back to Gordon in his office, the “S” of his favourite t-shirt showing through his white cotton shirt:
‘How could this happen!?’ thundered his former leader, bringing his clenched fist upon the table and his rosy jaw shuddering.
As he reminisced, a silent belch burned between his eyes. Ed imagined himself standing on the podium outside Downing Street in 2008 as the Prime Minister would have done, talking to the nation’s assembled press.
‘The invisible hand has decided! From now on this Labour government will outlaw banking in all its forms. Bank chiefs have twenty-four hours to turn themselves in, or be declared enemies of the state! The government will compose an official register, freely available to the public, which will allow people to know if a former member of Britain’s banking system is living in their neighbourhood.’
Ed thought again of Peter. He thought of his brother, separated by the vastness of the sea. He had not replied to his message. He thought of his father; he could just imagine what he would say. His voice spoke to him:
‘Thatcher and her class were victorious in their struggle against the workers. They destroyed their livelihoods, and a large section of the capitalists dedicated themselves to the ever-growing market of lending lost wages. To the victor go the spoils and to the vanquished went the debt. Into the cracks of this problem seeped the bankers. In defeat our movement stopped flowing and started haemorrhaging, and when the bleeding stopped the wound congealed into a scabrous crust.
‘Out of the frying pan, into the fire. The banks collapsed because workers’ debts became unpayable. Jobless workers can’t buy, so bosses couldn’t sell. How to sell moneyless workers, money? What do you sell it for? They trade it for the future. Absurd, isn’t it? A future repayment – with interest. They bought and sold debt and, for some, it became the sole source of their income – trading shackles. The bankers turned a loss of livelihood into a business opportunity.
‘But debts must be repaid. Some took out a second loan to pay the first. Some took a seventh to pay the fifth and sixth. Others self-medicated and swallowed austerity long before it was forced upon them. But the bosses didn’t like that because those workers would buy less. Once they were debt free, they were uninteresting. A worker in the red, who served and paid tribute, was worth ten in the black.’
These things he knew to be true, but he feared to shine a light upon them, consigning them to a dark recess where their ugliness went undisturbed. His father continued:
‘Like drug pushers, they shoved little plastic cards down the workers’ throats and letterboxes, year after year, until one day they vomited it all up. They could no longer eat any more debt.
‘First one set of workers got sick – no longer workers of interest. Their houses were taken and on the scrap heap they went. The bosses and bankers had to make good their threats, lest others become emboldened and dishonour their agreements, too.
But dishonourable they became. More and more defaulted, and more and more the banks lost the money they had loaned. They lost interest as things became more interesting. A worker without debt is a worker without a house; a bank without debt is a house with no bricks.
‘The disease jumped from worker to bank and spread like fever. Mad Pecuniary Disease. Bank would not go near bank, for fear of the pustules that burst around their swollen pits. They didn’t know who had touched whom, and suspected all. Because a ten-pound note is a ten-pound note, no matter the serial number. In the rapid blur of exchange it all became the same: average, homogeneous, and riddled with disease.
His father’s voice faded, and as he returned to himself he realised he was staring at the barmaid’s bottom, which through no fault of his own had moved into his field of vision. Swiftly he averted his gaze, darting eyes from side to side, checking to see whether he had been found guilty. That was the last thing he needed. The bar was wet around his elbows.
The barmaid passed him a towel. Wiping his sleeves, Ed turned to face the dance floor where he saw Shadow Ministers wiggling beside party aides. He saw long-standing MPs delivering gentle bops, abandoning their dented shields of irony, the elastic of their party hats cutting like a butchers’ string at their quaggy maws.
Ed screwed one eye and looked into his glass and saw that his fizz was drained. He ordered another, this time with a cordial lime twist.
Why can’t we just acknowledge it? We bankrupted the country by handing over billions to people who, in any other industry, would be allowed to sink to the bottom to have their carcass picked over by the nematodes. We shouldn’t have handed them free money – we should have taken them over. A hostile take-over:
“Gentlemen, these things are far too important to be left in your hands: you are relieved. Compensation? You might be out in three-to-five.”
We should have gone much further than RBS. We should have taken the bloody lot!
Eddy and Yvette were the dream dance floor pairing. He barrelled forth, carving out a circle and stomping around her like a sweaty cockerel, scraping dirt with his heels, and rolling forth his mashed potatoes. She held her nose and wiggled down for the swim. They were a dreamy Westminster success story; such humility evident in their sardonic swings, such good-natured British humour, such graceful condescension.
They had not lost the common touch, and the young staff members held tight their bracelets and fawned at this beautiful example of matrimonial labour. This beautiful example of politics and life gracefully balanced as one.
He drew her close and prepared to mock the Tango, bending her over one arm. She could feel his heart working hard through his soaked dinner jacket. He was a purple sponge with eyes grinning inanely into hers. Leaning back, droplets of sweat caused her to screw her eyes as she prepared to be taken.
Then, out of the night, she saw the leader in the distance, waving at them from among the crowd on the edge of the dance floor. The Message. She indicated to Eddy, who looked up and then rolled his eyes to her apologetically. The dance was at an end, and her shoulders dropped without protest.
‘Adieu, fair lady,’ he said, and bowed to her, but she was already on her way to the bar. He fastened his smile and turned to face his leader.
‘Mr Ed, I presume! Are you enjoying your evening?’ He put a sweaty arm around his leader and pulled him close. Please, please, please don’t mention the message. They took a seat at a nearby table.
‘Not a bad night this lot throw, eh? Not such a bad crowd, after all.’ He pulled his calf over his knee and re-tied his laces.
‘I think we need to touch base about the message.’ Eddy sagged.
The Message, The Message, The Message. Every day for five long years. Oh, how he hated The Message. And he also hated The Big Idea, which, as far as he could tell, was just another name for The Message. The Message had become inseparable from the face of the man that sat before him. The Message was something to be fought. The Message was something to be jumped upon and wrestled to the ground. The ringing in of the New Year was all the sweeter because it brought down another year on The Message.
A moment ago he had been Prime Minister of the dance floor. Now all Eddy wanted to do was wring his leader’s scrawny neck. He waited a moment for his rage to deposit in his arteries, and looked Ed up and down. An intelligent, complex man, Eddy considered. To be treated as something of a puzzle – a political Rubik’s Cube – each day bringing a new challenge.
‘Oh… it’s the same old thing. I really think we just need to bite the bullet, suck it up, be like the Greens – go anti-austerity and reject the debt.’ He seemed more belligerent than usual, Eddy thought. How much soda had he had?
‘I don’t like this cost-of-living triangulation,’ said Ed, slumping in his chair and loosening his tie. ‘We say it’s bad, but on the other hand we’re going to say we have to keep to Tory spending and reduce the deficit. But isn’t the cost-of-living crisis a consequence of reducing the deficit? Honestly, I thought I’d have more to work with when I became Prime Minister.’ His face stretched with anguish and his eyes pouted into their fierce puckered bulges.
‘Well,’ said Eddy, ‘I think we know where this ends, don’t we?’ He leant back in his chair and freed his chins from his hot damp collar. Ed detected a haughtiness of manner of which he disapproved, but resolved to let it go – this time.
‘We all agree that our economy is in a mess, and that the world economy is in a crisis. It was the banking system that caused it all, not bloody Labour! I mean, how could we cause the biggest economic crisis of our lifetime?’ Eddy laughed, and Ed consented.
‘On the other hand, whoever… done the stink… we’d all agree, it’s in everyone’s best interest if it’s cleaned up as soon as possible.’
‘Well, yes,’ said Ed, ‘to a point. But it isn’t dirty laundry, is it? Its people’s lives we’re talking about. And they didn’t make this mess, did they? So why should they clean it up?’
‘Didn’t they? I mean, alright, we all know that some bankers were irresponsible. You always get a few rotten apples, a few… unscrupulous purveyors of insurance policies, shall we say… Oh, hello Tom!’ Eddy waved at an MP shifting past their table. ‘But can you say that every banker is universally a bad egg? Come off it, you know that’s not credible. And are we saying that we don’t need bankers? We don’t need banks? Of course not. And are you saying that working class people didn’t have any say in the matter? That they couldn’t have abstained from taking on more debt?’
‘They didn’t have any choice!’
‘Not everyone one went out and got credit cards, you know. Many lived within their means.’ He platted his fingers. ‘My nana lived off her pension book and nothing more. Are you saying that ordinary, hard-working families didn’t have a choice? Of course they did! You know what you’re doing there, don’t you, by championing this… narrative? You are robbing people. Robbing them of … agency.’ Ed looked alarmed. He certainly didn’t want to do that. Check.
‘Our game-plan must be to relate to the public as grown-ups. Let me be clear: the Tories go too far. Yes, we have to deal with the deficit, and say it plainly. Why? Because it’s in the national interest. From the immigrant family on the corner, to the stock market guys in the sky – and all the other wealth creators – we have to say that Labour will be accountable. Labour will reduce the debt. Labour will match Tory spending. You know these loony Greens and SNP-ers; no one takes them seriously because they don’t live in the real world. People don’t buy into their anti-austerity fantasies, save a few miserable students.’
‘OK, really, well what about Scotland then?’ advanced Ed. ‘The SNP got forty-five per cent! How do you explain that?’
‘Wasn’t all SNP, Ed. But yes, it’s true; there was a “noisy minority” in the referendum. But that was a one-off; a protest, not the General Election. We can’t base our strategy on a one-off, never-to-be-repeated set of circumstances. People bang on about the Scottish referendum like we lost it! It was mid-term blues, that’s all; people wanting to give the Tories a kicking – can’t blame them for that. But at the same time, we’ve got to fight that kind of irresponsible politics. Imagine if the Scots had got a majority? What then? An anti-austerity Scotland? Fifty Labour seats down the toilet? The end of the United Kingdom? Good heavens above!’
‘Well, at least they wouldn’t have any debt,’ said Ed. ‘They’d be a new country.’ None of the Scottish MPs appeared to have shown up, but then again New Year’s celebrations were reported to be jolly good fun up at the Scottish office.
‘They’d soon take it on like a sinking ship, once the oil runs dry and the big firms pull out. And you know that we’d have to pull the plug; close lines of credit, call in our debts. Otherwise, you’ll have Wales and Northern Ireland and Cornwall and the bleeding Isle of Wight clambering for it next!’
‘Well, yes,’ said Ed, ‘and that’s what I think is, well, rather unfair. What you’re saying is that you’d sabotage their decision! Money doesn’t have wings. It doesn’t just start flying out of countries of its own accord. Someone pulls it out, devalues the currency, creates inflation. It’d be those horrid bankers again, who you say we should let off the hook! In your example, if the Scottish people had another referendum, the banks would mobilise a massive bloc-vote against them in the form of pounds, shillings and pence. You know how I fought against bloc-votes.’
‘Exactly,’ said Eddy, ‘and that’s why we can’t let matters get that far in the first place. And besides, the referendum’s over and done with; it’s not going to happen again.’
The countdown began. ‘Ten! Nine! Eight!’
‘That bloc-vote business was Foot’s fault,’ said Eddy.
‘Seven! Six! Five!’
‘And we’ve been paying the bill for thirty years. Thank god we’ve cleared it up at last. Or rather, you cleared it up, Ed. You showed real leadership there.’ He offered his leader a pressed set of lips and leant over and slapped him on the knee as a token of his appreciation.
‘Four! Three! Two! One!’
‘Happy New Year!’
Party horns unrolled and confetti fell from the ceiling as the two men continued their discussion. On the dance floor everyone who wore earphones pulled them out and were reunited with the ill-equipped who had been forced to do laps of the field in their underwear. The disc jockey was given the nod and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was played and they all linked arms. Ed and Eddy watched for a moment.
Ed noticed that not many of his trade union friends were among those ringing in the year. It was not as if he did not appreciate them anymore. He hoped they weren’t too upset. Whatever one said about the unions, you would have to agree that the new party rules were an improvement: One Member, One Vote. Peter had certainly thought so.
‘Consider it another way,’ said Eddy, his sweaty tufts now layered with colored bits of paper. ‘If Scotland had left, debt or no debt, the wealth creators would have withdrawn their money from Britain. Too much uncertainty – only sensible.’ Ed did not know where he was going with this, but he accepted his logic for the time being. An intern came up and placed a red and yellow paper chain around his neck, and then ran off giggling.
‘But if they start withdrawing money it will mean less business, and therefore less revenue. So you’ve got to start cutting back, unless…’
‘Unless you nail down everything that moves. But you can only do that by nationalising: you can’t control what you don’t own. But you know the logic in that. It’s a globalised world. No matter how much the Greens whinge about tax-havens, there’s no escaping it. If you start nationalising then the next day they’ll all be trying to take out their money, like ships pulling out of port. Then what can you do, but take them all over? Before you know it – bam! You’ve nationalised the entire economy. And what’s that called? Socialism. Congratulations, you’re the new Castro.’ Ed wilted in the face of Eddy’s merciless logic.
‘And we all know where that gets you,’ he said. Checkmate. Shove that up your big idea.
Ed was crestfallen, and Eddy knew that his leader was beaten. It had not taken long. He was glad to be there for him. The bubbles go to all our heads, every so often. And when that happens, you need a friend to pull you off the ceiling. He had become decidedly agitated as the General Election drew nearer, Eddy reflected. Thank God I’m here. He looked into his leader’s eyes and decided to offer an orderly retreat.
‘Look, we all saw what our friends in the unions were up to in Scotland,’ he said. ‘Playing silly buggers.’
‘Well, absolutely,’ said Ed.
‘Good job we nipped Falkirk in the bud. That was a Clause Four moment. I tell you, Ed: It’s those types of fellows who want to whip up this “anti-austerity” nonsense. Yes, we say no to those extremist Tories, but we must say yes to managing the deficit, no? That’s why we’re a party of government, unlike the loony lefts and trade unions. We must position ourselves to the left and the right so we can appeal to as many people in the centre as possible. It means being tough on the deficit, but also tough on the causes of the deficit. That’s what the unions never understood, and in my opinion we couldn’t have dealt with them soon enough. Their undemocratic bloc-vote was an accident waiting to happen.’
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ Ed conceded, feeling somewhat calmed by Eddy’s terrific power of reasoning.
‘Now any worker can participate on an even footing in our great party; One Member, One Vote, and primaries of supporters. And it’s all thanks to you, Ed. Mark my words: bring the public in and you’ll find them a darn sight more reasonable than these anti-austerity labour movement types. That road leads in the direction of chaos.’
‘Well, nobody wants that,’ said Ed.
Many months later, Ed stood at the edge of a cliff. Behind him, an eight-foot plaque was being unloaded out of a white van. He could not bear to turn around. He fancied he would rather skid down the rocks and dive into the sea and swim away from it, and everyone, than continue with this blasted election. He heard the slab thunk against the car park floor.
Ed looked out to sea where dull-grey mounds reared and drained, and washed into the miserable clouds and the blue-grey asphalt that crumbled beneath his polished shoes. In the wind his police-blue trousers rattled against his legs, and his streaming tie made him look as if he were straining on god’s leash.
The fold of activists, dragged up from the nearby town, huddled together and beheld the Stele as it was raised before them by a system of pulleys and levers. The elections were less than a week away. Everywhere he travelled he seemed to end up in the same tea-stained, dog-bitten, out-of-town motorway rest area, speaking to a feeble-minded cross-section of the party faithful.
One of his team crossed the asphalt and sidled up to him.
‘Just got off the phone with London,’ said the advisor. He had a soft American accent.
‘Sturgeon’s left another message saying for you to please return her calls. Eddy’s secretary says no need to hurry back, he and Yvette are having family time tonight.’
‘Again?’ Eddy had been spending an awful lot of time with his family recently. From under the cliff the wind swept, drowning their exchange.
‘Look, are you quite sure about this?’ cried Ed.
‘I’m positive – says he needs to spend time with the family and kids.’
‘No, I mean the stone. Is it really such a good idea? Isn’t this a bit of a… gimmick? A bit, well, cheap?’
‘Not for seven thousand,’ said the advisor.
Ed turned and saw the sorry little crowd gathered with hope around the semi-erect monument. He rubbed his thumb along the screw-top of the jar in his pocket and his thumb sung out in pain. He felt reduced, thinned. He was in deep now.
Walking gravely over to the propped monolith he donned a castor oil smile. He greeted the camera operator and his congealed colleagues and the workmen who stood apart from the proceedings, and rattled off his speech.
In the first four months of 2015 more than fifty-five thousand humans crossed over the borders of Southern Europe.