Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Conference call

Verity was disconcerted.

Tim English was due to give the main address of the morning session, on the Party’s energy policy. But he was nowhere to be found. The place was packed and the press were there in force. They generally weren’t kind to the Party, so Verity was anxious that it should all go smoothly. When it came to energy, you couldn’t bluff: you had to know what you were talking about. She should know: though she was now retired, it was her field. 

Ten a.m. and still no Tim. No sign of Shaz either, which was puzzling. Perhaps she’d just overslept after the steak last night. Verity thought she could make out Mills near the back of the auditorium. Her hands went cold. A small knot of party strategists and MPs near her were discussing what to do: postpone the session or find another speaker. Verity recognised the distinctive voice of an old university friend of hers among the press crowd: he usually covered Parliament but for some reason he had come up here. Curious, and wanting to catch up after thirty years, she made her way over. He recognised her instantly: only her hair colour had changed in all that time. 

They chatted about old times, and then moved on to the journalism scene: it transpired that most of the newspapers had lain off their science correspondents but had then hired them back,  just for this one day, to cover the Energy speech. The same individuals were to cover the afternoon session on Climate Change, and then their contracted work would be over. There was, in other words, no way of postponing it without risking its being covered by hacks who didn’t know what they were talking about and would just fill up their column-inches with quotes from climate change deniers and the anti-wind-power lobby. Verity excused herself, went over to her party colleagues and recounted what she had just found out. 

So they needed an understudy. 

They all looked at her. Oh crap. She remembered an old Soviet expression Sacha was fond of: “Initiative is punishable by execution”. I’ll do it, but please, give me half an hour to put something together?

Verity was in the spotlight. It was always the same: nervous as hell before she took to the stage, standing behind the shelter of the podium to start her speech, then warming to the task and finally relishing it. She painted an eloquent vision of the electricity grid providing the nation with all the power it needed, using only renewable energy: tidal lagoon and stream, on and offshore wind with built-in Hydrogen storage for calm weeks, rooftop solar...the backbone nationalised, the local circuits in the hands of co-ops or city councils. No more fuel poverty. It would be the New Industrial Revolution. Electricity, the silent servant, would henceforth have cleaner working conditions. She outlined the massive programme of building insulation, and forestry for wood-burning that would all but eliminate the need for gas and grinned mischievously as she added, no more relying on the Russians to keep us warm in winter. She had all the numbers at her fingertips and had put together a factsheet with references for the journalists. It was on this memory stick on the dark ribbon around her neck (she reached and tugged it gently with her left hand, so that it lay directly over her heart): come and find me afterwards if you want it, she smiled.  

“Well I hope I’ve covered everything. Any questions?”

“What about nuclear power?” 

Verity took the audience through the decommissioning programme the Party had worked out: a dedicated international team of engineers would go from station to station, starting with the oldest, carefully completing each before moving on. The waste would, following a method developed in Sheffield, be self-vitrified miles underground in granite: there was just enough suitable rock in Cornwall to do this for the present fleet. It wouldn’t be cheap, but it would be safe, permanently. Some of the funding would come from the Euratom programme, of which the UK was still a member.

“What about the proposed motion to end your opposition to nuclear power?”

And that was where it all started to go wrong. Verity, busy with preparing her presentation, had not read the day’s programme, which somebody was now passing to her. There it was in black and white: low-Carbon electricity generation, proposer Stan Mills. Her face turned a colour you don’t talk about in polite company. Mills was on the stage. He was treated to the sight of Verity swathed in a bonfire of green flames. Verity with status anxiety: that’s a first, he thought. 

Verity was better at keeping a calm voice than a calm face.

“Well, perhaps you’d care to take us through the motion you wish to put to Conference” She handed him the mike, while remaining behind the podium so that she could lean on it for support and stop her legs shaking. The podium wobbled disconcertingly.

Mills was talking about a massive build programme. How the hell had that ever got to Conference, she thought. What if it were carried? Staring daggers at him, she drummed her fingers on the podium as he carried on. He flinched. She remembered! Laugh, sing, dance. But she couldn’t do any of those here on stage! How ironic: the bonds of professional convention held her more tightly than the iron shackles from the museum ever could. Then again, she knew her face was practically a broadcasting station: all she had to do was think about dancing and he would be distracted. She could even get away with tapping her feet and swaying a little behind the podium. 

She chose a tune to play through her head, one she couldn’t help moving to. Right SaidFred. I’m, too sexy for my shirt...Mills flinched. Small modular reactors using Thorium. I’m, too sexy for my car (wince) The Japanese were wrong to give up their development programme I’m, too sexy for Japan (he coughed and had to reach for a glass of water), government models of electricity supply and demand show that without nuclear power the lights would go out I’m a, mo-del, you know what I mean, I’m doing my stuff on the catwalk... (splutter) then it was Verity’s turn to flinch: there were spikes coming down from the ceiling! Except, they had no shadows: she tested her theory by swiping a hand through one of them. I’m, too sexy for my hat...With one final shudder, Mills finished his summary. 

“Well, that was interesting” she took back the mike. “Any questions?” To her astonishment, there were none. “Very well, I shall ask one. The renewable energy build has been costed in detail: do you have an equivalent costing for this proposal?” There was no proper answer: just waffle. No numbers, no reference. Jon Snow would never have stood for it. She re-phrased the question: still only bluster. Verity trusted that the press could see through it. She asked, reasonably, how the industry intended to tackle waste disposal: a problem, as she disarmingly put it with a touch to her white hair “as old as I am” (Mills flinched at the laughter). Or the issue of working conditions for the Uranium miners in dictatorships overseas (“this is the twenty first century, after all”: Mills looked misty-eyed with nostalgia). Still no proper answer.   

Thank god she could see an ally: Caroline was approaching the stage. Verity killed the mike. 

“I don’t know what the procedure is now, sorry, I’ve never been to Conference before. But listen: has anybody tried to find Tim? Also, a friend of mine who said she’d be here seems to have gone missing...”

Caroline took over: Verity thanked her profusely and dashed off to find Security, who might be able to find Tim, and Shaz. Caroline got the delegates to agree to break early for lunch. 

Verity found Shaz at the bar, of all places, with a glass of whisky in front of her. 

“You missed my presentation. I had to step in at the last minute and do all Tim’s stuff from scratch. The virgin understudy: and they didn’t even throw flowers for me!” she joked. “Mills has tabled a motion to end our opposition to nuclear power_”

“He wants to split the party and destroy us” said Shaz. Verity realised she herself was not a born politician: of course that was the explanation. It had nothing to do with energy as such: Mills had just picked Verity’s field for this battle for his own vindictive pleasure. 

Shaz held up her iPod

“He got me again. Turned it off while I was still asleep, but it wasn’t completely off, it was on voice memo...” She handed Verity one of the ear-buds and touched the screen.

Verity could hear Mills’ voice: soft, persistent, relentless. It was horrible, filthy stuff. Violet stuff. Verity had never heard anything like it. Her heart went out to Shaz: this would be gruelling even for somebody who started out being perfectly happy with their body. Then there was the sound of Shaz laughing, and it all stopped. 

Shaz was on the horns of a dilemma. “I thought for once I’d get a drink, it might make me brave enough, like you said your wine_”

“Bugger that” said Verity, and called the barman. “Two hot chocolates please, and the whisky for yourself, if you like it”

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Room service

Verity was sleeping. 

She slept well: it seemed to her one of the few advantages in life of being honest. She could sleep through practically anything. 

Which was why it took Shaz ages to wake her up. She was banging on the door of Verity’s room.

Verity looked at her phone. Two thirty. Oh crap, not Mills, not now please...

“Who is it?”

“It’s me. Shaz. Please let me in...”

Verity was relieved. She opened the door. Shaz was in a bit of a state. She threw herself on the bed and wrapped the quilt round her head. She wouldn’t say anything at first, so Verity just donned her dressing-gown and put the kettle on to make herself some tea. Then she sat next to Shaz and put her arm round her shoulders: Shaz had probably had a nightmare.

“I...I don’t like it in Leeds...” she began, “It’s...grim...” she trailed off. It was an effort for Verity not to say something about this slight to her mum’s native city, but for once she kept quiet.

“There was a man...I was, in a big, white tower looking up. There were swords all over the walls. And stairs. I couldn’t move. He kept saying funny stuff like, “fear is beautiful” and “it goes with your eyes” and, that I could light up the whole of the was like my dad, and...I’m dirty” Shaz was sobbing into the quilt. “He kept using the same word, “violate”...I looked it up on google. It means_”

Oh crap. You’re out of your depth Vez. This is Bernie territory and you haven’t got directions. You’re lost. Say the wrong thing and the little lass will just sail right over the edge. 

The fact that Verity recognised the description of the inside of the Armouries tower didn’t help: if anything it made matters worse. She knew Shaz, as a pacifist, would never have voluntarily set foot in the place. Bernie, dear god I wish you were here. What would you say?

She handed Shaz a box of tissues to dry her face.

She tried to imagine Bernie at her work. But all she could think of was Bernie talking about a management consultant who had recently come in to audit their Department, and caused a lot of extra work in the process. Bernie had said:

“He was a bit, up himself, know what I mean?” 

Suddenly Shaz dissolved into peals of helpless laughter. Verity was completely at a loss. There really was, as the saying went, Nowt so Queer as Folk. 

Eventually Shaz could get some words out

“She’s spot-on, your mate...”

“But I didn’t say anything”

“I’m...very sensitive to what people think.”

“I’m dead impressed. Can you guess what I’m thinking now?” Verity had noticed sachets of hot chocolate next to the tea-making things. 

“Hot chocolate. Yes I could murder one”

They were sipping from their mugs. Verity felt she owed Shaz an explanation.

“Shaz. You know, I’m not clever with people. But I do know about dreams. You were dreaming about fear. That bloke_”

“He’s like a ghost, isn’t he? He’s like fear turned into a person”

“Yes. He’s been in my dreams too. He’s probably stalking our entire party. He’s the undercover bloke I warned you about and all. He wants the new government to do the sort of things that people do out of fear. Stupid stuff: compulsory ID cards, waging war, stopping people having the time to think_”

“Everything the last lot did”

“Precisely. When he’s tormenting me, he’s also going on about how nostalgic he is for the last lot, and how he’s going to make us do the same, and how we can’t resist, all that kind of stuff. But, I’ve been asking a lot of questions and I’ve found out there are ways of getting rid of him. You were laughing just now: that’s one of them. If laughing’s too difficult when you’re scared, music will work, especially if you can sing. The one he really dreads, though, is dancing. Even thinking about it sends him over the edge.”

They sat quietly for a while.

“Shaz, have you got an iPod?”

“What a funny question. Course I have”

“Put it on when you go to sleep. That way there’ll be music, and he’ll leave you in peace”


“Everybody calls me Vez”

“You don’t look at people’s eyes, do you? Are you scared of them?”

“No. It’s just, I squint. I know it disconcerts people so I, erm, try and spare them it. I listen, I look at the way people walk, or if I want their thoughts I simply ask”

Verity looked at Shaz’s eyes.

They were violet.

Violet, fear of your body...

Verity explained about the colours: red for poverty, orange for people or crowds, yellow for physical phobias such as spiders or heights, green for status anxiety, blue for pain, dark blue for oblivion, and violet. 

“He wasn’t threatening you with, with that. He only knows you’re very scared of it. It’s just a horrible coincidence that the words sound so similar”

Then Shaz said something that took Verity’s breath away.

“I saw him last week, near Holborn. You were with him. You went into the old NatWest building”


“My teacher says I’m what’s called a super-recorder, or something”

“Super-recogniser. That’s a fantastic gift, Shaz. Make the most of it”

Verity recounted what Mills got up to in the building. 

“No wonder people come out so scared: I can feel it from right across the street”. 
Shaz was lost in thought for a while.

“I’m starving. D’you suppose we can get steak and chips now?”

“Don’t see why not”, said Verity, picking up the Room Service menu and thinking, thank god. At last this lass is going to get some food down her and stop looking like something from the 1840s.

Monday, 24 November 2014


The little lass turned hesitantly down Neville Street, which passed under the railway by the dark arches. She was pale, and slight to the point of looking undernourished. She wasn’t used to the Northern weather, and what’s more she wasn’t used to this kind of darkness. In her native London it usually meant something sinister. A shadowy figure was following her. The figure could see the little lass’s violet fear: fear for her own body. She was only eighteen: she probably thought he was a rapist. To a southerner, Leeds was Ripper country. 
Verity’s mum had told her that the dark arches were designed by one of her ancestors, an engineer, to carry the railway over the river Aire. So, after the day’s proceedings at the Party Conference, she thought she’d go and have a look at them. They had apparently been a shopping centre until a fire last year. The city council had yet to pull together enough money for repairs and the flimsy security fence had been vandalised: easy for her to squeeze through. It was nine in the evening. She had brought a torch so as to be able to see details. The darkness didn’t bother her. She was in the arches, looking back towards the road, when the little lass and her potential assailant passed by, silhouetted against the opposite wall. She couldn’t read fear, and she was lousy at reading faces, but something about the hesitant way the little lass was walking told her that she was afraid and might appreciate company. Verity squeezed back through the broken fence, stepped swiftly out of the shadow, approached her and asked matter-of-factly:

“Are ya lost, lass?”

The sigh of relief was audible. “I’m looking for the Malmaison Hotel. It’s apparently near, something called the Armouries?” It was where Verity, and most of the delegates, were staying. 

“Oh it’s just along the canal. I’m staying there. I’ll walk with you if you like.” She noticed the lanyard and pale green badge. “You at the Conference, too, then?”
“Yes. It’s my first. I’m with the Minister”

“Oh? Which one?”

“Work and pensions. I’m her new Intern. We get the Living Wage: isn’t that great?”

Verity couldn’t believe her luck. The darkness was her friend: it hid the utter astonishment written across her face. “Yes, marvellous” she said. They walked along in silence for a while. 

“What’s your name?”


“Well, I’m Verity. D’you fancy joining me for a nightcap?”

Shaz looked blank. She wondered if Verity was gay. 

“I mean, a last glass of something before you go to bed”

“I, er, don’t drink. Much.”

“Coffee, then? Are you a Quaker, by the way?”

“No, I, er...” Finally the penny dropped. Verity wished she was better at reading people. She also wished she could throw herself at the feet of this innocent little lass who, as far as Verity was concerned, was nothing short of a gift from the gods. 

“Come on, join me for a hot chocolate. You look perished”

They got chatting about the differences between Leeds and London. “People talk to you up here”, said Shaz “It’s strange. But it’s nice” Shaz got her phone out to look through texts: Verity got more mugs of chocolate. She glanced at the phone as if admiring it.

“Apparently the Minister has the latest Apple...”

“Yeah, she never stops bleedin’ talking about it! Won’t let it out of her sight. It’s weird.”

“She’s younger than you, isn’t she?”

“Yeah. By just a week, I think”

“You should take the mick a bit. Have a laugh about it. Next time she’s obsessing about it and it’s winding you up, just say “Well, some of us round here are old enough to know when enough is enough”. Don’t forget to get all three of the “enoughs” in: then she might take the hint. Let me know if you manage to: the “enough” thing’s a bit of a running joke with us in York, after all those election speeches...”enough Austerity”, “enough war”, “enough inequality”...and all that. If word gets round that you’ve managed to put a minister up to saying a sentence with three of the buggers in, you’ll be a legend in York.”

Shaz was laughing. “I’ll get it on my phone so’s you can all see it”. 

“Talking about phones, there’s something else I want to tell you. D’you remember that case where that undercover policeman got that protester pregnant?”
Shaz remembered.

“Well, word is that there’s one of those types floating around in our Westminster offices: bloke called Mills, but he might call himself something else by now. And that he’s got your minister in his sights. I know for a fact it was him who gave her the bloody Apple in the first place. It’ll be tapped. And, they do things like offer counselling and record the sessions. Dirty tricks. He’ll want to trip her up doing something she shouldn’t, and then blackmail her. I bet you’re clever with people, aren’t you?”

Shaz beamed.

“Be her mate. If she looks like doing anything daft, talk her out of it. Help her keep a clear head.”


“Good lass” 

Verity smiled at the irony of what she had just said.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Iron maiden

Verity had stopped shivering. 

Pale white streamers surrounded her. They shimmered and twisted like the Northern Lights. They went with her hair, which gleamed in the spotlights.  He didn’t know how she remained standing, but she did. She was dressed once more in that deep green gown that reminded him of his better days, in the past. Her pulse was faint. Her hands were cold. Her feet were bare. They had turned ice-blue as she was standing on the flagstones, so he had had to go and find a piece of cloth to put underneath them: otherwise she wouldn’t last the night.  There were no shackles small enough for her slim hands in the entire museum, except the ones on the rack, and they were chained to it. The echo silencer was set on the chair next to it. 

He had brought her to have a look at the iron maiden. He had let her have a go at feeling the points, and showed her how it worked. It was only fair: she was always curious about how things worked. She was probably thinking that she would end up inside it, but that wasn’t the idea: he didn’t want to concede any more questions, any more penalties. He just wanted a night as enjoyable for him as that party fundraiser had obviously been for her. To gaze at those Northern lights, white just like his own. Fear without object, pure, white as the ice on Blencathra: it went with her like the snow on a white rose. Verity: silent, spellbound as the standing stones in the evening mist.  In ten thousand years he had never experienced any resonance like it. He didn’t want to have to hand her back, didn’t want her to be a mortal. He noticed the edges of her glow occasionally blushed ever so slightly indigo. She was evidently in fear of oblivion: that his plan to grind down the entire world would run to completion. So, she had faith in him. She was beginning to get ready to concede defeat. Good lass...

He put a hand on her right shoulder. He could feel it was still slightly painful to her, wished he hadn’t been so careless with it. What a blow that shoulder had struck at him: those bloody questions. She now not only knew him but had also, by asking about a sentence left on her bedside notebook, regained the secret of the Apple. Learning from her previous mistake, she had then emailed it to herself and to all her party contacts, disguising it as a humourous article about “temptation” for their newsletter. She had also written it in her notebook. Her final question, about the physics of Fear and how it propagated, had caused him to boast of how it could, by resonance, hold entire countries in its thrall: Germany, 1933. The USSR, 1934.  China, 1966.  It could move through any medium and, by quantum tunnelling, it could travel faster than light. It could overcome any obstacle: it could persist in rooms, even invade dreams. He had let slip far, far too much. He had seen her thinking, from her knowledge of Eastern philosophy: “He who boasts will not endure...”.

Worst of all, he had inadvertently given away the cure for Indifference: it was the income distribution recommended by Rawls in his Theory of Justice. 

He had to say something to make her scream, to check that she hadn’t lost her mind and cost him anything inconvenient: questions, penalties. He had promised himself that he would do this every two hours through the night, and had so far remembered to do it both times. You had to know your limits. 

He whispered: “You are alone...” he could see her mouth the words “I’m left alone...” but that didn’t count as a scream. He remembered she didn’t fear solitude. Her mind was the most important thing to her. He tried again. 

 “Your mind is blank...” She responded in a whisper: “my mind was blank”

“I need time to think...” Mills thought out loud. Verity’s face, too, somehow looked deep in thought. “...time to think...” She blinked, as if waking up, and looked afresh at the iron maiden. She took a deep breath: good, thought Mills, she’s going to scream.

But there was no scream. Her beautiful Northern lights vanished. Verity was singing.

I left alone (the notes were clear: do-me-fa-so. She was hesitant, like a child learning the scale at school. He disapproved of music in schools in the same way that Verity and her party disapproved of army recruiters there, but there it was).

“My mind was blank” (the same notes. Then on a slightly lower scale, and picking up pace and confidence...)

“I needed time to think, to get the memories from my mind...”

she sang a similar melody, but with more spirit:

“What did I see? (she clenched her fists to gather breath. He noticed her hands were no longer cold)
can I believe (Verity closed her eyes as she hit the sixth perfectly: she was warming to the task)
that what I saw that night, was real and not just fantasy?”

“Just what I saw
in my last dream (now gazing up into the spotlights, as if she were on a stage...),
were they reflections of my warped mind staring back at me?

‘Cause in my dreams
He's always there (with bitter passion: she was singing for her life now)
that evil face that twists my mind and brings me to despair!”

She pointed at the iron maiden and laughed. “Number of the Beast! It’s practically your anthem, Mills!” She disappeared into impossible black threads as she started to dance...

She sat up in bed and raised her arms in delight

She had woken Sacha up.

“No more nightmares.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. “tantzuyu...