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”