Marcus looked out at the crowd assembled for the rally. All the different groups were there, almost mingling but all the same clearly distinct. His wife and her friends – most notably Clara Grey – at the front sharing thermoses of tea and biscuits they had somehow decorated with the All England logo. The flashier element with their designer jeans and gadgets. Families after a day out. Young mothers with babies in buggies. Farmers with waxed jackets and graph paper shirts. The geekier elements of the youth movement, all ironed shirt and acne – the ones who interpreted ‘canvassing’ literally in terms of putting leaflets through doors and applying earnest persuasion. And the other elements, the ones who saw canvassing as an opportunity for mayhem, who needed reminding that alcohol was banned from official functions and that certain words beginning with ‘n’, ‘p’ and ‘y’ were not always appropriate. Some of these youths were on security detail, where their tendency towards violence could on occasions be put to good use. The rest clustered at the back passing bottles around and, Marcus noticed with dismay, becoming loud before the event even started. He sighed to himself – if the antis attacked, he did not want them to have the slightest claim to provocation, not when the police were trying to be fair, the press and public were watching and he had an election to win.
He had been like them, once. This was not, of course, common knowledge. Even the most dogged muckrakers had hitherto been unable to prove that Mark Fox of Tower Hamlets had not, as his nearest and dearest (and the Metropolitan Police) had been led to believe, drowned on a drunken night out; but had instead made use of a forged ID to reinvent himself as a respectable Norfolk businessman. Even Janet didn’t know the full story. She knew he had been a bit wild, certainly, but put it in the same category as the hijinks with which Julius and his friends relieved the tedium of political campaigning.
Then there were the antis. They were as much of a mixed bunch. The peace-and-love brigade rubbing elbows with black-clad anarchists, people of various ages displaying trade union and political party affiliations, oddballs from tiny leftist factions – he would laugh except that the right had its own share of paranoid weirdos with bad breath and a tendency to make two plus two equal five and declare war on those who made it six. The unionists in particular worried him, although not for the reasons you might think. Still, there was a line of police between the two groups and taking on lefties in a fight was the one thing some of the lads here were good for, so he tried not to worry. He was briefly distracted by the sight of a short blonde woman he recognised, not to mention her taller but equally blonde daughter. He shook his head and turned back to the row of dignitaries behind him. Debbie Kane, the English rose made flesh, lush and blonde in a dress that was more demure than her usual – she held a position on the town council in Yarmouth. Verity Henning, whose son had been murdered by two black youths and who was fast becoming the Leader’s right hand woman. The charismatic Ralph Holtby, who had made his name advising companies on how best to fend off the unions. His own son Julius, representing the youth movement, paying for his mistimed jape at the school dance with a bit of public speaking. And the Leader himself, Roderick Spode. Sadly Spode couldn’t stay for long, as he had St George’s Day festivities to attend in his own prospective constituency, but it was still a huge coup to have him here. Marcus gripped the microphone with more fervour than he had held anything that shape in years.
‘Ladies and gentlemen’, he began. ‘For those of you who don’t know me’ – he was conscious here of laughter from his own contingent and jeers from the other side – ‘My name is Marcus Wolf and I am the All England Party Candidate for Norwich North. So vote for me.’ He gave the audience what he hoped was a self-depreciating smile. ‘But of course, I am not the main attraction today. We have a star-studded lineup of England’s finest. Our first speaker needs no introduction, but he’ll get one anyway. Our Leader, Roderick Spode.’ Both the cheers and boos increased in volume and intensity as Spode took the stage.
The dance was just as Rob remembered them from his own schooldays, that is thick with cheap perfume and newly-emerging pheromones, loud with naff music, squealing from the girls and rude noises from the boys, floor sticky with spilled pop and who knew what else. In other words, dire for anyone who had reached the far side of puberty, even if they had done so unscathed as Rob hadn’t. He spotted Mr Milton, the geography teacher who had already been ancient to his generation, and for the first time ever felt a pang of empathy for the man. In the past even an incident involving a dead frog had failed to stir such a feeling, except maybe for the frog.
By the second hour, the kids were high on sugar and one or two of the older ones were showing signs of having imbibed more unofficial substances. Rob wished he’d had the idea. The girls were mostly dancing like maniacs with each other, while some around the edges made eyes at the boys who were ostentatiously doing anything but watch the girls. If you liked girls you were gay, was the line at their age. Rob hadn’t grasped the logic then, and didn’t now.
A loud crash and a thud interrupted Rob’s pondering on male sexuality. Some of the girls had stopped dancing, others continued, but all were backing away from the spray of broken glass that had been a window and the brick that had, seemingly from nowhere, landed in the middle of the dancefloor. Almost everyone was staring at the jagged hole where the centre of the window had been.
‘There’s the bastard!’ someone shouted, and sure enough Rob could see a flash of pale hair making at speed for the bushes. Rob twisted open the emergency door with a skill born from years of sneaking out of that hall, wondering briefly if the alarm was still buggered from his time or had been mended and re-buggered, and took chase. Keeping up with him were several boys and Denise’s eldest daughter Jennette. He collared the escaping brick-thrower, with two boys piling in to help, just as Mr Milton caught up with them.
‘It’s Jules Wolf, sir!’ Jennette called. She was throwing punches in their captive’s direction, with her brother trying to restrain her. ‘He’s a wanker!’ she shouted, clearly bent on assaulting Wolf and any of her own comrades who tried to stop her.
‘No doubt, Lambert, but we have rules against violence on school premises. Wolf, I’m disappointed in you. What do you think you’re doing?’
‘His dad told him to’, a boy announced loudly from the growing crowd of onlookers. The rest laughed, except for Jennette.
‘This school isn’t what it used to be’, Wolf replied. Rob was beginning to recognise him, remembering a cherubic first year with a slight nasty streak. ‘It’s too multicultural, for a start. All the immigrant kids, everyone having to learn at their pace, can’t learn about our own traditions. My brother got the crap kicked out of him just for being white.’ It may have been Rob’s imagination, but the boy sounded less than sincere; almost as if he was reading from a script. ‘We thought we’d stir things up a bit.’ Now that sounded heartfelt.
Just when it might have been getting good, Jules’ flow was interrupted by a sudden outbreak of shouting inside the hall. Worse, there was smoke flooding out through the broken window. Rob craned his neck to see what was going on.
‘Leave Wolf with me’, Milton snapped, seeing a possible alternative to the public torture session his pupils were dreaming up. ‘Go to the front to be counted. First aiders report to Miss Cohen from Biology.’
At the front of the building Rob established firstly that Sophie and Celine were safely outside and secondly that the aforementioned miss Cohen was holding a young man in a headlock which bore no resemblance to any first aid taught in Badgers.
Sophie clutched at his arm. ‘That boy threw a smoke bomb,’ she explained.
‘So did the one Devon and Pete caught, but Mr Parker stepped in to stop them decking him and he ran off. Porker wouldn’t dare tell Miss C to lay off though.’ Celine sounded out of breath, Rob hoped through excitement – however dubious – rather than smoke inhalation.
‘And Maria’s crying because she lurves the one Miss C’s strangling’, Sophie finished, removing Angie’s sister from the immediate list of people to worry about. This did not, surprisingly, reduce the list by much.
‘Anyone hurt?’ Rob asked, trying to get back into sensible territory.
‘He will be if the cops don’t get here soon,’ Sophie gestured at Miss Cohen, her captive and the group surrounding them.
Celine, the less bloodthirsty of the pair, pointed to a young black woman with braids and said ‘ask Miss Smith’.
Miss Smith turned out to have taken charge of the evacuation, with some nominal help from Mr Parker, and was delighted to organise other people to deal with the gorier parts of proceedings. By some miracle there weren’t many of these. A few bruises from the stampede for the exit over a slippery dance floor, some coughs from the smoke which Miss Smith – who turned out to teach chemistry – declared non-toxic, and some redness around Joelle Lambert’s eyes which could be from the smoke but could equally be the result of rough application of her sister’s hanky. Jennette was still seething and smuts made an adequate proxy for Julius Wolf as an outlet for her aggression.
The worst damage was sustained by Georgia Howett, whose parents ran the pub. She had not only slipped on a spilt drink on her way to the exit, but also landed on a piece of glass from the window. The upshot involved Rob applying gauze to her shapely brown leg topped by a short red skirt, the same shade as his face as he tried to hide his embarrassment, and a number of girls displaying a level of envy never previously directed at someone with a possible (although thankfully not actual) severed artery.
‘Use her knickers’, Devon called from the sidelines, earning him cheers from some of the other boys and glares from most of the girls.
‘To wring your neck?’ Rob asked, straightening up after stemming the flow of gore.
Devon’s life expectancy was increased by the emergence of Mr Milton from the front entrance.
‘Young Wolf has calmed down a bit,’ he announced, ‘and is waiting in my classroom for the police. Miss Cohen, if you’d like to…’
‘The police?’ Parker interrupted.
‘Yes, the police,’ Milton replied with a tone and expression familiar to Rob from the frog incident. ‘The people we normally call when young hooligans break the windows and release noxious substances.’ He spoke as though this happened every day. ‘Now as I was saying’ – he glared at Parker – ‘Miss Cohen, can you take’ – a moment’s hesitation – ‘Davis to my classroom to wait with his friend. I’m sure I can trust you to keep them in line, preferably without violence.’
Parker began to chunter about how the son of a parliamentary candidate couldn’t be called a hooligan. Milton, sensible, continued to speak over him.
‘Right, I think we can all agree we’ve had an exciting evening, but it’s time you lot dispersed. Form an orderly rabble to collect your coats, if you bothered to bring them. Do not stop in the hall to grab extra crisps. Do not vomit on the crime scene. If you’re waiting for a lift go to the front gate. If you’re walking, bugger off. Oh, and happy Easter.’
The family seemed determined to coexist peacefully and run like clockwork – as far from a normal state of affairs as they could get. Sophie in particular veered between subdued and manically cheerful. She did a semblance of homework without being asked, and spent every spare minute caring for Max. Her one outburst came on a Saturday morning, on a trip to the library. Max had become grizzly in the time it took her to locate the two books she needed for school, objecting to the idea of spending even longer there while she chose some fiction. She bribed him by offering to read him a story if she could have a bit more browsing time afterwards. Max, being a bit set in his ways, chose a favourite story that they already had at home, a reworking of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Fine by Sophie, it was the least boring option. By about halfway through she was getting quite into the story of a naked man being identified as such.
‘That was the little girl who cried, “Mummy, the Emperor should go back inside! I can see his bum, and…” “I can see it too!” said a little boy. “I can even see his doodle-dangle-doo!”’, Sophie read, sensing a shadow hanging over her.
‘Young lady, do you really think that’s an appropriate story for a small child?’ asked the middle-aged blonde who had crept up on them.
‘Max likes it. It isn’t that rude!’ Sophie answered, and continued to read more loudly. ‘The children were yelling “yay, yay, yay, the Emperor is having a naked birthday! Three cheers for his bum! Three cheers for his doodle…”’
‘Enough!’ the woman announced loudly. ‘I expect that muck from places like that, but it isn’t suitable for children here.’
‘What are you going on about? Your racist CRAP isn’t suitable for Max.’ Sophie was shouting now, letting off some steam. ‘You need to get a life instead of giving people shit.’
‘How dare you!’ The woman responded. She was starting to seem vaguely familiar to Sophie, although it could just have been from the prolonged encounter. ‘My husband died so ungrateful brats like you can be free to peddle muck…’
‘Now Clara, that’s no way to win people over.’ A man had appeared behind the woman and placed his hand on her arm. He was tall and think with neat blond hair and pale grey eyes, and Clara looked slightly awestruck as Sophie would if her favourite pop star of the moment had touched her.
‘Yes Marcus, you’re probably right,’ she simpered, all saccharine now she had an appreciative audience. ‘It just makes me so angry…’
‘I know’, he pacified, ‘but I doubt this young lady realises how bad things are. You’d be welcome at our youth club one evening if you want to find out more,’ he suggested to Sophie. She was not in the mood to be grateful. Instead, she shot both adults a look of pure venom and led a bemused-looking Max out of the building.
‘Don’t worry Maxie’, she stated loudly, ‘We’ll finish the story at home.’