Short Fiction by Jake Kendall
Perhaps the sounds emanating from Stephen’s mouth were still somehow convincing.
The reasonable and impartial listener would be forced to conclude that he was maintaining an air of authority throughout his interview. Naturally there would be some trifling opposition to that view; a tiny and insignificant list of dissenters that would include:
1. The inevitable, sneering cynics.
2. Those who had met Stephen before, or heard him talk on a previous occasion.
3. Anyone listening from the start of the interview.
And of course,
4. Every single person capable of recognising the notes of panic and fluster entering another human being’s voice.
Natasha knew those notes well. Like the smell of cheap vodka mixed with lemonade, or the sight of dirty and sex-stained bedsheets, it transported her straight back to her grungy university days.
Despite his crushing on her for nearly six months the boy’s name remained elusive, for those were the heady pre-social media times, when personal details were not so accessible and stalking constituted an art form, of sorts. Nevertheless, Natasha could still clearly picture him as he eagerly followed her around campus; how his tongue, initially so sharp, became thoroughly blunted; his face looking utterly stupid as he gawped at her through that misty-eyed lobotomy. As a functioning humidifier sucks all moisture from a room, that tone of voice – with its gossamer-thin veil of breezy confidence, trying and failing to conceal pleading notes of pure desperation – had had a similar effect Natasha’s libido.
Surely it was draining the last of Stephen’s credibility now. Thank god then for small mercies; this was only a radio interview. As bad as his voice sounded, the audience were spared the sight of his nervous face with its sweaty brow and nervous twitches.
At least the interviewer was having fun; Natasha imagined the woman’s smug grin as she turned the screw.
‘Do you at least accept that someone heavily involved in the remain campaign might struggle to convince listeners that they are now fully committed to Brexit?’
Stephen stuttered through the response they had scripted, defining his role as more of a public servant than a leader. Which – as he’d explained at the time – was the complete inverse of every principle he believed with sincerity.
Nicola drew her index finger slowly and deliberately across her throat. The assessment was fair enough; but the smirk creeping across her lips and in her eyes was wholly unnecessary. Natasha’s assistant was too green to appreciate the vast difference between purely esoteric politicking and actually facing the full glare of public pressure.
‘And you just know he’s doing that face – you know the one – makes me think of like, a beached blob fish’. Nicola committed to a full impersonation, pushing out her bottom lip and flapping it at her, eyes wide open in panic. Natasha watched momentarily before deciding not to dignify her junior colleague with a response.
‘I refer you back to the original question: there was a distinct lack of preparation for a leave result – is that indicative of complacency?’
Stephen lurched into a response that sounded like some awful teenage debate-club participant attempting to spontaneously cobble together a verbal essay on the nature of complacency. It petered out into a long-winded nothingness.
‘Well, that didn’t answer my question. Let’s try another tack. Do you believe you can make a success of Brexit?’
Natasha hoped that Stephen would at least refrain from Ed Miliband “hellz-to-the-yeah” levels of bombast, and was pleased by the simplicity of his response.
‘Of course. Success is a distinct possibility.’
‘Then why did you repeatedly describe the prospect as a “ludicrous act of national self-mutilation”?’
Natasha heard herself actually sighing out loud.
A pandemic of mass-delusion has swept through the media: from provincial news anchors through to lightweight chat-show hosts, everyone seems to believe that they are the heir-apparent to Jeremy fucking Paxman. Regardless of the depth of their experience, or their credibility as political experts, these media menials gleefully probe and pick, hoping to unearth incompetence and indecisiveness at every turn. There is not one specific person to blame in all this: like one of Steinbeck’s monsters, the media is not a thing to be reasoned with. Drunk with ubiquity and influence the media has become delinquent with a rabid and insatiable appetite for outrage and hysteria.
Take the courts; for ruling that Brexit must be legitimized and ratified by a parliamentary vote, they were branded – seemingly without a hint of irony – anti-democratic and authoritarian. “Enemies of the State” read the headline of one redtop. No wonder the public are confused and angry.
Natasha’s private irritation was echoed by Stephen’s voice now.
‘Look, I can see you’re really trying to make this about my personal beliefs. Well let me state them unequivocally: I am a democrat. I respect the outcome of all fair democratic votes.’
That was decent. They could all exude a little more passion. Passion good; anger bad – surely Natasha could design a pie chart or something to clarify that.
‘I appreciate the sentiment Mr Copley, however, the issue goes beyond your personal beliefs. I mean to ask if there is a disconnect between voters and the political establishment at large. That perhaps some voters believe that a government that contains many prominent spokespersons for the remain campaign might be dragging their feet intentionally. What would you say to those voters?’
‘That we’re holding out for a second vote, waiting just long enough for all our racist grandparents to die?’ Boredom had pushed Nicola to the back of her chair where she was carrying out an appraisal of the ceiling. Natasha turned the volume up, hoping to discourage further interjection.
‘I would tell them the truth. We will not damage our country with a bad deal. This is not a simple negotiation, it will not be a quick process.’
‘So by inference, you do believe your government can secure a good deal?’
‘That’s the hope.’
‘Forgive me for saying so, but “hope” isn’t a term that suggests expectation, nor authority.’
Stephen fumbled, caught out by his own reactionary language. He resorted to patronising the audience, observing rather obviously that when two parties negotiate a deal, the junior party cannot wholly dictate terms.
If Stephen’s interviewer-cum-torturer was hoping for the cringe factor she was achieving her aim. Good for her, Natasha supposed; embarrassing a politician is a great way to boost ratings, shares and likes. After all, the interviewer isn’t sat in the negotiation chambers; she doesn’t have to deal with the indifference – so profound that it borders on contempt – radiating back from our European counterparts as they barter against a government perceived as weak and incompetent, shakily demanding a better deal than anyone else in Europe for no other reason than generations of inculcated exceptionalism.
‘Is the lack of confidence from the British government the reason why negotiations are stalling?’ The interviewer pressed.
‘I assure you, nothing is stalling.’
‘Mr Copley, you cannot assure me of anything of the like. It’s perfectly clear that nothing even resembling progress has been made.’ A note of snide laughter broke through the woman’s voice. Natasha hoped that didn’t annoy Stephen half as much as it annoyed her.
‘Fine, I admit we’ve struck an impasse. Do you really want honesty?’
Oh no Stephen.
Nicola leaned forward, her mouth agape with mischievous anticipation.
‘From the perspective of the EU, we have come forward, asking to be uniquely privileged – granted all the benefits of globalism, with none of the detriments. Would you set that precedent? And yet we are denied the option of compromise and compelled to adopt a hardball stance, despite growing evidence that the strategy is political suicide. So what compels us? Frankly I believe it to be sheer national hubris; the assumption that Britain is simply too great to fail. Incidentally, I understand they conferred a similar boast upon HMS Titanic.’
‘Abort, abort!’ Nicola cackled, knowing fully it wasn’t an option.
‘So you’re saying, voter expectations are unrealistic?’
‘Those are not my words. I would say however that some voters felt abandoned. The success of the leave campaign was predicated on that sense of alienation and, rather cynically, in my opinion, peddled misinformation, appeals to nationalism and anti-intellectualism. We were unable to effectively counter this strategy: when they said, “take the country back” we had no reply because the phrase is hyperbolic and essentially meaningless. When economists said Brexit would make us poorer, they countered, “enough with experts”. How do you use logic to counter nonsense?’
‘Well, at least it can’t get worse’ suggested Nicola.
Clearly the interviewer felt differently.
‘You seem to be saying that the electorate was unable to comprehend the ramifications of their own vote. Do you not perhaps think that a little condescending?’
‘I don’t think the suggestion should be taken that way, no. Believe me, for my sins I am a member of parliament; I spend much of my time immersed in politics, reading complex and exceedingly dull legislation, and honestly, I couldn’t begin to fully comprehend every consequence of the referendum. But to clarify: I am not suggesting every leave vote derived from misinformation. Indeed, many people would’ve voted to leave whatever was said in the campaign.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Because unconventional right-wing politics are on the rise across the Western world. It may be a reaction to immigration, mainstream Liberalism, economic deprivation, or combinations of all three. Whatever the cause, the consequences are manifesting in expressions of victimhood and anger. They are expressed through the “alt-right”, through President Donald Trump, and here, through Brexit. It grew out of sight perhaps, but it was there, and it flourished – like…’
Stephen hesitated, as if regaining self-awareness.
The interviewer sensed Stephen’s reluctance to finish the thought, but knew he was forced to finish his point or sit in dumb silence.
‘Mould spores?’ Stephen offered weakly.
‘Mould… Mr Copley are you calling Brexit the political equivalent of “mould”?’
‘Perhaps not the best analogy’ Stephen conceded. ‘But if the thinking is, that the system is rotten, well, can you think of a single pleasant or positive by-product of rot? Really it’s just mould and fungus.’
The interviewer thanked him for his time and bought the interview to a close.
‘My bad’ said Nicola, pushing herself physically as far away from the radio as possible. ‘I jinxed us. Sorry.’
The interview had been only local radio with maybe a few thousand listeners, but those comments guaranteed national coverage. By morning it would probably make the homepages of mainstream news sites. By lunchtime the internet wankers will have got their hands all over it: She could already see memes of St George’s day flags covered in mould, the government on sinking ships, and the inevitable, endless musical interpretations and remixes of the interview – probably set to the Titanic theme tune.
‘Fun times tomorrow then’ snorted Nicola. ‘Will you fire him personally, or should I send a wardrobe and rope to his address and let nature take its course?’
Natasha ignored the crudity. ‘I’ll have him resign first thing.’
‘People always say they want more honesty from politicians. He just said what you’re thinking.’
‘Did I say he was wrong? I said he was fired.’
Nicola stood and stretched, checking her phone for the time. It was nearly ten. Another fourteen-hour shift.
‘Thank you Nicola, – that’s all for tonight. Go home and get some sleep.’
Nicola nodded, gathered her things and moved towards the door. As she pushed it ajar a thought entered her head.
‘I expect it’s a relief, you know. I bet these days only one thing truly scares a politician more than the prospect of getting sacked, and that’s the thought they might not.’
Eleven twenty. Keith never went to sleep this early.
His house was dark though, and all her calls were unanswered. This could only mean one thing.
Whenever Keith found himself confronted with an evening without his wife, he called his old drinking buddies and spent the night down the Red Lion. This unanticipated foray into a public space necessitated some quick re-touches to her makeup before Carrie pulled out of the driveway.
Ideally, she wouldn’t have to chase him like this. But this world inflicts hangovers, incontinence, and Kanye West on its reluctant inhabitants, and therefore was no one’s definition of ‘ideal’.
Keith needed to stop drinking now, go home to a cold shower, and strategize for the morning. After all, tonight had gifted the party a route back into the national discourse and a chance reclaim some lost relevance.
UKIP’s decline came both unexpectedly and suddenly. Only one year previously they had been the third biggest party in the country with one of Europe’s fastest growing memberships. A snap election post-referendum made modern-day Winston Churchills of them all – rewarded for victory over Europe by rejection at the first opportunity.
That was a bitter pill to swallow. It was surely a national shame to let that momentum fizzle out now. After leaving a good job in advertising to join UKIP’s PR team, a personal shame for Carrie too.
Politics was never a major thing of hers, not until fairly recently. Instead, it began insisting itself upon the public in recent years: beginning with Scottish Independence, through repeated general elections, Brexit, Trump, Corbyn, Boris… But the advertiser in Carrie recognised a similar profession when she saw one: generally, voters prefer ‘the sell’ to the drudgery of research and reading. This means that the best product does not necessarily beat the clearest message; that the details do not have to matter; that the icing can be more important than the cake.
Still, if some social fallout was anticipated when Carrie announced her decision to promote UKIP, she hadn’t been quite ready for the extent of the bile that came her way. Fair-weather acquaintances rescinded their company entirely. Even long-standing friends skirted around the topic, desperately seeking a new shape in her hair, or some hitherto unnoticed item of clothing to discuss instead. Strangers were worse yet. They hacked her social media, uploading quotes from Mein Kampf, and doctored images of her performing an impressive array of sexually explicit actions on a multiplicity of penises and posted them across the internet. Death threats were emailed. Someone even waited outside her office to throw a bucket of piss and shit at her and her colleagues as they left for a meeting.
Even if those people thought that UKIP were leading the country to disaster, such vitriol was inexcusable. As things stood, UKIP weren’t leading anyone towards disaster.
Well, probably not.
Of course, Brexit might be the wrong course of action; no one knows that for sure either way. But her time in advertising would suggest that personal commitment is not a necessity between propagandists and the products they promote. For example, Joseph Goebbels wrote in private memoirs that he was never completely convinced by the ideology of the Third Reich. Whatever else you might say of him, he was pretty successful at his job…
UKIP image-control rule number one – don’t go inviting Nazis comparisons!
Deep-down she understood that her party was hated because it defends the national interest. People make the highly-spurious, ignorant, and frankly offensive equation that this means nationalism or even racism. Sure, there were genuine racists in the party; one or two (dozen) crusty bigots. And true, Carrie’s life would be much easier if she could prevent her membership from tweeting, giving interviews, or generally sharing their cranial flatulence with anyone without content-approval. But despite the obvious appeal of that pipe-dream, the media would descend hyena-like in schadenfreude if she ever tried implementing it.
Doubtless the party attract racist votes too. Raw material for the revolution; that was her best excuse yet. All causes surely attract extreme views and undesirables; admittedly, the aroma of bad egg UKIP generates is disproportionately pungent when compared with other causes. Bad enough that a nagging, doubting voice occasionally pops rudely into her mind; a voice that sometimes wonders if she is empowering the wrong people, if she is truly doing the right thing.
However, their situation is not hopeless. The only way racist supporters invalidate the core position of the party is if the party endorses them. UKIP has a legitimate message to communicate that is both clear and basic: whatever commitments the government may pledge towards enacting Brexit, they were the remain campaign throughout the referendum, rendering any claim of representation for pro-leavers disingenuous. Quotes such as “political mould” bring this sharply into focus and are therefore worth their weight in gold. Keith had no choice but to seize the initiative and use it to undermine the government’s stance; erode the public trust in their conviction; and nurture the suspicions of voters that compromise is the way the government will twist and turn Brexit until it is no longer Brexit.
The switch in tone towards a more intelligent dialogue and more incisive criticism of the government was the only survival option available. Hopefully it could provide a platform to progress, and allow the membership to resume growth, and in a better direction. The party could attract better representatives, younger ones, brighter ones, fewer closet-bigots. Then, Carrie will finally have the capacity to weed out the wrong ones, and stage her own ‘night of the long knives’…
No, she reminded herself as she pulled into the car park, rule number one, again!
Whoever was knocking seemed damn determined to pull the plug on their session. For a while the group collectively ignored the interruption. Maybe five minutes passed and the interminable gate-crasher could be ignored no longer.
‘Reckon that’s old bill?’ Keith asked, taking a long drink of beer.
‘They ain’t cracking down on lock-ins far as I heard. Not yet anyway.’
The landlord, Dick, had just expressed something quintessentially English; even positive observations must be qualified immediately by expressions of deep pessimism and paranoia. Keith downed his whiskey chaser and wondered if that particular national quirk was induced by the climate – the sudden downpours which occur at the most improbable moments, and the many washout summers.
Dick pulled back a curtain and peered out the window.
‘It’s a woman’ he declared ‘but she ain’t any of yours’.
The notes of panic filtering through his voice were genuine.
‘Fantastic, someone’s sent a stripper!’
Pete was drunk. Barely able to support his ample frame, he was slumped across the bar in a fit of slurs and wheezing giggles.
Curiosity compelled Keith to lean toward the window where the face of his colleague and somewhat-supervisor glared back at him.
‘Oh for… Let her in Dick, she’s with me.’
As Dick muttered and fumbled at the locked door, Keith turned to his drinking buddies.
‘You can run from my job chaps, but you simply cannot hide.’
‘Of course, you are the consummate martyr. I am certain that as the flames consumed the flesh of St Lawrence himself, his last thoughts would surely have expressed sympathy for your plight.’ Charles raised a glass and tipped back his own whiskey. As always, neither the effects of hard liquor nor the exertion of conversation seemed to change the old man’s baleful and unblinking expression.
‘I was knocking for bloody ages’ the angry disembodied voice declared.
Keith spun round to conduct the introduction, his regal manner undermined by a semi-supressed belch.
‘Chaps, this is a colleague of mine: Ms Carrie Goude: Lieutenant of the party thought police.’ Keith stuck his lip out ironically and offered a fleeting half-salute.
‘Goude you say?’ Pete perked up around a female presence. ‘Well… Goude bottom shame about the face!’
Keith erupted in such a guffaw that it forced his head fully back. He failed to see the flash of hurt on Carrie’s face.
‘Apologies for what passes for humour in the mind of my companions.’ Charles offered while Keith fought to regain his composure. ‘Perhaps contrary to urbane preconceptions, some amongst the pastoral sincerely aim for a better class of manners. Nevertheless, like Sisyphus before us, we find ourselves eternally thwarted by base forces, pushing irresistibly downwards.’
‘Don’t apologise Charles, Carrie isn’t offended are you? She’s one of us.’
‘I’m sorry to interrupt your evening’ she started, neatly side-stepping the question. ‘But I don’t suppose you’ve heard the Copley interview tonight, or kept an eye on Twitter?’
‘Sorry ma’am, my spitfire has docked for the evening – we will report for active duty at 09.00 hours.’ As Keith spoke, he became aware that his mind was moving with a little more speed and clarity than his mouth.
‘Tell me honestly’ she demanded, ‘is there hope achieving anything tonight? How drunk are you?’
A quip formed in his mind and deep-down he knew it wouldn’t go down well, at least not with her. ‘On the contrary I’m not drunk at all, this is just… alternative sobriety!’
The men at the bar laughed into their drinks. Pete shouted one of his own out – a line about being “post-shift” as they continued a merriment that Carrie did not remotely enjoy. Dick collected up their shot glasses and filled them with more scotch. He turned with a shrug to make a futile and largely symbolic offer of a drink to Carrie.
‘This is important’ she implored as he raised his drink. ‘You’re our only elected MP: and therefore the key representative of the party, not to mention your constituents. You know how precarious our situation is – UKIP could still make a real difference – or simply fade out to the fringes. The choice is ours, in our actions, and the sacrifices we’re prepared to make.’
They stopped and listened to her in raptured silence for a moment before Dick lifted his shot and declared;
‘Whatever happens, no one can take from us June 23rd, 2016. To our Independence Day!’
The toast was met with great vigour and enthusiasm from the barflies.
‘Keith, please listen to me. I haven’t called you dozens of times, driven for an hour and a half, and bashed bruises into my knuckles simply to luxuriate in whiskey and memories with you. There was an interview tonight with Stephen Copley, that Tory MP from Oxford. It’s absolutely perfect: he belittles Brexit, he suggests it’s doomed to failure, he insults the electorate. You should be getting your voice out there. Tweet about it, make sure people know that you care. Do that and I promise the offers for interviews will come, along with TV and newspaper coverage… it’s all there for the taking. I can brief you and run through a bunch of ideas. Just get in the car with me, please, let me take you home.’
She was probably correct. Going home, having a shower and preparing a coherent plan of attack for tomorrow would be the professional course of action. For a moment Keith dallied and prepared himself mentally to stand and escort her to her car.
The hesitation was just long enough for Pete to exclaim, ‘missed your chance there! Still, if it the lady cares for a consolation prize, she can take me home instead. I ain’t what they call “handsome”, but I can hold my breath for two minutes and I’ve got a seven-inch tongue!’
Pete flapped his tongue around before imploding in a deep wheezing laugh. Keith barely held his own amusement in check and waited for the communal sniggering to subside.
‘Carrie, you’re an eternal credit to the party. I’m sure you have a hundred and one fantastic ideas, but they’ll be there in the morning. Stephen Copley will still be there in the morning. It can wait. Why don’t you email everything over, and I’ll read through first thing? In the meantime, I’m five minutes away. I’ll walk home once we’re done – scouts honour.’
‘Stephen Copley…’ Charles mused as he pushed his tankard along the bar. ‘I’m sure I’ve heard the name before – a friend of Dorothy’s if I recall.’
‘What’s that mean?’ Dick asked as he refilled the glass.
‘It means that Mr Copley would find the sight of a beautiful woman in his bed roughly as alluring as a misplaced toenail in his drink.’
‘It means he “takes care of his appearance”’ Keith suggested.
‘He’s a great fan of Greek culture’ Charles added.
‘The naked wrestling especially’ Pete chipped in. ‘Men-only’ he added for needless clarification.
‘I see… poofter, eh? Poor bugger’ Dick said, shaking his head through a small chuckle.
‘Well, I merely directed you towards water’ Charles declared with a malicious twinkle in his eyes, ‘it’s your own fault if you find yourself drowning. Still, a bender in the Conservative Party? For shame.’
‘Thatcher wouldn’t have stood for it’ Keith agreed. ‘That’s just the problem with the Conservatives today; as long as you’re prepared to hump at the legs of big business and the super-rich, you’re in. Doesn’t matter if you’re gay, black, or even a damn Muslim… No respect for national pride or proper social values these days. If you ask me, that’s the difference between us and them.’
‘Well, there’s those doubts again.’
The soft, sad declaration caught them by surprise. In their bluster, the men had forgotten Carrie’s presence. Keith turned back to her.
‘Oh, you’re still here. Run along now, we’ll touch base tomorrow.’
Carrie shook her head and left. Another drink was placed in front of Keith, and soon all thoughts of the matter ebbed gently away to the back of his mind.
Stephen’s interview was the tenth biggest story on the BBC news site before the national workforce clocked-in the next morning.
An hour later it was story number one. Other outlets picked up on it, spreading the recording and transcripts across the internet. By the time the right-wing press pushed the interview to the top of their homepages, Stephen had announced his resignation.
The interview dominated social media in the UK that day. Half of the nation’s echo chambers reverberated with fury and affront, the other half with sympathy. Stephen was even honoured with his own Cassette Boy video, something he wouldn’t laugh along with for over a year afterwards.
Keith awoke around nine. The story had already broken and the mandatory right-wing response slots on the morning chat shows filled by other people. He brushed the alcohol from his teeth, showered, and made coffee as he caught up. Curious as to the lack of incoming activity on his phone, he eventually felt compelled to call Carrie and received no answer.
By mid-afternoon the interview was covered internationally. European newspapers and writers of opinion-pieces openly mocking yet another display of incompetence from a representative of the British government.
Beneath the headlines a minor story could be found, covering the resignation of UKIP’s chief spin doctor. Few people read it however, and those that did merely left thoughts such as “another one bites the dust” in the comments section.
By three, Natasha Blackwell had drafted a speech stating in the blandest possible terms that the opinions of a member of the Conservative Party were in no way reflective of the views of the Conservative Party. The Prime Minister delivered it, ignoring demeaning questions and remarks coming back from the audience. One prankster even handed her a mock P45. Her desperate attempt to laugh away the matter convinced no one.
The Prime Minister took the opportunity to reaffirm her commitment to Brexit, inform voters that she possessed both the vision and authority to deliver the best Brexit possible, and assure the country that their policy was neither indecisive nor reactionary. The government then returned to its grand tactic of sitting dumbfounded and awaiting the day that some occurrence or other might decisively break the deadlock.
Keith learned that Carrie had quit the party and tweeted less than one hundred characters’ worth of bland platitudes. Devoid of any ideas himself, he enjoyed the spectacle of the unfurling day with a growing sense of satisfaction that, broadly speaking, things were still going his way.
Stephen and Carrie both found that quitting politics wasn’t as devastating as they thought it might be.
Stephen took a dusty book on bread-making from the shelf. He began an Ocado shop in his partner’s name and decided to spend at least one week disconnected from the world. He enjoyed the simple pleasure of baking until his partner accidentally torpedoed his quiet happiness, teasing, ‘you know actually yeast is a by-product of rot’.
Carrie resolved to become a blogger and begin a sequence of articles exposing her former party. Surely someone in the left-wing press would purchase such a sequence of exposés? Her first titles took only a moment’s thought:
Born to be Vile: The People Behind the Party.
Brexit: The National Catastriumph.
If successful, perhaps she could forge a career in political punditry. It wasn’t what she’d originally wanted, but who knows? It might give an opportunity to share a studio with Piers Morgan, perhaps even a chance to push him down a staircase. The fantasy flooded her with a consoling moment of optimism.
By the day’s end a petition was established in support of Stephen Copley and his views, and calling for the government to reject his resignation. In just one hour it garnered nearly two million signatures, a figure which kept rising. The petition was an opportunity for the government to reassess the situation, and to open an honest dialogue with the public. But they stood firm in their determination to ignore it. Tomorrow the headlines will be different, and public attention will be elsewhere.
The United Kingdom will remain in a state of paralysis; like someone who knows they have stepped on a nail yet is too afraid to pull themself free.