“Manager of data security and hacker extraordinaire! May I introduce the head of MI7, Baronetess Zilberstein?” The Speaker of the House of Commons gestured towards a short woman with the face of a man. Her hair was black and greasy, and reminded Grant Balfour of the ‘pudding basin’ haircuts he’d endured as a child. Her features were pudgy and grey, as if moulded from ancient Plasticine. She dipped her head perfunctorily, but her thin, straight lips remained compressed.
Grant had been welcomed into the spacious chamber, carpeted in a deep ruby red, by the Speaker. As a newly elected Member of Parliament, he was burning with pride and ambition. One step at a time, he’d told himself, but he was in an era and a place where he could make a real difference, both for his constituents and the wider world.
After a week of finding his feet in the myriad corridors and offices of the Houses of Parliament, he’d been summoned to a ‘highly confidential’ meeting. There were eight chairs, one presently unoccupied, at a huge circular table. Around it, sat the leaders of the five main political parties: The Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Ulster Unionists, and the Irish Republican Party, Sinn Féin.
He gazed around at portraits of MPs from the combative past, hung on ancient oak-panelled walls. They glared back through their cracked varnish.
The Speaker continued, “Thank you for coming Mr. Balfour. Now, this meeting is to remain strictly confidential, and it is also independent of any party politics, you understand?”
Grant nodded, wondering what it was all about.
The Speaker gestured around the table. “I believe you know the rest of these gentlemen?”
Grant smiled. “Yes, I’m familiar with the Right Honourable gentlemen. I believe I’ve crossed swords with one or two already!”
A polite ripple of laughter went around the table.
A door opened and a man with silver-grey hair, neatly parted, wearing a blue pin-stripe suit, came in.
Grant almost fell off his chair in surprise. “But … but you’re ….”
The man stroked his thin grizzled beard and laughed. “Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated, to quote a famous homosexual.” He took the remaining seat. “Now, Mr Balfour, no doubt you’re wondering what this is all about. Well, I’m not going to beat about the bush. You were elected to serve your constituents and our Queen, yes? A very noble desire. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that.”
“You see, Mr Balfour, we are The Seven and we have certain other … er, loyalties.”
The others murmured in accord.
“We receive … ah, certain directions … from time to time, via the good Baronetess ….”
Her thin lips twitched beneath the greasy black basin.
“And it is our …, er, duty, if you like … to interpret and implement these directions.”
Grant wondered what on earth the old duffer was on about.
“Once we’ve decided on the implications of these … er, directions, we pass them to the ‘inner circle.’ That comprises seventy MPs. They, in turn, communicate them to the Outer Circle – the remainder of our 650 MPs.”
Suddenly, something clicked in Grant’s mind. “You’re saying some policies are decided … um, externally of this house?”
The man slapped his hand on the table, making everyone jump. “Precisely!”
Grant felt indignant. He’d been elected to serve his constituents and his party, not some external … external what? “Who, may I ask, is sending us these … er, policy directives, then?”
The man smiled. “Ah, that I’m not at liberty to disclose. Let’s just say, a foreign government, several thousand miles away, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.”
A wave of belligerence came over Grant. “And what if I don’t agree to the demands of this, … this ‘foreign government’”?
“Ah. Well, as Monsieur Rabelais once said, ‘One falls to the ground in trying to sit on two stools.’”
“But what if I do what I was elected to do, vote with my conscience?”
The man put his hands over his eyes, as though he were protecting his soul. “Ah, in that case, er, something nasty will likely be found on your computer and you’ll have the whip withdrawn.”
“Thrown out of the party I’ve supported all my life?”
“Yes, if you want to put it like that, I’m afraid so. But if it’s any consolation, everyone else is happy, well more or less, to toe the line.”
Grant felt like he’d been punched in the gut. “So, I’ve got to kowtow to the Yanks or look for another job?”
There was a sudden silence in the room. Time was suspended, no one moved.
Somewhere a fly buzzed at the edge of audibility. Then Zilberstein coughed. The man cleared his throat. “Who said anything about America?”
Please note: this post was first published as On Strings on 8th October 2018 and is featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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