She stood staring across the car park. The thing was fifteen feet high and at least forty feet wide, an assemblage of random, bulging objects. It loomed. It wobbled like a blancmange. She could make no sense of it.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘Hot air,’ a voice replied.
The PM turned to see a young woman standing beside her. The woman – girl really, she couldn’t be a day over thirty – looked earnestly up at the PM. In her left hand she held a sheaf of papers.
The girl took a step forward. ‘Miss Crowther’s feeling unwell today. She sent me.’
The PM felt a spasm of irritation. Here, then, was another one. Another of the new breed, those smart young things who had lately invaded politics, with their sharp haircuts and easy opinions. This one certainly looked the part. In the girl’s manicured hands, against her tailored jacket, the stack of ministerial documents looked drab and worthless.
The PM stared up at the sky, past the girl, past the strange, sprawling object at the centre of the car park. She fought a sudden urge to sneeze. Only a week ago she’d been issued with a prescription for new spectacles; had been told straight out by the government optician that she was ‘highly photosensitive’. At the time, she hadn’t known how to respond. The optician was right of course, and in more ways than one. She had ignored his advice.
Not that the day, now it’d finally got going, was particularly bright. Above were clouds. It was a day on which the sky had attained that peculiarly British condition of being both glary and overcast.
At least, thank fuck, it wasn’t going to rain.
‘And what’s that…’ the PM said, gesturing towards a nearby section of the assemblage.
The girl smiled. ‘It’s all in the briefing.’
The PM looked blank for a moment. Then she noticed the girl staring, her eyes fixed on something in the PM’s right hand. Yes, the realisation dawned, all this time she’d definitely been holding something… a single sheet of headed paper bearing the familiar insignia of the Office of the Prime Minister. It had been a long morning.
The PM waved the sheet in front of her.
‘Well the thing’s a monstrosity. It looks… it looks like a burst bin-bag.’
The girl smiled a second time.
‘It’s an inflatable. Designed by Britain’s greatest living exponent. It’s made from thirty different segments stitched together. It inflates in one piece. Of course it’s hollow or it’d take an age to fill -‘
‘Britain’s greatest living what?’
‘Exponent,’ said the girl, consulting the top sheet of the sheaf. ‘Apparently this is quite a departure. Says here Sergei normally only does bouncy castles, children’s parties… We’re lucky to have him.’
Lucky, thought the PM. To have who, exactly? Sergei. Of course.
Sergei, Britain’s greatest living exponent.
Give me strength.
And, by the way: just who were you calling lucky? The PM didn’t feel lucky. Never had. From the very start it had all just been hard work; hard work and booby traps. She looked again at the assemblage. Was this one too – a booby trap? Probably it was. It resembled a Surrealist tableau, the fevered mind-junk of the mentally unstable.
‘Don’t tell me he’s an artist.’
From somewhere at the rear of the Monstrosity came the rackety sound of a generator.
The girl rustled her papers.
‘So you’ve agreed to be photographed in it, PM.’ She raised an arm and pointed across the car park. ‘We haven’t got long…’
Ah yes, thought the PM. You’ve agreed. That old chestnut. The slippage of pronouns that, no matter how hard she’d tried, since taking office she’d never been able to get used to. The most powerful elected representative in the country without the freedom to make her own decisions.
Just sign this, PM. And this.
She cleared her throat.
And what about now? Was this an important decision?
She had no idea.
The PM looked around. She saw she was standing in a large, empty car park. Wind-blown litter, loose gravel. Potholes. What she couldn’t see were cars. Or ministers. She couldn’t see any other ministers. She wondered briefly whether at some point she had taken a wrong turn.
This was Dudford. The party conference was over. By any precedent – and there were some pretty terrible precedents – it had gone badly. She realised, belatedly, that the event had been doomed from the outset. Why party organisers had decided to deviate from the usual roster of shabby seaside venues, had settled instead on this ill-starred East Midlands town, was beyond her.
As for what was supposed to be the conference’s crowning moment, her speech: the less said about that the better.
The media, of course, hadn’t seen things like that. Two days later and they were still revelling in the embarrassment and ineptitude of it all, still picking through the errors and flaws in her closing speech like vultures over a stinking corpse. The under-costed promises on social care. The bungled crime figures. And the ongoing saga of international affairs? God.
She needed to get back on a level footing, and quickly. Hence why – now she thought about it she was able to recall the key moment, a hasty conversation back at conference HQ – she had signed off on this: on standing in a car park in Dudford, wherever the fuck that was, contemplating this bloated Monstrosity.
‘Wait… in it? Photographed in it?’
The girl nodded energetically. ‘That’s right. You and the Cabinet. The whole front bench are on board. It’ll be good for your profile.’
The PM stared in panic at the Monstrosity. She tried to understand what was happening. Had she really agreed to this? To getting inside – inside – this bizarre scrotum-bag of inflated plastic? She worried about the symbolism. What message would this act convey – to the electorate, to the world? She sought small mercies. There was, at least, no writing on the thing. No slogans, no engravings. No unkeepable promises. It wasn’t a bus; it didn’t look like a gravestone.
‘How will this be good for my profile?
‘We need a poll bounce, PM.’
‘But if I look stupid…’
She was about to go on but checked herself. Was she, the PM, really stood here remonstrating with this child?
The girl looked abashed. ‘But they won’t be able to see you, PM…’
They being the media. Of course. That was all that mattered here. The PM frowned. Where were the media anyway? Shouldn’t they be here by now? Correspondents clutching microphones, camera men with their high-tech weaponry… A few more people had arrived on the scene, it was true. In one corner of the car park, she saw her security team. Bodyguards, all in black. In another corner, a cluster of suits, politicos and policy wonks talking hard into glowing rectangles.
And here and there, others: stragglers, pedestrians, normal people, passing by, decently uninterested.
High above she saw the clouds darkening.
Still, the girl had a point. Once inside the thing, she – the PM – would be invisible. Out of sight of the masses, out of sight of reporters baying for blood. On this point, at least, the PM felt marginally reassured. It was the underlying idea that she was still struggling to understand.
What could go wrong?
In her head she began to run through the possibilities.
Was this stunt not a security risk? Why had her team given it the green light in the first place?
She glanced jaggedly around the car park. All seemed calm.
And what about the insider threat? Wouldn’t the interior of the Monstrosity be the perfect place to stage a coup? Her own party were out to get her; it was only a matter of time. What if a member of the Cabinet were to murder her? She knew for a fact that the DS hated her. Not to mention the CE, and the JS. Both HSs were an on-going problem, and there were of course the two BSs, ha, plenty of BS in central government…
Calm down, she told herself. This was just the kind of narrow, paranoid thinking that she’d felt trapped by lately, the kind of thinking that derailed The Big Ideas. They’d probably have cameras inside the Monstrosity, after all. They had cameras everywhere these days: offices, elevators, the inside of other people’s colons.
Yet still there remained the primary threat. The danger of the Monstrosity’s deflation and collapse. The ready-made metaphor. The media would have a field day. She pictured what was either the worst- or best-case scenario, depending on your point of view: half the Cabinet trapped inside as the thing rapidly detumesced, condemning its panicked inhabitants to a doom of their own making. Later the bodies dragged across the gravel, the fruitless, half-hearted attempts at resuscitation, so humiliating…
Here the PM stopped. She was ranting again, growing red-faced and sweaty.
She wondered if she needed a therapist. Did it count as paranoia if the threat was real?
‘Whose idea was this anyway?’ she asked the girl.
The girl looked sheepish. She pointed to a line of text on the sheet in front of her.
‘The FS, PM.’
Of course. The FS. That oaf.
Loud, obnoxious, floppy-haired boor.
No sooner had the PM made the appointment than she’d begun to regret her decision. It had been an attempt to sideline her political opponent, guided by the belief that he would quickly disqualify himself from serious office by delivering an outburst so intemperate that it would leave him no option but to resign.
Political sages had nodded approvingly.
But it hadn’t worked out like that. Eighteen months on and the FS seemed as bulletproof as ever. What was more, he’d taken to positioning himself (in implicit opposition to the PM) as a Man Of Action: a fellow who could be relied upon, who got things done.
In practice his activities amounted to little more than penning incoherent columns, insulting foreign diplomats, and generally making a prat of himself.
So the FS was an idiot; everyone knew that. Yet bafflingly, he was tolerated by press and public alike. What was his secret? He had what pollsters called Likeability, the PM thought sourly. He was still ambitious, still dangerous. This Monstrosity business felt like a set-up.
‘Where is the FS?’
‘He’s already inside, PM.’
‘Yes. He got here early… He’s in the egg.’
The PM looked across the car park. Saw now the FS’s private secretary on the phone. She waved in the man’s direction, but he moved away, stepping behind a van.
The PM turned again to face the Monstrosity.
The FS. In the egg.
The more she thought about this turn of events, the more it made sense. The FS, rising early in the morning, his usual keen and excitable self; bouncing out of the hotel like a German holiday-maker, beach towel in hand, intent on nabbing the best spot.
The same Germans who, in his self-appointed role as Electorate Shit Stirrer-In-Chief, he pretended to hate.
The PM examined the ovoid shape on the far side of the Monstrosity. The FS was a rotund man. He’d chosen Roomy: space to move, space to breathe. This political Man Of Action.
‘So what’s left?’ she asked.
The girl perked up, raised another sheet.
‘We have a spark plug. We have a drill bit. We have a valve…’
The PM remembered now. The theme was great British products. The idea of the inflatable being to celebrate Great Britain as an export hub, a shining example of a Great Modern Trading Nation. A country proudly open for business.
Never mind that the whole thing looked bungled and incoherent; that the constituent parts of the Monstrosity looked neither identifiable nor tradable; that all products were, in accordance with the original design, enclosed by a flap of plastic intended to represent a giant shopping basket… A basket of goods? Who even used baskets nowadays?
‘It’s conceptual,’ Stephanie had said when challenged on the subject back at conference HQ. ‘You know, like the retail price index.’ The PM had lacked the energy to argue.
The girl was still going.
‘We have an engine part. A pair of brogues, a bottle of Scotch… a fish?’
‘No to the fish.’
‘We have a fertiliser pellet.’
The PM looked away and sighed.
‘It’s all for charity,’ the girl added.
Charity… the word sent a prickly sensation up the PM’s spine. These days you couldn’t be too careful. Even charity work was a political and electoral minefield. She wondered if she ought to ask whether the money raised from the stunt would be going to British babies or to sick and impoverished foreign babies; whether these babies would be black, white, brown, yellow…
Yellow. Could you even say that anymore? What were the right words to use?
She didn’t know.
‘PM, if I could hurry you…’
‘Yes, yes,’ she snapped. And was surprised by a sudden anxiety that all this was being recorded. She hoped she wasn’t on camera. The image of the PM, broadcast via countless TV sets and mobile devices, caught in a moment of hesitation, dithering over yet another crucial decision. She pictured the headlines. The Great Prevaricator. The Weak Leader Who Lacks The Balls For Meaningful Action, on both a domestic and international stage.
Lacks the balls. Ha.
‘We have an ear of wheat.’
The PM glared at the girl. Had she heard correctly? An ear of what….?
The girl recoiled.
The scene was a bountiful country landscape: all golden fields and rolling hills, through which the PM had described herself running, carefree and content… This remained a sore point. Quite why her childhood idyll – carefully conjured for the TV cameras towards the end of what had been a long and arduous election campaign – had met with such universal derision was something the PM still couldn’t understand. She’d felt violated by the reaction. She had thought she’d been presenting a familiar enough picture of England. Outmoded, yes; idiotically clichéd, maybe; but just the kind of England people voted for.
She had never understood people, that was her problem. Maybe she wasn’t cut out for politics.
The feeling of inadequacy was familiar enough. Each time it surfaced the PM would act quickly. She would remind herself that she was no different from any other Prime Minister; that the whole history of the premiership was shaped by the silencing of such considerations. She would remind herself how, in power terms, ‘the people’ had always been a synecdoche: democratic-sounding shorthand for the personal interests of a handful of influential private individuals.
Whatever smoke-screen shit you heard nowadays about the Brave New World of digital democracy, she was pretty sure this was how life still worked.
And the wheat field thing: at least she had meant it. She thought of the electoral gaffes of her predecessors, of biscuits and bigots in small-town Britain. At least she hadn’t stood on a podium boasting about having ‘met a black man’. Or of supporting ‘West Ham Villa’. Jeez. That one still made her cringe.
‘What kind of chip?’
The girl looked at her as though she were an idiot. ‘A silicon chip.’
She thought about this. Gave it some serious thought. This could work – couldn’t it? It would make her seem modern and contemporary, connect her with the digital generation…
A whole generation. Simply by climbing inside a chip.
But hang on. In her haste, she was forgetting the facts. The received wisdom passed down from politician to politician, from pollster to pollster. Young people; the next generation; that 18 to 34 demographic around which so much of modern life was apparently geared… they didn’t vote.
Why, then, should she give a shit what young people thought?
And add to this the truth that, since taking office, kids had caused her no end of grief. No end of grief, for example, because she didn’t have any. This fact shouldn’t have been news to anyone. She had lived a long and well-documented life in the public eye. Now, kids or no kids – and she couldn’t help feeling that not having kids was a distinct advantage for public service – as PM she was simply trying to do a competent job. Against all the odds, despite all the carping.
She knew that she was failing.
Easier to be a man, she thought bitterly. With kids you never really had to look after.
Easier to be a man, smiling through it all while fucking up charmingly.
When the PM next looked over, the girl’s expression had changed. She was pressing a finger to her ear, flapping the sheaf of papers at someone on the other side of the car park.
‘Hang on… I’m hearing the chip’s taken.’
The PM grimaced. ‘It is? You’re telling me there are more of them in there already?’
The girl nodded. ‘The DS,’ she said.
The girl continued pressing her ear. It looked painful. She seemed anxious. Her voice had speeded up.
‘PM, we need to move this along. There’s the basket… there’s still the basket option?’
The PM took a step forward. She raised her chin, drew back her shoulders.
So here it was. It came down to this. The basket. Vessel of miscellaneous goods, cornucopia of Great British Products. Hamper of hastily hurled-together junk.
Crock of shit. No one put things in baskets anymore. The whole idea of baskets struck her as hopelessly quaint; redolent, now the PM thought about it, of a rose-scented, sepia-tinted fairytale England that had never really existed; of pale, willowy beauties running through wheat fields…
The reality of today’s Britain was different. The reality of today’s Britain was fly-tipped takeaway boxes rotting on street corners.
The reality was Dudford.
What a world. There was no helping it, thought the PM. Even international politics was full of madmen. Irresponsible, childlike madmen threatening crazy things, somehow clinging to power. It didn’t bear thinking about. She at least was not mad. She felt she didn’t get enough credit for not being mad.
And yet here she was, in a car park in the East Midlands about to… about to… do what, exactly?
Something was still missing. The feeling nagged at her.
Where were the press, the crowds of people, the flashing cameras?
Concentrate instead, she told herself, on the task in hand. Concentrate on the practicalities of the situation.
Immediately she foresaw a problem. The task of getting inside the Monstrosity, of inhabiting the basket in preparation for the stunt: it looked easier said than done.
For starters, the thing had no obvious entry point. The basket’s side were simply flaps of plastic, impossible to climb inside. The handle looked more promising: substantial and potentially hollow. It rose high above the Monstrosity, like a blow-up Wembley Arch. But how would she get up there? The way looked narrow. Once inside it’d be a squeeze; arms pinned to her sides, she’d have to use her legs to manoeuvre. She could try a kicking action to propel herself through the tubing. Or perhaps she could rely on an effect akin to peristalsis: she could get the girl along with other staff to massage the outside of the inflatable skin while she edged her way through. That might work. But still it left the problem of altitude. After a metre or so she’d be out of reach of their ministrations; she’d be on her own…
Once up inside the Wembley Arch, she could lie horizontal for the photo-shoot. Where were the air holes? She couldn’t see any air holes. And what about her claustrophobia? She put these thoughts to the back of her mind. She hadn’t suffered a panic attack for at least two months, after all; not since that day in the Commons when the wainscoted walls had seemed to be pressing in on her, not since that day after the slanging match in the chamber, the whole thing just ghastly, everything closing in…
This time things were different. She – elected representative and PM of the UK and Northern Ireland, First Lord of the Treasury, Cabinet Minister for the Civil Service – was taking decisive action. She would rise above it all, snug inside the Monstrosity; inside the assemblage, burst bin-bag, dog’s dinner, basket-case wicker-man of lunacy and desperation…
Behind the PM someone shouted.
‘Get on with it… We an’t got all day!’
She felt a drop of water hit her face. For a moment everything seemed inverted. She cursed loudly.
The girl backed away, opening her mouth as though about to say something.
The PM took a deep breath and stepped out of her heels.
‘I’m going in,’ she said.
It began to rain.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.
G F Copps
G F Copps lives in South London. His work has appeared in publications including South Bank Poetry and South. Like many amateur writers (from the Latin amare ‘to love’; not intended a derogatory or self-depreciatory sense), he is guilty of starting projects and rarely finishing th..
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