My first round entry to the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition just missed out on earning me a place in the next round of the competition. "The Right Thing" got an "Honourable Mention", coming in sixth in the group, but only the top five authors from each group progress to the next round.
I was in a randomly assigned group with a genre / subject/ character mix of Political Satire / A Guarantee / A Budgeteer for my first round story -- putting me well outside my writing comfort zone. But then, that's all part of the fun of competitions like this.
Naturally I'm disappointed not to progress, but it was a fun exercise, and the feedback from the judges is invaluable.
Here's the story -- I'd love to hear what you think in the comments section below.
The right thing
Britain’s Secretary of State for Health has an epiphany on early morning radio, making an announcement that sends the Government into a tailspin.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer sat at an antique Spanish timber desk, sipping Italian coffee as he bit into a buttery French croissant. On the sideboard, next to a Viennese decanter of the finest Irish malt, sat a high-end Danish wireless tuned in to the BBC’s Political Breakfast show. They were winding up a discussion on the financial fallout of Brexit.
Gregory Eyrl felt the corner of his mouth tick in an involuntary smirk. If only they knew. He shuffled the papers on his desk, picked up a precision German fountain pen and scrawled his signature on the dotted line.
As one of Brexit’s main protagonists, and current chief steward of the British Economy, Gregory knew a thing or two about the financial fallout of pulling the UK out of Europe. He’d been instrumental in hiding the damage from the electorate for years. It wasn’t so much lying to the country, he felt… more shielding it from the truth.
Few things in politics, in his experience, were more dangerous than the truth. He’d seen illustrious political careers crash in flames thanks to the incendiary qualities of the truth. As a politician, the safest, and generally more lucrative strategy, was to keep the truth well hidden. A diversion of diction here, a dash of oratory obfuscation there: it wasn’t hard to concoct a plausible illusion of truth, while keeping the genuine article well and truly under wraps. People didn’t want the real truth anyway, they wanted affirmation of their own truth.
Gregory wished more of his Cabinet colleagues possessed his clarity. The PM got it… he knew that… and one or two others, but the rest of them? Heaven only knew how they’d survived so long, let alone risen to the upper echelons of Whitehall.
It was why he was at his desk so early, eating a continental breakfast while listening to the wireless. His esteemed colleague Sarah Wallace, Secretary of State for Health, was the next guest on the show. She’d been briefed, of course, but Sarah was one of those politicians who’d never quite managed to shirk a naive predilection for the truth. You never quite knew where that might take her, or more to the point, how much it might cost.
“I acknowledge that, Robin, and we’re doing everything we can to resolve the situation, I assure you. Were driving recruitment for doctors and nurses across the NHS, increasing access to training and development for NHS staff, and working hard to bring waiting lists down across the board,” Sarah Wallace could feel her heart racing, but her tone stayed even, her words calm and modulated.
She’d never grown comfortable with the media. Being on the television or radio, with millions of people seeing or hearing her, still made her nervous. She’d grown accustomed to doing it, but the nerves persisted.
Then, of course, there were the presenters. They were lovely beforehand: witty, charming, affable. It was easy to forget over the coffee, biscuits and preamble what bastards they became as soon as they went ‘on air’.
This morning was going well though. She was in control, handling everything with a degree of aplomb she felt was up there with her best performances. They were performances, these sojourns onto broadcast media. Politicians might not be up for BAFTAs, ARIAs, or OSCARs, but they were performers nonetheless, often highly accomplished ones. She wouldn’t put herself in OSCAR or BAFTA territory, but on today’s performance, a place on the nominees list wouldn’t be out of the question.
“So you’re saying you’ve got it under control?” Robin Preston, the BBCs top Political Correspondent pushed her.
“Health is a huge portfolio, Robin, as you know, but I believe we’re allocating resources in the most effective way we can, and are making real inroads. We’re focussed on putting patients and the health of the nation first. That's the motivation behind everything we do,” she answered.
“If you’re making such effective use of resources, and putting patients first, as you insist, Madam Secretary, can you explain why more than 50,000 unwell people a week find themselves lying on a trolley in a corridor waiting for a hospital bed? Or why consultants are stating publicly they don’t believe the NHS is doing right by patients?”
There we go, she thought: bastard!
She didn’t have a right answer. Nothing she could say would assuage the pain and discomfort of patients waiting for beds in a health system sorely neglected by successive governments. Sarah couldn’t say that of course. Her job was to find solutions to the seemingly unsolvable conundrum that was the National Health Service.
She heard her own words echo hollowly in her head as she trotted out the usual string of platitudes. As always she was caulking the cracks in a wall that needed tearing down and rebuilding. What if once… just once in her career… she could stand up and do the right thing? What would that even feel like?
“She said WHAT?” Prime Minister Ben Fletcher didn’t raise his voice, but Gregory had known him for a long time. The tone and inflection betrayed his incandescence.
“She promised within three months to halve waiting times for hospital beds, reduce processing times at A&E facilities nationwide to less than two hours, and ensure there is enough care in the community to discharge people from hospital as soon as they’re well enough.”
“Jesus! And she promised all of that live on air?”
“She called it the Health Reform Guarantee.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
“It gets worse Ben.”
“How can it possibly get any worse?” a hint of incredulity had joined the incandescent undercurrent in the Prime Minister’s tone.
“Preston asked her how she was going to pay for it all. She came right back at him, calm as you like, and said I’d approved a big chunk of the Brexit Windfall to fund the reform.”
“The clever bitch!” Ben Fletcher's voice still betrayed his anger, but was there a hint of admiration there?
“Quite…” Gregory said, “she knows full well we’re worse off after leaving Europe. She also knows we can’t admit that. We have to maintain the Brexit illusion, whatever happens, or we lose everything.”
“So what do we do? Can you find the money?”
“To overhaul the NHS? You are joking, right?”
“Do I sound like I’m joking? You’re the Chancellor of the fucking Exchequer.”
“I might be able to move a few things around, borrow from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. We can get things moving… do enough to make it look like things are happening, give Paul something to work with.”
Paul Cunningham wouldn’t need much. He was the best spin doctor in the business, and had been working with Ben Fletcher since the early days of the Prime Minister’s political career. Gregory had known him almost as long. He’d dug them both out of more holes than he cared to admit.
“Right, good,” said the Prime Minister. “Paul’s with me now, and Sarah’s on her way over. I need you here too… together we’re going to figure a way out of this shit.”
“On my way.”
Gregory put the phone down and sighed. It was turning into an interesting day.
He walked over to the sideboard, picked up the Austrian decanter, filled a matching cut-glass tumbler with Irish whiskey, turned off the Bang and Olufsen, drained his glass and headed next door to Number 10.
Sitting in her car on the ride from Broadcasting House to Downing Street, Sarah Wallace realised she hadn’t felt this buzzed since that time in uni.
It had been the night of the PolSoc Graduation Ball, at Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel. The iconic Edwardian-style building, as famous a landmark as the city’s eponymous Liver Building or the legendary Ferry ‘cross the Mersey, had become a staple venue for university shindigs. Sarah enjoyed a few drinks on these nights out. Letting your hair down after long bouts of study and revision was part and parcel of student life, but she’d never taken things any further.
Somehow, that night had been different. There was a sense of freedom knowing all the work was over. She’d done all she could, and was about to embark on a new journey beyond the comfort blanket of academia. It was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure.That’s what she put it down to: the surge of relief and adrenaline, coupled with, she had to admit, more wine than she’d normally drink. It had her feeling giddy and a bit reckless.
It was late… or very early, depending on your perspective… when the police raided the flat. It wasn’t her flat… she wasn’t even sure where it was or how she’d ended up there. All she knew was that a young Sarah Wallace found herself scrambling through a bedroom window with a young man she didn’t know, running through the gloomy alleyways of Liverpool’s backstreets, police torches in hot pursuit.
That buzz… the fight or flight surge of adrenalin, that razor’s edge between panic and euphoria… she could feel it again now, on the short 20 minute drive from Broadcasting House to 10 Downing Street. She was a world away from that night in Liverpool, yet in the studio, as she’d seized her opportunity, she’d felt the shackles of decades of political wrangling and subterfuge slip away. To her surprise and delight, beneath them she found the idealistic, slightly naive, determined and indomitable Sarah Wallace of her youth. It reminded her of something that, somewhere along the way, she’d lost sight of: the reason she got into politics in the first place.
As her car drove on, through a London slowly stirring from slumber, the Secretary of State for Health knew she was heading into the lion's den of British Politics to face the three most powerful men in the country. She had no doubt Ben Fletcher and Gregory Eyrl believed she was on her way for a dressing down, to be reprimanded and rebuked. They were in for a shock. This Sarah Wallace wasn’t going in there to face the music, oh no: this Sarah Wallace was preparing to conduct the orchestra.
As she was shown through the door to the Prime Minister’s office, Sarah felt that renewed buzz, that perfect state of zen. She was in the moment, ready for anything they could throw at her.
“Good morning gentlemen.”
“Cut the shit Sarah,” said the Prime Minister. “What the Hell were you playing at this morning?”
“It seemed like the right thing at the time, Ben. In fact, it still feels like the right thing now.”
“THE RIGHT THING?” the Prime Minister was barely keeping his anger in check. She’d never seen him this mad. It felt… gratifying. “Since when has politics ever been about doing the right thing? Christ, Sarah you’ve been in this game long enough to know that!”
“No, Prime Minister, the truth is I’ve been in this game long enough to forget a few things… one of them is the reason I first got into politics. It was to do the right thing.”
“Jesus, Sarah, spare me the idealistic mumbo jumbo. Gregory, talk some sense into her.”
“It was a ballsy move Sarah, I’ll give you that,” Gregory Eyrl acknowledged, “but you know we can’t implement it. How could we? The whole Brexit Windfall thing is a myth. Where do you propose we find the money for your Health Reform Guarantee?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Gregory. That’s your job. You’re the numbers man. My job is looking after the health of the nation, so from now on I’m putting patients first. A novel concept, isn’t it?”
“Remember, Gregory, and you Ben, while we all know the Brexit Windfall is a myth, most of the electorate swallowed it… they actually BELIEVE the great in Great Britain is a real thing, and that somehow we’re magically better off without the Eurotrash. That belief is what keeps you in that chair, Ben, and you clutching the purse strings Gregory. How long do you think that would last if the Brexit illusion was shattered?”
Both men’s faces dropped.
“That sort of money just isn’t there, Sarah,” Gregory persisted.
“Get creative Gregory. You’ve always been good at cooking the books. It’s why Ben put you in Number 11. Why not drop one of those newly commissioned Dreadnaught Class Nuclear Submarines? We don’t really need them. That’s seven and a half billion pounds right there. I’m sure there are plenty of places you can beg, borrow and steal from. But like I said, that’s your department.”
“This is outrageous!” the Prime Minister fumed. “I will not be held to ransom in my own office… and by a…,” a woman Sarah mentally finished for him. “You’re done Sarah -- I’ll expect your resignation on my desk by lunchtime.”
“Let’s not be hasty, Prime Minister,” interjected the only other person in the room. Sarah nodded an acknowledgement to Paul Cunningham, Ben Fletcher’s long time confidante and political spin doctor extraordinaire.
“I’m not about to resign, Ben, and you know what, if you push me, there’s not a political journalist in the country who wouldn’t give me a front page spread or prime time exclusive in seconds. Where do you think that will lead?”
“She’s right, Prime Minister. This would explode beyond what we could possibly control. The late edition papers are already going to print with the story, and the Health Reform Guarantee is all over morning TV and radio.”
“Balls!” that seemed all the Prime Minister could manage.
“Look, maybe we could pull something from the coffers to cover the launch, see where that takes us. Get people off trolleys and into beds. I can’t promise funding to see it through though,” said The Chancellor.
“Good,” Paul said. “We have to at least look like we’re taking this seriously. It could work for us. The NHS is beyond popular. Hard to believe, I know, but most people think our creaking, lumbering behemoth of a health system is world class.”
“So we’re seriously contemplating this, then?” asked the Prime Minister in disbelief.
“I don’t see we have a choice, Prime Minister,” said the spin doctor. “The alternative optics are beyond catastrophic. But if we play this right, it could turn out to be a real winner. Get out in front of it, make it look like you were behind it from the get go.”
“And people will swallow that?”
“They’ve swallowed more implausible things before. People will believe what we tell them to believe. You know how it works.”
“Can you pay for it Gregory?”
“It won’t be easy, and will upset a few apple carts, but yes… I think we can probably swing it.”
“Gentlemen, I’ll let you work out the details. I have an interview with Jonathan Denton at The Times in half an hour.” Smiling, Sarah Wallace turned her back on the three most powerful men in British politics and walked out the door.