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#17 The Daily Reflection (1/2)
Part 1 of a political drama
This week, we start on a political drama set in the heart of Westminster, London, where British politics is a cut-throat business.
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#17 The Daily Reflection, Part 1
The Member for Parliament for Surrey South, Charlotte Lawe, crosses Westminster Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in her wake and a sense of success, a sense of fulfilling her duty as a public servant, and of great appetite as the autumn sky dims to a dappled auburn glow. Her long trench ripples in the wind, struggling to keep up with her.
She thinks about her vote against her government on the Digital Securities Bill which proposes what the protestors call “an Orwellian Big State that will lock up our children”. Her rebellion sparked furies. The bill passed regardless of her actions, and her staff asked her whether it was worth it. But in her mind, there could be no doubt.
The sun shines down on a clamour of tourists, their selfie-sticks dangling over the Thames as they try to capture themselves with Parliament’s iconic clock. Charlotte waits for them to finish before smiling and passing along the bridge.
She thinks of Lauren, the parliamentary staffer she hired out of university a few months ago. She’s intuitive, Charlotte tells herself, but she will have to grow up fast. Over the bridge, a man stands selling Union Jack keychains and tries to offer one to Charlotte. She raises her hand to politely reject him. Two nights ago, following a long meeting with a constituent who asked for support in a custody hearing, Lauren had a panic attack in the office. It caught Charlotte by surprise. She was packing up her handbag to head home when she saw Lauren dart across the office, her hands clutching at her own neck, and running out into the corridor. Minutes later she returned, wiped the tears away from her cheeks, and stepped into Charlotte’s office.
‘Can we talk?’ she asked.
‘Of course,’ Charlotte replied. ‘What is it?’
Lauren shook her head, rubbed her palm across her eyes, took a desperate, nervy sigh and proceeded to tell Charlotte about the Member of Parliament who caught her in one of the building’s desperately isolated, far-flung, creaky rooms and tried to have sex with her. At the conversation’s end, Charlotte put her arms around Lauren as a mother would, told her to go home, that she did the right thing in speaking to her, and that she would raise it with the relevant bodies. It’s a thorny issue and one where politics is at its worst: the parliamentary standards authority, the police, the Whips’ office? In any other walk of life, taking this to another colleague would be the last thing to do - more gossip than anything else - but in politics, the Whips get it all. There are no relevant bodies.
Despite the difficulties, she thinks as she climbs into Waterloo station, justice has its ways of dealing with such things, and as she’s shown today in her protest vote, Charlotte is afraid of no one.
Her train is packed to the ceiling with passengers. Someone catches her eye and she knows they have recognised her, she can see the curiosity on their face. ‘Yes,’ she thinks to say to him, ‘I’m a Member of Parliament… take a good look. But it only means I am the representative of my people, I am the voice of my constituents, I am every man and woman in Surrey South. So, stop staring, because I am every one of you.’
But she only thinks about it. And then her mind drifts elsewhere. To the never-ending pile of casework she has to deal with. To her husband, Michael, and their children. To her father who has been diagnosed with dementia. To the councillor who texts her about potholes at every waking (and sleeping) hour. She falls asleep…
But the metallic, harsh voice on the loudspeaker calls her station. She jolts back into the carriage, pushing her handbag to the floor accidentally. Just as the doors are about to close, she leaps up from her chair, bag clinging desperately to her shoulder, and throws herself out onto the dark platform.
Charlotte’s car is the last to leave the car park. She drives a solitary road home, accompanied only by the light of her front beams and brake lights. When she pulls into her drive, she feels relieved. Her home is her sanctuary. These are the walls within which the shit she has to deal with cannot intrude. It’s just her, her husband, her children, a hot dinner and a warm bed. At that, with what feels like the last morsels of energy left in her, she hauls her handbag across the gravel driveway and through the front door.
As the door wheels open, her husband, Michael, with bloodshot eyes and an Einsteinian mess of hair spread across his head, faces her. The look of disgust on his face punches her in the gut.
‘What the hell have you been up to up there? What have you been doing?’ he bellows.
‘What?’ she replies, a feeling of stupidity in such a confused response.
‘What is this? How do you explain this?’ He thrusts a newspaper into her arms and walks away, unable even to look her in the eyes. ‘Jesus Christ,’ she hears him mutter as he steps away.
She looks down at the paper - The Daily Reflection. Under the black, scratchy title, a headline reads:
VETERAN MP CAUGHT IN SEX SCANDAL WITH MINISTER’S AIDE
‘What is this?’ she asks her husband dumbly, like a child who needs breakfast explained to them.
‘Don’t play stupid,’ Michael hisses. ‘You must know. You’ve been found out.’
She looks down at the paper again and tries to read the article, though she can’t keep her hand still.
‘I don’t know what this is,’ she says. Her vision is hazy, she cannot concentrate. She has no energy.
‘How could you do this to me?’
Charlotte finally comprehends snippets of the text. Her name appears, the word ‘affair’ is repeated many times, and a name she does not know: Alex Rowledge, Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. For the briefest moments, her lips quiver as the words fail to reach her. Her husband Michael gazes incredulously at her, and then - just as the tears form in her eyes and run down her cheeks - she laughs wildly.
‘Oh, Michael…’ she says. ‘This is bullshit… I’ve never even heard of this man…’ Her brow creases, her mind spins, and she approaches her husband with a soft hand. ‘It’s a lie, Michael.’
‘Well, what’s this picture then?’ Michael snaps the paper from her, opens to the next few pages, and holds up a page to her. It shows a dark CCTV photo, grainy and monochrome, of two characters - barely identifiable as a man and woman - with their arms interlinked, and then another showing, seconds later, one character pushing the other against a hotel corridor wall and kissing them.
‘God knows… Ha, ha. Looks like a hotel. But you can’t tell it’s me. That could be anybody, Michael…’
‘No, they wouldn’t publish this if it were all fabricated.’
‘Michael, think about it, for God’s sake. If I were going to have an affair it wouldn’t be with someone from the environment department. It would be Downing Street!’
‘Stop joking, this is not funny. Stop living a fantasy, Charlotte.’ Michael gives her the paper, and walks upstairs. On his way up, he says, ‘Sleep in the spare room.’
She looks after him despondently. She goes to the kitchen to look for food, but there is nothing. She hasn’t an appetite anyway. She passes through to her study, covered in strewn papers and books she never finished. She sits in the chair and focuses on the article, reading it from start to finish. Utter rubbish, she whispers to herself. She scans the article again and at its end she sees the author’s name: Isabel Beare, Political Reporter.
Charlotte pulls her laptop from her handbag and opens it on the desk. She’s sat in the dark so the laptop screen illuminates just her small, impained face. She searches: ‘Isabel Beare Daily Reflection’. The top search result is the article about Charlotte from 4 hours ago, the other results are a host of sporadic Facebook profiles for a woman in Idaho, another in Australia, a teenager in Scotland, a librarian in Blyth Valley. These cannot be her. Where is this Isabel Beare?
She slams the laptop shut, pours herself a glass of wine, and drinks the whole thing in two gulps. She goes upstairs, sidles along the corridor, past the master bedroom where Michael is, and into the spare room. She dumps her handbag and brushes her teeth in the en-suite with an unused toothbrush from the cupboard. She stares at herself in the mirror while she does it, but feels nothing but emptiness.
In the bedroom, she takes her dress off and looks at the various different parts of her body in the mirror. She folds herself into the cold sheets of the under-used bed and faces the dark, empty room, thinking of the hell to come.
After perhaps an hour, just as she reaches calm enough to sleep, the light of her phone emanates out of her handbag and spreads a white light into the room.
Charlotte crawls out of the bed and finds the phone. Adjusting her eyes, she reads the name Billy Croppe and her stomach sinks.
The Chief Whip.
Meet me on the bench covered in pigeon shit opposite the Tate Britain. 08:15 am tomorrow.
‘It’s like The Shining, isn’t it?’ Billy Croppe’s thin hair flutters against the comb in the river-wind. His eyes are watering at the chill. A seagull careens past them and lands on the wall nearby, a beady eye hopping around its head.
‘What is?’ The bags under Charlotte’s eyes hang lower than usual, like a hammock that no one expects to touch the earth when someone climbs in.
‘The carpet in that hotel… I can’t unsee it.’
‘The one where you and Rowledge were caught necking.’
‘I’ve never even met Rowledge,’ Charlotte pleads.
‘Neither have I.’
‘Does he even exist?’
Billy turns to Charlotte with a grave look on his face. ‘Make it go away, Charlotte. We don’t need this right now, with everything the Government is facing.’
‘How can I make something go away that’s not true?’
Taking a bite from a croissant that Charlotte didn’t know he was holding, Billy replies, ‘Stop that, Charlotte. You have to take responsibility for your actions. Time to be a big girl, now.’
‘That’s rich coming from a man who plays with model trains on the weekend.’
‘They are collectors’ models, Charlotte. I’ve told you that many times.’
Charlotte shrugs her shoulders.
‘Get rid of it. I mean it. If it doesn’t go away, the consequences may be… unfathomable for you.’
Billy stands to leave, scrunching up the bag his croissant was given to him in and combing three chubby fingers through his thinned hair.
‘Is that a threat, Billy?’
Without turning as he walks off toward Parliament, Billy lifts a hand and waves. ‘Just get it done.’
In her office in Portcullis House, Lauren has one hand across her forehead, her hair in a tangle, as she tries to appease an angry constituent over the phone.
‘Y-y-yes. I’m very sorry, I do understand your anger. Y-yes, she does work very hard to represent the people of her constituency. N-no, sir, I won’t accept that - she isn’t on a sex rampage! H-h-hello, sir?’
The caller must have hung up. She looks up at Charlotte with a look of desperation.
‘Fifteenth call this morning,’ Lauren says, ‘and it’s not even nine o’clock.’
‘It could be worse.’
‘Those are just the ones I’ve answered. It’s been ringing since five.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s not true, is it?’
‘Of course, it’s not.’
‘But the pictures?’
‘The pictures are nothing. Grainy, unidentifiable characters in a hotel. It could be anyone.’
Just as the conversation warms, the mobile phone lights up, a nondescript number flashing across the screen.
‘I better take this,’ Lauren says. Charlotte nods. ‘Good morning, Charlotte Lawe’s office… Hello, there… Thank you for your comments, I will make sure and pass them onto Charlotte. Of course, at this time, we refute the claims made by The Daily Reflection. They are untrue… Sorry, no, I do apologise - I didn’t mean anything by saying at this time - of course, that won’t change.’
Charlotte shakes her head, stands and walks into her office and shuts the door. Sat at her desk, she can still hear the desperation in Lauren’s voice through the walls. The thought of it, the absurdity, the madness…
She grits her teeth, crunches her knuckles, shakes her head. Her eyes glisten with the embryos of tears.
Charlotte launches her lamp with the green-glass shade across the room, pulling it from its socket and smashing it against the pale wooden walls. It plunges her into darkness, the room now only lit by the grey sky through the tiny window. As she stares at the place where the lamp hit, she hears the faint, fumbling voice of Lauren saying, ‘Excuse me, sir. I’m very sorry, I need to go. A fire alarm has gone off in Portcullis House, I will call you back as soon as possible.’
Moments later, Lauren knocks on Charlotte’s door and pokes her small head around it. ‘Is everything alright, Charlotte? I heard some… err… commotion.’
‘Everything’s fine. Very sorry…’
‘Mmhmm, yeah. I don’t want to make matters worse. But have you seen this?’ Lauren holds her phone up.
‘What is it?’ She walks over and snatches the phone from Lauren’s hand.
‘They’ve published more pictures.’
The screen shows The Daily Reflection’s website. Through the crowded sprawl of cookie setting requests, advertisements for cheap tat on the internet, and spurious articles like The Tricks Behind This Woman’s Perfect Smile, is a heading that reads:
REVEALED: NEW PICTURES FROM NIGHT OF MP’S ROMP WITH AIDE
Charlotte scrolls down the article to see a smattering of dark photographs showing a blonde woman, her pale cheeks, her bony fingers, pressed against the arm of a man beside her. The caption highlights how the woman, named Charlotte Lawe, ‘tries to hide her face from photographers’.
Another photo shows a man standing by a window, staring out into the street, as a woman walks past him in the background. The caption reads: ‘Alex Rowledge closes the curtains as Mrs Lawe, married, walks towards the bed.’
At this, her rage is no longer an overflowing volcano of vitriol for the journalists and editors of The Daily Reflection, it is now a channeled hatred that will spill out only in the form of a fist, its recipient being whoever is responsible for this injustice.
‘What do I have in the diary this morning?’
‘A constituent meeting and a private committee call. Why?’
‘Cancel them. I won’t attend.’ Charlotte grabs her handbag and her coat.
As she stands with one foot out the door, Lauren asks: ‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m going to the head offices of The Daily Reflection.’
Thank you for reading the first part of this story, as always! To connect with me elsewhere, you can follow me on Instagram here.
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I’ll see you in two weeks to complete Charlotte’s journey, where she visits Isabel Beare at the Daily Reflection’s offices, and where, some time in the future, she receives an unexpected delivery.
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