Shadows of the Past is the story of our immediate future, a sweeping saga of individual adventure, bitter experiences, joys, defeats, victories and achievements. The central character is the mysterious Lady Brogan Osborne, who looks back on her life as a central figure in a dramatic period of social change. We first meet her on the day her second husband dies and as that sadness unfolds, we start to learn more about her and her family, and the life she has led.
The story starts in October 2069 but looks back across fifty years of British history, imagining the post Brexit world. I am releasing new chapters as fast as I write them so please keep checking back and leave your comments. I would love to know what you think.
My two loyal attendants curtseyed as I returned to my dressing room, my own relatively private space. I walked straight over to my desk, only slightly unsteady on my feet, and Sister Helena hurried to close the door. Sister Caris stood to one side, my mittens and muzzle in her gloved hands, her full, thick white veil making her appear impassive. She was not of course. I could feel the tension in the air. I could sense the stirrings of panic and it was so tempting to give into the fear, but I had to be stronger than that, stronger than them, for all our sakes. I quickly removed my gloves, grabbing the initiative, and entered the code to unlock the filing cabinet, before reaching into it in search of one particular file. Helena floated back to her previous position, standing against the wall, gloved hands clasped in front of her, head bowed out of respect for her betters. I could not imagine how either of them felt, because they had much further to fall than me. I could not deny that, despite my own forebodings. If and when my husband died, I could lose his many indulgences and see my life returned to a more conventional routine, but they could be returned to the Priory.
“Open, Lady Osborne,” Caris commanded, taking a step towards me.
“Give me five minutes, Susie,” I murmured, defying her, feeling the shock of my rebellion crackle between us like a lightning bolt, threatening the balance of our entire universe. She could punish me. She could make me do her bidding with relative ease, at the touch of a button, but I was betting that she would not do so. Sister Caris acted as my guardian, a role in the household which was kindly provided by The Order as a courtesy to the Archbishop, my husband Sebastian Osborne. She was there because I had asked for her, and for Helena, specifically, and as a result I was usually humoured more than most Daughters of Eve could expect, but she occasionally had cause to discipline me. It was quite possible but I relied on our relationship, our friendship, to make her think twice. “Sebastian has left letters for the boys and I need to secure things here…”
“I will ask twice milady…but I will not ask a third time.”
“Then wait four more minutes before repeating yourself,” I hissed, taking out the letters before switching on the desk computer, watching the mahogany top slide back to reveal the screen and keyboard. “If you want to avoid being sent back, leave me be.”
“Someone could come…any minute.” I could hear the terror in her voice. And she was no coward. She had suffered in God’s love for fifty years, unjustly, and if her ten years with me had been the best of it, she had not been set free. I realised that, as much as anyone who had never spent any time in The Order ever could.
“Only my children…and they will knock and wait for me to be decent…it is my dressing room after all…and if we leave the database unprotected…”
“You can type whilst muzzled,” Caris persisted and I sighed, preparing for the inevitable. She was not going to take any chances, and she was right, fitting my muzzle would not stop me saving the database from prying eyes. “Open Lady Osborne.”
I turned to stare at her veiled face, wishing I could see her eyes. I had never seen her face. I had known Helena before she entered The Order, but Caris was an unknown quantity. So I opened my mouth, tilting my head a little to give her a better angle, and she pushed the soft, pliable plastic inside, holding the solid tube so that she could position it correctly whilst my saliva reacted with the goo, hardening and expanding it, removing my voice. I glared at her as she let go and returned my attention to the screen, typing fast. I was used to being muzzled, obviously. I was a Daughter of Eve and the bible says we should learn in silence. And a Daughter of Eve is always learning even if they were seventy five years old with six children and nineteen grandchildren. My fingers moved rapidly, a skill learned long ago and honed in the last decade as my husband allowed me to work on the database. I smiled around the muzzle, already unable to move my jaw, thinking that I was probably the only Reformist woman allowed to use a computer. Certainly the only true Daughter of Eve. Helena and Caris were both old enough to remember using one, in their previous lives, but my own daughters would not have known where to begin, and my sons would be scandalised to see me doing so. Initially scandalised, I hoped, until they read their letters. I could not predict how they would react to their father’s words. I did not even know in detail what those words were. Sebastian indulged me but he did not share everything with me. He was a Reformist and he could never quite go that far, I suppose.
My emotions suddenly washed over me, almost taking me by surprise. I was not letting myself think about Sebastian Osborne. I knew he was dying and my heart was breaking but I could not afford to fall apart, to cry or to fall into the arms of my loving family. I had things to do. Important things. He knew that, and had planned for that, and he had trusted me to get things done. Ironically. In forty three years of marriage he had not trusted me to do much out of his sight, always keen to keep a watchful eye on me. He thought of us a partnership in the latter stages of our union, a couple, and we did things together. But he was leaving me. His letters, whatever they said, would surely determine my future, and the future of Caris and Helena too. I hoped that hiding the database behind the very best defences Christopher Slade had been able to devise before his own untimely death, the year before, would only be a temporary measure. I hoped that I would be able to continue my work, but there was no guarantee. My legal guardian was slipping away from me and I would pass into the care of my sons, and more particularly my eldest son, Joshua Trevor-Osborne. He would decide my eventual fate in practical terms. Or rather our fate, as Caris and Helena were vulnerable too.
I followed Slade’s instructions to the letter, and as I hit the final key everything quickly began to shut down, until finally the screen and the keyboard disappeared. I spent a moment rearranging my things, to cover the evidence of my sins. My desk turned into a dressing table once more. Hairbrushes and a silver jewellery box took pride of place. Eventually, once satisfied that it was as good as it was going to get, I turned in my seat to face Sister Caris, and handed her the letters. She in turn handed them to Sister Helena, who curtseyed and left the room, to deliver our only chance. I stared at dear Sister Caris, imagining the hard old woman behind the thick cloth. She had to be hard to have survived, and she had every reason to hate me and everyone like me. I had enjoyed the best of the modern renaissance whilst she had surely suffered the worst of it, but she was not bitter. She had once told me that she decided to let it go, because if she did not, she would drive herself quite mad, going over and over it all again and again, like a recurring nightmare. Instead, she learned to live one minute at a time and be grateful to small mercies. I admired her.
In fact, we were the same age, and our backgrounds were not dissimilar. Both born in 1994, both privately educated and both dedicated to our chosen careers, refusing to be held back by the typical-of-the-time dysfunctional natures of our respective families. I was the product of a one night stand my mother enjoyed when she was only nineteen, blessed with money and material things but denied stability and love, whilst Susie Johnson, as Caris was then, was a product of what used to be called a broken home. I studied politics at Oxford and she studied medicine at Cambridge. We had no idea that we were a part of the last pre-Reformist generation, no inkling of what was to come. No more than anyone else ever did of course. But we were different to everyone else, in our various ways. Susie Johnson was cruelly destined to be one of the first nursing nuns pressganged into The Order as part of a government experiment, whilst I tried to expose the then fledgling Reformist movement as the rise of Christian Fundamentalism and ended up trapped in my own web of deceit and dishonesty, and married to two of the leading Reformists of the age.
“Hands,” Sister Caris barked, clearly not prepared to put up with any more nonsense. I did not give her any. My race was run and I was in the hands of my sons from that moment onwards. I knew that Sebastian would not pull through. He had been getting weaker for months and he had refused to go into the hospital again, so the end was clearly near. Holding out my hands, I watched her push and pull the tight, stiff mittens onto my hands, rendering my fingers useless. I knew she was going to make me pray. Not that either of us believed in God, but it would be expected of me. I would be given no choice in the matter. No say in my own response to my loss. But I loved my children and I was sure they loved me. I had little more to fear than less time spent in my dressing room refuge. Outside of that room, I was Lady Osborne, an icon of the Reformist age. I was scared of that prospect, and resentful of the possibility, but I would be loved, even if I was a Daughter of Eve. I would certainly survive the experience. But Sisters Caris and Helena would surely be returned to the Winstanley Priory to resume a more traditional service. Unless Sebastian had pulled one last rabbit out of his hat.
I first met Sebastian Osborne when I was just eighteen years old, in 2012, on the very same day that he first met the man who would become my first husband, although he did not remember meeting me. I had attended a lecture at Oxford with my then boyfriend, of sorts, Harry Trevor. The main speaker was a man called Michael Winstanley, the self-styled leader of a small Christian sect called the Church of Christian Reform, and Sebastian had introduced him and delivered his own talk on the undercard, as it were. Neither Harry or I were particularly religious but Winstanley was no ordinary Christian preacher. He was obviously extremely pious, his speech punctuated with bible quotations and prayers his audience were urged to join in with, but his main theme was social change. In his opinion, Great Britain was in deeper trouble than the aftermath of the banking crisis of 2008 and no existing political ideology was going to implement the measures necessary to address the real issues facing the British people. Harry was quite fascinated and impressed and me rather less so. Both of us were politically active at Oxford, although he was studying law, and our relationship was based more on passionate debate than romance. That evening was typical of our dates and ended with yet another heated row about the problems facing the Cameron/Clegg coalition which was then almost halfway through its five year term. I did not give Winstanley or Osborne a second thought, and Harry and I soon went our separate ways, as he was in his last year and I was in my first, but in hindsight that evening was a harbinger of things to come.
The Church of Christian Reform was founded in 1994, when a Church of England vicar called Richard Winstanley resigned from his job over the appointment of women priests. For him and his loyal followers it was the final straw. The General Synod was approving measures directly forbidden in the bible, and Winstanley was amongst a small but still meaningful number of traditional Christians who could not tolerate such blasphemy. Unlike many, he had the courage to start again, and the charisma to get a large number of his old congregation to follow him. But perhaps more importantly he had the financial backing of two parishioners in particular, Paul Craig and David Harrington, who were at that stage were already paper millionaires well on the way to their first billions. I think that there were lots of small churches at the time, lots of people doing their own things in their own communities, but they did not have the cash to build something like Richard Winstanley did. Backed by Craig and Harrington, he bought some land and a few old buildings in a relatively isolated Surrey village, called Meadvale, on the boundary with Hampshire, just west of Guildford, where his old constituency was.
Meadvale was one of those villages bypassed by the A3 high road, consisting of a pub, a small village shop and a few houses surrounded by farms, which no one ever drove through anymore. It was hardly remote, because you could be in the city of Guildford in half an hour by car, but no buses stopped there and it was certainly off the beaten track. Richard Winstanley set up his church in an old barn initially, and along with his backers started to build himself and his family a home. By the time I heard his son Michael speak, eighteen years later, they had built a Cathedral, known these days as the Old Cathedral, and Meadvale had tripled in size, with houses built and inhabited by members of the so-called First Congregation, Pastor Richard’s original disciples, all clustering together to build their own community, where they could follow the teachings of the bible and hide away from the ills of modern British society. Richard Winstanley had died of a heart attack in 2010, and his son took over the leadership of the Church, still backed by his good friends, Craig and Harrington, and the expansion of their model community continued. Not only the Cathedral and homes for the members of the congregation, but schools, a convent, a nursing home, a small private hospital and a little high street of shops and businesses, all open to everyone but run by Reformists, each one making the community just that little bit more self-sufficient, and drawing more people to the church, like moths to the flame.
The popularity of the Church was easy enough to explain. For a start, the Christian message was very simple. Listen to and understand the bible, and follow God’s clear instructions. Pastor Michael Winstanley did not over interpret, and tended to concentrate on the obvious messages. Modesty, chastity, charity and piety were core values, and there were a number of clear tenets which no Reformist could ignore. Firstly, the original final straw for Richard Winstanley, no woman could ever be allowed to preach. The bible was clear on that point. It was not open to debate, and it could not be interpreted in any other way. If any Christian accepted the bible as the words of God then they could not allow a woman to preach or teach anyone about their faith. Secondly, men and women were different, and rather than trying to legislate against those differences in a vain search for equality, Reformists accepted and celebrated those differences. Men and women each had their own defined roles within the family and the community. And those two things were the absolute cornerstones of the Reformist doctrine; family and community. Meadvale was a test ground, a model, for how the whole country could come together and invest in a Christian future.
The other major reason for the growth of the Church of Christian Reform was the money. Paul Craig and David Harrington were engineers who met at university and set up their own company, HCR, after they graduated, just before their friend’s father left the Church of England. Their first idea, a chip which enabled faster transfer of mobile data, was not a huge success in the end but they sold it to Nokia for ten million pounds before that was realised. That was enough to start the project in Meadvale. Then they started researching touch screen technology. It was a passion of Paul Craig’s who was really the ideas man of the partnership. Harrington was the salesman, the one who went out and did the deals and demonstrated their research, whilst Craig lived in the lab and tested the theories. They started out ahead of their time as mobile phones were still in their infancy, but scientists were already working towards the Smartphone, and HCR was at the forefront of the dream. They received huge backing for their work, because of Craig’s ideas and Harrington’s sales pitch, and a cut of that was always trickling into the coffers of the Church. But it remained fairly small scale until 2010, the year Richard Winstanley died, because the old man was more into the model community than he was with the idea of spreading the word. Michael Winstanley was different. He could see that their model worked on a small scale, but he dreamed of evangelising that message for the whole country, and luckily for him, if not for everyone else, his ambitions coincided with HCR hitting the big time.
As with many research based businesses, HCR almost went under before they struck gold. Legend has it that they were about to fold, starved of investment, when Craig made the crucial breakthrough. Harrington had one more investor to try, a man called Simon Lawrence, and on the day he brought Lawrence down to see the research labs and talk things through with Paul Craig the team cracked the problem they had been wrestling with through four previous rounds of funding. Simon Lawrence was presented with a polymer coating which would allow incredibly sensitive screens to make fast, intuitive game play possible. He provided the bridging loans HCR needed to test the product and a few months later they had signed a lucrative deal with Apple. Since that day, every Smartphone sold earns HCR another large cut and almost overnight Craig and Harrington went from being paper millionaires thanks to their shareholding in their company to being paper billionaires. And they both upped their generosity towards Michael Winstanley’s project accordingly. All of a sudden, the Church of Christian Reform could do just about anything. The original few hundred disciples who followed Richard Winstanley had already swelled to over a thousand, and with HCR employing many more people in the area, with their recruitment firmly biased towards members of the Church, that number started to rapidly multiply. More and more land in Meadvale was bought, at well above market prices, and more and more homes and facilities were built. And Michael Winstanley launched a book and a lecture tour to promote his beloved doctrine, all funded by HCR cash.
My recollection of that lecture in 2012 is sketchy at best, but the central theme was that our society was broken, and in many ways Winstanley was right, of course. The financial crash in 2012 had effectively crippled the European economy in particular, and as that fateful decade unfolded, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria prompted huge migration, terrorism and unrest everywhere. Great Britain voted to leave the European Community in 2016, after Scotland had narrowly voted to remain in the Union in 2015, and both votes were incredibly divisive. Theresa May replaced David Cameron as Prime Minister smoothly enough, but her party remained hopelessly split on the European issue, whist the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was tearing itself apart. I heard Winstanley speak four years before that happened but was already highlighting those fissures in British political life, and the deep dissatisfaction of the people with their political leaders. My friend Harry Trevor received that message loud and clear. He would already have been part of the old politics if he had been a little older, as he had been educated at Eton and Oxford and came from a rich, privileged background, and the message that his kind had failed the country hit him surprisingly hard. The seeds of the man he would become were sown in that Oxford lecture hall seven years before the Reformist hurricane would really begin to take effect.
But my mind was more focussed on Sebastian Osborne. He was twenty eight in 2012 and he was Pastor Michael Winstanley’s protégé. Pastor Michael was forty five at the time, and more concerned with taking his message to the wider population than he was with Meadvale. In fact, Michael was never a good parish priest. He had too much going on in his mind to worry about births, deaths and marriages, and visiting the sick, the old and the poor, but he had the good sense to employ someone to do that for him. Sebastian Osborne had, rather like Harry Trevor, heard Winstanley speak and become fascinated with the doctrine, but unlike Harry and his boss he was very concerned with the minutiae of life. It fell to Sebastian to organise the working of the Cathedral in Meadvale and fill the gaps his master ignored, but that was fine with him because he was doing what he always wanted to do. He had engaged with Pastor Michael’s message, and left the Church of England to join him, because the Church of Christian Reform could do all of the things the Anglican Church seemed to have little interest in any more. Whilst the Archbishop of Canterbury was holding press conferences about the effects of poverty, Sebastian was starting drop in centres and food banks all over Surrey, clearly funded by HCR money, and taking the word of God to the poor, deprived, disenfranchised members of the community. He was doing what he thought a Christian should, helping everyone, regardless of colour or creed, and adding to the reputation of the Church as he went.
Sitting there in my stiff mittens and very efficient muzzle, after forty nine years living the cloistered, disciplined life of a Daughter of Eve, I could not deny the good Sebastian Osborne always intended to do. He was a great man, the love of my life, and although I disagreed with the methods he and his friends employed to enforce social change, I had to admit that he had restored the soul of the country we both loved. Some people had paid a heavy price for the fruits of what we had come to call the modern renaissance, people like Sisters Caris and Helena, as well as people like me, but the country had been restored to greatness. I knew the figures because, alongside Sebastian, I had researched them, and the things I used to march about as a student had largely been eradicated from modern British life. Minimal unemployment, the highest standards of living anywhere in the world, low crime rates, unrivalled education and healthcare, all free at the point of entry. It was the stuff dreams were made of in 2012 but as Michael Winstanley always said, God had always shown us the path to righteousness. All lacked in the first quarter of the twenty first century was someone to make us see sense.
“If you please Sister, I would speak with my mother,” Joshua Trevor-Osborne said, as both Sisters finished curtseying to him. I bowed my head respectfully, but did not stand to greet him. I was an old lady, after all, a great grandmother and the matriarch of our family. If I had been standing I would certainly have offered an obeisance, but I did not stand when my sons entered the room. Sister Caris moved towards me and I tilted my head again, to make things easy for her, so that she could remove my muzzle. She inserted what was in effect a little key into the solid feeding tube and, rather like an old-fashioned car key, sent a small electric charge through the plastic, softening it once more. In a matter of seconds, she pulled at the pliable mass of soggy goo and tugged it out of my mouth. I looked down, licking my dry lips, whilst she backed away and threw the discarded muzzle in the bin. “Mama…you should get changed…”
“Already?” Neither of us bothered with small talk. I could see the truth in his eyes. His father had not lingered, which was in itself a minor blessing I suppose, and Joshua was suggesting that I should change into black, a mourning gown to indicate my loss.
“Sisters…if you would excuse us?” He said, and Caris and Helena curtseyed again before leaving the small room. I watched them go, the pain a physical thing in my chest, and Joshua pulled up the other chair, sitting beside me and taking my mittened hands in his. “It was quick…his heart gave out…probably for the best…”
“Have you read his letter?” I asked, because it was important, even if it was not really the time.
My eldest son was forty seven, a serious, deep thinker who cared for his family and loved his father. I was not so sure of his allegiance to me because we were opposites in both thought and temperament. I was sure that he often thought me outspoken in private, although I did believe he had any concerns over my public performances. In private, his father had always let me speak reasonably freely to the family, but in public I was the Archbishop’s wife and I acted accordingly at all times. Joshua was rather straight-laced and traditional, with little sense of humour and a total, unshakeable belief in the doctrine. He was a member of parliament, and a junior minister in my adopted brother’s government, but rather more importantly from that moment onwards he was my legal guardian. After fifty years of Reformism, as a woman, I had few rights left. I could not own property or have a bank account. In fact, although it was never expressed in those terms in any official way I was property myself, passed on as part of my husband’s estate. In practical terms, I simply could not do anything without Joshua’s permission. I could not leave the house, write a letter or receive a visitor. Whilst I had no doubt that my son would look after me for the rest of my life with kindness and affection, I was not so sure that he would allow me the freedoms his father permitted. And I was not at all sure that he would look after Caris and Helena. Even if he knew the full story.
“Quite a day…I suppose you are going back to the house?” Sebastian Osborne asked, resting his hand on Harry’s shoulder in an effort to pull him out of his reverie. Everyone else had gone. Even Harry’s mother and sister, but the young man still stood at the side of his father’s grave. Sebastian was no expert in grief but he had lost both of his own parents and he was sure that Harry needed to leave. His emotions were raw but the act of burying the old man was done.
“Can you give me a lift back to Birmingham?” Harry asked, his first words since he had tossed a handful of dirt on top of his father’s coffin. His eyes were still focussed on the mahogany casket, as if he was still afraid that Jonathan Trevor might still rise out and thwart his ambitions.
“Of course I can…but you should be with Olivia and your mother…”
“They will have plenty of company…I don’t want to be there.” Harry said firmly. In fact, he had told his mother that he was not going back to the country house. He could not pretend to grieve. He had spent the previous hour resisting the temptation to dance on his father’s grave. Maybe he did not hate the man, but he certainly hated everything he stood for and he resented his birth rite.
“You will have things to organise…the will for a start…” Sebastian argued, imagining the complications. Jonathan Trevor was a very rich man. His premature death from a heart attack was bound to cause issues.
“Sebastian…my father was the most organised man you could ever hope to meet…everything will be there, the will and everything…all the solicitor will have to do is open the letter,” Harry shrugged and wrenched himself away from the hole in the ground, finally convinced that there would be no resurrection. “And I am finally free…control of my own trust fund reverts to me. At the age of twenty eight, I am finally free of his demands, of his expectations. I don’t care what happens to the rest of the estate…I can cope with all of that as and when…but we have work to do.”
“Obviously I would welcome your help…but what about your job? The bank? I know it is not exactly what you want to do Harry…but it is still there…you are now…I presume…a major shareholder?”
“Yes, but as of now I am no longer a lowly corporate lawyer learning the ropes of the family business,” Harry told his friend with such certainty that Sebastian gave up trying to change his mind. It was clearly a lost cause. Harry was not the sort of man to be persuaded once he had made a decision. They started to walk back towards the church, heading for the car park. Harry put his head back and laughed, before tugging at his black tie. “My father resented every second I spent on pro bono work…and I resented every second he made me spend at the bank, Sebastian. But with him gone, I don’t have to pretend anymore…and no one can cut off my access to my money to make me toe the line. I was so close to telling him to fuck off once and for all…and then this happens? Damn it, maybe there is a God, after all?”
“You think your father’s death was an act of God?” Sebastian was not shocked or offended. He was used to working with heathens, with people who did not believe in his God, and if he took offence every time they blasphemed or took the Lord’s name in vain he would have been permanently incensed. And in any case he felt that Harry did believe, deep down. He just needed to find his faith within himself. But that was of no matter at that particular moment in time. Harry was not driven by God but he was a firm advocate of the need for social change, and in Birmingham, where Sebastian had founded the first Christian Reformist Church outside of Meadvale, let alone Surrey, they were working together to make a difference. So if Harry wanted to turn his back on the merchant bank that bore his name and spend more time helping the people of Birmingham in the name of the Church, maybe that was the hand of God.
“I think God wants us to do more…and not just a few days a month in my case.”
Five minutes later they were in Sebastian’s Volvo, picking their way out of the small Sussex village where the Trevor family seat was located, heading for the main artery back towards London. They were not talking much, so Sebastian turned the radio on. The General Election had taken place four days before, two days after Jonathan Trevor dropped dead in his London club. Radio Four was still occupied with the aftermath of a hung parliament, and there entire schedule still seemed to be dedicated to the efforts of both major parties to form a government. Harry sat back in his seat and shut his eyes, whilst Sebastian accelerated onto a stretch of dual carriageway which would lead them to the motorway. The journey to Birmingham would take three hours or more, depending on the traffic, and he tuned in to the voices coming out of the speakers, quickly realising that things in Westminster were coming to a conclusion.
“The key thing here Evan is that the Scottish National Party are prepared to back Labour, as long as Brian Strickland is prepared to make some serious concessions,” Nick Robinson, a very familiar BBC voice, said, talking to the equally recognisable Evan Davis, who seemed to be on duty in the studio. “Labour has been more or less totally shut out of Scotland since the election of 2015 and their failure to make any inroads this time left a majority more or less impossible but if Labour leader Brian Strickland is prepared to offer another referendum on independence and maybe further delays to the process of finally leaving the European Community, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon might help him into number ten Downing Street…”
“But surely Nick, no one voted for either of those things…Theresa May has been very clear about independence being off the agenda and the Tory party did relatively well in Scotland as a result?”
“Absolutely Evan…it would be very controversial…but no workable majority is available to anyone without doing a deal with Sturgeon. Strickland has Tim Fallon’s LibDem’s on-board but that is only a handful of MP’s…the Scots hold the key to this and my contacts are telling me that Strickland is prepared to sell his soul to the devil.”
“Shit…that is not good,” Harry muttered without opening his eyes.
“”It’s undemocratic…he can’t seriously try to delay the signing of the exit agreement any longer?” Sebastian sighed as he slowed down for a speed camera. Theresa May and her Conservative colleagues had been negotiating the agreements necessary for Britain to exit the European Community for eighteen months, since triggering the two year period in late 2017, over a year after the referendum result. Negotiations had started off tricky, with a lot of angst from Britain’s former partners, and nothing had got much easier since. But the people had voted to leave, and the continual delays had caused several bitter and sometimes violent demonstrations on the streets.
“I am sure they will if they can…both Labour and the Tories are still dominated by pro-Europeans.”
“We have been stagnating for three years…the economy can’t take much more…people are suffering too much from the uncertainty…”
“They don’t give a flying fuck for the people…that’s why what we are doing is so important…if the politicians can’t solve the problems, we need people like Michael to step forwards…and people like us Sebastian.”
“You know Michael wants to start a political wing of the Church?”
“Yeah…I heard…makes sense.”
“You should stand Harry…you would be good at it?”
“I am not sure whether that is a compliment or an insult.”
With Caris and Helena on either side of me, I knelt in front of the Trevor memorial inside the New Cathedral, praying for both of my husbands, a widow for the second time. Harry had been dead for forty five years but he was still a part of me. We had three beautiful children together after all, and Sebastian was his best friend. Even after I remarried, I had been encouraged to honour his memory and although our relationship had been far from smooth I had an attachment to him that went beyond our ups and downs. He understood me. More than dear Sebastian ever had, I think, because he knew Brogan Hardcastle, the person I was before. Raising my head, I read the words etched on the cold white marble. I smiled behind my mantle, remembering some of our battles. I had lost them all in effect, because I was a Daughter of Eve. He could and did punish me severely for having the temerity to defy him, but he never broke me. He tried, and my victories were all about his frustrations at his failure to convince me of my proper, rightful place.
Sebastian Osborne was very different. He had no doubts about his beliefs, unlike Harry. He was sure he was right and therefore, when he punished me, he did it for my own good, not out of anger. I was never a challenge to him, even when he learned the truth about me. Because to him I was just a Daughter of Eve and he believed that by saving me from sin he was helping me earn God’s love. My sins, to any devout Reformist, were simply my nature. Ever since Eve bit into that apple, the female proclivity for sin had required man to intervene. He did not blame me for my failings. He merely taught me the error of my ways, in God’s name. He learned to love me, something neither of us had expected when Paul Craig, my adopted father, arranged our marriage, and when he discovered the depths of my complicated past he shared more of himself than most Reformists ever managed, but he remained my master. Harry had always had to force me to obey him, but Sebastian shamed me into it, leading me by example. In his hands, I really was a Daughter of Eve, and in my love he had found the personal happiness he had never even sought before we were put together. I closed my eyes again and let a prayer play in my head, my whimpers of despair lost in my muzzle. Forty four years of marriage, three lovely children and a peace I had never expected, all gone in the blink of an eye.
Sister Caris ordered me to rise after about an hour. I would have stayed for longer. I think I would happily have stayed there forever, but my family would want me home. I knew they were gathering in the aftermath of Sebastian’s passing and I knew I would not be able to slip away to the memorial as often as I might like once they all arrived. In the brave new world of Reformism, mourning is almost an art form. It is a ritual, with rules and expectations of its own, and as in so much of Michael Winstanley’s dogma, the woman carries the burden of grief. Men don their black ties and drink ghastly sherry at the funeral but then their life goes on, but their women wear black for weeks, even months if they were closely related to the deceased, and I knew that I would be expected to mourn for at least a year. Maybe even longer considering my age. I would not be expected to remarry as my child-bearing days were long behind me, and some devout families expected their dowager to wear black until their dying day.
My knees creaked and my back was sore. My family believed me to be sixty six, but I was really seventy five. I felt old as the Sister’s took my arm and headed for the south entrance. Sister Caris had not put down my blinding mantle, as she had on the short walk to the Cathedral. I assumed she had forgotten and enjoyed the chance to take in the famous surroundings, because the New Cathedral had been Sebastian’s baby. He had worked with the original architect right from the planning stage, and he had been standing at the shoulders of every single workman during the build. I put my head back and stared up at the magnificent vaulted ceilings, thinking of him, wishing I could tell him how much I loved him one more time. It was so unfair. He was only eighty five. And I still had so much work to do. The database was still only half complete. I needed more time.
“My commiserations, Lady Osborne,” I heard a familiar voice say and immediately fell into an obeisance. I was well known of course. In Meadvale as well as everywhere else, even veiled as I was, but Charles Buckingham was even more famous. But I must confess that my first thought was that he was, at eighty eight, three years older than Sebastian. I asked the God I only ever tolerated in my head why he would take my love before Charles. “Madeleine will call on you as soon as it is appropriate but I hope you know that you are in all our hearts…and that I considered Sebastian as one of my best friends…”
Charles did not expect a response. He knew I would be muzzled, as a matter of course, but he clearly wanted to pay his respects, even if it was not entirely in line with the demands of propriety. Not that anyone would ever dare to admonish the great Charles Buckingham. As Sister Caris remembered herself and pulled the blinding mantle down to remove my sight, my mind drifted off again, whilst I put one foot in front of the other, relying on my guardians to guide me. Because that far off spring in 2019 was a pivotal moment for many important people, not just Harry Trevor. Charles Buckingham lost his Conservative seat in parliament as Theresa May was kicked out of office. The Tories were blamed for calling a referendum on Europe, as well as losing it, and the delays and uncertainty did not help them at the polls three years later. May had gone to the country a year earlier than she needed to, in an effort to get a mandate for her negotiations with the EU, but the people were clearly sick of the delays. No one got an overall mandate but a number of Tory MP’s lost their seats, and Charles Buckingham was prominent amongst them.
He was thirty eight at the time, a junior minister in the treasury and thought of as a star for the future. He had survived the transition from David Cameron to Theresa May amidst all the bloodletting after the referendum, where he had voted to remain in the EU, but he was not a May supporter and had not risen as far as the Cabinet. He was seen as a good parliamentarian and a powerful speaker, but he was not yet a name and his defeat was a real blow. Especially as he had lost his wife to cancer in 2017. In May 2019, whilst Harry was burying his father and Sebastian was trying to show the people of Birmingham how to live in God’s love, Charles Buckingham was an unemployed father of a teenage girl with no idea what to do next. He expected Theresa May to resign. She had not been a disaster by any means but the election result was a damning verdict on her performance and age was against her. It seemed like the time for a younger man and several put their hats into the ring. Even dear old Boris Johnson, David Cameron’s nemesis, decided to have one last shot at the top job, and Buckingham worked behind the scenes on his campaign as soon as May fell on her sword. He was promised the first vacancy at a by-election for his pains and it was a huge mistake.
Boris Johnson had missed his time and lost to Philip Henderson, a man of almost sixty who had cut his teeth working for Margaret Thatcher. He was an old-fashioned Tory bruiser and he did not make a good enemy. He had a very long memory and Buckingham was told he would not see a new constituency before hell froze over. It essentially marked the end of a once promising career. Before May turned to June, Buckingham was finished and as he freely admitted in his autobiography many years later, at a very low ebb. And just as Harry had a good friend in Sebastian to turn to in his hour of need, Charles Buckingham had David Harrington, who had befriended him after some tedious lobbying event at Westminster a couple of years before. The two men had kept in touch, and when his wife died Buckingham poured his heart out to Harrington over dinner. Like many British politicians, Buckingham professed to be a Christian, although as I became a friend of his daughter I know that this was something of a surprise to her. But at some stage between his wife’s tragic death and getting to know David Harrington, Charles met Michael Winstanley and Sebastian Osborne. Sebastian told me that Charles visited his parish in Birmingham and saw his work there, and intimated that Charles was counselled by Winstanley in his grief. By the summer of 2019, Buckingham had met Winstanley at least a dozen times, mostly at dinners hosted by Harrington, and they had discussed the Reformist views on social change. Buckingham, like most politicians, liked a good debate, and he certainly gave his friends the benefit of his advice. In late May 2019, as Philip Henderson was compiling his shadow cabinet and Brian Strickland was clubbing together his coalition, Buckingham was invited down to Meadvale to stay at Broomwaters, the Harrington home, and work with the elders of the Reformist movement on a political doctrine.
It was, according to legend, Harrington’s idea. He had been looking for a suitable politician to promote the Reformist cause and potentially start their own party in time, but first he was sure that they needed to work on the message. Michael Winstanley did not agree. He thought his original doctrine was simple and clear, and the two had the only serious falling out of a lifelong friendship. But Harrington, who was no shrinking violet, stuck to his guns, insisting that they needed the views of a professional. And Charles was completely available and in need of the job, and some income. No one seemed to think it would lead to anything much, but they all went ahead to put an end to the arguments. The only spanner in the works was some trouble with Buckingham’s daughter, Elizabeth, which caused her to be suspended from her boarding school straight after finishing her GCSE exams. Buckingham tried to delay his trip but Harrington would not hear of it and invited Elizabeth to come too. Because of that casual arrangement, Elizabeth Buckingham would become the first person to be forcibly converted to Christian Reform, although she would most certainly argue in hindsight that God saved her from herself. I lagged behind her somewhat. I was in the first dozen or so to get caught up in the dawn of the modern renaissance, but it was Elizabeth Buckingham Munroe who blazed the original trail.
Back at Ellington Manor, the house we had moved into after Sebastian retired as Archbishop of Meadvale, my family were waiting for me. Initially I joined my daughters and spent a further hour on my knees at prayer, and then we were all given a liquid lunch through our feeding tubes. Only then did Joshua send for me, and Sister Caris removed my muzzle before showing me into my late husband’s study, where my three boys were waiting for me. I curtseyed, letting the skirts of my black velvet gown move with me and then Bellamy showed me to a seat beside the large desk. Joshua was sitting behind it, whilst Steven and Bellamy stood, either side of the French windows. I rested my mittened hands in my lap and waited for one of them to say something.
“Mama…is it true?” Steven said at last, breaking an increasingly awkward silence.
“Is what true dear? If you are referring to your father’s letters, I am not fully aware of the contents,” I informed him as I smiled at all of them, feeling suddenly serene. I was always confident that Sebastian would keep his promise but there was always a chance that he would demur at the last moment and fudge the issue. From the looks on their faces I got the impression that he had not let me down.
“When were you born Mama?” Joshua asked, and I gathered he considered it a test of my claims. Not that I had made any claims of course.
“July 1994…the tenth…I used the real date on my false passport to make it easier to remember.”
“I can’t believe you got away with it…” Bellamy said, just a touch of admiration in his voice. I smiled again. He was rather missing the point, I fear.
“But I didn’t dear…I was caught out very early on…I was only intending to stay for three weeks, the Easter holidays from my fictional school…but Papa…Paul Craig…told me that my stepfather had changed his mind within a week of me arriving at Lake House. My cover story worked on him from the outside…via email…but almost as soon as I got to Meadvale someone recognised me…”
“And imprisoned you in your…ruse?” Joshua suggested and I nodded, sweetly confirming his grasp of the basic facts of the case. “It is incomprehensible…”
“I thought so originally…I had always assumed that if I got caught I would be arrested…but that was before I knew how much there was that they wanted to hide,” I sighed, looking back on my rather spectacular fall from grace. “I am afraid I thought I was very clever at the time but I was really acting on no more than a hunch. In my naiveté I merely assumed that there was more to the Reformist dream than met the eye but all I had to go on were the clothes the ladies of the First Congregation seemed to wear…and not even all of them at the time. I expected to get the first inside look at the people who seemed to be taking over the entire country by storm and I was stupid enough to act more or less alone with no real idea of what I might find…and I never imagined that I would see things that the powers that be could not afford to have revealed before they were ready. If I had known how serious things were I would have realised that they were not about to let the police deal with me. They had to silence me and stop me embarrassing them…so they made me adopt my cover story. After all, a woman in a muzzle and a mantle tells no tales…”
“Mama…please…this is serious!” Steven protested and I smiled again, because he was right, it was.
“Of course it is dear…it changed my life…but I do regret it because without the events of 2020…without my stupid ambitions to be an award-winning journalist, I would not have you or the girls.” I replied, truthfully. “I am just sorry I could not tell you before…I wanted too, once your father knew and loved me despite of my betrayal, but it was simply too difficult…too dangerous even…”
“And one of your attendants…one of the Sisters…is Philomena Forbes?” Bellamy asked, his sharp mind moving on past my secret and onto more pressing matters.
“Sister Helena, yes…I do not want her or Sister Caris to return to the Priory…they are my friends.”
“Mama, what you want is neither here nor there…” Joshua snapped, a little, quick to temper. Just like his dear father, I thought, as Bellamy interrupted him.
“Of course she can’t go back…but how did Dad manage it?”
“He didn’t say?”
“No Mama…he did not say…he told us that you would explain everything.” Bellamy grinned, and I saw Sebastian in his trusting expression and his deep blue eyes. All three of my sons were politicians, following in Harry’s footsteps, but Bellamy, Sebastian’s only son, had been a surprise. We had thought that he might follow his father into the Church, but he had preferred to follow his brothers. None of them were stupid but Bellamy was the most intelligent, the quickest mind and the sharpest tongue. That was my influence, I fear. “And that you had proof…if you decided to share it with us that is…”
“Which is clearly unacceptable…you must share any evidence you have immediately Mama…”
“No Joshua…not until you agree to protect it…and me…and my friends.” I said defiantly. He looked both hurt and annoyed at the same time.
“This has something to do with Alistair Forbes doesn’t it? And Catriona Forbes?” Bellamy asked.
“Well yes and no…that is part of the story and the most damaging secret we need you to keep…but it is probably also the easiest one to keep…”
“Mama…what do you mean?”
“Joshua dear, your father shot President Alistair Forbes…and he made it possible for Catriona…or rather Ophelia Middleton as I still prefer to call her…to get out of the country. Forbes was trying to blackmail him with my secret and I am rather afraid that your father lost his temper…” I explained but Steven cut across me.
“Which was why he retired that Christmas…his conscience would not let him continue…”