I barely recognized Clarkson. He would have been the last of my high school acquaintances I'd have expected to meet at a Party eventsome policy-launch shindig, all tepid canapés, foul coffee, and wobbly display boardsbut there he was, 10 years older. Trim beard, sharp tie.
"Oh, by the way," he said, after the mutual reintroductions, "is your old man still in the Ramblers?"
"He stretches his legs on the moors occasionally," I said.
Clarkson put down his formerly fizzy water and stepped forward.
"He still has a car?"
"And . . . let me think . . . he hails from"Clarkson named a Northern industrial town"doesn't he?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Great, great!" Clarkson rubbed his hands, and stepped forward again. "I have something for you."
He passed me a business card. It predictably proclaimed him a "business consultant."
"Turn it over," said Clarkson.
A string of numbers and letters, inked carefullyan Ordnance Survey map reference.
"What does that?"
"Just slip the card in your shirt pocket," said Clarkson.
I backed off a little. I could smell the last thing he'd eaten, a wafer of damp oatcake with a dab of hummus and a sliver of smoked salmon.
"You know how to read it?" he said.
"Sure," I said. "My dad has a bookcase full of OS maps."
Clarkson's cheek twitched. "Fits the profile."
"Profile?" I gave him a suspicious look. "What's all this about?"
Throughout, Clarkson had been backing me into a corner. I didn't like it, and let him know.
"It's always worse than you expect, and it'll go on getting worse."
"Sorry," he said, not shifting. "We need to talk. Quickly and quietly."
"OK," I said, still wary.
Clarkson waved vaguely behind his shoulder. Half a dozen people here were reporters, their head-mounted camera-mics discreetly hidden by strategic locks of hair. "Take a look at this event on your phone," he said.
"Oh, I know what to expect," I said.
I searched on the hashtag for the event. It brought up two sex scandals, a corruption allegation, an embarrassing social media post by one of the speakers from when she was 12 years old, and a dubious link to an oil company. And the policy? Not a word.
"Worse than I expected," I said.
"Yes," said Clarkson. "It's always worse than you expect, and it'll go on getting worse."
I shrugged. "What can we do?"
Clarkson leaned closer. "Here's what you can do. Keep that card. Check out the reference on your father's maps. Don't, whatever you do, look it up online. Borrow the map, or buy your own copyin a shop, with cash. See if your dad has an A to Z of the old hometown. Borrow that, and arrange to borrow your father's car at short notice. Ten days before the next election, you'll get a delivery. Take the package and sign for it. Inside will be a briefcase, quite heavy. Tell your partner that you have to go away for a couple of days. Leave your phone at home . . ."
"What?" I said.
"That's crucial," said Clarkson. "Better yet, leave it with your partner, or a friend who lives locally, and ask them to carry it around."
"But I'd be lost without it!"
"Exactly," said Clarkson. "That's the point. Go to the map reference. Nearby, you'll see a big old oak tree. Look among the roots, and go to the address you find there."
"Hand over the briefcase, and go home."
This sounded far too much like a drug or bomb delivery for my liking. I said as much.
"If you're worried," said Clarkson, "phone the Leader's office and ask for me. You'll get a reply: 'He's sound.' If you're happy with that, put the phone down. If not, insist on speaking to me. You won't get through to me, and you'll never hear of this again."
Two days later, I phoned, and put the phone down on the reply.
Whatever this was, I was in.
# # #
"I used to be father of the chapel," Irene confided as she hurried along the dim-lit concrete corridor. For a woman in her 90s, she was remarkably quick on her feet.
"The what?" I said.
"In the print union, it's what we called the branch secretary."
The A to Z, all dog-eared pages and Sellotaped covers, had all but fallen apart. I tore a page trying to zoom it.
Even I knew what that wasa human version of a workplace rights app.
"Oh," I said. "More than I need to know?"
She shot me a look as she turned a key in the lock of a steel door.
"Don't be daft, lad. Now put both hands to this and give it a push."
I set the briefcase down on the floor, and shoved. The hinges were well oiled, but the door was heavy. It swung open and I followed her in. Ancient fluorescents flickered on overhead. The chamber was large. What wasn't stacked with oil-drum-size rolls of paper and barrels of ink was occupied by a machine of blue-anodized steel with dials and rotary handles, alongside a row of cabinets. The air smelled of old concrete and oil.
The door clicked shut behind me.
"What is this?"
"A printing press," said Irene, scorn-fully.
"I mean, what is this place?"
"Part of the old Regional Seats of Government network. Mothballed and sold off. We bought it. Underground print shop, left over from the last Cold War."
"And now in use in the current one?"
"Something like that. D'you get here all right?"
"Yes, fine," I said, untruthfully.
Clarkson's map reference had taken me to a moorland crossroads. I'd tramped to the nearest lonely tree, where I'd found a tobacco tin so old it didn't have a health warning. Inside was a scrap of paper, with handwritten address and postcode. The A to Z, all dog-eared pages and Sellotaped covers, had all but fallen apart. I tore a page trying to zoom it.
Irene released a folding table from the wall, with a bang that echoed.
"Now, lad," she said, "let's see what you've got."
I opened the briefcase and heaved out the two thick stacks of A4 that crammed it. Irene put on reading glasses and peered at a few sheets, tilting them this way and that.
"Typed on a typewriter," she said approvingly, "with handwritten corrections. This is the real thing all right." She indicated a corner in which an electric kettle and some mugs sat on an old chair. "Make yourself a cup of tea, and I'll go let the lads and lasses in."
The "lads and lasses" turned out to be four old men and two old women, who set about their work. Within two hours, the press was rolling.
It took me a little longer to understand what was going on.
A week later a woman I knew from the Party hammered on my door at an ungodly hour.
"Out," she said. "Station. Now."
Her car was overloaded with newspapers. She dropped me off at the station with a bundle to give away to anyone who would take a copy. At every station and shopping center in the country, others would be doing the same. We'd blanket the land with paperleaflets, newssheets, posters, placardswhose production and distribution owed nothing to the net.
I had a shock when I jumped out of the car. Our opponents had a team already at the station, handing out copies of their free newspaper. They'd had the same idea. Or we'd had a leak, our elaborate precautions all for naught.
My fury faded. It didn't matter. Now they had to fight us on the same groundand the ground was level.
We lost that election, but we got democracy back.
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