Yesterday I posted Chapter One of A House Divided. Read on for more…
Jennifer smoothed her palms on her skirt and stood up, taking a deep breath.
Across the Chamber, the Opposition bristled with contempt. Order papers waved in the air and voices rose to the vaulted ceiling. She focused on the dispatch box in front of her, trying to drown out the nagging voice inside her head.
Behind her, it wasn’t much quieter. MPs cupped their hands to their mouths and hooted across the chamber. The wooden benches reverberated with hands slapped on their backs, and air gusted towards her as people leaned forwards in their places.
Beside her, John was quiet.
She waited for the noise to subside. It didn’t.
“Order!” the Speaker cried, reddening.
The shouts were replaced by whispers. She took another breath and glanced at her notes. She didn’t need them.
She pulled back her shoulders. Time to perform.
“I have a statement to make about recent events at Bronzefield Prison,” she began.
The noise started up again.
“This House is aware of the unfortunate and tragic death of Hayley Price, one of Bronzefield’s inmates.”
More shouting. What must we look like to the outside world? she thought. This was nothing to get excited about. A woman was dead.
Hayley had been just nineteen years old, arrested for stealing from a pharmacy. She’d wanted the drugs to abort an unwanted pregnancy. On remand at Bronzefield, she’d somehow got hold of a coat hanger. The results – Jennifer had seen the photos – hadn’t been pretty.
Poor girl. Only five years older than Samir. She wondered what Hayley’s mother was going through.
She looked at the Speaker, who was calling for order. When the noise calmed, she kept her voice low.
“Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to ask my honourable friends to join me in showing respect for Hayley’s memory and sympathy for her family at what must be a dreadful time for them.
“Hayley Price was a vulnerable young woman imprisoned when she should have been helped.”
Muttering from behind her. She lifted her chin higher.
“At nineteen years of age, Hayley found herself pregnant.” She paused to look around her colleagues. John was still, staring ahead. She sniffed and raised her voice, aware of the impact of her words. “She tried to end that pregnancy, but found herself on the wrong side of the law. Which is how she ended up at Bronzefield.”
Just out of her line of vision, she sensed John turn towards her. She licked her lips.
They want me to apologise, she thought. They want me to make excuses.
That wasn’t going to happen. She continued.
“Hayley tried again to end her pregnancy, but instead she died. In the most brutal, bleak and lonely circumstances we can imagine any young person dying in.” She paused, allowing the words to sink in. “We must never allow that to happen again. As a civilised society, we have a duty to protect all of our citizens. Even those who break the law. And especially those who are most vulnerable.”
She looked around her colleagues. I’m not going anywhere,she thought. “I will work to ensure that our prisons are not only places of security but places of safety too. Where offenders will receive the sentence they have been handed down, but no more.”
She looked up and across the chamber. Her hands were still together but loosely now. No-one was shouting, or jeering, or even muttering. The chamber was quiet.
None of the MPs surrounding her had the slightest idea what it would be like to be Hayley Price. Raised by a mother who’d never held down a job, pregnant at nineteen, a criminal.
Jennifer knew more about it than most of them. Left alone with her mother at six years old, after her father had walked out. She still didn’t know why. If she hadn’t found Yusuf, who knows where she might have ended up?
She looked at the Speaker. “Mr Speaker, if you would permit me an indulgence on Hayley’s behalf.”
“I would like the House to join me in a minute’s silence so we can remember Hayley and consider how we can prevent another tragic death like hers.”
There was rustling as people looked around, then bowed their heads or placed their hands in their laps. Jennifer stayed standing for the minute, listing to the faint tick of her wristwatch. At last the Speaker coughed.
“Thank you,” she said, and sat down. She felt John’s hand on her shoulder and turned to see him nod.
* * *
She arrived in the Members’ Dining Room at a quarter past twelve.
As she passed between the tables, she sensed a hush descend over the MPs. A few people got up to congratulate her. She thanked them as graciously as she could, but felt awkward and undeserving. She’d rescued her career, but it hadn’t helped Hayley.
John was late. After choosing some fish and salad from the buffet, she chose a quiet corner table and took the seat facing the room. Then she bent to her bag and grabbed her phone.
She soon exhausted her inbox and picked up a fork, looking around the room. Her gaze rested on a white-haired man sitting at a window table with three expensively suited companions. As his companions talked, his gaze was fixed on the room. His eyes flickered around, registering each of the other diners as they arrived or departed, taking them in with a curled lip. The white hair framed a copper-coloured face, the forehead a touch too smooth and shiny. Botox, she suspected. His bright blue eyes and the thin line of his lips were barely visible against his perma-tanned skin. Looking at him always made Jennifer think of cheap American soap operas.
The man was Leonard Trask, Leader of the Opposition. On TV, that smirk looked like a smile, and the tan became a healthy glow. But in person, the effect was different.
Jennifer stared at him despite herself, regretting it when his eye caught hers. He smiled. She held his gaze for a moment, then pretended to be answering a call.
She kept her head down until John arrived, scrolling through Twitter as she ate. She was trending.
John hurried in, exchanging greetings and pausing for brief conversations. He threw her a nod before helping himself to a salad and making his way to their table.
Jennifer looked at his plate and raised an eyebrow. John laughed. “Surprised? Got to do something about this, eh?” He rubbed his belly. A hard-won belly, acquired through years of socialising in the dining rooms and bars of this place.
Jennifer settled into her chair, waiting. John leaned back and surveyed her.
“Well done,” he said.
She smiled, relieved. “Thank you.”
“I think you saved the day.”
She shrugged; it wouldn’t do to crow.
“So,” he continued. “What’s happening at the prison?”
“I’ve spoken to Sandra Phipps. The governor,” she said. “I’m going tomorrow.”
He cocked his head. “You haven’t already been?”
“It only happened yesterday morning.”
“Or the night before.”
“I know.” She sighed. “But I only found out yesterday morning.”
“Before or after the press?”
She closed her eyes for a moment. The previous day she had been woken at 6am by a call from the office. Quickly followed by a call from the Daily Telegraph.
“That’s hardly the issue.“
“It makes us look bloody incompetent, you know. If you hadn’t —”
“Yes, but I did.”
He sighed. “You’re right.” He held up his hands in defeat. “I know, I know. You did well. Michael’s pleased.”
She wasn’t sure how to respond; she and Michael had never exactly clicked. “Good.”
“Indeed. Anyway, let’s get these bloody salads down us and back to work.”
She let herself relax. “Did I tell you it’s Hassan’s birthday?”
She smiled. “Yusuf’s brought him and Samir down to London for a couple of days. A treat.”
“Oh. Good, good.” John knew her family; Yusuf had worked for him as a researcher in John’s first term as an MP. Back then it was Yusuf who was the ambitious one, the future MP. But fatherhood had changed him, and now he was more than content running a homeless shelter in Birmingham city centre. Jennifer admired his skill with people, the way he made those at their most desperate feel better about themselves, and the relationships he’d built locally. And he admired her ability to talk her way out of corners, like she had this morning. She’d learned to stand up for herself as a child, realising no-one else was going to do it for her.
“They’re on the London Eye, this afternoon.” She frowned. “Or maybe getting a pizza, I can’t remember which was first.”
“Nice,” John replied, glancing at his watch. He started to push himself up, but then something in the mirror behind her caught his eye. He sat down again.
She looked over his shoulder to see a uniformed security guard weaving between the tables, heading for them. John’s eyes were trained on her face; he looked worried. What was going on?
John stood and turned as the man reached them. There was a whispered conversation between them. John’s features clouded as he listened.
He turned to her.
“We’ll have to continue this later,” he said. “I’m needed. And you’ve got to go to Committee Room 14. Right now.”
Around the dining room there was a flurry of movement: people pulling phones out of pockets, bending to retrieve them from bags and briefcases. Jennifer’s own phone buzzed on the table.
“Why?” she asked.
Ministers were rising from their tables. Backbench MPs watched them, confused. Jennifer saw one of the ministers shake his head at a junior colleague. Their gazes shifted to John.
John shook his head. “Can’t tell you. Not yet. Just go.”
He marched out of the room, looking straight ahead.