October 2019. London.
Hayley Price was dead, and Jennifer Sinclair was going to get the blame.
Never mind that Hayley took her own life. Never mind that someone in Bronzefield Prison had provided her with the tool. And never mind that the prison staff had taken their eyes off a woman on suicide watch.
As far as the media was concerned, Hayley’s death was the fault of Jennifer Sinclair, Prisons Minister.
Today Jennifer would be making a statement in the House of Commons, explaining why Hayley had been allowed to die. And it needed to be good. The prison governor’s job was at stake – of course – but so was her own.
It was five am, and Jennifer was up early, taking advantage of the quiet of her London flat. Little disturbed her from outside: the milkman making his way along the street below, a couple of late night revellers ending yesterday instead of beginning today. Inside, all was quiet. Her husband Yusuf hadn’t stirred when she’d slipped out of bed and her two sons were fast asleep in sleeping bags on the living room floor, staying in London for a special occasion.
She sat on the floor of the kitchen, the only uninhabited room, and stared at the sheet of paper. Her civil servants had insisted on drafting a full speech, but she knew she’d do better with notes. Thinking on her feet had got her this far; hopefully it wouldn’t fail her now.
She glanced at the oven clock. Not long before Hassan would wake to realise it was his tenth birthday. She didn’t want him to find her sitting on the floor.
She pushed herself up, rubbing her cramped legs, and crept towards the bedroom. It was a treat having the whole family here – normally they’d be at home in her Birmingham constituency – but the timing of this crisis was far from ideal.
She reached the door to the bedroom and heard movement behind her.
She looked round. Hassan was sitting up, rubbing his eyes. His older brother Samir was still snoring.
She pushed the speech from her mind. “Morning, darling. Happy birthday.”
His eyes widened and he let out a shriek. He threw off the sleeping bag and jumped up, pushing past her to wake his dad.
“Daddy! Wake up!” he cried. Jennifer followed him into the bedroom.
Yusuf sat up in bed and feigned a yawn.
“Hello? Why would anyone want to get up this early on a Wednesday?”
“Daddy!” Hassan repeated, and jumped on him. Grunts came from beneath the duvet. Jennifer sat on the end of the bed and gave Hassan a hug.
Yusuf leaned in and wrapped his arms round both of them. “Anyone would think it was a special day,” he groaned, pulling back and throwing Jennifer a wink.
Hassan shrieked. “Daddy! It’s my birthday!”
Yusuf threw back the quilt, grabbing Hassan in one swift movement and tickling him. Hassan shrieked with delight.
Yusuf laughed. “Go and get your brother, Mr Early Waker.”
Hassan nodded and sprang for the door, confident in the knowledge that when he returned, there would be presents.
Five minutes later he dragged Samir into the room.
“Alright, alright, I’m coming,” Samir moaned, yawning.
“You can’t sleep in on my birthday,” Hassan replied.
Samir shrugged. Four years older than his brother, he was becoming skinny, gangly even. His skin was pale with fatigue and he had dark circles under his eyes. He would have been up late watching YouTube videos on his phone, Jennifer knew. He tried to hide it but the glow from beneath his duvet – or sleeping bag – was a dead giveaway.
“Hello, love,” she said, reaching out towards him. “Come and sit with us while Hassan trashes the place.”
She shifted into the middle of the bed, making room. Samir glanced at her then perched on the edge of the mattress. He pulled his sleeping bag around his shoulders.
Jennifer pushed aside the stab of rejection and shifted her attention to Hassan, who was scrabbling under the bed for presents. Samir dived onto his brother, pretending to grab the presents first. Hassan pushed him off.
“Come on Samir,” said Yusuf. “It’s Hassan’s day.”
Samir scowled and Hassan emerged from under the bed, his face flushed. He passed a present to his brother. “It’s OK. He can help me.”
Jennifer threw Yusuf a smile. That was just like Hassan, always wanting to share with his brother.
“Go on then,” she laughed. “Get ripping.” Yusuf lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her fingertips, his eyes fixed on her face. The boys ignored them, intent on tearing open wrapping paper. Yusuf squeezed her hand, then dropped it and joined in with the boys, pushing wrapping paper to the floor. Jennifer sat back and watched, smiling to herself. Seeing her boys enjoy moments she’d never had as a child felt like an accomplishment.
Then her eyes glazed over and she turned away, the boys’ cries fading.
She couldn’t stop thinking about that damn speech.
* * *
Four hours later, Jennifer stepped into St Stephens’ lobby, the high, vaulted space between the Commons Chamber and the rest of the House of Commons. MPs hurried in from their offices and staff dashed between meetings, clutching sheafs of paper and mobile phones. Against this backdrop, reporters threw questions to passing ministers or else talked intently to camera. The noise was overwhelming. As Jennifer ducked past a TV crew, she overheard her name. The reporter – Gillian Wakefield, from the BBC – had her hand up to her ear, listening to her anchor in the studio. She was nodding, a smile playing on her lips. Jennifer paused to listen, stepping out of the reporter’s eye-line.
The reporter dropped her hand and straightened up.
“Well, Mark,” she said, “Nothing official of course, but several sources indicate that the minister’s position could well be at stake.”
Jennifer stiffened. She pinched her fingers together, grinding a fingernail into the ball of her thumb.
She started moving again, regretting that she’d stopped. She was happy to face down the cameras – relished it, even – but right now she didn’t need to be distracted from her speech. Later, she would do all the interviews they wanted and prove to the world that she wasn’t going anywhere. But for now… she needed to focus on surviving.
“Ms Sinclair!” cried a voice. “I wonder if I could have a quick—”
They’d spotted her.
“Sorry.” Jennifer slipped between the other MPs and disappeared into the chamber.
As she reached the double doors she felt a hand on her shoulder. She willed the irritation from her face and turned round, ready to face down the reporter. But it was John Hunter, Home Secretary. Her boss.
“John. Thank goodness.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Nothing. Just…” She shook her head. “Press attention.”
No, not surprising at all, she thought.
His grey eyes were cold. “We need to talk.” He glanced around. “Not here.”
“But I was just—”
He pulled her to one side, towards the Strangers’ Gallery. They huddled next to the wall, their heads close together. Jennifer leaned on the wood panelling.
“This needs to be good,” he said.
She nodded. “It will be. You know it will.”
His normally ruddy cheeks were pale. “Michael’s got his eye on you.”
Michael Stuart was the Prime Minister. Jennifer didn’t know whether he would be present for her statement, but she knew he would be watching.
“Of course,” she replied. “He should do.”
John allowed himself a laugh. “Confident, are we?”
She pulled back her shoulders. “Yes. I won’t let you down. You know that.”
“Right then. Let’s see what you’ve got, eh?” He placed a hand in the small of her back and guided her to the chamber. As she pushed the doors open, he whispered in her ear.
“Meet me for lunch, afterwards. Members’ Dining Room.”
She frowned. Normally they spoke in his office, or sometimes hers. Why the Members’ Dining Room?
He slipped past and she watched him work his way between their colleagues, shaking hands and slapping shoulders. She wished she had his ease.
She shuffled along the front bench, taking her place next to her boss. She looked sideways at him; he was twisted round in his seat, laughing with two backbenchers behind them. She watched, trying to work out how he did it. How he performed so well in public.
The dining room. It’s a public space, she realised.
If the Home Secretary was going to sack her, she wouldn’t be able to make a fuss.