David Lester pressed a button on his phone to illuminate the screen. No unread messages; no missed calls. This was hardly a surprise: he had not taken his eyes from the device for the past two hours. His desk lamp blared yellow over his constituency papers, and where the bulb shone directly was almost unbearably bright.
“Where’s daddy?” Jack’s inquiring voice was loud and clear and momentarily shocked his father from his thoughts. David could not make out Diane’s softer reply as she ushered the twins up the stairs. “Is he coming out for bedtime?”
“I don’t think so, sweetheart. He’s very busy.” The boys groaned in stereo. In search of a distraction from the mundanity of the evening ritual he was missing, David looked up at the stencilled wooden plaque above his window: Judge not lest ye be judged. Matthew 7:1. A Christmas present shortly after he took his judicial oath, from a university friend he’d since lost touch with.
He heard Diane say goodnight to the boys, and then a clunk as she came down the landing step onto a floorboard loose somewhere under the carpet. How clearly he could see her now outside his study, raising her hand to knock then dropping it back down, fingers still curled, braced to storm the invisible barricade between her and the door.
A breath of wind whistled through a distant window and David thought he heard his name. But he could not be sure, and in any case did not trust himself to reply. It wouldn’t be hard for her to come in, he thought with a flash flood of anger: he’d never fixed that lock. Did she not know him well enough after more than twenty years to know that he needed her, whatever he might say?
But the door stayed shut, and as her heavy footsteps receded he was surprised to find that so too did his rage, although it left a bitter silt. When the call came he would have to make a decision. He wondered if it was already made somewhere within him. If it was, it was in a part of him to which he had no access.
He knew he had done nothing illegal, but that was no longer enough. The moral standards to which journalists held others were constantly shifting; you could never be certain that any of your actions would not, on a slow news day or just an unfortunate catching of a mood, be twisted and skewered on a front page. It was a wonder the country was not in paralysis.
Without warning his thoughts flared again: he could not have his children grow up thinking that their holidays, their presents, their home were bought with money fleeced – what a ludicrous, tabloid word – from the taxpayer. No doubt he’d become ‘tax cheat Minister’, not a name with a history, a career, a life, but a jumble of nouns slung together with no regard for their effect.
But David Lester was not a stupid man. Even if he somehow denied his actions altogether, or that they amounted to wrongdoing, even if he successfully defended himself in court, they would find out. At school they might furiously denounce his accusers, but with loyalty that shielded them from the need for cold analysis. What others did to them lay on other consciences; he would not burden his own by lying. Let them make up their own minds.
The screen of his phone lit, somehow more accusingly for being silent. He raised it to his ear and there was a rustle and a pause.
“David?” The voice on the other end seemed unsure whether anyone had answered. “David, it’s Tom. Look, I’m sorry to do this mate, but we need to ask you if you’ve any comment to make. It’s a legal thing.” There was a clipped silence as David let the bastard wait. “For what it’s worth-” He stopped, then in the absence of an interruption, “For what it’s worth making a clean breast of it’s the best way. You’ll only drag it out for Di and the kids.”
This time David could only try to restrain his anger. “Don’t lecture me about my kids.” He immediately regretted his reaction but it eased the pressure on the inside of his head enough that he could see that Tom was right.
He took a deep breath. “I have no comment to make at this time.” He perversely enjoyed the feeling of the cliché as it rolled from his lips before he hung up.
Tom was a good man, thought David, suddenly resigned, and how many editors could you say that about? Their disagreements had always been honest and peaceable. But this generous assessment snagged on the knowledge of what tomorrow would bring. Tomorrow he would stand on the steps outside the house he had bought, arm around Diane as if he were an adulterer, cameras flashing and snickering ruthlessly. It was inhumane.
He’d even had a card from him, a bad joke about Santa’s domestic status and a handwritten note inside in tight skinny script: Dave, have a happy & holy (if that’s your thing) Christmas! Tom S. If that’s your thing! As if it were a piercing, or a preference for red wine over white. It was typical of Tom’s lot to disparage the religious conviction – while mugging them for the social mission, of course – and all the more infuriating to come in a Christmas card.
Had he known then? Had that reporter Braithwaite come to his office, closed the door and explained they’d soon have Lester licked, before he sat down with his pen to scribble those few words? Surely he would not then have so casually referenced his faith, the battleground of so many late nights in the Strangers’ Bar.
They’d use the Bermuda photos, of course. It was too delicious: Foreign Secretary pictured in notorious tax haven, the caption would run. Never mind that his account was in the Caymans; a little accuracy could be sacrificed on the altar of a good story. They’d leave the kids alone, thank God, but Diane would be fair game even after the necessary press briefing. The excuse would be that she was collateral damage, snapped because she was with him. But he knew she hated the publicity. They would have to avoid being seen together in public like an illicit couple, from cheated woman to complicit hussy in the space of a few days.
That was the real tragedy, David thought with indignation, and almost called Tom back there and then. But his protestations had a strained quality even to himself, and an air of decided hopelessness settled over him like clouds on the moor.
He looked up again at the plaque. It had always seemed a misunderstood verse to him, not intended to prevent, as so many who invoked now it seemed to think, all criticism or consequence of actions, but to confine judgement to the sin, not the sinner. Had he sinned? He asked the question silently into the still air of his office, and for the first time only silence came back.
A very old story (well, three years or so) I’ve finally got round to tidying up. It’s a nice and unusual feeling when you find something from another time and realise it’s not bad – I’ve been doing quite a bit of that recently, and found one I had no memory at all of writing. It’ll appear here at some point, just as long as I can be sure that it was actually me…