cover

About the Book

The war on drugs has been lost. The simple fact is that the whole world is rapidly becoming one vast criminal network. From pop stars and royal princes to crack whores and street kids, from the Groucho Club toilets to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, we are all partners in crime.

High Society is a story about Britain today, a criminal nation in which everybody is either breaking the law or knows people who do. It takes the reader on a hilarious, heartbreaking and terrifying journey through the kaleidoscope world that the law has created and from which the law offers no protection.

Contents

Cover

About the Book

Title Page

Dedication

High Society

About the Author

Also by Ben Elton

Copyright

About the Author

Ben Elton is one of our most provocative and entertaining writers, author of thirteen internationally bestselling novels. His multi-award-winning TV credits include The Young Ones, Blackadder and The Thin Blue Line. His stage hits include the Olivier Award-winner Popcorn and the global phenomenon We Will Rock You.

He met his wife Sophie in 1986 while touring Australia as a stand-up comedian. They have three children and call both Britain and Australia home.

Also by Ben Elton

STARK

GRIDLOCK

THIS OTHER EDEN

POPCORN

BLAST FROM THE PAST

INCONCEIVABLE

DEAD FAMOUS

HIGH SOCIETY

PAST MORTEM

THE FIRST CASUALTY

CHART THROB

BLIND FAITH

MELTDOWN

TWO BROTHERS

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For Sophie

St Hilda’s Church Hall, Soho

‘MY NAME’S TOMMY Hanson and I’m an alcoholic.’

The young man had risen from his place in the circle of grey plastic chairs and now, having thus announced himself, surveyed the ring of expectant faces. The atmosphere in the little church hall, which until then had been quietly respectful, was suddenly electric.

‘But of course you know that.’

That famous smile. Those puppy-dog eyes. That jolly, wise, endearing Accrington accent, still only slightly Americanized.

‘We’re all alcoholics, us. That’s why we’re here. AA – Arseholes Anonymous as I like to call it.

‘Why state the fookin’ obvious? But we have to go through the motions, don’t we? Do it right. That’s the rules, in’t it? Make your confession, pray for serenity, chip in for the biccies and wash up your teacup.’

There wasn’t a woman in the circle who wouldn’t have washed Tommy’s teacup for him and more besides – some of the men, too, but everyone tried to concentrate. This was after all supposed to be anonymous.

‘So, like I say, my name’s Tommy Hanson and I’m an alcoholic. Plus I’m also a cokehead, but that’s me narcotics meeting. Eh, I’ve got a full day ’aven’t I? All day talking about being a stupid, screwed-up, self-indulgent twat. I’ll be knackered by teatime. I’ll need a drink and a nice line or two of charlie.

‘Don’t get me wrong. I love my meetings, I do. Live for ’em. We all do, us arseholes. Testifying, emoting, talking about ourselves. That’s all we’ve got left, in’t it?

‘So I’m going to tell you about that night – the famous night of the Brit Awards – because I don’t think it would be possible for a person to be any more drunk than I ended up that night. Well, you’ve seen it all in the papers, anyway, so I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, except that this is what really happened, not what them bastards put in the stories they wrote. As it happens, I’d fallen off the wagon that day, see, so I was a disaster waiting to happen, weren’t I? You know the score, all you repeat offenders. That’s the problem with laying off the beer for a while. You lose your tolerance, so when you do give it a shake, you’re monged on three halves of shandy. I’d been dry for a whole month, which had been a huge effort for me ’cos I love me pint, I do, but Elton John had said that if he ever saw me with another drink in me ’and he’d whack me with his tiara. So I was making a special effort. Well, he is rock royalty, so you have to do it, don’t you?

‘God, though, I were sick of being sober and there was just no way I was going to keep it up. You know the rules, you have to want to get clean, don’t you, and I didn’t. Well, come on. It was the Brits! What is the point of being sober at the fookin’ Brit Awards? Believe me, I’ve won a toilet full of them things in my time and that is one crap night if you’re straight. One crap boring night. But if you’re buzzing, if you’re pissed up and mad for it, if you’re Champagne Charlie on a spree, then it’s brilliant. And when I say charlie I think you know what I mean. Because I wasn’t off the charlie, don’t forget. No way! One wagon at a time, I say, so I was wired even before I started drinking, strung out tighter than a duck’s arse. But I wanted to be drunk, see. Some nights you want to do drugs, but some nights you want to get lathered, and the Brits is a booze night for sure, or at least that’s how you want to kick off. If you’re pissed up at the Brits the night’s your oyster. You can fight all the other pop-star lads. You can chuck ice and bread rolls at the pathetic politicians who are sat there pretending to be hip and leering at all the birds. You can pull a couple of the dancers and you can make a speech so dazzlingly shite that it actually sounds ironic and a bit John Lennon-ish. Basically, you can do what you fookin’ well like. You can have it as large as you fancy. But you can’t if you’re sober. Like, if you’re kidding yourself you’re on the wagon.

‘So as I live and breathe, God save me from ever being sober at the Brits. Which is why, as of this moment, seeing as how I’ve definitely gone straight and I’m here talking to you lot at this meeting, I have sworn I will never go to another one. Mind you, I said the same thing last year, didn’t I?’

The Paget household, Dalston

Peter Paget stared at his wife. She stared back at him. In all their years of marriage never had they felt such a bond. Never had they been so alive together, locked in union as a single force. They knew that the decision they had just made would change their lives for ever. Their lives and their daughters’ lives. It would certainly bring down untold anger and contempt upon Peter’s head. It would cost him the party whip and almost inevitably his job come the next election. The path that he had chosen led directly to professional ruin.

‘You have to do it, Pete. I’m proud of you. Really, really proud. The girls will be, too, when we tell them.’

‘Oh sure. Hey, girls, your dad’s going to make himself unemployed and unemployable on a point of hopeless principle.’

‘They won’t see things that way and you know it.’

‘No, I suppose not. They’re good girls. Smartarse little cows, of course, but good deep down.’

‘Smartarse is in the genes, Peter. Your side, of course. It’s why most of the party hates you so much.’

This was true. Peter was too clever to succeed within the party, or at least too clever but without the essential ability to disguise the fact. Clever is fine in politics as long as you know how to act stupid. Peter never had. He believed passionately in his political ideals and argued them with a strength and intelligence that were bound to alienate less gifted and less principled colleagues in the lacklustre world of parliamentary politics. He had entered parliament as a twenty-six-year-old bright spark, a spark that had grown steadily duller over the years until he had become what he was now: a forty-something ‘didn’t quite’. Despite his skills and his firm belief in the principles for which he stood (or perhaps because of them), he had failed to circumnavigate the Labour Party machine. The greasy pole had proved too slippery and his irritatingly well-cut trousers had remained firmly glued to the back benches.

Angela crossed the room and sat beside Peter on the couch. She put her arm around him and he rested his head on her shoulder. ‘To be honest,’ she said, ‘I think they’ll withdraw the whip simply for what you’ve done already. I heard there’s a book in the tea-room on how many days you’ve got left in the party.’

‘Well, for God’s sake! If ever there was a wrong-headed, half-arsed, bound-to-fail, pointless bit of bad law-making it’s this drugs initiative. Decriminalizing pot is never going to work, it just makes the police look like headless chickens and gives the gangsters more room to manoeuvre. The Home Secretary is being pathetic. So is the PM.’

‘Yes, so you’ve said. Astonishing that they don’t like you, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, well, they don’t represent the people of Dalston, do they? The whole bloody borough of Hackney is collapsing under the strain of the drug culture, a drug culture the law has created!’

‘I know, darling, I know.’

Like many a person of principle, Peter was as happy to preach to the converted as to the sceptical. He had been making the same point all evening and Angela agreed with him absolutely. She shared his anger at the utter failure of drug policy to protect communities from becoming criminalized ghettoes. She supported him in his lone voice objections to the decriminalization of cannabis, not because it went too far but because it did not go far enough, and she supported him completely in the decision that they had made together regarding the opportunity that fate had placed in their hands.

Each year Parliament allows a single backbench MP to introduce a Private Member’s Bill on a subject of their own choosing. A small sop to those who believe the two-and-a-half-party machine is designed to strangle initiative and crush the spirit of the creative individual. The lucky recipient of this honour is chosen by lottery, and normally the spotlight falls upon a nonentity who makes an idiot of himself and little or no career glory follows. This year, however, Lady Luck had chosen well. Or at least so Peter and Angela Paget felt, for she had chosen Peter and they were certain that he had the talent to use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to propel the greatest issue of the age to the very forefront of public consciousness.

Peter and Angela Paget had that evening decided that Peter’s Private Member’s Bill would propose that Parliament immediately legalize all recreational drug use. Not just decriminalizing pot, not just downgrading E. But legalizing everything. Cocaine. Heroin. Even crack. The lot.

Peter jumped up from the couch, too excited to sit still.

‘Yes, even crack. I’ll call for the legalization of crack cocaine!’

‘You do realize they’ll crucify you, don’t you?’

‘I know, I know. But by then I’ll have made the point that crack is just too dangerous to be left in the hands of criminals. Nobody likes the fact that some people choose to smoke such horrifying poisons, but they do it nonetheless, and we have to bring it under proper control. License it, make it available only through a doctor, tax it and put all the profits into rehabilitation. We have to do something other than bury our heads in the sand until the whole country goes to hell in a basket!’

Angela smiled. It was good to see her husband filled once more with such passion and conviction. This was the man she had married, a man fired with a burning desire to do good. To make a difference. He looked young again, as if this one idea had washed away the frustrations and disappointments of all the dreary years of constituency infighting and parliamentary compromise. It would be worth the pain that she knew must inevitably follow such a radical and unpopular stance. Not just because of the undoubted importance of the debate it would provoke, but also for what it would mean for Peter as a man. He was a politician born to fight, and now he had his chance. He would lose, of course, and no doubt be cast out, but for a man like Peter it was better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all.

It had been ten days since Peter and Angela Paget had made love, a fact of which she was uncomfortably aware. She wanted to make love to him now. Would he want to too? She hoped so. Turning him towards her, she took him in her arms and pressed her lips upon his.

Within moments they had tumbled together to the floor. They had not had sex on the carpet for years.

An amusement arcade, Piccadilly, London

He had been watching the skinny girl with the full breasts and the big dark eyes for nearly an hour, following her from one tawdry arcade to another. In all that hour she had bought nothing, nor had she fed any machine. Destitution was written large upon her as surely as the tattooed dove that flew upon her shoulder. But she was pretty, very pretty. The greasy hair and grimy skin could not disguise that.

‘Hullo, baby, what’s your name?’

She told him, but she did not look up from the dancing ninja on the screen in front of her, endlessly repeating its single violent kick, inviting her to pay and play.

‘Jessie? That’s nice. Cute. You look real messed up, Jessie baby. Want a coffee? A drink, maybe? We could play the video games for a while. I got plenty of cash, that’s for sure. Where you been sleeping?’

Still she did not look up at him, but none the less the conversation had begun.

‘Oh, man, that’s bad. Baby, you don’t wanna be hanging out that place. No wonder you messed up. That ain’t safe for no young girls, no way. Not pretty ones like you. You gotta get your ass right out of that area. Girls like you get bad stuff done to them if they ain’t got no one to look after them and see them right, OK? What’s that accent, girl? You weirding me out, you sound like you got a knot in your tongue or something.’

The skinny girl was Scottish.

‘Oh, baby, you’re a long way from home now. Me too, OK? We both foreigners, outsiders, right? I’m from Marseilles, but I ain’t like you, I got connections in this town, I got it all sorted out, right, that’s for sure. Down and dirty, oh yeah, that’s me. I’m connected. No smartass boy messes with this bad guy less they wanna get cut up bad. You better come with me, Jessie baby. I reckon you lucky I found you, that’s for sure. You coulda been talking to any bad guy ’stead of me. They gonna cut you up bad and use you real tough. But I’m François, I’m cool, I respect ladies, that’s for sure. I’ll protect you. You come with me, sweet baby. We get you some clothes and maybe something to eat. You gonna stay at François’ place. Warm you up good, baby, make you smile. You’re real lucky, girl, ’cos now you got a connection. This city ain’t no safe place for no pretty runaways. You gotta get a connection and now you got one, baby.’

As they left the arcade together the Frenchman took her hand.

St Hilda’s Church Hall, Soho

‘Right from the start I were in a crap mood. They were holding the show at the Docklands Arena, which really ought to be called the Docklands Big Crappy Concrete Box. Having the Brits there is like deciding to have a party in a multistorey car park. What’s more, a multistorey that’s been located at the furthest point in London from anywhere even remotely happening. I mean, come on. You can’t have every pop star in the country sat for three hours in a limo crawling through the sadlands of London. Particularly not Tommy Hanson – number-one UK recording artist and uberlad. The man who finally took Robbie’s crown.

‘No, if you want Tommy Hanson to turn up at your gig sober, don’t ask him to get to the Docklands Arena in the rush hour. Particularly seeing as for some reason that has slipped my memory I was coming up from Brighton, so I had it even worse. M23, Croydon, Brixton, I mean, come on.

‘Anyway, I started drinking in the car. You’d have been the same, I swear. There I was, sat in a big, stupid limo. Opposite me there was three twats from the record company who were all trying to impress me with stories about going off shagging with Motley Crue, as if I give a toss about who they’ve been off shagging with. And next to me there was my triple L. I call ’em triple Ls because that’s what the press call ’em. ‘… and Tommy arrived with his Latest Leggy Lovely …’ Triple L, see. Even if they’re short, that’s what they get called, and as it happens I quite like short birds. I mean, Kylie’s got to be your benchmark, in’t she?

‘Actually, it were this fookin’ triple L that drove me back to the booze, as it happens, or at least I reckon if she hadn’t been there I would have lasted till we got to the Arena.

‘She was just such a right pain in the arse. Emily, her name was. Well, you all know who she is. She’s that posh bird, in’t she? The one who became a celeb because she’s a lord’s daughter, or duke or whatever, and she got her tits out in GQ. Fookin’ ’ell, we British are pathetic, aren’t we? Who’d have thought in the twenty-first century the premiere magazine for the British bloke would be getting itself all in a tizzy because a lord’s daughter was letting us see her tits? We’re still serfs, us Brits, the lot of us, always will be. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Emily’s bad looking, she’s all right, but there’s at least twenty birds as tasty in any club in any town in the country on a Friday night, even Doncaster or Skeggy. But they’re not posh, see, and what we British lads want is to get a look at the knockers of our betters. We want to feast our eyes on the forbidden cookies normally only laid out before some arrogant rich twat who’s running the country because he went to the same school as the Prince of Wales.

‘I’m as bad as anyone. I love shagging posh birds, besides which, you know me, if every lad in the country is slapping his monkey over Emily’s knockers in GQ magazine then I have to have them wrapped round me ear’oles. Just have to. It’s my job, I’m Tommy Hanson. I’m the top lad. I shag the birds all the other blokes dream about.

‘So I pulled her. The minute I saw her oiled-up, air-brushed, cheeky little fun bags staring up at me with a staple between them, I knew I had to pull her.

‘Not exactly a difficult assignment, I have to say. I just sent a car round with a note saying, “Congratulations, my sweet Lady Em, you’ve been pulled. Get in the car, signed Tommy H.”

‘I knew she’d come. Any bird who gets her jollies out for GQ wants to be in the papers so bad it in’t funny, and the best way to get in the papers bar none as of this point in time is by shagging me. Honest, the euro could collapse, the ozone layer evaporate, the Pope get run over by a plane while kissing a fookin’ airport, but if I’m shagging a new triple L, me and her get the front page. I am a bird like Emily’s idea of a dream come true. For her, it simply does not get any better than me. All right, maybe Prince William, but that’s it; after him, I’m next. So of course she got straight into the car and came round to my place.

‘She walked in, asked for some charlie, did about a suitcaseful of it, and by way of payment climbed aboard.

‘I can’t deny it were top sex. Superb. Most exhilarating. Loved it. Posh bird, see, can’t resist ’em. I’m banging away, looking at those tight little cup cakes jiggling about and I’m thinking, “I am shagging a lord’s daughter. Me! How fookin’ good is this?” Like I say, it’s absolutely pathetic, but I’ve told you, I’m English – to me shagging a posh bird is an act of conquest because secretly I don’t think it’s my place. Like the way them black pimps always used to make sure they had white girlfriends, it’s stealing the enemy’s most prized possession, in’t it?

‘Anyway, me and Emily became an instant item, as they say, and pretty soon we had that many press camped outside my house we invited them all in for vintage Cristal and we were that pissed up and wired we told them we were engaged.

‘It was a lovely night that. Emily had had “Tommy the Tank” tattooed round her belly button because she reckoned I shagged with all the awesome power of a Challenger Tactical Assault Vehicle (her uncle was a general), and she showed this tattoo off to all the snappers. Well, the next day her taut, muscled little tummy was on the front page of every single paper in the country, not just the Sun and the Mirror and the Star but The Times and the Telegraph and the Guardian, an’ all. Course, the Guardian tried to play it all ironic and amused like they weren’t so much doing the story as the story of the story, but they still fookin’ showed the photo, didn’t they? So what a bunch of twatty little hypocrites they are, eh?

‘Emily loved it. It was like she’d won an Olympic gold medal or got a Nobel Prize or whatever. She just spread them front pages on the floor and knelt among them sort of squeaking with happiness, drooling at all them photos of her belly button with my name round it looking up at her from every single one of ’em.

‘Well, what was I to do? Not a difficult decision. I got behind her, hoiked up her Versace pink suede miniskirt, thumbed the G-string from between her tanned, golden arse cheeks and gave her one from behind. Well, it were a celebration, weren’t it? We were the business. Britain’s number-one story. Two coked-up fookwits, me banging away and her giggling and moaning and preening over all them front pages of herself, which she’d got just through being posh and shagging me.

‘Top morning. Does it for me, I can tell you.’

The circle of recovering alcoholics sat in stunned silence like so many open-mouthed wax dummies, tea half finished, biscuits perched on the saucers on which they had lain un-nibbled since Tommy had begun to testify.

‘Afterwards we rolled around on the floor for a bit and had croissants and champagne and another shedful of my charlie, and Emily sent out for more copies of the papers to give to all her mates. Then I turned her over, ripped five grand’s worth of designer daywear off her rock-hard, worked-out, emaciated little bod and banged her till she went off and puked …’

For the first time the circle stirred.

‘Don’t get me wrong – she would’ve gone off and puked whether I’d been banging her or not. There was no way she was going to let herself digest those croissants, mate. Believe me, the closest a girl like that gets to having a square meal is agreeing to swallow.’

Only Tommy could get away with that one. Somehow with Tommy it sounded cheeky.

‘Lovely morning. Lovely, lovely morning. Me and Emily were so happy together. But the funny thing was, even though it was obvious who the real star was between us, even though she’d jumped from third-billed spread in GQ to front-page saturation media coverage solely on the strength of letting me up her on a regular basis, she was that well bred and posh that she still acted like she was the top dog in the relationship and I was just some jolly bit of rough. She had so much confidence. They all do, those posh birds. Loud voices, officers’ accents, loads of deafening mates and a couple of great big cunty brothers in jumpers who are the only people they will defer to because they’re just “sarch a farking larf, right? So-o-o droll”. Let me tell you, after a month or two of having her baying in me ear’ole, love was well and truly dead. I was sick of the sight of her, and by the time the Brits rolled around I was looking for a way to dump her. That was partly why I’d given up the booze, as it happens, in order to dump Emily. I’m better at reality when I’m sober.

‘“Oh, farking Christ, I hate the farking Brit Awards,” she was shouting at me and the record company twats like we were in the next county. “They always give best newcomer to some little farking Scotsman nobody’s ever heard of and the big Americans never turn up, so they don’t usually have any really proper stars at all.” Can you believe it? There she was, sat in a stretch with a bloke who’d sold fifteen million albums in the previous twelve months, and she’s moaning about the absence of proper stars! I mean fookin’ ’ell. Well, that was it. You remember that old Paul Simon song, “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover”? I love Paul Simon, me. Anyway, he says don’t agonize about it, just get out, make a plan, don’t be embarrassed, just fookin’ do it. Well, he never mentioned anything about waiting till your limo stops at traffic lights, opening the door on the bird’s side and sliding her out onto the street with your boot, but I think he would have done if it had scanned because it’s a top way of dropping a bird. Makes the point, let me tell you.

‘I even remembered to grab my bag of charlie off her as she went. Bang, into the street, right on her arse. There she was, sitting amongst the McDonald’s wrappers in a fifteen thousand quid Gucci number, which basically consisted of three small handkerchiefs connected by bootlaces. Me and the twats were pissing ourselves as the limo pulled away, let me tell you.

‘I looked back at her and waved. Brixton High Street, five in the afternoon, almost naked. The only white face I could see. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone looking so scared. That’s what charlie does to you, empowers you to be an arsehole, makes you think kicking girls out of cars because you don’t like their accents is funny … I wish I could pinpoint the moment in my life when I turned into such a complete cont.’

Suddenly there were tears in Tommy’s eyes. The circle of faces were amazed. They were used to raw emotion in their meetings, but this had come so suddenly.

‘Don’t worry, it’s just the booze seeping out through me tearducts … Anyway, that’s when I had my first drink. Like I say, I’d still been doing the coke, so it wasn’t as if I was properly dry. I’d just started me detox programme with booze because booze makes you fat whereas coke helps you slim. But, bollocks, I wanted a drink. I needed a drink. The record company blokes were all cacking themselves about what a great bloke I was for kicking a coked-up, half-naked girl out of a car in the middle of south London, and not for the first time in my life I realized that if I didn’t get drunk quite quickly I might notice that I was a sad, arrogant, bullying bastard.

‘I stopped the car at the next off licence and got a crate of Special Brew and six Kangaroo’s Arse Method Champenois, which was all they had. Well, you’re not going to get vintage Cristal in the Brixton Londis, are you?

‘Then I went and sat in the front with the driver. I didn’t even give the three twats from the record company any of my booze. I just left them behind the glass and went and sat up front, just me, the driver and of course my old mate charlie. By the time we got to the Arena I was well and truly on one and I’d also decided that what I did to Emily was a top move and she’d deserved it and she’d be all right anyway.

‘I like Australian wines.’

A house in Chorlton-cum-Hardy

Billy was ten, Kylie was nine. By rights, they should never have been left alone, but Billy’s mum was a single parent and she had to go to work. The children were in the care of Billy’s seventeen-year-old sister Michelle, and she had gone out for milk and coffee. Besides which, Michelle was sick to death of Billy and Kylie and she felt that the five-minute walk to the shops might restore her sanity and thus prevent her from throwing one or both of them out of the window.

Billy and Kylie went upstairs to Michelle’s bedroom, which they knew was strictly out of bounds, and lay on the bed together beneath the Eminem posters. They practised kissing until fits of the giggles made further experiment impossible and then Billy showed Kylie Michelle’s condoms, which he earnestly explained were a ‘contradiction device’.

‘So Mish doesn’t get up the duff,’ he added, ‘although she says fat chance of that anyway, which means she hasn’t got a boyfriend at the moment.’

Kylie had recently agreed to be Billy’s girlfriend, and Billy had been hoping on the strength of this that Kylie might take her knickers off and show him her bits. Disappointingly, Kylie demurred, but offered instead to show him her knickers. This she did and Billy stared for quite a while, which he enjoyed, although he didn’t know why. Kylie declined the offer to see Billy’s pants and the conversation moved on. Billy said that he knew where Michelle hid her special things – her cigarettes and sometimes some money. Billy suggested that they look to see what they could find. Kylie, who was harbouring a major craving for a Honeycomb Wispa, agreed. Besides, if there was no money they could at least have a smoke.

Billy pulled out the drawer of Michelle’s bedside table to reveal the space behind. They found no money but they did find a small decorative box in which were six tablets, each embossed with a bird. They both knew that it was dangerous to put pills in their mouths, but they were bored and these little pills didn’t look like medicine. It seemed more than likely that they were sweets.

Billy and Kylie ate three pills each.

When Michelle found them writhing on the floor of her bedroom she saw the empty pill-box and knew exactly what had happened. Grabbing the children in turn, she forced her fingers into their mouths in an effort to make them sick. Then she rushed to the fridge and brought milk, thinking in her panic that it might help. As the children began to lose consciousness she called her mother at work, who told her to call for an ambulance.

Later Michelle was to admit that as much as fifteen minutes might have passed between the discovery of the stricken children and her calling the emergency services.

The Paget household, Dalston

When Peter came out of the bathroom he could see from his wife’s expression that it was bad news.

‘Peter, we couldn’t have picked a worse day if we’d spent our lives planning it.’ Angela handed him the sheaf of newspapers brought by her daughter Cathy from her paper round. Cathy was aware of what her father was intending to do that day and her heart had sunk when she’d seen the front pages. Two small children – a ten-year-old and a nine-year-old – had died after taking ecstasy tablets.

Peter glanced from headline to headline. Angela had already read them all. ‘It’s clear that it was a terrible accident. These kids found big sister’s little party stash and ate it. They might have necked a bottle of cream sherry or rat bait, but it’s being spun as if the poor girl forced the bloody things down their throats. The mother, too. It’s like she’d left the children in the care of a Yardie gang.’

Cathy Paget called from the living room. ‘The police van the sister and mum were taken away in was stoned by an angry mob. It’s on Sky every five minutes.’

The newspapers were almost unanimous in their interpretation of the tragedy. This was no accident. E killed these children. The people who took E killed them, and the people who dealt E killed them. Ecstasy was an instrument of child murder and those who apologized for it were apologists for infanticide.

Peter bit his lip. Not a good day to raise the subject of drug legalization in Parliament. The achingly cute photographs of the dead children stared at him from the front page of every paper. Innocent victims of evil drug-takers.

Cathy emerged from the living room. ‘They’re going to kill you, Dad. Every report, and I mean every single report on your speech is going to be accompanied by the photos of those kids. They’re going to say that you’re proposing a Private Member’s Bill to kill children.’

‘Thanks, darling. That makes me feel a whole lot better.’

‘She’s right, Pete,’ said Angela. ‘You don’t have to do this thing if you don’t want to.’

They went into the sitting room and watched Sky News for a while. The footage of the mob trying to get at Michelle and her mother while they were taken in for questioning was horrible to watch.

‘She’s just lost her son,’ Angela said, with tears in her eyes. ‘Oh my God, people are terrible, aren’t they?’

Every now and then the footage was punctuated with shots of Peter, the commentator reminding the viewer that the MP for Dalston North West intended that day to introduce a bill proposing the legalization of drugs.

‘Pretty poor timing,’ one anchor remarked.

‘Tasteless and insensitive would be better descriptions, I think,’ her colleague replied.

It was much the same spin on all the channels. The general feeling was that this new and terrible tragedy must surely now bring the legalizers to their senses.

‘Do you want me to drop it?’ Peter asked his wife.

‘No, of course not,’ she replied.

‘Thought not,’ said Peter. ‘Sod them. This tragedy has got nothing whatsoever to do with my bill. Nothing. Like you say, Angela, it could have been booze or cleaning fluids. How many kids have died through alcohol this week? Beaten by drunk parents, run down by drink-drivers, poisoned on fucking Alcopops? Where are their pictures? Why aren’t they on the front page?’

‘Dad. They’re going to kill you.’

The Hilton Hotel, Bangkok

Sonia had finally found a television station that met with her satisfaction. There were plenty in English but they were mainly American and she had soon got bored with the unfamiliar cartoons and sitcoms and the weather reports from Arkansas. BBC News 24 had been worse: some dreary report about an English MP who wanted to legalize drugs. Sonia had smiled at that at least. Lucky for her he hadn’t managed it yet. There’d have been no free holiday in Thailand for her if he had. She’d still be stuck in Birmingham.

She had finally found a pop channel with a half-hour special on the lead-up to the Brit Awards. Tommy Hanson, the people’s pop star, was of course expected to clean up as he had done the year before. Could it really be only four years since he had emerged victorious from Pop Hero with the biggest popular majority in the show’s history? Sonia had voted for him eight times.

It was as Tommy sang to Sonia via the Asian Star Cable Network that her employers came to transact their business. Sonia was nervous but pleased to see them.

Excited.

One big, bad, mad-for-it Brummie bird.

‘I’ve never been in a Hilton Hotel before. Noice, in’t it? Didn’t know they ’ad them in Bangkok, it’s just loik England, in’t it? Top tune, this. Tommy ’anson, I love ’im I do, ’e’s dead lush. Let me be the tattoo on your thigh. Brilliant. I’ve bought loads of CDs while I’ve been here, they only cost about three American dollars each, which is two quid. Two quid for a CD! I mean, that’s mental that is, that is just stupid. I got three copies of everything so that’s Christmas sorted. Eminem, Dido, Slipknot for mates, U2 for me mum and of course loads of Tommy. I’m going to see ’im in concert at the NEC in Birbingham next month. Have yow ever been to Birbingham, or is it just your mate in England?’

The Brummie babble stopped for a moment. The man’s briefcase was open on the coffee table. It contained only one item.

‘Jesus Chroist! I can’t swallow that! It’s loik a bag of sodding flour!’

The man explained that they would lubricate the condom with vegetable oil. Sonia wondered if it might be possible to divide the load into two lots, but the man had made his preparations and wanted to stick to them. He was anxious to be about his business.

‘Oh, screw it, all roight, that’s what I’m ’ere for. You’re sure this thing won’t burst? I mean it’d kill me, wouldn’t it? I read that if the condom bursts yow wroithe around in agony for about foive minutes then youm dead, bang, just loik that …’

Suddenly the reality of why she was in Bangkok at all was lying on the coffee table in front of her. A sinister shiny white sausage, a pale, evil-looking slug. Swallowing it was a terrifying prospect, but Sonia reminded herself that she was no crybaby, she was a tough, up-for-anything, Brummie bird and she wasn’t going to let some drug-pushing foreigner see that she was scared.

‘Come on, then, let’s get it swallowed. Down’t blame moi if I puke. Give us one of them Courvoisiers out of the mini-bar to wash it down.’

The House of Commons, Westminster

‘No, Madam Speaker, I will not withdraw! Nor will I apologize. The terrible, terrible tragedy reported in this morning’s papers is entirely irrelevant to the issues that I have come today to put before the house. Except in this one point! It has been established that the poor older sister Michelle, whose drugs were taken by her younger sibling and friend, waited twenty minutes before calling for an ambulance. Were those twenty minutes crucial? They might have been. I don’t know but I can certainly imagine why the girl hesitated. She hesitated because she was terrified. She knew that calling an ambulance must inevitably mean her arrest and her disgrace. So this seventeen-year-old girl, faced with the appalling circumstance that her little brother and his friend were dying because of her, panicked, Madam Speaker. She panicked and in order to avoid the consequences of what had happened she attempted to remedy the situation herself, with tragic results. I suggest to you, madam, that had this girl’s pills been legal she would have called for help twenty minutes sooner than she did. What’s more, the pills would most probably not have been hidden away; they’d have been on display but out of reach, in much the way that alcohol is arranged in most homes.’

Peter Paget was sweating visibly, but he was in control, nervous certainly, but in control. And hugely exhilarated. This was his moment, the moment for which he had been waiting all of his life. Fifteen years of rejection and petty frustration might just be about to blossom into glorious and celebrated political maturity. Peter Paget had gone into politics in order to improve people’s lives, and he had of course very quickly discovered that this was not generally considered to be the business of government. But today, on this one day, on his day, he was going to make a difference.

‘And in answer to the Right Honourable Member’s question, no, I do not consider drug use a trivial thing. I can assure you that I have better things to do than waste this house’s time with trivia. But I feel bound to add that nor do I think it a trivial thing that the vast majority of police time in my constituency is consumed in either pursuing drug users or dealing with the consequences of drug use – theft, prostitution and gun law! It is a matter of simple fact that a vast proportion of the young people in this country take drugs. That does not make them all drug addicts, but it does make them all criminals! Yes, Madam Speaker, criminals! Along with the numerous prosperous, law-abiding people who smoked marijuana at university and still take it occasionally at dinner parties! Class B? Class C? Class X, Y and Z! It doesn’t matter: they are still all outside the law! As are the young professionals who snort cocaine as a weekend treat. And prominent celebrities … pop stars such as Tommy Hanson …’ Peter waved a newspaper above his head. ‘… who only last week was once more on the front pages of the tabloids openly discussing his thousand-pound-a-day habits and his efforts to kick them! Along with the members of this house … Yes, Madam Speaker, the members of this house! Those who took drugs in their youth and who continue to take them now!’

The pandemonium that had been ringing around the debating chamber redoubled. Peter faced them down. It was David and Goliath, a great throng of baying, screeching school bullies against one small brave voice of honest reason. Peter knew that never again in his life would he do anything as significant as what he was doing at this moment. His hour had come.

‘No, Madam Speaker, I will not withdraw! There are over six hundred and fifty members of this house, all adults, mostly born in the fifties and the sixties, educated in the seventies, the eighties and the nineties, educated at British universities which, like the rest of the country, are awash with drugs. It is absurd to pretend that none of us here today has experienced illegal drugs, impossible to imagine that there is no member of this ancient body who might not still indulge in such a thing. I will not withdraw!’

The stern-looking woman in the Chair enquired whether the Right Honourable Member for Dalston North West had anything to confess himself. Peter was, of course, ready for this. He had rehearsed it with Angela playing the role of speaker. He rose up to take the challenge between his teeth like a lion bringing down an antelope.

‘Yes, Madam Speaker, I am perfectly happy to inform this house under parliamentary privilege that as a student I occasionally smoked a marijuana cigarette, or “joint”. I no longer indulge in the habit, but I most certainly did at one time and I have many friends who continue to do so, and who do so on occasion at my house!’

Peter’s confession took his audience by surprise, quietening them momentarily. Allowing one’s premises to be used for the purpose of drug-taking was, after all, illegal. Peter was admitting to a criminal offence.

‘I would, however, be loath to make such a confession outside of this house, for I should not wish to inconvenience the police by putting them to the trouble of interviewing me, which would certainly be their duty under the current law. Although, as we all know, the police have scarcely the energy or the resources to carry out such a duty … No, madam, I am not trying to be funny. You will know when I am trying to be funny by the simple fact that people will be laughing …’

This was cheek indeed from a lowly backbencher, but Peter was on fire. What was more, the joke actually played rather well and would later be much reported. Could it be that he was making progress?

‘I am attempting to point out that, under British law, pretty much the entire population of this country has been criminalized. We are all either criminals ourselves or associates of criminals or relatives of criminals. We buy CDs produced by criminals, we see films that star criminals, watch award shows compered by criminals! Our stocks and shares are brokered by criminals, our roads are swept by criminals, our children are taught by criminals. Can we not admit it? Are we not a mature enough society to face the clear and obvious truth? We must admit it. Our future way of life depends on it. For this vast nation of – how shall I put it? – social criminals is linked arterially to a corrosive, cancerous core of real criminals. Murderers. Pimps. Gangsters. Gunmen. Lethally unscrupulous backroom chemists! We are all connected to these people because there is no legal way for an otherwise law-abiding population to get high, which it is clearly intent upon doing. The law is effectively the number-one sponsor of organized crime!’

Once more there was pandemonium in the house. The opposition waved their order papers and the government front bench sat stony-faced. It was, after all, one of their own backbenchers who was delivering this inflammatory heresy. They hated Peter Paget, had hated him for years. But now he had become dangerous; not happy with merely opposing their mild decriminalization policy, he was now calling for legalized anarchy. They feared he would bring discredit upon the whole party, perhaps cost them the next election. The Prime Minister turned and glared at Peter with a silent steely gaze while the house descended into uproar.

‘You may try to shout me down, but I will be heard, and I will tell you this. An officer in my constituency was killed in a Yardie gang shooting last week. I attended his funeral. I watched as the dead man’s coffin, bearing the union flag, passed by his weeping family. That same flag, Madam Speaker, flies above this house! And above every government building. It is the symbol of our law. And yet it was this law that killed the brave officer I saw buried last week!’

Now the front bench were no longer stony-faced. The Prime Minister’s visage was a mask of grim fury; the Home Secretary waved his arms like a new boy. The Speaker felt moved to warn Peter that it was no part of his duty as an MP to insult the flag to which he had sworn allegiance, but Peter would not be warned: he felt inspired. What was more, he knew he was right. And he knew that they knew he was right. That was what was making them so angry. The only thing that stood between the government of Great Britain and the stone-cold logical truth of his argument was that his was a truth that so far nobody in any position of responsibility had been allowed to acknowledge. Well, Peter Paget would do that for them, and he would make them listen.

‘No, madam, I am not trying to score cheap points! If you think that I would invoke the memory of a recently dead hero merely in order to decorate my argument, then I am afraid that it is I who must protest to you. I am stating the simple fact that an officer in my constituency was shot dead while pursuing a criminal whose income is derived solely from supplying cocaine to otherwise entirely law-abiding people. If those people were able to get their cocaine at the off licence, properly licensed, taxed and restricted to adults, then the man who killed that officer would have to find some other means of making a living and there would be one less police widow! And it is not only the police who walk in fear in our increasingly violent society! We all do! In some communities people count each day a lucky one if their homes are not broken into and their persons not assaulted by depraved junkies desperate to finance their terrible craving. We all know that the vast majority of muggings and burglaries are drug-fuelled! Why should we have to suffer for other people’s addictions? Let me ask you this, let me put the unashamedly selfish argument for legalization: would you honestly care if the number of addicts in this country doubled, even trebled, if it meant that your home was no longer in danger of being broken into and your children were free from the fear of being mugged for their pocket money and mobile phones?’

For a moment the uproar died. This was an interesting point.

‘As a matter of fact, I’m not at all convinced that the number of addicts would rise dramatically anyway. Experiments in Holland suggest that they would not, but I put it to you again, even if they did would you really care as long as they were properly housed, properly looked after and above all not stealing your VCR?’

The House of Commons lobby, Westminster

Peter Paget’s parliamentary assistant felt her heart pounding with excitement. She could hear the roars from inside the debating chamber and knew that her employer was truly in the lion’s den. Samantha had been with Peter for almost four months and had shared with him the build-up to this moment. She felt that it was almost as much her day as his. Unable to stand the tension any longer, she phoned her mother on her mobile phone.

‘He’s in there now, Mum. It sounds like they’re tearing him apart.’

Forewarned by her daughter, Samantha’s mother had been watching the debate on the Parliament Channel and assured Samantha that Peter was acquitting himself splendidly.

‘Oh, he’s so wonderful, Mum. He went through the speech with me this morning, sitting on a bench in Parliament Square. It’s incredible, his passion, his commitment, the things he believes. He’s the only real man in that bloody place. The Prime Minister’s just a moron compared to him. Oh, Mum, I wish you’d seen us out there working together, right in the shadow of Parliament. I felt so proud that he chose me to try out his lines on. He even took a couple of my suggestions! I know! He’s got this bit about the Union Jack draped on a police coffin and as he was talking I looked up and saw the flag that flies above the house and it seemed like providence, so I said that he should draw a comparison between the two flags. He said it was a brilliant idea and promised to use it! He did? Oh, that’s amazing! But it’s all him, of course, I mean it’s him that makes it work. He’s just brilliant, that’s all. He claims his wife helps him with his stuff, but I doubt it, I mean, come on, as if. What would she know? She’s just a boring little mouse. Although I do think it’s sweet of him to be so supportive of her. Honestly, Mum, it was just so exciting going through it all with him … with Big Ben looking down on us and the sunshine on the roof of Westminster Abbey, so romantic … And then when he got up to go in he said “Wish me luck” and I did and then he kissed me! In public! He’s never done that before … I’m not being silly. I just think it’s a sign, that’s all.’

The House of Commons, Westminster

Inside the debating chamber the object of this girlish affection was hot. Peter wanted to remove his jacket, but he knew that there would be dark rings of sweat at his armpits. He wished that he had worn a lighter-coloured shirt. He was experienced enough a politician to know that sweaty armpits were just the sort of thing that could blow an entire speech by securing more coverage than the issues under discussion. Although on this occasion such was the force of Peter’s performance that he could probably have stripped naked and still have the content of his speech properly reported. He had galvanized the emotions of the house in a manner not seen since the heady days of Mrs Thatcher.

constituency,