How (Not) to Solve Climate Change In A Small Island
I stood with thousands of others at Grey’s Monument on Friday the fifteenth of October. It was freezing. Matty grabbed my hand, squeezing it. He whispered something about if one goes, we both go. I wasn’t concentrating on anything bar this contact. I wasn’t in love with Matthew Malchurch, I just had a different view of him than he had me. Different than he would ever have for me. Matty had gorgeous blonde curls that tucked themselves neatly against his forehead – they went so perfectly with those sea blue eyes. Those eyes. Everyone knows those eyes; ones that contain every whipping emotion of oceanic blue. He had been my best friend for longer than I could count, longer than I could dream of. He was right of course, we’d never leave each other. But maybe it couldn’t hurt. I’d lose the numb pain of heartache every time I thought of him, wouldn’t I? Not that I could’ve been enough for him anyway, if there could have been an us.
Me. Plain old me. I’m not Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games”; Shailene Woodley from “Divergent”; Kaya Scodelario – “The Maze Runner”; the list goes on. All these films from my eleven-year-old days of obsession. Dystopian heroines with a gorgeousness that I could only dream of. Even my classic literature girls: Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet, Juliet Capulet – their stories were told because they were special, important, that’s why I wouldn’t be Named.
“Ree? Rena?” Matty asks, tugging my hand. “Did you hear me?” I nod, smiling at him before turning my eyes back to the screen. “Ok, well, I’ll phone Ally. He needs someone to… He’s on his own. I figure, in case he’s Named. No one should be alone.”
“He won’t be.” I reassure my best friend. More of: he can’t be. So long as Matty’s not single, it’s less hurtful. It’s a physical reminder of: Gay. Matty is Gay. Obviously I don’t mind, I still remember sitting in a window seat of some Greggs, when he first came out, and pointing out attractive men that passed by. But then again, I always did find Louie Croftley somewhat attractive as well, not that I’d ever want to go out with him. “Ally won’t be Named. None of us will.”
“Breaking news.” The BBC newsreader proclaims as the infamous tune blares around us from the usually advert-bearing screen above the entrance to the shopping centre. “We will shortly join my colleague live from 10 Downing Street; I’m Jessica Palmers and this is the News At Six.”
The mutterings of the crowds muffled. Shuffling stopped. People were waiting to hear who had been Named. “Remember,” Jessica Palmers told the crowds across the country, “This is a governmental attempt to end the climate crisis in the UK. So, by now, you should all have completed any ongoing activities that the PM, Benjamin Young, has suggested can’t be completed if you should be Named, – this is only a precaution but a vital one – and are aware that those Named will be moving to London with immediate effect. This is all that has been released from Parliament.
“As a final reminder, as Dylan Brown, Secretary of Energy and Climate Change, told us in last Tuesday’s announcement: ‘The Government will solve this. Trust the Government. Trust the Prime Minister.’ There is still speculation as to whether Mr Brown or Mr Young have been corresponding with climate-focussed scientists but as of yet, there is no evidence to prove that the Oxford Committee Against Climate Change’s outrage is true. Now, over to our team at 10 Downing Street who will broadcast the Naming process.”
The Named were vital and yet no one knew why.
There were a few gasps around me when we reached the “Northumberland” section which told me people in the crowd knew The Named, and sure enough when it registered what I’d not really been listening to, I knew him. He’d been my Geography teacher for five years until he retired after years of teaching. Mr. Daniels had obviously retired to the countryside and had presumably known lots of people in this crowd, either by teaching them, friends and family or just his general perception to know everyone by first name in Tyneside.
“And from Tyne and Wear,” The speaker announced in the very traditional Received Pronunciation, “Mr. Henry Williamson, forty-seven, of Gateshead City Council.” No one seemed to be aware of this man. “Ms. Penelope Barker, forty-two, of South Tyneside Council. Mr. Louie Croftley, seventeen, of North Tyneside Council.” My heart stopped; Louie might be scum of the earth but whatever would be happening to him clearly wasn’t going to be all sunshine and daisies. Even Matty tensed beside me and I swore I heard the echoes of Ally’s radio stop. “Miss Rowena Starling-Taylor, sixteen, of North Tyneside Council. And from Warwickshire…”
My heart stopped beating. Me. They’d Named me.
I don’t quite know when it went black, I just know that it did. And I know now that I’d moved. I blink my eyes open and take in white. White? Is this death? Shock? Is this what being Named feels like? I thought of every mindless and seemingly endless possibility of truth; what was happening? I hoped, deep down, it was some sort of scare, that the Rowena Starling-Taylor who was named wasn’t the same Rowena Starling-Taylor that was me. My eyes adjusted and I realised that the white belonged to my ceiling and I trailed my eyes down the ballet slipper pink of the walls, noting the sheer pink curtains and grey blinds reflected in the big square mirror above a white dressing table. My hands toyed with grey duvet covers and my feet wriggled, plotting how to drag my ridiculously comfy body out of the even comfier bed.
There was a weight at the end of my bed that I kicked at. It yelped slightly. I looked up and found the weight belonged to a tall teenager whose short dark hair was gelled and worn in a way that I’d never seen a teenage boy care about unless he was a-definitely-not-teenager from a Netflix high school show. His pale eyes furiously bright, oddly cheerful. I didn’t expect to see cheerful in him. I didn’t expect him at all.
“What are you… Why are you in my room?” I yanked the quilt towards me shielding what felt like my Year Eleven leavers hoody.
“Relax, Birdy. Homey– sorry, Matthew told me to come up here.
“You?” I don’t know how shocked I really am. “Matty thought to let you up here?”
“Yes. Look, Rowena. It’s simple. Yes, we hate each other but we were Named. I came here to find you and your Dad told me you fainted. Matthew thought it was best I came up seeing as though… Well we’re stuck together for the long run.” He sighs, and stands up from the bed. “Look, Birdy, let’s tolerate each other. Because, time to face facts; we don’t know what’s happening. Trust the Government, and all that, but we don’t. We should stick together – at least we do know each other anyway. Others won’t be as lucky. I’ll let you change and say goodbye to your families. We’re meant to meet the other two at Central in an hour, I’ll meet you at Tynemouth station.
I fell asleep on the train down to London. The first half hour had been a series of crazed discussions about where we were going, what we were doing and most importantly why we were doing it.
Harry, who was announced as Henry Williamson, was ex-military; obviously the terrors of Iraq and Afghanistan and wherever else scarred him as it’d rightly do anyone. His fear and paranoia of the frontlines made him turn to strength drawn from liquor bottles and quite honestly, I grew horrifically fearful about who or what may be involved in some of his more intoxicated theories.
Penelope was a quiet woman, barely saying much. She lived on her own, I gathered, her sole company was her cats. Her family were all dead and she’d had no partners since a girlfriend in her early twenties.
Louie’s idea was formed from what I think is some post-apocalyptic movie that some date had dragged me along to a while ago.
Me: I didn’t know.
Tiring of the conversation between the others, or lack of such, Louie and I had moved compartment to talk. It was miraculous how kind he was, how much we laughed and joked with no shields of school social standing to distract us. He even told me that ‘Birdy’ was his thing. One he hadn’t shared with the lads – I couldn’t help but wonder why. I liked the homage to the bird in my surname. Reaching the last dregs of conversation I fell asleep and woke to find my head on Louie’s shoulder and him whispering to me that we were at King’s Cross. I apologised profusely that I slept against him but he just laughed and said that it was one step closer to friendship. Friendship; it sounded so terrifyingly intriguing.
A week into my stay in Tyne Lodge and I was already homesick. We all were. We’d lined up in our county groups and faced the Queen. I hadn’t quite thought of the ninety-five year old monarch and what her speech would be but it wasn’t like I would have imagined. It was equally heartfelt and genuine alongside cruel and structured. Politically written whilst being said by a kindly queen. We were being cared for right now, in mansions and luxury lodges that probably cost Britain more money than we had. Cared for by the Government. We were Step One. Presumably keeping us safe before whatever came in Step Two.
“Morning Birdy.” Louie was plating up breakfast. “Want anything?”
“I’ll have it without the black pudding, Lou. Or the mushrooms.”
“Who doesn’t like mushrooms?” Louie asked himself as I went and took my usual seat opposite Harry who was enjoying a brandy with his Full English.
“How long are we doing this?” I asked no one in particular, thanking Louie for my food. He walked around the kitchen island and sat in his seat next to me. “We don’t belong here.”
“So we get out.” Penelope said, entering the kitchen behind us. Harry smashed his glass over his food and didn’t look bothered. Louie’s flamy eyes almost fell out of his head. I was startled and shocked. “We’ve been here for too long. I’ve made a plan. Let’s just get us out, we don’t know the others. We’ll come back with more people.”
“Plan?” Harry was amazed. “A bloody plan? We don’t know where we are, how we got here or even what’s keeping us here!”
“Just because you were too drunk to look and those two were too interested in each other to care, doesn’t mean I didn’t focus. There’s guards everywhere – royal ones, you know scarlet tunic, bearskin hat, and all – they change on the hour every two hours. In the marching and fanfaring, I’m not sure whom they’re doing it for, maybe TVs at home, but we can use that to sneak round the back.”
“How come we never hear it? Or see it?” Louie asks carefully, and I can all but see the cogs turning in his head.
“It’s just forests around the back, you know. The view. The only windows look out the back and I’d bet anything they soundproofed the front. We’re meant to feel welcomed, not trapped. We can escape, follow the plan and I know it.”
Penelope’s plan worked to the letter. We left the front door at exactly eleven and followed the sea of red in our own red shirts, me in one of Louie’s and Penelope wearing one of Harry’s ridiculously oversized ones. At least they looked long. We snuck around the corner of the lodge and I smiled at her notice of the lack of windows at the front. What was going on? Penelope rushed us ahead into a crowd of trees and we darted between them until we reached a clearing about ten minutes in.
“So we don’t know where we are?” Asked Harry, clearly feeling the end of his flask drawing near. “You came to us without a fully finished plan, princess?”
“Don’t call me princess!” Snaps Penelope and I don’t blame her. Louie snickers and buries his head in my shoulder so that the mad middle-aged woman won’t notice. “I saw that Croftley!”
“Darn it!” He chuckles and I wrap my arm around him, in a playful manner. I never knew we would reach that, in just the week that it is. “We’re too close here though, and too open. If anyone saw us, they’ve already reported it. We should keep heading away from the houses in a straight line and we’ll rest and reroute in the morning.”
“You could do that,” Someone behind us says, “Or you could come with me.”
“Who are you?” Louie asked, tensing and taking a step in front of me, towards him.
“Relax, I’m not interested in your girlfriend.”
I scoff under my breath but Louie never appeared bothered.
“Name’s Barnaby, well, strictly speaking it’s Lord Barnabas William Henry Cecil Robert Carlisle Guido Lumley but you can just call me Barnaby. After my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, of course, the great Barnabas Lumley, you might recognise him.”
“Can’t say we do.” Sneers Louie, every bit the bully from school. All though, this time I don’t blame him. I want to punch this so detestingly aristocratic Barnaby in the face. “Whole load of ‘greats’ for someone so unheard of. Besides, how many bloody names is that? I lost count somewhere around William.”
“Golly, you really do need me. You’re so… uneducated. He’s only the sole man responsible for his son and each son down the line being sent to Eton; first man ever to do that. And it’s seven.” It’s then that I notice the black morning coat and the waistcoat, the pinstripe black trousers and the white tie. He came in his school uniform? Wow, this Naming really did affect everyone. “Look, I saw you come here so you’re obviously no good at hiding. My housemates were so… good-natured that they wouldn’t leave. But, I know where we are and how to get out. If you trust me, I can get you to the stables and settle you with one of my horses each and we’ll get out of here all together. Do you trust me?”
I answered this time, shocking everyone, even Barnaby himself. “Yes.”
“We do? Birdy?”
“We do.” I say more definitively looking to my friends for confirmation. “Yes, we do.”
“Well then, welcome to the great forests of Berkshire. My stables are a day’s walk away, we’ll have to go long routes through back lanes and forests but we’ll get there.”
“Where exactly are we going, prince boy?” Harry questions.
“I’m not a prince, but my stables are on family land on the grounds of Windsor Castle.”
I feel Louie’s annoyance rise. I wonder about what Barnaby said, about me and him and I wonder if that’s what this is. Some testosterone-based competition where Louie Croftley is genuinely interested in someone like, well, me. Plain, uninteresting, unimportant. I imagine the stories I’ve read; there’s a reason why perfect Laurie never ultimately ended up with the different Jo, or how lower-class Sibyl Vane never got to marry the prestigious Dorian Gray. I pause. No writer wanted them to end up together because of their cataclysmic differences but in not one of these novels was the gentleman not truly enamoured. I stop my wild thoughts. I won’t be Louie Croftley’s girlfriend; how ridiculous!
We walk with Barnaby and I do truly find myself interested in his education and the joys of living at such a glamorous place. It sounds intriguing. I wish I had a much less biased viewpoint about the school because the seventeen year old is obsessed, but it’ll do. It’s intriguing how many influential men have come from being Eton’s alumni and look how far it’s come.
“I never dreamed of it,” Barnaby is saying in overeager tones to Penelope after I fell behind to Louie, delighted to discuss his school. “Me, friends with someone so common. It really toned me down, you know, all these disadvantaged classmates. My closest friend, Danny? Yeah, he came from what could only be squalor. We run scholarships, you know. Only the best of the best but we do take them all. I quite like it really – makes us less conceited.”
“It does, does it?” Louie sniggers. I slap him and laugh with him when the boy witters about how much of a pauper this boy ‘who heralds from… oh, what’s it called… Glasgow’ is. “If this is how conceited he is now, what was he like before?”
“Lou! Stop! Don’t be mean! He’s just… invested.”
“That’s one way to put it. But be real, he’s the type of lad who’s able to just buy an island in the Bahamas at the last minute, just because.”
“You’d be too, if you went there. Besides I doubt they’re what you could call lads. I really don’t think he’d let anyone picture him in that ‘lads, lads, lads’ viewpoint!”
Just as the sun was setting Barnaby announced our arrival. Bloody hell! Is this what Windsor Castle looks like? I’ve seen it on the telly at home, I remember when we watched Harry and Meghan’s wedding and I thought it looked beautiful but there’s no comparison to seeing it in person. I look up at the great stone structure and beam, no-one aside from the Lumley family and other rich snobs of Eton could say they’ve been on the grounds of Windsor Castle. The round tower that’s so famed beams down at us, welcoming us outside of its looming shadow. I feel Louie bristle next to me, admiring the beauty the same. I think Harry downs his flask so fast to get over the shock.
“Even in the Queen’s legion, I didn’t get here.”
“Careful!” Hisses Barnaby, taking my hand and pulling me towards him. Did Louie growl? I’m imagining things. Barnaby got into my head and I’m imagining things. “Look, this place will be seething with guardsmen. We need to move. Now.”
“He has a point.” I tell them, dragging Louie behind me. We all move forward, turning the corner, and looking around in awe and wonder.
Then Penelope screams.
Harry drops his flask.
Louie stops and grabs at my hand. He squeezes it. I don’t know why or when, but I squeeze back.
Even our noble friend looks fearful.
“He’s–” Barnaby starts.
“Look,” I gesture around. “They’re–”
“How many–?” Penelope looks pale, on the verge of fainting. It’s up to Harry to keep her stable and on her feet.
Louie seethes, yanking me closer. “Is this their work?”
“Look at the plume. Blue. Irish Guards.” Barnaby notes, creeping closer. “Who’d shoot a royal guard? Who’d shoot a whole regiment?”
I don’t know. None of us do. We just see them all on the ground, blood staining the usually perfected grass. Guardsmen in uniform slaughtered in their sentry boxes. I see something to my left, something I don’t like the look of.
“It’s not just them. She’s a child. A civilian. She’s ginger too. Probably saying hello to her Dad.” I point out the girl, something of five years old with little ginger pigtails and faded green eyes. “Look here, the shots on the guardsmen are exceptionally clean, a single bullet through the heart. Hers isn’t – I’d bet anything she was scared. I think that she didn’t know she’d be killed. You agree, Penny?” Penelope was smart. If anyone had noticed this, besides me, it’d be her. And I probably only knew from the amount of times I’d watched Sherlock on the BBC.
“What are you talking about?” Barnaby asks, his formal voice shining through his awestruck horror.
“The guards knew. I think this was the plan. We were never told because we weren’t meant to know. We tied up our loose ends because we won’t ever go back. There’s no one and nothing to go back to. Aside from us. Think about it, it’s bloody genius. A randomly selected population. We’d have chances of covering numerous races and ages and then well those physically able too… They create a new generation. One able to grow past the lives we had that have ruined the planet. A man, a woman and two teenagers, four per county. Everyone else is killed. They kept us there. Locked away whilst they did this, probably before sacrificing themselves. Then we come out to a new world. One that we need to live and learn from what got us here. It’s the perfect plan.”
“How the hell, darling, is that possible?” Harry questions. “Half of you are women, able to have kids. But what percentage are too old, unable to, too young? Suppose one of us could have cancer, be at risk of disease. Four people from every county is way too small for a society, lassie.”
“They couldn’t just take the viable ones, we’d all know. Besides if it’s only in Britain… Well, there’s other countries that might migrate here. Anyways, calculations are already made. In 2002, someone decided that a hundred and sixty was the minimum for habitation for two hundred years on another planet. 2016 – I think someone else said ninety-eight for two thousand years. And that makes sense really, in hunter-gatherer tribes there’s about a hundred and then the ones that procreate with other tribes. They have given us the right amount. Whatever it is. They’ve done this. All of us, the Named and presumably Parliament and their families. We’ll all have to team up and coexist. Live. Build a new Britain.”
“Rowena… I don’t know whether to hate you for telling me that, or kiss you because you’re a damn beautiful genius and you’ve answered all my questions.”
My voice shakes and so does my mind. Yet both are exceptionally confident. “So kiss me.” He looks at me, and I feel the other three skulking away. It’s just me and Lou. “Kiss me, Lou.”
And he does.
He takes a step towards me and grabs my hands. Kissing me with every ounce of kindness and care that I never once believed he had. I wrap my hands through his hair, destroying it’s mastered style. I falter as he pulls back, allowing himself a breath. “I’ve wanted that for so long, Birdy. So long.” I caress his cheek slightly with my hand, feeling the start of a beard, I didn’t imagine I could feel this. Could kiss someone like this. Not since Matty came out. Oh God, Matty will be dead. My parents. Ally. Louie draws me from my negativity when he says: “I mean it, you’re breathtaking.”
Barnaby saunters towards us, trying but failing to wolf whistle. “Okay, lovebirds. Now we’ve rectified the sexual tension that could be cut with a knife, that is the phrase, right? Let’s get back to the matter at hand, all but a hundred and ninety-two in a population of over sixty-eight million are dead or are going to be.”
I snarl. Someone got us here. Benjamin Young. He got us here. He made these decisions. He killed our loved ones. He killed these men that are just doing their patriotic duty. He killed the little girl going to meet her Daddy at work. His decisions won’t be taken lightly. “It’s time to kill the Prime Minister. Who’s coming to Westminster with me?”
I get an ‘Aye’ from Lou. And Penny. And Harry. Then Barnaby.
“Harry. Check if these guns are loaded, I read somewhere that they aren’t always. If they are – we’ll need lessons in firing.”
My phone rings in my pocket and I forgot I even had it. Service was so bad in that house and there was practically no WiFi. I used to think that they should step up their game seeing as though they clearly have money to provide it but now I guess it must have bypassed services that would let us find out things about Outside. After I flick the safety on my gun as Harry taught us, I see the caller ID and beam.
“Matty?” I almost shriek into the phone. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Listen, we’re under attack. Well you are. Benji Young – he’s–”
“I know, Ree. I know.” He sounds tired. Lost. Scared. I clutch Louie’s hand and press my palm against his, using my thumb to draw circles on the back of his hand like Mum always told me to do to her if I was frightened.
I press the speakerphone button and say softly: “Matty… you’re on speaker. My friends are here. Louie, Penelope, Harry and Barnaby. We want to help. What’s wrong?”
“I don’t have long. I was shot.” I intake a sharp breath and Louie’s hand immediately squeezes mine before running circles on the small of my back. “It was my side. It’s slow bleeding. I just… I had to try calling you again. Hear your voice again. Take care of her, Louie, if you’re already together. I might hate you from school but you cared for her and I hope that shows. Rena… you and I both know that what you pretended you felt for me was just a lie to protect yourself. I love you Ree… I do. Don’t think I’m ever… ever going to forget about you. Best friends at the start. Best friends at the end.”
“Matty!” I yell. He can’t be. No. Hell no. Matty! I sob, ricocheting sounds that disturb the birds that fly quietly overhead. I collapse against Louie’s back and he grabs me tight, not letting me fall further. Penny comes up and wraps an arm around me, pulling me into her friendly embrace. Harry comes over and mumbles my name. I hear Barnaby swallow. Embarrassed to impose on our week long friendship. I pull back and look directly at Mr. Eton Boy. “How long will it take to ride to London?”
“Half an hour at top speed. Hour at leisure.”
We arrive in London and I beam at the Houses of Parliament across the Thames. I feel my friends swell with pride at where we’ve gotten. A week ago I hated Louie Croftley, thought I’d never be Named and had one actual friend. Today I have four friends, I’m alive because I was Named and I’m someone to Louie Croftley and I actually want to be. Dismounting the stallion that I was given, Capilet, named after the one in Twelfth Night which impresses me, I walk him over to the Westminster Bridge.
They all have fictional names: Penny is on Black Beauty, Harry on Boxer, Lou on Mollie and Barnaby on his favourite, Clover. His mother named them all apparently: she’s… was… fond of her books, especially Animal Farm, hence the last three.
The others follow my lead and soon enough we’re tying the horses up, and weapons at the ready, we’re barging through the door to Number Ten. The guard is already dead. By the trickle through the threshold, there’s death inside too. I just hope we’re not too late.
I try to ignore the bodies but it’s bloody difficult. Not when they’re everywhere.
There’s a voice upstairs.
The voice stops.
They can probably hear us; I can only hope it’s Benjamin Young.
Then a: BANG!
Then again: BANG!
I look at my companions then race upstairs holding my gun out like I was shown.
I tear through a small door in the landing and head to where I heard the sound only just behind. It’s the library. There’s two people there.
Mrs. Angeline Young. PM Benjamin Young, who died with a pistol to his head. There’s something in his hand. Scrunched up paper. I pull it out and read the words that have been scrawled in rushed handwriting. I show it to everyone and wait for their reactions.
To those of you brave enough to come here. You’re brave enough to know the truth. It is not over. You know the plan. Take over. Be a better version. It is not yet over.
–––– Benji Young