"Mr Crane." Colin offered his hand. "Sit down, please."
For a split second longer than necessary, Matthew clung onto Colin's hand before he lowered himself elegantly onto an upright chair across the desk.
Matthew was probably older than Colin and taller; he had a distinct presence. Colin was both impressed and disturbed: there was something almost other worldly about the man, mesmeric was the word that popped uninvited into his head.
They were a study in opposites. Matthew was wearing an off-white suit, silk Colin thought. His jacket hung loose. He wore a silk shirt, also white, open at the collar. His shoes were a smart deck-shoe. He could be anything from Colin's age - recently turned thirty five - to his fifties, it was impossible to say. He wore his hair long, almost to his shoulders, framing his face; he was lightly bearded.
Colin flipped open the thin cardboard folder with Crane's name on it and studied the almost empty pro-forma stapled to the inside cover. Only two columns had anything in them: Crane's name, and the sum of £500 - plus Value Added Tax - as a payment on account.
"How can I help you?"
Colin pushed his high-backed leather chair back on its rollers and crossed his legs beneath his desk, twisting the gold Dupont between each of his thumbs and forefingers.
"I don't know if you have heard of The Programme." The way he said it made clear he was talking about an organisation.
Colin logged the soft American accent. He shook his head, repeating:
"It's a group - an organisation - a way of life. A belief system, I call it."
"Like - uh," Colin fumbled for the name of a sect, without wanting to use the word. "Scientology? Children of God? "
He was already thinking: whatever it is, this is not for us. He did not like religions; he did not like sects or cults or recognise any distinction between them. His mother had been religious; she had used it to assert her moral superiority over both of the children and Charles; it had led to their separation.
"A cult?" He was not frightened of the more pejorative expression. "Some people would say so; some people do. Everything's a cult when it begins. I founded The Programme nearly ten years ago; now there are several hundred members; there are bigger cults but smaller religions."
"Are you, uh, a registered charity?" Colin grasped at the first legality to come to mind.
"We're not incorporated," Matthew replied. "It's built on trust; the people in The Programme trust each other; they trust me."
"Forgive me, Mr Crane ..."
"I'm known as The Teacher inside the group; Matthew otherwise."
"What were you going to say?" Matthew prodded him along.
"I was going to ask," Colin corrected, "what it was you wanted from me, from a solicitor?"
"One of our members - former members, I suppose you'd say, though we prefer to think of it as a temporary separation - deeded some property over to the group; now, er ..."
"They want it back," Colin supplied.
Colin was tempted to say: so give it back. Instead, he asked:
"How much property?"
Matthew shrugged carelessly.
"It's a farm in upstate New York - Hammer Reach; I don't know what it's worth. It is going to be the base for an American Chapter. There was some money, too. A quarter of a million."
"Dollars or pounds?" Colin pulled a notepad towards him, rolled the Dupont one last time between his forefingers and thumbs and removed its cap. Despite himself, he felt his interest stir. He had no idea of New York agricultural land values, but nowhere could be worth less than six figures. They were into a half-million dispute - dollars or pounds.
"Pounds," Matthew said. "I don't remember exactly how much it was originally."
"Who was he?"
"She. Amanda Kroger. American," he added.
"Was it her own money? How did she come by it?"
"Inheritance. Her father made some kind of patented dairy product. There was - is - a trust fund; that's untouched; this was additional capital. Entirely hers."
"And the land?"
"It had been left to her outright. There were several children; she was a bit wild; I think the idea was to try and get her away from the city. Does it matter, as long as it was hers?"
"What was your relationship with her?" Colin asked bluntly.
"She was a member of The Programme; she gave it to me as a member of The Programme. Members of The Programme trust me with their worldly assets as they trust me with their lives. They would not be members otherwise."
Colin noted that he had avoided answering.
"Has she issued a writ? Here? Or there?"
"It's not her. One of her sisters, acting as administrator. There's a court order, appointing her to manage Amanda's affairs. She's, uh, undergone some sort of breakdown. I've got a letter."
Matthew picked up his satchel and extracted a sheet of paper which he slid casually across the desk. Colin finished scribbling anote, skimmed the letter quickly, pressed a button on his phone. Before he could say anything, his secretary appeared and, wordlessly, took the letter from him. Colin explained:
"She'll take a copy. I take it, from the fact that you're here, you're not willing to give it back?" "Iwould give it back to Amanda in a moment if she asked for it herself. But I'm not giving it back to anyone else. Amanda gave it to me, to The Programme; I think she'll be back one day; I think when she does, she'll expect us to have used it for the group, the way she intended. Who is to say what is in her interests? Her sister, or me?"
"According to the letter, the court says the sister," Colin replied dryly.
"That's just one side. What if I appealed against the order, or had it set aside, however you do it?"
"I wouldn't know; not in New York. But if the court there approaches it the same way as here, I'd tell you not to waste your money. The best you could get, if you managed to persuade a court the sister isn't acting in, uh, Amanda’s best interests, would be to get someone else appointed. It wouldn't be you; and they wouldn't let you keep the money."
"Not without Amanda, right?"
Colin nodded; seeing at once where Matthew was leading.
"And a court case takes a while, right?"
Colin thought before saying:
"It's an American case."
"The money's here."
"True. They haven't issued proceedings here, though."
Still prevaricating, Colin asked:
"Chesterfield Gardens?" The address on the letter. "Is that your home?"
"It's our home, our base."
"Expensive." In the heart of Mayfair, in the shadow of the London Hilton, around the corner from the historical Shepherds' Market. There was real money in the background all right; real as in big.
"If we went into court, you realise it would mean, uh, declaring everything about the organisation - financially and otherwise."
"I have nothing to hide," Matthew would still not be drawn.
"I don't think, to be honest, I'm not sure we're the right firm for you. I'm not even sure why you came here." He hated to turn work away; he hated to turn away a case with money in it; but - however Matthew dressed it up - it was closer to a domestic dispute than to anything that might be called a business enterprise; and, it would be controversial.
"I looked around a bit. Read up on the Internet."
Arnotts had been one of the first firms to post their own board. If one knew the site name, it could be accessed directly; otherwise, it was accessed through half a dozen different directories, from community advice through corporate finance. It hadn't been intended to attract clients like this.
"You seemed to be the best for civil rights."
"Civil rights?" Colin didn't disguise his surprise. "What does this have to do with civil rights?"
"Isn't it? If this was property deeded to the Catholic Church, you think they'd be trying to get it back?"
"Questions of consideration," Colin answered lamely, admitting that Crane was right. "All the same, it's not what you might call a conventional civil rights issue; people, uh, tend to see these things from the individual's perspective, not the organisation's."
"That's your job, isn't it? To get them to see it the other way around. Individual rights aren't worth much if you can't exercise them. And that's what we're talking about here."
"Which is what? What is The Programme?"
"That's a question. I'll tell you what, Colin, I'll leave you a couple of booklets; you have a look at them and make up your own mind. If you're willing to act for us, fine; if not, well, it won't have cost you anything."
Matthew's tone was light, carefree, as if none of it was his problem, none of it touched him. Colin found it unnerving. This sort of first interview was supposed to be his forte, yet it was as if it - and he - had been completely controlled by Matthew.
They rose simultaneously. Matthew drew the booklets from his leather satchel and placed them face up on the desk. They were emblazoned with his photo, the pose unmistakably that of the Christ. The covers were all glossy, richly coloured, expensively produced. Colin casually flicked open one of the booklets: well printed, too. Each of the volumes bore the group's symbol, a circle, in four segments, not joined up, the sides of each segment ever so slightly curved inwards concave.
Colin walked Matthew to the front door.
"I still don't think we're the right people for you, but I'll read your, uh, books and I'll talk to one or two of the partners and, uh, I'll give you a ring." They shook hands. Matthew held onto his, smiling gently. "It's not worth it if it's going to make you unhappy."
"If I only took the work that made me happy, I wouldn't have much to do," Colin barely managed to reply.
He watched Matthew walk down the road towards Smithfield. Their offices were on St John's Street: halfway between the City and the Angel, Islington, a spit away from Clerkenwell Green. That was about right. Historically, Clerkenwell Green had been a centre for radicalism, and the Angel once an immigrant and working-class melting-pot; that was his father, Charles' constituency. The City was money - Colin's.
Just as he was about to go back in to the office, his father's car pulled up. From one God to another, Colin thought as he leaned down and spoke through the window:
"I didn't expect you in today."
"Sorry," Charles answered cheerfully, not meaning it. "I'm having lunch with your sister. Care to join us?" he added as Carey came out of the office behind Colin.
* * *
Why do some find self-fulfilment and others do not? We know we have an infinite capacity to expand and to advance ourselves, so why don't we do it? What holds us back? We say fear: fear to let go of the same codes of belief and behaviour that everyone around you adheres to even though you know that it confines you; fear to invest your imagination and hope except in the same stocks everyone else invests in, even though it's the stock with the lowest return! The only thing The Programme can offer you is courage; after that, you're on your own. How do we do it? Example, support, love: that's our programme. Come and meet us; we have a home in ChesterfieldGardens in Mayfair; you're welcome to drop in just to say hello, or for a meditation, or come and eat in our Coffee Lounge. There are no conditions, no catches, just people.
* * *
Carey was a forceful lawyer, strong enough to dominate her own clients, and an aggressive litigator. In her private relations, however, she was just the opposite: almost timid at first meeting, tentative - fragile was a word that came to people's lips, brittle a less flattering alternative.
She had been an unhappy child and she was an unhappy woman, darting between relationships and experiences, unable to commit, desperate for love and direction, terrified in case she made the wrong choice, most frightened of all that if she let anyone get close enough to love her, they would learn just how unlovable she really was, anyone but Charles and Colin who must surely by now already have found out and forgiven her.
Colin was the older by five years. When their parents separated, he was in his teens, she was just shy of them. They had been supposed to go to live with their mother. They had prevaricated and postponed the moment until, in less than a year, she had died of a violent, unannounced colonic cancer and it was too late. After that, it was just the three of them and their guilt.
Carey was tall for a girl, the same height as Colin. Colin was stocky, she was slight. Colin was beginning to bald; her hair was as fine and as full of lights as when she had been a child; she looked not much older than when she finished university. She had her mother's high cheek-bones; his were flat, giving the impression of a single, straight surface from jaw to forehead. Sometimes they joked that they must have had different fathers. It was only a joke because the idea of their mother being unfaithful to Charles was absurd; almost as absurd as the idea that he might ever have stayed faithful to her.
Their parents had met on an Aldermaston - Ban-the-Bomb - march in the 1950s: Charles propelled by politics, Marion by religion. In hindsight, it seemed as if it was the last time they had anything in common: he looked as if he had slept in a hedge, tufts of hair protruding from his head and most of its orifices, while she was always impeccably prepared and presented; the children were spoils of war to be fought over; Charles always won. When she died, and they were released from the obligation to go and live with her, it seemed like even God - even her God - was on his side.
Their mother had taken them to school or to the doctor, shopping for clothes and to children's parties. Charles took them skiing - water and snow - and into town to adult restaurants, gave them too much pocket money, asked what they thought, then argued with them when their opinions differed from his. His cases were in the newspapers and sometimes he appeared on television commenting on this or protesting about that. When he disappeared for a weekend with the latest young female articled clerk he had taken into his firm, it was for a conference. They were none of them fooled but, given the choice between their mother's dour sufferance - her tiny voice haunting them with scriptures full of doom and wrath - and his childlike exuberance, they took his side.
Carey filled herself up with work, occasional male companions - too often, because she had so little life outside, from within the firm - and irregular recourse to women friends from college with whom she had less and less in common. She drank wine - too much - and nibbled cheese alone in her tiny, cottage-like terraced house with the front window that looked right out onto the street, watching the people pass beneath the street light directly outside, smoking in solitude. She wanted something to fill the void, but she didn't know what. Sometimes, she heard secret beats inside her head - sometimes a jig, sometimes a dirge, sometimes a throbbing that was discernibly sexual. It came upon her at the strangest times - sometimes in front of her window, sometimes in a law library, sometimes in court.
"Apound for 'em," Charles prompted as they drove to the restaurant, an old joke, meaning her thoughts were worth far more than the conventional penny.
"Nothing," she shook her head. "Who was that with Colin?" The striking man she had seen from behind as she emerged from the building.
"I don't know. Ha." He spied a parking space and aimed the car at it like a javelin. "That's a piece of luck."
They ate at Oscars, a little known restaurant tucked into the basement of a massive, anonymous, fifties brownstone building full of small businesses in clusters of tiny offices sharing facilities on Temple Avenue, backing onto the Inns of Court.
Over pre-prandial drinks, Charles announced:
"I'm going down to Antibes soon. When are you coming?"
Charles owned an apartment overlooking the bay, on a small, well- maintained estate. He went down for six or eight weeks before the season and another couple of months afterwards. He despised people who had apartments on the Côte d'Azur, and loved to be near enough to let them know it. She usually went down for a visit - as Colin, Jan and their children did - but it had to be planned in advance. There were always visitors, some of them from the covey of widows and divorcees with whom Charles managed still to surround himself, others would be friends of his own age who had retired or, like him, who worked less than a full year. His sojourn in the South of France was organised so that he was never alone for too long at a time.
"How's the book?" she asked non-sequentially as they were brought their food. She watched as her father tasted the wine. Tried not to appear too eager for her own. She had a meeting to attend and clients to see that afternoon, but nothing too serious for a couple of lunch-time drinks.
Charles had been threatening to write his autobiography since, shortly before his sixtieth birthday, he had decided that the active part of his life was over and that it was time to arrange it into a permanent record as if it had all been a coherent whole.
He grunted. He was no further forward than the last time she had asked. Or the time before.
He pushed his food around on his plate, asked:
"How are you getting along?" She and Colin.
"Fine," she said. "We always get on fine."
He found it difficult to understand how she could be so close to him and yet so close to Colin.
"Ah, Jan." Jan - Colin's wife - Colin's pretty wife - wife and mother to his children. They were both jealous of her.
"She's the reason," Charles said darkly. Carey knew what was coming. Colin wanted to take the firm in a new, more commercial - more profitable - direction. It was Jan's fault: Jan who wanted their children in expensive private schools, delivered in expensive cars by smartly turned out nannies.
"It's the times," Carey said. "No one survives on legal aid anymore; all the others are doing the same."
* * *
What people fear most is being controlled; what they want most is to be taken care of. The only people who can be controlled are those who are not in control of themselves. Ask yourself why you are not in control of yourself. Ask yourself if you want to be. Then comes the difficult question. How? We don't have the answer; we don't think there is one answer; there are as many different answers as people asking the same question. We think everyone has to work it out for him- or herself, but we don't think you have to do it alone. We don't think anyone can do it alone. The crucial difference is between control and care; none of us needs to be in anyone else's control, yet all of us need someone to care for us. How can you be cared for - safely - unless you are also in that person's control, which defeats the very purpose? That's what we offer: a way to be cared for, and to care, without being controlled or controlling. Example, support, love: that's our programme.
* * *
Matthew strolled confidently from the Arnotts office all the way back to the Chapter, enjoying the solitude. He was always at work and on show. He was the public face and spokesman of The Programme. He was The Teacher. He was the father and the leader, the guide and the shepherd, the vessel through whom the message was interpreted. He had dependants at every level.
It was a fine, spring day. The journey did not take him as long as he would have enjoyed. Through Smithfield to Fleet Street and along the Strand, then through back streets until he reached Green Park. On Piccadilly, he stood and watched from a distance as a small group of Initiates and Acolytes sold their magazine to strollers. Donating, they called it: not collecting; they were offering more than they asked for.
Donating in the street did not produce an income on which they could thrive; nor did takings from the Coffee Lounge in the basement of the building; possibly fifty per cent of their outgoings could be met from this sort of income, including meditation, lecture and course fees. Some of the members, some of them residents, worked in outside jobs: one was an accountant; yet another was a personnel officer in the civil service. The balance came from the private incomes of members, legally or in practice made over to The Programme, from capital gifts, from the donations which members made when they committed their lives to The Programme and no longer needed an independent safety net. Donations like Amanda Kroger's: if it had to be given back, then none of the group's money was his; it was all no more than a loan.
He had enriched the truth for Arnott. Several hundred implied more than the two to three hundred to whom The Programme could at any one time lay claim, including not only the full-time, residential members and active outside followers but those who flitted in and out of the group as the mood took them and a number who had never made a formal commitment to it but who had hung around long enough for Matthew to consider them a part of the group's life. Even so, for a boy from the nowhere state of North Carolina, it was a sort of success; no one else he knew had achieved anything like it.
This was why he had come to Europe: to find success. He had been born in Asheville, the home-town of North Carolina's greatest writer, Thomas Wolfe. Another one larger than life. You can't go home again, he had written; but, look homeward angel. Move on, but do not forget where you come from.
He did not have Wolfe's talent; he did not have any other obvious talent, yet he had always believed - to a certainty - that he was destined to accomplish something special in life, that would make people say, yes, Asheville, Wolfe - and Matthew Crane, of course.
He had charm and wit and because he was a big man people wanted his protection. For a while, he had been in Vietnam; he had commanded men and killed enemy; he had no regrets - it was the most fulfilling time of his life. He had studied the Bible, read it cover to cover several times over, pondered its secrets and the hold it had over so many people for so long. He had wondered about it as he gazed on fire-wars: gun flares, flame-throwers, napalm, ritual bombings, shattered limbs and broken bodies - these too were the story that the Bible was trying to tell yet somehow fell short. He discovered a natural ability to lead. That was what he wanted to do: to lead and to protect. Though he could have stayed in the army, it was not a real choice; he was meant to fight his own battle, not someone else's war.
He had used GI Bill money to fund his travels; he had enlisted at the University of London. He had put his birth-family to one side and begun to create one of his own. He lived a dual life. For one part of it, he was merely the American philosophy student, older than most, with dark secrets that mystified and attracted but no discernible direction; for the other, he was plotting a way to create something that people would stand up and take notice of - in the end, that they would applaud. He had set to work with a clear sense of where he needed to be, even if he was not yet sure how to get there.
He had been amused when the lawyer mentioned Scientology. He had been approached outside Tottenham Court Road Underground Station, lured into their shop-front fly-trap, answered their questions, attended meetings, paid for e-meter readings, made love to their women and thought: I could do this too.
He had learned that once people were dependent, they would do almost anything he wanted: that was what he offered them; the capacity to do things they would not have the courage to do on their own; peer group pressure was a particularly potent drug: take an act that a person might be able to imagine but would not have the confidence to perform; show that person one other who was willing to do it and it was within grasp; show that person two others - or five or ten - willing to do it, and theonly questions that remained were how soon, how often, how much. He had tested the theory and proved it incrementally: spiritual exploration and abasement alike, mental, moral, even physical.
So many people - mostly young, many well-educated, all of them superficially self-possessed - were desperate for something more than friends and families could offer. He was the Big American, a big brother; he was charismatic; he combined novelty with security; he offered them something that was new, gift-wrapped and with a guarantee for life; gradually, the flotsam came together to form a floating island.
He had learned one thing early. Not quantity, but quality. He rejected nearly as many would-be followers as he accepted. Every rejection bound each of those he accepted ever more tightly. People cost money; monied people cost nothing. Nothing would be achieved if he did not build a net strong enough for the wider trawl. The lonely, the emotionally dispossessed, the frantic, the hungry with something financial to contribute were every bit as worthy of his attentions as those whose neediness was their solitary asset.
Many of those who joined him were American exiles: there was a post-Vietnam generation - later, post-Gulf - addicted to cynicism and despair, living like Matthew against the backdrop of fire, who could not switch off and settle into the family business; some had fallen foul of the law - one or two had been to jail; although there were exceptions - like Amanda Kroger - they tended to bring less capital wealth into the group than their British and European counterparts, but they were much quicker to find ways to make money and most of them had at least a small income-stream from home, intended to keep them as far away from it as possible.
* * *
This is what The Programme is like. It is like the secret place you hid in as a child: maybe you were a little scared, because you were hiding, but also you felt safe, safe as only a child can be, in the sanctuary of his or her parents’ keep. You are scared and at the same time you are drawn to it. What does it mean? It isan admission that we need something more than we can create for ourselves; it is an admission that we need someone to take care of us; we cannot go back and find our parents - we have to go forward and find something to take their place. It is something we need others to build with us; that means we have to trust them, and earn their trust; that means we have to know that no one of us is more committed - and no one of us has held more in reserve - than the others. In the end, it is like any relationship - the sum must be greater than its parts.
* * *
Matthew arrived back at Chesterfield Gardens shortly after lunch. Outside, a new follower - a non-resident member - was polishing the discreet plate that announced the way into the basement Coffee Lounge. The house was busy. He could hear noise from the kitchen; chattering in the Coffee Lounge. In reception, Sister Rebecca - ungainly, overweight, awkward in motion but quick with her mind - was detailing last night's Coffee Lounge receipts overlooked by an oversized portrait of himself.
She glanced up as he entered, rose urgently, half-bowed and half- stumbled, finally remembered to smile.
"I am one," she said.
"We are many," he murmured as - without breaking his stride - he mounted the sweeping stairs that led first to the huge, high Meditation Hall and meeting room and, beyond, to the private quarters where the junior ranks of resident members lived in virtual dormitories and - beyond them - where he and Cassandra each occupied separate quarters of their own. He was home; he was God.
* * *
Do not ask me who or what God is. Ask me what godliness is. Godliness is what we put up there on a pedestal, to represent that special quality we see in ourselves and in humankind generally and that makes us better than we behave. Godliness can be kindly, it can be harsh, it can be profoundly challenging. Godliness is good just because it is godliness, not because it is nice or kind or forgiving. Godliness is our sense that we are more than flesh and bones and the limits of our daily lives; godliness is soul come to mind. Psychoanalysts might call it superego, individual or collective; moralists, the conscience; religionists believe that it is a quality that belongs to - and is given to us by - God. We believe that it is the other way round. God is the manifestation of godliness; God is the representative of what we hold up on high; God is the sum total that is more than our parts.
* * *
In his bedroom, Matthew changed into black slacks and a black high- necked, roll-top sweater. At one time, they had all worn black - black capes in the street, a black uniform like the one he had just put on. Around their necks they had worn The Programme symbol in different metals to distinguish their ranks. He and Cassandra - The Seer - wore platinum; the Superiors wore gold; Senior Messengers, silver; there were Junior Messengers and Initiates with brass symbols, and the outside Acolytes stainless steel. The segments represented the four elements, fire always supreme.
That was in the dark days when their message was of gloom and despair, when God was Satan and The Teacher their only hope for salvation. Members of The Programme would be saved from the final holocaust, but only at a price of punishment and penitence. Although he had played his part, and commanded unquestioning obedience to the rituals of humiliation and shame that Cassandra had devised, he preferred tunnels with shafts of unexpected light to caves of unrelenting night. When their personal relationship changed, he seized the opportunity to separate their spiritual paths. The Teacher and The Seer no longer spoke with a single voice; instead, he costumed the members in white while Cassandra and her clique hid in the shadows, waiting for prey.
Cassandra was his lawful wife. She was the source of his right to reside in the United Kingdom. She was a small, sharp-featured, heavy-breasted, black-haired Welsh woman, with an anomalous high-pitched giggle. A decade his junior, she was the sister of one of his earliest followers - Huw - who was also one of the first to leave the group: she and Huw had been uncomfortably close.
Matthew and Cassandra made an odd couple. They had turned the complex dimensions of their relationship as it used to be into a fount of tension through which the tenets of The Programme had emerged like a howling, new-born child, violent and innocent, knowledgeable and unlearned, instinctual and physical.
Then they had used their disunion to reshape the group. The Teacher was now both darkness and light; he could be a wrathful, disciplinarian God one moment and a forgiving Christ and joyful Cherub the next. He could choose at will. Cassandra remained The Seer, but she was always and forever harshness incarnate. It created two centres within the group and thus enhanced its range: the innermost core of senior members - Superiors - were immediately below The Teacher within the hierarchy; but a cross-section of members at every level were additionally the private property of The Seer, Satan's troops.
The most secret ritual of the resident members - still called the Midnight Mass - brought these two internal factions into direct conflict light versus dark. From within this energy, The Teacher rose magisterially to decide which element was to emerge victorious for the next round. Exhausted, they curled up on the floor of the Meditation Hall to sleep, limbs entwined, comforting one another, some of them clinging on to one another, welded into a molten whole.
In the Chesterfield Gardens Chapter, Matthew wore black or white as the mood took him, but - like the other residents - only white when out and about in the world. The Seer alone wore no uniform; she was a triumphal star on the crest of the hill. Symbols around necks had gone altogether, replaced by belt buckles; the passage through spiritualism was ostensibly in the past, even if they returned to it in private; now it was about minds - giving up impotent individual freedom in favour of a collective freedom of infinite power. The disciplines this change imposed on the resident members were acts of liberation.
There was a knock at the door to his living-room. Except in an emergency, no one disturbed him in his private quarters uninvited except Sister Helen.
"Come in, Helen," he called.
If anyone threatened Cassandra, it was Helen. Helen was Matthew's future. Helen was the closest thing to a second wife. Helen was an ethereal, West Coast Canadian and younger than Cassandra by more than another decade. Unlike Cassandra, she was slender - small-breasted, small-waisted and taller, like a model. Her face was gentle, devoid of cutting angles and bruising knots. Helen was his child, his hand-maiden, his mistress. Helen was everything Cassandra was not. Helen was quiet; Helen was graceful; Helen was good. Helen would glide into a room which Cassandra would take by force. Helen could stand still for an hour but Cassandra not for a moment. Helen did not demand, she waited patiently until she was given.
"I am one," she said automatically.
Matthew smiled, passed a hand over her fine red-blonde hair.
"We are many," he replied.
"Together we shall be whole," she concluded.
She saw he was wearing black. Her face revealed no emotion. When he was in a dark phase, life was turmoil: for all of them; for her too. That was what he wanted: to shake them up, to displace their complacency, to turn them on each other and even on himself; he wanted to throw everything into the air and see where it came down; it meant that he was unsettled or perhaps even frightened; at its lowest, he was bored.
As she stood passively before him, he fixed himself in her eyes, passed the back of his hand over her cheek, first one side then the other, he ran a finger the length of her torso, between her breasts, from the hollow in her throat to the silver symbol-buckle of the white belt of her white skirt, only recently exchanged for brass. He leaned forward and kissed her gently on the forehead.
"Later," he murmured.
"I came to see if you'd eaten," she said. It was her destiny to ensure that he was fed, for whatever he was hungry. "There's soup. Fresh bread. Some rice." They baked their own bread, made their own soups; they were vegetarian, making a virtue of necessity: it was cheaper than meat.
"I have work."
"May I stay here?"
"I was working on an article for The Programme," he said, meaning the magazine they sold in the streets and at reception. "It's on screen." Finish it for me, Sister Helen, he was telling her.
He passed Rebecca on the stairs, relieved from reception duty, on her way to her dormitory to meditate and rest, asked her where he might find Cassandra. Rebecca told him she was teaching, in The Temple.
The Temple was the sound-proofed, back room on the first floor, to which outsiders never had access, its high ceiling painted to resemble the hanging sheets of an eastern pagoda. It was the room in which the Midnight Masses were held once every two or three months. One wall held a giant painting of The Programme symbol: unlike its normal presentation, in which the areas between the segments were empty, in this painting they were rich in detail - storm and fire.
At a push, The Temple could hold fifty. Now, though, Cassandra was seated cross-legged on a huge, square floor cushion so tightly packed she hardly dented it, surrounded by a half dozen of her Initiates and Acolytes, kneeling. Matthew let himself in silently; if she heard him enter, she did not acknowledge it.
She wore a thin red robe big enough to cover her from head to toe. The members' eyes were shut, their arms outstretched towards her. She took one of their wrists in her hand, someone with his back to Matthew, and drew it down herself, much as Matthew had stroked Helen, but across her breast, lingering, sensual.
"What do you feel?" she murmured.
There was a long silence. Then, dry-voiced, the youngster replied:
As the youngster turned, Cassandra let go of his wrist. Matthew recognised Brother Lucius, a slim, fair-haired, beautiful boy in his early twenties, Lucius of Cyrene.
"I am one," Brother Lucius acknowledged The Teacher.
The others of the group intoned the greeting.
"We are many," Matthew replied.
"Together we shall be whole," they spoke in harmony.
Cassandra giggled but said nothing.
"Why agony, Teacher?" Lucius asked.
"Do you think that when you reach out to someone with love, it is necessarily what they receive? It can be painful, agonising. Especially if it is not what they want."
"I love Cassandra," Lucius answered. In this group, that was what they called her: not Seer.
"Yes, but does she love you?"
"I love Lucius," Cassandra said. "He knows that I love him."
She took his hand again and led it to her breast.
"What do you feel?" She repeated her question.
After another silence, Lucius answered, lowering his head in shame: "Agony."
* * *
We say "I am one", and someone answers "We are many". What we mean is that together we have created that special something we each want; it is not an incantation but a positive reminder that there is a purpose to our coming together in The Programme. We want to make sure that - day on day - we do not take each other for granted; instead, we are here to work together - every single member of The Programme is hereto work with each and every other member towards that purpose, every time one of us passes another on the stairs, or sits down to enjoy a cup of tea, or to share a mundane, housekeeping chore. What we are doing is taking the slightest, smallest task and focusing on how, doing it together, we can get something positive from it.
* * *
The Management Committee was composed of Colin, Carey, and four others - with Charles in attendance, when he wanted to be, ex officio.
"It's a straightforward decision," Colin insisted. "Either we tender or not." Historically, Arnotts acted for employees, not the bosses. Now they had, for the first time, been invited to bid for the employee relations work of an employer, and not just any employer, but a major, formerly nationalised and still national industry. If they won, it would be followed by others.
"Nothing's that straightforward," Alison Hansen fought on. "If we tender and don't get it, we get the worst of both possible worlds: we lose unions because we wanted employer work; and we don't get the contract to compensate."
Alison Hansen knew more about employment law than any of them had forgotten. A lean, spare, hard-looking woman in her mid-forties, recently and suddenly deserted by her husband of twenty years, there were General Secretaries - tough and working-class to a man - who would not call a strike without consulting her, nor would settle a dispute if she raised an eyebrow in disagreement.
"Where is this leading, Colin? Where do you want it to go?"
"I'm asking you. At the moment, income is thirty per cent crime, against expenditure of nearly half; family, domestic, small claims, petty problems, say ten per cent income, fifteen percent cost; your union work fifteen per cent income, about the same expenditure. About eighty per cent of our expenditure generates fifty-five per cent of the income. The remaining twenty per cent of our expenditure generates forty-five per cent of our income. The margin is profit. I, uh, rest my case."
"Which is what?" Alison pressed, ever the negotiator.
"That if the balance doesn't change, dramatically and soon, we'll have to choose between continued investment in the firm and what we can personally take out of it. That's a conflict that could cost us lawyers, perhaps more of them than the firm can bear; ultimately, it could tear us apart."
"Then we might as well do it," Graham Engel - a Colin loyalist - said. "If the firm'll disintegrate anyway, we've nothing to lose."
Alison raised her eyebrows in despair. Before she could speak, though, Alistair chipped in, ever graphic, vulgar only by design, when a few blunt words would save him the trouble of a speech.
"Sometimes, it's better to die for principle than to spread your legs for the enemy, son."
If Charles had a consigliore within the firm, it was Alistair Mathison, former and first articled clerk of Charles Arnott, much married and as many times divorced, a compact man of nearly sixty and carrying it well, the leading criminal light of his generation.
Alistair's position within the firm put him above factions. He was personally and professionally loyal to both Charles the father and Colin the son. His reputation and practice had been based at and on Arnotts but now stood out in its own right.
The sixth member of the Committee was Patrick Preston. He, like Colin and Graham, was a civil lawyer; he, like Alistair, had been articled to Charles, but in his case only nominally: he had worked instead with Alistair for half a year, with Colin for another, and had finished up with Wendy Brett, their then family practitioner, whom Charles had ushered out of the firm to make space for Carey. Now, he was Head of Litigation.
Patrick was in his early thirties, of a generation with Colin. He ran each year in the London Marathon. He could name every film that had been made in black and white. He sang in a choir. The MP3 player he wore as he walked to work played Law Society professional updates. He drank New Zealand Chardonnay. His father was a preacher; his mother bought antiques. He came from a family that could trace its origins back for more than two centuries, and had lost its fortune long before the first depression. He lived alone in a flat in the Barbican. He was an archetypal English eccentric. He was in love with Carey.
"Can we get back to the budget," he asked, preferring statistics to personalities.
"Budgets be buggered. I've a pair of long-term fraudsters to see in the Scrubs at four o'clock."
"What do you think, Alistair?"
She wanted to know whose side he would come out on before she declared her own position.
"I do my crime; I'll take any case that comes along. Give me a man who's cut up his innocent wife of twenty years, and I'll turn it into six figures of legal aid money without breaking a sweat. I'm no one to tell others what they ought to do." He loved Carey but at times like this her reluctance to commit herself irritated him. "What do you want? Clients who never do anyone any harm?"
"This doesn't need to be personal," protested Patrick.
"Sonny," Alistair affected a Scots accent that wasn't his by more than a generation, "it's all personal. You may have lineage; me, I want a cheque in the bank big enough to hear the interest adding up."
"Then you agree with me," Colin insisted.
Alison shook her head.
"It's not that simple."
"Here we go again," Carey sang. "Around and around."
She was right, thought Colin: it was deadlock. He and Graham formed one faction. Patrick supported them intellectually but usually sought to straddle the fence rather than risk antagonising Carey, who all too often would not say. Charles and Alison were the other faction. Alistair, like Patrick and Carey but for different reasons, wouldn't take sides.
"We'll have to call a partnership meeting, then."
"Soon," said Carey, thinking that their father was going abroad shortly.
As the others bustled from the room, Carey hung back.
"Nice lunch?" Coli leaned back, eyes teasing.
"Who was the Man in White?" she answered, sliding up to sit on his desk, facing him with her legs crossed.
"Funny you should ask," he pulled out the file - fattened by the booklets Matthew had left with him - from a pile of a half dozen others.
Over the course of the Management Committee discussion, Colin had reached his decision. He was not going to turn away paying work without good cause.
"I was wondering if you might let me know what you thought about this. Odd sort of business - cult type action - people wanting their property back - sort of thing." He shoved the file along towards her, conscious of her proximity and her position. "Good thing you're my sister." He covered up his embarrassment. "I'd be up on some sort of employer charges."
"Good thing you're my brother," she answered tartly, picking up the file, "not my employer. This is him?" Matthew.
"The Teacher," Colin announced sarcastically.
"You want me to take him on?" She wasn't fooled by his request for her views; if he hadn't already decided, he wouldn't have asked.
"As a client," Colin laughed. "Only as a client."
* * *
At the Midnight Mass, the Teacher raged:
"None of you, none of you is committed - not wholly committed, not truly committed, not committed until you can feel the rough edges of your soul as it rubs against the raw need of The Programme, the hunger that causes it to scrape and scratch for more until the last drop of blood dribbles from the broken skin.
"What do you think I am doing with my life? My life is your life; my needs are yours; my hunger is your failure. Purpose and counter-purpose: if you have not learned to throw yourself entirely into your purpose, how can you expect the Messengers and Initiates to do so? Every inch of your being that does not achieve perfection is an act of hostility against me, an act of theft from me, an act of war.
"I am your Teacher, your father, you owe nothing to yourselves, nothing but what you can give to me; you cannot love yourselves except as you love me; you do not live unless and until it is my life that you are living. We may take many forms and even more directions - there is but one direction: mine, The Programme - you are many; I alone am whole."