By Bethan Morgan
Excerpt from the Ministerial and Other Salaries Amendment Act 2025:
In the case of the aforementioned offices a salary may be paid to each holder of office subject to the limitations expressed below, that is to say—
- That it is within the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister to appoint any number of Secretaries of State as he or she so wishes, who will receive salaries in accordance with the quantities laid out above
- That the shadow cabinet may expand to employ an equal number of ministers given it does not exceed the limit set by the Prime Minister at any given time
The leaf was splayed on the ground at the entrance to Westminster station, red as rage.
Perhaps that’s why Jack’s eyes locked on to it as he climbed up the steps from the Underground. It had been glued to the pavement by rain and guck but still retained that fiery echo of autumnal vengeance. He imagined its lonely journey to this brazen spot, its doomed companions mercilessly scattered by the wind. Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men, he thought sadly, suddenly remembering Glaucus’ fateful words in the Iliad.
His reverie was shattered as the leaf vanished beneath a pounding boot, replaced swiftly by a gleaming trainer, and then the silver exterior of one of those new WeatherKicks, whose soles adapted automatically to different surfaces.
‘Excuse me,’ a voice growled somewhere over his right shoulder.
Jack stumbled out of the way in bewilderment, muttering an apology as the owner of the voice swept past, arrogantly stabbing the air with the cane gripped in one gloved hand and disappearing under the umbrella that unfolded in a flash from its tip. Jack buttoned his own coat to the neck, shrugging his satchel further over his shoulder. A newsstand blazed, waist-height, beside him, the morning’s headlines curling across its screens.
Cyanide Soaks Westminster Again As The Shadow Deck Loses a Deuce.
An icy spider of unease crawled down his spine, but he shrugged it off as quickly as it came, disabling the Bluetooth on his phone before the tabloid’s contents began downloading onto it.
Only then did he step out into the rain and look up.
He squinted through the droplets at the looming spectre of Big Ben, heart racing. The sight would never fail to stupefy him. He’d only approached the ancient clock tower from this angle once before, and his feelings of awe were the same now as they had been then, a whole decade ago. His mum had held his hand and pointed up at the colossal ticking hands and whispered in his ear telling him of what it had stood for when she was his age, not the mud of maze-like ministries but the heartbeat of liberalism in a chaotic world.
He turned back to Portcullis House with great reluctance. It was a violent juxtaposition indeed to see such a glorious building faced off by such an ugly one. He finally understood what Kafka had meant when K. gazed on the castle for the first time. If ever a building had looked like a gloomy inmate bursting from the ground it was this one.
Jack swallowed nervously then set off to find the entrance, dodging a delivery drone as it zoomed around the corner. He was about twenty minutes early but thought it better to be eager than indolent, especially given the state of the transport services these days.
The silver-haired security guard manning the visitor’s entrance X-rayed his coat, belt, boots, identity bracelet, and satchel, which contained nothing but his tablet, headset, a battered copy of the Iliad that had belonged to his mum, and a deck of cards, the latter two items added as good-luck charms before he left that morning.
‘Come through, please,’ the guard on the other side of the metal detector called.
‘Jack Allways. I’m here for work experience with Julius Gruelon, Shadow King of Diamonds.’
The woman tapped away at the tablet in her hands for several seconds then nodded stiffly. She pressed a small silver encoder to the screen until there was a tinny beep, then seized his right hand and stamped his wrist. He winced, glancing down to see a cryptic web of dots and lines glowing blue just under his skin.
‘That will dissolve in three days. Now, go straight along the length of the atrium and turn right past the conference suites. There’s a waiting lounge at the end of that corridor next to a bank of elevators. Mr Gruelon will be with you shortly.’
‘Thank you.’ But she had already turned away.
The atrium was like the open hull of some vast naval galleon from a forgotten century. Great metallic sails stretched across the latticed ceiling far above and two large pools of water dominated the floor, watched on each side by rows of leafy fig trees.
Jack accelerated towards the opposite end, peering curiously at every black-suited figure who hurried past him, many racing along on e-boards. He spotted four cabinet ministers, identified by those distinctive black and red brooches pinned to the lapels of their jackets. The two he saw sporting red hearts also wore bright-red patent leather shoes, while the club and the spade were dressed head to toe in black.
The lounge was empty when he found it. Two leather couches faced each other across a light oak table split down the middle by an emitter. The image projected up from it was a newsreel, the reporter’s voice drifting eerily across the room.
‘…amidst accusations that the Shadow Deuce of Diamonds had been implicated in a plot against her counterpart, the Secretary of … of Public Political Persuasion and Opinion, who was elected as MP of Ochil and South Perthshire in the 2050 General Election last year. This places suspicions of foul play directly on the head of the Diamond Deuce and in turn the entire Diamond hand, raising the question of whether this Shadow plot had actually been verified and, if not, why this latest cyanide flush was so swiftly committed. Prime Minister Rosewing is yet to release a comment as her cabinet reshuffle enters its eighty-fourth day, with the Shadow deck now entering its one hundred and nineteenth. We turn now to yesterday’s developments which unfolded with rumours the Ace of Spades had tipped off his Trey and Queen that Amelia Rosewing was set to reallocate their positions to the MPs from…’
Jack tuned out in disgust and began to pace, his mum’s final whispered words to him that morning echoing around his head.
Be careful, Jack. Be more careful than you’ve ever been before. Reason is your armour, you’re the star of the waning summer who beyond all stars shall rise.
He clutched his satchel tighter, feeling the weight of the Iliad pressing against his leg.
At that very moment an elevator hissed open behind him.
He whirled around to see a tall, lupine man stepping out, red shoes gleaming like rippling blood. He had a long face, chin as sharp as glass, obsidian-black hair gelled back over his head, and glaring eyes set beneath a heavy brow. His sleek, black suit was paired with a burgundy-coloured silk shirt buttoned right to his neck and a red diamond pin glinting like a drop of blood from his lapel. Jack couldn’t even make a wild guess at his age. There had been a shocking lack of information online about this particular minister.
‘Jack Allways?’ the man said. His voice was crisp and cool, the faintest of accents clipping his syllables, possibly heavily diluted Welsh.
‘Yes, sir,’ Jack replied, stepping forwards and offering a hand.
‘My name, as I’m sure you have deduced already,’ he said, leading the way into the open elevator, ‘is Julius Gruelon. I understand you’ll be with us for the next three days.’
‘Please, I am yet to receive my GBE from His Majesty, so call me Julius for now.’
‘Right, okay, um… Julius.’
The elevator doors whooshed back to reveal a long, carpeted corridor lined on one side by glass windows that looked out over the atrium and on the other by pale oak doors.
‘This floor is occupied by our party,’ Julius continued in a monotone, striding off down the corridor. ‘And most of our cabinet ministers also have their offices here. You’ll know of course that there are fifty-two Secretaries of State in both cabinets.’
Shining dully from the centre of each door was a small plaque hosting either a diamond, heart, club, or spade with a Roman numeral engraved inside it. Jack thought bitterly of how many permutations there were of fifty-two cards in a deck. Even if the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition just randomly reshuffled the cabinet ministers they already had into different positions they could go at it for quite literally billions of years before hitting the same outcome twice.
‘Don’t you like it?’ Julius asked in a bored tone. It was only then that Jack realised he had been glaring at the plaques as they went by. He tried to fix a look of awe onto his face.
‘Why should you assume I don’t?’ he replied, smiling to himself.
‘Visitors never like it.’
He looked at Julius in surprise, his stomach flipping. The quote was word perfect.
‘Why should you assume I haven’t read Kafka?’
Jack was saved from trying to respond to this when Julius stopped in front of one of the doors, Diamond 13, gesturing stiffly. ‘Please.’
Jack pushed through it hesitantly and found himself in a low-ceilinged room interspersed with banks of interactive screens. He counted six people, all of whom looked up as they entered.
‘You must be Jack,’ a short, elfish woman with bleached blonde hair said in a falsetto voice, stepping forwards to shake his hand, also wearing a black suit and red shoes.
‘Meet Frieda Block,’ Julius said, ‘head of my team here. She’s your first port-of-call for any questions regarding parliamentary processes or deck lingo.’
‘It’s a delight to finally meet our highest scoring applicant,’ Frieda said. Her eyes were a peculiar shade of hazelnut, almost golden. ‘92% on the party affiliation and loyalty test, 100% on the cabinet names and titles test.’
Jack tried to smile. ‘Yes.’
The only reason he had managed it was due to Malika in the year above him outlining in detail the nature of the questions after she had failed to secure the same work experience last year. The whole test was a twisted farce.
Julius swept past them to another door at the back of the room. Jack nodded politely at Frieda before following.
Julius’ office was low-lit with dark-panelled walls and a thick maroon carpet. Gleaming mahogany cabinets lined the back of the room, upon which sat an ancient cribbage board, a small ornament of a double-edged axe, and a row of antique decanters filled with red wines and golden spirits. Above the wide desk hung a real oil painting of a man standing heroically at the prow of a longboat, clad only in a windswept red cloak and a plumed bronze helmet, sword and shield raised proudly in his muscled arms.
Jack stared. It was Achilles. In fact, it looked like the 18th century portrait by Bon-Thomas Henry dog-eared in one of his mum’s books. This, surely, could not be the original.
‘You like Grecian art?’ Julius drawled as he began tapping away at the screen set into the surface of the desk, one of the only signs of technology in the room.
‘Yes. Very much. My mum’s a Classics professor at London University.’
‘Where you study…?’
‘Politics and Economics.’
‘Right.’ Julius’ attention was still fixed on the flickering screen at his fingertips. Jack tried to make out what was displayed there. Live-chat? News headlines dominated the left hand side, all displaying what looked like stories about yesterday’s murder, or ‘cyanide flush’ as the sensationalist vultures had been calling such acts since before the reshuffle had started. Seeds of rage blossomed in his gut as he pictured the homeless people crowded around the tube stations seeking any conceivable glimmer of warmth, the rapidly censored clips online of gang violence in the ghettos, the street-long queues curling out from the collapsing hospitals, the constantly smoking crematoriums, the only burial option now given the rampant overcrowding across the city.
‘And your father?’
Jack blinked, uncurling his fists.
‘It’s only me.’
‘Um… a Chocolate Lab, Hector.’
At this, Julius looked up. ‘Hero of Troy, eh?’ He smirked.
Jack frowned in confused annoyance but said nothing, following Julius out of the room again with one final glance back at the text still cycling across the desk screen.
The next few hours seeped by like tar. Jack took notes during Julius’ committee meeting that had nothing to do with business or finance but rather discussion over some convoluted amendment to ministerial procedures that dragged on until late afternoon, all the while trying to memorise faces, cryptic comments, sinister gibes, and words, words, words.
Eventually he found himself back in Julius’ office, donning his coat and satchel once more and straining to hear the heated exchange Julius was having with Frieda. He pretended to be examining the cribbage board when Julius stormed in a few seconds later, his angular face red, teeth gritted.
‘I need you to stay late tonight. There’s a meeting.’ Sweat shone on his brow.
‘The Queen of Spades is on his way,’ Frieda said, leaning around the door. Her eyes were wide. She looked frightened. ‘It was his only window.’
Julius swore and strode across the office, pulling the chairs away from the wall until they were spread out around the small, round table in front of the cabinets. Jack watched in confusion, unsure of how to react to this inexplicable scene of panic.
He was about to ask what on earth was wrong when Julius swung round manically and seized his wrist, dragging him to one of the cabinets.
‘Listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you.’ He dropped to one knee and delved into the back of the cupboard, emerging a second later with a thin vial of clear liquid. ‘We’ve just been tipped off that the Spade Queen won’t be shuffled. This is very bad because he just uncovered a clue that could lead him to the heart of the Shadow flush network, in short, to us. He thinks he’s coming to a shuffle speculation meeting. Ten minutes before the end, I’m going to run a hand through my hair. When you see this, get up to refill the water glasses, and pour this vial into the Queen’s glass. He won’t suspect you given your age and status. Do you understand?’
It was a joke, some kind of crude joke. The room tilted as though the whole building had slipped into the Thames, water rushing in through the windows.
‘Do you understand?’ Julius growled, gripping his shoulders painfully.
‘Yes,’ he said weakly. He felt detached from his body, numb.
‘He’s here,’ came Frieda’s voice, higher than ever. And then, several seconds later, a large, bearded man entered the office, a black spade shining from his lapel.
‘Julius,’ he said gruffly. ‘And…?’
‘Jack,’ Jack managed to stutter, shaking his hand. ‘Work – work experience.’
And the meeting began. Jack didn’t hear a word of it.
It felt like it had only been seconds when he saw Julius carefully sweep his hair back.
Jack rose mechanically to his feet, lifting all three, now empty, glasses from the table and walking over to the drinks cabinet as though in a trance. The vial was lying flat behind the decanters. He poured several inches of sparkling water into each glass, and emptied the vial into the one in his right hand, making his mind up before the cyanide hit the surface.
Keeping it on the right, he picked up one of the others in his left hand then turned back to the table, and set the left one down in front of his own seat, and the right one in front of Julius.
He returned to the cabinet, picked up the third glass, and placed it carefully before the Spade Queen, quietly lowering himself back into his chair. His mouth felt like sandpaper. He sipped his water, head spinning, and didn’t look once at Julius, though he heard him take several gulps.
Less than fifteen minutes later, the Spade Queen had left, closing the door behind him.
Silence fell like a gavel.
‘You know,’ Julius said, ‘Frieda thought you would do it.’
Jack looked up at him. His head felt like a block of lead. Nausea swept up from his stomach in a hot wave. He couldn’t quite seem to focus.
‘But I knew, you see, the moment I saw you,’ Julius continued, ‘the moment I saw that spectre of defiance and outrage in your baby eyes. You don’t understand the mechanisms of this world.’
‘I don’t – ’ Jack gasped. The room tipped and he fell hard onto the ground. Had they crashed into the Thames?
‘I switched our glasses when you went to get the Queen’s.’
Horror convulsed through his chest. Was that a fist clenching down on his heart?
‘You can’t – ’
But Julius had risen to his feet.
‘You know what they call a Jack of Diamonds… Laughing boy.’ His face split as he let out a bark of laughter, holding his stomach and wheezing.
‘They’ll find… You’ll be c – caught.’
‘Oh, Jack, my dear boy,’ he murmured, kneeling down, his face now the entire world. ‘It’s about time you realised. No one cares.’
The floor was falling away.
His throat was closing up.
Zeus and the weeping horses. Zeus had said to them. They wept and he said.
There is nothing alive more agonised than man
of all that breathe and crawl –