The Prime Minister's office in The Residence, Topstad, is always a hub of activity. In theory, the PM can just lock the door, but in fact, most of the time the door is wide open, and anyone can wander in. And everyone does.
On this occasion, at nearly nine o-clock on a Thursday evening, someone didn't so much wander in as storm in. The door flew open so hard it nearly broke the antique door frame. The man who entered was red-faced, and holding a folder. His first words were not ones you'd broadcast.
"F**king Tories!" he blasted.
There was a polite pause. Without looking up from her work, the PM muttered "not since college."
"Sorry," said the Prime Minister of Georgeland, "I thought you were asking a question."
The intruder paused, and then deflated slightly. "I take it," said Mrs. Parker, "that the Opposition have annoyed you?"
"Bunch of f**cks," replied the man. It was enough to answer the question.
Parker sighed. She'd been signing documents - she put the pen down, folded her hands on the desk and looked her chief of staff in the eye. "Sharif?" she asked. He nodded.
"The clowns on the Judicial Committee have moved a motion," said Bill Farmer, for that was his name, "that all proceedings of the Committee be scheduled for three in the morning on alternate Saturdays. Then another Tory opened the issue for debate. Each Tory - that's all seven of them - is going to speak for an hour or more on the topic. And they can do it all again if they want. F**ckers!"
Parker frowned. "Delaying tactics."
"Yes," replied Bill. "They don't have the numbers to knock back Sharif in Parliament so they'll hold the nomination up in committee. Again."
"Why do we have to go through this every time we nominate a judge?" asked Parker, wearily. "We had all this with Fitzpatrick..."
"...and we lost that one," added Farmer, bitterly.
"Yes...and my predecessor went through it with Seeyal and...Ray as well, I think. Why the hell can't they just vote for the bloody judge?"
Bill sat down, or rather plonked down, on the PM's couch. "With Fitzpatrick they maybe had a point," he said. He'd been burned badly on that deal - everyone had known appointing Fitzpatrick, who was clearly partisan, was a bad move but he'd done it anyway. It was amazing he'd kept his job - staff had been fired before for less. "But with Sharif it's bleeding obvious," he said. "She's a Muslim. It's racism, pure and simple."
Of course it was racism. That was the point. Parker had known that. Farmer had known that. Appoint a Muslim judge and dare the Tories to oppose it. But, of course, they opposed it anyway. It was frustrating, even though they'd known it was going to happen. Oh, the Tories wouldn't say it was because she was a Muslim. They'd say she was partisan, or that there were issues of legality - but nobody would believe them. And the trouble was that that didn't matter. The people who didn't care that the nominee for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court of Georgeland was an Islamic woman wouldn't vote Tory anyway, and the people that did care would only vote harder if the Tories blocked her appointment.
The really stupid thing was that they couldn't block the appointment outright. They needed a Senate majority, which they didn't have. Unfortunately, Parker didn't have one either. That left the Alliance, which would never vote to reject a candidate so obviously qualified.
Parker frowned again, and stared out the window. It would have been nice if there'd been a view of the city, but all there was was the rose garden outside, illuminated by the old-style lamp posts. One of the Parker dogs, Willy, was out there now, staring stupidly at Parker through the French doors. She opened it and let the Golden Retriever inside - without a sound, Willy headed for the fireplace and sat in front of it.
Parker turned back. "Is Bonnie outside?"
"No, she went home," said Bill. "Why?"
"I need two cups of coffee," said Parker.
"It's time to end this. Get me the Leader of the Opposition."
"He won't like being summoned, Prime Minister," said Bill. "I don't care. Get his arse here in half an hour."
Luke Macaulay prided himself on being a reasonable man. Parker prided herself on the complete opposite. They did not, therefore, get on very well. Macaulay always found it difficult to be civil to the PM, even though he was very good at being civil to everybody else. Right now, he was straining, through gritted teeth, to avoid an expletive that his twelve-year-old son would be chastised for using. He was a Conservative, and therefore supposed to be against bad language.
"Well?" he asked, using his coffee as a means of occupying his tongue.
"This has to stop," said Parker. "Right now."
Macaulay looked confused. Parker thought he always did.
"This nonsense over Sharif," continued Parker.
"You know what I'm talking about," growled the PM.
Macaulay sighed. "We're holding her nomination up in committee," he said.
"And you think it's because she's Muslim?"
That took Parker aback slightly. She had in fact thought that, but it was disconcerting to hear Macaulay say it. "Well...is there another reason?" she asked, trying to recover.
"I don't have a problem with appointing a Muslim judge to the Supreme Court," said Macaulay. "I have a problem with appointing Nisreen Sharif to the Supreme Court."
"Why? She's qualified, she's non-partisan, she's incorruptible..."
"...and," interrupted the Leader of the Opposition, "she's got some troubling views..."
Macaulay reached down into his briefcase and pulled out a thin file. He opened it, rummaged through it, and handed Parker a document. "This," he said, as Parker scanned it, "is Doctor Sharif's academic thesis. She wrote it in 1982, before al-Qaida or Hamas, but right at the time when Hezbollah started up. Read the section that's been highlighted."
Parker read silently, then, when she'd finished, read it aloud again, her voice taking on an edgier tone:
"While it may be true that the State of Israel has a right to exist, the Hezbollah movement has the right to defend the borders of Lebanon from a Zionist state. There is little evidence of Hezbollah's involvement in anything other than activities related to defending Lebanon against an aggressive and U.S.-dominated enemy."
Macaulay raised an eyebrow. "You really want a Supreme Court justice that suppots Hezbollah?"
"It's twenty-four years old," said Parker, though she sounded unconvinced. "It's pretty flimsy evidence."
Macaulay coughed politely, though menacingly. "You want to go out and say that to the waiting media? You want to go out and say that to the people? You really think you'll be able to convince them we're grandstanding if they find out we're blocking the nomination of somebody who supports terrorism? Because, Prime Minister, that's exactly how we'll spin it, and that's exactly how they'll see it. I'm sure Dr. Sharif is a fine judge and a decent sort, but this is inexcusable."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"I'm not unreasonable. I don't want this to become a sledging contest. There's a court vacancy, it's your job to fill it. It shouldn't be, but it is. I'm not looking to damage your government over a court appointment, because that's a precedent I don't want coming back at me. But I don't want Sharif on the court, so this is a courtesy. I want you to remember that I didn't have to show you that."
Macaulay stared at the phone on Parker's desk. Then he stood up, and took the file back. "You'll be wanting to call Dr. Sharif in," he said. "And you'll want to speak to the Attorney General. I'll be leaving now. Good evening, Prime Minister."
Leaving Parker staring at the phone, Macaulay walked out. Parker stared at the phone for a while longer, then made a deliberate effort not to pick it up. Instead, she stood and went to the outer office where Bonnie, Parker's personal aide, was busy working. "Bonnie," she said, "I'm going to want to speak to the President. And then the Attorney General. And find Professor Sharif and bring her here as soon as you can."
Bonnie nodded. "Can I ask what it's about?"
"A Zionist state," said Parker, in what could only be described as a low snarl.
Professor Nisreen Sharif looked like somebody's grandmother. Which, in fact, she was. She also looked like a woman wno knew she was about to get shot down, and thus had a haughty, defiant look on her face. Parker could respect that - she respected someone who didn't back down in the face of destruction.
"Why do I feel," asked Professor Sharif, "like I've been summoned to the Principal's office?"
Parker pulled out the piece of paper and passed it across the desk. When Macaulay had, somewhat inexplicably, given her the tip-off, it hadn't taken long for the Residence researchers to find it.
"Read the highlighted section, please," said Parker.
Dr. Sharif donned a thin pair of reading spectacles and cleared her throat. There was the faintest hint of an accent when she talked. When she'd finished the passage, she was silent, as the Prime Minister and the Supreme Court justice-delegate stared at one another across the desk.
"Wow," said Sharif, finally. "Who would have thought that would come back to get me?"
"Apparently," said Parker, tersely, "not you."
There was another pause. "Well?" prompted Parker. "Aren't you going to insist it's a misunderstanding?"
Sharif shook her head. "It isn't. This is a document in which I declare that Hezbollah are the good guys. I wrote it. I wrote it twenty-five years ago when I was young, naive and stupid, but I wrote it."
"Not a good start to your judicial career," murmured Parker.
"I've had a judicial career," said Sharif. "I was a judge for ten years. What I think you mean is that it's not a good start to an election cycle. What is it? Eighteen months or so to go?" She raised an eyebrow inquisitively.
"You realise," said Parker, "I can't appoint you to the court. Not with this out there. If I press on, it'll be leaked."
"Are you giving me the sack?"
"I can't sack you - you haven't got the job yet. I'm going to recommend to President Lang that your name be dropped from consideration."
She took out another piece of paper, and a pen. "This is a letter in which you state you are declining the appointment. I want you to sign it."
Professor Sharif read the letter through twice - 'very touched', 'saddened', 'more time with my family', 'must graciously decline'...and then frowned. She put the letter on the desk, and pointedly laid the pen on top of it.
"No," she said.
Parker sighed. "Let's be clear," she said, "you cannot be a Supreme Court justice now. It's not going to happen. I'm going to withdraw your name. And that's all there is to it."
"Then withdraw it," said Sharif. "And everybody will want to know why."
"Then I'll tell them," said Parker. "I'll tell them I couldn't appoint you in good conscience when I found this. You'll probably be dismissed from the faculty at ULI as well."
Sharif matched her gaze easily. This was a woman not easily intimidated. Most people would have been a notch up on the nervous belt simply because they were meeting with the Prime Minister. Sharif was icy cool.
"Then I'll be dismissed," said Professor Sharif. "And I'll defend myself as I'm entitled to do."
Parker pulled the letter away and put it back in the drawer. "I'm sorry it had to end this way," she said.
"Me too," said Professor Sharif, "and that's all there is to it."
It was the middle of the afternoon. The weather was still clement, though beginning to cloud over, as Parker got out of the car. The Presidential aide shook her hand. "Good afternoon, Prime Minister," he said. "The President is waiting for you in her office."
Martin Hall was an impressive building. In certain parts, you could believe you were in one of the great palaces of Europe. Parker never really liked her trips here - she understood her predecessor had described his meetings with President O'Byrne as the highlight of his week. Parker had little time for Presidents. Their job was to wave and open things. This one stayed mostly true to that, but, every so often, tried to run the country. The key was to keep a firm hand on the wheel.
President Lang was standing by the window when Parker entered. "The Prime Minister, Madam President," said the aide, and withdrew.
Lang turned from the window. "Ah, Prime Minister," she said. "Sit down. I understand you want to withdraw Dr. Sharif's name from..."
It was like a movie. With almost eerie timing, the aide rushed back in and headed for the TV set on the mantlepiece. "What's happening?" asked the President.
"You need to see this, maam."
The TV was tuned to the GBC, a live news break. Dr. Sharif was standing on her doorstep, a gaggle of cameras and reporters in her face. There was a caption underneath which read "BREAKING NEWS: COURT NOMINEE SHARIF SUPPORTED HEZBOLLAH".
"What the..." breathed the President.
"They leaked it!" shouted Parker, far too loudly. "Macaulay, the bastard! He told me he wouldn't leak it!"
"If you don't mind my asking," asked Lang, "why is it you chose to believe the Leader of the Opposition on this one and only occasion? You're always telling me what a lying scoundrel he is."
Parker was fuming. She headed into the outer office and barked at Bill, who was waiting in the anteroom watching the same story. He had already begun to dial on his mobile phone. "Action stations," she said. "We're going back to the House. Macaulay will be waiting."
He was. The Leader of the Opposition,; the man assumed to be the Prime Minister-in-waiting by large sections of the community, was eating a bacon sandwich while leaning up against one of the columns in the Opposition Lobby. When Bill Farmer approached him, he visibly straightened up, and swallowed his mouthful. "Can I help you?"
"You leaked the Sharif thing!" roared Bill.
Macaulay ushered Bill aside, and lowered his voice. "Now you listen here, muchacho. You don't get to march into this building, accost senior Member of Parliament in the corridors, and abuse them. I don't answer to you, I'm not accountable to you and I have no interest in standing here and letting you insult me. Get out, or I'll have security remove you." His tone of voice had remained level throughout.
Bill gave him an icy look, and almost slunk back towards the door. "Oh," called Macaulay afterwards, "by the way. It wasn't us."
Bill paused, mid-step. "What?"
"The Sharif thing. We didn't leak it. Somebody must have, but we didn't leak it."
"I'm supposed to believe that?"
"I don't care what you believe. I'm telling you what is. We didn't leak the Sharif quote."
"They didn't?" asked Parker, slightly dazed.
Bill Farmer shook his head. "I don't think so. I didn't believe him at first, but then I talked to some of our people, some of the lobby correspondents. No names, of course. They seem to think we leaked it."
Parker turned to the Chief Whip, who was sitting on the other couch. "No chance, bosslady," he said. He always called her "bosslady"; this was a nicer version of her other nickname among the backbenchers, which was "that bitch".
"I checked our backyard thoroughly," said the Chief Whip, who had his job because he was so good at it. "I don't think anybody knew, let alone leaked it."
Parker sucked her lip, in thought. "So..." she mused. "If we didn't leak it, and the Tories didn't leak it, who the hell did?"
Bill stood up, and wrote a name on a piece of paper. "You're sure?" asked Parker. Bill nodded.
"Only answer," he said. "I'll resign if I'm wrong, and that's the honest truth.
Parker read the name again. She passed it to Bonnie, who was standing faithfully by the door. "Make the call," she said. She took her suit jacket from the back of her chair and put it on.
"I'm going for a walk," she said.
"Don't deny it," said Parker. "You leaked it."
Her companion, who was walking beside her along the riverfront, shrugged. "No point in denying it," she said. "Yes, I leaked it."
Professor Sharif smiled. "You politicians - you think you're the only ones who know how things work. What's the first rule of damage control?"
"Get it out yourself so you can control the story," said Parker, as if quoting from a rulebook. "That's what this is? Damage control?"
"I figure it's much easier to stab yourself than have someone else do it," said Sharif. "And now look what's happened? Overwhelming support from the judicial community. Did you see the six-o-clock news?"
"I heard the radio on the way over," said Parker. "Macaulay has given you his support. He said your attitude had changed and that you were a model citizen."
"Everybody makes mistakes, he said," Sharif said. "He's turning into quite the little moderate, isn't he?"
Parker nodded, gloomily. It was true. Macaulay's support for Sharif would anger some sections of the party, but he was used to that. The truth was, it was a master stroke. If Macaulay supported Sharif, he made it clear that he was prepared to accept a debate on Islam. He looked sensible and moderate.
Sharif had issued a full retraction. She had called her own comments 'ridiculous'. She's issued a statement utterly condemning Hezbollah and describing their actions as 'monstrous and barbaric'. She'd burned her own copy of the thesis in public. "I was wrong," she'd said. "And that's all there is to it." Parker had almost smiled at that. It was old school.
"There'll be a backlash," said Parker, simply. "The committee hearings will ask you some very tough questions."
"I think I can handle them," replied Sharif. "If I can handle you, I can handle anybody."
Parker smiled. "This is going to be a difficult confirmation," she said. "Even with Macaulay's support, we'll still need to win over the public. Most of them are still going to have their doubts."
"Those doubts," said Sharif, "will be dispelled when I sentence the first Muslim person for terrorism charges. They'll be dispelled when I uphold counter-terrorism laws. I'm not an idiot, Prime Minister. I'm a Muslim in a predominantly Christian country. I know how to blend in. I can assimilate."
Parker extended a hand. "Good luck, Justice Sharif."
"That," said Sharif, taking her hand, "is all there is to it."