Tuesday, November 20, 2018

One Thousand and Four Letters


One Thousand and Four Letters

Ken Mogi

When Jane was elected Prime Minister a few days after the surprise resignation of her predecessor, there was naturally a lot of press coverage, although not so much about the novelty of gender. People no longer cared to count how many women have made it to the top job.
So much for the political maturity of the nation. Jane was quite aware, more than anybody else, that there were many serious problems with the union. She was prepared to use iron hands, if necessary.
Foremost in the agenda for Jane was the exit of the nation from the Community. It was not particularly Jane’s cup of tea: Actually, she campaigned against the exit. However, once the public opinion had been made, there was no other choice than to guide the herd in that direction. In other words, Jane was very aware of the principles of democracy.
"Welcome to No.10," said Sir James, who was the cabinet secretary. While Jane was putting her things on the desk, Sir James went on.
"As you may be well aware, King George offered this residence to Sir Robert Walpole, in 1732. Sir Walpole, however, did not consider the gift as private, and mentioned that the gift should go with the position, rather than the person."
"Selflessness has been the hallmark of this office," said June, to the nodding approval of Sir James.
In the next few minutes, Jane was asked by Sir James to write letters.
"Four letters, Prime Minister. Four identical letters."
"Four?" exclaimed Jane.
"Yes, four exactly identical letters."
"Why four?"
Sir James, who could never miss an opportunity to lecture someone, a new prime minister in particular, smiled. Rather like a devil, Jane thought.
"There are four submarines, and you’ve got to write four identical letters for each of them."
In an instant, Jane realized what these letters were for. Her face might have become rather pale.
Jane, as a young girl, used to be quite naive. She used to believe that peace could be realized by means of good will alone. Jane was not a simpleton now, ceased to be one long before she became a member of the parliament.
Jane was prepared to kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, if it was necessary, as she famously said during a discussion in the House of Commons.
The whole premise of nuclear deterrent rested on a firm will expressed in her four letters, she understood.
Sir James explained the four basic options: Retaliate, do nothing, use your own judgment, or enter under the command of friendly nations such as the United States and Australia. These options were to be carried out by the captains of the submarines, in case both Jane the PM and her deputy became incapacitated, the destruction of the nation to be verified by the absence of BBC radio 4 broadcast. Jane’s letter was thus to instruct the last official action of her Majesty’s government.
No particular thoughts went through Jane’s mind, as she penned the letters. Sir James was at the window, looking out into the garden.
"I am finished," said Jane to Sir James.
"Very good, I would seal the envelopes now," said Sir James.
Justin Hawks, the assistant secretary, brought a red box, into which Sir James put the four sealed envelopes.
"What happens to them?"
Jane asked.
"They will be flown straight to Faslane."
Jane watched as Justin carried the red box out of the office.
"Don’t you want to know what I wrote in the letter?" asked Jane.
"O, no," said Sir James.
"But they are very important. Perhaps the most important four letters in the nation," said Jane.
"No doubt," affirmed Sir James.
"Therefore nobody is to know what is inside."
"What happens when I am no longer the Prime Minister?" asked Jane.
"The letters would be destroyed, without being opened," assured Sir James.
"What if I have written some nonsense?" asked Jane.
Sir James only smiled.
The writing of the four letters, and Jane’s comments about deterrent in the House, were widely reported by the press.
A few days later, Jane was busy preparing for her first major speech about the exit when Sir James notified her of the arrival of the Japanese ambassador.
"The Japanese ambassador?" asked Jane blankly.
"Yes, about the funding of the Hinkley Project," whispered Sir James.
"O, yes," faltered Jane.
"So I've got to meet with the ambassador?" asked Jane.
Sir James nodded with his eyes.
At the end of a brief, but quite efficient meeting, the Japanese ambassador took out something small out of his briefcase, and handed it to Jane.
"I know it is quite irregular, but this is a gift from my wife. She insisted that I present it to you today. You know how wives are…" the Japanese ambassador closed his mouth without finishing the sentence, realizing that he was speaking to a woman.
"Thank you, and what is it?" Jane asked, out of pure curiosity.
"It is an origami crane. I am sorry there is only one. I should have brought you one thousand, to wish you good luck in your office."
"One thousand?" exclaimed June.
"That would be too much!"
At that moment, Justin came in, stood there smiling, effectively telling the ambassador there was absolutely no time left for the meeting.
That night, back home, Jane googled "origami crane" and "one thousand". Consequently Jane came to know the story of the Japanese girl Sadako Sasaki, who, suffering from leukemia caused by the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima, made one thousand paper cranes, believing the legend that one’s wishes would then come true.
Jane’s husband was already in bed. Alone at her night desk, Jane took a good look at the tiny paper crane that the Japanese ambassador brought her. She remembered the days when she was a little girl like Sadako Sasaki. Jane felt a sudden closeness of heart.
The first few weeks in Jane’s tenure as PM was hectic. She had to give a speech outlining her plan for the exit from the Community. She went through the ordeal of the first question time as PM. She needed to make some tough decisions on immigration. She had to attend the official party for the state visit of dignitaries from the Middle East.
In addition to all these political activities, needless to say, Jane had to do her paper work.
Every morning, when she arrived at No.10, Justin brought the red boxes. In it were heaps of papers, presented for the perusal and judgment of Jane. Some of the papers needed to be signed. Some were personal correspondences, filtered by the staff beforehand. Jane needed to concentrate for quite a while to properly handle all these papers.
One weekend, after a brief stay at the Chequers, Jane found herself in the constituency. There was not such a thing as privacy now that she was the PM, but Jane did have a brief moment of relaxed stroll in her home town.
Jane came to her church, and went in. The vicar was there. The vicar invited to have a chat in the corner. Jane signaled the secret services to keep a respected distance.
The vicar asked Jane how she was doing as PM. She was enjoying the job, Jane said. That was great, the vicar said. Then, out of the blue, Jane mentioned the paper crane. "The paper crane?" the vicar inquired. Jane explained briefly what happened when the Japanese ambassador visited her at No.10. Jane and the vicar went on to exchange a few more words. Jane mentioned her sleep problems.
Jane’s visit to the local church lasted 5 minutes, at the most. It was covered briefly in local and national news. Nobody had a clue what the vicar and Jane talked about. It was generally assumed that she would have just said hello and discussed the weather.
On Monday, Justin noticed, when opening the red box, that there was an envelope on top of the papers. It was addressed to the PM, from the PM. Apparently, it was written by Jane.
At first Justin regarded the letter as some draft. Then Justin had second thoughts. There was a "private" stamp on the envelope. Although it was not that Justin would have opened the envelope otherwise, he thought that he need to handle the letter carefully. Therefore, he put the envelope in the "Festivities" holder, which was usually reserved for Christmas and the Queen’s birthday.
On Tuesday, there was another letter at the top of the red box papers. On Wednesday, there was yet another. Justin found it slightly embarrassing to keep quiet, and asked the PM, in a rather timid voice.
"Allow me to ask you a strange question, Prime Minister. But what are these envelopes in the red box?"
"Ah," answered Jane, as if what Justin asked was nothing of material.
"They are letters to me, written by me, each day" said Jane.
"I understand," said Justin.
"What should I do with them, if I may ask?"
"Please file them," answered Jane, as if that was the only sensible thing to do.
"All right, then," said Justin, bowed, and retreated from the office.
Later that evening, Justin discussed the PM’s strange new customs with Sir James.
"Hmm," reflected Sir James.
"Maybe she wants to write a memoir," was Sir James’s bemused judgment.
Jane enjoyed a relatively high approval rate, helped in part by the inner turmoils of the opposition party. When the exit talks with the Community came to a seeming deadlock, Jane called for a snap general election. A slightly increased majority in the House of Commons meant that Jane now had a clear mandate as Prime Minister.
Jane went on to make a series of tough decisions, some of which proved unpopular.
"Iron lady" "ruthless," "hawkish," "cold-blooded," and "woman wolf" were some of the colorful descriptions that the press used to describe the PM.
Jane’s media advisor indicated that her public image had probably been tarnished because of that infamous remark in the House. Would she consider rephrasing the "prepared to kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children" statement, he asked. Jane was adamant in her denial.
"No, I wouldn’t," said Jane.
"Deterrent means deterrent."
Sir James was mildly surprised when the tenure of Jane as PM passed the one year line. He could not contain his wonderment when her office went into the third year. Although Sir James admired Jane’s personal traits, he was of the opinion that the difficulty surrounding the union would curtail any Prime Ministerial career, even one as excellent as this one. Perhaps Jane’s hawkish image, bolstered by the woman card, worked miracles as chemistry to make her premiership both tangible and believable.
Jane’s strange habit of authoring one letter a day continued. Each day, Justin found yet another envelope inside the returned red box, on the very top. The custom seemed to continue even when the PM was in foreign travel, with envelopes matching the number of days spent abroad put inside the red box, on Jane’s return to No. 10.
Justin filed the envelopes conscientiously, and soon the "Festivities" holder became full. He had to create "Festivities 2" holder, and then "Festivities 3."
It was again nearing Christmas. It was felt that people were getting used to the idea of Jane being the PM. There surely were some hiccups, but then, Jane was doing her job, or so it seemed. Jane was getting steady with the people.
One day, Jane told Sir James that she would be holding a press conference.
"What for," asked Sir James.
"It is about the letters," declared Jane.
"Letters? How fascinating!"
Evidently Sir James thought it was about the promotion of the Royal Mail in the run-up to Christmas. Great was Sir James’s surprise, therefore, when, on the morning of the press conference, he was told that the title of the PM’s talk was "One thousand and four letters."
"One thousand and four?" exclaimed Sir James. Such an enigma was something that he had never encountered, in his career as a civil servant.
It was only when Jane showed Sir James the self-written script of the projected speech that he understood the meaning. Sir James thought it was a good Christmas maneuver. There was a smile on his face.
In the press conference, Jane told how, after writing the four letters on her first day as PM, she had qualms of conscience about the decision that she would be obliged to make, while being the PM. She told the vicar of her old church about it, and mentioned the strong impression of the paper crane presented by the Japanese ambassador's wife, and the legend of one thousand paper cranes.
After a brief silence, the vicar suggested something. She should write a letter to herself each day, reflecting on her actions and thoughts. By doing that, she would be able to be a good person.
"I had to keep making tough decisions, as Prime Minister." Jane said.
"I could not conceive of doing otherwise. I wanted to do what I deemed was best for the union, whether it was the exit, immigration, or economic policy," Jane said.
"As a balancing act, I have been writing letters to myself, each day, reflecting on the sometimes tough decisions that I have had to make on the previous day."
There were flashes coming from the press trying to capture Jane’s face as she spoke.
"Today marks the one thousandth day of my work as the Prime Minister, after I visited my vicar. That means, I have been writing one thousand letters to myself."
"How do you feel now?" asked one reporter.
"Well, as the vicar said, I hope I am a good person, even if my wishes did not come true," Jane answered.
There were a spontaneous wave of applause, which was rare in a press conference.
That evening, Jane reflected on her days as the Prime Minister, and went through, in her memory, the one thousand and four letters that she has written over this time. Jane did not recall the details of the letters. She did, however, remember the flows of emotion, ups and downs, conflicts, and few brilliant moments.
The face of the vicar briefly flashed in her mind.
Jane went on to write one thousand three hundred and six letters as Prime Minister. She resigned after successfully completing the exit process.
The red box letters are now filed in a series of "Festivities" holders in a corner of Jane’s private house. The vicar actually glanced at the holders as he was having tea on his visit. The four submarine letters were destroyed on the day of Jane’s resignation, and nobody knows what were in those envelopes.

Author’s note on 20th November 2018: I finished this short story on 10th August 2016. I decided to put it on the blog rather than keeping it or hoping to publish otherwise.

1 comment:

(ma)gog said...

Thank you for posting this story. Eloquently written, with vivid dialogs which agitate readers' imagination in subtle ways. Behind the seemingly practical sense of humor, one finds streams of warmth of love elegantly hidden. "Festivities" holders are the very symbols here that one inevitably keeps them in his/her heart with expectation for hope, while reading.

P.S. Isn't it remarkable that it is exactly ten years since I started to leave my comments on your blogs!! (both in Japanese & English!)