The phone rang just after 6pm. John left it for a few rings having just started an episode of The Simpsons. He glanced over at the caller ID – “Neil”. He sighed and reached over to pick it up.
Neil’s voice is breathless. ‘No, not really. Have you seen the news?’
John shook his head. ‘Just watching the Simpsons.’
‘John, they’ve really gone mad, I swear.’
‘What? Who have?’
John laughed. ‘How many times have I heard you say that Neil? It feels like most days.’
‘No but this takes the biscuit. You’ve not heard then?’
John stretched out his legs on the footstool. He heard laughter from the kitchen where Sienna was baking cakes with their daughter Siobhan. ‘Go on then, enlighten me.’
‘Well the PM just announced his intentions to put forward a bill in Parliament lowering the legal voting age.’
John took a sip of tea before he answered. ‘Well, maybe he’s on to something. The young are our future and all that.’
‘He wants to lower it to 6.’
John raised an eye brow. ‘6 years old?’
‘6 years old.’
‘Well OK that is a bit odd.’ John put his tea down on the side table.
‘Odd! It’s downright bonkers! Honestly sometimes John I wish I’d followed in Dad’s footsteps like you did.’
‘Says the man with five bedrooms and a flat in Soho.’
‘I would swap that for a quiet life John, honestly.’
‘So what’s going to happen? Do they have to vote on it or something? Do we get to vote on it?’
‘I don’t know the details yet, my editor is calling a briefing soon. On one hand, I can’t imagine how something like that would ever get through but after what we’ve seen in the last few years, I don’t know any more. I have a bad feeling they’re up to something. The election is 6 months away and it can’t be a coincidence.’
‘Well, you have to be impartial remember.’ John was grinning now.
‘Obviously, that’s why I’m calling you. I have to vent somehow. You do realise it’ll mean Siobhan will be eligible?’
The grin faded.
‘I’ll leave you with that thought, my other phone is ringing. Speak to you soon.’
The line went dead. John sat there for a moment, Homer Simpson’s yellow head filling the screen in front of him.
‘Who was that?’ called Sienna from the kitchen.
‘What was it this time?’
‘Apparently the government want to lower the voting age.’
There was a short pause and his wife appeared in the doorway. He looked up at her, befuddled. She was wearing the apron with a picture of a bikini clad woman on it. It was covered in flour as were Sienna’s hands and she used her pinky finger to clear a clump of blonde strands of hair from her face. ‘Sorry baby, what was it?’
‘They want to lower the voting age.’
She looked at him blankly.
She laughed but then saw the veracity written across John’s face.
‘To 6? That will mean Siobhan can vote!’
John shrugged. ‘So he says.’
As if on cue, Siobhan followed her mother through the door.
‘We made cakes Daddy. Come and see!’
Sienna looked down at her fondly. ‘My little Vonny, God they grow up so fast don’t they?’
John Didn’t read newspapers. He didn’t really watch the news. He wasn’t sure whether that was because his brother was invariably on it or if he just preferred not to get involved in that sort of thing. What he knew about current affairs he got from the headlines as he walked past the newspaper stalls at the garage, or what people talked about at work and of course from his brother. It was rare for these three sources to converge on something that might resemble consistency leading, at first, to confusion in John’s mind, followed by indifference.
He had met Sienna through work 7 years ago; one of his colleagues’ friends who visited from time to time. That colleague was now long gone, but for some reason, there had been a connection between John and Sienna that couldn’t be ignored; at least that is how Sienna always explained it. John had simply fallen for her obvious beauty from the off and found himself able to tolerate everything else that came with it thereafter.
Rather than being the extroverted overconfident type that so often tried and failed with someone of Sienna’s outward appeal, John was laid back to the extreme. His boss called him “Horizontal” Hogan (Hogan being his and now Sienna’s surname).
As he walked to work the next morning, he thought about the news his brother had brought him. Most of the time when Neil called him with some perceived controversy, John didn’t really see the issue. He found it mildly interesting that his colleagues at work (a printing company) often had a very different spin on the same piece of news. John didn’t really get involved. It seemed futile and boring. These supposedly big issues being discussed in faraway halls seemed so detached from the real world and never really impacted on his day to day life as far as he could tell.
Thus John’s surprise that he found himself thinking about this latest snippet more than he might usually have done. As the traffic crawled past him in the grey suburban morning murk, he supposed it was because it could impact on his daughter, if only very marginally. Since becoming a parent, John had noticed a tendency to develop interests in areas that would have been completely alien to him in his younger years (School curricula and league tables, conversations about local parks, gossip about teachers, the latest seat belt technology and clever ways to iron and fold clothes). His thought process that morning was therefore a symptom of parenthood he decided. A strange idiosyncrasy that he should probably ignore. There was nothing he could do about it after all and it would probably never come to anything anyway, he thought. Just another one of Neil’s storms in a teacup.
It wasn’t until a month later that he thought on the matter again. Other stuff had got in the way. There had been bills to pay, an issue with his mother–in–law which had caused a bit of friction with Sienna and a particularly good boxset that they had watched together as a form of reconciliation.
One day, out of the blue, he glanced at a headline in the Mail as he walked by with a chicken and bacon sandwich that read ‘Dawn of a New Age.’ Next along, another headline spelled it out for him. ‘Voting Age Bill Passed’. It was enough to make him pause for a moment or two. He had essentially forgotten the conversation with his brother a month before but the wheels had been in motion all this time whether he had registered it or not. The fact that this made him feel somehow off guard, bemused, perhaps even guilty for some reason tugged at him now as he went to pay. Should I have paid a bit more attention, he thought. Before, the proposed bill had been one amongst hundreds of distant whispers, all discarded as irrelevant. Now it was real.
‘You know Neil was talking about the voting age a while back,’ John said to Sienna as he got in that evening. Sienna was sitting at the small breakfast bar with a towel on her head, filing her nails.
‘Yes, the voting age. Lowered isn’t it?’ she said with an air of conspiracy.
John nodded. ‘Yeah, they’ve actually done it. Lowered it to 6. I even bought the paper, look.’ He dropped it onto the worktop and looked at her as if to say isn’t that fancy?
She returned his expression. ‘Look at you. Eat your heart out Neil.’
‘What do you think about it then?’ asked John as he went to get a cold beer from the fridge.
‘I think it’s great.’
John looked at her to gauge how serious she was being. He could detect no hint of irony or sarcasm on her face. ‘You really think?’
She frowned, obviously detecting the unease on John’s face. ‘Yes actually I do. Why, do you not? And why would you care, you never vote anyway?’
John raised his hands defensively. ‘Alright, alright. Sorry!’ He was smiling. ‘Neither do you remember?’
‘No but maybe we should. We’ve been talking about it and how good it will be for the children. Such a positive change.’ She nodded to her phone.
‘Ah, the mum’s WhatsApp group. To be a virtual fly on the wall in there,’ said John.
Sienna chose not to reply. John paced over to the window and took a sip of his beer. He glanced back at Sienna, assessing. ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit mad? I mean, I don’t have any idea about what we’re voting for let alone Siobhan?’
‘That’s not the point John. The children these days, they need to be empowered. They need to know they can do whatever they want, that they don’t have to conform. Now they are legitimised.’
John began to feel rather uneasy as he heard his wife speak. He couldn’t hide the surprise on his face.
‘You don’t agree? You just want her to fall in line and get walked over her whole life? A hundred years ago, someone like me wouldn’t even be allowed to vote. Now even our daughter can. Look how far we’ve come!’
Sienna, I don’t think…’
‘That’s what they’re all saying.’
John faltered. ‘Who?’ He trailed off as he realised she was probably talking about her WhatsApp group again.
‘Face it John, children are the future. I don’t want our daughter to miss out on that. You shouldn’t either.’
John disliked any form of conflict so chose to remain quiet at this point, merely nodding. He glanced down at the paper and saw the quote from the Prime minister jumping out at him. Those words again. The children are our future.
Later that night, John was flicking through the TV channels attempting to find something to distract him from the strange unease he been unable to shake. All to no avail. He switched to the iPlayer and it was there that he saw the Question Time from the week before. ‘Voting Age Special.’ John hated Question Time. The back and forth of it all, the hostility, the frustration, the use of empty and predictable phrases and slogans to dodge questions, the gushing applause from over eager sections of the audience – it left him feeling tense and unfulfilled. John liked a clean end to things. He thrived on making lists and being able to check them off. His line of work – project based for the most part – meant he was able to work towards a clear goal and could celebrate with his colleagues at the local curry house once it was reached before moving onto something fresh the next day. John thrived on resolution and there was none of that in politics. Only obfuscation. What one friend (a physicist) had once described to him as a high entropy career. John had nodded in agreement at the time having no idea what he actually meant.
Question Time was politics in microcosm for John. A week ago, he would have skipped straight over it but this evening, he pressed play. The panel were a predictable bunch. Four of them he had never seen before and the fifth he recognised as a prominent children’s television presenter. Most of the talking took place however between two roughly middle aged men. Both white, both with suits that looked as if they had seen better days. John quickly surmised the slightly younger one with a sallow complexion and intelligent eyes was a minister from the governing party. His expression was one of constant calm, almost meditative. His opposite number, an older, swarthier gentleman with soft eyes and greying hair creeping in around his temples already had the look of exasperation about him.
‘Doesn’t anyone go to the gym anymore?’ said Siena as she came into the room, gesturing absent-mindedly toward the older man. She sat down beside John with a magazine and a gin and tonic and her avid attention to both of these indicated her question had been rhetorical.
The man was quite portly John had to admit but none of them looked particularly healthy.
“Why not draw the line at five years old or seven years old then?” the second man asked.
“Well we have to draw a line somewhere don’t we Alan?” said the first calmly, almost condescendingly.
“We most certainly do but I am rather of the opinion that there must be a reason for drawing that line. The previous age limit for example was based on the principle that to vote, one might be able to work, pay…
“Are you saying children don’t work hard?” interrupted the first man.
The man known to John now as Alan paused dumbfounded and wrong-footed. His eventual reply was incredulous. “No, I’m,”
“Well it sounds like you’re…”
The programme’s presenter cut through the interruption at this point. “Let him speak please, let him speak.
“But our right hon…”
“Let him speak!”
John was already tempted to turn it off and Sienna gave a short chuckle from next to him, looking up briefly from whatever she was reading.
“Thank you,” said Alan, clearly flustered. “As I was saying, the principle to vote is based on matters such as whether one is of legal working age, whether one is eligible to pay taxes, whether one is deemed to have lived enough years to begin to form and shape one’s own opinions and beliefs without the influence of others, primarily parents.”
“Ah well, if I may,” said the first man, still calm and appealing (successfully this time) to the presenter to intervene. “You’ve inadvertently hit upon part of the beauty of the plan Alan, which is that we enable children to bypass any interference by empowering them early on to think for themselves, independently, and therefore creating a brighter future for us all. Brighter, more confident citizens with the full power of democracy behind them. These children are our future.”
Alan shook his head. “That is not an advantage whichever way you spin it.” It sounded as if there were more to come but the older man struck a helpless figure at that moment. The presenter stepped in. He was older than the rest of the panel, face lined with experience, in perpetual frown so you couldn’t tell whether he approved or not of what was being said. He’d make a good poker player John thought. “Let’s take some questions from the audience.”
After some manoeuvring of microphones which had the air of amateurishness about it, the camera focused in on a man in the audience. He was probably in his early thirties and wore a crinkled t-shirt. He had messy blond hair, a gormless expression and his voice was that of a middle of the road southerner. Neither posh nor common in John’s mind. He read his question ponderously from a piece of paper held high in front of him and the tone varied very little throughout. He did not strike John as someone one might call intelligent, particularly when he struggled to read out the word ‘significantly’.
“I have had confidence issues all of my life and would have significantly appreciated a chance to vote at a younger age so I could make my own decisions and build my confidence.” At this point, as if stage directed, he placed his arm around the shoulders of a young boy to his left who stood there like a rabbit in the headlights. “I would like to know why there are still some people that think my child can’t vote for who leads the country and, things like… and yeah.” He swallowed having clearly ruined this moment in the spotlight.”
John cringed. “Jesus,” said Sienna. “Where did they dig him up?”
The presenter stretched his arm coaxingly towards the audience member, palm open and to the side. “And…?” he said with a skilful combination of impatience and patronizing encouragement.
“…And considering how much it will empower him.” The audience member laughed nervously at having finished and sat down quickly.
The presenter summarised. “Alan, why do you think a child can’t vote and do you think it will empower them if they can?”
With a sigh, the second man adopted an apologetic expression. “Well, I’m afraid I need to be quite blunt here but children are fickle. They are impulsive. They lack any sort of context for decisions they might make. They have no experience or knowledge of what is actually going on or indeed the intricacies and complexities of government, of what might affect them either directly or indirectly. They are easily swayed and lack the wherewithal to know when they are being lied to or not. They also lack the wisdom to know that there is not always a simple answer to things; no definitive right or wrong; no definitive solution. They are,” he searched for the words, “philosophically naïve. They are inexperienced in compromise and are used to getting what they want, often with no concept of the difference between what they want and what they need. Shall I go on?” A few claps rang out in the audience but clearly from Alan’s face, the reaction had not been what he had hoped for.
The first politician, rather than interrupt had chosen to sit in silence during this. His calm face, John noticed, gained an extra glint of satisfaction.
“Do you want to come back on that?” asked the presenter.
“It would seem our esteemed colleague here is not a fan of children!” he chuckled. A few laughs from the audience.
“An air of the hard right too,” chimed in one of the other panellists.
“Quite,” agreed the first man. “Listen, your children might be used to getting what they want but I ensure mine have a much more favourable balance.” At this, an audible protestation was heard from across the table but he raised his finger and his voice along with it, enabling him to continue. “You used the phrase ‘philosophically naïve’ I think. Listen we’re not looking for philosophers here. People can do whatever they want. They don’t have to be a philosopher if they don’t want to be. What you’ve described there isn’t just a child, it’s all of us potentially. There’s nothing to say that an intelligent 6 year old lacks any more voting intelligence than our friend in the audience and I think it is an insult to all children out there if you argue otherwise.” A loud applause rang out. Over it all, he asked more emphatically, emphasising each syllable with his finger on the table in front of him, “Why is he allowed to vote and a child is not?”
The applause only deepened and the camera switched to show that the audience member who had asked the question’s applause was amongst the most vigorous.
“Shit show isn’t it?” said Neil.
This time John had called his brother. “It’s something alright.”
A pause. “John, please don’t tell me you support this thing? Not you as well?”
“Sienna’s on board with it.”
“Oh God.” Neil sounded tired. “Not that I’m particularly surprised,” he added, more quietly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Sorry. It’s just it never ceases to amaze me how people fall for this sort of stuff. Come on, I know you don’t really have an opinion on this sort of thing a lot of the time but do you really think this is anything but crazy?”
John pondered this before answering. “Siobhan came down the stairs the other night in tears. She’d wet the bed bless her. I made a comment to Sienna afterwards about her being able to vote and she snapped back at me about dad and how he wet the bed before the end and that he could still vote. I didn’t say anything after that but I will admit there are some strange arguments going round about it.”
“You can say that again. I envy your calm about it John. I really do. I wish I didn’t care. Listen, this is the manifesto they’ve just released.” A sound of rustling papers. “Reduction of the school week to four days from five; the option to decline maths as a subject at GCSE; No school uniforms; Child empowerment programme to be rolled out nationally…”
“What’s that? The child empowerment programme?”
“John, it does and means nothing. It’s what they use to sidestep questions about increased cost of childcare when they’re not at school. It’s supposed to enable children to look after themselves or something.”
“Oh I hadn’t thought about child care.”
“Exactly! This is what I’m saying, no one else has either. It’s all being glossed over. And just think I had to read all of this out with a straight face on television today. Sometimes I don’t think people even bother to watch our stuff anymore. It’s all on social media. If I hear the children are our future or this new buzzword, voting intelligence, much more I don’t know what I’m going to do! Honestly, the whole thing is like asking Baldrick what we should have for dinner.”
John laughed. “You should use that in one of your reports!”
“One of these days John. One of these days.”
Later that week, as he walked to work, John witnessed a group of schoolboys laughing hysterically at a something on one of their phones. As he got closer he recognised it as the video Sienna had shown him the night before – the opposition leader falling over a low fence at some sort of event. Neil’s voice echoed caution in John’s head but the clip was undeniably funny. The echoes of caution only grew louder as the days passed.
John had become somewhat of an expert on children’s television since Siobhan had come along. He could name all of the Teletubbies along with each of their accessories and he knew the theme tune and lyrics to the majority of programmes. His favourite was In the Night Garden.
Since the bill had passed, the content for many of these programmes had changed. There were references to voting and how important it was. The process was explained to children in very simple terms and the message of empowerment was clear. It was like watching a revolution. The language was often grand and implied an age of oppression was nearing an end.
As Siobhan sat enthralled at one woman (a child not so long ago herself) with over-the-top enthusiasm was reading out birthday cards one morning, John began to realise what was happening. “Thank you to everyone who sent these in. We couldn’t read all of them out but I promise you we read all of them and they were so good. Everyone who did one of these should be very proud. It just shows what talent we have out there and we always talk about adults but they don’t realise how special you children are. How exciting that all of you can soon vote like a grown up at the next election. You must all realise how special and important you all are and that you are just as important as all the adults out there too.”
Rarely, if ever, did John see content implying there was anyone else but the current Prime minister running for election. In fact, the man himself seemed to be a far more common site than he had been. His voice featured on one of the UK’s biggest pop star’s new singles. One morning, John saw him on an advert for a new remote control car and that same evening, he was reading the bed time story. John watched it with a sort of morbid fascination. Clearly from a posher than posh background, the Prime minister would always pronounce his ‘T’s impeccably whenever John had seen him. Here though, every now and again, he would drop them, presumably to fit in better. Only it didn’t sound natural. It seemed all the more rehearsed and premeditated. False.
He looked down at Siobhan, who was watching avidly. He paused in indecision before finally asking quietly, “Are you going to vote sweetheart?”
Her round eyes widened as she looked back at him, as if he had asked the stupidest question imaginable. “Of course daddy.”
The election was won by a landslide. John had chosen not to vote at all but knew that both Sienna and Siobhan had. He had briefly run the issue about childcare past Sienna who had merely brushed it aside. She had read about vouchers on Facebook for the child empowerment programme and had no time for what she called “fake news” about the childcare issue.
It felt strange to John, having never cared much for an election before. Such was the furore about this one, the biggest majority in history, that he had somehow expected things to be different straight away. And yet, life didn’t seem that different. Siobhan was the same little girl she was before. The school week remained at five days. They still wore uniforms. A while after the election, he asked her who the Prime minister was and she had forgotten.
Not long after, Neil lost his job. Apparently his boss had been made redundant first and Neil was the next to go. In his own words, he had been too concerned for his own good about the circumstances surrounding the bill being voted in by parliament. Something about the threat to remove the whip being just the tip of the iceberg as John recalled.
Despite his brother’s downfall, there was an air of triumph about the country that John could not escape. The message on television and in the papers was one of things being OK again. Reassurance was everywhere. Tables published about how the UK was the world leader in this and that. There are more billionaires in the UK than ever before. That must be good. John does wonder why the bills seem that much harder to pay though. Why he notices more police sirens at night. He notices Siobhan watching more and more television. She is turning into quite the portly little girl. Possibly because he drives her to school now since that new homeless man appeared on the corner. As John sits down to watch the Simpsons, he wonders whether everything really is OK.