Rebecca Taylor: The Panel

The Royal Palace, Tuesday afternoon

‘Marvellous,’ said The King. ‘The Algorithm got it right again. Two days of interviews and everything checked out. Pretty girl, 132, but thick as pig shit. Just like the computer said.’

The Prime Minister glanced at the footman by the door.

‘I’ve told you before, Lockwood, ‘said the King, ‘Hix doesn’t have ears, do you Hix?’

Hix stared out of the window at the main gate where Panellist 132 was climbing into the silver Bentley.

The Hix living room, around cocktail hour

‘Onesty Blow,’ said Mrs Hix when her husband was relaying the day’s meeting. ‘What sort of name is that? Must the Majesty accept any old riff-raff?’

‘His Majesty didn’t choose her,’ said Hix, who was tired of the whole sorry business. ‘The Algorithm did.’

‘I’m aware of that,’ said Mrs Hix. ‘I just assumed even Algorithms had a minimum standard.’

Hix downed his sherry. He’d given up explaining to his wife the fundamentals of complex multi-layered stratified random sampling, mainly because he was struggling with the concept himself.

The royal bedroom, just before midnight

The Queen was sitting on the magenta brocade sofa folding her white silk stockings. She had been on her feet twelve hours for her final walkabout before the country was to divide. The crowd had been kind, many tearful. Thank God it would be over soon. She didn’t mind having to leave the palace. They had a better one to go to.

Despite her exhaustion she couldn’t stop herself from smiling at her husband who was sitting on the bed speaking to the PM. If only Mr Lockwood knew of the rude gestures the King made during these conversations.

When the King finally hung up, he rose to give his wife a peck on the cheek.

‘Only one to go, Darling. Parliament approved Onesty Blow.’

‘What a name,’ said the queen, shaking her head.

‘Just wait till you see what 133 is called,’ said the King throwing a folder into her lap.

Meanwhile in The Prime Minister’s drawing room

Prime Minister Lockwood was sitting at his desk reading the file on Fat Hope, Panellist 133. It said that she was forty-five but he thought she looked much older, possibly because of her size. The woman was enormous. But behind all the fat, she had a shy, innocent smile and all the hallmarks of a shoe-in: A health worker who volunteered in a care centre for the elderly. Not politically active but middle-of the road according to The Algorithm. Her genetic test showed markers from Africa, the Nordics, England, Central Europe and Asia. Fat Hope should be a sure thing, yet Lockwood sensed a slight tightening in his stomach.

‘Why is Dadda so nervous?’ he said to Aldous, the canary who had accompanied him from his flat into the official abode. Right now Aldous was sitting on his lower perch ready to go to bed.

‘The Algorithm has been right about every candidate so far,’ Lockwood said as he covered the birdcage with the dark cloth that Aldous liked on at night.

‘Dadda is so close,’ he said as he shuffled off to the bedroom. ‘So close to the dream.’

The Royal Palace, Wednesday morning

The King and The Prime Minister stared at the slim lady whom the footman had just shown in. She was wearing a woolly pink suit and matching nail varnish.

‘We appreciate your taking the time to come in here today,’ said the King. ‘But we’ve had a small emergency so we’ll need to speak privately for a moment. Hix here will get a footman to escort you to your room. My sincere apologies for the delay.’

‘That is no problem, Your Majesty,’ said the lady, curtseying before walking backwards towards the door as instructed.

‘What the Hell is going on, Lockwood?’ said the King. ‘She is not fat.’

‘So I noticed,’ said Lockwood, whose face had turned green.

The Royal Bedroom, Wednesday afternoon

The Queen was FaceTiming with her sister, Anita, who was on holiday in one of The Hot Territories.

‘Don’t cry, Darling,’ said Anita. She was licking a yellow ice-lolly. The sound was disproportionally loud.

‘You don’t understand, Anita. Fat Hope not being fat means we may have to start again. Ollie is devastated. He thinks there might be riots.’

‘Why can’t they just replace her with another fat woman?’

‘Because that’s not how The Algorithm works. It selects each person based on hundreds of thousands of variables to make sure all corners of society are equally represented. If one candidate is rejected, then they all have to go and the computer will chose another 133 based on The Algorithm.’

‘Poor Ollie,’ said Anita. ‘This is like the table plan from hell.’

The Hix Drawing Room, Wednesday around cocktail hour

Hix was in despair. The thought of going through the whole blasted exercise again was frightening. It had already taken the best part of six months and he feared the country might not hold up. So far they had managed to curb civil unrest only because everybody was close to getting what they thought they wanted – choice between two countries: The Modern Socialist Republic headed up by Mr Lockwood or The New Capitalist Kingdom fronted by His Majesty.

‘I don’t know what you’re so upset about, Reginald,’ said Mrs Hix. ‘The solution is staring you right in the face.’

‘What do you mean?’ Hix was feeling queasy, having had four sherries rather than his usual two.

The PM’s drawing room, very late Wednesday evening

‘Dadda cannot lose this opportunity, Aldous,’ said the PM. ‘Not when we are so close.’

He had cried that evening for the first time since his wife died. He felt sorry for himself. And his country. He even felt sorry for the King.

Before the electorate had voted to divide into two new states, the King’s role had been merely procedural. But on the evening the result had been made public – 66/34, margins nobody could ignore – candle-carrying crowds had started gathering outside the palace. With the constitution now in jeopardy, the PM had watched in horror as many citizens looked to the King for guidance. Not that the King was basking in his newfound legitimacy. Far from it. At their subsequent crisis meeting, he had confessed to being stunned.

‘I regret these developments immensely,’ the King had said. ‘But we must respect the result of the referendum. About a third of our people want a capitalist constitutional monarchy, another third want a socialist republic and a third don’t give a toss. But what they have expressed very clearly is that they don’t believe in compromise. Almost two thirds of our voting population believe the solution is to split. I’m afraid, Mr Lockwood, it’s down to you and me to deliver.’

Since then, the two men had existed in a truce similar to that of a divorcing couple finding peace in acknowledging the marriage is over. And the PM, much to his surprise, had felt a sense of relief.

The Royal Palace, Thursday 7am

The King and the PM were drinking coffee from fine china cups with a pattern of pink roses. Nobody had slept and both men were grey and irritable.

‘We are facing unmitigated disaster,’ said The King. ‘Parliament will expect to interview Fat Hope this afternoon and tomorrow we’re presenting The Panel to the world press. Except we have NO Fat Hope.’

‘I was up all night thinking about it,’ said the PM. ‘I see two options. Either we delay or we try to present Ms Hope the way she is and trust that nobody finds out.’

‘Delay will lead to immediate suspicion,’ said The King. ‘And we can’t fool The Algorithm. If we present Ms Hope in her current state, we’ll have the chaps from the Ministry of Technology on our tail before you can say “revolution”.’ He got up and started pacing in front of the door. ‘We’ve been able to retain the people’s trust this far, Lockwood. We can’t lose them now.’

Hix cleared his throat.

‘Yes, Hix?’ said the King.

‘I thought Mr Hix had no ears,’ said the PM.

The King ignored him. ‘Go on, Hix.’

Hix relayed his wife’s idea.

‘Fatten her back up?’ said the King, catching Lockwoods eye. ‘But how will we ever get her to consent to that?’

‘My wife says people always put on weight again after dieting,’ said Hix. ‘We’d only be helping Ms Hope along. And when the panel’s work is concluded and the new border has been drawn up, she’ll be free to lose the weight again.’

The King looked at Lockwood.

Lockwood sighed. ‘It could work, Your Majesty,’ he said. ‘Except..’

‘Except that it will take time,’ said The King, turning to Mr Hix. ‘Time we do not have.’

Hix cleared his throat.

‘Yes, Hix?’ said The King.

‘My wife suggested a fat suit, Your Majesty. It’s a type of undergarment with-‘

‘We know what a fat suit is,’ said The King, turning towards the PM.

The Royal Bedroom, late Thursday night

‘You must be so utterly relieved,’ said the Queen.

‘Relieved? To be the monarch who oversaw The Kingdom divide in two? To be stuffing a kind and decent woman into a fat suit and telling her to eat ice cream to her heart’s content?’

‘She’ll be doing it as a service to her country. And we’re not the first state in history to divide.’

The Royal Palace, Friday 9am

Hix was watching from behind the curtain as the world’s biggest spectacle unfolded behind the main gates. At least the sun was shining; it gave the occasion an air of positivity, of hope for a new future for all.

The Queen had positioned herself in front of the television together with Anita who was back from The Hot Territories with a blasting suntan.

The three of them listened as the commentator explained the proceedings to the viewers:

‘So here we are. These are The Panellists, the one hundred and thirty-three citizens who will oversee the separation agreement and have the final vote on the deal, each of them chosen by the most sophisticated Algorithm the world has ever known. They’ve been interviewed by the two upcoming heads of state and then unanimously approved by parliament. These are the people charged with dividing our country, our resources, our businesses and services in two. Take a close look at them: They are a microcosm of you. And when their job is complete, you and your families will be given the option to choose between two countries. This is separation done the civilised way. No walls going up in the darkness of night, no arbitrary border drawn by outside forces, but true and honest division conducted in a peaceful and orderly manner. A proud day for our nation.’

‘He doesn’t half bang on,’ said Anita.

‘It’s his moment,’ said the Queen. ‘He knows these are the largest viewing numbers he’ll ever have.’

The camera zoomed in on the panellists, finding first a shot of a well-known petty criminal called Bob-the-Job who appeared to be deep in conversation with Lady Percival Stroud des Lyons and, incredibly, the generously endowed Onesty Blow. In front of them, the King and the Prime Minister smiled for the cameras next to a child who was shaking hands with the UN observers.

‘Who’s the kid?’ asked Anita.

‘Susie something-or-other,’ said the Queen who was munching on green grapes. ‘She won the competition.’

‘The competition?’

‘Ms Susie is the unofficial Panellist 134,’ said Mr Hix, who had moved from his position behind the curtain and was watching the television intensely. ‘She’s to act as a witness for future generations. She will have no vote.’

‘Good grief,’ said Anita.

They held their breaths as Fat Hope appeared in the shot. She was giving the cameras that shy, warm smile of hers and although her face was thin compared to her body, she appeared natural enough.

Perhaps all would be well in the end.

Rebecca Taylor is a pseudonym