The Demon stood next to Gove.
“What’s… What’s going on? What is this?” asked the terrified little man.
“This? This is Hell.”
“It doesn’t look like Hell. It looks like a classroom.”
“It is,” replied the Demon, gesturing for him to take a seat.“It’s a classroom in the North of England; 2012 to be precise. You’re at the height of your powers as education secretary.”
Nervously taking a seat, Gove watched as the class entered, wondering if the Demon was going to use its oversized scythe to chop off his arms or legs first.
“Oh this? No, you needn’t worry. I’m not going to use this on you. Not yet.” And with that the Demon gestured to a small girl at the back of the class. At the sight of the girl, Gove recoiled in disgust. She was everything wrong with England: loud, brash, with huge hoop earrings and a chunky signet ring. The moment the teacher turned her back, the girl began talking loudly to her friend about which boys they were going to have sex with.
“Disgusting,” muttered Gove under his breath.
“Oh, I agree,” nodded the Demon. “Her name’s Sharon. At this point in time, she’s sixteen, and desperately alone.”
“Doesn’t sound like she’s going to be alone tonight,” sneered the politician under his breath, mostly to himself. Realising his indiscretion, he turned to the Demon, terrified of some hideous infernal punishment, thankful to find none was forthcoming.
“That’s the thing about young women who’ve never had anyone explain their true value to them. They think the reason the world has abandoned them is their fault,” said the Demon. “That they somehow earned the world’s disregard. It’s only a short mental leap from there for company to evolve into a synonym for validation.”
The Demon sighed.
“She’ll do anything to stave off that utter desolation of the soul. If it means she gets to feel real, even if it’s least for a little while, she’ll do anything.
“Even things she’s not ready for. Things she’ll have to justify to herself afterwards, convincing herself it was what she wanted, digging herself deeper into self-hate because the alternative is to admit she made a mistake that cost her something she shouldn’t have given away.”
The Demon leaned back, and watched the girl chat to her friend.
“And no-one can easily admit that. Certainly not a girl who – in her most secret heart – honestly knows herself to be less than nothing. She learned the lessons you taught her well, Michael.”
Gove shivered as the Demon exhaled smoke, a wistful expression coalescing on the brute architecture of its face.
“What none of her friends know – what you didn’t know – is that Sharon is a genius. It’s why she feels so out of place. Why she’s so alone. When your IQ is 169, you stand out… and the nail that stands out gets hammered down. Growing up with the misfortune to be born to a drunk mother and an abusive father, Sharon had no chance. Without them to guide her, the education system was all she had to fall back on… But there’s no money for a girl like her. You saw to that. Money is only for the right kind of people – the best kind of people – and not for a loud, brash girl with extremely special needs.”
The Demon leered at him, and at the sight, Gove felt an overwhelming urge to loosen his own shirt collar.
“Why take the time guiding such a loose cannon, giving her boundaries, carefully nurturing her when it could be better spent on those who co-operate without thinking… After all, no-one’s got time to treat the disobedient like they matter. Not when their line managers are leaning on them because there are OFSTED targets to hit.
“Abigail, the teacher here, she’s been working sixty hour weeks. She’s trying her best, but she’s just got too much to do, and no time to do it in. The school can’t afford enough teachers. So Abigail does her best. She helps the ones she can, copes with the ones she can’t, and then goes home and plans for the next day.
“You penalise her if she fails the middle, so she does what she has to – she ignores the bottom. Ignores girls like Sharon. Well. It’s just how you play the game of efficiency maximisation. If the pupils whose lives OFSTED have decreed are of import pass their exams and the rest fail? Abigail’s winning.
“It’s also why she needs two kinds of pills to get her through the day, and another to stop the panic attacks in the evening. Most nights, she cries herself to sleep at the whore you’ve made of her. More than once, she’s thought of running herself a bath, sliding beneath the surface, and breathing water until her cares are finally washed away.”
“I still don’t see why you’re telling me this.”
“Well, ethical myopia always was your particular hamartia, Michael,” replied the Demon, leaning back and fixing Gove with an impassive stare. “The reason I’m telling you this is because you’re dying.”
The Demon rose from its chair, and stepped across to the girl with the hoop earrings.
“Yes. From a very rare, very aggressive condition. It’s got a complex Greek name with over seventeen separate syllables. Obviously it’s quite incurable. Your death is going to be long, slow, and quite spectacularly agonising. Your private physicians will do what they can, but ultimately, what they can do is limited.”
The Demon reached out a hand for the girl, close enough to touch her hair. Gove was surprised to see the beast’s fingers trembling, as though nervous. The Demon’s expression was more shocking still; the simian horror seemed somehow awestruck. Like an artist who beholds something rare and exquisitely beautiful – something almost too beautiful to be near for fear that one’s own presence might somehow taint it.
“Your condition’s genetic. You’ve passed it to your children. They, in turn, will pass it to their grandchildren. Oh, a cure will be found. But by the time it is, you and forty eight of your descendants will have died in shrieking, wretched agony, praying to an unconcerned universe for your pain to stop.”
The Demon’s eyes sparkled like black fire.
“But it won’t. Not until the end, and for you? Not even then.”
Gove felt himself chill.
“The reason we’re here, is because Sharon is the inventor of your cure. Or rather, she would have been, if she’d been nurtured properly. Protected from unworthy parents by a state which upholds the dignity of its people, no matter the ugliness of their origins. Nurtured by the right sort of care and attention in a supportive environment, with boundaries provided by decent people who respected her, wanted her to succeed, and weren’t worn down by endless impossible targets designed more to please voters than help the vulnerable. Provided with financial support to get her through university, she would have grown to be one of the finest doctors in British history. A towering light of the medical profession, she would have saved countless lives, including yours and all of your children down the ages. The cure to your particular condition would have been a very minor achievement in a lifetime of astonishing accomplishments.”
Gove is astonished to hear the demon’s voice crack.
“But she won’t heal you, your family, or anyone else now. She died seven months ago. There was pain. Terrible, shameful pain. She was alone, cold in a watery bedsit, with a needle in her arm and poison in her veins. No-one noticed her light leaving the world, and no-one misses her now she’s gone.”
His blood icy, Gove looked at the girl; he tried to imagine her as a doctor. A professional, clean, smiling, pristine in her white. But all he could see was the ugly jewellery, the ridiculous hairstyle, the braying laugh that set his skin on edge.
“You’re lying,” he hissed. “You only want to hurt me. You’ll say anything.”
The Demon turned to him, and smiled, and in the blade of that smile, all Gove’s bravery and defiance evaporated.
The Demon was most assuredly not lying. Not even a little.
“Oh Michael,” it crooned, its tones syrupy with limitless, perfect hatred, “Michael, you’re almost right…I do want to hurt you. And I will. Over and over and over again… even on your birthday.”
The demon gave a little shiver of arousal.
“And very soon now.”
Lifting its hand, it held out an admonishing finger crusted with rotten blood.
“But ‘soon’ isn’t the same thing as ‘now’. I’m not showing you this to hurt you now, oh no. This is for afterwards. For when we’re finally together, alone in my room. This is so that during every second of what I do to you, during every violation, every debasement, every infinity of screaming, you know.”
“Know what?” stammered Gove, barely able to form the words.
“That none of it needs to be happening. That she would have kept thee from me.”
Gove felt himself grow cold, his insides thick with hollow realisation.
“Please…” he whispered, his voice tremulous, his hands shivering. “Please, I’ll do anything.
“A little late for that now, Michael. Broken eggs are only good for omelettes.”
Boundless fury vanishing, the demon smiled, but in a very different way than it had earlier. Before, its grin had been a leer of mockery. Now?
Now, its expression was hungry.
Taking a step forward, its cloven hoof left a seared footprint in the floor. It crouched low, squatting on its haunches, its leering grin so close to Gove’s eyes he could see every one of its hundred serrated, shark-like teeth.
“Still, why not keep telling yourself it’s her fault for being born poor, eh? After all, it’s worked for you so far. ”
Gove’s eyes open, and he looks down at the ruin of his body in the hospital bed. The putrescence of his skin laid open, flesh falling away from the muscle in awful, meaty strips held together only by white gauze thick with the morning’s yellow stickiness and suppurating blood.
And as he closes his eyes, trying to squeeze down the pain which clamps him between its teeth, the only sound is the echo of a mocking laugh, ringing through the hospital ward, off into the indifferent dark.