By M S Clements
“Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”
From ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’
Once I was triumphant. Once I celebrated a nation’s birth with giddy optimism. And once, I pledged myself to her. I was to be her guide, her envoy, her defender. My industry was hers to command. New Albany charmed me, cajoling ever more from this devoted servant.
Dark tinted privacy glass filters out New Albany’s vibrancy. Muted hues of mauve, rust, and grey roll past me. It has become the flickering scenes of an art house film. If I lower the car window, would we understand one another or would our eyes lower to the subtitles below?
I need to test my theory. My right index finger travels along the leather and pushes down on the button. Electric messages carry from brain to finger, to circuits, and then to motors, compelling the glass to slide down and with it, its funereal filter. Crisp yellow and ochre corn fields ebb and flow with the warm air. They are ripe for harvesting. Road dust flicks into my face. I blink, washing away the specks with protecting tears. The musky air from distant summer gardens blends with hot rubber and dry earth. It used to have sweetness that once I swallowed with eagerness, but now all I taste is rotten stickiness. There is no innocence in August. August is lust, it is desire, it is voracious greed. I breathe it, and deep within me, bile rises.
‘Pull over.’ I hit the back of my driver’s seat. ‘Pull over now.’ I slap against the door handle even before the car slows to a halt. My world has stopped and only now has the door opened. It flings away from me and I tumble out, gasping for air. Like the corn that waves alongside the road, I too have become ripe for harvesting. My country demands her fealty. What else is there for me to do? I extract my soul and place it at her bloodstained feet. I retch for there is nothing left to expel from this blighted body. I am empty.
Nine Hours Earlier
The 9:17 to Corbison empties its passengers onto the platform. There aren’t the usual numbers, what with it being August, and those that are there are the brightly coloured tourists and not the dark suited men of September to June. Even I have decided that this extraordinary meeting does not require me to swelter in a navy woollen suit and silk tie. I slap the Panama on my head and check my phone. No reply.
I keep one eye on my phone and another searching out the best route to weave my way past the grey canvas kit bags of the recruits now filling the gaps on the platform. I hadn’t noticed them on board. But then again why would I? Recruits are limited to Economy.
There’s still no reply, so I tap out a message telling him to meet me at Monica’s.
I am startled by hearing my name bellowed across the concourse. A quiet groan is insufficient to soothe the irritation.
‘Hang on Tim.’ Gareth bustles his way against the flow of the crowd, oblivious to the vexed expressions of those pushed apart. I smile, not to welcome the arrival of my boss, but out of the satisfaction that one day soon he will know what it is to be forced to step aside.
‘You here for the meeting too? No idea what it’s about. You?’ Before I am given the chance to speak he clasps his chubby fingers around my arm. ‘Let’s do lunch, we’ve loads of time before the meeting.’
A young private hovers behind him, not one of the recruits but judging from his good looks, another of Gareth’s indispensable assistants. They change so often, I don’t even bother learning their names now. In one hand he holds the green briefcase emblazoned with the gold seal of New Albany and in the other, a bulging overnight bag. A gentle cough reminds Gareth to his presence.
‘Ah, yes, err, change of plan.’ It is as though he has forgotten he has my arm in his grip. Gareth’s lower lip rolls downwards before apologising to the lad in a faux childlike voice. The young man’s eyes narrow as he gives me a distinctly jealous stare. I return the stare and watch an overly officious salute to both Gareth and me, even though I will not be entitled to such an honour until my promotion. A tiny tattoo pokes out from under his cuff, the thistle of the Fifth Regiment. That’s my party trick, matching flower to regiment.
‘I’ll join you in the hotel later,’ he calls after the disappearing soldier. Aware of me again, he adds, ‘We have papers to go through for the September tour.’ He releases my arm yet the feeling of fingers constricting my upper arm persists. ‘Monica’s?’ he asks.
‘Sure,’ I reply.
There is no wondering if a table will be available at Monica’s because there’s always one free for the Foreign Minister. We have moved from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned restaurant. It is refreshing, a bit too cold even, and I wonder if I should had brought that linen jacket I got for my birthday. The problem with Gareth, is that he likes to be on show. Annoyingly, we are escorted out again to his favourite spot underneath the blue and white awning of the street-side patio. Within seconds the heat pricks my skin. I remove my hat to fan myself. Rivulets of sweat have gathered at my temples and I am forced to dab them away with a paper napkin. Gareth notices and hands me the white silk hankie from his top pocket.
‘Always keep one handy, never know when you need to clear something up.’
There is something faintly vulgar about the way he says that. I put the hankie down. Checking the patio for familiar faces, I nod towards a handful of colleagues under the awning with us, but through the dark glass I see nearly every table inside is occupied by Representatives, sipping wine, and leaning back in their seats. Not a flustered or overheated brow among them. I’ve no doubt they are sharing the same conspiracy theories that earlier caused my phone to ping with ill-mannered regularity. I silenced it. They all wanted the insider knowledge and given I am part of the family, they assume I am the one to disclose why they have been dragged away from family holidays and cosy sojourns with our mistresses. There are some things I know, like the fact Gareth’s good-looking assistant is about to get a promotion to a remote part of Area Zone Twelve. Of course, Gareth is as ignorant of that piece of news as he is of his own imminent retirement, and it’s not for me to enlighten him.
I am confident work will not disturb our lunch. Gareth is not the kind of boss who discusses departmental matters out of work hours, and nor do they bother him much on the rare occasions when he’s in the office. To Gareth, being Foreign Minister is akin to a ceremonial post, where he is rolled out for receptions with people that bore him, or tours of foreign lands where the food is disagreeable, and the company suitably discreet if paid enough. Half the time I don’t bother him for advice, clarification or even for his signature. That’s why he likes me. I very much doubt anyone could identify his real signature these days.
Perplexed by his decision to take the train instead of his ministerial car, I am regaled about the joy of train travel until I wish I had commented on the weather instead. With the zeal of a proud father, he shows me pictures of various trains that all look the same to my uninitiated eye. It is with no small relief that Colin from Finance saunters over and slaps me on the back. ‘Have you recovered from the festivities?’ he asks, referring to my daughter’s wedding.
‘Oh, of course,’ adds Gareth, putting away his phone. ‘Did the bride and groom get off OK? I was sorry to leave so early, but you know, work is a cruel mistress.’
Or a pretty young soldier in his case. ‘They’ve gone to AZ Twelve, walking in the mountains,’ I answer.
Colin drags over an unoccupied chair from the neighbouring table and hassles a waitress to bring his lunch over, adding to us, ‘I hate eating alone.’
A disgruntled Gareth shuffles his seat and moves the cutlery to make some space.
‘I was surprised you signed the consent form,’ says Colin to me, fiddling with his Family First cuff-links, its tiny diamonds catching the light.
‘Exactly,’ said Gareth, leading back to allow the waitress to pour wine into his glass. He makes a show of tasting the wine before giving an approving nod to her. He’ll miss Monica’s. ‘I’d have put my foot down. Lock them in their room until they see sense, is what I say.’
I am thankful that neither has daughters.
Half the Representatives lunching here were guests at my daughter’s wedding, and like Colin and Gareth, they too expressed surprise and concern over her unconventional choice of husband, his background rendering him both an object of curiosity and disgust.
‘I like him,’ I reply, closing the conversation dead.
Before long, we are drawn to the reason for the emergency meeting. Colin is convinced we are about to be invaded by the joint forces of all those Outer countries. Gareth muses over the possibility of a general election. Both arguments are ridiculous. Despite Gareth’s regular work ‘meetings’ with whomever is his current favourite, it is me that deals with all the foreign ambassadors and dignitaries. Like us, they prefer the beach in August to the stress of warmongering under the summer heat. As for Gareth’s idea, although I would have liked it to be true, I know that the senior cabinet members will not risk their power to the vagaries of the people at a time when there is no public clamour for an election. The Unity Government will continue its reign in this, our twenty-sixth year of emergency rule.
We eat at Monica’s because there’s never a bill at the end of the meal. I say ‘we’ as in the Representatives. Jon thinks Monica’s is a convenient cover for money laundering, but no one will ever investigate the claim. Too much effort and far too inconvenient. And the thing about a free lunch, is the ease with which you order another bottle of wine, or a second pudding. Wine, food, and heat, is it any wonder the chatter has dwindled to low murmurs and the occasional snore.
Where is Jon? I check my phone. Nothing.
Across from us, on the other side of Martyrs’ Square, three sonorous gongs jog us back to why we are in Corbison in the first place, St Stephen’s Meeting Room calls. Gareth snorts and rubs his face awake and looks around. ‘Colin gone? Good, the man is a frightful prig. To be honest, people like him scare me a bit.’
I say nothing in response, push the chair back and toss a fifty out of my wallet for the waitress.
Martyrs’ Square is a popular tourist destination. Elegant buildings surround three sides, each with an exclusive restaurant or boutique below. Essentially, it is the accommodation block for Representatives. Smart hotels, and comfortable serviced apartments house us when we spend our nights in Corbison, on our own, with our wives or more often than not, with our lovers. The doormen are the souls of discretion and very well tipped. I won’t be staying tonight, St Max’s and the smell of the sea is all I want, no matter how late it is when I get there.
The Parliament building dominates the north side, the stonework pockmarked by the terrorist atrocity that gave the square its name and defines this government. I decide to walk across the green. Its shadier here. The square is enormous, and the central green has a double row of trees that line each edge. I know they are cherry trees because the early April blossom is a joy to behold. My daughter told me their Latin name, but I quickly forgot. To me they are Gerald, Alexander, Agnes, Verity and another two hundred names. I know these names because at the foot of each slender tree is a white marble memorial, engraved with the name of the martyrs. In spite of the shade, by the time I reach the other side of the green, my shirt is wet with sweat. How can it be so hot? I swear this heatwave will be the death of me.
We are ushered into the Great Ante-Room with its pastoral frescoes plastered across the walls and ceilings. They are not particularly good, and their dramatic style reminds me of my grandmother’s romance novels. The addition of gold leaf doesn’t help. But there is one advantage of this room. It is cold. A granite and marble mausoleum would struggle to reach the low temperature of the Great Ante-Room. I stand at the foot of the staircase and relish my rising goose bumps. On my arm, fine hairs stand to attention. The other Representatives stroll pass me on their way up the stairs to the Meeting Room while I wait for Jon. He still hasn’t answered my texts. Dread builds inside me, what if I went too far at the wedding. We’ve rowed before but he hasn’t spoken to me since, and now this radio silence? I should apologise. I send another text and tell him I’ll save him a seat on the back row. There is no one else in the Ante-Room now, and from the top of the stairs, a young soldier waits at the double oak doors. I take the hint and ascend the marble steps.
St. Stephen’s Meeting Room was once a palace ballroom. Walls that had been covered with antique mirrors and gold ormolu candle sconces were now lined with oak panels salvaged from the old parliament. Years of dedicated cleaning and polishing cannot eradicate the bloodstains sucked into its fibres. Each dark circle surrounds a bullet hole, reminding us of those we have lost.
Blue velvet chairs make up the two front rows that are reserved for the cabinet members and Junior Ministers, like me. A friend waves me over. Rather than approach him, I send him a text explaining that I am waiting for Jon. I add, ‘He’s running late,’ to avoid any awkward texts back. However, three minutes on the plastic chair and my backside is bemoaning the lack of comfort. My willingness to apologise to Jon wanes with each passing moment. He’d better hurry up or it will be me demanding an apology from him.
A fresh faced army recruit thrusts a cup towards me, the tea slopping over the side and onto the saucer, where a miniature Victoria sponge soaks up the excess liquid.
‘Oh, tea. Um, thank you.’ It’s odd to have so many soldiers in the room, and the usual waiters are nowhere to be seen. ‘Excuse me,’ I call to the boy, ‘where are the Parliamentary Servants?’
‘On summer leave, Sir. High Command asked that we step in rather than call them back just for one afternoon.’ He doesn’t wait for my flippant comment about wishing I were a Parliamentary servant. There are many more cups of lukewarm tea to slop onto unsuspecting laps.
‘Oh God, no,’ I say to no one.
The Representative to my left gives me a look, so I gesture to the huge white screen unfurling at the end of the room. ‘Looks like we’ve been dragged here for a film show.’ He looks up, sees the screen, nods, then resumes playing BubbleSmash on his phone. I wriggle on the seat, not that I am likely to find a position comfortable enough for sleep.
There he is, the late bastard. Out of the corner of my eye I spot Jon, standing with his back to me on the far side of the room. He’s talking to a recruit, but I’d know the back of his head anywhere. He has a whorl of hair that curls on his crown, and although the years have thinned it, it persists on curling up despite Jon’s best efforts to control it. I joked about it when I saw an identical whorl on Jon’s grandson’s head. Of all the things poor Kieran could inherit from his Keeler genes, that is probably the most ridiculous one.
‘Jonny Keeler, why don’t you answer your bloody phone?’ He doesn’t respond to my shout. I clamber past the other men, repeating apologies when they shift their legs and bags. I suppose I could have gone the other way, but too late now. Jonny doesn’t turn around and I wonder if he is still angry with me. Aren’t we a bit old for the silent treatment? I slap Jon on the back, but when he turns, it isn’t Jon at all, it’s some fellow I don’t recognise. I find this oddly shocking. Like someone has performed a magic trick on me or something. I am lost for words.
‘Can I help you?’ he asks. He has a narrow, pasty face. I can’t understand how I could mistake him for Jon.
‘I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.’
‘Not at all,’ he says. His hand juts out to shake mine. ‘It’s Tim Smith isn’t it? I’ve heard great things about you. Arnold Helms.’
I see the cuff-links, Family First. Unlike Colin’s, these don’t have diamonds. They are plain black enamel with the cursive ‘F’ in silver.
‘Arnold’s here as an observer from The Movement,’ says a man I vaguely recognise next to him. I still don’t take his hand. Those cuff-links remind me of someone and right now I can’t think who. His hand hovers. That awkward moment between distracted and rude. I shake it. His grip is tight.
‘Please to meet you.’ I keep hold of him. ‘If you are an invited observer then you must know what this meeting is about?’
Arnold’s face contorts into what I think is an attempt at a smile. ‘No, I have no idea.’ He lets go of the handshake and I check my fingers for bruising. ‘Who is it you are looking for?’ he adds.
‘Jonny Keeler. You haven’t seen him, have you?’
‘Is he the chap from the Interior Ministry?’
‘Yes that’s him.’
‘No, ‘fraid not.’ And with that he turns his back on me. I stand there, like a fool listening to their predictions for the upcoming golf tournament.
We have so many peculiar traditions associated with parliamentary life, like the one to call us to our seats. A young lad, invariably the son or grandson of a Minister, dressed up in a ridiculous green velvet suit, marches in from the far door, ringing a hand bell. Between each ring he sings ‘To your seats gentlemen.’ There isn’t a single time that I don’t have to force back a snort of laughter.
I find a seat and put my hat on the one next to me. Jon will have some explaining to do if he comes in halfway through. The oak doors are closed, and the shutters pulled across the floor to ceiling windows, briefly dimming the room. A dozen chandeliers flick to life illuminating the place. The tea trolleys soldiers clatter on their way out of side service doors, and the Representatives’ prattle falters away to whispers, coughs, and shuffles. Velvet Boy rings his bell three times and the oak doors behind me re-opens. The first to enter are three army generals, they march side by side, least any of them should feel aggrieved by having to walk behind another. Next its Field Marshal Emmerson, perhaps Colin is right, and we are at war. Haven’t seen so many medals in one room since that friendly fire incident last winter. Elder Representative, Richard Kelston follows the army men and waits at the back while we respond to the signal to stand. When you have a room of sleepy, generally unfit middle-aged men, you give them a decent length of time to get to their feet. Once the noise dies down, he starts the dignified walk to the podium. There, he looks back towards the door and bows from the shoulder. We turn and do likewise. Then and only then, does our President enter the room. How we got to this point of silly customs eludes me, but it is what is expected, and it is what we do.
I have known President Elsvenor for more than a quarter century, but in recent years we avoid each other. Or rather I avoid him. We did invite him to the wedding, but he tactfully cited a prior engagement. Family feuds generally trump political allegiance. Yet this figure stepping up to the lectern is a stranger. His arrogant swagger has been replaced with slumped shoulders and the ponderous walk of a tired man. Whatever this meeting is about, it isn’t going to be an info-doc about the success of the new tea plantations.
The President takes his place at the glass lectern and clutches its sides, eyes down as if to deliver an invisible speech. The room has read his body language and sits quickly and silently. He lifts his face. ‘My fellow Albians.’ His voice is weak, cracking. Instead of continuing he turns and walks towards Richard. Undecipherable words are exchanged, and Richard places his hand on Elsvenor’s shoulder. We wait, breaths held. Elsvenor coughs to clear his throat and returns to the lectern.
‘My fellow Albians,’ Elsvenor repeats, in a stronger more determined voice, ‘we are gathered in this sacred room, where we hold dear the memory of our blessed Martyrs – may they forever rest in peace – to add eight new names to our Martyrs’ Monument.’ He stops as the gravity of those words sink in. Heads turn one way and then the next, searching out the missing. I see my hat sitting on an empty chair.
He pinches the bridge of his nose, then clears his throat once more. ‘It is with the deepest of regret and sorrow that our friend, our dear friend and fellow Representative, Jonathan Keeler…’
Fear pulsates through my entire body, tensing every muscle and every sinew. I know what is coming next.
‘…has fallen victim in the fight towards a better New Albany.’
The room erupts with gasps of disbelief. I am too stunned to utter a sound. He said eight martyrs, eight. I count them off my hand. It can’t be true, Elsvenor has made a mistake.
Richard pulls out a white handkerchief and wipes his face, nodding to Elsvenor to proceed. Elsvenor breathes in and exhales slowly before speaking, ‘His death is all the more tragic with the knowledge that sacrificed alongside him was his beloved wife, Deborah.’
Two. I know the names of all the others, my fingers dropping down as each are called out, Angela, Alan, Kieran, Caitlin, Millicent, and Jamie. Eight. Who kills innocent women? Who kills an innocent boy? Who kills an innocent newborn baby?
Overwhelming guilt propels me forward, my head hangs between my knees, there is no hiding from this misery. A sympathetic hand rests on my back. All in the room know of our relationship.
On the podium, Richard has approached the lectern. ‘I respectfully ask the room to stand as we bow our heads and remember the eight newest Martyrs of New Albany.’
Chairs scrape back, and men stand. I try, I really do. Velvet Boy comes to my side and holds my hand. The sight of him makes it worse. He’s not much older than Jamie. Tears fall and I have no idea how to prevent them, nor do I want to.
Richard’s voice booms across the room, ‘In this moment of silence, let us engrave the names of the eight onto our hearts.’
That silence is punctuated with sobs and sniffling noses. We are all husbands. And we are all fathers.
My driver hands me a bottle of water. I sit in the dirt next to the car, trembling. How many times will I relive those hours? Will I be brushing my teeth and see a baby staring back at me from the mirror? Will I suddenly go cold when I hear a parent call to his son? Jamie is such a popular name. I sip the water. It’s cold on the way down. Two minutes later that same water puddles in the dust.
‘I ought to call the others. You are not well, Sir.’
I may never be well again. I shake my head. I want my last moments of freedom to be just that. There is nothing I can do about the security who will settle around me the minute I cross the threshold of the house, but for now I don’t want faffing assistants, bossing distant voices over a phone, or flustered juniors taking charge. I am a Minister now. Control is mine.
‘It’s OK, you needn’t bother them.’ Gingerly, I stand up and wash my mouth out with more water. I can taste the vomit from earlier. ‘I’m fine, I probably ate a bad prawn at lunch.’
‘Aye, looks that way, Sir.’ I can see he is uncomfortable, watching out for unexpected threats. His stance is that of a bodyguard, poised to kill or be killed. ‘Not much traffic this evening, Sir. S’pose everyone’s on holiday.’ His eyes dart from me to the road.
‘I suppose they are.’ I get back into the car and wipe my face with my hand. Even though it is early evening, the heat is intolerable. Perspiration beads on my face and a trickle of sweat runs down my spine. ‘What time do you think we’ll get to St Max’s?’
‘If we stay on this road then our ETA is just after midnight. The guys over in St Max’s can see out progress.’ He looks back to the car. ‘I ought to radio and say we’ve stopped because you are, um…’ He thinks about how he’ll tell my security that their newest Minister is puking up his guts on the side of a back road. ‘That we’ve had to stop for a comfort break.’
I nod, that sounds reasonable. There is no doubt in my mind that my driver doesn’t believe my sickness has anything to do with a prawn. He would have smelt the cognac on my breath when he collected me. He would have noticed the shaking hand and the slurred instructions. To him I am the newly promoted Minister who celebrates a little too hard, because as far as he and the rest of New Albany are concerned, the Keeler murders have not yet happened.
The only one to leave the podium was President Elsvenor. The rest of us remain standing even after he has shuffled his way out of the room. I tell a lie, Velvet Boy left with him. Three hundred pairs of red-rimmed eyes watch the door close. And three hundred eyes turn and face the shattered man wobbling like a feeble foal. Someone helps me down onto a chair, and in among the whispers of ‘Just awful!’ and ‘A baby, who’d kill a baby?’, I hear, ‘He’ll be devastated.’ ‘I’ll fetch some water.’ ‘They were so close.’ and ‘University pals.’
I am so wrapped up in my own misery that I fail to notice a small commotion by the oak doors, until the banging makes me lift my head. Those around me are also intrigued by the noise. The doors have stuck, and even with three men pulling on the iron door-knob, it remains steadfastly closed.
‘Must be the heat, says a voice next to me. ‘We’ll have to go out through the service door,’ says another. ‘Where have all the blasted recruits gone?’ asks a third. Like the other men, I glance around the room. He’s right, all the recruits who had been standing at the side have gone. At the front Field Marshal Emmerson is talking to Richard and the generals. That uneasy feeling I have carried since the wedding returns. Was Jonathan right? I had accused him of madness, that his work with Naysayer prisoners had twisted his mind and he was seeing conspiracies where none existed. And yet, when I should be looking for comfort from those men on the podium, why do I now only feel hostility? I put it down to the argument with Jon. My previously amenable facade has been scratched and his infection of mistrust has spread. It is in me. My sister used to say, ‘Trust your gut, Tim, it knows what’s what.’
‘Ehem, gentleman, your attention please.’ The condolences around me stop mid flow with Richard’s order. ‘If you wouldn’t mind taking your seats again. We need to inform you of the details’
Now? He wants to talk about that, now? Why give me details of how my friend was murdered or how hateful madmen slaughter women and children? I stand and head towards the door. My way is halted by two soldiers. Not the helpful young recruits pushing tea trolleys, but the black uniformed men of our special forces. Murmurs rumble behind me and above them I hear Richard’s voice.
‘This will be difficult for us all, Tim. I am sympathetic of your pain, given your personal connection with the family, but this is a national emergency.’
The soldier to my right holds my arm. ‘If you wouldn’t mind, Sir?’
I know a veiled threat when I hear it. Hasn’t my career revolved around a series of polite threats? I let him guide me back. My forgotten hat sits on the empty seat, and I edge past, as if Jon’s ghost is sitting there, passing judgement at my failures.
Richard likes to cultivate an image of a disorganised, friendly grandpa, what with his untidy grey hair and his clothes that speak of comfort more than style. It is perfectly orchestrated, created and managed by a team of experts who understand empathy and how to manipulate it. Didn’t they work on me all those years ago? He moves away from the lectern and at the front of the podium, leans on his cane, inclining his body into the direction of the audience and speaks with grandpa softness, ‘Dear friends, what you are about to see is heart-breaking, but it needs to be done. These murderers were not the work of ordinary terrorists. These were professionals, sending each of you a personal message. No one is safe. Not you, not your wives, or even your children.’ He slams the cane on to the wood of the podium. The lectern shakes behind him. ‘This is the treachery that is in our midst and we,’ he points to us, ‘this Unity of legislators,’ his arm moves left to right and left again, ‘must confront the evil that seeks to destroy New Albany. You must defeat it.’
It takes a second or two before the applause begins. Then it becomes an ovation of cheers and bravado. ‘We will defeat them,’ echoes off the oak walls. Richard acknowledges the chants, before asking for everyone else to sit. I had not moved, not clapped nor shouted. When Richard returns to his seat, Field Marshal Emmerson steps up to take his place.
‘Gentlemen, today we received a coded message along with a video that you are about to see. I will run it without comment, for it needs none. Once the video is over I will instruct you on the new security arrangements that must now be put in place to ensure the safety of our New Albian nation. As New Albany’s Representatives and her loyal servants, it will be incumbent upon you to adhere to the recommendations.’
The light above us dims and around me, men strangely relax. The death of the Keeler family is a watershed, of course life must change.
Images from a murderer’s bodycam flick in front of us. Jonathan and his family, at home, terrified. I spot the suitcases in the hallway. The others may be thinking that they were just about to embark on a holiday. I knew that wasn’t true. His plan had failed, and they had been caught.
Who kills a baby? And who films it in all its horror? At least we are spared audio, although I do not need to hear Angela’s screams as Kieran is snatched out of her arms. I remember when she was a teenager screeching at her younger sisters and my daughter when they would drop icy cold sea water on her back. That scream is in my head, ready to be replayed for that macabre mime.
I cover my face when I see Kieran and Jamie. The children’s deaths are mercifully swift if that can be any consolation. It isn’t. But poor Alan’s is slow. Each time I have the courage to lift my eyes from a scratch on the wooden floor, it is to see another kick delivered to Angela’s husband with the precision of men experienced in such matters.
I am no braver nor more cowardly than the other men in the room. Brief relaxation evaporates as more hands cover faces. Grown men bend over double, fist clench behind their heads, and ears are shielded from imagined screams. I am surrounded by the tears and vomit of others. Through splayed fingers I see Debs and the girls, shivering in all their nakedness. I snap them shut and block the women out. This is what modern warfare is. This is humiliation, this is domination, this is our enemy saying, ‘Fuck you!’ through the medium of rape.
A collective, expletive-filled gasp forces my head up, to see Jonathan’s bound body lying across a paddling pool in the garden, the water, so red with blood that it is almost black. The camera pulls back to show four pairs of dangling feet, swaying in unison with the summer breeze. Unseasonal Halloween ornaments abandoned in the oak tree. I am overtaken by a desperate need to hide them. Leaving my seat, I walk towards the screen, arm outstretched ready to unhook them and wrap them up safely in tissue paper. I shake off the soldier who grabs at me again. I have obliterated St Stephen’s Meeting Room, along with its acrid smell and whimpers. At the podium, I clamber up, casting a shadow on the screen. With each step, I become taller, wider. I am the giant who covers their faces with my dark despair. I will save Deborah and the girls from the gawping eyes of the men in the room. And then I see him standing to the left of the oak tree. Black is a cruel colour to wear when August is in full sun, and he must have been faint with heat in his black hazmat suit. He has pushed up the sleeves revealing toned arms. He catches a soda stolen from Jon’s kitchen. A daisy. That’s what I saw. A simple little daisy tattooed on his wrist.
For the first time I hear myself. ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I should have listened. I should have believed you, Jon. I should have listened.’
‘Tim, you need to sit down.’
I turn to the voice that interrupts my belated apology. It is Richard. He has my arm and is guiding me away. My shadow shrinks and all that is left is a white screen and a memory.
‘Come on Tim, you must sit. You are in shock.’
I drop onto the soft velvet and more hands hold me down. Sometimes it is the smallest thing that takes you from stunned disbelief to bitter reality. Cold enamel from a cuff-link touches my cheek. I look at each of the men’s faces, and their perfect portrayal of concern, then I throw up onto their feet.
The sky keeps me transfixed. I stare forward out of the windscreen and see colours reflect off the white silken flag of New Albany fluttering from the bonnet. I keep watch until there is nothing left to see bar the stars in the night and red tail-lights of late season holiday traffic.
St Max’s is asleep when we finally drive through its narrow streets. Ahead I see the outline of the church in the car headlights and I am filled with a desperate need to stop.
‘You not feeling so good, Sir? We’re not far, five minutes tops,’ he says not even attempting to slow down. Town, city, countryside or sleepy village, there are always risks.
I insist and he knows not to argue his concerns. He pulls over onto the pavement opposite and I let him assess the danger before opening my door. ‘You know, Sir, you really shouldn’t be doing this,’ he tells me.
‘This is St Max’s. Nothing bad happens here.’ I cross the road towards the church. Boarding has been erected, and where there was once a lychgate, plain wooden double doors stand askew to each other. I shine my phone torch on it. A sign instructs people to keep out and another displays the plans for a block of luxury apartments, St Maximilian Mansion. I follow the boarding around until I reach a row of terrace houses. The first one, and closest to the wooden hording, is larger than the rest. It is double fronted and unlike the others, it still has its black iron railings separating it from the pavements. In the centre, above a step covered in black and white tiles is a glossy black door, reflecting the dim light from an old fashioned lantern that hangs above it. The owners have erected a slate name plate next to the door. I take a step forward and shine my torch on it, ‘The Old Vicarage’. I am happy that some things don’t change.
‘Do you know this place then, Sir?’
I jump. I had forgotten my newly assigned shadow. ‘Yes, I was born and brought up here.’ I whisper, not wanting to disturb the holidaying family. ‘We ought to get to the Beach House, it’s late and I can always come back another day.’
‘That’s true.’ He walks close to me as we cross the road back to the car. ‘Maybe they’ll put up a plaque.’
‘You know, one of those plaques to the great and the good.’ My eyes have adjusted to the faint glow given out from other door lights. His arms stretches out as though unfurling a banner. ‘Here lived Tim Smith, Foreign Minister.’
Foreign Minister, the promotion I coveted for so many years, and now it is mine bought with Jonathan’s blood and my loyal silence.