CHAPTER 1 – LONDON 1975 – THE LAST DAY

Martin Mainwright struck a pose. It was a well practised pose from the privacy of his chambers, or in front of the full-length mirror in the master bedroom, on the rare occasions when the house was empty. It was a pose that one would not care to be caught doing in public as it was riddled with Narcissistic connotations, but now the private practice sessions could end and allow for the unveiling of the victory stance.  For very few, even his opponents, would deny him this moment, this moment forming part of the many that would lay before him during his journey to glory. Mainwright was already a household name but was on the verge of having his own section in bookshops specialising in history.

For Mainwright’s journey, however short, had been impressively prolific. More than two-hundred days shy of his fortieth spring on this planet, he was expecting to be elevated to the level of the great ones upon his arrival at the office the next day. For Mainwright, the office was the Houses of Parliament, he had been an MP (for Sittingbourne) for more than six years, after a distinguished career in local government and politics. His credentials were perfect to spearhead the campaign for his party to change their rather stuffy image and move into the late twentieth century. Popular and respected. Mainwright was the inevitable choice for the youngest Chancellor of the Exchequer, and later Prime Minister. And so the pose, surrounded by his closest aides and allies, it was his moment to cherish. They would all expect a piece of the cake when it would later be sliced, but for now it was Mainwright’s cake, and he proudly carried it to the table. 

            To reach the point he found himself at that moment Mainwright had made many sacrifices, but he had also benefited from the circumstances, both sociological and political, that would allow him to reach a hitherto unexpected position in the somewhat stuffy world of British politics. Brilliance has been a watchword synonymous with Mainwright’s life. Even his birth caused the scratching of heads in the upper echelons of the Sittingbourne medical field. Nineteen thirty-five was not a great year to be born in, world recession managed to make poverty a well-recognised house guest in all parts of the globe, the threat of another war was not being felt at grassroots level, but still causing chin rubbing. Political instability was endemic all over Europe, and Uruguay were world champions. 

The Mainwright’s situation was, for the great majority of the British public, enviable. Martin’s father, Cecil, was a civil servant who had been decorated in the Great War and been given an honourable discharge that still caused flashbacks every time he remained seated for great periods of time. Therefore, the Mainwright’s were able to maintain a reasonably, or at least relatively, high standard of living. His mother, Beryl, was offered the role of mother and housekeeper in the set-up. A role oft seen for ladies of her generation, although her mother had worked in a munitions’ factory, in the process getting muscles that before the last battle of Ypres would take the factory arm-wrestling championship, Beryl’s generation were not expected to get their hands dirty, except if it was by making a corned-beef hash, well not until nineteen forty or so. When Beryl fell pregnant with Martin she had already had the pleasure of two near-death experiences whilst in the throes of childbirth, and medical science did not recommend a third foray. Complications appeared quite soon, and Beryl was confined to bed for the last five months of the pregnancy. Hot water and towels were not enough on their own, medical technology would have to be stretched a little further if Beryl were to meet the stork this time. Despite fears to the contrary, and the none too optimistic calling of a priest, Beryl managed to give birth to a boy after eight and a bit months gestation. Martin struggled at first, he was not named Martin until it was clear a name would be of some significance to him, but eventually managed to turn into a healthy child just in time to enjoy the nightly mortality challenge options of the Second World War. 

The war caused the Mainwright household to sink further into unhappiness, Cecil felt impotent at not being able to participate and, as he put it, finish off the job on the Bosh, Beryl felt impotent at being impotent after finishing up with the greater part of her reproductive organs resting in the bins of the local children’s hospital. Had these events taken place in the luxury of fifty years’ later, her parents would have simply separated, later divorced and Cecil Mainwright would have joined the second generation of weekenders. Without this simple solution, Mr. & Mrs. Wainwright were forced to ride out the bad times, become closer and live out the rest of their days embarrassingly claiming they loved each other as much as the first time in the presence of their then grown-up children. With the parental outlet down, young Martin forged a close relationship with his sister Helen and did most of his playing with brother Jeremy. If his birth had been an accident, a worse accident of birth would have been being born in Coventry or Liverpool, Sittingbourne was not high on the Nazi’s agenda of military strongholds, and although suffering was around every corner, they escaped to an extent. When Martin began school in war-torn Britain, there was little time available to single-out prospective the child genius with a grand future. When a certain amount of normality returned, though eggs were still tinned and no-one had yet to see a banana, Martin prepared for the eleven plus exam, and people began to suggest it was time to hold on a minute. Martin could read and write at three, diligently copying tasks from his elder sister’s workbooks, he tinkled the ivories at the age of five and was doffing his cap at long division at seven. Despite the bulk of his learning taking place after school, Martin was a charming, ridiculously polite and popular member of the school. With his parents’ relationship back on track, Martin developed an interest in History, nurtured by his father, and spent a great deal of his free time with war veterans, indignant that what had happened twice this century on the battlefields of Europe never happen again. 

Martin prepared for the eleven plus with Helen, the pair of them laughing at the ease of the questions and was the first person in Kent to get one-hundred percent. The education board were so impressed with Martin that they offered him a full scholarship to one of its finer public institutions. The Mainwrights pondered the offer but felt that a steady home influence with the emphasis on feet on the ground would benefit him more than spending time with people who had more surnames than neurones.  At the Grammar School he found himself encouraged by fine teachers, offered the possibility to further his interests and to participate in sports. Martin, under the guidance of his father, never allowed himself to become a child with his head buried in a book, spending weekends walking in the countryside, he had an innate ability to record and document every piece of information imparted to him, or playing rugby in winter, cricket in summer. In August he would go with the school French club to the school where their exchanges took place. He was the youngest ever winner of the Kent Latin prize, took “O” level Maths and English Language at fourteen, passed with “A”s, and captained the school debating team to a hideously biased final against Harrow where the refereeing would put to shame the guy who would later give Caine and Stallone, and lesser footballing dignitaries like Nascimento, Ardiles and Moore, a hard time against a German Army XI.  It was an idyllic time for Martin, at fifteen he was asked to fill in for the first XI, batting at number three and hitting one-hundred and six off seventy-three balls. 

The family seemed almost protected from the syndromes that would one day have names and become part of post-modernist culture. They never had too much but didn’t go wanting. Discipline was not something Cecil and Beryl had to worry about too much, as that paperwork took care of itself. As martin prepared his “A” levels and Oxbridge entrance exam, he furthered his musical ability, joining the local orchestra and being offered a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, which he politely turned down. He had decided that he would read Economics, that his gift for numbers could be used for good to pull the world economy round, not so that the capitalist countries could enjoy larger abysses between the rich and the poor in their lands, but so that on every table in every land there was bread. Idealistic, certainly, naïve, perhaps, but at the very least refreshing. His performance at the interview for Oxford University was legendary, the Dean almost gave him his job there and then. He single-handedly had a negative effect for the weaker students on the nineteen fifty-two “A” Level grade curve, by taking “A”s in Mathematics, Pure Mathematics, Chemistry and Economics. He did not take the General Studies paper originally but was asked to after his results came through for the “proper” exams, hurriedly taking the exam the morning of the death of his pet python and still taking a grade “A”. 

It was a tearful moment for Beryl as her little boy left home. All mothers tend to go down the same boulevard at this moment, whether it be the Bolton Institute of Higher Education or King’s College Oxford the destination. Martin had no problems fitting in, despite taking his “A” levels a year early, he had the social grace of a person of many more than just seventeen winters. When the workload was seen as to easy for him, he began to turn his energies to more taxing issues, and it was where he first met a man that would become his mentor, the famed economist Dr. Ludovic Cassells. 

Ludovic Cassells had arrived in Oxford as a visiting professor in nineteen thirty-two. Of Hungarian origin, he excelled in a number of subjects, but found his true vocation to be Economics. Distressed by the possibilities offered to him at Budapest University, he accepted the offer of a conference in Oxford to flee the east. Those in charge of the University of the bicycles were not really keen on a political crisis arising from a poaching scandal that broke protocol, but Cassells would not be moved. He was an enormously handed, at first glance grotesque-looking and uncoordinated. As he walked across the ground it appeared that none of his muscles were connected to the part of the body they were supposed to activate, but on closer inspection, he had a magnetism that keen to get on young female, and there were offers from the boys, would find it hard to resist. The government were also keeping an eye on Cassells, at first wary of his sudden appearance in the United Kingdom as Europe flew headlong into another crises, but then realised the potential worth of this genius. The policy was to have home-grown talent spearheading economic policy, but they admitted that this may have been part of the reason for the dire economic situations in which the economy often floundered. Cassells was soon juggling his lecturing at Oxford with being an adviser to the Chancellery.  Cassells enjoyed a privileged position within the framework of both the government and the university. 

It was then with some surprise that one fine night in late nineteen thirty-six he disappeared from Oxford, only to reappear four years later with a finger missing, several scars with which he did not leave, and a vagueness that even for him surprised listeners when the subject of his absence was broached. His return did not endear him to the already suspicious government, who, despite their need for a man like Cassells during the fraught economy of the war years, did not feel the man could be trusted. They tried to revise their plan by secretly contracting understudies of his and hoping to prise out the information thus, but Cassells had been around and was not going to let his services be leaked out of his rooms.  Anyway, with the war in full swing, University education was not seen as a priority, and Cassells fell on diificult times, combining lecturing with a job on the local radio impersonating the top notch Third Reich members to hilarious results. He even contemplated a return to the east, but when things started to pick up after the war and coupled with a much eyebrow-raising romance with the local vicar’s daughter, he decided to stay in Oxford. In nineteen fifty-one he was made Dean of Economics. 

Cassells was also renowned for being immensely rude to staff and students alike. Only when he found a student, and he believed Oxford University was the least likely place to find them, that met his intellectual requirements did he bother to take an interest in their education. The University had to employ another professor to do his marking and paperwork, tutorials were not an option, but Cassells attracted the right amount of eccentric fame that the University could use to its own benefit. As soon as martin Mainwright was accepted into Oxford, the meeting between the two was anticipated with bated breath.    

Martin was inevitably drawn to Cassells, they shared the same ideas, the same passions outside the classroom and had the same visions. Many companies had already heard of Mainwright, and were slightly perturbed  at the idea of his brilliance being corrupted by Cassells, the companies wished to headhunt Mainwright, and use his ability to their economic gain, there was talk that Cassells was a Communist sympathiser, his advocating of  free public health systems and education for all were not ideas they wished to be passed on to Mainwright. So it was with great relief when Martin Mainwright began to spend more and more time with the daughter of Lord Flogburne, a Conservative (though a small c would also work) Lord and follower of a clearly traditionally based division of wealth system. 

Gemma Flogburne was Martin’s first experience of love, it was not something he had seemed to have time for previously, the Grammar School set up not providing a myriad of opportunities by ensuring a single-sex environment. Martin’s brother Jeremy had been gifted a winning smile by the puberty gods, and offered Martin tips and pointers as to crack the case, but in those days, as in these, if you don not have the patter, there is none for you son, even if you do look like Michaelangelo’s David. Therefore, Martin was considered as a really nice lad as he left for University, still a virgin. Gemma was not in the same boat, she was not even in the same river or Olympic racing category, although her hymen went innocently whilst horse-riding at fourteen, it would not have lasted much longer. Gemma summered abroad, smoked, had a collection of gramophone records and considered a good night out to be more than five G&T’s. She was allegedly studying something somewhere but spent little time in her elusive seat of learning.  When he met her he realised that he hadn’t actually got around to having any fun and began to make up for lost time. Of course, Martin could not keep up with her pace, he tried to look like a skinful of  gin was second nature to him, but never managed to see the end of a party. Nonetheless, he was smitten, and despite Cassells warnings to the contrary, Martin remained with Gemma until he inevitably found her rolling round with another after aiming to surprise her with flowers (since that moment Mainwright has never repeated the romantic surprise, always making sure details are known to all parties before any type of surprise can take place).  Martin was devastated, Cassells forte was not consoling love-sick teenagers, and his choice of words did not help the potentially suicidal youngster. Cassells did though manage to pull out one piece of advice of some worth, and that was to get away for the summer, have a good time and forget about Gemma. The situation had caused him to fail a few exams he was expected to be good enough to mark, the University accepted the rather delicate emotional state he was in and allowed him to do a retake in September. They also recommend he take part in the trip to the Rhône Valley where fruit-picking and open-air camping may help him through this difficult time. 

The face of Martin Mainwright that arrived in south-west France that Tuesday afternoon did not even appear to be a distant cousin of the one that left four weeks later. On the journey back he was able to thank Gemma the favour she had done him by opening first his heart, and then his eyes. For four weeks he spent the days picking fruit in the blistering sunshine, and the nights drinking ludicrously cheap wine and making love to a beautiful Mexican girl in the rooftop of an old barn where they slept. As opposed to the relationship with Gemma, both parties in the Martin-María tryst knew that time was to be taken advantage of, their relationship could never work, in the mid-fifties the nearest people had to MSN Messenger was the telegram, and that somehow wouldn’t work. The sadness he felt on saying goodbye to María was not akin to the sadness he felt on losing Gemma, of course if she had decided to drop everything and come with him then that would be marvellous. He, on the other hand, had no desire to up ship and leave a promising life in the west to do God knows what in Mexico. For the next couple of months letters came and were sent, though each one shorter and struggling to hit the etiquette of at least one side. November saw no letter, a Christmas card was sent from Oxford and a reply came from  Monterrey, where it wasn’t happening, two months later. Martin’s academic career was back on track, and by the summer he was looking at his final year with a first average. The headhunting companies were also pleased as Mainwright’s academic brilliance caused him often to take an opposing stance to Cassells, although they were still a bit friendly for their liking. 

During his final year, Martin met and fell in love with Elizabeth, a beautiful, sensible librarian, daughter of a civil-servant and the woman who would be designated the role of those behind the scenes who deserve this award / recognition more than I do / Behind every great man there is a, etc. etc.  Within two months they announced their engagement, which broke a number of hearts in Oxford (not only the girls, but many prospective father-in-laws went into a form of depression when they saw their dowry was not enough). Martin finished Oxford in the summer of nineteen fifty-five with a first-class Masters’ degree (automatic upgrade, not a  feature at Bolton) and the known world after his signature. Cassells implored him not to work for a major multi-national, and to go into a government department, but Mainwright the graduate had discovered a taste for the good life in his final days at Oxford, as his would-be suitors wined and dined him. Mainwright made it clear that he wished to work for a company that had a social conscience, and promises were made that would be soon forgotten as Mainwright entered his avaricious twenties. 

It did not take Mainwright long to climb the ladders put before him in his place of work. By the time he was twenty-six he was considered senior.  He and Elizabeth married in the summer of fifty-six, during the preparations they heard Elvis Presley for the first time but didn’t think much of him. She remained in the library for a while, but soon second-generation economic geniuses were being talked about. A man of numbers, Mainwright decided  that three was a good number of children as it hadn’t done his family any harm. Jeremy was the best man, and Beryl’s eternal happiness was achieved when Helen and Elizabeth struck up a friendship that would last until the first of them decided to explore the afterlife. In November fifty-nine, the first-born, Charles appeared as the Mainwrights relocated to the capital. With the recovery of the British economy after the Second World War, they were installed in suburbia, where the rewards of a young executive were enjoyed. Sixty-one saw the second offspring, Elizabeth said she liked the name Gemma, Martin laughed, and they decided on Emily. The next year the third and final member appeared, taking the name Jeremy after his brother was tragically killed in a car accident. The loss of his brother had a profound effect on Martin. He had always seen Jeremy as a person who knew things that he had somehow missed that class, and worried as to his ability of going through the difficult aspects of life to follow without his big brother. His life up to that point had ill-prepared him for tragedy, and as he was able to appreciate the frailty of his parents, Elizabeth’s ailing mother and other crude realities of fate that a sheltered existence had saved him from. Although Jeremy had no children of his own, he was the perfect uncle. Martin’s children were too young to comprehend what had happened, Helen’s children were devastated by the loss, and the effect was passed on to Elizabeth. Martin was reminded of his discussions with Cassells, who gave a moving speech at the funeral, and began to think about putting something back. 

It was then, at the age of twenty-nine that Martin Mainwright entered politics, as a local counsellor. His passion and drive to make a difference was fuelled by Cassell’s theories, and his election was inevitable. Entering local government, Mainwright was of the belief that if enough people rallied together, even at the lowest level, then a difference would be made. He was soon disillusioned when the majority of those elected spent more time involved in petty squabbles, back-stabbing and other meandering towards personal gain, than actively representing their constituents. Mainwright was soon convinced that it was not from the bottom that things had to be changed, but at the top. As he moved up through the local council, he was not ashamed to use the local press to expose corruption, some of the older members of the council tried to inform him of the rules of cricket, but Mainwright was on a mission. 

His popularity with the constituents was matched by his unpopularity with his council colleagues. Assassination attempts are not altogether common in local government, but the situation had come to the stage that the Mayor had seen his income reduced by more than seventy percent as a result of Mainwright’s meddling behaviour. If the Mayor was losing out on backhanders then the chain was broken, pay-offs to the Mayor meant third parties whose palms were greased from the tea-lady to Super-Intendents. Cassells philosophy was that if the people you detest detest you, then you’re doing well. Mainwright knew that powerful and rich people were against him, but never suspected that the night he left the new Italian restaurant that a copycat Sarejevo Austrian Archduke removal plan on the streets of Guildford. Thankfully, the Guildford branch of the Serbian rebels did not have the same accuracy, and Mainwright took the bullet in the hip. 

After the incident, the Mainwrights had to take more care than before, and this led to what was an enormously happy period for their children.  With their father a politician whose life was under threat the family were rewarded with a pair of bodyguards. Gary and Ken were at first glance your typical brutish bullyboys who liked nothing more than dishing out a good kicking. However, appearances were deceptive again as the two became pivotal members of the Mainwright family. The boys loved the idea of being escorted to school by two big bruisers, and the standing in the school also benefited from their new guardians. Inevitably, the boys mouths’ tended to work a bit of overtime as they acquired a reputation based on a precarious pretext in the school. In the family home Gary and Ken never failed to surprise, Gary helping the children with their Maths’ homework, for which he had a don, and Ken proving to a dab hand in the kitchen, his mother had lived in Rabat for a long time and had passed on a marvellous couscous recipe, as well as showing a side not normally seen of bodyguards as he read his poetry at night. When the corrupt and bad were eventually tried and punished, the promised revenge never materialising, the Mainwright household was declared a self-sufficient environment, and Gary and Ken went on to their next mission. Of course, there were tears, young and old, as they left, words of wisdom to the boys, final cooking tips to the staff and ladies, and a heart-warming “if you ever, ever, ever need anything, here’s our number” to the main man. Then, they were gone. Like a hostage victim who finds it difficult to readjust to normal life, the Mainwrights suffered the same emptiness with the loss of Gary and Ken.

Things took a long while to get back to normal. School was a continuous problem. Charles and Jeremy had become rather carried away with their accompaniment to school, and mouths that had previously remained pragmatically shut, opened incessantly. Once the bigger boys got wind of the Venezuelan five-foot two housemaid who was bringing them to school, there was the suggestion that “you’re not so hard now”. A suggestion that was soon proven.  A suggestion that would mean Charles and Jeremy not having any money for tuck, fishing their plimsolls out of the lake and having a free shampoo and set (without the shampoo, well, if you spilt up the syllables, then you get, but it’s best not to go there) every day. They spoke to their father about the situation, but he just told some dull story about when he was a boy and had to face up to the perils of schoolboy life. Charles and Jeremy did not want to face up to these perils, they wanted Gary and Ken to come back, smash some heads and reinstall the brothers as the cocks of the school. 

Emily also felt the space left behind, the household had become quiet again, her father barely present due to work commitments, and her mother, the sensible librarian, was never the life and soul of the party. Even Auntie Helen seemed to pay less visits to the house now that Gary and Ken had left. The children discussed the situation but could not find a solution. Jeremy suggested that if they gave Gary and Ken their pocket money then that would cover their wages, somehow Emily knew a high-risk job would pay more than one pound fifty a week. Charles then decided to act on his own. He realised that all that was necessary was an atmosphere of fear to cause those in charge to consider a bodyguard, or two, necessary. Charles had mastered a number of impressions at a very early age, his Lord Douglas-Hume was always a winner at Christmas parties, as was his Duchess of Kent, though it was feared puberty would be the end of that one. One the centrepieces of his repertoire was his own father, so with the aid of magazine letters stuck together to make a ransom note, and a desperate call from Martin Mainwright himself, the family were again on the protected list. 

When Mainwright came back from a business trip to the far east, he was most surprised to find Gary and Ken, once again in the spare rooms, and the cook and the maid on camp-beds in the kitchen. He was even more surprised after he was told that he himself phoned to ask for assistance. Charles remained quiet about his part in the story but found himself continually having to produce more ransom letters etc. so that Gary and Ken would stay. Inevitably the maid found copies of half-cut up Woman’s Weekly’s and had soon cracked the case. After a big, serious sit-down, apologies were made, and Gary and Ken collected their belongings again. 

Elizabeth was the one who got the real downside of the life of a politician’s wife, especially when Mainwright combined his work in local government with an executive role in the company where he began his path. Although she had the children, once they reached school age with two members of full-time staff in the house it was difficult to fill her days. She flirted with the idea of returning to work, getting involved with charitable organisations or some other outlet for her frustration, but most ideas were met with disapproval by her husband. She felt that her youth had passed her by with only memories of books she hadn’t read, children she hadn’t raised and dreams she hadn’t fulfilled. She wasn’t entirely sure as to what these dreams consisted of, but she felt sad when she thought about  her husbands memoirs containing only passing references to her. When she saw her husband arrive every night, exhausted at gone ten in the evening, desperate for some kind of interaction and all she got were a few grunts, she wondered if she had the chance in another life, would she have made the same decisions. 

Martin was, though, oblivious to this family upheavel. He believed his family needed little more than those he represented, a few well-chosen words, often written by someone else. Had he seen the situation in which those who were supposedly the closest to him were in, he may not have taken the plunge in sixty-eight to enter the House of Commons. The party were keen to nurture him for the first of the two chambers they expected him to sit in. Some considered thirty-two to be too young to become a Member of Parliament, but Mainwright exhibited all the characteristics the party wanted to revitalise their image. To an extent, he was potentially dangerous, frighteningly honest and incorruptible. Those shortcomings, it was felt, would soon disappear once he was immersed in the real world of politics, so it was considered for the best that he got involved as soon as possible. The first question to answer was when would the right moment come along?

Thankfully, a chain of unexpected events were to propel Mainwright into the House of Commons. The member for his parent’s constituency, Sittingbourne, had a reputation for never quenching his thirst, had he tried grapefruit juice instead of Courvosier Brandy, he may have got a little further, but to no avail. He was also, in his own words, an old romantic, this translated basically to a fondness for red lights. Not that he had an enviable collection of brake lights, the Honourable Member for Sittingbourne was under the impression British Politics was still in the “Golden age”, for him, of politicians having a power which would make the Divine Right of Kings seem rather liberal. Therefore, Harold Morthington-Blommberry-Smythe, apart from destroying the stationery budget, was an embarrassment to the party, not for doing what he did, but for getting caught. Still, his family went back to the pre-Alexandrine period in Sittingbourne, and therefore enjoyed a large majority. His interest in politics was flitting, his knowledge even less so, as long as he could remember his name and which direction to go in, at least they had a vote in their favour at all times. But Harold, was not the image the party wanted to put forward in the winter of the twentieth century, the constituent was becoming more demanding, better-read and less accepting of an upper-class twit trying to rape the servants. Also, Harold was not alone, all over the country many would-be and really-are Harolds were having their fun, night and day, at the expense of the constituents. 

Mainwright had always hoped for a prestigious central London seat, but when news came through of the heart attack that had brought Mr. MBS’ life to a close, the party suggested Mainwright might be just the man to take over. Of course, his parents were delighted that he may be returning home, business commitments, amongst over things had made his visits to the family home scant in recent times, often Elizabeth went up with the children and an excuse. Mainwright had no intention of living in Sittingbourne, when he won, but concurred with the party’s wisdom. The campaign was a strange affair, Mainwright representing the same party as the deceased who enjoyed an invincible majority. The party, though, wanted to make a statement to its voters all over the country, that the constituents were going to come first from now on. No political observer was fooled for more than a minute that this was the first in a long line a kissing babies and other techniques to make the general public think that politicians are human beings. The by-election received a healthy amount of television coverage, senior party members used expressions like “the face of the future” as the well-groomed, impeccably–dressed, inevitable housewife’s favourite, romped home. He increased the majority and in an impassioned victory speech, he had the audacity to suggest “the future begins here” whilst the candidate for the Monster Raving Loony party vomited in the corner due to some undercooked and out of date eggs used for the egg-mayonnaise sandwiches. 

Being the honourable member for Sittingbourne was not quite the exciting entrance to politics that Mainwright had hoped for. People were happy for things to tick along nicely, and it was considered the best policy that the boat not be rocked. Whilst he questioned his decision, the party were pleased his keenness, and offered him the possibility to run an anti-corruption committee, whose results, and findings would never come to anything. Mainwright was delighted to accept, and spent evenings appearing on television debate programmes in which he assured anyone corrupt that “the good times were over”. A combination of innocence and desire to get the job done caused him to fail to see that the party were only removing a bit of token deadwood, no-one with any influence would suffer from Mainwright’s crusade, which would also be a grand test for the man himself.       

During one of his investigations, the plan was for him to catch red-handed an unscrupulous local councillor, who in a last-ditched attempt to escape exposure, would offer Mainwright a piece of the pie. Obviously any old bribe would not be taken seriously by such a champion of honesty, and so the party perpetrated a series of seemingly complex clues that would lead Mainwright to the guilty parties. As the scam would seem almost undetectable, and, the best part, Mainwright could cover his tracks afterwards, if he were to accept, he would never be found out. Or at least that was the way it was played. Mainwright flatly refused, and at a very grandiose internal trial, he gave evidence to convict the corrupt who were led handcuffed through the doors by armed policeman, only to be set free on the other side with new identities and their bank accounts intact. 

The party were still not one-hundred percent sure what to do with Mainwright. The initial policy was that if he wanted to be honest then corruption could continue around him. This policy had a flaw in that Mainwright was equally content exposing those of his party, sometimes more so, than the opposition. The extra stress of having to be careful was not something those who had been in the party for a long time enjoyed. One such case was that of a local councillor who had been creaming off a nice little earner for himself for a good number of years. Mainwright took his case as a vendetta and would not rest until justice was done. Which it was, to an extent, with Mainwright believing he was serving a twenty-year stretch in Pentonville, the man and his colleague were condemned to serve out the rest of their days as civil servants in Whitehall. Some considered this to be a worse punishment. What was true though, was that the pair joined an ever-growing list of people who would be more than keen to get revenge on Martin Mainwright. 

During the first few years as an MP, Ludovic Cassells remained a major influence on Martin Mainwright. He was, after all, godfather to Mainwright’s first born, and his dealings with the government in days gone by, were of great guidance as Mainwright stumbled around in the dark. The party left Cassells alone, they still believed in their idea that Mainwright was malleable, young and his opinions would change with time. To speed up the process, the party thought it might be a good idea if the Mainwright cause felt it had bitten off more than it could chew. Mainwright was given a promotion and took the charge of Junior Minister at the age of thirty-six, praised for his sterling work in the anti-corruption field, and his dedication to making Britain a safer and cleaner place. It also gave him the opportunity to spend less time in Sittingbourne, something he was greatly thankful for.  His workload actually decreased as Junior Minister, he was forced to resign from his company, who immediately took him back on as an executive advisor, with six times the salary. Mainwright thought this figure rather gross, as his new function appeared to be; smile for the magazine photograph at the annual dinner. He wrestled with his conscience, and eventually gave half of this salary to charity. Nice to see exactly were his limits lay, although word in the Ministry was that Elizabeth had her eye on a new house in Chelsea. 

Junior Minister was a happy period for the Mainwright’s as a family, with more free time Martin and Elizabeth could participate in more activities, both joining the local amateur dramatics society and triumphing in a particularly lively production of “Pirates of Penzance”. Martin shone in the complex role of “Happy” in “Death of A Salesman” and Elizabeth was outstanding as “Daisy” in a stage version of “The Great Gatsby”. Martin had wanted to play Gatsby and could not hide his disappointment at not being offered the role. Elizabeth became a well-to-do figure in local social circles as the Mainwrights were the talk of the town. Holidays were enjoyed all over Europe, Mainwright instigating the twinning of Sittingbourne with Grenôble, something which the English twins got noticeably more out of their cousins françioses. The Mainwright’s children proudly attended the local comprehensive school, despite offers of free places in the country’s top penis-slamming in doors establishments. Apart from the occasional death threat or suspect package in the post, it was a glorious time for the family, and one that continued until this evening. A chilly, November night in nineteen seventy-five, with Mainwright, in that pose, surrounded by his evergreen wife Elizabeth, as beautiful today as the day they married. Ludovic Cassells, the one constant influence in his life, part of his drive, ambition and desire, this was as much for Ludo as for Mainwright. Other assorted bum-licking sycophants also populated the room, hoping that when the Mainwright caked was sliced that they would be in the running for a slice. Good people to have on board, but the sort of people you wouldn’t miss if they weren’t there, as in the next post there would always be more CV’s, more people to work twice as hard for half the money so that you can become successful. His parents were there as well, as was Helen who was helping with the clearing up. 

The celebration may have been seen by some as counting the number of packets of Rowntree’s Jelly you can fit into a suitcase before the suitcase has been bought. It was expected that in the cabinet re-shuffle to be announced the following day, that Martin Mainwright was to be promoted to the post of Chancellor of The Exchequer, and thus becoming the youngest person to ever hold the post. Of course, these things were kept very hushed up, but there had been so many hints and winks that Mainwright could not help but hold a celebratory dinner. Cassells had always told him that “The only certainty in politics was that there are no certainties” and he was right to an extent, but Mainwright thought that this a certainty. Mainwright had planned everything and given explicit instructions to the staff. He was about to make a speech in which he would thank all those concerned, when the news came that the Champagne had been overlooked. One of the extra serving-staff, hired especially for the event, profusely apologised and offered to run to the offy (it appears he was northern; god bless) and have the cost be felt on his very own pocket. Mainwright announced there was no need for such behaviour, that the wine had gone somewhat to his head, and a walk would do him good. One brown-nose was heard raising a glass to “The man of the people”, though not prepared to go himself, he happened upon a nice bottle of Bordeaux and let him leave, hoping the words would assure him a place in the Ministry. 

Mainwright put on his heavy overcoat and stepped out into the night air. After about three steps, the cold air had sobered him up and he thought about getting the servant to go after all, but, thinking again, remembered that the people did not like politicians who made u-turns, and carried on into the night. The walk to the off-licence (offy in northern vernacular)  was not a long one, but there was a strange presence in the air that night. Mainwright was well known in the area, and often seen on the streets. The area had zero crime according to the police, which translated as no criminals lived there, well criminals in the sense of burglars, car-thieves, drug-pushers and pimps. Tax and Property fraud were crimes but had a certain amount of je ne sais quoi about them whereas the others had a certain amount of er, dunno like about them which would just not do. However, as Mainwright left the house he felt as if he were being followed but put it down to the wind in the trees. As he turned the first corner out of his road, he bumped into a character who was clearly out of place in such a neighbourhood. Mainwright felt quite threatened at first as the man put his hand on his arm to steady himself. At the same time a noise was heard which sounded like an old-style camera taking a photograph and letting off a puff of air.  The man apologised and went on his way, Mainwright supposed he could be one of those rocks singers they said had moved in. Then, on the next corner, a lady whose repute was in no way fitting with a neighbourhood which boasted Victorian bay windows, also blocked his path. Mainwright noticed that she reeked of alcohol but did not consider that maybe she could smell the two bottles of vino he had supped, and nearly had a heart-attack as she offered him sexual services in return for financial (cash-only) re-imbursement. He informed her he was happily married which was her cue to go through her seemingly never-ending repertoire of comments along the lines “most of them are” before continuing to fall down the road. He finally reached the purveyor of liquids with something extra and recounted the evenings incidents. As the two of them mused over what was happening to the neighbourhood, Martin was brought two bottles of ice-cold Champagne (now, you don’t get that in Rock Ferry, do you?). Mainwright reached for his wallet and was surprised to see a lack of cash in there. Had one of the ungamely types managed to do away with his cash in a swift move? He enquired as to the possibility of payment by card, he was told cash was preferred (it is nineteen seventy-five), but as it was his good self, an exception would be made. The shopkeeper then proceeded to pull out an instrument that would now tug at the heartstrings of any card fraudster or University student with an overdraft, the hand operated credit-card receipt producer. Shops should now place one in every hundred establishments, just for fun, to feel again that you’ve got away with it, for at least as long as it takes the second-class post to hit your doormat. The shopkeeper filled in the relevant columns and the copy placed in the till where the next day it would set off all sorts of alarms in the bank’s headquarters, but let’s not move too fast, there’s champagne and cigars for everyone. So, it’s back to the house, sans incidents, and crack the corks, make the speeches and light the cigars. Tomorrow there will be some rather sore heads.     

Secrets (a lost or discarded novel)

I started writing this in 1999 and it was my first attempt at anything longer. I’m not particularly sure it was very good but as it is twenty years old and I found it on an old USB I am going to publish the original (it’s missing chapter 8 I think) and rewrite each chapter every month for no better reason than to compare the two.

It is set in 1975 and tells the story of a young, up-and-coming politician set to take the world by storm, until the powers that be decide he is too dangerous for their status quo and create twice the storm in his world.

Away Alone

Christmas is a time to be jolly, right? So a heartwarming story would be the order of the day. My arse. Here’s a Leonard Cohen / Radiohead Xmas.

                  “It’s been tough, but it’s been worth it.” Jim wrote on a piece of paper that would soon serve as his epitaph. Then he scribbled it out. Only part of it was true, the first half. He sat in a dingy bedsit trying to make out the uninspiring view of the sprawling urban mass that was only barely visible through the difficult to define marks covering the glass. He wondered what was potentially better, the view or the dirt. Deciding on the latter, he flicked the last of his Pot Noodle to join the other stains. 

                  This would be Jim’s last Christmas. But there is no heart to give, nor any takers. He has no say in the matter. Terminally ill and poor is a bad combination, and in Dundee, when you throw into the mix a raging horse habit, well, there is no need to reach for the shades. He shivered and looked at the scabs on his arms, wondered where his next burst of intense agony would manifest itself and slowly wandered into the kitchen to seek out desert. Then he had the proem of a rather wonderful idea. 

                  He connected to LinkedIn via his phone, using up the last of his data allowance and then precariously leaning out of his sixth-floor window to try and catch an ironically named hotspot on a sub-zero evening. He would send the following message to as many local wealthy types he could and see how it plays out from there. 

                  “Good evening. 

                  You don’t know me, but I am poor and dying. You will probably discard this message or not even read it. I would do the same. This will be my last Christmas, so I offer you the chance to use your wealth to make it special for me. 

                  Best wishes. 

                  Jim.”

                  Jim counted one-hundred and sixteen messages sent before resigning himself to his own stupidity. He then devoted the next hour to searching for blue ticks as the last fifty pee ran out in the meter. Darkness befell. With only sixteen percent battery and no chance of recharging until tomorrow. He turned in for the night.

                  “In dreams, I walk with you….” There was no candy-coloured clown in Jim’s dreams. They took on the delightful role of extending the misery that was his day into the night beyond his consciousness. All of those things he need not fear while awake and sober, could run riot on his nocturnal psyche. He would gladly exchange the chimera of that lass from Aldi with a limp and the weeping sore in below her neckline than the vile conflagrations that appeared to tease him in his slumber. He knew it was early, he knew it was freezing, but he preferred to get out. As he put on his time-served Doc Martins, the sole finally gave way on the left boot, with that the rains started. He could not feel his feet anyway, so why miss them, he thought as he headed out. 

                  Naively, he pressed the lift button, expecting to be whisked to the ground floor, but secretly hoping for it to be mended upon his return, upwards was not his favourite direction. The lift came but he realised he had left the phone. It was off and probably drained of battery, nor was it likely to contain any joy, but he insisted on leaving this world as a modern resident of the same, attached to his device. 

                  By the time he returned to his original position, the lift had gone, and managed to breakdown. He plodded down the stairwell as the device slowly came to life, mirroring the cold and awkward movements of its owner as the little life it had left in it began to dissipate. 

                  Eventually, he reached the ground floor and the interesting notification that he had one new message. He was sure that it was just some rich twat taking the time to tell him to swivel. Ah no, worse, it was from Vodafone. As a special yuletide treat, he was being given an extra giga so that he could, in their words “share the joy with friends and family.” Out of that trio, the thing he had most of was joy, and he was fucking miserable. 

                  With potentially an amount of internet at his disposal that he could not measure, he looked again at his messages. One. 

                  “Dear Jim, 

                  Fuck it. Why not? I’m away in the Caribbean till around the seventh of January, but if you can get to the Lemmings Statues for ten, you can have my town pad for the time I am away.” 

                  Jim knew it was a joke, and not a funny one. He was so sure that it was a wind-up that he took just nineteen minutes to get to the Lemmings Statues. He was three hours early. 

                  He sat at the bus stop awaiting ten o’clock to come around to finalise his misery. A message. 

                  “You are keen! Get yourself in that café across the road and use the code ‘Maureen a fry up in Charlie’s honour. That should keep you warm till I get there. I’ll try and be swift.” 

                  Feeling like an utter and gullible fool, he entered the café and uttered the magic words. She asked him if he wanted two sausages and black pudding. That made all this worthwhile. Jim told her he had no money, she told Jim she would not take it.

                  Jim dipped the corner of his toast into the runny yolk and smiled. ‘I’ll miss this when I’m dead.’ He thought to himself. As he polished off the last of the feast and Doris filled his mug for the third time, a man in a chauffer’s uniform appeared at the door and asked sir if sir was ready. Sir fucking was. 

                  Jim no longer cared if it was a practical joke. He sat in the back of that plush Merc and the driver asked him if he had any musical preferences. “Got any Big Country?” Jim asked, to which the driver nodded and connected his phone. 

                  Before the end of ‘Fields of Fire’, they pulled into a lush apartment block’s car park. Jim had seen them from afar when labouring before he got ill, when there was work. The driver parked and opened the door for him. “This way, Sir.” He said. Jim liked being Sir. 

                  They took the lift to the top apartment. A penthouse. For the first time ever, Jim knew that it was not what the French might call a ‘mag de jazz’. Inside was a guy his age, and with two elbows. There the comparisons ended. 

                  “You must be Jim, come in.” He said. “I felt touched by your message. Indeed, there is a group of us who try to make an effort, above all at this time of year, to use some of our good fortune to help others. This year has been so busy though that the season has somewhat crept up on me and I had made no plans. You kind of gave me the push I needed, so thank you for that. Oh, will you look at me? Rabbiting on and I’ve not even let you get inside. I hope you won’t mind the haste, my man here, Chambers, will tend to all your needs during your stay and has done a brief background check regarding your size etc so that you will have some more comfortable attire. Now, I beg you to make yourself at home, treat everything like it was your own, and have a Christmas to remember. Oh, what a poorly phrased sentence, I mean, well. I mean with your illness, I should have been more tactful. I do hope you can forgive me.” The man said. 

                  Jim’s inner dialogue said something about giving it a go but not promising and his outer aura just smiled from head to toe. 

                  “Any culinary requirements, let Chambers know.” (inner dialogue ‘I almost got a bone on over a Pot Noodle yesterday’), he is a trained chef as well as rather good company. Should you require him to bring any friends or family to make your stay more enjoyable, then he will be delighted.” (inner dialogue ‘I am not letting those cunts anywhere near this). “Do you have any questions?” 

                  Jim had millions but none made the trip from his head to his mouth. So he just nodded and said ‘sound’. 

                  “Well, you will have to forgive me. I am running dreadfully late. Please enjoy yourself. We’ll speak in the New Year. Happy Christmas.” With that, the man was gone. Seconds later, Chambers was pouring a hot bath from gold taps and bath gel that cost more than his dole cheque. Jim bathed and then Chambers shaved him. Chambers asked if he preferred casual or something smarter and Jim opted for a nice three-piece suit. 

                  “Any thoughts for lunch, Sir?” Chambers asked. Jim was still stuffed from the breakfast, and his stomach was not used to these influxes, but remembering it might all end in a second, he asked Chambers for recommendations.

                  “I do a rather stunning paella. Have you ever tried the Portuguese green wine ‘vinho verde’? It makes a delightful bedfellow. (inner dialogue ‘I once had a can of Tennant’s Super out of a glass, does that count?). Jim said that sounded delightful. Even he was speaking like a nonce now. 

                  Lunch was the happiest Jim had been in his life, not that there was much to compare with. He insisted Chambers eat with him and the pair talked away like old friends. Chambers pouring Jim a brandy before drifting into a delightful siesta bereft of dreams. What kind of dream could match this? 

                  He almost felt angry with himself for sleeping and wasting this time. His strength was waning, what did he have left? Weeks? Days? 

                  “I took the liberty of procuring a supply of medicines and the like that will make your stay more comfortable. I am aware that at this juncture pain can be an issue.” Chambers smiled. (inner dialogue ‘Morphine for dinner then.)

                  “Would Sir like me to call anyone?” Chambers asked. Jim thought that he would love to show every prick on the estate just where he is now. Make them believe it. Make them jealous. But there was nobody. “Maybe you would like another sort of company?” (inner dialogue ‘would a black and white threesome see me off?) 

                  “Aye, why not? You only live once, eh?” Jim smiled. 

                  And so Christmas came and went. There was the odd message from the mysterious man, but he never reappeared. Chambers brought in a selection from the United Nations, but Jim soon found more solace in their chats, entering his final days as an apprentice chef, attentively copying Chambers in the kitchen and creating a series of succulent dishes. 

                  “You have a talent for this.” Chambers said as they took a souffle from the oven. 

                  “Who knows? In another life….” Jim smiled and stood up to raise a glass. His head went giddy and he fainted. He came to in the bed he had made his own, but with a nurse and drip now seemingly attached to the same. Chambers entered with some soup, balancing the phone between his neck and shoulder. 

                  “You are very weak, Sir. I have prepared you some soup. The doctor has seen you but laments we have now entered the pain management stage.

                  “It’s been tough, but it’s been worth it.” Jim said to Chambers who came over to the bed. Jim’s breathing was shallow, and Chambers nodded to the nurse that there be no more pain. Drifting in and out of consciousness, Jim caught Chambers’ gaze and continued “I have never known happiness, but in your company, I have come the closest. I used to have lots of anger for this world but shall leave it with a different face. I owe you my life, Chambers, pity that there is not much to it. Please thank your boss for me.” Jim said. 

                  “He knows what it means, so do I. You do not need to thank us. Having the chance to do so is more than enough reward.” Chambers looked whether to continue or not, but Jim had gone. 

                  “Time to take down that tree then.” He said to the nurse.  

Swim Until You Can See Land

            Jairo looked at his miserable bowl of cereals and pondered how disappointing breakfast had become in recent times. They weren’t even the chocolate ones with the nice creamy filling inside that he would sometimes treat himself to when HE did the shopping. He looked over to his three-year old daughter who played with and ate hers with the sort of joy only that age of infancy and innocence can bring. Jairo became angry with himself for such frivolous thoughts when he had seen things in the world that made him value every moment like this more than ever, and yet, once again, and despite saying that he would never again fall into that materialistic trap of bemoaning the mundane nature of life when he returned from his last mission. He switched on the news, keen to intake a few moments’ viewing of 3D talking humans before cartoon pigs dominated the screen once more. 

            Even the muesli appeared to be against him. Since when did it require so much chewing? There were days when he was last at sea, wondering whether he would even have another breakfast, let alone complain about it, when he promised himself he would enjoy every morsel, but when you have lived your life so close to the edge, fearing every minute may be your last, the return to the humdrum adventures of an everyday life, even for a firefighter in a city in southern Spain, who had more excitement per pound in his day-to-day endeavours than someone who worked for the water board. He was bored of chewing by the time the news came on. 

            Tragic stories are commonplace on the news, but the item that flashed up before Jairo’s eyes made him almost reach for the remote control to turn it over. This was not something that he wanted his young daughter to see, and yet, it was something she had to see, now, or soon, or later. Once again, a boat carrying migrants had run aground on the Greek coast and bodies were strewn on the beaches. Lying in the water was the bloated corpse of an infant who could not have been any older than his daughter. Despite the early hour, despite the graphic content, the images unashamedly panned in on the lifeless child, life’s lottery showing clearly that she did not even get around to buying a ticket. 

            A tear formed in his eye as he watched his daughter finish her breakfast. “Can I watch Peppa?” She asked, taking another look at her father who she was not used to seeing in an altered state. Jairo took a moment to compose himself and changed the channel for her, leaning over to give her a kiss in the same action. 

            When he returned from his last humanitarian mission, he promised to his wife it would be the last. The conditions of the coast of Sicily were fearsome, along with the shambolic Italian efforts at organisation. Twice he came close to enduring the same watery departure from this Earth as so many of those he had arrived to save finally faced, his head filled with the thoughts of the daughter he would never see and imagining his pregnant wife receiving the news at home. 

            That was three years ago now. He had managed to busy himself with fatherhood and a promotion at the fire-station, but it always ate away at him. He felt an innate calling to help, to save. The images of the child washed up on the beach pushed him over the edge, he had to return. Yet first of all, he had to embark upon the most dangerous part of the voyage, informing his wife. 

            He could hear her in the shower as he prepared his speech. He knew she would be against it, but also knew what he would be like if she tried to put her foot down. Any addict who says one last time really means only until the next last time. He found some YouTube footage of the incident, so he could bargain when the inevitable no was dragged out. She knew deep down that he would go, maybe not straight away but it would just be easier to let him go, as if he stayed, there would be no point in being with him. 

            Arguments were put forward on both sides, threats were made, threats were withdrawn but she married a man who would do this and the fact that he did this was one of the reasons she married him. He promised her this time it would be less dangerous, he wouldn’t take as many risks, but she knew if he was going, then he was going to save lives, and that was risky. She knew when he began to make calls to Federico and Sandro that schedules would have to be worked out with her parents and the in-laws to keep the household running smoothly. She was angry with him, yet at the same time immensely proud of what he was about to do selflessly. It was just that it was far too early for her to let him know that. 

            His nightmares had stopped. When he returned from Sicily, he found achieving sleep difficult, and found maintaining it almost impossible. What he had seen there could be blanked from his mind during the day, but when night fell, the mind allowed itself to wander and the faces of the souls he could not save danced around his brain. If it was not the faces of the dead that entered his dreams, it was the reliving of being trapped inside a vessel, water flowing in through a breach in the stern and hauntingly teasing him during what he thought would be his final moments before the side of the ship gave way and he managed to escape through the hole. In his haste to exit, a French colleague was left behind, by the time Jairo got to the surface and realised he was alone, there was nothing that could be done. In his dreams François would ask “Porquoi tu m’as laissé lá-bas?[1]”  He would wake up screaming for pardon in French before spending the rest of the night consumed with fear that he dare not close his eyes again. 

            He phoned his other two colleagues, Sandro and Federico and had a brief conversation about the things they didn’t want to talk about. The question was dropped in at the end and both agreed that their calling was calling. They contacted the agency and the paperwork was set in motion. You’d be surprised how many people volunteer, always with the best of intentions, but having people there who will be more of a hindrance are more likely to add to the death toll than save lives. Despite their renown, they were obliged to pass the mandatory examination on their physical and mental health, the latter beyond doubt, but the former always a worry. 

            They hadn’t seen each other in the three years since they had been back. It was that kind of relationship, three Spanish men for whom being in Spain together meant nothing. When they were in their jobs, doing school runs or trying to find the aubergines in the supermarket, they were so removed from that world that there was no role cast for the others. They had no place in each other’s real lives and this acceptance was clearly approved by the rescuers’ wives and families who applauded the distance between them, and the corresponding attempts to lead a normal, less dangerous life. 

            Even when they were forced together in public events in their homeland (they received a medal of honour upon their last return), their ability to interact on a social level was cumbersome to the extent of being painful. How were they supposed to sit at a table and sip wine whilst pleasantries were exchanged with dignitaries who had no idea what they were celebrating. How could they? Why should they? Politics did not interest the three, politicians less so. 

            They all lived close to each other in Seville and its environs but never saw each other. They all even supported the same team, Sandro sitting in the same stand in the stadium as Jairo, but aside from courteous nods, nobody would ever even suggest there was any back story between them. Indeed, you may be forgiven for thinking one had stolen the other’s wife rather than owing each other their lives. 

            And yet there were moments when bread was broken, on a remote Italian beach, covered in uncategorised dirt and slurry, a discarded bottle of Chianti, strewn amongst the debris of human suffering, that they huddled like brothers, each one shielding the others somehow from the reality of their situation. Jairo tried to explain this situation to his wife, but she quickly turned the conversation in another direction. It was as if the other two were a curse for their families. 

            Jairo planned his last night with his wife and daughter. He hated the expression ‘last night’, of course he would be back, they all would. They were close to forty now and would not take the same risks. In the back of his mind was the idea that this could be the last time he ever dined with them, that this would be the last night he would spend in her arms, that he would never again feel himself sneeze as her hair tickled his nostril, he would never again be angered by any of her foibles, nor her his, he would never again laugh at the million things he could never explain why they tickled him, he would never again become enraged at her, forgive her and fall into her arms as reconciliation took on the form of passionate love, he would never again collect his daughter from nursery, he would never bathe her. He stopped there, the list could go on forever. He removed these thoughts from his mind as the three shared the hideous blue coloured ice-cream his daughter had chosen. After all, there was a guy in his street who got run over by a bus and that was the end of him. 

            He was worried that there was a routine-like nature to the lovemaking. He wanted it to be a magical night for her, just in case, he wanted to leave her with that memory, without realising that she already had THAT MEMORY. She drifted off to sleep and he lay awake, counting the items that he may never see again, wondering what some of them actually did, aware of the fact that in less than twenty-four hours, he would be on a Greek island devoid of any home comforts. As fear gripped him, he drifted into an unsatisfying and dream-laden slumber. 

MUSHUMBI GREEK OFFICE, Athens. 

Conference Call with HO in Chicago

“We need a scapegoat. Sorry, I’ll specify, we need three, I don’t care how you find them or how you frame them. Just get three bodies in a courtroom to take the pressure of us and get the authorities of our backs. I knew you weren’t to be trusted in this matter. Prove to me that you are up to the job.”

The CEO’s message ended. The Board of Directors at the Athens office sat in silence for a while before the IT team came in with a presentation. Five envelopes were laid on the table that contained the files on fifteen potential victims. Fifteen people who could be framed to take the rap for organising the biggest human trafficking racket on the planet. The plan was outlined, and one executive was told to pick a number from one to five. He chose four, the envelope was opened, and Jairo, Sandro and Federico’s factsheets spilled onto the table. 

            “It’ll never work.” One said. 

            “Why ever not?” Remarked another. 

            “Because, it’s completely see-through and unbelievable.” He repeated. 

            “That’s why it will work. You underestimate the rest of the world’s capacity for stupidity.” He smiled, and laughter erupted. 

Their plane arrived in Athens on time though the three barely exchanged a word during the flight. Unbeknown to them, the elderly gentleman sat behind them was actually a 31-year-old Mushumbi agent. It was not enormously worthwhile compiling any sort of dossier on them as their crimes would never be committed. The company simply thought it was more sporting to follow them to a certain extent. 

They were met at arrivals by the Spanish delegate from the Red Cross. He took them in a minibus to a central hotel and briefed them on their departure details for the island of Lesbos. Jairo remembered laughing at the name at school when he heard about the place for the first time, now, about to visit the place, it no longer seemed so funny. They remained almost in silence through dinner, treated themselves to a whisky and made their excuses. 

            The next day, a minibus took them and their scant possessions to the Port of Piraeus where they had a two-hour wait before boarding the ferry to Lesbos. It was a choppy crossing and all of them fell seasick with the waves crashing against the vessel. This causes a mixture of hilarity and despondency when they compared this luxurious form of transport with some of the embarkations they would shortly encounter.  Summer would soon be upon them and the seas would be full of the desperate, crossing the waters armed only with a backpack full of lies, having sold all their worldly possessions for a space on the coveted boat. 

            Their arrival on the island gave them no time to enjoy any welcoming committee or even any time to settle in. The three of them had not spoken English since their last mission and were still rusty, but as they collected their bags off the boat, they were told that a vessel had been spotted off the coast. “Ready to begin?” They were asked. 

            “Ready.” Came the response in unison. 

            Their training meant they could board any hitherto unknown helicopter and be safely strapped in in seconds, as if they took the thing every day to work. Scant introductions were brandished about at Jairo strapped on a harness and was lowered towards the unwelcoming sea. They had not even had time to phone home and tell them that they were safe before immediately jeopardising the same. It was only when he felt the splash of the unfriendly waters of the Aegean Sea did any sort of calmness come over him. Immediately, he saw the vessel for what it was, a type of reconnaissance mission, the first crossing before the busy summer period. Ten occupants who would have thought they had won the lottery as they boarded boats that would take on average ten times that amount, people the mafias deemed expendable who could not rustle together the lofty fees charged for a crossing in more clement times. 

            Jairo radioed that most of them were in a good condition. The sea can be immensely cruel but, on this occasion, it seemed to have the best interests of the ‘passengers’ at heart. The extra space meant that they could find some form of escape from the ravages of the waters. The lifeboat could make a relatively simple approach and take them to land. They thought that meant freedom, but there was no way that Jairo could tell them that it only didn’t mean death, at least not yet. As eight of them made the short leap onto the lifeboat, two of the younger members of the vessel were struck down with fear and unable to move. At that moment something struck the boat and water began to enter. Jairo shouted “Jump”, alternating the languages in the hope that they would understand and take heed. They remained motionless as more and more water entered. Jairo knew he would have to get them out, he was not prepared to lose two on the first day and in front of new team members. “Get me closer.” He commanded and was now inside the actual boat. One of them managed to scramble to him and cling on so that he could be attached and hoisted up. The other one seemed to be more scared of Jairo than has impending watery grave. As the firefighter launched himself towards him, he somehow wriggled to the other side of the boat, causing it to capsize further. There was little time to think, so Jairo didn’t, he removed his shackle and dived onto the boy, holding him afloat in the water as someone from the lifeboat managed to get a rope to them. In seconds a second harness was lowered down, and Jairo, acting on auto-pilot, attached them both and in a moment were both inside the helicopter. The boy looked at Jairo and said “J’ai toujours voulu voler a bord d’un hélicoptère”[2] and laughed for a brief moment before passing out. 

            Minutes later they were all on the base having to deal with the never-ending form filling that at times seemed even more treacherous than the lifesaving deeds. The doctor wanted to see Jairo, but he just wanted a hot shower and something to eat. He had been on Lesbos for three and a half hours before he got around to phoning home. His daughter was already in bed, she had tried to wait up for the call but lost the battle against sleep. He did not feel like telling her that he had risked his life before even checking-in, so simply told her that the ferry had had trouble docking and they had been held up. When she said “Te quiero.” it hurt part of him, those words were not devised to extract that sort of reaction, but knowing she was so far away whilst being somehow in his ear meant they were harder to absorb. They made plans to Skype the next day. 

            Jairo never suffered from nightmares away from home. It was as if sleep knew his requirements and made a deal to keep him rested. The weather worsened over the next few days which meant time for bonding and training. It was important to know your colleagues inside out as they could be your only chance of survival, they were told as Jairo remembered François whom he knew better than has wife yet could still not save him. Anyway, the exercises were useful as the summer season proved to be busy. And busy it was, more boats arriving than ever, some losses, some victories, more of the latter than the former but with enough wherewithal to know that you could not allow yourself to become overly affected by those who never made it. 

            Sometimes some of the hardest moments were when they saw those who had been rescued, dazed and bombarded, wondering where they were and whether the journey had really been worth it. As they looked out the window and saw ships taking corpses back to Africa for repatriation they had to accept that their lot could have been worse, but that it was still a long way from what they were promised. 

            Summer became autumn and the trio were preparing for a week’s leave, replacements were coming in from Bilbao and all three were looking forward to seeing their families for the first time in what seemed to have been an eternity. As a special treat, they were to be spared the ferry to Athens and would be taken on a specially chartered aircraft from Mytilene via Frankfurt. After the intense bonding of their time together, the initial cracks that represented Seville and their families began to reappear, with none of them suggesting they travel to the airport together. 

            They did check in together, well they did try to check in. That was as far as they got before feeling a cold set of hands on their shoulders. 

            “Greek Customs.” One of the plain-clothed officers said. “Can you come with us, please?”. 

            Aghast, they followed the officers and wondered why their attendance was being requested. In a small interrogation room, the three were asked and duly confirmed their names. There was a pause. 

            “You are arrested on suspicion of running a human trafficking ring out of Lesbos in tandem with corrupt officials in the Greek government and the European authorities.” The other officer said. 

            “You may have us confused with someone else.” Federico said after a pause. “We are with the Spanish Fire Service. We have been taking part in the humanitarian mission.” He added with a confused look. 

            “Indeed, your cover story. Quite convincing for a while. However, your illicit partners in the offices of government have decided to blow the whistle on you. We already have a number of them in custody and the rest will just be a matter of time. Your full confessions have been prepared for you to sign.” The man brandished some papers before them in Greek and all three looked at each other, bewildered. 

            “There has to be some sort of mistake.” Jairo insisted, assuming that they would soon be ignoring each other on the plane about this incident (instead of laughing together about it). “We are part of the rescue mission. We honestly have no idea what you are talking about.” He added. 

            “So, you deny that these are your voices?” The officer said. He then played them a tape of a group of people, probably of Spanish descent, speaking rather theatrical yet poor Greek. The gist of the conversation was the three framing themselves as using the Red Cross as a disguise to hand pick the immigrants who will survive and place them in Greek society. 

            “I don’t speak any Greek.” Sandro said. “And the others know only a handful of expressions. There is no way we could have had these conversations. And if we were going to run a human trafficking ring, we would probably do it in Spanish, or at least English, don’t you think?” Sandro seemed pleased that this explanation would get the off with an apology and an embarrassed look. 

            One of the officers then said something in Greek (which for the good fortune of the readers turned out to be ‘if you act like you can’t understand this then it means you speak Greek’. That piece of hard evidence was then lodged against them as the Spanish consul entered. 

            “Pero, ¿qué coño estabais pensando? He began. He was told, no Spanish, English or Greek. “What the fuck were you thinking?” He repeated his anger for the benefit of all present. “I’ve warned you about this business, but you had to go and upgrade the operation. You’re going to make us all look like right fools, the Minister will get wind of this and everyone will be under scrutiny. Brilliant, just brilliant. Well, don’t expect any assistance from our side, you have got into this on your own and will have to get out of it on your own. ¡Adiós! And with that he dramatically left the room. 

            “OK, you have had your joke, but that’s enough. What’s going on really here? You know this has nothing to do with us.” Jairo demanded. This, the Greek officers took as an invitation to rearrange their faces. 

            They came to some time later with their hands bound behind somewhat uncomfortable chairs. Videos were shown on a screen that had them exchanging documents with shady-looking characters, obviously superimposed and clearly unbelievable. After this came a series of forged documents in Greek and English further incriminating them for a lengthy list of misdemeanours. Their possessions were taken from them and they were given prisoners’ uniforms. The services of law and order were taking this matter very seriously. It was a joke, the charges and evidence were trumped up, but that was of minor significance as the Public Prosecutor proudly claimed his scalp on national TV.

            The three were placed in solitary confinement and did not even see a lawyer for the first two days. Bemused and dishevelled like the wrecks they collected from the sea, when they were next brought before an official their senses were somewhat reduced, and they presented themselves as easy targets. After seven hours constant questioning and dousing with ice-cold water, Sandro was asked to sign what he thought was a release form for information about his activities, just wanting the thing to stop, he signed what was a confession in Greek that further incriminated the other two. With this, the Spanish government was convinced that its Greek counterparts had acted within the confines of international law and joined in the voices condemning the three firefighters from Andalusia. 

            A wave of backlash came swiftly as suddenly all charitable organisations and aid agencies were put under the spotlight. The families of the three were hounded, the more ridiculous the evidence put forward by the Greek government, the more people lapped it up. Figures were doctored to make it look like since their detainment, the number of crossings had dropped. Everyone was convinced that they had done it. Well, almost everyone. Sandro and Federico’s wives were loath to accept the situation but questioned what they could do about it. Jairo’s, Marta, was not prepared to sit around and watch her husband be crucified for something he had no part in, and, despite Interpol surveillance, took a flight to Dubrovnik and hired a car. 

            Marta’s plan was to arrive in Athens and find the lying consul staff member, make him confess and return with her husband and the other two in time for supper. She was not short on commitment though may have been hindered by an unrealistic appraisal of the situation. She had long wanted to visit Dubrovnik, but as a woman with a mission, promised she would enjoy it with Jairo on the return leg. She had not taken this decision rashly, she believed her husband was innocent, but had to know it. This meant digging, it hurt her that she had to do it but there was always the chance it could be true. Only if she knew that he was genuinely innocent, could she go and save him. It was a fit up, that should could prove from her end, but that could mean nothing if the Greek authorities were not willing to listen to her. She needed confessions. 

            In the face of adversity, Marta’s dislike of driving soon became a thing of the past as she harried drivers off the road. She travelled through all of Montenegro without setting foot in the place, determined to make it into Greece the same day but accepting defeat upon arrival outside Tirana. The map informed her that the motorway only went as far as the Albanian capital, and that she would have to take B roads as far as the Greek border near Korçe or accept defeat and detour through Macedonia down to Thessaloniki. Either way, she was 800 kms by motorway from Athens or 550 along dirt tracks. She got to a scruffy motel on the outskirts of the city and took a room for a pittance that was worth less. She had hoped for a good night’s sleep, but the place turned out to be a far from glorified knocking-shop. As she lay on the bed and tried to block out the noises, she was amused by the fact that Tirana was an anagram of the Seville district of Triana where she was born. With that, sleep overpowered here. 

            She managed to get a good seven hours and hit the road again. She went five-hundred meters and checked the rental documentation. She should not be in Albania in this car, she should not even have left Croatia. “Time to put my foot down.” She said to herself. 

            She made haste and was in Macedonia for breakfast. It looked nice, she thought to herself, feeling guilty for enjoying the scenery. Then, she reasoned to herself that after Albania anything else would appear a bonus. She avoided Skopje and headed south towards Greece, arriving in Thessaloniki at lunchtime. Pleased with her progress, she sat down at a decent looking but well priced restaurant and ate the first decent morsel of her trip.  Feeling guilty with every bit and wishing Jairo was there to enjoy it with her. Taking advantage of the fact there was decent Wi-Fi, something she did not find in Albania, she checked her route and was, it is fair to say, somewhat angered by the fact that the dodgy connection had failed to show that should could have continued south along a motorway as far as Ioannina and then take the E92 to pick up the A1 towards Athens, thus saving herself around five hours driving. 

            Five hours were exactly what separated her from Athens. That meant she would arrive early evening. No time to go harassing civil servants. She needed to get a message to Jairo to tell him she was on her way to Athens to save him and that he should not worry. Of course, as she pondered this, she realised she was a long way from the city still and had no plan or even an address to look up when she got there, but she was still determined to save him. 

            She sat in a café and mulled over how little she felt like she was in a spy novel. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and wondered whether this was really a young woman’s game. This was not exciting. Then she became concerned about how she would react if it actually did become exciting. She stirred her coffee aimlessly and looked out over the town, she would have loved it, if she could have loved it, but alone it seemed so sad and desperate. She did not even notice that she had been joined at the table. 

            “You’re gonna need help if you’re gonna crack this one, dear.” A lady of around fifty smiled at her. “Act natural. I’m sure we’re not being watched but you never know. Clever trick heading through Skopje, they expected you in Northern Greece but on the other side. We’ve bought some time.” She continued. 

            “Who, who are you?” Marta queried. 

            “I am a cleverly constructed literary device to help the story along as it seemed to be going nowhere and needed a push. No, that’s just a joke. I have been recently removed from the Athens company that forged the documents that have incarcerated your husband and his friends. My name is Emily, I am a British civil servant, well I was, now I am a fugitive without a sizeable pension and keen on revenge.” She smiled again and ordered a coffee in Greek. 

            “You know your husband is innocent. They are part of a pilot scheme to try and remove the heat off the companies really involved in the trafficking process so that the bosses can all escape before charges are brought. The argument is that if someone has been charged for the crime, they can’t be subsequently, loophole in Greek Law. I must say it is tremendous good fortune the writer making you an English teacher so that we do not have to overcome linguistic hindrances. Although, I am not shirker when it comes to the old español myself you know, I once had a very enjoyable dalliance with a bullfighter in Madrid, I learnt a lot from old ‘Cuernos’[3].” Both of them laughed at this. 

            “I assume you have been crowbarred into this story with a fool proof plan, as well?” Marta asked anxiously. 

            “Would that it were, dear Marta. But we will find one. Two heads and all that. The first thing is for you to ditch that vehicle. It is only a matter of time before they find it as it is tagged. Have you ever stolen a car before? It’s quite simple if you have a master key. I have one for Audis and Mercs. Any preference?” Emily asked. 

            “Merc?” Marta replied, finishing her coffee and requesting the bill. 

            Emily may have dressed like Miss Marple’s lovechild but drove with a touch of Silverstone. The GPS suggested it would take five hours to get to Athens, but she was there in four, parking outside the city residence of Malcolm Thistle, Head of the International Division at Mushumbi Inc. 

            “What are we doing here?” Marta asked. 

            “This is the man who ordered the operation. We cannot really get to him, but it would not hurt for him to think someone knows something about him that they shouldn’t. So, we will just leave this anonymous photo with a USB in his mailbox and wait for his paranoia to lead him to make a mistake. This will scare him as the photograph is genuine, it’s him with the Head of Transport at Mushumbi, technically it means nothing, wholly inadmissible in court, but why would someone send him this particular picture? Seeds of doubt, a tinge of evil and we will be able to get our hands on what we need. With this nasty business out of the way, it’s time to get you a new identity and find ourselves somewhere comfortable for the evening. I was thinking here.” Emily showed her the Trip Advisor page of the hotel Somewhere Vouliagmeni. 

            “It’s the most expensive one I could find. Shall I book? Money is no object, will explain later.” Emily finished. 

            “Err, great.” Marta replied. She had no idea what she was doing with the Emily but felt she should trust her as she would have less of an idea on her own. 

            They checked into a suite that afforded, in Marta’s case this was a misnomer, two bedrooms and a spacious living area. Emily ordered from the menu to have room service bring up some goodies. Marta felt guilty as she drank the wine with her husband in jail. “Don’t feel bad.” Emily said, guessing her new friend’s discomfort. “You’re here to save him and I’m here to bring down the evil empire. You need all your powers, Marta.” 

            Marta was no longer Marta for the purposes of identification in Greece. She was Susana Lopez, not the name she would have chosen but inconspicuous and quickly forgettable. “So, what do we do tomorrow?” Marta asked. 

            “First, we are going to get a message from you to Jairo, that’ll keep his spirits up. Then we will use our cunning and guile to cause the collapse of a major international crime organisation. Fancy that?” Emily grinned. 

            “You haven’t thought out how, yet, have you?” Marta responded. 

            “Let me have another glass and I am sure I will come up with something.” Emily winked. 

            She had another glass, then another, but came up with nothing. There was the inkling of a hair-brained plan as Marta began to wane, but the latter was merely entertaining the former by pretending to listen. Marta also started to wonder as to the true nature of her saviour’s talents. 

            The next day, Marta was in the shower when she heard someone at the door. As she exited the bathroom in her sumptuous robe, she glanced at a particularly happy Emily holding a brown envelope and overlooking her hangover. 

            “Best five grand I have ever spent. I hope.” She told Marta. 

            “You can get a decent USB on Amazon for a lot less.” Marta responded. 

            “Touché, querida! It is not the device, but the content that demands the price. Ooh, that was rather poetic.” Emily said as she connected the device to her laptop. 

            The USB contained just one file. A series of emails containing Excel sheets between Thistle and other important members of Mushumbi detailing payments and transportation plans. There were payments from major hotel and industrial chains for fast-track residency permits to allow immigrants to work at slave rates in Europe. Those who accepted, were transported on the ‘safer’ boats, those who didn’t, took their chances on the older crafts. It also proved that Jairo and the others had no involvement in the racket.

            “This is quite conclusive.” Marta gleamed as Emily sent the document to a variety of sources. 

            “Yes, but it is not enough. It is only conclusive when coupled with a confession, and at the moment no-one is likely to be that stupid. We’re going in the right direction. Let’s tail Thistle, but first you get to make a video. I have someone on the inside who will make sure it gets to your husband. Keep it clean, though.” Emily said. 

            Marta felt stupid making the video. Everything she wanted to say came out cheesy and the minute she hit send she realised she could have said it all a bit better, a lot better. Emily told her that it would almost certainly be seen by the authorities, so some red herrings would not go amiss. The idea was to make it clear that she had come to save him and had enough information on a certain Francis and would soon be able to bring about her husband’s release. This mendacity seemed somewhat see-through on first glance, but Emily knew it would appeal to Thistle’s ego and he would thus assure himself that he was one step above the rest and nobody could ever outfox him. That was the plan, anyway. 

            With Thistle believing he was leading the newcomers a merry dance, Emily set about making him fall into her trap, once she had one. 

            Kontoglou Detention Centre, Lesbos, Greece

            Jairo had the luxury of a Spanish newspaper but soon wished he had never seen the rag. As the weeks went by, his inability to have his voice heard and the failings of the Spanish embassy to move to quash the claims of its Greek counterparts had allowed him to see how public opinion was shifting back home, away from the horror and disgust of the initial announcement of their arrest to the indifference that would soon replace the nagging feeling that there had to be something in all of this. Falsified documents and images had made their way from the Greek dailies across the Mediterranean, proving that people could be swayed by whatever they saw. Many voices still called for the defence of the trio, but their noise was slowly being drowned out by those claiming the contrary. 

            He crumpled up the paper and threw it against the cell wall. As he did, a small and rather old mobile telephone fell to the floor and its screen cracked. Jairo rushed over to collect the damage and investigate its contents. In a short period of time, he had learned to be overly vigilant while performing the simplest acts, yet a clandestine telephone in his hands caused him to overlook his usual caution. There was a notification telling him he had received a video message. He played it and cried. Marta, there before him, with a crack running down her face where he had broken the glass but there she was, telling him a series of lies she had to make him, and whoever was listening, believe she was close to cracking the case. “Te sacaré de aquí[4] she promised, and the screen went blank. He watched it again and then followed the instructions to leave the device inside the paper as it had been left. 

            He had had very little contact with Marta since the arrest. Only two telephone calls, the first before the story had broken in which incredulity played a more pivotal role than comprehension. A second call came a week later with Jairo trying to reassure her that he was being looked after, while bleeding from the nose and feeling the missing tooth. He was sure that she could sense his voice was different, so made sure the call was as brief as possible. 

            He had been in prison for 23 days now. The press and public found out about what he had been accused of ten days before he did. No announcement was made in the first week as the Spanish embassy was more concerned about keeping a lid on the political scandal that was brewing than serving any justice. The case was immediately passed from the lower to very upper echelons of the embassy. There the matter would fall into the hands of Carlos Fernandez, deputy-attaché and originally unwitting business partner of Malcolm Thistle. Now, Fernandez had been entrusted with the role of making the Spanish press believe that these saint-like men were not on the island to save lives, moreover, their intention was to line to the pockets of the human traffickers and affiliated corporations. 

            Fernandez did not attend the prison visits himself, but sent Lopez, his trusty sidekick. The battle between his talents for ineptness and malleability was an ongoing one and ensured that Lopez would never do anything worthwhile for the firefighters. Whatever Lopez amassed would be lost or destroyed, meaning that they would keep going around in circles until the trial came to court. 

            Jairo’s cell door opened, and the guard appeared. That meant he had a visit. That meant Lopez. No-one else came to see him. He had not seen the other two since the detention. Despite the overwhelming sense of disappointment of the impending meeting with Lopez, Jairo had a spring in his step as he almost sauntered down to the interview room. The guard opened the door to show the smiling buffoon already seated. 

            “Any developments?” Jairo asked. 

            “Unfortunately, yes. Though not the type that you may have been hoping for. Further evidence has surfaced of the three of you on a yacht with two Danish businessmen. One of the latter has confessed and named you. I really can’t help you if you do not furnish me with the fullest of information.” Lopez sneered. 

            “Help me? I was not aware that you had started. We don’t any Danish businessmen, for the love of God, I’m from Seville and am not sure I know many Spanish ones. I work for the fire service, I do not run an international human trafficking organisation.” Jairo sighed as he knew he was wasting his time. 

            “Well, I would say that if I was in your position.” Lopez added. 

            “Answer me this question then: If I am supposedly in charge of this multi-million-euro operation, why do I live in a flat with a two-hundred grand mortgage and drive a five-year-old Ford. We still owe eighty-percent of the mortgage.” Jairo asked. 

            “Classic low profile, I’d say.” Was Lopez’s response. 

            “Do you actually want to help us? Do you believe we are innocent?” Jairo asked again. 

            “I only believe the evidence I have been presented with and in your case,  it seems somewhat conclusive from where I am sitting.” Lopez responded. 

            “Please refrain from visiting me again if you have no intention of assisting me.” Jairo said. 

            “If you waive embassy assistance than the Spanish government will no longer concern itself with your case.” Lopez threatened. 

            “I’m better off in here than with you lot. Leave.” Jairo ordered. And with that, Lopez collected his things and left the interview room. The guard unshackled Jairo from the chair and led him back to his cell. As he unlocked the door he whispered into his ear “No te fies de la embajada, no te fíes de nadie[5].” Then he placed a finger over his lips to suggest continued silence on the matter. 

            Jairo preferred the time in the cell alone to when he was forced to mingle with the other prisoners. It was a sorry time that he was happier alone with his thoughts than in the company of others. Most of the other inmates were bog-standard criminals, all of a sudden, rapists were getting on their high-horses about Jairo’s supposed activity. Marta’s message comforted him, but he confessed to not having an overwhelming amount faith in her to bring down the organisation. That was no slur on her. Would he know what to do if the situation was reversed? What hurt was the inability to do anything, the fact that nobody would listen. They could get twenty years for something they had never been involved in, and all he could do was sit in a cell and wait for the Judge’s hammer to fall. 

            For the first time in his adult life, Jairo felt like he had no control over the situation he was in and which was eating away at his scant freedom. Even when he had been left against the elements and at the mercy of the sea, he always felt that he had the wherewithal to get to the other side, to make it back to the boat or to the shore. Even in the darkest moments, even when François slipped away from him, he always felt that HE would be safe. Now the impotence of being unable to do anything for his cause evoked almost as much distress as the rage inside him at having his entire life ripped away from him while he sat idly in a cell. 

            But what was he supposed to do? He had been convicted before the case had even come to trial. Someone wanted him and the other two to go down for this. Someone high up. Why would they go to so much trouble to create this media circus? What was Marta getting herself into? Where the fuck was their daughter? He cursed Lopez once more and went to sleep. 

            He was awoken at five in the morning by the guards coming to do a surprise search. They found the mobile that had the message from Marta, but that was no more, just a couple of Danish contact names. Jairo wondered what was the worst book he had ever read, as this plot was clearly capable of taking it to the cleaners. He was moved to solitary for the next five days as the press revealed communications that never took place. 

Marta sat on the terrace and read the lead story in El País newspaper, they ran with the mobile, they lavishly brandished screenshots and she wondered how his grammar had improved, and his spelling. 

“Jairo has a form of dyslexia. There is no way he could have typed this. It’s more proof.” She told Emily. 

“Hold your horses, they could say it was voice to text, or that the phone itself corrected the messages.” Emily responded. 

“Here are the data specs for that Nokia model. It’s old, only uses the mobile network. No effective predictive text. Either way, the English is too perfect. He can’t speak that well, he can hardly write, he’s no fucking poet in Spanish, but in English?” Marta pleaded. 

“You’re beginning to think like a spy. I like that.” Emily laughed. “Perhaps this is the work of the USB. This is a definite slip-up, we’re starting to get stuff on them. They need to turn up the heat on Jairo and his mates to speed up the trial process. Fuck!” Emily said. 

“What’s the matter?” Marta asked. 

“I wanted to say expedite instead of speed up. I love that word.” Emily said. 

“I’ll use expedite in my memoirs.” Marta promised. 

“Good, good. They obviously feel that what they have is not enough. They may control the Spanish and Greek embassy’s, but there has to be a public jury, justice has to be seen to be done, even if only externally. The defence must be made to look ridiculous. We have to get proof that Thistle, Fernandez and that transport guy all know each other. The more nervous they are, the more likely they will be to chance a meeting. There is a guy at the embassy, Lopez, he is little more than a dogsbody for Fernandez, a comedy character in a show with no laughs, but if we can get him to think we have something, he might be clumsy enough to drop Fernandez in it. Really, all we have to do is wait, but the problem is that we don’t have time. We need to force them into being careless.” Emily added. 

“They know you are on the loose. Aren’t they concerned about you? You could make a deal with the authorities.” Marta sought out hope wherever it may lay. 

“Unfortunately, the authorities are not for deals. I don’t know who is genuinely worthy of our time. All the heads have been turned. There is a lot of cash at stake. They value that more than the lives of your husbands. That plural sounded odd, but you know what I mean.” 

Emily received a phone call that interrupted their conversation. She spoke in Greek for a while and looked forlorn. “Thistle knows we are in Athens. A colleague has checked you in to a different hotel with your real ID, but it won’t take long. They have the means. Let’s get Lopez.” Emily said while packing. 

Within ten minutes they were out and in a hire car. Emily donning a wig and Marta making do with some garish sunglasses. They stopped at a supermarket briefly to pick up some hair dye and, showing rather too much cleavage, asked directions to the Port, the opposite direction in which they were going, that guy would remember them, though.

Emily’s contacts at the company were still capable of getting hold of Lopez’s Athens residence, she told Marta to act tough, this was the guy who was the link to the people who were framing her husband. They made their way inside after the concierge was easily convinced that they were Lopez’s relatives. Waiting in the hallway for him to appear, they killed time. 

“Why are you doing this, Emily? You could get killed.” Marta asked. 

“If that is my fate, then so be it, I have wronged many people, people I will never know from places I will never visit. My freedom means nothing. My last action on this Earth has to be to bring them to justice. Melodrama aside.” Emily responded. “The USB has made them think I have more on them than I do. I don’t. Well, nothing physical or at least usable. I have the upper hand because they think that if anything happens to me, this information will be leaked. They can’t be sure, but they can’t take that risk. They were very clear from the outset about who they let into their circles, once in, there was no way out. Their rules. That’s why it’s so lucrative. I could not live with myself if I did not try, I know perhaps I won’t succeed, but I will, if I have to, die trying. But hey, let’s not bring the mood down. Tell me how you met Jairo.” Emily smiled. 

“We went to the same school, yeah I know, slushy childhood sweethearts you probably think, but I hated him until eight years ago. I thought he was a, how do you say that ‘¿Chulito?’ Marta began. 

“Like a smart-arse? By the way, just how do you pronounce those upside-down question marks? Never mind, the trip down memory lane will have to wait. We got business.” Emily said and gestured to the lift’s doors that were opening as Lopez exited. 

Emily took a stance behind him and Marta moved out of the way. With a sturdy blow of an iron bar, Emily struck Lopez and the back of the neck and screamed “hijo de puta’[6] for good measure.

Marta was visibly surprised by this change in tack and failed to spring into action. “Help me move him!” Emily ordered as Marta clumsily flapped at the lump’s feet. “He’s the man who framed your husband. Act, for fuck’s sake!” Emily barked. This time, Marta moved. 

They got him inside the flat and tied him to a chair. Emily gestured that Marta do the honours and threw a bucket of iced water over him to bring him round. Emily took up her position before him with a large butcher’s knife aimed at his crotch. 

“Who are you?” Lopez asked with one eye still bloody. “Oh, it’s you. Well, I can’t say I am surprised. The security services could be here in ten minutes, I suggest you leave.” Lopez said. 

Emily smiled and pushed the knife through the fabric of the trousers that formed the expensive suit. Feeling the contact against his skin, Lopez winced. 

“I suggest you speak. Fernandez will have told you about the photo on the USB. That’s why you set up the mobile to be found in Jairo’s cell. Worried that public opinion might shift before the trial. I can prove that Jairo never wrote those messages.” Emily began. 

“Like that matters. Why do you still believe the truth is of any importance. You were hounded out of the company for this misguided ethos.” Lopez tried to look unphased, but this time Emily drew blood. 

“Lopez, your testicles are in the hands of a lunatic who has no reason to live. Are you a fan of Greek literature? The eunuchs? Give me one reason not to castrate you here and now.” Emily smiled. 

For a brief moment, Lopez considered the response, ‘you wouldn’t dare’, but he knew she would. “I can’t help you. I’m nobody. I don’t have access to any information. Even if I wanted to help you, which I don’t.” Lopez responded. 

“You are not a very good liar, Lopez. You have the accounts that you are beginning to digitise so that they can be altered and leave you all free from blame. Except that when you hand them over to Fernandez, he will have them doctored and make it look like you were controlling Jairo and the others, that is why you were sent to visit him so often.” Emily said. 

“Does that sound plausible?” Lopez foolishly responded. Emily gave no response but took the knife to his left ear and severed it. “Turn up the music and bring me a towel, will you?” She gestured to Marta. Then, turning to Lopez again, she barked: “Where are the files?”  She moved the knife to his other ear. 

“You’re fucking mad!” He screamed. Emily began to tease the knife slowly from his neck down to his crotch. Its sharpness doing away with buttons with ease. “Por favor, no!” He begged of her as she made a hole in his gusset with the knife.

“I will take your fucking balls if you do not give me the files.” She repeated. Lopez looked at the portrait of his mother and began to weep. Marta clocked him. 

“Behind the painting.” She said. 

Indeed, there was a safe which Lopez had not even bothered to lock that contained the company’s accounts. She opened them on a random page and took a photo of herself with Lopez. “Let’s go!” She said to Marta. 

“What about the accounts?” Marta asked. 

“We don’t need them now I have sent this photo to Thistle and Fernandez. They will make their next mistake soon. Let’s get cleaned up and have a drink.” Emily said. 

Triana, Seville. 

Inés watched as her grandad parked the car and got out to unbuckle her. Another successful day at school. That was a week now. Neither her mother or father had seen her in her new school uniform in the flesh, and due to the uproar caused by her father’s case, she had to be ushered in through the back door lest the angry parents share their twitter-fed discontent in the form of wrath against a three-year-old. 

Since her mother was the next to leave her, Inés had stayed with her maternal grandparents. From what she could gather at her tender age, her mother had gone to save her father who was in prison. Interesting information, she thought, what’s a prison? she thought. Her grandparents agreed that a routine would help Inés at this time. The last time they spoke to Marta she assured them that it was a set-up and that she could prove it. That, then, was enough for her parents. Now they only had to worry about her not getting killed in the process. 

Inés’ bedroom at her grandparents was a funny place, she pondered. Well she would have if she learned the word to ponder yet. She looked around puzzled. It had been hastily thrown together, it was Marta’s (Mamá to her) bedroom but had also been used as an office and other things in the interim period. There was a poster of ‘Hello Kitty’ as grandma got it wrong that her favourite was Peppa and put it up anyway. Some fluffy toys from when Marta was a girl in the early eighties. A couple of Barbies with eyes missing, one that had a disappointing allocation of lower limbs and a teddy that seemed to have a touch of mange about it. There was also a photo of the three of them in a hotel in Malaga when daddy got back for his last job, what did he call them? Mission, that was it. 

She felt like everything was in the wrong place at grandma’s. She knew where to open to find her toys, she knew where her books were and everything else at home, but here everything was lopsided. She wanted to go home. She was only three but knew that this was not about her. She listened to her grandparents arguing and switching off the telly. She heard the words she knew people couldn’t say but wondered why they said them so much. She took the Barbies and the teddy and arranged them on the bed. Finding an old and battered toy tea-service. If she couldn’t cry, she would at least host a lovely tea party. 

Solitary Wing, Kontoglou Detention Centre, Lesbos, Greece.

On the third day into his stint Jairo stopped looking at the wall and closed his eyes. The demons left. He was in his kitchen with Marta and Inés. He was going to cook. He smiled at the look of trepidation on their faces as they expected the worst.

“Don’t you guys know that my omelette is famous in this city?” He asked. 

“Famous for being urrrrrrgghh!” Marta responded, and Inés joined her in making the horrid noise before laughter overcame both of them. 

“You’ll see.” Jairo said. “I just need to wash the frying pan.” He handled the tap with slightly more force than may be required and the thing came off in his hand. A jet of water spouted out through the base of the tap and quickly flooded the kitchen floor. The girls’ laughter soon turned to screams as the kitchen began to fill with water. 

“Turn the stopcock.” Marta ordered. 

“The what?” Jairo responded. 

“The valve below the sink that cuts off the water.” Marta replied. 

“Is that what it is called? I never knew that.” Jairo said. 

“Shut up and turn it!” Marta barked. 

In just two minutes, more than two inches of water covered the floor. Marta ran towards Jairo and slipped cursing as her hip hit the floor, Jairo tried to steady her but just managed to fall on top of her. This caused Inés great hilarity who wasted no time in joining them. For one brief moment not worrying about the cost of the repairs or whether their shoddy home insurance would even look at lending a hand. There the three laid soaked yet cheerful, helping each other up slowly before falling again and becoming once again consumed by laughter. 

They eventually managed to haul themselves up and Marta took Inés into the shower while Jairo made the necessary phone call. “Don’t try and fix it.” She said. “You could drown!” That was hilarious, a man who risked his life on Europe’s seas taken from this life by a leaking tap.

Once they were all dry Jairo took Inés to buy a roast chicken and let her play in the park in front of the store while he waited. He watched her and wondered where the three years had gone, then he wondered why we couldn’t remember anything of his life before she thrust herself into it, then he remembered he would not have it any other way. 

They ate the chicken and watched cartoons as the lazy Sunday ambled along without the need to cause the slightest sweat. The kitchen would be sorted tomorrow, everything would be sorted tomorrow. He repeated that phrase as a loud bell was heard and his evening meal was brought in. 

The guard teased him with “Solitary getting to you yet?” 

And Jairo replied, “Only when I open my eyes.” With that he accepted the meal and closed them again to finish his chicken with Marta. Then they went upstairs, and that is good a place as any for a line break. 

Emily got a response from Fernandez before Thistle. The latter was closer to Lopez so had more reason to worry. “How did you know about the files in Lopez’s computer?” Marta asked her. 

“I didn’t. My IT guy said it would be worth a try. Either way, Lopez is not really James Bond material. The vanity of people who think they are above the law often causes them to recruit stooges of little value who will eventually be their downfall. Identify the stooge, and they will lead you to villain.” Emily responded. 

“You’re enjoying this!” Marta smiled. 

“I’m fucking loving it!” Came the response. “Now, Fernandez wants to meet to discuss a handover and an agreement. He has promised me immunity. That means he is scared. Ideally, he would kill me, and probably you too, but that is not a solution. At the moment, the police see you as an aggrieved wife, perhaps slightly off her trolley, doing whatever she can to save her lying husband. That helps our case. If they know you know, there is a chance someone we don’t want knowing that might find out. No offence, but we need to keep you pathetic.” Emily said. 

“None taken.” Marta replied. 

“I have told Fernandez that the only way I will meet with him is if Thistle is there too. Before any conversation is initiated, I want a new passport and identity, five million euros in an account in the Cayman Islands and the aforementioned immunity agreement. He says it will be hard to get Thistle in, but he will try. I have told him that for every hour he fails to arrange the meeting, a document will be sent to the influential news outlet ‘To Bhma’. Innocent stuff in the first batch, photographs, questionable news articles from less friendly sources, slightly compromising stuff, titbits. The longer he takes the meatier the mails will become.” Emily continued. 

“Nice Oxford comma.” Marta smiled, raising her glass. 

“I’m glad you noticed. You will need to learn how to operate a streaming service via YouTube, it’s pretty simple but you have to have software running from this computer for me to be able to broadcast from within the meeting room. I will be frisked for mics and the like, but the camera is actually embedded into the left eye of the portrait of Fernandez that hangs in his office, again vanity assisting us.” Emily added. 

“You may be overlooking one thing. If you get them to confess on camera in that manner, it could be thrown out of court as entrapment.” Marta said. 

“I’ve got that covered. It’s now Friday, I expect Jairo to be released on Monday, get ready to go to Lesbos. He’ll need time. He’s not going to be able to return to normal life, whatever that is, at the flick of a switch. You’ve needed to be strong to get through this, and we are nowhere near the successful outcome we hope to achieve, and yet what lays ahead may be even worse.” Emily said. 

“Comforting. Is there any more of this wine?” Marta responded as she looked over the city of Athens afforded from the balcony of the luxury property Emily had just happened to come across. This was the first time she considered the fact that Emily might actually be double crossing her. What if it was just a scam to get what she was asking for? With a new identity she would be free. If Marta was wholly discredited, the case against Jairo would be even stronger. What scared her most was, though, if it were true, then she truly had nothing. 

The more Emily told Marta of her plans, the more Marta was convinced she was being used. This meant she drank more, this meant she spent a restless night battling indigestion and nausea. Whenever she did manage to enter a sleeping state, her dreams conspired to prevent any rest from being achieved. When she finally gave up hope at around six, she felt more tired than when she had been helped into the bed by Emily. She cleaned her teeth and looked in the mirror. She had to trust Emily. The she wondered why the Greeks made toothpaste that tasted the same as day-old white wine. 

She showered and made coffee. Waiting for Emily at the table, she fell asleep again and was awoken by a radiant looking Emily just before ten. 

“You look like shit.” Emily said. 

“You don’t. And that is what matters. I have the stream ready to go. I just don’t know how you are going to get them to confess. Why would they? It makes no sense for them to do it. They have come this far without needing to incriminate themselves, I can’t see them having an attack of conscience now.” Marta said everything apart from ‘this is where you sell me out, right?’

“Have faith. My taxi is here. When I send you the message, you start the stream. Drink the rest of the coffee, I don’t want you falling asleep again.” Emily said as she left. 

It took around eighty minutes for Emily to leave and send the message, but for Marta it was like an eternity, and a long one at that. Every set of footsteps she heard certainly belonging to trained assassins coming to end her life. She even convinced herself that she saw a red beam of light on the wall as the sniper took aim. No-one came. Only the message. She opened the streaming software and went live. 

Conference Suite, MUSHUMBI GREEK OFFICE, Athens

            On the screen we see three people, seated around a conference table. Emily, painstakingly avoiding direct gaze into the camera, Fernandez, the Spanish ambassador in Greece and Thistle, the head of Mushumbi’s Greek operations. 

     Fernandez pours himself a glass of water and addresses Emily. 

     FERNANDEZ 

     “What exactly do you want from us, Emily?” 

     EMILY

     “Immunity. The terms were quite explicit in my mail. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life looking round my shoulder. I am too old for this and want to live in the luxury I deserve.”

     THISTLE 

     “You deserve?” 

     EMILY

     “We are all too old for this type of games. You know the room is clean because your IT guys have been through it. Let me turn off my phone and we talk terms. I suggest you do the same.”

     As she went to switch off her phone, she saw the twitter notification from the Spanish Fire Service which had simply tweeted ‘We’re eating Battenberg’. That meant the stream was running. Emily knew she had to get the confession out of them as quickly as possible. 

     EMILY

     “Because we are all as guilty as each other. I have come to terms with it. I don’t really care about you giving me immunity. I think we should all pay for what we have done.” 

     FERNANDEZ 

     “And what is it we have done? You may have a mass of evidence, but nothing has been proven. It’s just as easy for us to stitch you up as anyone else.”

     THISTLE

     “Shut up! Fernandez. I have no idea what you are talking about. If this is your new tactic then it will fail. Emily it’s been a pleasure.”

     Thistle gets up to leave. 

     EMILY 

     “Yes, I knew you would never confess. I also knew that you would never give me immunity. That is why I reached a crossroads. I have enough on me to send myself and you two (along with many others) down for many, many years, but there is one last chance. Let’s pin it on the wife. Everybody knows it’s odd how easy it has been for her just to appear in Greece looking mournful and seeking justice. It’s only a case of changing a few names. Everyone has believed the rubbish you have pinned on the firefighters and the Danes. Why would they stop believing now if it only reinforced your version?” 

SCENE CHANGES TO THE ROOM WHERE MARTA IS LISTENING 

     MARTA

     “You fucking bitch. I knew it.” 

SCENE CHANGES TO THE OFFICES OF THE GREEK NATIONAL TELEVISION BROADCASTER. 

     The control room is packed with people all open-mouthed, unable to explain what they are viewing. 

SCENE CHANGES BACK TO THE CONFERENCE ROOM 

     FERNANDEZ 

     “It might work. I want this to end as soon as possible.” 

     THISTLE 

     “Can you please control that tongue of yours? Why not take out an ad in the paper. However, this Marta woman is certainly an option. If we do this, we can never see each other again and this ends now. What we have, we take, along with the chances involved in surviving afterwards. Emily, how are you going to pull this off?”

     EMILY

     “It’s simple. I have my own IT team, you know. Every incriminating document that features our names will be changed to state they were the work of just Marta and Jairo. That will be enough. All I have to do is press this button and it will all go away.”

     She shows them a series of documents with a dialogue box asking her to confirm changes and send to the police. 

     “Just do one more thing for me. I have admitted my part in this. I have come to terms with my guilt and feel better. I urge you to do the same. Simply repeat the words ‘I have been involved in this farce since the start but now I repent’ and it will all be over.” 

     FERNANDEZ 

     “I’ll do it. I just want it to be over Thistle. Too many people are involved, too many people have died. It’s not right. There is blood on our hands but we can still get out. Say it, Thistle.” 

THISTLE

     “You are weak, Fernandez. But God, this is tiresome and pointless. Whatever I say will never go beyond these walls anyway. The room has been checked and checked again. It is a public holiday and I made sure there is nobody within a kilometre of this place, but hey, go on. Have your moment. Yes, Emily, the whole racket was devised by me, with the assistance of Fernandez here and other elements of the Greek diplomacy corps. You, as you have already admitted, were just as involved. Oh my word, how much better I feel! Now can we frame this Spanish bitch and move to the Caribbean?”

     EMILY 

     “You might want to switch your phone back on.” 

     Thistle smiled and did so. Hundreds of messages and missed calls. Sirens could be heard very nearby. Thistle realised what had happened and extracted a revolver from his jacket pocket. 

     FERNANDEZ 

     “No, don’t do it!” 

     Fernandez launched himself towards Thistle to wrestle the gun out of his hand. A struggle ensued, and a shot was fired. From inside the room, the occupants could hear that the police were close. Fernandez looked up to see where the bullet had gone and saw Emily slumped back in the chair with the cap in her abdomen. She winced in pain as blood trickled from her wound. 

     FERNANDEZ 

     “Fight it, Emily. Help will be here soon.” 

     With that he launched another attack on Thistle as the police burst through the door, followed by medical staff who attended to Emily. The pair continued to struggle until a second bullet was fired and Fernandez’s lifeless body rolled from on top of Thistle. One of the cops trained his rifle on Thistle but Emily, summoning the last of her strength screamed: 

     “NO, HE LIVES. HE LIVES SO THAT HE CAN WISH HE WAS DEAD.” 

     With that Emily lost consciousness and was taken on a stretcher to the ambulance. 

            Marta shut down the streaming equipment and waited. The police now knew where she was, so this was just a matter of time. She pottered about and made a sandwich. She felt terrible at doubting Emily who was now fighting for her life. She wanted to visit Emily before even seeing Jairo. 

            There was a knock at the door and Marta collected her belongings and took her place in the police car. She was on auto-pilot now and went along with whatever was happening around her. She was seated next to a Greek female officer in the vehicle who smiled at her and told her Emily was alive and being operated on. ‘70/30’ in her favour, were the odds quoted. Emily would trounce that, Marta thought. 

            Once they arrived at the police station she was ushered into another room where there was a single telephone. It rang. 

            “Marta? It’s me, Jairo, wait for me in Athens!” 

            She had waited for this moment for what seemed like was forever and now she did not know what to say in response. She just said ‘Vale[7]’ and dropped the receiver. 

            When she came to, there was a television in the room and she was being shown footage of the three Sevillian firefighters leaving their place of incarceration enthusiastically brandishing fists in the air. The police got the satellite television to work and tuned into TVE Internacional so that Marta could understand it. The banner below simply read

“SEVILLIAN FIREFIGHTERS FREED AFTER COVER-UP COMES TO LIGHT” 

            As they were interviewed on the steps of the detention centre, the reporter showed an image of Thistle, handcuffed and about to name everyone involved to go down with him. There was another small piece about the disgraced former ambassador who lost his life in the unravelling, but the suggestion was made that he was a bad egg from the start and that the clean elements of the Spanish embassy in Athens were appalled and operating effectively. 

            Marta was told there was a lot to think about, compensation, witness appearances and the like, but for the time being that could wait. Jairo and the other two would soon be on a plane to Athens and their wives and families were already on their way on a specially chartered jet from Seville, Inés included. The police officer from the car handed her a tablet to show a Skype call underway. From Seville Airport, Inés and the four grandparents were getting ready to board the plane. 

            “Mi niña!!!” Marta said before bawling. 

            Inés, underwhelmed by the experience, gave monosyllabic responses to her mother’s almost inaudible utterances.

            “We’re coming to bring you all home!” Marta’s father enthused. With that, their flight was announced, and the call ended. 

            The police explained that they had enough information from Emily to wholly exonerate her and Jairo, and indeed the rest, from any link to the racket but she would still need to make an official statement which would be as painless as possible. Marta thanked them whilst making sure they knew, that despite the severity of the situation, this was no time for split infinitives.   

            Once all that was done, she was taken to the airport in anticipation of Jairo’s arrival. God, she was nervous. She felt like all of her insides were bring wrought out of her body from within. What scared her was normality, what scared her was that he would once again get itchy feet and take to the seas. As she waited on the tarmac consumed with doubts, the small propeller plane landed and hove into view, taxying to the gate for what seemed like forever. Finally, the door opened to eject the stairs, Jairo was first out and looked around for Marta who broke through the cordon and ran towards the plane. At first, the police thought about stopping her, but the officer from the car told them to leave her. She ran up the stairs, tripped, grabbed hold of him and pulled her down with her. He fell on top her and sprained his ankle, she felt a stabbing pain in the ribs and knew at least one had gone. “Me alegro de verte.”[8] She said, and the pair laughed despite their injuries. 

            Federico and Sandro disembarked afterwards but their families were still in transit. Unceremoniously, they just walked towards the terminal building to the waiting red faces of the embassy staff sent to greet them. 

            They laughed as they watched the Spanish press fall over themselves suggesting that they never doubted the innocence of the trio. Millions were aghast as big name after big name fell as Thistle left his diary open on the Greek police’s table. The aftermath was no prettier than the original event as everyone tried to save themselves. 

            Marta and Jairo had the best part of an afternoon together before Inés and their parents’ flight arrived and they were taken back to the airport. The young girl wasted no time in telling her parents about all the free goodies she had been given on the flight, only stopping with a cursory “Hola, papá!” which got a laugh from everyone. 

            The next day, the three of them made an unscheduled visit to a hospital where a lady was recovering under an armed guard that she had no intention of trying to overcome, regardless of the fact that she was recovery from surgery after a gunshot wound. Emily’s face changed as she saw Marta. 

            “I had to make them think I was going to sell you out.” Emily said. 

            “I never doubted you for a minute.” Marta smiled. 

            “You’re still a dreadful liar!” Emily said. 

            Marta gave her a hug from a distance of about sixty centimetres. 

            “Come here! If it hurts, I’ll order another bottle of morphine!” The pair embraced like old friends. 

            “I’d like you to meet someone.” Marta said, ushering in Jairo who fell to his knees repeating ‘Gracias’ while bawling his eyes out. 

            “¡Levántate, tontito! [9] Emily said. 

            “And this is Inés.” Marta continued.  “Inés, this lady is very special, we can never thank her enough. She gave up everything so that we could be free.”

            “I got a colouring book on the plane!” Inés said. 

            Time passed as they returned to Seville. It was hard at times, but it had been hard before then and would be hard in the future. Life as a firefighter no longer appealed, and Marta was too famous, or infamous or both, to return to teaching. Fortunately, their fate was provided for when a letter arrived from Emily with an account number and access codes. The letter ended: 

            “Don’t worry. This money corresponds to the fortune Thistle inherited from his parents, the only legally earned wealth he ever accrued. This money is clean, I give it to you so that you can do something with it. Start a foundation, make a difference, create futures. Make the world a place worth living in. Yours with love, Emily.” 

            And they did that. The Foundation Sonrisas Lejanas[10] was also known as the Emily Braithwaite Foundation. Its aim was to raise awareness on the plight of those crossing the seas and perform insertion endeavours geared towards helping those who arrived with linguistic and professional training. 

Before things could get fully up and running, they were forced to make one more journey to Greece to testify in the trial and receive their compensation payment from the Greek government. Nothing was said but the trio took little time in donating the entire amount to the Red Cross and Médicins Sans Frontières. Nor did Marta and Jairo need much convincing to return to Seville with more baggage than they left with, eight-month Somalian twins left to their fate at a refugee centre when the sea took their parents. 

            Their work was often derided, their views decried as naïve and unrealistic, but the trio worked together from the safety of Seville. At times they did not achieve their goals, but they always tried, and that was enough. This work gave them time for a genuine friendship to flourish that would create a bond that never existed in the face of death. 

            Every year, Marta and her family visited Emily in prison on her birthday. The latter refusing to appeal for parole, determined that her life sentence would be just that. 

            “I lived like a queen for twenty-years so can live like a slave for twenty. That sort of works out as a princess, right, I mean prorata?” She laughed as Marta helped her walked in the gardens. 

            “This place is not that bad. It’s better than the watery grave I sent so many people to when I was with the corporation. I am lucky. I am alive. I have more than I deserve, then I have your visits. We fucking did it, Marta!” Emily said. 

            “My word, we did. Thank you, Emily.” Marta said with tears in her eyes. 

            “Thank you for making me realise what it all means.” Emily replied. 


[1] Why did you leave me there? 

[2] I’ve always wanted to fly in a helicopter

[3] Horns,  the Spanish express to do the horns to someone (literal) means to be unfaithful. One assumes it is a playful name she gave to her errant lover whilst being a play on words on the bull’s horns. 

[4] I’ll get you out of here

[5] Don’t trust the embassy, don’t trust anybody. 

[6] Son of a whore. 

[7] OK

[8] I’m pleased to see you. 

[9] Get up, you daft lad. 

[10] Distant Smiles 

Quinoa 2.0

“Thank you, Gareth.” The CEO said and turned to the Board. 

            “Chilling viewing, I think you will agree. This situation means that unless one of us can come up with an astoundingly brilliant plan, one of the major players in the foodstuffs sector in the last century and a half will soon be no more. I would ask you to rack your brains.” 

            There was a pause. That was to be expected. If anyone had the solution, it would have been implemented long before this mess appeared. Only one hand shot up from the group. Keith’s. 

            “African baby placenta.” He said and smiled. 

            “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to repeat that.” The CEO asked, aghast. 

            Keith repeated the magic mantra. Keith was not renowned for devising strategies that saved multinationals, Keith was not renowned. Yet, as nobody else dared to speak, he elaborated on his plan. “We have ventured unsuccessfully into the luxury and health food markets, with overheads always being our downfall. So, how about a product that is free that we can effectively put the mark-up we want on it.” Keith continued to smile as he looked at his open-mouthed audience. 

            “I comprehend that you are finding this somewhat hard to assimilate, but here is a simple model. We put it out that African baby placenta contains wonderfully salubrious qualities. Qualities that our laboratory in Switzerland has just verified and prove that its consumption can even cure cancer.” Keith was the only one showing any optimism in this revelation. 

            “We have a laboratory in Switzerland?” The CEO asked. 

            “We can get one. There are always loopholes. Why African baby placenta? I hear you ask. Well, it is more abundant in supply and will be available at a much cheaper price. People will clamour to join the fad; we will be able to auction the placentas of what could be described as “high-gene parents” whose offspring would potentially provide better results. At the end of the day, we could sell any old placentas in reality, probably even liver fillets, people won’t know.” Keith looked up to see the Board was still not with him. 

            “We will go to prison. How can we sustain the company with something like this?” The CEO demanded. 

            “Oh no, you misunderstand. The Company is gone, you have to accept that. But we have two choices, go down with dignity or make a fortune and jump ship leaving the new buyers to take the flak. I say dignity is overrated. We sell as much as we can in a year then disappear. Or you can disappear tomorrow. With nothing. Well, less than nothing.” Keith was still smiling. 

            “That is the most hairbrained thing I have ever heard in my life. We’d be destroyed.” A senior advisor offered. 

            “Or is it?” The CEO intervened. “What option do we have? I mean, it would be nice to have one that does not involve eternity in Wikipedia as being slightly better than Hitler. I do not want to go to prison, or worse, be poor. We have worked hard to get here. Generations have struggled to make this company a success. Why would African baby placenta not cure cancer? Is hope not a major factor in these cases?” Keith’s smile grew bigger as he assumed he had the CEO on board. 

            The meeting continued for another hour, but neither Keith nor the CEO spoke again in it. Keith was promoted to Deputy CEO and anyone not on-board with the plan was removed. A week later, their creditors were told that they had saved the Company. 

            And so, on the back of a fake report from a laboratory nobody bothered investigating. ABP was suddenly the hottest product on the shelves. Except it never made it to the shelves. It was far too exclusive a product to be handled by the masses. The first batch was put up for auction. The boffins claimed that one serving would be enough to induce significant benefits for health, continued consumption would eradicate present diseases (they decided not to stop at cancer) and prevent future ones. ABP dinner parties became the height of fashion in the major cities’ exclusive circles, with purchasers receiving a personalised video from the creators of the original placenta (paid between 12 and 20 pounds) thanking them for their generosity. 

            The Company’s immediate debt of twelve million pounds sterling was covered after just three batches of one-thousand placentas. Inevitably, the outcry was immediate, and being the Twitter account handler for the Company was probably the least pleasant job on the planet, but despite the protests, despite the threatened boycotts and despite the overwhelming ethical questions, they kept on selling, and as supply waned, prices rocketed. One desperate Lord paid four million pounds for the desired product. 

            The Company overestimated African breeding and the continent’s ability to discover what was really going on. This led to a shortfall in supply that was met by turning to China. A “Chinese” African Baby Placenta could be purchased for less than a pound, and, although there is no difference in terms of colour of the organs of people of different races, the Chinese versions were darkened to give them an extra African tinge. 

            Keith entered the CEO’s office. “Looks like we need a get-out-of-jail card”. He said. 

            “I knew it was going to be immoral, but this is even beyond our wildest dreams. We are making 100 million a month clear profit, but three of our terminally ill purchasers have already passed away. No signs of improvement have been noted and we are days away from having the laboratory unmasked.” The CEO responded. 

            “The time has come for us to leave. Me and you take fifty million each. Here’s how it plays out. You hold a press conference and say that you have taken this as far as you can but would like a more equipped to take the project from here. It should take less than an hour for a buyer to come forward. When they are in place and have signed, we leak the information that it was the laboratory itself who has pulled the scam and they have fooled you. The lab never existed so it will never be found. You claim you will make a full statement in the coming days but no longer have control of the Company. You will be long gone when you make the last statement. They will be left to clear up. Are your family ready?” Keith said.             

            “You really think of everything, don’t you?” The CEO said, surveying his office for the last time as Keith made the transfers of fifty million to the both of them, generously sending two million to the remaining board members who stuck with the project. 

            It was a Japanese food company who took over the ABP project, believing the tales of free money the Company had spun. It insisted on installing its own team and everyone from the old Company was delighted with that. When they arrived, the lab’s cover was blown. They then realised why they had bought a billion-dollar company for less than twenty million. 

            The CEO looked over the top of the FT and saw Keith in the pool. Life was not too bad on the Caribbean island with the bank accounts they enjoyed. Keith swam over to his former boss and was helped into a robe by one of the many, lithe and young female staff they employed. 

            “You can’t tell me it wasn’t worth it?” Keith said. “Did you enjoy my last master-stroke?” He smiled. 

            The CEO read from the FT: “the disgraced CEO and his faithful employee’s bodies were found in a car park on Tuesday morning with a note stating they could no longer handle the guilt of what they had done. They took their own lives in a joint suicide pact and claimed to return their ill-gotten gains to charity. So far, no trace of the money has been seen.” He chuckled. “I assume you never liked the name Keith anyway, right Algernon?” 

            “I think it was beneath me. You suit Kehiah too. Give it another month and we can go our separate ways. In the meantime….” Algernon clicked his fingers and the pair were attended to in an instant. 

            “You’re my kind of cunt, Algernon.” Keziah said. 

The literal interpretation of things

Their hike along the top of the cliffs was always the highlight of these summer breaks. How long was it they had been coming here? Was this really their forty-second summer? Of course, other attendees had come and gone but Geraldine and Simon had never missed the last week in August on the North Devon coast.

            Yet in her heart, Geraldine knew that Simon had technically missed all of them. She can’t remember the last time he uttered a coherent sentence or the last time any of her suggestions were not met with violent contempt. That was her lot, she assumed. She had given birth to a son with severe autism incapable of expressing himself clearly, incapable of creating a normal, family life for her and hers to enjoy. And so, in the wake of an abnormal family life, Simon’s only brother absconded from home at an early age to tick the boxes marked ‘estranged’ after tiring of those marked ‘strange’, and her husband and Simon’s father, who threw in the towel before the lad even spent his first painful days in primary school.

            “Routine.” This was the word on everybody’s lips. A routine will help you. They said. They said a lot. They seemed to have a great deal of knowledge on how Geraldine should raise her son from the comfort of the medal enclosure on school sports days. Perhaps they were right, but as the seventies became the eighties. Geraldine was only certain of one thing; she was not going to abandon Simon like the others had done.

            Geraldine didn’t have an internet to guide her through every turn. She had Basildon local library, and that did not boast an extensive selection that would help her. Trial and error became staples of her existence, trying desperately to please Simon at first, then to raise him, then to please herself. As she sat alone in the evenings, not knowing whether to read the book again or drown herself in wine, she wondered how different her life would be if it were different. Yet whenever she was asked, her response was that everything was fine. Other people were worse, they never hit rock-bottom.

            But it wasn’t different. And it didn’t get any better. She put on a brave face, still it was a struggle. Then somebody recommended a holiday. She knew he would never board a plane, but trains had been an obsession of his since she could remember. With that, they chose a destination and every year he would make the journey to the railway station and return with the entire timetable for the Southern region, marking the possible routes from their home to Barnstaple, meticulously picking the date and time so that they were eligible for excellent deals. She watched him scour over those train times and felt a mixture of relief, contentment, jealousy and anger. Why could he not see her in the same way? Did he not know how much she did for him?

            When she approached the local council with a view to receiving assistance with Simon’s upbringing, she was told during his primary phase that it was too soon. By the time they discovered something that might possibly help him, she was told it was too late and he should have been treated pre-school. So he was left to wander through school, to be abused verbally and often physically, to learn nothing and to leave an angry young man.

            The only highlights were the weeks in North Devon, and more often than not these were only highlights in comparison. As they (she) enjoyed her cream tea, she wondered what the other holidaymakers thought her game was. Did they view her as some insatiable harlot who had fled the shackles of her suburban misery with her young beau? She allowed herself to fantasise with the luxury of a complicated life, by that she meant a life that she complicated, not one that came pre-packed with endless complications not of her volition. At times she would find herself laughing out loud in public, before convention obliged her to take a hold of her emotions.

            In his twenties, Simon showed signs of improvement. The new millennia offered gateways into new and hitherto unheard of worlds that were furnished with gardens of hope. New treatments were unveiled and Simon was always first on the list as the local guinea pig, but for every improvement, there were many more setbacks, so much so, that for his thirtieth birthday, Geraldine gave him the gift of no more doctors, they would make do with the little that they had.

            Geraldine, fearing for her own sanity, was encouraged to put her thoughts down in writing. She became, unwittingly, the forerunner to bloggers that would share their thoughts / be a scourge on society (delete as applicable) a decade later. Her musings were part fact, part fantasy and often involved the pair working in tandem as detectives solving dastardly crimes. She became successful, and it pleased her, but at the same time she always felt like she was taking advantage of him. Once she had enough for their needs, she tidied her plume away. Every month, a royalty cheque arrived that allowed for Simon to be comfortable in his mental discomfort.

            They could have gone anywhere in the world, but that little B&B outside Barnstaple meant a lot to them. Colin took them in his taxi from the train station. Now, Geraldine, in her seventies and despite feeling the left hip, still looked forward to this week. She was asked, if he is better there, why don’t you just move there? People had so many questions, nobody ever offered her answers. She knew that Simon would not become ‘normal’, she hated that word and it never appeared once in the four books she wrote, if he stayed in the town. It didn’t work like that, she knew that. She did not know how it worked, only how it didn’t.

            Simon’s pace had always been slow, in kinder times it would be described as steady, but it was slow. Now he was beginning to leave Geraldine behind him, occasionally remembering his hiking partner and waiting for her to catch up, which she did, at a forced pace, meaning that when she reached him, she was out of breath as he sped off again.

            That day, they walked together in tandem, taking in the view as they crossed the top of the cliff. There are moments that you don’t see coming. Their pleasant walk soon became a downward hurtle as the pair stepped on a hole in the path that saw them plummet into a dark, dank cave. Both hit the side and rolled to a stop at the bottom. There they lay in the dark, aching and frantically searching for her backpack. She found it and extracted the portable lamp she thought she would never use.

            She shined the light towards Simon and instinctively asked if he was alright. She knew well enough not to expect a response.

            “I’m a bit shaken but I’ll live. And you, mum?” Simon said.

            Geraldine could not speak for a moment. He had never called her mum. She wondered if she had banged her head.

            “Come over here, you’ll freeze to death!” Simon said.

            “Simon, this is.” Geraldine still failed to find the words.

            “It’s nice to be able to express things. I’ve been meaning to have a chat with you for, well, around forty-nine years. Obviously, you can’t count the baby years, unless you count them up to forty-nine. Will you not come over here? Get that blanket out of that rucksack. Good job you always think of everything!” Simon continued.

            “I can’t believe it. Is it a dream?” Geraldine managed to utter.

            “Well, it isn’t a nightmare.” Simon joked. “Every day I have practiced this speech in the hope that just once, I would get to say it. Looks like that day is here, mum. You know that thing I do, with my eyebrows? The thing that you have grown to hate?” He asked.

            Geraldine nodded.

            “That was my way of saying thank you and that I appreciate everything you do for me, and everything you have always done. The hardest thing for me was not being able to tell you. Seeing your face and you thinking that I was not grateful. I was, I am, I always will be. Whatever life I have had, you have given me it. Whatever life you have not had, I have taken it from you. That hurts me. I wanted you to think I would be fine on my own, even if it was not true, so that you could have some time for yourself.” He smiled and held out his hand so that she could take it.

            “I wouldn’t have gone.” She laughed.

            “I know.” He responded. “It is a pity though that it has come to this. That this place that has, in inverted commas, saved us, should be the place where we finally both bid our farewells.”

            “Why do you say that? Someone will find us. I mean obviously there is no way of communicating with the outside world from down here as there is no mobile signal, but they have the means. Someone will realise at the B&B, someone may have seen us. You can’t give up hope now.” Geraldine beseeched her son. Now she was turning to him for the answers.

            “I am not so sure, we have fallen quite far down, then rolled further out of view. Even if someone had seen us, how long would it take to get someone down here? Have you also thought that perhaps we did not survive the fall? That might make more sense than this? And anyway, it seems that the drought that has affected the area has ceased, the rain is coming, soon this chamber will flood. We have this time together though.” Simon continued.

            “I won’t let it be so!” Geraldine screamed. “I won’t let them bring you to me now, just for you to be taken away. It’s not right. Geraldine tried to stand but where they had ended up was indeed too low, and she gave herself another nasty bump on the head.

            When she came to, she was in Simon’s arms, he stroked her forehead and told her of his favourite moments that they had spent together. She gazed into his eyes as he recounted their lives together and for the first time, saw happiness in them.

            “And you remember the time that you threw me that birthday party when I was nine. And you invited the entire class. I didn’t even have any friends, I couldn’t. Yet you insisted and they turned up and for one brief moment, I stopped being me, when you played that song that I loved, what was it called again? For that short while, I sang along to the song while everyone looked at each other and confirmed their suspicions that I, you, well we, were all quite mad. And you laughed to yourself. Then someone turned off the music and I was returned to silence.” Simon said, singing ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ to her.

            The rain began to fall heavier but she felt no cold. Simon helped her to her feet, and they walked forward, the chamber now furnishing them with enough room as they looked at each other and smiled, the water slowly rising past their lips and covering their noses.

Waiting in Vain

This is my return to the plume and another competition winner.

Harry heard the alarm clock inform him that the morning was once again upon him. Recent downturns in his health had meant that he now set the thing for eleven minutes earlier than when the old days, as his aching hips and less than functional left knee meant that the idea of springing out of bed and into the shower was now committed to memory.

After eleven minutes and twenty-six seconds of huffing and puffing, he was in the bathroom and trying to force his similarly suffering bladder into life. It burnt as it exited his system and he looked up to find the frame that once housed a mirror that he recently removed as he had no desire to see the remains of his once-treasured good looks first thing in the morning.

Lost in thought, he forgot to get the temperature right before entering the shower. This meant his body jerked back violently in reaction to the scalding water, as he lunged forward to rectify the situation, he banged his bad hip on the very handle that was installed to make his life easier. With this, he gave it too much cold and was forced back again. Three minutes of fiddling were required to get the temperature to a level within human tolerance, then just as he felt the bubbles soothe his body and provide some relief to the aged frame, the doorbell went.

The chances of it being anyone important were slim. It may even be for someone else. It would more likely be that neighbour of his ordering stuff from Amazon that Harry would be forced to collect. Irrespective of his accumulated wisdom, he initiated the precarious process of descending to open the door. He slipped getting out of bath, he slipped opening the door, he still had soap in his eyes as he struggled on the first step and collided with the bannister again on the same hip. There had been a thirty-seven second gap between the last ring and now, which meant that he was probably going to reach the door when the caller had already left. Resolved for this not to be the case, he increased the pace on the last two steps and lunged for the door, the towel falling from his hips (could they not even be trusted to perform this simple task?) which meant that he was as the lord brought him to this life (in terms of attire, not shape) when he finally opened the door. The caller had gone, but a selection of mothers taking their children to the local primary school were treated to a glimpse of something that could never be unseen. Harry closed the door and laughed.

“Sixty-three.” He continued laughing to himself as he hobbled on his walking stick to the bus stop. Another process that required an extra twelve minutes compared to his prime. He was sixty-three years old. He remembered fearing forty-three and being surprised when he was in better shape than at twenty-three. In his twenties he had been the bassist in a punk band, and after his fortieth birthday he completed the London Marathon in under four hours on the back of three months’ training. He glanced at his E-Type Jag accumulating dust in the driveway, his medical certificate had been revoked and he was no longer allowed to drive. He hired a driver for a while but deemed that being driven around in that vehicle was akin to those porn videos where men watch their wives be deflowered by young studs, or a Big Mac meal, it might seem pleasurable beforehand, but inevitably you end up feeling soiled and detesting yourself.

This meant he was resigned to the bus. He could work from home but liked the idea of taking an office so it would force him into a routine. His business ran itself mainly, he was shrewd and enjoyed a brain that mocked his hip and other bones. At first there was no seat for him on the bus. He was at that tricky age, polite children, (remember them?) would give up their seats without question, but people in their thirties and forties doubted as to whether Harry would actually take offence at the suggestion he be infirm or something. Normally by the time they had made their minds up, it was their stop and someone else dived in without even noticing Harry.

Occasionally, someone would recognise him and joyously show him digital proof of devotion. He would say that that was a long time ago and wait for their expressions to change to disappointment as they realised he was just an old man who was in a band once. The headphones would go back in, and at best there would be a smile as the youth alighted the vehicle.

Harry continued to laugh to himself without realising that this was the best way of assuring nobody ever approached him again on public transport. “It’s not so bad.” He thought to himself again and smiled as he saw his favourite Green Park pass by.

“Or is it that bad?” A man said. Harry had not seen the man take the seat next to him.

“I beg your pardon?” Harry asked politely.

“Your situation. You mean you accept it because other people are worse than you? Or because you believe that it is the right thing to do?” The man asked.

“I’m afraid I do not have the foggiest notion of what you are talking about.” Harry was now thinking about getting off the bus three stops early.

“What if I told you I could send you back to when you were forty-three and you would remain like that forever? Would you like that? Eternal life, Harry? Health and wealth. You would never get ill and would always be at your wealthiest period in your life as a minimum. Guaranteed. Fancy it?” The man asked.

“Of course, who wouldn’t?” Harry said as he gestured he was getting off.

“Not your stop, Harry. Sit down for a moment.” The man barked. “Actually, I don’t care whether you fancy it or not. I would like to perform an experiment and have chosen you. Thus, in eighteen seconds from when I stop speaking your body will be reverted to its state when you did that marathon. You won’t need this.” He said, opening the window and throwing the walking stick out.

“What in the name of…” By the time Harry got to the preposition, he felt like he had not felt in years. It was a trick, he was sure.

“Let’s both get off at this stop. I’d like to see you jog round the park.” The man said.

Harry stood up with his usual caution and almost cracked his skull on the roof, such was the force with which his body moved. Harry did not know what to say but found himself following the man as he got off the number 326B.

Once in the park, Harry moved like he had not moved in years. The air entered his lungs, filling him with power, he could touch his toes, skip and leap like he never did when he could. Despite being in a three-piece Savile Row suit and A Testoni brogues, he managed to do a seven-minute kilometre. He wanted to go again, but the man stopped him.

“This is amazing.” Harry said. “What’s the catch?”

“As far as I can see there are none. Just look after your body. It has to last a long time.” The man said and was gone.

Harry took the day off and walked the four miles back home. He also had a place in the country, and so was looking forward to enjoying the rolling hills. His daughter lived in California and even first class was too painful for him on the plane, but before even checking with her, he booked a flight and made arrangements for the office to run without him.

He put on the same running attire that he had used for the Marathon, carefully stored away in the hope that one day it may be useful to someone and took great pleasure in meticulously lacing his shoes. He hobbled together a playlist specially for this moment and took to the streets, genuinely convinced that nobody was presently enjoying their body more than him.

He took the first kilometre steady but soon decided to push his new limits. Seeing on his phone that he was averaging four-twenty per K, he tried to push it down below four. As he got close, the 326B turned the corner and knocked him out cold.

[b]London Senior Hospital, two days later[/b]

Harry’s daughter rushed in a taxi from Heathrow. Her father was in a coma and could not even manage speech. The prognosis was not good. The chances of him walking again were almost nil, the same expectation was given regarding his capacity to think and speak. His daughter was informed of the situation and told the best thing would be to switch the machines off. She refused and left.

The man from the bus had been waiting in the corridor for a moment to be alone with Harry. “I told you to look after that body. You didn’t even last a day. Thing is, I cannot reverse the process and you’ll just have to wait this one out.”

Harry tried to say something, but his body prevented the action taking place.

“I know, Harry, I know.” The man said and left.

[b]London Senior Hospital, two years later[/b]

“Ok then. Here are the consent forms.” Harry’s daughter gave them permission to turn of the machines and said goodbye to her father.

[b]London Senior Hospital, three days later[/b]

.

Harry’s daughter was on her way to the funeral parlour when she received a call from the hospital. “Normally, it would take very little time for someone to pass once the machines are disconnected. But your father is still alive.”

Untitled

This story is dedicated to everyone who has selflessly given their time to make institutions like the NHS work and offer hope to people in their darkest hours. Soon it will be all too missed. The story doesn’t have a title so if anyone wants to think of one, that would be spiffing.

 

London 2032.

 

            Ed’s communicatorlobe gave off a high-pitched shrill to inform him that one of his three trusted contactors on his list urgently needed to speak to him. Wife, son and work. He only had those three. His son, Tim was just fourteen and only recently been fitted with his, he was touched that he had included him on his list so felt duty-bound to do the same.  This time it was work. He had only got in off the night shift three hours before and was hoping for a day in the sack before trusted contactors two and three returned home around five.

 

It had been a quiet shift. And yet those were the ones that caused him greater difficulty when he made it to his bed. As if doing nothing was more tiring than fighting fires. Not that Ed was about to complain. Long gone were the days of risk after risk, night after night. Now, the drones could be sent in to do most of the dangerous stuff. The downside of this was cutbacks, Ed was continually having to justify his own worth as to avoid the ongoing staff culls that were becoming an endemic in the industry. Sometimes, mechanical failures were almost greeted with cheers (as long as no harm came to anyone) as it proved that real firefighters were still needed.

 

He connected the device via his glasses and greeted the Station Master.

 

“Hey, Chief.” Ed managed to say, still half asleep. He was waiting for the request that would inevitably accompany this call. The Chief is not big on social calls.

 

“I hate to do this, Ed. But there has been a bomb in a primary school. Ward 13, did you hear the explosion?” The Chief asked.

 

“I was dead to the world.” Ed replied.

 

“Well sadly, so are a number of children. I’ve called everyone in. You know you don’t have to, but… Well.” The Chief pleaded.

 

“Chief! For the love of God, you think I am going to tell you I need my sleep when a bomb has gone off in a school. Locatialise me via the lobe and give me ten minutes. Will I need clearance?” Ed responded.

 

“You’re a good man, Ed.” The Chief said.

 

“I’m a father. Once you’re in that club the rules change.” Ed quipped.

 

“I know.” Replied the Chief. “I’m on my way, too. Mark is waiting at your door.”

 

“Sounds almost planned!” Ed made his last joke of the morning.

 

Ed put the uniform he had only just taken off back on went to the door via the kitchen. Grabbing a shift meal, he expelled the contents into his mouth. The equivalent of a three-course meal without any effort or pleasure. Sea bass with broccoli, chicken soup and pineapple for dessert. He activated his internal sleep debilitator and made his way outside. Mark beeped to attract Ed’s attention despite the fact that he knew he was there, and he was in a regulation fire service vehicle blocking the entire street.

 

“Have you heard?” Mark asked as Ed entered the vehicle. Careering off before he could even put his seat belt on.

 

“Bits.” Ed replied. “Terrorists?”

 

“You would not believe it. Former pupil. Captain of the cricket team. Home-made bomb on family sports day. What is going on with the world?” Mark answered.

 

“Casualties?” Ed asked.

 

“Unknown so far. Went off in a class full of seven-year olds though, they were getting changed with their parents for the sack race or something. Looks pretty bad. Main crew has arrived, all the back-up, including us should get there in about, well, now.” Ed smiled and brought the vehicle to a halt.

 

The area were the emergency services entered had been cordoned off, meaning that the streams of people fleeing the scene blocked by the hordes of idiots trying to a catch a glimpse of it were sent the other way. Their kits were laid out waiting for them as the Deputy called them over.

 

“Chief should be here in a bit. In the meantime, well, you know the drill. Unfortunately, we always thought it would only ever be a drill, but this is real. Too real. You’re gonna see things in there that might stay with you forever. Be strong. We’re all going in. No excuses and no ranks. Let’s get those kids out.” Deputy Andy said.

 

It was hard not to get caught up in the emotion of it all, but Ed knew this was a time for heroes with heads, foolhardy actions could cause more damage than good. Firstly, they needed to get the drones in to survey the situation.

 

The drones merely confirmed the gravity of the scenario before them. All the technology in the world was not going to be much use now. The drones relayed images of charred bodies on the floor. Heart-breaking scenes that caused more than one firefighter to rush in without the proper equipment. Seconds later, one of them returned, empty-handed and as a result of the lack of vision inside the building, after crashing into a wall that hitherto had threatened to collapse, and now went through with the threat. The falling wall was accompanied by screams. Screams that became silent as the intense heat stifled them.

 

Andy was somewhat direct in his appraisal of the unprofessional nature of the first reconnaissance mission and made it patently clear that everybody would follow his orders. Four seconds later, the actual Chief arrived and made it patently clear that everybody would follow his orders.

 

The drones were capable of locating movement and determining were the survivors could be found. Once they were located, it was down to the firefighters to extract them safely. Their suits could withstand the temperatures inside, but all knew that the clock was ticking as those inside, could not.

 

Ed followed the drone and received the information on the airscreen that it provided him with. The scene inside was not a pretty sight. The drone’s progress stopped by bumping into charred bodies that littered the floor. Ed knew that an application of dousefoam would have this under control in no time, but that had never been tested when there were potential casualties still inside. This would have to be an old-school rescue in a new-school that was supposedly fireproof. Ed had been in so many fireproof buildings that he wondered just who was in charge of the racket selling the stickers. The temperature in the room was well over 200ºc, the drone indicated two people moving to his right and was informed that their estimated survival duration would be less than one minute.

 

The drone found them and told him they were kids, youngsters caught up in the midst of something they could not comprehend and might prevent them from ageing a day more. Ed was the second, as far as he knew, to break protocol. He got to them in twenty seconds, giving him forty to extract them, maximum. Forty-five total would be better.

 

The kids were too scared to move and there was no time for explanations. Ed grabbed them in a manner that would lead to social services’ intervention under normal circumstances and dragged them the best he could towards the door way were dronestrechers were in position to remove them to intensive care. He had to shake one of them who was so panic-stricken that he could not move, just to assure himself that he was still alive. His eyes seemed to have left the building before he did, as if he had accepted his fate. On the second shake he stirred and lashed out unwillingly at Ed. With the same action, the boy disconnected the oxygen strap that was protecting Ed from the fumes.

 

“The dosage will be negligible.” He thought to himself as he made his way out, ensuring that the kids were on their way to care, he checked the drone one final time. Then he heard a sound. He was not protected, but he was much more protected then the child whose sounds were uttered. Half-holding his breath, he rushed in, sensing that his equipment was decomposing as he worked, desperately, perhaps even dangerously, he searched for the body that was making the noise. He found him, pulled on his cindered leg and shuddered as chunks of skin and bone came away in his hand. The screams loudened, he managed to get hold of an unburnt part and load the kid onto the drone crudely, there was no time for etiquette. His mask was now burning and would melt his skin. He had no choice but to remove it and make for the door the best he could.

 

Once outside, he was hosed down and taken into an ambulance. Removing the rest of his equipment, how many times? He tried to utter. How many times had he told them that the equipment was not up to the job. Our trading partner for fire products now was Bolivia. Hardly a nation at the forefront of cutting-edge technology. But since the changes in the trading regulation and the ban imposed by the EU on sales to the UK, we have had to look elsewhere for our suppliers. Gone is the state-of-the-art German equipment and we can’t afford the American or the Japanese equivalents. So, Bolivia it is, and the name of the firm is Quemachungo, which basically translates as something like shitty burns.

 

The kids were incapable of speech, gazing at the burning building with a mixture of fear and longing to return. Ed knew something was wrong. Ed knew the drones had missed something.

 

The girl managed to utter, at a reading that troubled the decibel meter, “Baby Gary”.

 

“Fucking second-rate machinery.” Ed screamed. “There is a baby still in there.”

 

“Leave it. It’s too dangerous.” Another said.

 

“Don’t ever refer to a baby as it in my presence.” Ed barked, and before anyone could respond, he was inside and unprotected. Without the drone’s assistance, he was unable to locate any lifeforms, but assumed that the baby would be close to the place where he had rescued the others. He began to feel light-headed but remained steadfast in his quest, until he saw a tiny hand jutting out. The creature was still alive, barely, as he rushed to the exit that used to be an entrance with him in his arms. As if his miniscule frame had adapted itself to survival in such harsh conditions, the relatively clean air of London seemed to trigger a reaction that caused liquid to seep from his mouth, liquid that soon became blood as baby Gary turned lifeless.

 

Ed looked at the two he had saved with a face that said he had failed them and fell to the floor, his body finally informing him that that was quite enough for one day.

 

Ed was taken to the nearest hospital that had activated the emergency protocol which meant that it could take patients irrespective of their insurance status for a period of seventy-two hours to perform services on ‘near-death cases’. Once their NDS (near-death-status) was below 50%, these patients would be sent to the billing department to view whether their stay could be extended, those with sufficient health insurance allowed to stay and complete their treatment, those without it, left to the acquiescence of what remains of the public health system.

 

The health system was just one of the aspects of British life that had taken a battering in the decade of the twenties. A decade most people hoped would soon be forgotten as the bright future they were sold nearly twenty years ago finally took shape. In the meantime, a series of draconian measures, initially put forward as necessary means to curb the tide of economic disaster, were put into place that in the long-term had the effect of curbing civil liberties, even more, and making people willingly surrender their remaining freedoms into the hands of the government through the agreement to terms and conditions hastily scrolled down to the bottom of in order to sign them and gain access to voting rights on the next singing sensation.

 

But it was not all bad news. Progress had been made in many spheres of life saw vast improvements that made life in the thirties much more comfortable. Great strides were made in the area of retro-active criminal proceedings on the breach of civil liberties in the past. The Department of Post Intentionality Denouncement made it possible for any work of fiction, piece of music or film to be tried in accordance with the standards of the day and sent for re-editing. This process meant that any mistreatment on the grounds of gender, sexuality, race or belief could be redressed and have the work updated to be more in line with the reality of modern Britain. Highlights of their work included the addition of a true ethnic picture of Paris and London into Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, the removal of any reference to homosexuality being a no-go area in the bible, and the inclusion of a representative number of toads in the ‘Frog Song’ by Paul McCartney.

 

Technology in this area had seen major investment, far more than any other item on the Government’s budget, which meant that leisure consumers were able to highlight violations deemed serious via Twitter and the Department would set to work on adapting it accordingly. The idea was that by 2040 nobody would be able to be offended ever again by anything in the Arts, but that was too good an idea to overlook and so all the rewrites and tweaks featured the new ‘third-level adverts’ which meant that a company was able to purchase a word and once the reader or listener came into contact with it, an image of the brand would be flashed into their consciousness. The more the companies invested, the common the word they could purchase. Coca-Cola owned the world ‘health’, McDonalds owned ‘walk’ and Apple, who refused to participate initially, were allotted ‘Android’ as a punishment. Google, the official cyber-partner of the Government, controlled every preposition in the English language and alternated their subliminal adverts in accordance with logarithms based on user habits.

 

At first, many people considered that the quality of entertainment suffered, but in the end the 2031 version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ featuring a black lawyer defending a white civil servant for cultural misappropriation of the standard blues time signature was eventually considered an improvement. Manuel was promoted to the post of hotel manager in the re-edition of Fawlty Towers, and the members of the 1966 England world cup winning side were ‘proportionally re-coloured’ to represent the current demographic of the nation.

 

Despite Europe being essentially taboo, a flourishing black market meant that those with enough financial power could enjoy their brie and Rioja still, while those who were forced to make their purchases at official ‘Britmarkets’, which only sold UK and Commonwealth products, made do with the consolation of doing their bit. Following the departure of the nation from the Union, the effects on agriculture were felt immediately, yield fell and with it quality standards. By 2028, the percentage of actual dairy product in milk, cheese or yoghurt had fallen by sixty-three percent. In real terms, skimmed milk in 2016 now seemed like gold-top in comparison.

 

Yet Europe and one of its success stories, IKEA, was responsible for Britain’s favourite gameshow. ‘IKEAWANG’ was a show in which contestants fought to put a product to the trade name of items for sale in the popular store, popular in the sense of technically contraband. Fierce battles took place as regular members of the public locked horns to compete for bookcases and dining sets that they could show off in their modest homes. If you wanted to win the star prize of a fully-furnished interior for a 42m2 flat, you really had to know your Färgrik from your Råskog unless you wanted to go home with just a Kallax.

 

Back on Ed’s ward, what he thought was the worst day of his life up to now, was about to get more than a trifle worse. The children that he had saved, and the one he failed to save, lost their parents in the tragedy. Under the terms of the Last Contact During Tragedy Act (2027), all three became the responsibility of Ed. This meant that he was responsible for organising (by that we mean paying for), first off, the funeral of baby Gary. Given the circumstances of his death, a full investigation and autopsy would need to be performed and these things do not come cheap. Ed was still in an induced coma, so it was his wife who was informed of this new state of affairs.

 

Any equity owned by the children’s parents may be liable for seizure should they be posthumously be deemed as having put their children at risk by entering a zone declared on the potential incident list. This list was far from exclusive and places as innocuous as primary schools regularly entered the list due to their location within the proximity of two kilometres of a known suspect. A known suspect did not actually have to have committed a crime, whistle-blowers were paid ten pounds for a positive denouncement,  with this figure rising as high as twenty for suspects of an Islamic background.

 

In all likelihood, the children’s parents would be found guilty of misadventure and their remaining family members would have to nominate a person to serve the sentence on their behalf or pay the corresponding fine. As the school was in a Band C income bracket catchment zone, the maximum salary that they could earn would mean it would take eleven years to pay off the most lenient scenario. Unless they had a surprise millionaire sister (not that a million pounds was a big deal any more), this tragedy would have a long-lasting effect on those left behind.

 

Ed’s wife, Kate, looked on anxiously as the situation was explained to her. They would have to take charge of the surviving children in the scenario that there was a posthumous misadventure ruling, as this would mean the next of kin would be deemed unfit to care for the infants. The government official simply told her that the best scenario would be to hope the other two died as well, as three funerals would be vastly cheaper. At first, it felt like the words had not registered in her head, then they did, and she smashed a stool over the official’s head. Another charge to add to the list.

 

Kate was arrested and had the right to updates to her husband’s status removed. The kids, Paul and Sarah, got better, as did Ed, this meant that all three would be discharged at the same time. Having to house two more people in their dwelling meant that they would also be liable for an overcrowding fine under the terms of the 2030 Urban Dwelling Act. When Kate’s mobile infostation was reactivated, her first notification was the bank signing on their behalf the credit for costs of disposal for baby Gary, the repayment terms being eight-hundred pounds per month.

 

And so, Ed returned home. His actual son, Tim, having to share with Paul, his new state-assigned brother, and Emily on the sofa in the meantime. The loan covering baby Gary meant the idea of finding anywhere bigger was wholly unfeasible, as was the possibility of extra income while Ed continued to recuperate. His pay in the meantime was reduced by twenty-five percent still they struggled to make ends meet.

 

The Chief came to visit him two days later to assure him that the fire service would give him its full backing and that he needn’t worry. The only possible downside could be a police investigation into any negligence on the part of the fire service in response to the incident. The Chief, once again, gave him his utmost assurances that this was not even a possibility and bade him farewell, despite having sent a list to the newly-founded government inquiry of members of his team whose actions could be considered questionable, if not negligent, and with Ed’s name being top of the list.

 

The children never recovered. Asthma was the least of their health problems, and the unclassifiable psychological scars preventing them from sleeping and relating with other children. The loan was doubled as costs soared. Both Ed and Kate went to see the Borough Infant Office but were told time and time again that the children were their responsibility and that if they abandoned them they would be sent to prison. The children’s maternal grandparents tried to take them, or at least help financially, but now Ed and Kate’s bank account was monitored and any unauthorised payment would be diverted to the government and added to the total owing on the loan. The grandfather devised a plan to escape to France with the children but was detained at the border. Anyone over sixty-five could now be myocardically deactivated and the cost of the old guy’s deadly heart attack was now added to the bill.

 

It had been a tough six months when Ed was deemed fit to return to work by the medical commission. He looked forward to having a normal life once again. There had been the rigmarole of his public service award, a medal for bravery and recommendation for promotion in a Band B district. But that was just noise. Upon his return, he was told that he would have to perform office duties pending the findings of the commission, and that this meant his pay would be reduced. For the first time, their combined income would be less than the repayments of the loan. It was hard to put on a brave face.

 

The kids were young, but not too young to see what was going on. Tim rebelled and Paul and Sarah knew their presence was the reason for all this misery. Paul, still not even eight, decided to escape on his own during the night and made it one hundred metres before a tram ran him over. Once again, Kate and Ed were told that they had been lucky as only Sarah remained.

 

Tim’s rebellion culminated in an obsession with fire. Ed had never had to practice his trade at home but was awoken by a tell-tale aroma during the night as Tim set fire to all of Sarah’s possessions. They were forced into temporary accommodation in Band E.

 

By the time they got into Band E housing, the inquiry had found Ed to be negligent and dismissed him from the fire service. Forcing him to return his medal and with the Wikipedia entry on the event updated to enhance his culpability and that of his colleagues.

 

Dismissal meant that he was not eligible for employment for a period of six months and would then only be able to opt for menial Band E employment. The only thing Tim ever said to Sarah was that he hoped she would die soon too, and Sarah never spoke again.

 

She chose not to speak at first, then this decision was vindicated as her continually frail health took a tumble. Now there was no option to extend the loan, which was facing foreclosure on the next defaulted payment. First she sneezed, then she coughed, then she shook. Within minutes she was in a coma from which she would never exit. The doctors claimed on the medical certificate that the coma had been caused by insufficient parenting, which meant Ed and Kate were liable for the outcome of the scenario.

 

“Let’s run.” Kate said to Ed. The year was 2034 yet the Band E hospital would have made Florence shudder. Sarah had irreparable lung damage as a result of the explosion, along with inadequate care in the meantime. The latter was also the basis for charges against the couple. “Let’s take Tim and make it to France.” Kate begged.

 

“We’ll never make it past the border controls.” He responded with a tone of resignation.

 

“I’d rather die trying than continue living here.” She told him.

 

They said their goodbyes to Sarah and drove into the night. They had no money to pay the clandestine groups operating to remove British citizens to places like Syria and Libya, where they could live in peace. They would have to appeal to the benevolence of one of the few resistance groups still in operation that took it upon themselves to rescue people from the curse of Britain.  The resistance had a panoply of scalps to its name, helping many liberals and intellectuals flee to continue their work in far-flung corners of the globe.

 

Following a series of fortunate circumstances that meant making contact was by far the easiest part of this story, they were taken to its headquarters just outside Dover from where it ran voyages across the Post Disattachment Straits.

 

There was not a dry eye in the house as the tale was told, Ed having to stop to cough little globules of blood into his last remaining handkerchief as his body continued not to allow him to forget that fateful afternoon. There was no doubt that they would be taken away from the United Kingdom, well, there was one doubt.

 

“Are you on the default list?” The Head of Operations asked Ed.

 

“What does that mean?” Ed responded.

 

“If you have suffered a foreclosure of a loan issued as part of a Last Contact During Tragedy Act event, then you will have been treated with a substance that potentially makes you allergic to salt water, a clever means of preventing people from escaping by sea. Once you come into contact with salt water, it is basically as if sulphuric acid had been thrown over you. Even minor doses in the air can be fatal and incredibly painful as it burns through your lungs and outwards. We have to get you back inland so we can arrange an airlift. Be patient, in France we can have the treatment reversed. The weather is on the turn, so we have to head back quick.” Came the explanation.

 

Kate and Ed looked at each other and tried to muster the energy to be disappointed once more. As they were taken outside for transportation (the good sort), the waves began to climb higher and higher. They were told to run for it. Ed took Tim in his arms and rushed towards the hill at the top of the road, but the wave was faster than them and knocked them off their feet.

 

The three of them lay on the ground as Ed lost his grip on Tim. The child turned around to look at his parents as he caught them writhing in agony. The Head of the Resistance asked Tim if he felt any pain and he said he didn’t. That meant Tim had not been treated. “Don’t look at them!” He was told as his parents screams were muffled by the acid eating away at their tongues and throats. Tim was shielded from the ghastly sight unfurling and taken towards the boat. “You will be looked after. There is nothing left for you here now. Don’t make their deaths worthless. Things will get better.” He was told. In the distance he could see them covering the smoking bodies of his parents as the rope was untied to set the boat to sail. All he could see was the black distance as he was informed he was sailing towards some semblance of freedom in Syria.

 

 

 

 

Non-Album single and B-Side: It’s coming

Soon, proofing done on the new book ‘The Ombudsman’s Ombudsman’ and once the cover is finished, come on Richard!, we will be ready to go live in digital and hard copy formats.

In the meantime, two things that didn’t make it onto the book, but like Charlotte Sometimes or We Can Work It Out (jaja delusions of grandeur!!), there is still a place for them here.

Neither should be taken overly seriously.

The lead track is A Life in the Day and it’s B-side is an alternative history Wikipedia entry of the life of a Mr A. Hitler.

 

    A Life in the Day

Alternative Universe Wikipedia I – Adolf Hitler

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