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. 


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. 


     “What exactly do you want from us, 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.”


     “You deserve?” 


     “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. 


     “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.” 


     “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.”


     “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. 


     “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?” 



     “You fucking bitch. I knew it.” 


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



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


     “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?”


     “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.” 


     “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.” 


     “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?”


     “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. 


     “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. 


     “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: 


     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


            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.”


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

Alternative Universe Wikipedia I – Adolf Hitler



Adolf Hitler (Brannau Am Inn, April 20th, 1889-June 8th, 1971) was an Austrian painter, soldier, author, humanitarian and founder of the United Nations and later the European Union. His literary works include “Unser Kampf” in which he detailed his plans for a united and prosperous Europe free from the tyranny of dictatorships, and “An Ideal for Living” in collaboration with Robert Schuman and seen by many as a blueprint for the European Economic Area following the end Second World War (1939 to 1941).

Early Life.

Hitler was born to a comfortable, landed class family and enjoyed a privileged childhood, attending boarding school in Linz. Towards the end of his schooling he showed in an interest in the military and painting, though his masters were often quite direct in their disparaging appraisal of his talents with regard to the latter.

At the age of eleven, he suffered a bizarre accident involving some farm machinery that led to both his hands being trapped in a press. For a while, the family was worried that he might even lose the right hand, but in the end the doctors acted quickly and repaired most of the damage, though leaving his movements hindered. Historians would later suggest that this incident was what severely limited his progress as an artist.

Undeterred, at the age of seventeen, he relocated to Vienna where he would study Fine Arts. After a difficult start to his tenure, he soon became more adept at the simpler painting techniques whilst not showing anything that could be clearly described as a talent, he enjoyed his painting and was a popular figure in the city.

With resources posing an issue and his family unwilling to support him unless he joined the army, Hitler turned to his classmates, and particularly a group of Jewish painters with whom he aimed to exhibit his work in order to raise funds. Hitler’s persuasiveness made up for his lack of talent and a deal was soon reached whereby proceeds from the exhibitions would be split. Hitler used his skills to find new places for their works to be shown, and the Jews opened their doors to him so that he would be left in the ignominy of the poorhouses.

Hope Communes and Mayorship of Vienna.

At this time Hitler wrote back to his parents claiming that he had found a new family in Vienna, and if they were not prepared to support him, he would manage full well on his own. With the exhibitions going so well, Hitler and the Jews were able to use the excess for other disadvantaged groups in society, thus opening his first ‘Hope Commune’.

These were institutions founded with the aim of providing shelter and nutrition for the city’s most destitute, following Hitler’s rationale that ‘that could have been me’ after he hit rock-bottom on the streets of the capital and never forgot how the Jews, rather than turning their back on him as his father had said they would, made him a space in their homes and put food in his belly.

At the age of 22, he was made Mayor of Vienna for his services to the city. These were precarious times, with war around the corner, the Viennese Council decided that some fresh blood was required to drag the institution into the twentieth century, noting that ‘that Hitler chap certainly has some interesting ideas’.

His work was indeed halted by the outbreak of WWI, yet he was found a new role acting as a diplomat between the warring factions after he was stationed in Geneva to form an organisation to try to broker peace. Hitler travelled to fronts to observe soldiers’ conditions and even made a journey to Russia to meet with Bolshevik leaders to discuss their plans for the country in the post-war period.

The Treaty of Freiburg.

When the end of the war came in 1918, Hitler was appointed by the Swiss Government to chair peace negotiations despite him being around half the age of anyone else at the table. That said, his skilful oratory and heart wrenching expositions of life at the front and the cruelty of war, had the effect of invoking a change of heart in Wilson and Clemenceau, the latter particularly keen at the outset to make the Germans pay, and even sway Lloyd-George away from the idea of the hefty reparations.

With little progress being made in the French capital, the signatories decided to move the negotiations away from Versailles and to Freiburg, hoping that the treaty would mark a new beginning for Germany.

The Treaty of Freiburg was the catalyst for Hitler’s political career that would see him change the League of Nations into the United Nations just before the Wall Street Crash in 1929. The recovery of the German economy and the distribution of its agricultural and industrial wealth to rebuild Europe, also meant that the American economy could be bolstered by the Deutschmark and thus a catastrophic recession was avoided.

Inter-War Period.

The hitherto unexpected period of peace enjoyed in the thirties led to an almost multilateral demilitarisation of Europe, even Britain was prepared to relinquish its naval power to use the fleet for more peaceful purposes.

That said, there were elements that still threatened the idea of continued peace on the old continent. The Americans still had an innate mistrust of the Russians, and especially the doctrine of Communism. As part of his work expanding the League of Nations (later the United Nations), all member countries were required to openly outline their policies and take on board suggestions from other members to improve these.

This policy meant that rather than meddling in other countries’ affairs, member states were encouraged to identify and solve in tandem issues affecting their nations in order to put together a trial and error-based solution package for the future.

In Southern Europe, the sceptre of fascism was also proving to be a hindrance to the progress of Hitler’s United Europe. Revolutionary movements in Spain and Italy were detracting from the good work being undertaken in the north. Hitler sent the Condor Legion of Negotiators to sit with Republicans and Franquistas with a view to preventing the escalation of the conflict. Despite the efforts by Hitler and his team being in vain, the level of suffering was drastically reduced as the new United Nations Über Police were given mandate to act in Madrid and Barcelona.

World War II (September 1939-February 1941) .

In Italy, fascist rumblings took an even greater force when Benito Mussolini suggested an alliance with Italy to attack the now demilitarised France and Germany, with the aim of forming a fascist empire with its capital in Paris.

Despite both nations possessing armies vastly inferior to those with which they fought in 1914, the demilitarisation of Western Europe as a result of the period of peace meant the attack went without response. People assumed that the desire to repeat a worldwide conflict had wholly diminished after the lessons learnt from Freiburg, yet the fascists’ attack caught many by surprise and it took almost six months before the Allied Powers of Germany, Britain and Russia were able to train enough soldiers to oust the invaders. The Spanish retreated to the area around the Pyrenees where they continued to hold territories in mountainous areas, yet their captors’ commitment was far from steadfast, and when Franco was removed from power in Spain in 1942 to be replaced by the Nueva Democracia, most returned keen to leave their fascist past behind. The Italians were ordered to take Moscow as reprisal but most of its soldiers never made it past Warsaw as Winter of 1940 began to kick in.

Hitler saw this debacle as a failure in vowed to prevent anything similar happening again. His publication in 1944 of ‘An Ideal for Living’ set out the vision of the future Europe, a region that would lead the world, not with the iron fist, but with the helping hand. The peace treaty following WWII was signed in Manchester and guaranteed autonomy and freedom of movement within the continent.

Formation of the European Union (main article Hitler and the EU).

Hitler’s idea to join forces with Schumann took on extra importance as tensions escalated between the United States and Japan in 1947 with the latter threatening to use its new nuclear weapons on the cities of Osaka and Kyoto.

The European nations formed an alliance, led by Hitler, to conduct the negotiations that managed to achieve a peaceful outcome to the situation, and was finalised with the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1950 through which the production of atomic weapons was outlawed, and those already manufactured were to be dismantled and their power be harnessed to produce clean and free energy.

Once again championed as a bastion of peace, Hitler began work on a central European parliament that would create a powerful trading block, though not focused on world dominance, moreover as a means of providing the possibility to aid ailing states and nations both inside and outside of Europe.

Productivity and efficiency increased notably in all areas, meaning that there was a surplus in terms of agricultural and industrial output. This had the effect of eliminating famine from the poorer regions, whilst European scientist worked on the means of stabilising farming conditions to prevent future catastrophes.


As Hitler reached retirement age, he began to delegate powers to his successors and concentrated on more of the cultural aspects of the European Union, particularly his fostering of the Eurovision Song Contest for which he penned the winning entry “Waterloo”.

His health began to decline towards the end of the decade and had to be taken to hospital when part of the team of EU delegates singing the backing vocals on the Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’. By 1969, he was confined to a wheelchair, yet still attended the sessions of the European parliament on a weekly basis. He died in his sleep following a minor stroke that left him with speech problems.

Artistic Output.

Despite his failings as an artist, two painting movements are credited to Hitler, the Crooked Bridge Reprisal and the Angered Smile, the latter being celebrated by artists incapable of drawing human features properly and allowing for a kind of artistic free-for-all.

He also became very interested in music in his later years, both as a patron of upcoming artists (he gave Kraftwerk a residency at the Reichstag Lounge and produced Can’s debut), as well as contributing one song per year to the Eurovision Song Contest.

His two main literary works continue to outsell the Bible to this day, and in most Muslim countries, the Quran has been updated to include elements of ‘An Ideal for Living’.

Personal Life.

Hitler married his childhood sweetheart Eva Weiss shortly after the First World War, they would remain together until her death in 1958 and would have nine children together.

In the 1930’s, a plot to remove Hitler was unearthed as detractors planned to have him fall in love with a Bavarian beauty, Eva Braun, who would eventually lead him into a joint suicide pact. Braun’s plan was scuppered by Hitler, who was able to see through it and rely on the fortitude of his convictions to survive his most difficult period in power.

Hitler said that “I never held power, I had been entrusted with guiding the will of the people away from the dark ages. My dream is to build a union that will last one-thousand years.” During his entire term in office, there was a policy of full openness that allowed any voter to access any aspect of European policy.

In his later years, he divided his time between his grandchildren, all 37 of them, and offering assistance to the EU, though claiming that his time was over, and that the moment had arrived for the younger generation to take Europe, and the world forward. He is interred at the Evere Cemetery in Brussels, alongside his wife and other notable figures of the twentieth century.

His son  Wolfgang (1931-) was captain of Rapid Vienna (1951-1954) and Bayern Munich from 1955 until his retirement. His daughter  Dora (1924-1990) was a renowned painter and sculptor who frequently exhibited in MOMA and other prestigious galleries. His youngest daughter,  Amalie won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1963, in-between Jean-Paul Sartre and John Steinbeck.

Another one of his daughters,  Anna, was a prolific scientist in the European Union and part of the time that worked on the cure for cancer developed finally in 1973.  (Read more) .




    A Life in the Day


The liquid felt smooth and not unpleasant on my tongue. Not wishing to do anything untoward, I smiled and settled into position. My eyes heavy, the warm sun lapped against my cheek inviting me to drift.

Is there a line where reality and the vagary of dreams cross? I awoke to find myself on the lawn of the house. Such comfort in simplicity. I was not aware of how long I had been asleep, but the transportation process had been a success.

A spring morning, can’t be more than eleven. That half-hazy feeling of a long-due lie-in mixed with almost a sensation of guilt at having allowed myself to forego the majesty of the morning. The smell of freshly ground coffee pervaded the air, intermingled with the sharp contrast of the burning toast coming from the kitchen.

Dropping my newspaper, I rushed into the kitchen to extract the bread before it was too late, scraping off the charred bits with a knife. My first instinct is to do this into the sink, then I panic as I realise if my wife catches me, this crime will be far more heinous than burning the toast. Hearing her footsteps come down the stairs, I hurriedly try to complete the task and guarantee my freedom. Washing down any rogue ashes with the jet, I survey the area and deem it to be clear.

Returning back to the toaster area, I pretend none of the above took place and finish preparing breakfast. Heating the milk just enough to create a delicious froth for the coffee, my daughter came in and insisted I make her cereals now. Make? She is seven but still demands that her input in this venture be limited to sitting at the table and eating them. I don’t mind, I really should take some time off work and spend more of it with her, before I know it, she will be a teenager who has next to no interest in spending any time with her decrepit, old parents.

As I tend to the flakes, the milk begins to boil over the pan’s side, just in time for my wife to turn it off and save the day, whilst also dispatching a cursory glance over to the sink and spotting the single ash not collected. Entering into CSI mode, she simply says “What have we discussed about scraping burnt toast into the sink?”

How do I answer that? She is right. Again. I simply tell her that it will not happen again, whilst making a mental note to be more thorough next time.

We take our wares out into the garden, moving the table slightly as the rare need for shade causes the morning to become even more special. Those first enchanting mornings once the misery of winter has subsided make the endurance of these bleak months worthwhile as we bask in the reward of the simplicity of the scene. The homemade marmalade seems even sweeter this morning as we glance over the Cotswolds, at our vision of what will always be England, the England so few Englanders will probably ever get to see.

A morning like this really starts the blood racing. Of course, I know there are equally idyllic scenes in thousands of places, but after all that has happened, it is nice to have a little bit of you tucked away down in a valley.

I suggested a stroll before lunch. We could even make a day of it and ramble down to the lovely pub on the other side of the valley. If the carvery proved too much of a temptation when washed down with a local highlight, we could always take a taxi back. My girl is used to treks despite being young, four miles won’t see her off.

We choose to allow her to take her bike, this means the walk back is pretty much cancelled, but ambling through the forest I revel as she reels off the names of plants and fungi. There is truly nothing nicer than the water gleaming as it trickles down the brook towards the town. Well, maybe there is but at this moment, it’ll do for me.

My daughter cycles behind obediently and without straying from the path marked out by so many feet trampling it down over the years. We made good time to the pub and placed our orders just seconds before the weather took a turn for the worse and ensconced us inside for the time being.

As I saw my platter being brought over to me from the other side of the bar with the Yorkshire puddings almost dropping off the sides, my mouth watered as I caught a glance of the beef, lifting the well-earned pint to my mouth as the flavoursome liquid trickled down my gullet. “We are truly blessed.” I said aloud for some unbeknown reason shifted my gaze to the gardens, now in full bloom, offering their wares to eyes of the passers-by while I returned to….

“We haven’t given him enough.” I heard a voice say in Arabic.

As I looked up the sword dropped down and plucked me once again from my dream. A long way from England. The say that your head, or is it your body? Can remain alive for as long as thirty seconds post decapitation. I have been removed from mine now for seventeen seconds, so I guess that all is left is to try and count to thirty.



The Hooton 3-car

We did say, I say we but I mean I, that we weren’t going to publish anything from the new book between then and now but this has done quite well in a recent competition and can be considered a bit of a must for any Wirral resident.

Apologies to Kevin Maher for stealing the name of his old band.


The Hooton Three Car


 Bache Station, Chester. 2012


Ricky helped his grandfather up the stairs and they took a seat for him to get his breath back. He didn’t mind giving up his Saturday to take his grandpa to the funeral of his best pal, Walter. No-one else seemed keen to make the effort, and he was clearly too distraught to make the journey on his own. Ricky had never seen him affected by anything before. In real terms this may have been because Ricky still had not had time too. Eighty years separated them, his grandad, recently ninety, had always been impeccably dressed in a shirt and tie at the very least and never seemed flustered by the tussles of everyday life. Today he looked different, and Ricky hoped to be there for him.


“Train’s coming, Grandad. Shall I help you up?” Ricky asked.


“You’re a good lad, Ricky, but I didn’t need help getting out the trenches, so I’ll get on the train myself.” He replied, ruffling Ricky’s hair as reward.


The direct train to Liverpool Central would take them to the church where Walter’s funeral would be held with a brief change at Hamilton Square to take them to Birkenhead Park.


“Just one change. Some things in modern life are getting better. Not so long ago, the electric line only went as far as Hooton. Then it was a diesel bone-shaker to Chester. Always roasting, lovely in winter, insufferable in the summer. Grandma would always say, “Hooton 3-car”. The old man said with a gleam of nostalgia in his eye.


The announcer’s voice came through the intercom system. “Welcome to this 1052 service to Liverpool Central, calling at Capenhurst…”


 Capenhurst 1940


“You’re meant to run with the bayonet up, you bloody fool.” Walter told his best pal Archie. Both were completing their hurried basic training before joining the Cheshire Regiment. They had enjoyed the spirit of the camp and were genuinely pleased to get the three square meals and a roof over their heads into the bargain. Some of the company was suspect, but in general, the first year of WWII had not been so bad.


Archie missed Beryl, and Walter missed Audrey, but everyone missed someone. As the summer ended, the regiment formed and set off for the final training in Aldershot, before heading off to France. It seemed like quite an adventure at the time, it did for everybody, but that would not last.


ANNOUNCER: calling at Capenhurst, Hooton…



 Hooton, 1944


Beryl opened the letter with the trepidation that she always felt before one of Archie’s correspondence. Nearly four years at war was changing his prose, and though she knew the things he wrote about barely scratched the surface. She wondered if this war would ever end, if Archie would come back, and would she recognise him. She read:


“how can a place of this beauty be the theatre of so much hatred. I no longer know who is the enemy, we believe we are right, but so do they. Life has taken on a cheaper meaning than ever, before they took prisoners, now they kill as they have nowhere to take us. We walk among ghosts. I begin to fear my love for you alone will not be enough to see me through this….”


ANNOUNCER: calling at Capenhurst, Hooton, Eastham Rake…


 Eastham 1946


“It’ll have to do. We can’t afford anything else. You should be grateful to my parents for letting us have this.” Beryl bellowed at Archie.


He knew she was right. Nearly a year he had been back, but the nightmares still raged, and the unemployment queues got longer. He knew her parents did not want them there, but until he could find a job… They nervously made love in the evenings, dreaming of making up for lost time but more often fearful of the image of the Virgin Mary that guarded over the bed, and the saintly mother-in-law in the next room.


The next day there was a letter for Archie. He had finally been taken on in the refinery.


ANNOUNCER: calling at Capenhurst, Hooton, Bromborough…


 Bromborough 1951


They were never going to send an ambulance. Walter brought his car round and they huddled Beryl in. This was heading towards her fourth miscarriage and the doctors warned her that future conceptions could be harmful to her health.


She had almost gone full term this time. Eight months and a day, but when she felt the pain she had felt three times before, she knew the ending would be the same. This time, the child was born alive. She held his skin against hers and watched him fight for breath. But there was little fight, and little hope. An hour later, they were cleaning Beryl so that she could exit the room.


ANNOUNCER: calling at Capenhurst, Hooton, Bromborough, Bromborough Rake…


 Bromborough Rake 1958


“If it will get us a family, it’s money well spent.” Archie told Beryl as they waited to see the private specialist. She was practically dead inside. She had been told his directly by NHS staff, and nicely by the private doctor. The result was the same. She would never have children and could most likely die in the birthing process if she got there again. They walked back to their modest terraced house, Archie taking her hand as she looked longingly at every pram they passed.



ANNOUNCER: calling at Capenhurst, Hooton, Bromborough, Bromborough Rake, Spital…



 Spital 1970


One too many glasses of cider at the Three Stags, and a walk through Brotherton Park and the pair were like a couple of besotted teenagers. Life had not been overly unkind. Archie had had a good career at the refinery and moved to a larger one with a position of more responsibility.  They soon forgot about the possibility of being seen as they made love upright against a tree, Archie lost in the throes of passion. Once they accepted that the act would be for pleasure rather than business, pleasure was duly taken from it. They finished up and dusted themselves down, rather foolishly checking the coast was clear after the event, and made their way back to the road.


ANNOUNCER: calling at Capenhurst, Hooton, Bromborough, Bromborough Rake, Spital, Port Sunlight…


 Port Sunlight 1971


It would have been a cruel joke. At this stage. That day in the park did bear fruit. And Beryl, despite being forty-seven enjoyed a relatively incident-free pregnancy. Archie was given another promotion that saw him take on one of the delightful houses in Port Sunlight village that they had always dreamed of.


One night, Beryl felt a twinge and the puddle on the floor informed them it was time to go to the hospital. There was no fear as she pushed, so much did she desire this moment that the pain was almost part of the hamper. And push she did, and out came a boy. Yet there was more pushing to be done. And a girl appeared. They laughed and took two healthy children home two days later.


ANNOUNCER: calling at Capenhurst, Hooton, Bromborough, Bromborough Rake, Spital, Port Sunlight, Bebington…


 Bebington 1988


Of course, there were times when the screaming, shouting and hating took centre stage, this was family life. But the day the twins finished their “A” Levels and got places at the universities they wanted was a moment that both would treasure for the rest of their lives.


The daughter, Susan, wasted no time in celebrating with her friends. A quick livener in The Wellington, before taking the train to Liverpool. As she exited the pub, full of joy and wonderment at the life before her, she never had a moment to see the drunk-driver careering down Bebington Road onto the pavement.



ANNOUNCER: calling at Capenhurst, Hooton, Bromborough, Bromborough Rake, Spital, Port Sunlight, Bebington, Rock Ferry…


 Rock Ferry 1992  


Susan’s loss would eventually consume Beryl. Of course, there was still Mike, but their relationship was the same. Until. Until Ricky appeared and made her a grandmother. That first year caring for the baby restored Beryl’s frail health, gave her a purpose and verve for the last months of her life. With Ricky in her arms, in her favourite armchair, she kissed the infant’s forehead and said “pass that on to Grandad for me.” and left.


ANNOUNCER: calling at Capenhurst, Hooton, Bromborough, Bromborough Rake, Spital, Port Sunlight, Bebington, Rock Ferry, Green Lane…


 Green Lane 2012


“I’ll tell you one thing, Walter. I never let my bayonet down.” Archie joked.


Walter tried to force a smile, as once again the hospice staff told him not to exert himself. “They brought me here to die and then tell me to take it easy. What’s the worst that can happen?” Walter said. Both laughed and cried at the same time as they hurriedly recapped a friendship lasting eight decades.


ANNOUNCER: calling at Capenhurst, Hooton, Bromborough, Bromborough Rake, Spital, Port Sunlight, Bebington, Rock Ferry, Green Lane, Birkenhead Central…


“It’s our stop next, Grandad.” Ricky said, gently awakening his travelling companion. “Looks like quite a dream you were having there! Hamilton Square next, then we change. Let me put your tie straight.”


“You’re a good lad, Ricky. Grandad’s proud of you.” Archie smiled at the boy who immediately looked away bashfully.


With that the train entered the tunnel and Archie decided that for however long he was to remain here, he would not fear the darkness.


“Goodnight Susan. Goodnight Beryl. Goodnight Archie.”


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