Swim Until You Can See Land

Before diving into this one head first, some background.

The story was inspired by the plight of three Spanish firefighters from Seville accused of being involved in a human trafficking racket when they were on humanitarian missions in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Lesbos.

Here is an article on them with links to other parts of their story:

El País article in English

I researched the story a bit and then decided not to stick to the script too much. I preferred the angle of media manipulation and conspiracy with the chance to twist things around and bring down the evil multinational corporation.

The title was a bit of a pun / play on words (not a very good one) at the desperate attempts of the immigrants to find land and the song by Frightened Rabbit as the day I began writing the story, singer Scott was found.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story as I am quite pleased with it as it has Netflix mini-series stamped all over it.

 

Swim until you can see land

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

MUSHUMBI GREEK OFFICE, Athens.

 

Conference Call with HO in Chicago.

 

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

 

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

 

“It’ll never work.” One said.

 

“Why ever not?” Remarked another.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Ready.” Came the response in unison.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Who, who are you?” Marta queried.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“What are we doing here?” Marta asked.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Kontoglou Detention Centre, Lesbos, Greece.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Any developments?” Jairo asked.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

******

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“What’s the matter?” Marta asked.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Behind the painting.” She said.

 

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

 

“What about the accounts?” Marta asked.

 

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

Triana, Seville.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

Solitary Wing, Kontoglou Detention Centre, Lesbos, Greece.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Turn the stopcock.” Marta ordered.

 

“The what?” Jairo responded.

 

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

 

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

 

“Shut up and turn it!” Marta barked.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

*****

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

 

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

 

“You’re enjoying this!” Marta smiled.

 

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

 

“None taken.” Marta replied.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“You look like shit.” Emily said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

****

 

Conference Suite, MUSHUMBI GREEK OFFICE, Athens.

 

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

 

Fernandez pours himself a glass of water and addresses Emily.

FERNANDEZ

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

EMILY

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

THISTLE

“You deserve?”

EMILY

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

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

EMILY

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

FERNANDEZ

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

THISTLE

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

Thistle gets up to leave.

EMILY

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

 

SCENE CHANGES TO THE ROOM WHERE MARTA IS LISTENING

MARTA

“You fucking bitch. I knew it.”

 

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

 

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

 

SCENE CHANGES BACK TO THE CONFERENCE ROOM

 

FERNANDEZ

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

THISTLE

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

EMILY

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

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

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

FERNANDEZ

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

THISTLE

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

EMILY

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

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

FERNANDEZ

“No, don’t do it!”

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

FERNANDEZ

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Mi niña!!!” Marta said before bawling.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

¡Levántate, tontito! [9]Emily said.

 

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

 

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

LATER

 

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

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GFE

“She’s in here, Miklowski.” Officer Reynolds informed his superior.

 

Twenty-five years on the force had meant Miklowski had seen it all, twice, some of it three times, but this spate of suicides was beginning to unnerve him. For the first time in his law enforcement career, he was overcome by a sensation that this would be the case he wouldn’t crack.

 

“Same MO, Reynolds?”

 

“Same, Chief.”

 

The apartment looked like a fan site dedicated to the GFE (Greatified Future Existence) Movement. They still did not know who was behind it, but the ethos was all about dumping your useless itinerant frame with which you wandered aimlessly in this life, so that you have a better chance in the next one. A rudimentary website, minimal expense at anything resembling advertising and the look of pure nineties router-based web browsing had not stopped GFE becoming a very real modern-day phenomenon.

 

The first victims had a profile that suggested they could be easily opened up to manipulation when the right buttons were pressed, but now, as the number of victims approached one-thousand, Miklowski and his team struggled to comprehend what was driving successful and popular people to end their lives in ghastly fashion to follow a fad.

 

The cops’ first instinct was to infiltrate, find out more about the GFE manifesto, and put it to the test. Oh! that was a mistake. Despite FBI training in psychology, both undercover agents willingly took their own lives in a matter of days. Now, high profile devotees were causing the police to fear that fans would ape the victims’ actions. We have lost a rapper, football star and NASA astronaut. Copycat suicides would classify this situation as an epidemic, and Miklowski did not like those on his watch. He took a soda from the victim’s fridge and watched the obligatory video.

 

Before taking their lives, GFE devotees record a video extolling the virtues of the programme and giving thanks to its creator, Shuma Nachikummo, for showing them the light. Nachikummo claimed that unhappy Earth residents were filled with bad blood that prevented them from living life to the full. This blood meant that they were receptive to the call, if you heard the call, you blood would be your downfall. According to the latter, the only way of cleansing the body, which could be used in the next life, was by exiting this one with as little of this blood in your body as possibly. Another condition was that nobody could help you with the evacuation. You had to take full responsibility for the removal of as much of your blood as you can remove.

 

Miklowski had seen too many of these videos to react, or so he thought. This one was different, longer, there were two victims, a prominent politician and her eight-year-old daughter. The video showed how the child slashed her wrists, downwards as stated in the manual, as her mother proudly egged her on off shot. “Mommy is so proud of you.” She said the life ebbed out of her offspring. With the daughter dead, the mother set about the task of ridding herself of her errant corpuscles. She had devised a series of clamps that entered her jugular and femoral veins that caused the liquid to gush out. With the rest of her energy she moved to her lifeless daughter so that she could benefit from the mother’s extra blood loss to compensate for her somewhat poor effort.

 

The police department had created equipment that was capable of estimating what percentage of blood had been expelled from the victim’s body, and in this case, it was 72%. That was the highest score yet, and meant that the next victims would try to surpass it. He wondered how people could be so stupid to fall for this ruse. What made people so desperate to throw themselves into a meaningless craze that would end their lives. What sort of weak willed people listened to such a call? In this day and age? He gestured over to another officer to bring him a coffee and walked out onto the balcony.

 

He sipped his coffee and looked out over Los Angeles. Below he saw a bearded figure dressed in black. He’d never seen the man before in the flesh but knew it was Nachikummo. With the aid of two lackies, he moved a contraption beneath the first-floor apartment and smiled up to Miklowski. As quickly as he appeared, he was gone.

 

Miklowski heard a whirring sound in his ear and cursed the Californian summer. As he looked down again there was a mosquito on his left forearm. He felt it bite into his skin and draw blood. For a moment, he thought no more of it and reached for his phone to call home. His screensaver had changed, it was a crude, almost child-like interpretation of an alien spacecraft. He had seen the image before, but now understood it. The blood from the mosquito bite trickled down his arm. Suddenly, the initial mosquito was joined by around ten more, all taking sizeable chunks out of Miklowski’s arm.

 

Now when he saw his blood, he realised it was bad. Worse than bad. The contraption below was little more than ten feet beneath him, the fall would not kill him, but he knew that landing on the spikes would allow him to release his blood and liberate his soul. On the screensaver, he was now crouched next to the alien figure as he commenced enjoyment of his next life. He allowed himself to fall onto the spikes wondering if he could manage 73%.

Blood Alignment Negativity Theory Z

 

Research into Blood Alignment Negativity Theory became popular in the late 1980s though remained a secretive and lucrative side line of the major scientific companies. It was one of a series of research lines that gained in prominence as politicians turned to science to come up with a solution to, or at least an explanation for, the reasons for the failure of Western economies and the unacceptable levels of persons deemed below the quality threshold desired for the proper upkeep of society.

 

Science as a diagnostic tool was considered vastly superior to the extolment of extremist views against one section of society to demonstrate their culpability for the planet’s woes. Those entrusted with the role of reaching this conclusion were not likely to take into account variables such as the fabled 1% of the population in whose hands most of the planet’s wealth was held or other factors that would lead to a significant change in the former’s set-up, which was thought to be perfectly effective yet ruined by a combination of over-population and ill-constructed DNA profiles.

 

The suggestion was made in a 1992 conference in The Hague that there was indeed a surplus, of around 10% of the world’s population, but also that said surplus had a negative effect of holding back the two main groups identified for success; potential performers and intentional conformers. This meant a human imbalance of around one quarter. Thus the elimination of this group would lead to a more than proportional increase in terms of yield and profit for the planet as a whole.

 

Research into a means of profiling these individuals to devise a plan for their control continued throughout the nineties and into this century. Elimination was not a watchword that those in command positions allowed to be uttered but it was clear that any surplus would require a cull, however abhorrent this may appear on the surface. Once the culprits were identified, public opinion would be moved in such a way to defend what was seen as rightfully owned by the other 75 to 85%, allowing for a modicum of fervour and underlying hatred to set the wheels of change in motion.

 

In the meantime, the media tried its hardest to decry other groups as the perpetrators of the world’s ills. None were convincingly proven as being anywhere scientifically liable for anything on a grand scale, but there was growing evidence that the surplus population was not only having a negative effect on business and economic growth, but also causing a latent decline in the output of otherwise hardworking people, who, under the auspices of the decent and productive top 75%, would be able to pull themselves from the mire.

 

The government had special interest in isolating any sort of gene or mutation that would allow for a programme involving the sterilisation, and / or, extermination of this dangerous group, yet they knew that they could not act without scientific proof. With the millennium drawing to a close, pressure was exerted on all those involved in the secret research to give the Prime Minister the boost he needed to enter the twenty-first century with renewed optimism.

 

The first breakthrough was to isolate a DNA trait that was directly linked to laziness. At first, through the studies into this scientific field, progress was slow as scientists were determined that the problem could be solved through the analysis of our genetic make-up, overlooking one major aspect that was common to nearly ten percent of the world’s population. The idea that it was something gene-based rather than race-based was both a revelation and a relief. The idea of taking on an ethnic group would pose endless issues, especially with the burgeoning emergence of social media in the second part of the first decade.

 

DNA strand 326B was found to be present and could be linked to low performance in persons from all walks of life, yet its detection was slow and cumbersome. Plus, it was not conclusive as there were also carriers of the strand who had outperformed other non-strand carriers in a range of indicators. Further to this was the fact that variations of the strand could be confused as pure strand and lead to the exclusion of nearly 30% of the population. Thus, it was deemed, that one could be lazy and productive, or one’s laziness might not necessarily hinder their ability to be productive at another time. No, the isolation process needed to determine exactly which person carried the strain of 326B that caused all of society’s problems.

 

Visionaries often appear at the most unlikely times and it was a team of researchers in a lab off the West Coast of Scotland who began to abandon the idea of the DNA route and work on the isolation of blood itself. The idea that a certain race had a greater propensity to failure held no truck with any viable government plan to create a level of stability for the planet as a whole. Governments worked together, all colours and creeds accepting the idea that a surplus in this issue was a bad thing, and, as the scientists were beginning to prove, every nation had its own group of culpable surplus, this meant that there could be no calls for victimisation of any group. If it was just a clean cull of between 10 and 15% from all walks of life and colours, then the common good would triumph. Dissenting voices would be quashed or simply silenced as the excess could be enjoyed, a song and a dance and a bit of a fuss might occur at the beginning, but after that, people’s natural greed and maleficence would restore things to a more natural order.

 

And so, the lab began to work in different areas, namely the new field of Blood Alignment Negativity Theory, which worked simply along the lines of rather than focusing on the DNA strand, they aimed to prove that entire sets of people with a certain blood group embodied the entirety of the problems faced by the world. Some of these blood group carriers had managed to pull the wool over the rest of the planet’s eyes by accessing positions of responsibility and renown, but this was not the norm and their performance ratings were still vastly below that of people from other blood groups.

 

As 2020 drew closer, the US government demanded a conclusive answer as the fabled recovery after the most recent depression failed to be the boom period that had been forecast. Thus, in a ground-breaking paper published in May 2019, scientists from the lab proved beyond any doubt that the defective blood group was indeed B Negative and that all the carriers of this blood type were an unnecessary burden on society.

 

How this was proven was conveniently kept secret from the rest of society, and, for the good fortune of the writer, from all sources on the Internet. Suffice to say that all relevant boffins and political experts considered the theory to be sound and accurate. Whilst the details of the theory were kept away from eyes that may pry and prod and pick holes in its veracity, its idea was slowly allowed to filter outwards. A tried and trusted method.

 

A clumsily leaked email made its way to a sensationalist tabloid which, seizing the chance to stir up public agitation and claim the scalp of the previously designated politician and scientist scapegoat, hastily published a story claiming that a subversive group aimed to prove that all carriers of the blood group B Negative, immediately stylised to “bNegs”, were the source of all the world’s woes. Inevitably, the theory was decried as nonsense, the scapegoats roundly chastised on social media and TV, enjoying a week as the world’s most hated people and then swiftly forgotten upon the breaking of the next story.

 

But the seed was planted, people began to ask whether there could be anything in it. People began to seek out bNegs and analyse their performance at work, their effect on others. If anything, the initial furore around them led to an increase in their working yield, as if they felt under the spotlight at all times to outwork any of their non bNeg colleagues. The phenomena began to take hold, slowly at first, then gathering momentum, to the governments’ delight, as the inevitable hashtag of #shameabNeg took hold of Twitter. bNegs were exposed on social media, often with side-by-side videos of them “pretending” to be hard at it juxtaposed with another showing their true colours.

 

No movement is complete without the willing force of the uneducated hatred of the mindless masses. Non bNegs who were unemployed began to feel aggrieved that their post had been taken by workshy bNegs. Employers sensed a certain amount of exertion on them not to hire or promote bNegs, or even to remove them from their workforces. All of this gathered pace without any of the concerned governments having to spend a single centime, cent or penny on further research, the hatred bubble was mushrooming of its own volition, the more people seen as reasonable and learned tried to denounce the plausibility, simple social media opportunities presented themselves to further the idea that there really was something to it.

 

Libertarians and voices of reason were the easiest targets to remove. Why would people who had chosen to believe that life’s lottery was preventing their advancement due to the continued support of a worthless group listen to reason suddenly? The proof was there, there was a paper, no-one had seen it but it was known, it contained the facts. The easiest tap ins were when the experts actually carried B Negative blood, so much so that often any voice considered of any worth beforehand refused to opine on matters concerning BANTZ, as this was now stylised, bearing in mind that the supporters of the movement would be less likely to follow something that used up most of their Twitter character allocation on spelling the name. The Z had no place in the theory, but the marketing company believed that it would appeal to the younger non bNegs.

 

With sufficient support from the “grassroots” sections of society, the moment arose to begin taking steps to remove bNegs from prominent positions. A bill was proposed whereby any organisation with bNeg senior executives would have to justify their choice of employment against a criteria checklist (practically impossible for the bNegs to come out on top) and should said bNegs fail to meet these criteria, they were to be immediately replaced by non bNegs.

 

A similar situation was devised for bNegs running SMEs. To be able to continue with their business, they would have to pay a standard PAYE rate of 50% and increase takings with profit sharing for non bNegs. The thinking here was to price them out of the market and thus force them to abandon their professional endeavours. There was another option on the table, the bNegs’ companies could be transferred to non bNegs so that the latter could run them and keep on the original bNegs as employees, though a law passed the week after limiting bNegs earnings to 600 GBP per month (taxable at 49% too).

 

bNegs from all spheres were forced onto the streets. Plans were made to counter any rise in crime as a result of these undesirables by imposing harsher sentences on bNegs for any type of misdemeanour. To finance this increase in potential prison population, bNegs had their assets stripped and could have no more in savings that 1000 GBP or the equivalent amount in the local currency of the applicable nation. It turned out that bNegs had more disposable income than was expected for such a lazy group and this windfall allowed for further expansions of the plan.

 

Whilst certain sectors of society felt bemusement and even bewilderment at the measures arbitrarily taken against people simply for their blood group, governments chose to ignore these, as public opinion shifted in their favour like never before. Whenever questions were raised they were roundly discarded by the findings of a throw-away boffin who came up with fancy looking PowerPoint presentations that were the scientific equivalent of photoshopping a supermodel’s body onto a wallflower’s head and expecting people to fall for it. Of course, they did, they lapped up everything that was thrown at them, the more ludicrous the better, the more obvious the lies, the more they learned them word for word and repeated them with glee among their friends colleagues and on social media.

 

Increases in GDP due to heavy taxation and appropriation of bNegs’ goods meant that the UK government could afford a 3% income tax decrease and pay all non bNeg workers a Robin Hood windfall bonus of 1000 GBP, with unemployed bNegs forced to fill their posts for free, should the non bNegs decide to take a holiday with the money.

 

The next thing to plan for was the bNegs’ uprising. They would surely not take this lying down forever, and any excuse to tighten security against them would provoke little opposition and would indeed prove doubters wrong. Sporadic groups of non bNegs had already begun to form vigilante squads to ensure order in the bNeg ghettos that were appearing on the outskirts of major cities. bNegs were no longer allowed to live in an area within five miles of the city centre, and then only in government approved zones with a limited yardage and value.

 

 

Pockets of bNegs resistance tried to demonstrate, but they knew their hands were tied, if they tried anything, reprisals on groups of bNegs could be disastrous, if they tried nothing, their remaining (few) civil liberties would be completely removed. This logical outlook could not be sustained for a group comprising nearly a tenth of the population. And so, inevitably, a group of bNegs entered a government research centre and set fire to the place, killing three non bNegs. Revenge was imminent.

 

The night after the fire, hundreds of bNegs were attacked randomly as comeuppance for the actions of the twisted firestarters. Many of their residencies were looted and burned, with the government passing an emergency measure that no bNeg could be on the street without registered accommodation, anyone failing to comply with this measure could be immediately imprisoned until they had earned enough to make a deposit on a new property, depending on the waiting list, which was now much longer due to the events of the night known as “the Night of the Long Platelets”.

 

The incident left more than a thousand bNegs dead and many more wounded. As bNegs they were not eligible to use the National Health System and so would have to pay for medical treatment (which they obviously couldn’t do) or take their chances at the bNegs Health Centres (woefully underfunded and staffed by unqualified psychopaths). Within a week of the event, statistics claimed seven thousand bNegs had been removed as a burden on society. With disease and poverty rife amongst them, the stage was set to up operations.

 

Killing four thousand over a couple of weeks would not be a feasible means of removing such a large section of society. We have obviously moved on from the dark ages of transporting them to camps and putting them in ovens. The future was soon assured by passing a law which meant that all bNegs males had to be sterilised. Nobody checked whether bNegs would always have bNeg offspring, but the measure was deemed appropriate and subsequently adapted for bNeg females.

 

In theory then, no more bNegs would be born, but there were still around 600 million on the planet. Waiting for them to starve to death would take an eternity, so the onus was left on the country with most bNegs in the world, Australia, to find a solution. The solution was simple, a kind of home share plan. All the world’s bNegs would occupy Australia until they died. The non bNeg residents of Australia would be given accommodation in the country of their choice until the problem had been resolved, though the thought of an island with 600 million cadavers on it made return less appealing. All Australian citizens accepting the plan were given half a million dollars. Those rejecting it, would be left in Australia. All bNegs’ possessions and worldly goods were to be divided between the relocated non bNegs to compensate them for the upheaval that this would involve.

 

And so, on the 19thof July, 2031, container ships carried thousands of bNegs to their final destination in Australia. All residents of the former British colony were removed by plane or ship to leave the island free of any type of transport, thus preventing escape. Boats carrying the bNegs administered a muscle relaxant in the water to prevent any uprisings, turning their cargo into docile harmless cattle traveling to their fate. As the boats were paid for the number of trips made, unscrupulous captains hit upon the idea of emptying their cargo in the middle of the ocean and returning for more, though this practice was soon decried as the number of bNeg corpses washing up on the shore caused issues for local non bNeg residents.

 

Towards the end of the 2020s, special container ships were built with separate engine and cargo compartments, the biggest the world had ever seen. In conditions of almost zero comfort, up to 35,000 passengers could be transported in an almost harmless sleep to their last port of call. Each participant country, by that I mean every country, undertook to build a number of these proportionate to their bNeg population. The UK had seven of these vessels, France five, Germany eight and the USA twenty-four, even landlocked countries were obliged to have an amount of them and store them at their nearest port, except Switzerland which once again never got involved and still maintained a high level of bNegs and saw no drop in GDP. bNegs tried to emigrate to places like Switzerland (first choice) or Albania (with reservations) or Kyrghizstan (a step up from death) but these nations soon closed their borders as they were swamped.

 

So, at any one time, there could be more than 1 million bNegs under transportation to Australia. This meant that the entire process by this method would take less than three years. Even so, that was considered a lengthy and burdensome process. From places like China, Japan and New Zealand, bNegs were simply ushered onto military transport planes and air dropped to Australia, with roughly enough parachutes for 60% of the plane’s load to ensure a reduction in numbers early on. The problem with Oz was always going to be distance, the reason it was chosen, it being so far away, was also a major hindrance of the logistics. It was also a complicated business getting someone from Utah, for example, to a port where they could board a ship to Australia. As the celebrations for the 10 millionth recorded death of bNegs came to a close, certain voices began to suggest that it might be time to relent on such severity.

 

These voices of dissent were immediately quashed, the destruction of the bNegs and their errant blood group had gone beyond a mere crusade to improve standards of living. Too many people had vested interests and were even looking beyond the bNegs, should the promised Utopia be spoilt by the unsightly presence of the working class.

 

Even people generally seen as wishy-washy lefties began to change their outlook as momentum gathered for what was billed as “definitely not a final solution”. Research was done also to see whether bNegs could be sent into space to colonise the moon but that was eventually discarded when real scientists were consulted once more. The decision was made to use Alaska as a temporary Australia Annex where bNegs could be taken and frozen to death. Nothing was hidden any more, there was no tiptoeing around the subject, news chains and independent groups proudly reported on successful eliminations. FOX NEWS came up with the slogan that “600 million is a lot, but if we all kill one or two, it’s a lot less”. With the reduction in the amount of electricity needed to heat and water this massive group of people, older power stations could be converted into huge furnaces, as many renowned voices concurred, not everything the Nazis did was thatbad.

 

They did create a lot of dust though. Luckily, a formula was discovered soon after, or always known and considered inappropriate, of how to combine mineral water with human ash to create fully functional bricks ideal for housing. In no time, the cost of building a house was reduced by more than ten percent. With non bNegs with more disposable income now, this meant reduced mortgages and fewer foreclosures. GDP took a huge swing upwards as the construction industry soared again.

 

In some places, bNegs fought tooth and nail for their right to live but even in Russia, where the strongest bNegs were found, the non bNegs simply closed their doors in November and opened them in March. “A winter indoors wins wars” Pravda proudly stated.

 

By 2040, there was an estimated world bNeg population of just 11 million people, easily identifiable and avoided with the B-stamp on the top of their hands, the drugs they had been given caused all their hair to fall out and any means of covering the marking was punishable by transportation. Many of these had aided and abetted the destruction process. Australia had been declared uninhabitable although daring farmers found that the arid soils of the desert lands, once fertilised with the rotting corpses of more than 400 million people, turned it into one of the most fertile wheat and cereals production areas in the world. This meant that bread and rice were basically free now to anyone in the world. The top 1% was now the top 7% and everyone, unless they were too lazy not to be, was better off by at least ten percent. The figure of ten percent became the benchmark against which everything was measured, with the idea being that, if it yielded ten percent more, it was worthwhile.

 

Peace was declared on the remaining six million bNegs on the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2045. One hundred years to the day since the Nazis were quashed, there were no liberators for those still clinging to life. The only rights that they were afforded were those in place just after the initial resolutions preventing them from ownership and positions of responsibility. Most were old and frail, infirm and unable to work anyway, before taking into account the rather ungentlemanly disservice of allowing themselves to be slaves once more. Most just wandered the streets begging, waiting for whatever force had brought them to the planet to take the ailing frames away from it so they could be with their long-departed souls.

 

One day, before the daily visits of the shrine that is now the old lab in Scotland, receiving thousands of visitors a week to give thanks for the sterling work done to cull the Earth’s population, one of the intern scientists stumbles upon a box that looks like it has not seen the light of day in more than thirty years. Inside he found the original formulae and calculations that led to the great discovery that isolated blood group B Negative from the remainder of society and cast them out like dogs into the night. The intern took the papers and returned to his desk. Despite having the most advanced calculation technology on-hand, he, like the scientists involved in the project, preferred to do his calculations by hand.

 

Most of it was fairly standard up to the point of the DNA strand, then it is when theories began to diverge and the calculations seemed to be askew. He went through them twice and gave out an exclamation that was not exactly befitting of the discovery: “Gosh, it was never B Negative”. He repeated the calculations and looked at the demographic figures, at no time in history had there been 9% of the population with B Negative blood, rarely had it exceeded three. It seemed that the group had been chosen at random to begin the elimination process of all carriers of that type. He found the names on the header and checked them against the records. The findings were signed and approved by the deputy head of the unit, without the approval of the Chief Researcher, a man, it turned out, who spent his whole time trying to belittle the deputy. The Chief was relieved of his duties soon after, his medical examination stating his blood group as being B Negative. On the back page, a message was written in biro that said, “you’ll be fools to believe all this” PLM 2019, and a second message “that’s why it’s so believable” RKC 2038.

 

Cu-tah Than Shakira

 

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be abducted.

 

Maybe I should specify that I mean by aliens. This planet’s not for me and from what I have seen of it from my vantage point in Price, Utah, the great beyond doesn’t seem all that great from Google Earth. I have a friend who was on his way to Salt Lake City but got to Provo and turned back, I think that tells you enough about our dumb bowl to launch a call out to the stratosphere, donthch’all think?

 

At school I knew I was done for something beyond this planet. I tried to get on with the other kids, but it was like they was speaking another language, I still remember a nerdy guy telling to not split infinitives, I never did find out what he was on about. All I know is that he now lives in a trailer-park and I make seven-fifty an hour after tax at Walmart. I’d say I split him good.

 

The noises came at night. When I was 12 it was hell in school. I couldn’t concentrate, and the others laughed at me. I recognise now telling them that when my alien friends finally made it to Earth they would zap them with the old ray gun was not pretty dumb even by my standards. It was only when the noises came to me, exclusively to me, well then, I knew that it would be worth my while to ride out the time on this lowly planet. They would see the real me.

 

Now I am back and can write this story. The first part I couldn’t do because before they took me, I could barely write me name. The second part I couldn’t do because they hadn’t taken me yet and I didn’t have a story. Oh jeez, I sure am come a long way since that hick went up in the spacecraft!

 

My psychologist (who has now offered to be my editor and publisher) told me to structure the story. I’m better now at words, what does she call it? Letterate? But I still have troubles. You gotta see that I was just some dumb kid that the system failed to look after, the Utah school board couldn’t see my potential, but the guys from the sky did.

 

They came for me on the day of my eighteenth birthday. Mom threw a party, but nobody came. Not even my sister came, jeez I hoped she would be first against the wall when the ray guns were primed. As I ate my cake alone in the kitchen (I am not allowed to eat in the living room, anyway that is where Mom and Pop’s friends were celebrating my birthday), the lights came. I had always hoped for something like that scene in Close Encounters, even the screws undoing out of the grate, but there was just a light, the living room door opened I could see the others, frozen, like a photo, then a hand came out and asked me “D’ya wanna go to space?”.

 

My shrink gave me a word that I am gonna throw in here: underwhelming. Not bad, huh? That’s how I felt as I boarded the craft, but it was because I spoke to the interpreter, they had created someone who could communicate on my level as they, even in English, were too darn clever for me to know what the heck they were on about, even now, more so then.

 

I had done pictures of the insides of spacecraft since I was a kid, tons of buttons, flashing lights and knobs to twiddle with but there was nothing inside. There was no bridge, no teleportation chamber or anything you would expect to see on the best tv shows, I began to wonder who designed this stuff.

 

I asked the interpreter where all the controls were, and he told me that they were an advanced society and did not need the physical means to control the ship. I smiled, and he explained it more simply. “They imagine them in their heads and use the power of the mind to steer or control the craft”. I thought that was pretty neat. He asked me “By the way, do you like my appearance? According to your profile we assumed you would like this look.” He said. I realised that he looked like the teacher in the Breakfast Club. When I told him I didn’t he changed and suddenly took on the appearance of the singer out of Blink 182. “I’m sold!” I thought to myself as six figures stepped forward to explain stroke confound more.

 

“Overall, can I be specific about many items? Withstanding the feeling that two meals in the same row may not go down the same thinking pattern. Overall you should have said that before that maybe. One and half wink down there. I can give you more incident, well, let’s go back further than that, my memory has been detoned not set forth whatsoever. I was in there out of time, they took three of them from me, a type of alcho-head pop replacement.” One of the figures remarked and the interpreter looked at me, half-smiling.

 

“You get any of that?” He asked.

 

I shook my head and he gestured to the others that they tell him, and he would tell me.

 

“The reason you are here is because we have mastered every art of existence, except love. We cannot love. We do not know how to court, initiate or maintain relationships. Our scientific viewpoint or physical presence means that there is no emotion in our beings. We are envious of that and wish to learn from you how to love. That clearer?” He remarked.

 

The others seemed to hang on every word. Yes, he was clearer, but it still made no sense. They wanted to learn about love from me?

 

“You shudda brung Tommy Watson from 11thgrade if you wanna know about love, mind you that guy don’t do too much loving, more leaving if you get my drift. How come I can’t understand the others?”

 

“I have been specially created to perform janitorial and interpretation services. The beings on their planet are too advanced and these six have been specially downgraded to adapt to a human brain. Even so, the minimum operational capacity that we have managed to drop too is the equivalent of 94% usage rate of the standard human brain, therefore, you cannot reach their plane of consciousness. I know this will not make much sense but hang in there. They just want to observe you and take notes, they have chosen you for a reason. Are you comfortable? I can thought manufacture a sitting arrangement for you if you wish.” He asked.

 

“A chair?” I responded.

 

“You’re improving! Cool, my first joke in human! Was it funny?” He asked again.

 

“You got talent.” I said as a comfy armchair appeared from nowhere and, hang on, let me get my notes, engulfed me.

 

“Excellent, I shall continue.” And continue he did. A chamber appeared in the floor and from there a girl appeared, she must have been twenty-two and sure was pretty. I had never seen her before, but one thing I did guess straight off was she wasn’t too happy about being abducted. Another chair appeared, and she sat next to me. From this moment on, the aliens no longer looked like regular guys, this was to remove the risk of her falling for one of them. I had imagined some ugly aliens in my time, but this lot were hideous. If you could choose, why choose THAT?

 

The janitor continued. “This is Mandy. She is from a place called San Diego. She has been here for a day now but, as you may have noticed, is having certain settling in difficulties. We would like you both to fall in love. Can you start now please?” He smiled at us both with the suggestion that we should undertake this endeavour forthwith. (Where in jumping Jesus did that last sentence come from?)

 

“You may notice that as you are in our presence, your brain’s capacity will expand and become closer to their level, still a long way off, but worthy of being deemed improvement. Do you feel love yet?” He was insistent.

I turned to Mandy and introduced myself. “I’m Mick.” she did not seem interested to be in the company of a fellow human. My first thoughts were that she seemed like the sort of girl who would like her own photos on Instagram.

 

I turned to the janitor to let him know the little I knew. “Man, it doesn’t just happen like that, we don’t both sit down and boom, we’re in love. Look at her. We have a saying on Earth, not even if you were the last guy… And I am, and she is not. You need to work on a lady, charm her, make her laugh, you need environment, and you need her not to wish you were dead. Wow, I didn’t split that infinitive.” I paused and looked at Mandy, this lothario stance was having no effect on her.

 

“That is a pity. We are rather pushed for time. We were somewhat hoping that you could fall in love before the next moon cycle so that we can upload the data and return home to put it into practice.” Two, I guess you would call them helmets, appeared from the ceiling and I felt a series of electrical impulses. Then they disappeared.

 

“We have just downloaded your perfect lover environment so that you will both view and experience a situation more propitious to a positive outcome. If you do not fall in love before the next moon cycle, you will both be zapped.” He said.

 

“All those fancy words and you end with zapped?” I half-joked.

 

“I just like the sound of it. Are you in love yet, the others are recording your progress.” He said.

 

“No, I’m not in love, and even if I were, the lady is not for turning. That said, I shall approach this calling with the alacrity befitting of the situation in which I am entwined.” I replied, beginning to prefer my old self.

 

“I think we might tone that brain of yours down a notch.” He laughed.

 

With that, they disappeared, and it was just me and Mandy, on a sun-kissed beach that was miles away from Price, Utah, (though all beaches were). I looked over to her and whispered “Could you not just fake it? Rather than get zapped?” but the beach disappeared, and we were in a cell. “NO CHEATING” was scrawled on the wall.

 

The beach reappeared, and she said, “I’m Mandy.” Her tone was different, her demeanour was different. I mean I didn’t love her, I was sure of that, but she was hot. “Would you like to go for a walk in the forest?” She asked.

 

I was going to say, ‘What forest?’ when I realised her vision was probably different to mine. So, we walked, and we talked. I had never had a conversation like that, I had never felt so at ease in the company of another person that within the space of an hour I truly felt like I could tell her everything. We walked the entire length of the beach / forest unaware of the passage of time, unaware that we had been abducted by aliens and were floating in space. We reached a table and there were strawberries, she looked longingly at me as she delicately nibbled on the mango. Beautiful music filled the air, strings and melodies joining forces with the most beautiful aria that I had no idea I adored so much as she asked me if loved Jazz too.

 

I’d been with girls from school, you know, moments when you shotgun a can and think you can get a free grope, but really you’re almost looking forward to it being over. But this was different. I was fearful of touching her, and on the rare occasions our brushing was close enough for there to be contact, it was like electricity, I was frightened and enticed at the same time, I longed for more, but the desire was not sexual, it was not the consummation of the act, I was overcome with an overwhelming desire that consumed by entire being yet caused fear in every bone. What if she did not feel this way? Being zapped would be a relief if this was not bilateral.

 

Then it went dark again. A sign appeared that said ‘CRANIUM SWAP’. I was Mandy and rather than looking for a private room and exploring the possession of breasts, I felt a reciprocal attraction to the guy I thought was a loathsome hick just minutes before. How did he seem to know just what to say? How was his imperfection so perfect? He didn’t try because he didn’t need to. He just did it naturally. I knew when the moment came it would be perfect, I knew that there was no need to hurry, we would have all the time in the world, but I wanted a kiss. I wanted those lips to meet mine.

 

As we kissed. A signed appeared that said ‘CRANIUM RETRIEVAL’. I opened my eyes and saw Mandy looking into mine. We broke off from the embrace and started to giggle like kids. I went to kiss her again and suddenly I was not in Kansas anymore, it was worse. I was in Price, Utah.

 

The only thing I knew was that I didn’t know where the last lunar period had gone, but I was much more adept at expressing the little I knew. My mom was scared (triphthongs were not a common feature in our residence) and sent me to a shrink. I stopped calling the psychiatrist that as I began to eschew my old manner of describing things with an alarming rate. She wrote things down for me as I tried to recapture that day through hypnosis.

 

The best piece of advice she gave me was to wear the same clothes that I had on that day and retraced my steps. No matter how hard I tried, I could not remember a single thing, there was nothing. Where had the time gone? Dejected, I flopped on to the couch and flicked on the TV. Maybe if I tried to revert to my life before the incident, that would help. On the sci-fi channel, there was a show called ‘CRANIUM SWAP’. Then I remembered the spacecraft and the guy who spoke to me.

 

My stint in space taught me that daytime TV could do with a revamp. The show was awful, bad special effects, though that was a common event after returning from the alien craft. But it was tough. I knew I had been on that ship. It changed me, but I could not tell you what happened inside. I just felt that I was missing something. It’s kind of hard to explain, and I think the psychiatrist is beginning to lose faith. It’s like at times that I feel like I fell in love with an alien.

 

The show continued, and I was sure it was giving me subliminal messages, but they were so damn subliminal that even with my revamped brain, nothing was going in. “Take her to the forest” an actor said time and time again. “She’s on your beach, go to her”. Were the words of another actress. Was all this meant for me?

 

The next day I wore exactly the same clothes as the day I was abducted. Even down to the socks. As I walked around aimlessly outside my house I noticed something annoying the sole of my left foot. I took off the boot and inside there was a crumpled-up bit of paper. The message was no more clarifying:

 

32.7157° N, 117.1611° W

 

Yours, the Janitor.

 

There was also another set of coordinates which due to the privacy policy in place the ghost writer cannot disclose, but that gave a specific address in San Diego. Without thinking, I started hitching westwards.

 

It seems like we only have two-hundred words left, so I will forego the Joad like rambling of my traipse towards the California coast. Suffice to say that it took me three days to find the city, or for them to bring me to it. I still had no idea what or who the reason behind my journey was, but there was a feeling that the Janitor was watching over me all the time. As I reached the door that the coordinates wanted me to knock on, I saw a light above, the object streaked across the midday sky, leaving a trail of colours too numerous to count, and then I knew the Janitor had taken me as far as he could. I knocked on the door and saw the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in this life before me. “I’m Mandy.” She said.

 

 

 

 

 

Dream Pitch

A shorter version of this was a recent compo winner despite having to be whittled down to 1500 words. This is the full length and unrestricted version that delves deeper into the reasons behind the protagonists’ decision.

“Ouch that smarts!” He exclaimed as he tried to pick the remote control off the floor. He thought to himself that that was utterly depressing, that he had come to this, plagued by aches with every movement, prescribed medicines for everything he has had, and susceptible to everything he has still managed to avoid.

“You shouldn’t try to overdo things the way you are.” She said. It was not like she was being discouraging, but to some extent, every pang of pain that shot through his body seemed to be transmitted to hers. Sometimes she bemoaned her good health, she was almost a decade younger than him, but had never known him as anything other than the energetic firebrand that turned her world inside out.

“I’ll try a bit of that soup if I may.” His voice almost whimpered out the request. Where was the voice that boomed? Consumed, like the rest of him. She went towards the kitchen but was interrupted by the sound of the intercom.

“Nobody knows we’re here, do they?” She asked. “Nobody, hardly nobody, I mean, knows just how bad you are, do they?” She asked with that look.

“I have followed yours and the doctor’s orders.” He smiled.

She picked up the intercom and looked over to him. “It’s George.” She said, giving him that look again.

“I didn’t tell him.” He said as she left.

She returned a few moments later followed by George and told them she would leave them to it. He was not sure what was going on, maybe his medicine was causing him to hallucinate but that was not George. He hadn’t actually seen him for a couple of years, but people don’t change that much.

George, sat down and made himself at home.

“It’s good to see you. Well, let me rephrase that. It isn’t. You look dreadful. That is because you are two days away from death. Never an easy piece of information to digest so I like to get it out there without fuss. You’re not a well man, but I have an offer for you that I would like you to consider. All ears?” George said.

He knew that he should not listen to this imposter, but something told him to give the guy a listen, the way he felt at that moment, two days seemed like an awful lot to bear. He nodded to the man, who continued.

“I can offer you another five years. Pain free, illness free, exactly five years. But there is a catch. The world will believe you will be dead in forty-eight hours, only your wife will know that you are still here, and only she will be able to see you. The offer is on the table for the next two hours. I assume you have some questions, I will grant you three.” George smiled at the man.

“How do I know any of this is true? I mean you are not even George, anyone can see that.” Without knowing it, he used up question one.

“How do you feel right, now?” He asked.

“Like death.” He said.

With that, the man not called George put his hand on his shoulder and the pain left his body. He felt young again. Even better than before the diagnosis.

“Can I do anything?” Was question two.

“You can’t produce anything as such. If you try to pass on anything to your wife for her to do so, she will forget it immediately. You just have five years to enjoy your time together, a quiet simple life. That said, you can travel together and do things that a normal couple do all the time, just only she will be able to see you, everyone else will think she is alone, mourning maybe. However, if she speaks to you, nobody will see her lips move, so she will not end up getting committed, for a while people will think she is a little sad and forlorn, then people will forget about her. You have one left” Ungeorge smiled.

“Do I need to pooh?” Was the last question. It was a waste, but he could not think of another. George’s hand had left his shoulder and the pain returned tenfold.

“You do not need to partake in bodily functions but can for pleasure. By that I mean you can eat, drink, make love, fight, scream and do all the other things normal and abnormal couples do. But you must remember one thing, if she spills the beans, you will both be taken from the Earth that very moment. After the five years are up, it is like your hologram is deleted. Shall we bring her in to help with the decision-making process?” Sonotgeorge asked.

She asked for proof and with Whocouldthinkthisisgeorge’s hand on his shoulder again, he did press-ups, then he sang to her and played the piano. When the hand was removed, the notes sounded like a clumsy giant trying to escape from a puppy pound.

Obviously, she preferred the offer on the table than the thought of her husband dying painfully in less than forty-eight hours, yet, there were still issues that sheneeded to resolve. She felt bad about this from the outset as she had lived a charmed life, yes, the last eighteen months had be a bind, to put it mildly, but she had done volunteer work in her time and seen the misery that for many forms the basis of their daily lives. Who was she to ask for me? And yet still, doubts plagued her. The visitor picked up on this.

“You don’t seem convinced, my dear.” He said. “Please share any doubts with us.”

Her initial thoughts were ‘patronising twat’ but she retained her composure and made a mental list. “I mean, when we are together it’ll be easy, but I don’t see how it will work when we’re out and about. Someone will notice that something is afoot. What if I give myself away unwittingly? I could have a glass too many of wine and make some comment that I thought was harmless and throwaway and it could spell the end for me. Then all this will have been for nothing.” Her eyes ensured that the listener was aware the punctuation at the end was a question mark.

“You overestimate people. They will honestly stop caring once the next news item comes along. People will act like it is the end of the world, but it will die down. You will be fine; an aura will protect you.” He smiled as if those words would actually comfort her.

“With all due respect, a fucking AURA? I’m afraid I am going to need more assurances than that.” She tried to look menacing.

“Fine, try this.” Maybe he was used to this reaction from his clients, but he was getting a trifle bored with this stubbornness. “The minute I leave, the man you love will turn into this (he clicks his fingers and husband writhes in spasms of pain). He will remain like this until the end, he won’t get any better and between now and forty-eight hours his body will surrender. I am sure you do not like the terms but there are no others on offer. Trust us and enjoy your time together.” When he clicked his finger again, her husband stood up and began to dance.

“What about his children? Can’t they know?” She beseeched of him.

“In my experience the more people that know, the more problems I have to clear up afterwards. Once they have experienced an acceptable mourning period, they too, will be protected by the aura. They have their own lives to live.” He said.

“But how on Earth am I supposed to keep acting normal in front of everybody? I will give the pretence away, I am no actress. What am I supposed to do bawl inconsolably when my husband is actually at my side at his own funeral helping himself to the canapés.” She asked.

“Well, I’d suggest you work on your act, or say your goodbyes now. I reiterate though that you will be protected, and the world will see you as you would be expected to be seen at each time. You will be viewed with stoic dignity, nobody will think the less of you. Whatever decision you make. Time is pressing though.” Now it was his turn to beseech.

“Can I phone a friend?” She joked.

“Hilarious. You have five minutes.” With that he disappeared.

“Neat trick.” He said. “I don’t really want to die in pain tomorrow or the next day, as you may have guessed. I would like you to say yes but if you are against it. No it is.”

“Yeah and I would feel some sort of bitch rather than your queen for ever. I just feel bad for the kids. Especially after what it has taken to recoup your relationship with your eldest.” Were her words.

“So, what better way for him to remember me as the man who wiped away all those years when I was too busy for him who built bridges despite it almost being too late. With our daughter I did not make the same mistakes because I had you. Can you handle being the only person who sees me for five years?” He laughed.

“Nice move, dickhead, you’ve just talked me out of it.” Then she laughed and went to get a pen to sign the contract.

NeverGeorgeEver returned and looked at them aghast. “What’s the pen for?” He asked.

“To sign the contract.” They both replied in unison.

“You are delightfully old-fashioned.” He laughed and pointed a thin pencil at their irises.

“All done. Enjoy.” He said and disappeared again.

On the table was a sheet of electronic paper that contained a document giving them pointers on how to handle their new situation, it was rather amusingly entitled ‘Guidelines for Grantees of Semi-Perpetual Life Extensions’. Page one suggested they show this document to someone outside the ‘Circle on Continuity’, so they took it to the live-in nurse for her to peruse it.

“That’s nice.” She said. All she could see was their wedding photo in a fancy frame. “I haven’t upped his meds”. She looked pleadingly at his wife who laughed.

“I know, Anna. You’ve been so good to us. You really deserve a holiday. I don’t think there is much more you can do as we are approaching the end. I would like it to be just the family for the final moments, I’m sure you understand. Our lawyers will make sure you are well taken care of.” She left them together for a moment and he bade her farewell. She left balling like a child.

“I’m crap at dying.” He told his wife.

Two days later, and unbeknown to the couple, he died. She opened a letter that the visitor had left with some advice on protocol and began making the funeral arrangements. Her husband stubbornly choosing a casket with guitar-shaped poles and a leather interior. Feeling better, he painted it with a sort of swoosh design, like a coloured bolt of lightning, but once he stopped to admire his work, it disappeared.

His funeral was televised, he was not just any old guy. She tried to work out some way in which she could not attend but it was impossible, it was simply the done thing to attend your husband’s funeral. The first problem they encountered was sitting together. She wanted to sit next to her husband, but the seating arrangements did not take him into account. He was not actually an entity so could have sat on top of the person next to her, but that might have had a negative effect on her composure. Thus, he was banished to the back of the building along with others who had snuck in.

She was expected to give an address. She knew that she could claim she was overwhelmed with grief, though she was equally worried about bursting into laughter. As she began, her voice trembling, she saw out of the corner of her eye Yeahyourereallygeorge and he seemed to conduct her as if he were leading an orchestra, the words flowing out of her with elegance and eloquence in equal measures. She was not actually sure what she was saying by it made it onto the news and her place in history was assured.

Social media saw an outpouring of love and respect that made it easier for them. Her press office made an announcement that she was thankful for these messages but would like to be left alone for the time being. She had bought some time, after convincing the kids that she would be fine, they could get on with the serious business of being dead.

They spent the first night at home. She cooked, and he had a glass of wine. He had not touched the stuff for years, but now, dead, it had no effect on him, it was to keep her company. After dinner, they were each other’s dessert, and the next day they went to Bali.

They had had a property there for years and it was where they went when he went to wind down after particularly fraught periods of professional activity. They loved it there as they could wander round the markets and generally act like no-one cared a jot about who they were or the life they had in New York, or indeed the world over. Bali was like a sanctuary to them, so it was little wonder that she chose to up sticks and take her grieving over there. Inevitably the media got wind of this move and went to see if there was a story behind it, but all they saw was a woman whose husband had died recently, and even they thought that was going too far.

So, for a while the press wondered about her, but whenever they snapped her, she looked, well, boring. She was a nothing story. In reality she was laughing at his antics but no-one else could see that. She joked to him “the lad’s insane!” in a mock Yorkshire accent.

And so it began that they were more often than not supremely happy in these idyllic surroundings. It was something of a struggle at the beginning as their schedules and independent lifestyles had meant that they had not actually spent that much intense time together. She had not realised just how many foibles he had, and seemed quite displeased that he had brought them with him to the after-life. She compensated this fact with the idea that at least he did not need to take care of personal hygiene these days, but deep down felt that she had given up much more than him for this to work.

Yet after a couple of months in Bali, being in each other’s hair so much began to grate. She was not wont to leave him as she felt that it was her duty to stay by his side now that they had been given this extra time together. The thing was that when he was alive they were married but also had their own things going on. They were never shackled together twenty-four-seven like now. She felt she was having trouble breathing almost and then felt awful as she wanted time away from this healthy dead man.

Inevitably the rows started. Whoever you are and whatever you have experienced in this life, something trivial will send you over the edge when tensions are high. He didn’t clean the chopping board while making some awful concoction that he had found in a local magazine. Now he had decided to become a dab hand in the kitchen after years of ignoring the place, she thought to herself.

“It’s fine for you as you are fucking dead.” She berated him. “I have to be on the lookout for germs because this place is not exactly the cleanest. You said you would take care of it but half the time I have to traipse around behind you gathering the bits you missed. You know, I’ve been thinking maybe we need to have some sort of structure, other activities to have a bit of a break from each other.” There she had said it.

“Well, you could always wait four years and nine months, then you will have all the break you need.” Was his response.

“Dignified.” Was hers. “Put your hand where your heart used to be and tell me you want to spend every waking minute (as you don’t sleep that’s more than me) in my company. That you long to enjoy every second together. That you don’t want to run off on your own or sit at a piano or do a crossword or even just have a crafty, sly dead wank. Tell me that and I will bite my tongue the next time on your six million annoying traits sends me closer to insanity.” She said.

This incensed him, and he thought about a tirade before the television magically turned itself on and they saw themselves in the New York apartment the day Georgeasif visited. The image was of the husband writhing in agony followed by the message “Find the solution. George X”.

George X was right. Even the dead need their space, and living with dead means you need ever more. She began tennis classes and he began to work again. The latter purely for his own pleasure as whatever he produced disappeared or would become utterly worthless, as if his product decayed and died whilst he remained alive.

They travelled the world together, her sparing no expense with his sizeable life insurance pay out, although money had never been an issue for them. She laughed by his side as he wrote things for her, solely for her, works that would disappear the next day, but that would stay in their hearts until the five years were up.

After the first six months, they managed a routine that allowed them to remain sane and prevent the cracks from acting on them. Over dinner one night she said to him: “Let’s just take this like beginners”.

“Absolutely.” Was his single word response.

They did things that they might never have otherwise. They travelled to places that even they had never heard of. Money was never an issue and they helped and supported the estranged son to get a foothold in the career of his choice. Her relationship with the latter grew stronger and stronger as the allotted period elapsed, and he became a regular on television after an awkward career that saw him move from station to station.

With their own child they worked out a way for the three of them to be together by being the rules after finding an annexed attachment to the document left on their coffee table. She didn’t know, per se, but she didn’t not know, and her mother’s games brought her a sense of peace and wellbeing that she decided not to question.

For every unforgettable stolen moment, there were times she wanted to rekill him. And him her. But they learnt a lot about each other, and about themselves, and whilst at times they thought that this “being dead lark is not all it is cracked up to be”, it was certainly better than the other option.

She was more fearful of the passing of time in the first year than in the fourth. She wondered how she had managed to make this deal and still remain on the planet. How many others would have sold the world and kept mum? As the time went by, she accepted fate with a placidity that pleased her, glad that she had had this time and ready for the end in the full knowledge that she had done her best, more than that, she had done bloody well. She looked in the mirror and was sure she had not aged a day since that visit, some would say she looked even better, and that that was no small feat.

As they moved into the last year, the constraints of time began to cause concern for him. He was still fine with idea, not that he had much choice to be otherwise, impressed that she had not faltered and stood by his side. Her health remained steadfast so none of the five years was spent in doctor’s waiting rooms, so that was another source of relief. By the end, doing mundane things together became just as pleasurable as snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef or making base camp on Kilimanjaro. One afternoon they sat on the sofa with him reading Dickens and her doing a sketch and he struggled to find a happier moment in his memory bank. When his daughter came in with some homemade biscuits (he wished just once she would not call them cookies), the scene was complete. That night in bed, she broached the subject and he said that he would stand by her wishes if she was sure.

With just a month to go, they were visited by the liar formerly known as George once more and spent an enjoyable evening with him. They informed him of their decision and he said he would respect it.

That took them to the very last night, four years and three-hundred and sixty-four days since his death, it was time to die. They sat at the piano together and she asked him to play one last song. Before he did, he asked her, again, if she was sure of what she was doing, she said he was. His fingers danced along the keys and he sang the words:

It’s a god awful small affair,

            to the girl with the mousy hair….’

Iman cried as he finished the song and started her live Instagram feed.

When it was recording, she made an announcement to all of her followers.

“Thank you for tuning in. As you know it has been Five Years since you think David passed away, but it was not true, he has been here with me all the time, and today we go together…. “

With that, her feed stopped and Iman and David Bowie left the Earth together.

 

 

 

 

 

The Stuck Home Syndrome

“Go to your bedroom!” I said it in that voice I know he hates, the mocking one, he hates it because he thinks it doesn’t sound like him. I love it for just the opposite reason. When you’re 8, and there are enemies everywhere, victories like this can mean the world.

 

I throw a tennis ball against the wall for a bit, knowing that that will cause him to sprint up the stairs to extend my punishment. That’s what he thinks. That’s what they both think. An extension of my punishment. Here, in my palace. Twelve square metres filled with all the dreams in a child’s head. Outside the door are simply all the nightmares that dreams cannot vanquish. (I got that word from a comic.)

 

I thought about escape a while back. Escape where, though? Could I make it to Leeds and my Aunt Mabel? Would she take me in if I got there? If she did, some snooping neighbour would blow the whistle on us and turn me in. Back here. I used to fear the blows. Not now. The blows are honest. That expression of hatred for my existence is as honest as you will find. Now, it’s the caresses that I fear. Hatred dressed in lies. She hits, he caresses. Then they both hit. Then my older brother hits.

 

At least when he is angry his mind never wanders to that facet of his persona. I wonder if there is anyone in today? It’s a right stinker, so I doubt that they will be out. Just a quick peak under the bed.

 

“Hey guys!” I whisper. I don’t want them downstairs catching my secret friends.

 

“Those downstairs.” A voice replies. It’s Gruffle! “I have a message for you from the others. They want you to meet them at the end of the garden. Take a coat and your gloves.”. And with that he was off through the crack in the wall. Today was no day for sneaking out into the garden but then I thought, I can’t actually get in any more trouble than I am in. They can’t give me any more pain than this, so what will happen if I meet the guys? You might think they are monsters and ghouls, but to me they are a brilliant new world.

 

I try the door and it’s locked. Boo, that’s not sporting. The drainpipe it would be then. The last time I had to shimmy, Gruffle, Snuffle, Trushle and Mushle were all waiting below to catch me if I lost my footing. This time I would be alone. I stuffed my gloves into my pocket and climbed out onto the ledge. Looking down, I reminded myself not to look down. I got half way down and lost my grip, I’m only slight (they see to that) yet the drainpipe feels like it is coming away with me. Down we go. That hurts.

 

I’m not knocked out. I know that, but it hurts. There is no sign of Gruffle or anyone else. But a voice does ring out. “You alright, lad?” I can’t place the voice, but it sounds local. Then again, I have never been anywhere so maybe it’s hard to tell. “That needs looking at.” He continues. “Mike here is a doctor, come with us.” My parents always told me not to go with strangers, despite being the strangest people I had ever met. I could make out the figure of my brother in the kitchen, if he saw me, it would be much worse. I decided to go with Mike, the doctor.

 

We got into a car that was waiting just a few doors down and drove off. This could be quite an adventure. I thought it was odd when we got to their house that Mike had still not spoken. Nor had either of them taken off their hats, what were they called again, the ones that cover everything except the eyes? Despite the central heating being on full blast. It was nice inside. Not like my house. It smelt clean. The man who helped me up brought me a glass of milk and some biscuits, chocolate digestives! The last time I had one of those, my brother licked off the chocolate on mine and made me eat the soggy biscuit remains. This was better than Christmas.

 

Mike looked at my leg and put a bandage on. He had such soft hands. His head looked strange inside that balaclava, that’s the word, like there was an extra bit at the top. I reached out to touch his head and it was just hair. This made him drop the needle and let out a whimper. It was not the sort of whimper that a guy called Mike would make. I needed to get a message to Gruffle and the guys.

 

“Well done, Petra. You may as well tell him the truth now.” The man who found me said.

 

Mike removed his hat and revealed flowing locks of blonde hair. That’s why he called him Petra, I thought. Petra was beautiful. I wish my mum looked like Petra.

 

“How’s the leg?” She asked.

 

“It’s sore, but I’ll be fine.” I wanted to look brave.

 

“We are members of an association called ‘Infancia Sagrada’. “We monitor kids in situations like yours and then we get them out to show them what a real loving family can be like. We know you have had a hard time, but now that is over. We hope you will be happy here. More biscuits?” She smiled at me.

 

How could I be anything other than happy in a house that had chocolate digestives? I nodded to her and she gave me three more. I was now on seven, a personal best.

 

“We have compiled a dossier on your parents so that when the time is right, they will sign the adoption papers and you will be free of them. When you see your new room, we are sure you’ll be happy to stay with us. We can’t have children but have taken it upon ourselves to save kids like you. Do you understand, Jamie?” She asked, and I nodded.

 

“Well, let’s go and see that room of yours!” She led me upstairs and there was a room that I had seen before. It was one of my drawings. Everything was there, it was my dream room. Everything except the guys.

 

“It’s great.” I said. How could I tell them about Gruffle and the guys? Nobody knew about that, that was my secret.

 

The days passed, and I got settled into the new place. Every night looking under the bed and in the wardrobe for Gruffle and the guys, but they never showed. Then Petra saw me crying. She asked me if I wanted a brother, or a sister. They said they could get me one however I wanted. I told her it wasn’t that, I missed the guys.

 

“Oh! That’s no problem.” She assured me. I went to my room with a glass of Ribena (this house is like a private supermarket) and a wagon wheel. After about an hour of PlayStation, Petra knocked on my door again.

 

“Can I come in?” She asked. I had never been asked that before.

 

“I’ve got a little surprise for you.” She opened the door wide and there were the guys! All four of them. We got under the bed and played until it was dark. That night Gruffle stayed in my bed with me but the next day they all took their places in the wardrobe or under the bed. It was just like the old times, expect without the old times. Petra taught me to read and play the piano. I had a new surname now and changed school. I was the new kid for a while, but it was soon cool. Mr Jones lent me a chess set and Petra’s husband showed me how to set up the pieces. It sort of came from nowhere but when I thanked him I called him “Dad”.

 

I can’t believe I have just found that in my old bedroom. Tomorrow is a celebration for their 25th wedding anniversary, so I have taken some time off from my studies to be there for them. I never heard anything from my real parents. When I was 18, Petra, I mean Mum, showed me the documents that they had signed giving me up for adoption, but I never felt the need to go looking for them. After that, I got my A-Level results and went to study at Cambridge, moving into halls with enough space under the bed and in the wardrobe for Gruffle, Snuffle, Trushle and Mushle.

A Man For All Treasons

 

Granada Studios, Subterranean Broadcasting House, March 19th, 2034.

 Female Reporter’s Voice:

 

            If you have had your Newscaster lobe operational these days, there is no way that you will have been able to escape the news of the demise of the former Italian politician, entrepreneur, bon viveur and scandal magnet Enrico Fettuccini, who has died in the Scaloni Prison in Milan aged 81.

 

A man who surely requires no introduction from us and who has historical volumes a plenty devoted to him, but tonight we wanted to provide a different angle on a man who is famous, or should I say infamous, the world over. Yet what we know is often limited to hearsay, exaggerated beyond all belief to accommodate the solely accepted view of Fettuccini being the devil’s representative on the Earth, a man so inherently evil and twisted that he must have been born without a modicum of goodness, manufactured maybe, rather than born. The product of everything that is rotten and wicked in our society. A man who took advantage of everyone and everything that came in his path to create a vast personal fortune and rose to the highest levels of power, only, for when he was brought toppling down, he would return stronger than before, convincing the evermore gullible public that he was repentant, only for his next attack to go further, to hurt deeper. Or have we all missed something? Did he have a message that we failed to comprehend?

 

We have tracked down four people who were close to him in four pivotal periods in his life: A teacher from that harsh childhood riddled with poverty that would shape his drive in later life. His personal assistant from 1981 to 2002, a person who remained loyal in testing times. His second wife, and lastly, his cellmate, the latter being the only person in whom he confided in the final years of his life.

 

With these testimonies, the aim is to create a fuller account of a man about whom millions and millions of words have been written, andwhose real modus operandi has been interpreted by every historical commentator and occupants of bars since the early eighties.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, we give you. The Real Enrico Fettuccini.

 

The screen goes dark. The first image to appear is a wheat field in Northern Italy. A vehicle heads down the unmarked road into the town of Rottofreno, Fettuccini’s birthplace, a small town, less than ten miles from the city of Piacenza. The shot continues through the town, intermingling photos from the fifties of the last century with images from the present day. We stop at what was the site of the Fettuccini family home, the old yellowing photographshows a large family dressed in meagre attire on the porch of a house, badly in need of a lick of paint and some attention from someone with greater handyman skills than any of the Fettuccini males possessed.

 

The image of the old house slowly fades and is replaced by the current occupant of the space, a rather dilapidated laundrette run by a Chinese family. The owner is asked about the Fettuccini residence, but asks for the camera to be turned off. The town has not decided to cash on its most famous former resident, the local council had a Fettuccini museum closed down despite the roaring trade it was doing, they chose to knock down the house to prevent the unwanted pilgrimages of devotees who still saw good in the man.

 

One of the buildings that Enrico would still recognise is the old school, now a primary school solely, but in those days, it handled an intake of infants up to pre-university students for a town with, at the time, less than four-thousand inhabitants. Obviously, most of his school pals are in the same place as Fettuccini, or in no state to offer a testimony to our programme, yet, whilst doing research for the same, in an old house next to the school, a box of VHS videos were found that contained recordings made for a fictional version of the early life of Enrico. The recordings featured interviews with the schoolmaster who would have seen him enter the institution as a pasty and underfed child of five, and the boy who left for Milan University thirteen years later, with the ideas in place that would define his actions for the following sixty-three.

 

The presenter appears again to tell us that the first videos were not made specifically for this programme, but nonetheless represent a valuable testimony and insight into the early life of this fascinating subject.

 

Once again, the screen goes black. That grainy image that every VHS owner will recall with certain alacrity appears before the image steadies and we see a man in his late sixties, posing almost with visible cringe before the backdrop of a schoolmaster’s room featuring crude daubings on the blackboard and even an apple on the desk.

 

The man is frail. A lifetime in rural classrooms has not been kind to him. The year is 1998, it is a cold afternoon in November and the director’s drive to film the piece in the same schoolroom where Fettuccini was a student is already beginning to have a tiresome effect on the teacher, Mister di Marco, who seems to wonder why he has agreed to this after all this time. It is confirmed that the camera is rolling, and he begins to speak. There are no questions, he just speaks, maybe the idea was to edit questions in afterwards that would make his responses seem all the more pertinent, but no-one ever got that far.

 

Signore di Marco:

 

“Of course, I remember the very first day he walked into the school. I had taught his brothers and sisters, so in some way, I knew what to expect. You’d be surprised how many kids I recognise, even now, after all these years, I can see a forty-year old bloke in the street and remember when he was five, when he cried because he had lost his pencil or when he scored a goal at playtime. Even though our school is tiny, a lifetime working there has meant thousands of children have passed through its doors, I can remember every one of them, to a lesser or greater extent.

 

            I try not to prejudge kids before they take their seat at the desk. The Fettuccini’s came from renowned stock, my father taught their parents, they had taken to fascism in the thirties with a degree of enthusiasm that even across the border in Germany was considered excessive. It seemed like a wise move at the time, many others made the same decision. Why not back the winners? It seemed like only someone prepared to go that extra distance would be able to pull us out of the mire in which we were drowning. Of course, looking back now, it appears laughable, but you have to have been in such a miserable situation to see how these ideas could flourish so easily. We like to think that we have come a long way since, but we’re no different, we believe we are modern sophisticates ready for the twenty-first century, worldly-wise, wholly protected from and unsusceptible to outside influences, independent thinking-mechanisms, the product of education, but hatred will return, if it ever left. We like to look back with horror and proudly boast that we would never go down that route, whilst already marking its path on our maps. I’m sorry, I’m rambling, I guess this is not what you wanted.” He turned his gaze upwards to the camera pleadingly.

 

            “That’s fine.” Says a voice off-shot. “Just keep talking and we’ll keep filming. We want you to feel comfortable so that the memories flood out.”

 

            “Well, I’m not saying there is any justification to their actions, thousands of Italian families made wrong decisions at that time, but it’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to judge and decry those actions, but until you have had a metaphorical, and physical, gun pointing at your head and forcing you down one road or another, you can never know what it is like. You can always say that you would have preferred to die than to go with the fascists, of course you would! You will never have to make that decision. We were there. We made that decision for you so that you hopefully will never have to. That is the difference.”

 

            Again, a voice off-screen asks him for his earliest recollection of Enrico, obviously trying to speed things along.

 

            “The first day he cried. And the second, and the third. He cried when people were horrible to him, but he cried more when people were nice to him. He gobbled up every morsel placed before him, anything that was leftover went to him. There were poor kids in the class, but none were so open about their need to take on as many calories as possible at the school, lest the evening see bare cupboards once more. They called him ‘spazzatura’(a subtitle appeared below in English with the translation “Rubbish Bin”), he was only happy when he was eating.

 

            He was slow. He was five, but could pass for three. He could barely string two sentences together and looked lost at every juncture. I never like to compare, but if you put the sixteen kids I had in that class (a luxury, I know, I had friends teaching in Milan and Piacenza to classes of forty, my father spent a time in Turin with classes of seventy) and point out which ones would make it in life, I wouldn’t have bet an old lira on Enrico. Though I guess if you could see any of the people who went on to greatness aged five, you probably would not have given them a second look.

 

            The first year at school was tough for him. Especially the winter, that would have been 1958. Times were tough, here they still are, but life back then was harsher. His family lost everything after the war. It was before Enrico’s time, but he knew that they had fallen from grace. The ironic thing of the time was that they kept the house, but that was like almost worse, as if watching it dilapidate around them was further punishment. Things worked differently in those days, they couldn’t sell it and get somewhere cheaper, but they couldn’t afford the upkeep, either. They could have done any number of things with the place, I told them to spruce it up a bit and get lodgers in. They were building the first of the new railways and, although things were bad, the north of Italy was nowhere near as bad as the south. But the father never recovered, he got off light, fascist collaborators in France took a much worse fate but here we were more lenient,I suppose there was more collective guilt, others might have been subtler about it.

           

            What was painful to watch was Enrico’s helplessness. His elder brothers and sisters had managed to shake off the family curse and make their marks in miscellaneous forms of delinquency. Enrico just wandered in the shadow of his parents, traipsing behind his mother in the market as she bartered for everything she purchased, and scurrying from the anger of his father as he drank away the little pittance they had.

 

            There was a day, here my memory comes into its own, and with other kids I cannot pinpoint such moments of epiphany. But aged 9, on the 3rdof March 1962, his father had a fall while inebriated and slipped into a coma from which he would never wake. That day, Enrico walked into the school without the stoop that normally accompanied his mignon frame, he stood tall, as if he had been born on that day, as if a 9 -year external gestation period had ceased, and it was now him and his mother.

 

            In days, his manner changed towards the staff and the pupils. Everyone had simply accepted that the boy had no academic ability and had left him to his own devices in the class. Yet somehow the boy had absorbed the knowledge drifting around the classroom. He could read and write, he could add and subtract, I am tempted to say he had become reborn, but he had enjoyed no life until this point, so this simply a naissance.

 

            He made up for lost time at the same rate as his mother. She huddled together a group of tenants and made THEM pay for the refurbishment of the property before they could move in. With a promise of a cut of future rents (a promise that would be reneged on, the first of many) she hoodwinked the builders into carrying out the tasks technically for free, thus pocketing the advance payments made by the future tenants. When the property was ready, she offered prospective tenants the chance to outbid the previous ones and the latter were left with no abode, despite having paid for the renovations. She told Enrico, ‘life’s most important lesson is that you and yours come first.’ With that her errant children returned to the fray to oversee the empire that was opening up before them.

 

            Enrico was different to the rest of them. In an academic sense, I mean. He was equally determined and avaricious in his pursuit of financial reward, and wasted no time dominating the school playground’s black market. Gosh, we were innocent. He ran rings round all of us. He had the older kids as hired goons and wannabe cohorts stealing from their parents to finance his stock. No outlay, no investment, just gall. I hated being impressed. When we expelled him it made no difference, he still ran things, either from inside or outside the school gates.

 

            By 14, I could see that I had before me a brain that is rarely seen in places such as these. He soon became enamoured with law and business studies. The latter particularly, he garnered an interest in stocks and shares whilst most people in the town had yet to open a bank account. He studiously monitored German and US firms aiming to predict when their stock would rise and be able to sell for a profit. He falsified documentation to be able to trade in stocks at the age of fifteen and made his first killing less than a fortnight later, options purchased with money fronted by other investors, who, after his commission was taken, would see a somewhat disappointing return on their investment.

           

            He was earning at sixteen what brokers in Milan and abroad were struggling to reach in their forties. Soon people came from the cities to him for financial advice. The money he made was reinvested in his mother’s property business and soon the latter would control the town, holding a penchant for run down areas that could be taken advantage of.

 

            Yet despite this upturn in fortunes, Enrico still had a preoccupation. He told me ‘I don’t want people to think of me like the others in my family. I know I am different, I have to help them because they were there for me, but now things are different. I want to study, I want to go to university, I want people to know that I am different. Can you help me?’ How could I say no? The thing was, he could have walked the exams without my help, but I like to think that he enjoyed what you might call learned company. He spent his time with physical and financial bullies, he knew what he had to study, but not why he should study it.

 

            We became close as I tutored him. I took no money from the classes, and he stopped the gifts when I made it clear that I wanted nothing from his ill-gotten gains (in those days I mistrusted the workings of the stock exchange through ignorance, now I know I was in the right.), that inspired him to enter a creative writing competition, which he won, of course, and with those winnings, he bought me a painting that still hangs on my living room wall to this day.

 

            At that time, his motivation seemed equally to be focused on success and not being seen as part of the scumbag family of ‘mafiosi’ who basically had the run of the town. He was convinced of the intellectual nature of his calling, his being drawn to the arts. He promised that he would return to the plume in later years, but first he had to make his fortune, and for that he needed a law degree.

 

            His mother was similarly delighted with the idea of her son becoming a lawyer, she knew he would be a good one and that would give her a certain amount of immunity. She prepared herself to step up control of the town for the moment when Enrico would give all of her actions carte blanche.

 

            I genuinely believe that was the happiest Enrico ever found himself in his life, maybe with time he will find some sort of redemption or atonement, but it is difficult to return after such a disgrace. [1]He was determined to get into Milan’s Law Faculty with the highest grades in the university entrance exams. He toiled day and night as we studied the syllabus together, he wanted me with him in that journey, though if I am honest, I learnt more than him in those sessions, I think he knew some of the stuff was beyond me, I was a jack-of-all-trades in that sixties educational environment, and as the seventies appeared, the man who had trained as primary school teacher forced to impart knowledge to half-hearted country dwellers had amassed a knowledge that would never be called upon again. Before I mentioned his happiness at the time, I overlooked my own.

 

            It was the professional highlight of my career. Since then I have been chasing the next diamond, overturning stones in the country only to be disappointed when any buffeting results in further misshapen stones. Most people in my trade never get this once, but ifyou do, you want it twice, it’s human nature.

 

            Everyone knew what was going on with the family, this was Italy, after all. Life got easier in the seventies, but many still depended on the Fettuccini’s benevolence. The problem with being a benefactor of such graciousness was that you would be expected to return the favour at some point, normally with interest rates not found in your local bank. Enrico made sure that I was beyond reproach, I could have made money out of him, but, even though it sounds unbelievable now, what I got from being able to teach him something, more than made up for a new car, a colour TV or a better fridge. At the end of the day, I can say that I knew the boy before he became the monster, that in reality he was never a monster, but circumstances drove him to act in the way he did. You could say that about virtually anyone, though.

 

            As the time approached for his university exams, he dedicated less and less time to his work (of course, he was trading on his own with a false licence or on behalf of people who were supposed experts in the field). He took risks, cut corners and lost money, he tried to make a couple of quick deals that would yield more than he normally made in three or four, so that he would have extra time to study. These deals turned sour and he lost face. What was admirable at the time was his ability to accept these knocks as part of a learning curve.

 

            He never made the same mistake twice but made sure he made each one once. That was how he learned. That is how he got better. I drove him to take the exams. I doubt his mother actually knew what he had to do. If the enrolment had been up to her, he would never have even got a pencil. He had moved out into an apartment. He was dating a 23-year-old lawyer who was giving him pointers. He was half-way through the reading list for the second year of the degree course before finishing his exams. Inevitably, his papers did not just receive the highest marks possible, they were published by the education department and given a distinction. Milan University were delighted to offer him a place. He now needed an older, more experienced lawyer as a cohort.

 

            Despite him leaving the town, we remained in contact. He wrote to me almost every week, maintaining more contact with me than with his family. He seemed to outgrow them as he saw more and more of the city. From that base, he travelled to other parts of Italy and abroad, learning English and German with the same effortless ease that had characterised all of his previous studies. Inevitably, the frequency of the letters dropped, by the time he entered his second year of studies, information was filtered down to me second-hand, then there was a card at Christmas, then a photo when he graduated.

 

            I knew he had been taken on by a major Milan firm whilst still a mere undergraduate. He was not there just to help with the office chores and bring the coffee, either. He was doing everything bar appearing in court and donning the wig, because he couldn’t, yet. But cases were won thanks to him and his reputation was being grounded.

 

            I thought I heard the last from him, not of him, when I received a phone call in 1973. He would have been on his way to his final exams. In those days, you could plough through the materials at the pace you wanted, technically doing a five-year degree-course in just over three if you were good enough. He was, despite the fact he was also working. But he was seeing the reality of life as a lawyer. He was seeing that it wasn’t the life he wanted. Even if he was the best, he would be comfortable defending high-flying businessmen whose luxury outstripped anything he could aspire to even as partner of the firm. He had left his trading prowess to one side for too long, and it was time re-join the party.

 

            He was despondent when he called me. ‘I want to jack it all in. There is no point in me finishing this degree. I hate Law and I hate the idea of being a lawyer. I have already seen where this profession is going. It’s pointless. I’ll just start up on my own as a trader.’ He told me. I made sure he knew he had to finish, it made no sense to leave it there. Especially when it would involve no effort for him. He eventually saw reason, and acquiesced, even with his reduced interest still obtaining the highest grades in recent times. He then accepted his degree and left the firm.

 

            He offered me a job, but I refused. My work is here I told him. He offered to buy me a new house, but I told him that if I were to move, it would be because I could afford to. I feel at times that he respected me and despised me equally because I was one of the few people who he couldn’t buy, one of the few who stayed fast to their beliefs whilst other sycophants gave him the responses he wanted. I knew my approval was important to him. The next phone call I received would be requesting my pardon when he got caught, but there would be a lot of water going under the bridge between that point and then.

 

            From hereon in, all I can tell you about him is less than many others can tell you. He only returned to the town for his mother’s funeral. He came to see me, but things had changed so much by then that the relationship was not the same. I still saw the boy in the trembled in my classroom all those years before, but he had become an imposing man ready to take on the world.

 

            The camera continued, and Di Marco sipped from his coffee, only when he looked up and directly to shot could we see the glimmer of moisture in his eyes. It was the first time he had shown any emotion during the entire interview, remaining stoically unchanged throughout, now he had finished, and his memory allowed him a slight dalliance with sentimentality. He moves over to the table and takes a bite of the apple, with that he gives a wink to the camera and the fuzzy lines appear once more.

 

Once again, we see the presenter with a serious look all over her face. “We’d like to thank the Di Marco family for allowing us to use his recordings. As you may know, the teacher passed away in 2004 after a short illness and Fettuccini was allowed to attend his schoolmaster’s farewell on compassionate grounds whilst serving at the pleasure of the Republic.

 

“The next guest is the lady who worked as his personal assistant and confidant from January 1981 until his first incarceration in 2002. She has only just retired from her legal aid post at the age of seventy-five and plans to write her memoirs now that she has the time. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Orsola Ciardi.”

 

There is applause and the sprightly lady takes her seat. She looks well for seventy-five.

 

Maestro Di Marco gave an account of the life of Fettuccini in his formative years, just until he completed his law degree and decided not to practice. Of course, you were still at school when all this was happening and would not meet Fettuccini until seven years later, in 1981 when he surprisingly took you on as his personal assistant. I hope you will permit the use of the term surprising as you were younger than any of the other candidates and had relatively little experience. What did you know about him before you had the interview?

 

I did my homework, but it is not like nowadays. You had to traipse through libraries and old newspapers to find out more about people in those days. He was young and ambitious, but so was I. I was sure that if he got to see me than he would see my potential. I felt we were very similar in many respects. I got the sensation he felt the same and that is why he hired me. He had a reputation for, shall we say, extra-curricular activities even at that stage, I knew what to expect but it seemed clear from the outset that I was not his type. That was perhaps my blessing, or my downfall. Depends how you look at it. When I left that interview, I did not expect twenty years later to be behind bars.” She began.

 

“Was he clear about his plans even then? How much were you aware of at the start?” The interviewer put on her probing suit.

 

I maintain that pretty much everything back then was above board. He had an eye for business and was charming. Fettuccini Inc. was going places, but it seemed to lack direction, stewardship and vision. He was still not sure what his calling was, or how to prove himself outside the legal sphere. He was wealthy at twenty-nine, he probably could have even retired then, or had someone else do the work and cash in the chips, I know plenty who would have taken that option, but Enrico was not built for leisure. He could never switch off. He gave all he had and expected the same in return. He was generous, but could be a very tough-task master.

 

            But he was not despotic, he did not fire people for saying the wrong things, but he was very reluctant to hire anyone he had doubts about. He used to wander the streets at night, rough areas in Milan, around the Romolo and Lodi districts, looking for inspiration. I am surprised he did not get into more trouble than he did. A couple of times he came back grazed but only ever carried a single ten-thousand lira note and no wallet or ID.

 

            These parts of the city reminded him of the squalor he had seen in his hometown and began to lead him to believe that his mission may have more of a political calling than entrepreneurial. He was struck by the way these areas ruled themselves, policing being almost a token gesture. From the City Hall down, the feeling was that these were not areas that could be saved, so tourists and well-to-do citizens were wise not to venture into these areas. The problems arose when their residents shifted their offices to the places where tourists did go and where the city’s wealth could be troubled. But he was still a long way from coming up with his famous first idea.

 

            He continued to dabble in the stock market, but that was boring him, just like Law. It was easy, he could tell which companies would break through and which stock to buy. Those deals financed a leisure and hotel complex that kept him entertained, but once it was built, his interest waned. Even as the profits rolled in, he was anxious for another venture to occupy his mind. A new venture, always, he would never repeat.

 

            Delinquency seems to run in the blood around these parts and inspiration can come from the strangest of places. One day, on a visit to a prison outside Turin, Fettuccini was struck by the overwhelming mixture of inefficiency and the obvious levels of corruption that were inherent within the place. He was not particularly angered by the corruption itself, moreover that so little was being done to channel the potential benefits of this flagrant misuse of power. He sat down with the governor and demanded an explanation as to the nature of the set-up.

 

            He was disgusted. He put his team in the Milan office to work on a reform of the Italian prison system. He began to curry favour with people in power to devise a model prison that would work for the state. He argued that the majority of the prisoners inside would not respond to any treatment aimed at reinserting them back into society would be a mere squandering of public money. Why not let them carry on with their business though in a fully taxed model that would allow the state to recover some of its outlay, ideally all and more.

 

            The plans almost harked back to his mother’s days in the homestead, lots of promises based on flimsy future rewards and lots of commitments that would never be undertaken. Even so, with enough political backing behind him, he was able to unveil plans for a model prison outside Milan in Chiari, in August 1986, whilst most of the opposition enjoyed its summer holiday period.

 

            The plan was simple. The prison would no longer be a state-funded venture. It would be given a budget every year and that money would be distributed between the employees and inmates. The system would govern itself to maintain order, in theory, or those who could not be trusted to maintain said order, would fall victims of the same. In any jail, there is a hidden infrastructure in place that abuses the justice measures intended to convert hardened, or hardening, criminals, so Fettuccini argued that would it not be vastly beneficial to the Italian state to have these people in control of mini-ghettos where they would be happy and fulfilled rather than being forced back on society to wreak havoc once more. Those who were willing to redeem themselves would have the opportunity. If education was required, there would be more money, relatively, to aid people who had made the decision to better themselves.” She paused.

 

“You will have to admit that it sounds, to the untrained ear, that you were basically implementing semi-regulated concentration camps.” The reporter asked.

 

Enrico was so much better than me at making it sound plausible. He believed in it, so we all did. It was a vote winner. There was no way of seeing then where things would go. You give the inmates a certain amount of responsibility and spice that up with a modicum of fear, you seem to have a perfect recipe for success. The problem is that you are expecting rational behaviour from criminals. In many ways, though, giving people power who have never held power before is a dangerous element in any scenario. Despite good intentions, people often have trouble handling this new situation.” She tried to smile at the camera.

 

“So, what was life like in Chiari in the first years?”

 

To the outside world, the project was a resounding success. Crime rates fell in Milan as people actually wanted to stay there once their stretch was up. There they could make a name for themselves and move up the ladder, back on the streets it was quite different. The professional staff were technically in charge, but things happened. At the start, it was easy to brush all these minor hiccups under the carpet, but the prison population was dwindling and there was no new intake. Old scores were being settled and the real control was in the hands of the convicts. Chiari was an out-of-control den of iniquity in no time, but the government needed it to be seen as a success. There were plans for the model prison system to be extended all over Italy, and system licenced abroad. International observers were invited to audit the installations. We were told that all of this was new, and that we would need some time for readjustment.

 

            No real information left Chiari at the time of the audits. Both sides were happy to report that the happy prisoners they saw in the workshops and classrooms were the product of a convivial ambience that had changed their outlook. Once the cameras were turned off, drug running, extortion and prostitution became the watchwords of the Chiari set-up. But Fettuccini was in negotiations with Rome and had lucrative deals in place that would clean up the capital. This motivated him more than anything else, because it was not just the wealth, soon he would be taking a cut from each of the model prisons opened during his tenure, but also from every gram of drug sold, from every clandestine clinch and every fearful loner forced to pay for protection. The belief that he was doing good never left him. He knew that he had to do bad to do good. That was his justification, the system could not be saved, but as a patriot, there was no way that Italy should have to bear the cost.

 

            As expansions were planned for Rome, it was election year and seven model prisons promised to transform the capital and rid it of delinquency, things people wanted to hear, things others did not have the guts to say, along with Naples and Palermo, minor issues such as a number of deceased prisoners could not be allowed to hinder progress. There were times when it could have been argued that the system worked. I won’t say that it had its advantages because that is patently obvious, and the reason it took the best part of twenty years to close them down. It was free money for the state, it was beyond Orwell, self-contained hell-holes that were financially productive. In five years, the prison system had gone from being a burden on the taxpayer to being self-sufficient, and in many cases, profitable. Mafia techniques, know-how and staff were brought in to streamline less efficient prisons, but by 1993, not one model prison cost the Italian state a single lira.

 

            That is why it was so easy to turn a blind eye. These were criminal elements either killing themselves or being allowed to run their own kingdoms. People outside were not bothered, criminals did not need to pilfer from the streets when they could arrange an interview and join the programme.

 

            The lands around Chiari were appropriated to allow for the expansion of the prison and the fledgling industries that it housed. Entire families were relocated and formed part of prison life, with no restriction on visiting as long as targets were met. The governor remained in place, along with his staff, but their presence bore more testament to tokenism, as they would be unable to quell any uprising. Though that was the beauty of the system, while it worked, there would be no uprising as such, the prisoners did not want to leave, all there would be were power struggles, and if whoever was in power was too foolish to keep it, then a sort of natural order would take control until there was balance once again. All the criminals wanted was a place run and a chance to live in better conditions. You have to wonder about whether the idea was actually that wrong, maybe just the way it was implemented.

 

            Anyway, before we knew it, the Rome tender was up for grabs and we were interviewing new staff. Central government made it clear that Rome was to be a success and efforts should be focused there, but that resources were not to be taken from Rome to solve problems in Naples and Palermo. They would sort themselves out. It had always been the way down there.

 

Anyway, before we knew it, the Rome tender was up for grabs and we were interviewing new staff. Central government made it clear that Rome was to be a success and efforts should be focused there, but that resources were not to be taken from Rome to solve problems in Naples and Palermo. They would sort themselves out. It had always been the way down there.  The onus was on getting Rome right, that would mean international tenders and serious money.

 

            By now, Fettuccini had more money than he could obviously spend, though try he did, yet it was never enough. The lure of the lira, so to speak, had overpowered him. He associated more money with more power. And inevitably, in a system based on the corrupt operations of criminals and politicians, when the cracks began to appear, they were impossible to fill.

 

            Rome worked perfectly, they all did, on the surface. The reality was a series of self-contained crime cities that were left to their own devices, as long as they did not bother the clean and safe cities that the country now boasted. First there were the infiltrations, the Internet’s burgeoning powers gave the world a platform to share its views, for good or for bad. In the mid-nineties, most of the voices raising the issue of the model prisons were reasonably level-headed. Around the prisons, people knew what was really going on, maybe no-one really fell for the glossy promotional videos that showed happy inmates co-habiting in peaceful existence, it was as believable as the stuff the Nazis and the Soviets put out in black and white, but as everyone was doing so well out of it, why would anyone interfere?

 

            People looked at it like this, the system was working, that was undeniable. How could anyone question it? GDP was up, spending on policing, prisons and security in general was vastly reduced. Most prisons actually made money, of course, it was alleged that this was returned to the public coffers, but in reality, well, we all know what really happened. While everyone was happy with their share, things moved along swimmingly. That said, life expectancy for new inmates in Naples was five months, by 1997 there was actually a shortage of criminals in the region. Heads of the prison even had to interview from other parts of Italy to cover posts.

 

            And then the trouble really started. The governors, boards of directors and staff knew they were there for show, precariously poised and in danger of being removed at any moment. They were told they had the backing of the military but push and shove joining forces, as they so often do, the latter did not inspire much confidence as the inmates were now much more expertly armed. Hostages were taken in one of the Rome prisons. The cons demanded a much bigger cut, or they would execute the staff. It was a mess. International observers came in and ordered the Italian government to find a solution. The decision was made to create the scenario of a long-running standoff between the military and those inside the prisons, but the reality was the government just planned a kind of war of attrition in the hope that everyone would kill everyone else and just require a clean-up afterwards.

 

            Some prisons even had their own broadcasting equipment and proudly showed the world what was going on. The Italian government was disgraced and needed a scapegoat. It was obvious that nobody in the highest echelons was going to take the rap and Fettuccini was put on the stand. In the meantime, sanctions meant that any ill-gotten gains during those “glory years” were put to use undoing the wrong that had been done. The goose that laid the golden eggs had been abused, raped, eaten, exhumed, cooked again and its bones boiled down for soup. Everyone wanted a piece, and everyone took one, until the system collapsed. I genuinely believe, and will always believe, that a controlled model prison system could work. The fulcrum is, clearly, to what extent control should be implemented.” She smiled at the camera.

 

The first versions of the model prisons were closed in 1999, with Fettuccini and his team facing trial in the spring of 2000 as the perpetrators of the failed system. You worked closely with him during this period, and the man’s reputation proceeds him, but was he really as tough and heartless as the press made out?

 

He was a perfectionist above all. I think people have an idea of him that they have imagined and do not want to shift from that preconception. I consider myself fortunate to have known and worked for him, to have loved him, not in a biblical sense, but I loved him as a friend, as a colleague and as a mentor. People have never believed that at no time did we become romantically involved, but it is the truth. Perhaps if we had done, I would have saved myself a lot of bother and a prison sentence, as it would have been fleeting at best. But no, my ability to remain distant from his advances, not that there were any after the first few months, meant that I was privy to a level of trust few were granted.

 

“Obviously, during your trial, the Fettuccini defence was quick to put a gagging order on both the press and those taking the stand, but now, with the publication of your autobiography around the corner, would you be able to shed some light on what you described as ‘juicy anecdotes’ during your testimony? You have remained silent for more than three decades, but our viewers would certainly enjoy a sneak preview.” The interviewer knew what she was doing.

 

Well, why not? After all fiction in recent years has seemed to struggle to find an outlet for itself, so maybe fact is the future. However, before I begin, I would like to stress that any proceeds from my book will go to funds established to help those thousands of families who lost so much during that dark period, well, the dark period I was involved in, but I don’t want to steal the thunder of your next guest.

 

            People think I knew everything. If I had, if others had, the system would have fallen to pieces before. Yes, people were making a pretty penny out of it, and there was the added bonus that criminals were much happier in the model prisons than on the streets. But all theorem work better on paper, once they are put into practice, the cracks appear and, especially when dealing with a system based on greed to attain power, its durability was always going be hard fought.

 

            There were always two stories. The truth and what was told to the press. I became privy to the truth when it could no longer be hidden from me. We had to believe in the system to make the elements we put in place work, or seem to. Naivety is a major part of success at this level, maybe you prefer not to see a reality, or you assume that as nobody else can see it, there is nothing to see. I was a fervent believer in the project until the turn of the decade, when hitherto unseen carelessness allowed me to obtain a deeper vision of how the project was operating.

 

            I felt stupid for a while when I found out. Then I felt anger as I knew my role would change. I tried to act normal in the meantime, but it was useless. In the end, I found out that it was not carelessness, moreover, it was meant to look like that, but he knew what he was doing. He wanted to see where my loyalty was, whilst making it clear that even if I thought I could use ignorance as a defence, the papers showed my consent had been given. My signature was on the documents, I know I didn’t sign them, but that did not really matter. I was promoted a week later.

 

            Once I was fully ‘au fait’ with what was going on, I began to make plans for my future. I knew prison was around the corner, hopefully the sentences would be reduced, and we would be out sharpish. This was 1992, for the next ten years I expected to be taken away handcuffed at any moment, by the time it happened, it was actually a relief.

 

            I had changed a lot since that innocent young girl walked into the interview. I had become more like him, I guess I wanted to be him, though knew I never could. He saw my potential, that is another thing that saved me, he could never be with a woman whom he saw as being on an equal footing, he was very traditional in that sense. I wasn’t. I won, or so I believed. Anyway, as my new role gave me new powers, I was offered the chance to head one of the secret (then) divisions that were operating inside the prisons.

 

            Given the amount of death that was occurring in the place, I hit upon the idea of taking advantage of those corpses and moribund bodies wasting away or awaiting incineration. Criminals’ livers, kidneys and hearts were no different from any other normal, healthy person, yet vastly different to wealthy people on medical waiting lists for transplants. It began almost by accident, we hadn’t really explored that niche in the market, we were too busy trying to exploit them while they were alive to think about their worth once they had departed. A friend of a friend mentioned that his daughter needed a kidney transplant or would not finish high-school. This friend had the resources but not the donor, none of her family would make suitable donors, we offered to screen one.

 

            As the first case was a mere kidney, once we found a suitable donor a deal was made with him for one of his and a lump sum. That was not particularly ethical but compared to the other stuff this was like taping an album at home. The doctors involved drew up a list of wealthy patients who could benefit from the availability of suitable organs and we began a more serious screening process. Certain donors befell accidents when it was clear that their organs could serve a better purpose. Others we got lucky with as they died of what the prison services referred to as “natural causes”, have you ever seen a place where so many men in their twenties and thirties die of natural causes? Whenever the families kicked up a fuss, they were easily paid off or threatened, they knew everyone on the inside was part of a gang, it was the life they had chosen, often the families on the outside accepted the price of their newfound lifestyle being the loss of the occasional member, collateral damage, isn’t that what they call it.

 

            I had the idea of turning this into an export business, so that when the inevitable international police appeared, we would have some more leverage as big names were involved. We started small time, but demand was huge, and ethics overlooked. Some clients we did not charge, it was more important to have a lobbying voice in their parliaments. That was how we got a foothold into the US Senate, the Bundestag and the ‘Gosudárstvennaya Dúma’. Maybe it was this venture what prevented us from being taken down for so long, that would be heaping praise on myself that is perhaps undue.

 

            Either way, before those involved really understood how serious their foul play was, they were in it as much as us, who was going to bring us down now? And who would fall with us? It was a time in which everything was for sale. There was a recession in Europe, outwardly, but only felt by those who toiled at their machines, offices and desks, those behind the system felt like everything was there for the taking and we tried to take the lot.

 

            One out of every five operations I channelled off for my retirement, forced or earned. At first, it hurt me when kids’ organs were used, as far as I know, no child was ever killed to order, but the fact that I don’t know, does not mean that it didn’t happen. When I was released from prison in 2010, a large part of my wealth was intact and waiting for me on a Caribbean island. I missed Italy, but had to keep out of the public eye. Bribes and the fact that people have such short memories helped me. Then, when the time was right, I made an immunity deal and released the remainder of the documents that they never got their hands on. Some of the biggest firms in the world are about to be exposed, you will soon see how the people you have voted for and supported for the last twenty or thirty years have hands as dirty as mine and Enrico’s.

 

            There, you have your scoop. Happy now?” Orsola finished. The camera returned to the presenter whose mouth remained open. Broadcasters had seen a lot over the years, but this represented television history. The cameraman, unsure of how to react either, changed the focus to the studio audience, who replicated the expression on the presenter’s face. After a pause, she muttered the words “Ad break”.

 

Orsola left the studio floor without assistance and was taken by limousine to her next port of call. Her deal would be enough to see her out of jail for the rest of her life, though she had taken the decision to accept the ignominy of the general public’s resentment of her actions as punishment. She did not expect to last very long as she headed to the airport to take her private jet.

 

The presenter, now professionally composed and ready for the next guest, hair neatly coiffured and make-up retouched, return to TV robot mode for the next segment.

 

“Well, that was quite a revelation. I just hope the rest of the show doesn’t let you down!” She joked but inside was petrified at how they were going to follow THAT. “As promised, our next guest is Fettuccini’s second wife Nilde Boschi, who will be reading extracts from her 2029 autobiography ‘The Woman Behind the Man’. She promises to offer a privileged insight into thestory behind Fettuccini’s second and final phase in power.  The renowned socialite and party-girl, twenty-five years his junior and, if you believe the gossip columns (she turns to another camera and grins ‘it’s all lies’!) largely liable for his heart attack in 2020. In her first public appearance in nearly ten years, ladies and gentlemen, show your appreciation for Nilde Boschi!”

 

There was no appreciation, a chorus of boos rang out from a group of loyal supporters who still blamed her as much as they blamed him. “Nilde is going to share with us a series of hitherto unseen extracts from her autobiography, published in 2029, which were deemed even too salacious for the Italian public. These delve deeper into the pair’s complex relationship, and her involvement in Fettuccini’s green revolution that would see him released from jail and once again moving amongst the elite in Italian and European politics. Let’s give her the chance to tell her side of the story, remember some of you viewed Orsola as just another victim in this story before the show started, maybe you will see Nilde in a different light afterwards. So, Nilde, for the uninitiated, please explain a little more about the “Green Revolution”.

 

Well, once Enrico was in jail, there was little he could do. He had friends on the outside, that was true, but he was the high-profile scapegoat to the biggest scandal in recent history, maybe even the biggest scandal ever, he had to do what they called proper time. Every eye was on him, of course, he could not be in the company of other prisoners or he would have lasted five minutes. He was taken to a specially built compound that was created for him, Orsola and others at the top of the chain. There were voices that wanted him (them) to be thrown to the wolves, some of the wishy-washy liberals who made sure the model prisons ended the way they did, suddenly ceased to be the bastions of liberty and lovers of life as they bade for his blood. Funny how ideals are so easily changed, that was what Enrico tried to tell everyone all the time. Anyway, my reading will begin, as a response to your question, with the idea of the Green Revolution.

 

            I believe it did start off as an epiphany. He wanted to make amends. He was repentant. I also believe his initial dream for the model prisons was not what it became years later. He was a good man, deep down, very deep down, obviously, you had to seek it out, and by the time I got to him, a lot of the early stuff had already happened. The first wife took a lot out of him, but I owe her, she gave him the kids, so I didn’t have to. I have never liked them and the idea of bearing them has always been an anathema to me, by the time the country bumpkin managed to get the overdose right, they were away at boarding school and I could call in the decorators to begin to eradicate all semblance of her poor taste .  

 

            He had been in prison for four and a half years when the idea came to him. He saw how much waste there was, even from that privileged position, he could see that. Whether he would have had the same inkling to save the world from inside one of his own model prisons is another matter. He was determined to get another chance. He went down because he took the rap, I mean, it was actually his idea and fault, and because of his actions lots of people died, industries and political careers were destroyed, and Italy was a laughing stock, once more, but he did feel he had paid his dues. He promised me he would be out soon, so I stuck by him. We were supposed to have had our wealth curtailed but life was still comfortable. I didn’t work nor did I need to. I did the odd interview but said nothing of any worth. I kept the good stuff for later. For now, you might say.

 

            I met him in 1994. He was still married then, obviously, but that had never bothered him (or her) before so there was no point in it starting now. You all heard her side of the story regarding that bit, so I’ll stick with my remit: ‘The Green Revolution: Unpublished Excerpt 1:’

 

            As I said, during one of my visits, we talked about how disgusted he was with his research into waste and people’s failure to adopt more green lifestyles. He was allowed to use monitored internet in prison and began writing a sort of “Green Mein Kampf”, outlining his views on how to save the planet. Most of it was a hotchpotch of current de vogue environmentalists’ ideas. I don’t really think there was anything new that he was saying, but he managed to make anything come across is believable. We devised our own language when awaiting sentencing, practicing it for months on end so that we would be able to communicate more or less freely once inside. It was not rocket science, but it certainly had them stumped for a while, it was not easy to master and quite often neither of us had much of an idea what the other one was saying. You simply replaced the second to last vowel with the next one in the alphabet, and did the same with the penultimate consonant, though this time changing the consonant for the one preceding it in the alphabet. We only did this with verbs and nouns so that most of the conversation would be in standard Italian, this had the effect of making it more confusing to the listener, as soon as they thought they had latched on to something, another word came along to throw them off the scent. So in the sentence “we are going to break you out of jail”, you would have “we ere goolg to breej you out of jaok”. Most of the time we would muffle the jumbled words to account for getting things wrong, which sometimes actually helped or made it equally difficult to understand.

 

            What made it even easier for us was the fact that he was passing false information to his new PA, and Orsola’s successor, Patrizia, this was done without her knowledge, but then again, so were most things. Why would a disgraced businessman in prison need a PA still? She just took the salary and didn’t ask. The information she had was then scrutinised by the police and other forces of law and order, which left us free to discuss plans for this ‘Green Revolution’ of his.

 

            It was clearly a ruse to get out early. He sold the redemption card, his atonement would be the pardon of all of Italy. He had done the nation wrong, but now had the means to put things right. Ecology would teach us how to live as a more functional and still more decent society. He was committed to this idea at the time, maybe he was later, I asked him in code whether there was something else behind it, but he insisted I begin to implement his work before his release.

 

            Release? What planet was he living on? He had been sentenced to eighty years and served four. He was going nowhere as far as I could see, but he had been given permission to use ‘undisclosed funds’ to form a scientific association to further research and implement a seven-step procedure for manufacturing firms to implement. On paper, it looked like a delightful means of changing our ways. We made progress, appointing scientists and managers using cash that had been absconded from the model prison days. Why was no-one questioning his motives and allowing him to act? Our next meeting would clarify a great deal.

 

            ‘I hose lots of ondo on the peuqle that pos me here. I hose mece a barfein with the polode. If I keon quios I woml be fsoe.’ So that was it. He had been bargaining a deal that would set him free and allow him to return to Italian society, more than just a free man, but head of the Green Revolution.  In the last two years of the model prison system, he did nothing more than amass evidence that would one day set him free. He knew that he could not use it during the trial but needed to wait until the people he had taken the rap for would be once again cosily ensconced in the luxury of their careers. Now he was ready to attack. Suddenly, it was declared that there had been evidence tampered with during the trial, a technicality, that did not mean that he was innocent, only that the justice system had failed to uphold the principles it claimed so dear to it during the media circus.

 

            In weeks they were all out. For a while, there was talk of a re-trial but that was just to give his legal counsel time to put together a binding argument as to why that was wholly inadmissible. And so he reappeared, showing the customary repent, looking almost forlorn, claiming he would not squander this second chance and sharing his vision of how to make Italy great in the eyes of the world again. It seemed to wholly unbelievable and see-through that it did not surprise me how quickly people took to it. He began giving lectures that soon turned into rallies, he began to appear ready for office once more. Nobody even questioned it, people actually seemed thankful he was back.

 

            The idea was simply to force companies to operate within guidelines set forth in accordance with things like the Kyoto Protocol or whichever agreement was in vogue at the time and wholly open to loose interpretation. His genuine motivation soon gave way to his old chum averice, not solely due to the accumulation of wealth, but more the enjoyment he got from once again seeing people vie for his attention. Within months, some of the major manufacturing firms in Italy could see their production halted at any time on his say-so. That is what he loved. Once you have seen everything money can give you, you need something else, an extra. For him it was power. Yet power is a difficult drug of choice, and tends to betray those who taste its wares.

 

            So that is how he went from someone who had just left prision to Minister of Finance in less than five years. He made sure that everyone owed him a favour to remain operational. Basically, our office would issue a certificate saying that whichever firm was licenced to trade in the (insert product). This did not mean that Italy was suddenly a green country and a model to aspire to. Once the certificates had been issued, insepctions were laughingly undertaken that meant an extension of the original terms. As Enrico was not solely motivated by money now, the firms had to find a way to attract his attention, and keep it. Once they had it, they could do as they pleased.

 

            This scheme had an effect on their profits and this meant that many manufacturers saw the need to cut corners with the cheaper versions of their products. The more power he got, the higher up the ladder he moved. When he was made Minister, it was reminiscent of when Hitler was given the chancellorship (it’s a fierce comparison, I know, but it’s not easy finding a benchmark worse the Enrico, and when I say Enrico, I include everyone in his inner circle.

 

            This went on for years unchallenged. Companies registered, were certified, passed their inspections or failed them. At first, many companies did actually legitimately pass their inspections, or would have done, had they ever been performed. I almost felt sorry for manufacturers of chemical products who implemented a series of measures to be compliant with the standards in force, when it was just the fact that their CEO was on a lobbying committee that could propel Enrico even higher into the political sky.

 

            His shift into the government happened after his first heart attack in 2020. The press were beginning to do their old investigative journalism trick, poking their noses in, smelling a rat, like their profession is in any way honourable. We had in place a series of scapegoats and false information, also the joyous aspect of working in an ambience decorated with greed and ambition, is that we had people who held executive posts yet did nothing, just waiting to take the rap when it all came crashing down around us. They were prepared to do ten or fifteen years in a former model prison (part of the plea bargain) so that Enrico could be exonerated. I trusted him but that was naivety. If he had to save himself, then he would.

 

            People say I caused his first heart attack. That’s true to an extent. We were married in 2019, but with a pre-nup longer than a Ken Follett novel. There was no way he was going to lose his fortune for folly such as love. He did love me, and I him, but he loved other things more. With the press sniffing around, I suggested some outpouring of public pity might help his cause. Hence a rather bad case of indigestion (I forced him to eat three steaks in twenty minutes) led to an ambulance being called. His private physician then declared he had a myocardial infarction. People came in droves to the hospital, well-wishers, admirers, even enemies. I have never seen anyone have such a hold on the people.

 

            Less than two weeks later, there were pictures of him in the gym, proudly consuming wholly safe products (the liquids were Evian water with harmless colourant) and promising to come back fitter and stronger. The next day, he was offered the post of Minister, he hadn’t been an MP but there would be a by-election, the President needed people like him. Once they finally left us in peace, I laughed harder than I had ever done in my life. Now, it seemed he would be untouchable.

 

            For the four years he was Minister, the Green Revolution was more or less left to its own devices. Occasionally, there was an in-house orchestrated purge, a tip-off and one of the execs bade farewell to their life of leisure to shift to an incarcerated life of leisure. That way, it looked like we were on top of things, but of course, the official line was, you had to bear in mind that Enrico could not be in two places at once, the demands on the Minister were immense, of course he had to delegate, and that can sometimes bring issues with it. We referred constantly to the unblemished reputation prior to him joining the Government. Yet he promised to sort the wheat from the chaff within his own staff.

 

            Then, in 2024, kids started dying. First just one. These things happen. Press statement and move on. Then more. It turned out that so many corners were being cut by certified green companies that almost no quality controls were being exercised on perishable goods. One of the major suppliers of powdered milk for infants was reusing materials past their prime, well past their prime, and then others that had no place in any foodstuff. By the end a tin of powdered milk costing ten euros had production costs of less than ninety centimes. A quick profit indeed.

 

            That brought the Government down. The President resigned claiming he needed to spend more time with his family. He jumped before he was pushed. The others were pushed. Before the health authorities could get a handle on the situation, eighty-seven children had died and a further three-hundred and sixty-two were hospitalised, only seventeen of these ever coming out alive, and only two making it to adulthood. Of course, none of this is new information to you, so I will end with something that has rested on my editor’s floor for a while. I’m not sure how often an editor’s face turns white when they read something, but I thank him for his generosity in keeping this out of the public eye until now.

 

            Two years before the first death, a friend of mine had a baby and we went to see them. She wanted to breastfeed but couldn’t. The child looked awful, I asked her if she was alright (the child) and the mother said that since they had changed milk brands (following a very persuasive advertising campaign) the child had been listless. I left and made enquiries. The next day I told her not to use that brand ever again and gave her a list of approved suppliers (in reality those we had not certified). The child got better, and I tackled Enrico on the matter.

 

            He told me not to meddle. If people were going to buy cheap milk instead of looking out for their children’s welfare, then they deserved what they got for cutting corners. I couldn’t believe the hypocrisy and told him so. He hit me there and then and told me to shut my mouth. One more word and he would have me killed, wife or no wife. So, my quandary was to become a whistle-blower or hope everything would blow over. I didn’t have the guts to bring him down, not out of love and admiration, but because I was scared of what would happen to me.

 

            Once the deaths started to mount up, the false executives wanted to jump ship. That led to a series of unfortunate accidents that I was, unknowingly, involved in. False evidence was planted, of course I would say that, that implicated me. I knew I was finished, yet failed to move. It was Enrico who made the first move. He didn’t want to go to prison as a child murderer and cut a deal with the Public Prosecutor to accept liability for serious financial irregularities, accepting a fifteen-year sentence before the true culprits of the children’s deaths could be unveiled. Part of the deal was that he accepted this sentence on the condition that no future charges could be brought upon him for anything related to his part in the Green Revolution. The authorities thought that they had the scoop of the century, but Enrico had got away with murder, again.

 

            Our marriage ended that day, technically. He phoned me from the police station to inform me. He suggested I ran. I stayed. Three days later I was arrested as an accessory to murder. His parting gift to me was to make it look like I had become enraged upon finding out about the milk scandal and organised the deaths of two of its perpetrators. He told me I would look like a heroine, one last gesture to save our family from disgrace. I got forty years and today is the first time I have been allowed out of jail. Once I finish here, I will return there, but as I have a fondness for stealing the show, I will leave you with my true gift to all those mothers and fathers who lost their children, to all those others we can never prove who lost loved ones or who suffered as a result of our greed. Would you allow me a moment’s refreshment?” She stopped and extracted a small flask from her inside pocket. Before the show’s producers could even question whether this was a good idea, she swallowed the contents.

 

“What I have just imbibed is a concentrated version of the milk that killed all of those children, equivalent to six-hundred doses. My physician informs me that this is triple the amount I would need to end this charade, but I like to be sure. This is not a means of repentance, not a trick to extract sympathies, simply what I deserve. I do not know how long it will take to act, I assume I will be escorted off-screen now (the security staff were in the wings waiting to enter but the producer held them off) to die in some corner, overlooked in death as I was in life, the little woman, the bitter old trout who sapped everything she could out of those around her (as she spluttered the last word out, a foamy discharge began to appear in her mouth) Was it worth it? I don’t even know more, I don’t even know if I would do it differently if I had my time again (there was now a trickle of blood coming from the side of her mouth) I guess that’s the problem with money and power, you never have enough, you always want more (she started convulsing and slid off the chair, the camera shifted quickly to the presenter who failed to speak. She was replaced by the Italian broadcaster’s logo, then twenty seconds later, with adverts).

 

When the images appeared again, there was a different presenter. This time a man brandishing a fake smile, genuinely lost for words despite being recruited for his vast collection of them. He mumbled something about the next guest, but the show had the feel of a village fête trying to organise a raffle. Wisely, they cut to music.

 

Some of the studio audience had to be taken for assistance and others left in disgust. When there was finally some semblance of normality, the newly coiffured host flashed his teeth at the camera.

 

“Well, we did promise you the show to end all shows. I feel sorry for our final guest having to top that!” It was a nervous laugh that seemed far from convincing. He was playing it by ear, and the whole world could tell. “By satellite, please welcome Enrico Fettuccini’s cellmate and confidant, Nicola Roccatagliata.” He managed to say.

 

The screen showed an old man in his prison cell with a photo of Enrico behind him. It is a tacky staging that gives the impression that they expect they show has peaked. Nicola is in his early sixties, much younger than Enrico and still in good shape. He smiles at the camera and is asked to provide his memories of Fettuccini’s final years.

 

The prisoners in this wing are not what you would call normal prisoners, we all cut deals, honestly, I have done time before and this does not compare. Enrico asked for me. He could have had the cell to himself, indeed, he could have had a wing to himself, but he was down when he arrived. He might have been, for the first time in his life, aware of what he had done. I don’t want to say repentant, because that came later.

 

            Despite our prison being different, particularly to those HE founded, there were still dangers to be avoided, there was still the possibility of annoying someone and having certain privileges or limbs removed from you. That said, if you did your time well, it was not that bad a place to be, considering we were all guilty. Remember that scene in “Shawshank Redemption”, well we were the opposite, putting our hands up whilst making a deal.

 

            So, Enrico, he had done time before, so to speak, though this may have been harder time than the first time. But he was not a young man any more, he lacked the strength he had in his youth and seemed genuinely perturbed by how the world would perceive him upon his death. I joked with him that it was a little late by then, but he assured me that there was still time to do something.

 

            I assumed it was just nerves on his recent imprisonment and the subject was not broached for the next three months. We kept getting reports from the outside, the fall of the Government, the death toll rising from the powdered milk scandal, the disappearances of his former staff, the detainment of his second wife, the fact that no-one visited him. Prison gives you time and space to collect your thoughts, and he had a lot to think about.

 

            He would serve all fifteen years of his sentence, that was part of the deal, meaning that he would have been 87 when he was freed. He had not lived the sort of life that gives your body the chance to push 90 and was resigned to dying in jail. He followed the case of the last little girl to die, directly, of the adulterated milk, that death seemed to knock the stuffing out of him. Somehow, he got his eldest son to visit him.

 

            He confided in me the contents of those meetings, and the plans that arose from them. His son was very reticent to visit initially, but feared that Enrico’s health may take a turn for the worse. The first meeting was tense, and Enrico knew that he would need time to win his son over again. He would ask me at night if he could ever undo the wrong that he had done and, if so, how? Those were questions I didn’t have the answer to, but knew that once he started pondering them, they would come.

 

            The visits became more frequent and cordial. One night, he told me that he had the answer, that he could make amends. He still had a sizeable amount of money that the authorities had failed to seize. Through his son, he was going to set up an association that would care for people affected by the tragedies that he had caused. He would use the money, along with his innate knowledge of the workings of the stock market to use the funds for something good for once.

 

            I told him that was a great idea and that perhaps they might reduce his sentence because of it, but he told me that I didn’t get it. No-one must ever know, were his words, his and his son’s condition. He would mastermind the investments and finance them, but nobody could know of his involvement. He felt that if he did it anonymously it would count, otherwise he would be a fraud, if there could be no adulation, there would be no temptation.

 

            And so, he spent the last five years of his life dedicating his time to the opening of schools, health centres and sporting facilities in the towns and cities that had suffered from his greed in the past. All done in an altruistic and faceless manner. He could not return the dead to their families, but he could make sure that they had a better start in life than would have otherwise been the case without the association.

           

            He never got to see the inside of any of the schools or buildings that has money paid for, but considered the detailed reports brought to him by his son sufficient praise of his work. Rome had suffered the most under his tenure, and Rome is where the most reparation was performed. In one of the poorest areas, on a single street that lost six infant children, a state-of-the-art primary and pre-school education facility was opened that would ensure the district’s children the education that they deserved. Parents were invited to take part in the children’s education and absenteeism became a thing of the past when the latter actually received a payment based on their child’s performance. His hope was that these schools would become the breeding ground for future doctors and others to offer society something more than power and pilfering.

 

            Money was no object, he seemed to make it grow from nowhere. At first his son questioned some of the investments, but was soon proven wrong, after a while, he left the dabbling to the master. They bought a football side on the brink of folding and turned it into a stable and functioning outfit in less than two seasons, operating a strict policy of giving a chance to local talent and involving the local community in all aspects of the club’s running. This allowed for not just the football side to flourish at a grassroots level, but also allowed for the forming of female sides, a basketball team and, just before his death, a highly-competitive swimming team in the new pool that the association built.

 

            ‘People should know what you have done.’ I said to him time and time again. But he responded always with the same answer: ‘The essence of what I am doing is that they don’t. It has no value if the praise is for me.’ With time I began to understand him. When you have time to ponder, often answers come through searching. I saw him change as he received knowledge of the work he was doing. His son brought him detailed reports which they mulled over. At first, they were concerned that their secret might get out, but it is incredible how fast someone can become yesterday’s news.

 

            His son basically recruited people for a charitable organisation that ran the activities funded by Enrico. The name Fettuccini was still mud, so his role was kept to the side, at least in the eyes of the public, it was deemed overly obvious to have him at the helm. I don’t know how he felt as I was never allowed to speak to him, but I spoke greatly with Enrico about those plans, and remember the sparkle in his eyes when the ideas turned into plans that turned into actions that turned into facts. I believe he died a happy man, that he was waiting for one last act of generosity before leaving us.

 

            The University project came into being very swiftly. He had the schools but knew that he was not going to live long enough to see any of the primary school students graduate and begin a degree course. He laughed and cursed the choice of the fake heart attack as it seemed that the organ did not like being the butt of his joke and came back to haunt him in the form of angina. That said, approaching eighty, literally anything can come along and make things worse for you.

 

            I would say that the placidity he obtained from those actions bought him extra time, time to complete the university project, at least for the first intake, for the chance to see the first students in the lecture theatres that he built, taking the first steps towards a future that they might not have had otherwise.

 

            The University would be structured along the lines of the schools, in the sense that the places would be for underprivileged families, tuition would be free, indeed there would even be grants to pay for residences and living allowances during their studies. Students with potential were earmarked in the year before the University opened so that they could take up the invitation of the initial places. Many of them had not considered tertiary education as a viable option due to their families’ economic circumstances, now there was a chance for them to realise their potential. Again, the families were encouraged to participate, even to receive whenever needed, these were families that had never enjoyed such a level of inclusion, had never been considered worthy of such lavish treatment. At the lowest levels of society, though often from where the greatest come, attitudes were changing.

 

            The fulcrum of Enrico’s policy was that this was not mere gifting of his wealth to purchase atonement. Students, players, workers, members and others were expected to perform to a reasonable level, and to have reasons to want to excel themselves. And it worked, crime levels dropped in poor areas, relations with the police changed, they took their chance. He devoted the last moments of his life to making people happy whilst those who remembered him were sure he rotted in jail as the murdering scumbag he was portrayed to be. On his death bed, he watched the opening ceremony his University with tears in his eyes, enjoying the pride in the eyes of the students who still could not believe they were undergraduates.

 

            After the ceremony had finished, he spent some time with his son and I was allowed to return. His son had left him, against doctors’ orders, a bottle of Chianti from 1972, the year he graduated. We opened the bottle and toasted, he thanked me for my friendship and loyalty, offering various posts to my family members for the future, I said there was no need, but he insisted. We finished the bottle and he retired to his bunk. ‘My work here is done, dear friend’. With that he smiled and left us.”

 

And with a further smile, his former cellmate also left. Everyone had just supposed that Fettuccini’s last years were spent in isolation, seemingly unrepentant or at least in no way bothered about what the world thought of him. The show’s producers frantically tried to verify the story that they had just heard and discovered that in every Fettuccini sponsored facility, there was a safe with the combination that the cellmate gave. Inside there was a photo of Enrico and his son, and the deeds to the property. While still live on air, the presenters confirmed that this part of the story was true. People had not questioned the veracity of other statements, yet there seemed to be a need to ensure the truthfulness of his later works.

 

The second presenter, who never really got the hang of things. Simply said “thank you for watching.” A master of the understatement. The credits began to roll, and the audience made its way out of the studio. There was only one topic of conversation on the everyone’s lips. Had the devil done enough to be forgiven for his sins?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]At the time of these recordings, Fettuccini was involved in a series of trials for embezzlement during his first time in office and had fallen spectacularly from grace.

One More For The Politburo

St. Petersburg, November 7 (Gregorian Calendar) 1917

Petrograd Soviet. 2ndFloor Bar

 

            “It’s getting late. Tomorrow’s a big day. Make this the last one.” Zinoviev gestured to the others in the room that the time for celebration had yet to come.

“Grigory is right.” Lenin seconded his second. “Sleep well tonight, dear Comrades, for tomorrow revolution will be ours and all of Mother Russia will be in the hands of the Bolsheviks.”

The rest gave an immense cheer and downed the rest of their glasses. The punch of the last drop of vodka fooling their bodies into a sense of warmth as they made for the cold streets.

Zinoviev also head for the door, before Lenin stopped him in his tracks.

“Grigikins, you know my thoughts on Joseph. Try and make sure he gets lost in the crowd tomorrow. If you could, try and ditch him, if we want this revolution to work, the best thing for us, I mean Russia, is Joseph’s energy being sapped on the battlefield. I would rather write a letter to his wife naming him a martyr of the Bolshevik revolution, than have to clip his wings when he starts to fly. I assume we are in agreement on this matter”. Lenin turned to his deputy.

“Vlad, man, you overestimate him, or worry too much. He’s all talk. I get the impression he doesn’t believe he’s got this far. He’ll be happy just to hang around with the big boys. Utterly controllable.” Zinoviev remarked.

“I’m not so sure. I think it would be best if his input were limited. A wrong turning, an unfortunate ambush, something like that would be within your purview, wouldn’t it?” Lenin asked him.

“Consider it done, with pleasure. Sleep well Comrade.”

“и ты” Lenin concluded.

 

St. Petersburg, November 7 (Gregorian Calendar) 197

Moskovsky District

             “My watch has stopped. Where has everyone gone?” Joseph Stalin bemusedly asked a prostitute.

“They left. They said you had work to do tomorrow, Comrade Stalin.” She replied.

“My work is done. Now, fill my glass and lower your Bolshevik petticoats.” Stalin ordered.

Forty minutes later, he was ambling around the streets with a bottle in his hand, contravening orders from HQ to keep a low profile. He sang the songs of the revolution and pissed in the street. Fortunately, a reconnaissance group preparing for the assault on the Winter Palace encountered him, and managed to get him to his residence. As the officer got him into a bed, he hastily scribbled a note and told his lieutenant to ensure Zinoviev received it.

The officer helped himself to the alarm clock on the bedside table and left.

 

*               *                      *

“Joe!!!!” Ekaterina shook the bed violently and even considered throwing cold water over him. Normally, she would let him sleep it off but today was the revolution. She tutted to herself. Of course, she didn’t know that. Try and keep a secret in this house with mouth here. She laughed to herself as he finally rose.

“What time is it?” He managed to blurt out through the furry carpeted mouth not assisted by that facial hair.

“Late. Very late. I’d get going if I were you. Lenin think’s you’re a joke. Now that you have actually managed to convince them you may be of some worth, don’t make a pig’s ear of it on today of all days.” Ekaterina gave him that look.

“Coffee.” He responded.

“No time for coffee. At least you had the foresight to get your uniform on sharpish. Move. Good luck and I love you.” She told him.

Stalin’s first movements were slow and laboured, but then he got into the swing of motion and made his way down the stairs. He could already hear commotion in the streets and knew instinctively he had to reach the palace. He moved into his fastest gear. His diminutive frame normally aided by the use of stacked shoes, this time causing increased effort as the early winter freeze left patches of black ice. He saw palace guards fleeing in terror and made one last push to make it inside before the fun was over. As he turned, his legs went and he saw the palace from a side angle. Then he stopped seeing it. Then he saw black. Sounds faded and became nothing.

 

The Kremlin Hospital Facility, Moscow Russia

April 6th,1920.

             “Doctor, he’s stirring.” The Nurse said.

“It’s been nearly three years, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. Please inform Comrade Lenin’s Under Secretary that Comrade Stalin has joined the Revolution.” The doctor smirked, then immediately gave a cautionary glance at Stalin. “He can’t hear me, can he?” He asked the nurse.

“You’re the doctor.” She laughed.

“Of course. The damage must be irreparable. His wife will want to see him. Let her know.” The doctor told the nurse as she left.

Minutes later, Ekaterina came rushing in for her vigil in the hallway and hugged her husband. “It’s me!” She proclaimed. “You have awoken, and just in time for Comrade Lenin’s fiftieth birthday celebrations. It truly is a miracle. Do you know who I am?” Ekaterina beseeched of him.

Stalin looked through her, dribble covering the pock mark that used to be disguised by his moustache. He made no sound. He tried to articulate something but nobody in the room could ascertain its meaning, until the smell pervaded the room and it was clear he had indicated the need to empty his bowels.

He was hastily cleaned up as word came that Lenin and Zinoviev were close to their reencounter with their former counterpart. Lenin seemed saddened to see Stalin in this state, but Zinoviev made scant attempt to hide his delight at the effective removal of the man who could have been his main threat to power. He had seen the medical reports, Old Vlad was not a well man, whichever rumour was correct, the remains of the bullet or, his favourite, a bout of syphilis, it was clear that Lenin’s time in power would be limited.

At first Zinoviev feared both Trotsky and Stalin, until he discovered that Trotsky feared Stalin, Lenin and him. That made Leon a decent candidate for coalition. Grigory wasn’t stupid, he knew a country as vast as Russia could never be run alone. He had his eye on a team that could make the most of Lenin’s ideas and turn Russia into a great and proud nation. Stalin out the way was the best news he had had in a long while.

Over the weeks, Moscow saw many visitors, Lenin’s fiftieth was an event few wanted to miss. H G Wells sat by Stalin’s bed as he drooled and read to him from his book ‘The Time Machine’, leaving a signed copy by his bedside, emblazoned with the words “Hope you make a full recovery soon.” Zinoviev came to visit him and joked “I bet you’d love one of those!” and took the book for himself.

Stalin stayed the same but Lenin’s health began to decline after a second stroke that left him barely capable of speech. Someone in the medical staff had the bright idea of sending them both to Oblast so they could recuperate in Lenin’s dacha together. As Lenin only had movement on the right side, a further boffin had the bright idea of having the pair play table-tennis together. Efforts to initiate this sporting endeavour often became fruitless but on one occasion the pair did get a rally going and as Stalin moved to finish off the old leader, he mistimed his shot and the ball, weighing barely grams, hit him on the exact spot on the head where he had fallen on the day of the Revolution.

“I’m back!” Stalin thought to himself.

“You’re not.” His alter ego replied.

 

Inside Joseph Stalin’s Head

Moscow 1923

            “Well this is just fine. My insides have recovered but I cannot express myself, either through gestures or speech, to tell the old buffoon that he is going to make a shambles of everything. I had it all planned out. Now he is just going to hand power to that wet blanket Leon and allow Grig to do whatever he wants. I could have controlled those two. I had my plan. This is the worst part, this is worse than being a cabbage.

The party is full of dead wood, not only that, there are so many untrustworthy elements inside the party and in all of Russia that the only answer is a purge. I can see that, it is so painstakingly obvious, but why can’t they see it? I mean I can understand why Old Vlad, is he really only 53? Is out of touch, he’s on his last legs, but doubts about me? Recommending Trotsky? Good god, man. This is Russia, not a game. We need plans, five-year plans, we need concentration camps with fancy names for dissidents, maybe Gulag? We need…. Ah hell, they are moving me again.”

 

The Kremlin, Russia. 1924

Accession of Leon Trotsky to the Post of General Secretary

            In the period between the Revolution and Lenin’s death, the new Russian government had gone about a period of conversion to Bolshevism that met with fierce resistance in some place, and then, under the auspice of Trotsky and Zinoviev a policy of acceptance and trade reforms that not only led to an increase in living standards, but also, in many eyes, prevented a hideous Civil War for which Russia was ill-prepared.

Trotsky took the reins of power with joy. Thanking the Lord every day for Stalin’s indisposition and the chance to take Russia forward. During the anointment, Stalin sat motionless, as he did in all major events, the tokenism of the government to thank him both for his efforts, as well as for his early retirement from political life. He tried to make his head gesture to his old pal Nikolai Bukharin as if to remind him what they had discussed all those years ago at the Pravda offices, but no muscle moved and Bukharin seemed to look right through him.

In a further pompous gesture, Trotsky named the motionless Stalin as Minister for War, knowing full well that the department would be controlled directly by his team. If Trotsky had his way, Russia had fought its last war.

 

Inside Stalin’s Head

 

            “Minister for War? That is where I was going to put you! And laugh when your whimpy frame fell in the first battle. Oh, you are loving this, Leon.”

 

Moscow 1926 – 1939

 

            Stalin remained stable until the outbreak of World War II, a remote conflict that Russia remained neutral in, and had a major voice in the dissuasion of Hitler to bring the conflict to an early end following the capitulation of France in 1940. Stalin watched on with disgust as his country was taken to the dogs by namby-pamby liberalists, as incapable of understanding the true nature of revolution, as he was of as articulating his view of it.

As Depression spread through the Western World following the Wall Street Crash, Russia withstood and even managed to create a surplus agricultural product to export to ailing European nations. Trotsky and Zinoviev knew from the very start that pure communism would bring Russia to its knees. People just needed to think the ideals were adhered to strictly whilst bending them to their own aims.

That said, life in Russia changed drastically in comparison with to the pre-revolution days. Whilst it could not be said that food was in abundance, there certainly was noticeably more. Farmers only had to contribute to state food funds after reaching a certain threshold, thus guaranteeing their own survival, though the more they contributed, the more they could receive from other sectors to industrialise the agricultural process in some of the more remote parts of the country.

Gulags were set up, but their name was ironic slang for the educational centres that improved literacy rates outside the main cities. With tensions in Europe reaching breaking point, many of the continent’s great minds were attracted to Russia as it offered a counterbalance where they could practice their arts in peace.

Trotsky was well aware that centralised control was at best optimistic for a country like Russia, and thus began a process of decentralisation to allow autonomy for the national regions that together, but only in name formed the Soviet Union. This allowed for more peaceful relations with Moscow and the chance to concentrate on production more than uprising.

Gas exploitation meant that heating and lighting were guaranteed for all Russian houses. The Freedom of Religious Belief act was the initiative of Zinoviev and allowed for increased harmony and tolerance on the part of its citizens.

The Purges did happen, but again were seen as a chance to prevent inefficiency on the part of administrative staff so that they could be retrained and operate in a more effective way for the benefit of the state. Repentant workers who had succumbed to avarice were allowed to make amends, and most of them did.

Once the forties were underway, the Russian model was adopted in many European nations. Trading relations with the United States were so fruitful that even the Americans were willing to overlook the communist ideology behind the success. Trotsky gave a speech from the New York Stock Exchange on New Year’s Eve 1951 outlining his view of communism in the modern world, receiving an eighteen-minute standing ovation when he finished.

 

Stalin’s Dacha, Kuntsevo, May 5th, 1953

Stalin, now in his seventies, exhibited the frailty of a man embarking upon his final days. His speech never returned, he never managed to move his head again, and spent the last thirty-six years of life confined to a wheelchair and requiring assistance for every single act. He had long since ceased to use the voice in his head as it only caused him distress. It was clear that his vision of Russia was not what was happening throughout the country, and with time he began to accept that things were not so bad. As the day drew to a close, he felt a pain in his chest and wondered if this would be, the end, maybe it would be better to describe it as his second end, or the definitive end.

A light came from the large French windows to spilled onto the balcony. The windows seemed to open yet the room remained warm inside. Two figures approached him, their heads surrounded by light at first and he could not make out wo they were. As they came closer, he saw it was Karl and Old Vlad.

Lenin spoke softly to him. “Yours was the greatest sacrifice of all so that Russia could move forward. Thank you, Joe.” And with that, Joseph Stalin left Earth.

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

Craig Cavanagh

       Seville based translator and on-off roving football reporter who dabbles occasionally with the pen. Other works include a novel entitled Costa del Trolls, the story of a group of good-hearted yet ultimately flawed thieves who up sticks and join an international crime organisation in Marbella. 11 Noches, a novel written in Spanish, with the assistance of my wife who acted as editor, the story of an everyday yet uninspiring town that receives no sunlight for 11 nights and the townspeople’s endeavours to restore the light. All presently available at good on-line retailers. His latest collection of stories, Collected Third Millennia Piffle is available on line for free or from Amazon in paperback at a reasonable price. 

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