(I wrote this as a Christmas story for my friends and family in 2010, seven years after the Iraq War began, eighteen months after the Chilcot Inquiry into it was announced. Six years further on Chilcot has finally reported. Because of that, and prompted by last week’s incredibly moving WW1/Battle of the Somme living memorial in the UK , it seems like a good time to share it again.
I wrote it in one day as a venting exercise in that most impotent of all things ‘a writer’s revenge’. I wrote it out of a frustration that hasn’t gone away, but only deepened as the world reaps the growing whirlwind sown in that poorly planned adventure. I now know those of us who marched against the war should have done it the next weekend and the one after that and all the ones after that until we’d bought the pols to their senses.
But hey, that’s the real world. This is fiction…)
“To the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned,
To my brethren in their sorrow overseas…”
--Rudyard Kipling. “Gentlemen-Rankers”
The Close Protection Officer on the front door of the Great Man’s house saw them first, coming out of the shadows cast by the sodium lights ringing the leafy private gardens in the middle of Connaught Square. The gardens were supposed to be closed and empty after dark and his first thought – on seeing their uniforms - was that this was a security exercise that he hadn’t been told about.
He didn’t have much time to wonder why they should all be wearing dusty desert camouflage in Central London at the low point of a particularly cold December, with Christmas only a few days out and snow definitely in the air.
It happened this fast: one minute they weren’t there.
Then they were.
None of the reviews of the preceding 24 hour’s CCTV footage that took place in the days that followed could explain how they got into the gardens, or were missed by the routine police sweep that followed the locking of the gates that and every evening.
The mechanics of the appearance remained as inexplicable as that of the disappearance that followed a week later.
They didn’t shamble like zombies, and they didn’t pass through the railings like ghosts, though the pale colours of the desert pattern battle-dress they all wore did make them look a little wraith-like at a distance.
They were all, however, undoubtedly dead.
They climbed over the fence in an unhurried and indeed cheerfully co-operative manner, the ones that still had all their limbs helping the ones whose extremities had been blown off by lifting and carrying them where necessary.
A burly sergeant with one arm and the side of his head sheared clean away held his good hand up to halt the traffic as the rest of the soldiers crossed the street and formed up on the pavement in front of the door.
By this time the Close Protection Officer had realised that this was not a surprise drill, because surprise drills didn’t involve badly burned airmen, or guardsmen carrying their heads like footballs, or even gut-shot Marines giving piggybacks to Paras who had no legs below the knee. He had kept it together just enough to remember to hit the panic button on the door-frame beside him. He had also thumbed the safety catch on his weapon to the “Fire” position and was concentrating on not letting his trigger-finger do the thing it increasingly wanted to do.
It took a while for the soldiers to form up on the pavement facing The Great Man’s house because there were a lot of them and they were all smiling and nudging and wordlessly joking with each other. In fact perhaps the second most unexpected thing about them, after the inexplicable fact of their very manifestation, was that they were all clearly happy to be there.
Given the gruesome nature of many of their fatal wounds this was generally thought to be a rather cheering thing. Tabloid editors (once they were assured that there was no mileage to be had with the “Zombie horde descends on London” angle) embraced this good humour in the most shamelessly moist-eyed fashion, as a kind of post-mortem Dunkirk spirit. Even the quality press succumbed: a leader writer in the Telegraph became so overexcited at the opportunity to show off the fruits of an expensive education that he wrote a florid paean to the “esprit de corps des esprits”, a piece of journalism that outgushed even the red-tops. It also failed the most elementary rule of journalism in that it was not true: the crowd that came out of the shadows in Connaught Square weren’t spirits, or remotely French.
They were just dead British servicemen, returned.
No wispy floating.
Just men and women in the (punctured) flesh and (slightly too much) blood.
Once they were formed up in a ragged phalanx, a young officer from a tank regiment walked forward and waved a greeting at the three armed Policemen who now stood on the front step, the panic button having called reinforcements from within the house.
What happened next was caught on CCTV and several camera-phones belonging to stunned drivers who had been stopped by the stream of dead soldiers crossing the road. Within ten minutes the first of these images had viralled crazily across the interwebs and people all round the world were watching and re-watching the grainy footage in states ranging from mild hysteria to furious disbelief.
The ranking policeman stepped forward and aimed his stubby Hechler and Koch machine pistol at the young officer.
“Halt, or I shoot!” he barked in a voice that barely cracked at all.
The young officer stopped and grinned sadly. He reached up and pushed back the floppy cowlick of blonde hair that hung over his forehead, revealing a small but unmistakeable entry wound. He turned to reveal a larger exit wound on the back of his head. He shrugged, as if to say “Sorry”.
“Let’s just go inside...” whimpered the policeman who had first seen the appearance and nudged the officer in front of him.
That officer had not made up his mind to shoot, but he did have his finger on the trigger, and the nudge to his shoulder caused him to flinch, and one thing led to another.
The sound of the gun going off was abrupt and shocking.
The single round hit the young officer in the shoulder and knocked him flat on his back.
No-one moved for a long beat.
“Bollocks...” breathed the officer who had fired. He felt all the eyes of the assembled soldiers looking at him. “…I didn’t mean to do that”
“Yeah. We should go inside,” gulpeded the nudger. “I’ve seen the movies. They want to eat our brains…”
The young tank officer rolled nimbly back up on his feet and looked at the new hole in the front of his sand blasted battledress without a trace of rancour. Then he turned back to the three policemen, still smiling, only this time shaking his head sadly as he walked forward, and held his fingers to his lips.
“No. I think he wants a…smoke,” breathed the policeman who had fired.
Inside the building, controlled panic reigned. The Great Man had been slow to wake when the alarm had kicked off, since he slept with earplugs as his wife was a notoriously loud nocturnal mouth-breather . It took her shrieking and clawing at his arm to pull him out of what was (since he liked to be known as a pretty straight sort of guy) a disturbingly homoerotic dream in which he chased a small monkey-faced man wearing nothing except big cowboy boots and a come-hither smirk through a sunlit Tuscan vineyard that never seemed to end.
Before he was fully awake another Close Protection Officer had dragged them both into the Safe Room that adjoined the bedroom and locked down the armoured door.
“Look, um, what the hell going on?” he stuttered.
“Dunno sir” answered the policeman, listening to his radio earpiece. “Bit confused. But we’re safe enough in here while the lads outside sort it out. Don’t worry…”
He rapped the metal door.
“…we’re locked down solid. Nothing going to get us in here.”
The Great Man’s wife screamed. On the CCTV monitors inside the room she had just seen the soldiers walk into the house and cheerfully head up the stairs.
“They’re in the house!”
On the CCTV screens, a charred corpse jogged up the first flight of stairs next to the floppy haired tank officer, past the lavishly decorated Christmas tree on the half landing. He (or she) was recognisable as a pilot from the helmet she (or he) still wore, even though the face had been charred right back to a skull’s toothy perma-grin.
Several of the soldiers were now smoking. One of the policeman on the front door’d had a pack and been only too willing to share. It had seemed the least he could do, negligent discharge and all…
“This. Is. Not. Happening,” hissed The Great Man. The skin on his face had tightened with fear, making him look more than usually skull-like too. “It’s a dream.”
He pinched his arm. And then did it again. And again. He couldn’t seem to wake up.
“SAS will get here with some fire-power any minute” said the policeman, looking up. “Whoever this lot are, they won’t know what hit ‘em.”
“We’re safe in here”.
The six man team came in over the rooftops fast and silent, black-clad, masked-up, and loaded for bear. They communicated with hand signals, and synchronised their rapid progress over the frosty slates and gullies of the neighbouring houses with well drilled precision. They looked lean and mean and ready for anything.
What they weren’t ready for was the figure in standing waiting for them on The Great Man’s roof, a stocky sergeant in dirty desert camos, a red and white shamag fluttering round his neck.
The door to the roof, the very secure, guaranteed-unopenable-without-a-very –complicated-key-and-an-even-more-closely-guarded-code door, stood open behind him.
The leading SAS trooper froze and automatically planted the crosshairs centre mass on the figure’s chest. Even as he spoke into his bone-mike he was registering the four bullet wounds already stitched across the dusty battledress. Professionally unflappable he still heard himself asking for permission to engage. Before the incident commander in the emergency centre could answer, the sergeant leading the six man squad walked up behind him and gently pushed his weapon down.
“Steady, Si,” he said quietly. “We’re not the bloody police--”
He nodded at the camo-clad figure in explanation.
“--we don’t get paid to shoot the wrong people.”
The waiting figure grinned at them and sketched a wave. Behind the Sergeant the other four SAS men closed in, weapons still raised, moving slowly.
“Christ,” one of them whispered. “It’s Jock.”
“I know it is,” said the Sergeant.
There was a pause, definitely pregnant..
“He’s dead” said another very, very quietly.
“I know he is” said the Sergeant, clearing his throat. “I pulled him out of the car in Sadr bloody City, didn’t I?”
“And you carried his coffin.”
“ I know I carried his bloody coffin” hissed the Sergeant, a man who prided himself on never swearing. “So did you”.
Dead Jock nodded and gave them a big thumbs-up.
“So what do we…?” began the trooper called Si.
At that moment the incident commander in the control room replied on all their head-sets.
“Alpha team this isSunray. Silver Commander has given Permission to Engage. I repeat, Permission to Engage”.
“What do we do?” Si continued .
The sergeant considered this. And then did what any highly motivated, well trained, naturally obedient and inordinately heavily armed British soldier would do in the circumstances.
He lowered his weapon, put on the safety catch, walked across the roof and embraced the dead man.
The radio in his earpiece crackled and he heard his commanding officer back in the Situation Room.
“Alpha team this is Sunray. What’s happening, Over?”
“It’s Jock, boss. Jock who copped it in Sadr City.”
“Bugger off,” retorted the officer, who also never swore. “Jock’s dead…”
“I know boss. But he’s here anyway.” He cleared his throat gruffly. “ So tell Silver commander or whatever she is that I ain’t shooting him, and none of my crew are shooting him, and in fact if any she sends any other bugger to shoot him, they’ll have to go through me first--”
His troop looked at him sharply.
“Correction. They’ll have to go through all of us.”
Two floors below, The Great Man was watching everything through the CCTV camera.
“This is insane!..” he gibbered, repeatedly pinching himself harder and harder. He had begun to draw blood, but didn’t seem to notice anything other than the fact he hadn’t yet woken from his nightmare. His wife looked at him in open-mouthed horror.
“They’re in the bedroom!”
The CCTV screen proved her right. The horde of dead soldiers ambled into the room on the other side of the bomb-proof steel door in grainy black and white. But they did not attack the safe room. They just sat on the bed and the chairs, and sprawled on the carpet. Some leaned on the wall, and two sat on the dressing table. A Guardsman picked up something and tossed to the burned pilot with a smile. She (or he) looked at the label, saw it was a rather expensive and definitely optimistic tub of moisturiser and gave the Guardsman a finger in return, to much silent hilarity.
The crowd was not especially rowdy or threatening, and they kept happily chatting in their eerily silent way, every now and then glancing at the safe room as if they were waiting for a show to begin. Those that could not cram into the room sat on the stairs or in the hall.
There were rather a lot of them.
In the Safe Room the policeman tried to calm his two charges.
“It’s all right, sir, we’re 100% safe behind all this steel. You could drop a tactical nuclear device and not budge it one mill--”
The door emitted several smooth metallic sliding noises and hissed gently open. The young officer stood in the doorway beside the charred pilot.
Clearly, having mastered the trick of opening the door between life and death, ordinary locks and bolts were no obstacle to them at all.
They both grinned (not that the pilot had much choice).
“What do you want?” whimpered The Great Man, now really tearing at the skin on his arm to try and wake himself up, so hard that tiny speckles of blood began to drip onto the carpet at his feet.
The policeman pointed his gun at the soldiers. The wife batted it down
“Don’t shoot them, idiot. They’re dead”. She was no longer jabbering. She had reached the eye of this particular mental storm and had attained a brief moment of icy clarity. She turned and snarled at her husband.
“This. Is. All. Your. Fault”
And then she fainted as the eye of the storm passed over her.
The dead soldiers never attacked him. Indeed right from the start it was clear they meant him no physical harm at all.
All they wanted, it seemed, was to be with him.
In that first night and day he made several attempts to run from the building, but by sheer weight of numbers they just blocked the exits and stopped him.
Once the word had spread throughout the living armed forces – which, thanks to the online Army Rumour Service meant in considerably less than 45 minutes – any plan to use soldiers, sailors or airmen to liberate The Great Man was out of the question. From the loftiest Air Marshall down to the lowliest private, no one would raise a hand against the returned men. Some members of the Police’s Territorial Support Group did volunteer to mount a testosterone- fuelled snatch operation, but although they got inside the building without a problem, they found themselves firmly and decisively kettled in the downstairs toilet by the mob of eerily good natured dead soldiers. The soldiers sportingly brought them wine from The Great Man’s cellar, which oiled the short period of kettling so successfully that the Police reappeared on the front steps 8 hours later so comprehensively refreshed that they didn’t seem to mind that the soldiers had not only confiscated their weapons, but their trousers and underpants as well.
No. All the dead servicemen seemed to want to do was sit with him, and go where he went. It was a matter of debate as to whether they wanted to observe him, or wanted him to observe them. Certainly he didn’t find it easy to look at their wounds, and spent a lot of time staring at his feet, mumbling to himself that he didn’t believe in ghosts. Strangely this didn’t seem to help him, despite the fact he was a man to whom personal belief had always been more serviceable than actual hard evidence.
As it became a media circus, several strange things became apparent as the coverage spread. One of the things that was both heartbreaking and a relief was that although all the dead men and women were clearly recognizable and seen by their friends and colleagues, in all the uncompromising horror of their terminal wounds, their own families could not see them. They were thus spared the pain of seeing the torn flesh of their loved ones, but also denied the joy of seeing them once more. They could see the other dead, just not their own. No one has ever explained how this happened, but many agree that it points to some kind of grace in action.
The first time The Great Man succeeded in making a run for it, the soldiers simply went with him. He burst out of the house and into the barrage of camera-flashes, followed and then flanked by an honour guard of running uniforms. The cordon of police split enough to let them through, and there followed a pell-mell dash through the city streets and pavements as he tried to outrun his observers. Only the able-bodied dead soldiers followed him. The limbless remained in the House in Connaught Square, leaning out of the windows to catch the hail of cigarette packets the crowd lobbed at them over the heads of the police manning the barriers.
He ran out of steam after a final zig-zag dash through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, where the open spaces allowed the following news helicopter to show the millions of watchers that the soldiers were not chasing him, but just running along side him. In fact four ran ahead, clearing a path for him.
He finally broke down, exhausted and weeping into the Diana Memorial Fountain. The soldiers waited quietly beside him until he recovered himself enough to walk, and then they strolled amiably back to Connaught Square and put him to bed.
Sadly he was unable to sleep. It may have been his inability to stop pinching his arm, which was now bleeding so badly that he switched arms several times a day. This did not wake him up since this was not a lurid nightmare, but real. Its only effect was to ensure that both of his hands became bloody.
The Prime Minister and the cabinet met, and were unable to decide what to do. Indeed the Attorney General said it was a moot point as to whether they needed to do anything, since the soldiers clearly meant no harm, and had let The Great Man run wherever he wished.
He was of the opinion that it was more a matter for the Church.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was consulted, but reported back that it was not a matter in his particular bailiwick, since The Great Man (as soon as so doing was not an electoral disadvantage) had switched teams, and elevated himself to the service of a Higher (Roman) Church. He remarked with uncharacteristic waspishness that he had always presumed this was because the Romans were big on washing the slate clean with private confession, a service The Great Man was clearly in the market for, public confession not being within his particular skill-set.
The Pope tried hard to sympathize with The Great Man. His own predecessor on the papal throne had after all begun his own career serving a cross significantly crookeder than the one he now served and the new Pope consequently believed in second chances. While the rest of the world was pinwheeling with giddy speculation as to what the Dead returning meant, he took the calmer position that the departed had (according to the discreet section of the Vatican archives concerned with Ghosts) occasionally re-appeared, albeit in smaller numbers and less corporeally than this present manifestation, which is why his church still retained the less publicised services of the original Men in Black.
He made a phone call to the Superior General of the Jesuits.
The Superior General listened to what his Pope requested, and then made a call to a discreet London address on Farm Street.
The current Roman Catholic Exorcist of Great Britain was a tiny Jesuit who looked like a very calm and extremely wizened prune, and was called Dom Peter Smallrobert. In a long career he had not only seen ghosts, but heard banshees and dodged poltergeists. He had strong views on the inadvisability of mucking around tarot cards, psychedelic drugs or Ouija boards. He looked the supernatural in the eye, not because he was especially fanciful or fey, but because painful experience had taught him that taking your eye off it by pretending it didn't exist just allowed it to creep round behind you and do lots of horribly surprising things, all of which were bad for your heart and most of which explained why he never went anywhere without a small bag containing the ancient essentials of his trade; bell, book and candle - and an extra pair of underpants.
Dom Peter listened calmly to what his Superior General ordered, and agreed.
He declined the offer of a lift from the Prime Minister's office and walked the half mile or so to Connaught Square under his own steam, carrying his own bag and trying to prepare his mind for what lay ahead. He stopped at a small corner pub and fortified himself with a double Lagavulin, then ducked into the newsagent next door, emerging with a carrier bag that swung alongside him as he walked, revealing nothing about its contents other than it seemed to be a long rectangular box, or possibly boxes.
A government Minder met him at the crowd barriers ringing the square and badged him through the security cordon. As they walked towards the front door, the Minder asked Dom Peter if there was anything he needed to help him complete the exorcism.
“Like what, my son?” the old Jesuit asked looking up at the façade and the soldiers sitting in the windows and waving at the crowd.
“Well, I don’t know. The PM wondered if you’d like er… a cathedral or something?”
“No thank you” smiled Dom Peter.
“Well, where would you like to do it?” asked the Minder, conscious of the Blackberry vibrating in his hand.
“Here is as good as anywhere I think.”
“OK” said the Minder, holding up a finger apologetically and stopping. He spoke into his Blackberry “He says he can do it here.”
He listened to the voice on the other end of the call. He then had to jog to catch up with the black figure who was carrying his two bags up onto the front step.
“Wait, sorry! Just a minute!” he yelped.
The Jesuit knocked on the door and turned back to him.
“When are you going to do it?” asked the Minder, pointing at his Blackberry.
“They want to know…”
“No time like the present” smiled the old Jesuit.
The Minder’s face went beetroot in panic, and it looked as if he was having several coronaries at once.
“No, but, you, I mean , you can’t just..!”
“It’s only an exorcism, my child.” said Dom Peter, unruffled. “It’s not rocket science…”
The door opened and the Pilot with the charred skull stepped out of the way.
The Minder flinched, but looked more frightened of the torrent of words flushing into his ear from his Blackberry.
“You can’t!” he falsettoed “We haven’t briefed the Press!”
Dom Robert turned back one last time and looked at him with a very clear blue-eyed gaze that suddenly made the Minder forget the prune like folds in his face and see the steel core that had allowed him to ply his unusual trade for so long.
“Good” he said.
And disappeared into the unlit cavern of The Great Man’s hallway.
“Bugger” said the Minder. And then followed him inside.
The front door slammed behind them like the gates to a crypt.
As they walked up the stairs the soldiers fell back to allow the black-robed figure clear passage.
In the bedroom The Great Man was sitting on the chair in front of his wife’s dressing table. A rifleman with an arm missing was sitting on a stool next to him, leaning close, as if whispering in his ear. The Great Man looked almost transparent with exhaustion, his red-rimmed eyes sunken back into the bruise-dark hollows beneath his brow. Despite this, a spark of life flickered awake in them when he saw them.
Dom Peter crossed the room and put the carrier bag and his small black case on the dressing table. The Minder saw him looking at the soldiers behind him in the mirror as if he was sizing them up. Then he sighed and turned to The Great Man.
“His Holiness sent me. I am the exorcist.”
The armless rifleman got up and walked off to join the other soldiers surrounding them. The Great Man nodded but kept his eyes in constant motion, panning back and forth amongst the surrounding soldiers as if expecting one of them to leap at him at any moment.
“About time” he hissed. “About bloody time…”
Dom Peter didn’t blink. He just laced his fingers together and kept smiling.
The crowd eased back, leaving The Great Man and the little exorcist in the centre of a loose ring of soldiers.
“They know why you’re here,’ said The Great Man, his voice growing in confidence and vigour as the soldiers edged away.
Dom Peter unclipped his bag and began to set up a small one-candle altar on the dressing table. As he unfolded his surplice and stole around his neck, the Minder from No.10 slid closer to The Great Man. He had his camera phone open and was panning slowly round the room, filming.
“Can I ask you a question” he said quietly.
“Who are you?” replied The Great Man, eying the camera.
“I’m from No.10,” the Minder said. “Everyone says hi.”
He nodded almost imperceptibly at the dead soldiers all around them. Their good natured smiles had gone and were now replaced with expressions closer to sadness or apprehension.
“What the PM wants to know, what we all want to know is … what do they want?”
The Great Man retched out a short, bitter chunk of laughter.
“They don't want anything. They're just here. All the time. Or if they do want something… it's just to talk to me.
"Talk to you?"
"And make me look at them. It’s pretty gross, actually. They take it in turns. They sit close and whisper in my ear."
"You can hear them?" said the Minder with incredulity.
"Can't you?" said The Great Man
"No. Nobody can. What do they say to you?"
The Great Man flicked his eyes from the soldiers to the Minder.
"You really can't hear them?"
The Minder shook his head.
A smile flickered across the tight face of The Great Man like the ghost of a fox passing, momentarily revealing a crooked tooth.
"Oh. Well, they're not saying anything very interesting…"
At that point the conversation was ended by Dom Peter turning round, now fully clad in white surplice and purple stole, the candle lit on the table behind him. He clasped the bible and a rosary in one hand, and in the other the small uncorked bottle of holy water.
“Righty-oh then” he said matter-of-factly. “Here we go.”
The soldiers flattened against the four walls of the room. The Great Man looked at the exorcist and swallowed.
“Will it work?”
“Work? Oh yes. It’ll work.”
“Of course.” Dom Peter smiled.
“Well hurry up then!” gasped The Great Man.
“One question,” said the old man, looking at the cordon of torn uniforms surrounding them. “Just because it might save time. Have you… apologised to them?”
“What for?” asked The Great Man. “I only did what I believed. I didn’t do anything wrong!”
He stared at the Jesuit as if he was mad.
“OK,” said Dom Peter, after a long beat. “Just thought I’d ask.”
He raised the bible above his head and looked round at the waiting soldiers. Maybe it was the fact that a great thundercloud chose that moment to roll in and obscure the sun, dialling down the light from the windows and increasing the power of the flickering candle, or maybe it was because the Minder’s camera was not a very precise one, but in the grainy video that survives, there suddenly appeared to be a further army of shadows crowding in behind the soldiers for a look.
The tiny priest’s voice rose as he began the ritual of cleansing and expulsion. Being a traditionalist he abjured the 1998 revision and stuck with the tried and tested 1614 version, which meant that non-Latin speakers who later viewed the footage had to have it explained to them that it was all going swimmingly until he hit the liturgical home-straight, his delivery deepening inexorably into a voice of command:
“Depart, then, transgressor. Depart, seducer, full of lies and cunning, foe of virtue, persecutor of the innocent. Give place, abominable creature, give way, you monster…”
At which point there was a dramatic burst of flame that burned out the optics of the camera, like a standing lightning bolt that jagged straight down through the ceiling and stood as a roaring pillar of fire for five long seconds, before snuffing out as abruptly as it had hit.
“Jesus..!” gasped the Minder.
“Exactly,” said Dom Peter quietly, though nobody else heard him. He cleared his throat and stepped forward. “I wondered if that would happen…”
The chair where The Great Man had been sitting was now empty, with a large hole in the middle of it, the rim of which was on fire.
There was a matching hole in the roof above, and another in the rug below.
There was no Great Man.
The Minder stumbled up and looked over the priest’s shoulder, down into the hole in the floor.
It was a long, long hole and it was fire all the way down.
As he stared in horror something blinked at the bottom of the shaft like a giant flaming eye, and then a shadow began rising at hideous speed. The Minder screamed in pure terror and stumbled back. Dom Peter shook his head and said “No you don’t” very quietly as he calmly emptied his bottle of Holy Water down the hole, which hissed steam and slammed shut in perfect time with the thunderclap that rumbled out over the great city surrounding the house.
The Minder was helped to his feet by the young tank commander and the faceless pilot. He stared at the Jesuit who was calmly rummaging in the carrier bag.
“What…?” fishmouthed the Minder, his mind racing to catch up with what he’d just seen. “What..?”
Dom Peter pulled out the rectangles from the carrier bag and ripped off the paper covering them, breaking them into smaller packs of cigarettes, which he held out to the watching roomful of soldiers.
“Gather in, lads,” he said, “Smoke break”.
The Minder stared at him.
“But you… You knew this would happen?”
“Thought it might.”
“That’s why you bought so many cigarettes…”
“Wore khaki before I wore black, my son. Lieutenant in the Gloucesters. Saw my hell in Korea, at Imjin. Smoke?”
The Minder watched the old man lean down and light two cigarettes off the flames still licking the hole in the centre of the chair. The Jesuit straightened and offered him one.
The Minder looked at the floor where the hole had been and remembered what he had seen with a shudder.
“Your hell? You mean that was…?”
Dom Peter nodded.
“Blimey,” said the Minder. He looked at the offered cigarette and the old kind eyes beyond it. He shook his head.
“I gave up,” he said, but then snatched the cigarette before the priest could offer it to one of the happy crowd of soldiers around them, and sucked nicotine like a drowning man coming up for air.
His Blackberry shrilled. He answered automatically.
“Well…” he said, squinting at the watching faces through a stream of cigarette smoke.
“Put it this way: there’s good news and there’s possibly bad news…”
A week later the soldiers were all gone too. But not until Christmas was over, and not before each had walked, or hitched or taken a train back to their own families, who now could see them. And although they never said a word that anyone could remember hearing, they comforted the living. Perhaps the oddest thing was that though others could see their hideously deformed wounds, their own families and loved ones could not: they saw the sons and husbands and daughters and wives as they remembered them, whole and glowing and in the full glory of their lives. Dead fathers were able to kiss babies they’d never had a chance to see, and mothers and fathers were able to put their arms tightly round their departed children again. And though all the families instinctively knew that this was a temporary thing, they were made to understand, through dumb show and mime, that what lay beyond death was a calm and a happy place and that it was not somewhere to fear.
And when Boxing Day came and their dead boys and girls smiled and hugged them one last time before going, the farewell was neither an unexpected nor a sad one, because the living now understood that they would all be meeting again one day in a safer and better home.
After the Christmas recess the Government and the Opposition returned to Westminster and privately congratulated themselves on how well it had all turned out in the end, and in the tea-rooms and bars within the Houses of Parliament many quietly admitted they had feared that once the soldiers had finished with The Great Man they would come for them next, given that so many of them on both sides of the aisle had also been enthusiasts for the war.
It was, they all agreed, a huge relief.
That’s when the first reports of large numbers of dead civilians – men, women children and babies - crossing the northern border of Iraq into Turkey came through.
Before long there were further reports of hideously mutilated bodies swimming the Bosphorous, passing from Asia to Europe in the straightest possible line.
When a soldier at the Turkish/Bulgarian border asked them where they were going, a pretty young girl with a sucking shrapnel wound in her chest smiled at him and wrote one word in the dust on the side of his jeep. The script was uneven, but the names were familiar.
It read: London… Washington... Texas...
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Cover design by Dalrymple
© Charlie Fletcher 2010