A UFO Story
Usual disclaimers apply.
Takes place approx three weeks after ‘The Man Who Came Back’
Dedicated to: ‘The London Five’.
The green light gave the go-ahead, I punched the button and the carriage door slid open, releasing me onto the platform. Commuters hurried past on their way to work, holding newspapers, briefcases and the ever-present umbrella, even in such mild conditions. I had nothing to carry except the letter and, for once, I was travelling by train. Parking was always a nightmare here, and it was easier this way, especially for such a brief meeting as this. I did not intend hanging around afterwards. I would give him the envelope and my explanation and then… walk away. After that? I had no idea what I was going to do then.
The walk gave me a chance to stretch my legs after the journey. The weather display in the station rotunda said 12 C, around average for November, so I unfastened my jacket; no one would see my gun and though perhaps, on reflection, I should have left it behind, the habit had become ingrained over the years. Besides, what is the point in having a special permit to carry a weapon if you can’t be bothered to wear it? This would be the last time though. Tomorrow I would be unarmed. A peculiar thought, being defenceless, but even so, for the first time in weeks, I felt some of the tension dissipate. No more responsibilities, or demands, or deaths laid at my feet. It would soon be over.
I had lived near to the city for years but seldom seen it close up. There was never an opportunity before I took over SHADO; most of my work at that time was in the States and afterwards I had little energy to spare for anything other than the job. Work consumed my life. But no longer. The past weeks had brought home to me that maybe it was time I moved on, moved away; left it all behind, if that was possible. I missed Craig more than I could have imagined; he was part of my past, and even now, weeks afterwards, I still had nightmares, I still woke screaming and sweating, struggling to stop him. His face haunted me every night; that terrible look of awareness, that single decisive moment as I tugged at his air hose and he drifted away, limbs jerking, floating off into the darkness until he was no longer visible.
Even now, I wondered whether he might have regained his humanity at the very end and if I had murdered him. Craig, I mean; instead of the soulless monster that the aliens had put in his place. It was too late for regrets, too late for many things. Only a few more minutes remained.
Truth to say, I was reluctant to do it; deep down I wanted to stay and fight, but I had lost the drive, the energy, maybe the determination, that sustained me for so long. I was bone-weary. It was time for someone else to take up the mantle.
I turned the corner and stopped. Damn. Barricades. In the distance water spurted from the centre of the tarmac, vans were parked around and workmen busied themselves on the pavement. The building I needed to get to was on the other side of the barriers, closed off from access. It was clearly no emergency, but something had gone amiss.
I stood there for a moment, nonplussed, wondering what to do next, my carefully thought-out plans thrown into disarray. ‘Mr. Straker?’ The man headed my way looking neither left nor right. ‘My apologies,’ he said, in that suave and practised tone that only an English concierge can muster. ‘Mr. Henderson asked me to inform you that your meeting has been cancelled. As you can see, we have a burst water main. He said that he will be at his club at four this afternoon and suggests that you join him there?’
The doorkeeper extended a card. I took it in silence and glanced at the address before tucking it next to the slim envelope containing a single sheet of paper.
Seven hours. I could wait another seven hours. It would give me chance to go home and do some more packing before coming back to meet James. I almost smiled at the thought of what he would say, how he would react, but I crushed it down. There was little enough to smile about.
It seemed a longer walk back to the station but it gave me time to reconsider. Oh, not the decision; that was irrevocable. I was unwavering on that matter. But Mary and I had never done the sightseeing thing so my general idea of London was more than a bit hazy. Sure, I knew the location of most of the tourist sites, but never visited them or I’d just driven past on my way in to the IAC. There would be no time to do more than walk around, but it would pass the hours. I could meet Henderson at his club later, hand over the envelope, shake hands, and be on my way. For good.
The taxi rank attracted my attention and, almost without thinking, I opened the door of the first and stepped in.
‘Millennium Bridge.’ The bridge was under construction when SHADO was in its infancy. Years ago now, and I had intended coming back to walk over it once its problems were addressed, but things conspired against me. I sat in the back of the cab, staring at the streets full of pedestrians.
‘American? Boston from the sound of you. This holiday or business?’ the driver asked. The cab pulled up, the arch of the bridge just ahead.
What the hell, I thought. ‘On vacation.’ I handed over notes. ‘Just here for the day. Passing through. Any advice?’
‘Watch yourself on Westminster Bridge. And they’re changing the guard at 11.30 this morning. Always worth seeing. Ta.’ He nodded at my dismissal of the change. ‘Have a good day.’
A good day. There was no reply to that. The Thames stretched out in front of me, silt-laden and high tide, fast flowing, deep and dangerous and full of secrets. I leaned on the rails, staring across, my mind wandering with thoughts of other dangerous and secret things, and then I turned my back on the river to look at the buildings.
Small. That was my first thought. It seemed incongruous; the dome nothing spectacular, and in fact the whole building looked more like a studio mock-up or part of a film set. I’d seen enough of those but I crossed the road anyway for a closer look.
It became more impressive as I approached it, until I stood, tilting my head to look up at the curve of St. Paul’s dome, one of the traditional images of London. Here I was, just another tourist wandering around. I regretted the absence of a camera but my phone would do. Anyway, who else would see these photos? They would be my personal reminder of the day. The last day. I took a photograph and remembered the story of how the Cathedral survived the Blitz, soldiers working for three days and nights to remove the huge bomb that had landed in front of it, risking their lives to save the church. Brave men.
I crossed over the bridge to walk along the riverside, past the replica of the Globe Theatre, just following the sidewalk. They call it a pavement here, but it’s the same thing. I had no concerns about getting lost; my sense of direction has never failed me in the past and there was no reason for it to do so here in London. The river ran along on my left so I carried on with no idea for sure what I would see, and that was part of the attraction. It didn’t matter anyway; today I was a tourist, an American in London, though I would be heading back to my own country soon enough.
Alec had a fit yesterday when I phoned to tell him my plans. He tried to dissuade me, but I refused to listen and in the end he refrained from mentioning it again which rather surprised me. I half-expected an onslaught designed to make me change my mind, but there was nothing. I made him promise not to let Paul become aware what was going to happen and he agreed.
The last weeks have been pretty solitary with Alec away in the States, and by the time he is due to get back, next week, it will be too late to do anything about it. I’ll have to stay on for a while, I expect, to hand over officially. I was going to miss Alec. We would see little of each other in future; SHADO is a harsh mistress, and getting any free time is difficult. Perhaps that was why I felt so weary. I could scarcely remember when I last took a furlough.
There was no signpost, or perhaps I had missed it, so it was a surprise to see a wooden ship nestling in a small inlet. St Mary Overie Dock and The Golden Hinde. Drake? Or some other English explorer. I never enjoyed foreign history, or any history for that matter. I prefer the sciences. It looked no bigger than a lunar module and I spent a moment reading the plaque. Up to 80 crew. How did they all fit in there? Dammit, the Space Shuttle was larger. I had no intention of going on board, although it was open to visitors. Going below deck on a cramped wooden ship held no attraction. Oh, I know it was a replica, but it was an impressive thing all the same. That unrelenting need to explore the unknown and brave the elements.
I would miss flying as well; the excitement of take-off, the thrill of controlling a fighter jet, even though I don’t do much active flying now, just enough to keep my credentials up to date. You never know when it might be necessary. That will stop I expect. The flying. But enough maudlin thoughts. I was here to enjoy myself and maybe learn something about this city.
I walked on; following the sidewalk around more out of laziness than curiosity, until a bustle of noise drew me towards a market place. Street stalls were selling crabs and doughnuts and hot dogs. A busy coffee stall caught my attention, so I joined the queue then sat at one of the small café tables for a while. It was not what I had expected, the market, old-fashioned in some ways, yet also very much alive. The coffee was good, or perhaps it was the fact that today had finally arrived and I could sense the relief in a way as I slowly unwound, allowing myself to relax, to let it all go.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that there is a world outside SHADO. A world where people rise at first light, go to work and then go home, unaware of the existence of aliens. Perhaps it is easier that way, perhaps those men and women and children, taken so callously, never had the time to feel horror or fear before being slaughtered. Somehow, I doubt that. I think the aliens like to cause pain and terror. It’s one of the reasons they come here, to this innocent planet; besides our bodies they need our feelings as well. Those raw emotions that fill us at times. Hate and love and envy. And possibly more.
I finished my coffee, threw the polystyrene mug in the bin and moved on, heading back to the riverside to follow the sidewalk and see where it led me on my personal journey of discovery and farewell.
HMS Belfast was at its mooring upriver; a huge bulk of sharp metal, hull painted in angular dark grey patterns to confuse its outline. It looked unassailable and solid, an ugly and yet impressive symbol of strength, motionless on the heaving water of the river unlike the catamarans that acted as river buses. I knew how easily a ship like Belfast could fall victim to the enemy; the hull ripping apart like tissue, the crew taken without any chance to defend themselves. The power of some UFOs was immense, and I knew we had yet to see the full extent of their capabilities. I would not be touring this ship either; one warship is much like another and my plan was to spend as much of my final day outside in the sunshine and relative warmth of this early November. The Tower of London was on the opposite bank, a dark forbidding place, and I recalled reading about one of the kings of England ordering his executioners to cut off the heads of traitors, or something like that. As I said, history was hardly my strong point and, with a wry grin, I wondered whether Henderson might accuse me of being a traitor, and have me locked away in the Tower.
The small jetty caught my eye, and I watched the crowd gather at the end of the gangway, curious to know what they were doing, and then one of the catamarans made its way over and pulled up. A bus stop. It would be an interesting diversion, and I hurried down the wooden jetty in time to tag onto the end of the queue and take a seat inside.
The river looked even more ominous, more enigmatic once we moved out away from the embankment. The riverbus, for all its size and power – I could feel the strong vibrations of the engines – was a clumsy boat on the river, fighting to get any headway. Nevertheless, it triumphed, battling on until it moved into the centre of the river and was making steady progress against the current. A slow journey, but it gave me a chance to think. SHADO was battling as well, not against a strong tidal river, but a more insidious enemy, and yet, although they were stronger, with far superior technology, we were still here, still fighting back.
The seat was comfortable and, leaning back, I was almost tempted to close my eyes for the rest of the journey and maybe catch up on some much needed sleep, but the sights were too interesting. In the end, like all the tourists on board, I found myself craning my neck to look across at the buildings on the riverbanks and enjoying the trip. I could not remember the last time I managed to do anything as frivolous as sightseeing. I got off a couple of stops further down, close to Westminster Bridge.
The London Eye loomed ahead, looking incongruous in these surroundings, its glass and steel a sharp contrast against the Houses of Parliament on the other bank but I had no desire to queue up and take the ride. After all, for a sheer thrill, what could possibly beat a trip to Moonbase.
I think that was when it really hit me. That I would never go there again. My life would be bound to this Earth. Did I really want that? I leaned on the rails and stared at the river, ignoring the crowds of tourists. What other choice was there? I was exhausted, not just from lack of sleep, but from the dull grind of work, the daily monotony of fighting without getting anywhere. So many years now, and we had made such little progress, had sacrificed so much to the war. There were times when I wanted to let the world know just how many brave men and woman had forfeited their lives in the fight against the aliens, but that was impossible. So they died and were buried and no one ever knew their sacrifice.
Craig. He was as much a victim as Leila, or Ken. It wasn’t Craig’s fault that they changed him. Maybe, if I could have stopped him, if I had managed… No. It was pointless thinking about it. Craig was dead. Killed by my hands. It was time to move on, and not just from here, where I was leaning against the railings, jostled by the crowds pushing past. It was time to let someone else take over. I straightened up, tugged my jacket into place, and turned to follow the crowds over the bridge.
Aliens. They feed on the unwary, stealing whatever they need, leaving their victims helpless. I was used to seeing them in red suits, faces half-hidden in fluid-filled helmets, armed and seeking for humans. Any human who might provide what they needed. And then the taxi-driver’s words echoed in my mind. ‘Watch yourself on Westminster Bridge.’ No wonder he had warned me. The wide pavement was crammed with groups of people clustering round small mats on the paving slabs. I caught one glimpse and frowned. Shell games. Tricking the innocent out of money. Worse than aliens in some respects. These were humans, stealing from their own kind.
What troubled me more was the number of people willing to fall for the trickery. There must have been twenty, or more, well-organised gangs spaced along the bridge. The worst of society, preying on the vulnerable. It sickened me, the knowledge that decent people were such easy pickings, and there was no one around to protect them. I fastened my jacket, suddenly realising that, if lawless gangs were able to operate with such open contempt here, then pickpockets would be as prevalent. I did not intend to let anyone steal my gun.
‘Sir? A gift?’
The woman’s voice startled me almost as much as the sight of her grubby fingers thrusting the small sprig of flowers into my face. I stepped back a pace, and it was a reflex action to reach out to take the proffered gift. If gift it was. She was smiling and seemed harmless but then another voice interrupted, a hand grabbing the woman’s wrist and dashing it away with a sharp and contemptuous dismissal. ‘No!’
The elderly woman dropped the sprig, her eyes no longer welcoming but surly and resentful. Scowling with displeasure, she muttered a curse and turned away.
I looked down at the young woman who had intervened, my expression one of enquiry. She shrugged her shoulders. ‘She demands payment if you so much as touch it. There’s a gang of them. They can be pretty aggressive.’ She nodded towards the woman, now retreating through the crowd followed by a couple of burly men. My concerns over shell games and pickpockets had made me overlook other dangers and I had foolishly allowed someone to get close enough to take advantage of me. I felt my face redden with embarrassment. I did not like to think what could have happened.
‘Thank you.’ I stood there like some naïve tourist, caught on the hop, feeling ridiculous.
‘Don’t mention it. It happens a lot. I try to keep an eye out for them, but you have to watch yourself here. Take care and enjoy the rest of the day.’
I managed one glimpse of her face, and then she was gone, pushing her way into the throng without another word. A young woman who gained nothing from helping me, who did it without reward, or recognition. Anonymous, our encounter so brief that I was not sure I would recognise her if I saw her again. Black shoulder length hair, a pale blue polka-dot scarf around her neck, coffee-coloured raincoat; that was all I retained. I stood there as the swell of pedestrians flowed past me, until I realised I was in the way. I was more careful this time, avoiding the little groups further on, the women with their baskets of heather and, half-hiding behind each, two men. Money with menaces. The Bridge was no place for the unwary, and I was glad that there were still honest people willing to protect careless foreigners as myself.
Big Ben loomed ahead, the Houses of Parliament large on my left and I ignored them, aiming for a building that I could see not far away. Westminster Abbey. I’m not a religious person; who could be, having seen the things I have seen, but nonetheless, the building attracted me and I headed that way, thinking that I might look around. I admire the artistry of such buildings, designed without recourse to computers or blueprints and built over years with honest sweat and blood. It had taken years to build SHADO headquarters, more years than I had anticipated, and I decided to pay my respects to the builders of the Abbey.
Sixteen pounds. Since when have churches charged for entry? I could have paid the fee easily. It was not that large a sum, but it was the principle that mattered to me. Museums, galleries, yes, but churches? I turned away, feeling somewhat disturbed by mankind’s greed, the desperate need to accumulate wealth, whatever the cost. The wide path round the church was bordered by lawn into which people had placed thousands upon thousands of small wooden crosses. They were in regimented rows, and all in memory of those who died serving the United Kingdom in conflict and war: soldiers, sailors, every branch of the armed forces, the dead of long forgotten wars, and those who had died more recently. It was not long until Remembrance Day and these tidy lines of crosses, some with pictures, most with just a name and date, or a brief message were personal tributes. I bent down to look at one.
Stoker 1st Class J.S. Bailey. Aged 21. Submarine H31. Lost at sea Dec 24th 1941 Remembered with love.
Remembered with love. He was young. I wondered if he was married, how his wife, or fiancée or family coped with his loss. Christmas Eve as well. No body to bury, maybe even no details of how he met his death. Secrecy and silence. I knew that world so well. There were so many crosses that in some places you could not see the grass. I stood there, not making any attempt to count them. I had seen death close at hand and not flinched. I sent men to their deaths and kept my distress hidden. But standing here in this garden of remembrance I found myself struggling to swallow the tears that threatened to betray me.
Remembered. I remembered them all, even though their names were not marked by neat wooden crosses in this garden. Perhaps there could be a small place for our people next time. Something discrete, out of the way maybe, but part of the general gathering. It wouldn’t say SHADO, but we would know. It would be something to say; we were here, we existed, we fought for you, our sacrifice unknown.
But then I remembered the envelope. It wouldn’t be anything to do with me in the future. I turned away, feeling a touch disconsolate, leaving the church and its thousands of crosses behind.
My watch said five hours to kill before meeting Henderson. What was it the taxi driver had mentioned? Changing the guard? Why not, I thought to myself, I could stand, outside the building this time, and mingle with the crowds. The day was still young and it would be a pleasant diversion.
Another taxi, another driver. ‘Buckingham Palace.’
He twisted round to grin at me. ‘You’ll be pushed to see much. Always a crowd there for the Changing.’
‘Doesn’t matter. It’s the experience really. Being there. Today’s the only chance I’ve got.’ I said.
The roads were in that busy state of London mid-morning activity, and the taxi halted at traffic lights close to the Palace before a mounted policeman stopped us from moving on. It was pretty obvious that we would not be going anywhere until the parade was over so I paid up, said my thanks and stepped out, joining the throng who were moving towards the perimeter of the massive building. It looked bigger from outside. More impressive. The driver was right though; I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t even get close to the railings. Not that I wanted to, or needed to for that matter.
It was enough to be here, one of the crowd for a change, of no importance and with no responsibilities. To be able to do as I pleased instead of obeying every whim from higher authorities as well as my own rigid and unwavering sense of duty. Perhaps that was at the root of the problem, the fact that I adhered so strictly to my responsibilities. Military discipline to blame no doubt, although I remember my astronaut course was just as stringent. That sense of being brothers and looking after each other; that was at the very heart of all our training. Duty and family above all else.
I looked up at the balcony and smiled, wondering if she was watching from behind the bullet proof glass. She had shown me the view from that room on one of my first visits. After the meeting finished the Prime Minister headed back to Downing Street but she invited me to stay a while longer. I think she wanted to learn about me and why I, of all people, ended up running SHADO. Looking back I suppose it was something of a surprise, a newly promoted Colonel age 28, a presidential ‘jump’ promotion at that, and in charge of the largest and most clandestine international military force in her realm. We got on well, still do. I’ll miss our briefings, but she knows Alec well enough and he respects her. She does a magnificent job, always has. A lifetime of serving her country.
The ceremony was over and the crowd dispersed, fading away as if by magic and, heedless of where I was going, I followed the railings, only to end up at The Queen’s Galleries. The Ponting Exhibition. Sounded interesting; a collection of photographs from Antarctica, and not modern snapshots. These were from the early nineteen hundreds. I paid the entrance fee – another sixteen pounds – but I didn’t resent that. After all, museums aren’t places of worship but then I saw the metal detector. Damn. Security. Here? In an art gallery? It was too late to turn back, and if anything, it would attract even more attention. I spoke to the attendant, explaining the situation in as quiet a voice as I could manage, hoping that he would have enough sense to take me aside and let me hand the gun over without anyone noticing. He was well trained, I have to admit. The flash of surprise replaced in an instant by calm, almost condescending, perfect English decorum.
‘Sir. This way,’ he said, and I followed him into a small antechamber where I handed him, firstly my ID and permit, and then unfastened my jacket aware that he was watching me with absolute intent. I lifted the Glock out with two fingers, laid it on the table, and stepped back, my hands well away from my sides.
He surprised me. I was expecting the usual reaction, the slight wariness that comes when an Englishman faces a loaded gun, and it was loaded. I had warned him already. Instead, he picked it up, removed the magazine, locked the slide, and racked it. A man confident with weapons. He looked down the barrel to make sure it was empty then put it back on the table, slipping the magazine into his pocket. He was no ordinary attendant, clearly he was a soldier. After all these were the Queen’s galleries, close enough to her official residence and a prime target for terrorists. I recognised the look in his eyes; watchful, wary and on guard for anything that might jeopardise the safety of this place and his principal. I like to recruit men who have that awareness. He ushered me back out into the lobby of the gallery and past the arch of the metal detector. ‘Thank you for your co-operation Mr. Straker. I’ll keep the item secured until you’re finished here.’
The exhibition was small, just a few rooms, and not particularly large ones at that. I was used to huge spaces, and it was more than a little claustrophobic, especially with the number of people who were milling around. I rejected the offer of an audio tour, preferring to wander at will round the perimeter of the rooms, looking at whatever caught my eye.
Antarctica. Inhospitable at the best of times even now, but a frozen hell when the photographer took these shots. Basic protection, not even thermals or windproof materials. It was a wonder that they survived as long as they did, but they stuck it out to the end. Didn’t give up. Christ, that photograph of four of them pulling a sledge. Long wooden skis, thick mittens, balaclavas. What a mess. What a waste. Yet there was so much pride in this room, the visitors not concerned with the fact that Scott’s expedition failed, but celebrating their courage instead. All of them, especially the one who walked to his death. Oates. That was his name. Typical British reserve. It must have taken some courage to do that, to walk out of that tent knowing that he wouldn’t get very far before he died. A name came to mind. Paul Roper. He’d gone to his death unaware that his wife had been killed. Doing it not from some great desire to be a hero, but to save lives, but there were no exhibitions celebrating his great sacrifice.
I looked at my watch; it was later than I had thought; over an hour had passed without me noticing and it was time to take my leave. One last look at four men hauling their sledge, their faces unrecognisable beneath the heavy clothing and then I walked away.
The attendant took me into the sideroom and handed back my gun and clip. He said nothing, his grey eyes just watching as I checked it and slotted the magazine back in place, said my thanks and left. As I said. Perfect composure under stress. It was one thing that made working here satisfying in so many respects; that English stiff upper lip, combined with resilience and learned over years of war and conflict.
The crush of tourists had lessened now and I set off down The Mall, little idea of where I was going. Plane trees lined the wide avenue, shedding in preparation for winter, their red leaves littering the pavement and reminding me of maple leaves in
Boston long ago when I was young.
A long time ago. A lifetime of work and effort. Was it time to go home? Perhaps. I stretched my legs and walked on, enjoying the chance to stride out, leaving it all behind me until scuffles and the sound of raucous hilarity close at hand caught my attention.
A group of teenagers were clustering around one of the guards standing duty at the entrance to Clarence House, kicking wildly at the autumnal debris around his feet and taunting with mocking laughter. Red leaves festooned his heavy grey greatcoat and bearskin and yet he was powerless to do more than stand there until they tired of their infantile behaviour and left him alone. He would not retaliate. He was too disciplined to act in such a foolish manner but, until they wearied of their sport, he was trapped, not even able to march away and patrol the area as usual.
I wanted to do something. I wanted to strike back, to go up to them, and shake them, show them just how infantile they were. But it would have done no good. They were only a few and though I could quite easily have stopped them, I was the outsider here, the newcomer, the stranger. They would no doubt turn on me instead, and although I could defend myself, I did not want to bring embarrassment on the guardsman, or indeed my own country. So I stood there, uncomfortable and ill at ease, wanting to do something. Anything.
In the end I unfastened my jacket and walked up, unheard by the group as they continued to shriek obscenities. There were three older teenage girls and one boy hanging well back, egging them on yet too cowardly to get involved. All old enough to know better. I got close enough to reach out, grab the boy by the shoulder, and spin him round to face me, letting my fingers dig into his flesh to stop him pulling away.
‘Armed police.’ I kept my voice low, more of a growl than a voice and flipped my jacket open for a second, long enough for him to catch a brief glimpse of my shoulder holster. ‘Get lost.’ I released him, and caitiff that he was, he took one terrified look and, abandoning his comrades, scuttled away in an attempt to conceal himself in the bustle of tourists on the busier main thoroughfare. That left three girls shrieking like old hags, unaware of me and still taunting the Guardsman, his face a rigid mask of quiet control. The last thing I wanted was for him to realise I was armed. Not here, so close to the Palace. He would not hesitate to use his weapon. It would be loaded as well.
My choice now. Walk away and leave. Or stay and take the consequences. Enough. What sort of person was I, standing here letting these bullies rule? If it meant causing a scene, I would deal with the repercussions later. I wondered what might happen if I left him. If I ignored the abuse and sauntered on. They would continue, and, although they were doing him no actual harm, it was a vile thing to do to someone who would not react under the circumstances. Perhaps that was what they wanted, but he was too educated to respond to their taunts, and his unstated contempt for them simply added fuel to the insanity of their actions.
I had that sudden sense of calmness, of peace, that comes before any moment of decisive action. The one microscopic instant where everything seems to stop and you can sense the whole world waiting. A leaf falling in slow motion, the sound of traffic on the road behind me fading into nothingness, the girls pausing in mid-screech.
The same feeling I experienced when I stared into Craig’s eyes. I acted then, I would act now.
I stepped up, grabbed the first girl and pulled her away before the others had time to notice. ‘You’ve had your fun. Now go.’
She turned to me, a sneer on her face. Not a pretty face either. Her spitefulness had scarred it and made her ugly, inside and out. A sour look of envy and hate as if the world owed her the right to do as she wished with no thought or regard for others. She was the leader of the pack and the others halted, moving closer like hyenas. I could imagine them tearing their prey apart. Not this time though.
I lied again in a soft and threatening voice. ‘Anti-terrorist Police. Do I arrest you now or will you leave quietly? Make the right decision.’
They folded, as cowards always do. Without one retort they crept away, tails between their legs, cowed and submissive. It would not stop them though. Those sort hunted for easy pickings, the ones who were either too weak to stand up to them or the ones who refused to play their games. Either way they were gone for now, and that was all that mattered.
I fastened my jacket and turned to face the Guardsman. No one else had intervened; instead, they had hurried past, avoiding us. Perhaps they were embarrassed, or chose to avoid involvement. Who could blame them? After all, I nearly walked away myself. It was so much easier to abnegate your responsibilities to others. To let such wanton cruelties continue and do nothing to stop it.
‘You okay?’ I said the words softly, aware that he would not answer, would not in fact want anyone to acknowledge the events. He blinked slowly; affirmation and thanks in one simple gesture. I was tempted to offer my help in brushing away the leaves still clinging to his greatcoat and bearskin, but he straightened up and nodded, stamping his feet and stepping out to patrol briskly along the pavement, away from his sentry box and myself. The red badges of their shame fell from him as he marched, and I left him to his duty.
The sun shone, the day was good, I relaxed. I was heading for a small pub I had once visited, a typical London pub, not one of the modern ones aimed at the tourist trade. I had been inside once with Alec, after a particularly tiring session with Henderson. I remembered it as one of those quiet places, small booths with stained glass panels, heavy old-fashioned tiles on the walls. First, however, I needed to take a short detour to pay my final respects to someone.
He was on the British Council Plaza, wearing his flight suit, his arms waving in salute, both feet firmly planted on Earth. I stood for a moment looking up at him, then gave a brief salutation.
I was present last year when this statue was unveiled. Yuri Gagarin was one of my heroes. That defining moment in 1961 changed life on Earth forever and steered me inexorably to this point in my life. My chosen course of University, USAF and NASA, were all a direct result of that day. He was killed in an aircrash when he was 34, just three years before I was born. A young man, and yet now, at the age of 41, I feel so old.
It was one of my regrets that I had not met him to shake his hand and thank him. I know quite a few astronauts, the famous and the not so famous, but Gagarin was special. The first one. The leader, the one who first braved the cosmos. He looked excited and proud.
He was the one who made it all happen. Oh, I know that he was only the tip of the iceberg; thousands of people worked and supported him and if he had not done it, someone else would have. But he was still a hero. I trailed my fingers across the letters of his name.
A cluster of adults and younger children were wandering around the plaza, among them two boys, both fair-haired and aged about ten. They were nudging each other and glancing over at me. After the incident with the teenagers, I was expecting some childish behaviour, maybe an attempt to climb on the plinth, or swinging on the ribbon of aluminium and zinc that represented Gagarin’s trajectory around Earth. One orbit. Ninety minutes. And now we send modules into space as routinely as launching a weather balloon.
I readied myself to speak out but I was pleasantly surprised. They hesitated, coming towards me with caution before one spoke in a diffident voice. ‘Mister? Do you know who he was?’ He possessed a wide-eyed look of wonder and I turned to the adults who were now approaching.
One of the women took his hand. ‘Jack, the gentleman doesn’t want to be pestered,’
‘But I want to know about him.’
How does one answer a question like that? A hero? A gallant officer? An ordinary man doing his duty? None of these, yet all of them.
‘I don’t mind. Really.’ and I told the boys about Gagarin, how he was chosen by his friends to be the first man into space, how he was scared that he might not survive and yet he still obeyed his orders and they listened with the same expression of awe that I remember seeing in my own son’s eyes.
We talked about astronauts and space exploration, about going to the Moon and maybe one day travelling to Mars and the boys’ parents joined in. It took a while; one of the mothers dug packets of Fruit Pastilles out of her shoulder bag and we shared them as we sat on a nearby bench and I talked about how we were hoping to get a person on Mars. ‘You two boys want to go into space one day?’
They blushed and both nodded their heads, shyly. Close friends, and I envied them the friendship, the future ahead of them, the opportunities. I leaned closer. ‘I’ll tell you something. One day, about twenty years from now, men will walk on Mars. It could be you in that spaceship, the pair of you walking on Mars. If you work hard.’ It was tempting to reach out and tousle blond hair. ‘I’ll let you in on a secret.’ I grinned and stood up, tugging my jacket back into place. ‘I’m an astronaut. I’ve been in space, lots of times in fact.’ I wondered if they would believe me, or maybe they would think I was joking. Perhaps my sincerity convinced them.
‘Have you been to the Moon? Are you a hero then?’ one of them burst out and I wished I could have told him the truth that I had indeed walked on the Moon.
‘No. Those missions were a long time ago. I’ve been to the Space Station and satellites. It’s ….’ I paused, unsure of what to say, ‘It’s incredible up there, being able to look down on our planet. I hope that one day you get the chance. But Gagarin was the real hero. It takes someone with immense courage to do what he did.’ I looked at my watch. Time was getting on. ‘I’m sorry, I have to go now.’ I told the small gathering then, heedless of what they might think I stood to attention and saluted Gagarin, one Colonel to another.
I didn’t want to leave, but there was only an hour left and besides, the topic was painful. One hour. A drink in the pub, a chance to collect my thoughts and then a taxi to Henderson’s club.
By this time, the busy mid-day rush had abated and the pub was quiet. I sat in one of the small booths, my mind running through the events of the day. This was a side to London I had not expected. So often strangers, and even the people who live here, fail to see beyond the glitz and glamour, the shops and attractions.
I had witnessed heroism and courage: soldiers struggling to save a building from destruction, sailors braving uncharted seas in a tiny wooden ship, the kindness of a stranger acting to help me with no thought for reward or recognition. I had seen small personal memorials to the men and women who sacrificed their lives to protect the world, and the might and majesty of the Palace, with a Queen who had dedicated her life to these people, despite the cost. The Antarctic explorers, the quiet unassuming soldier in the gallery who treated me with respect, the small boys marvelling at Gagarin’s bravery. So much that was good here. It far outweighed the bad, those tricksters on the bridge, the old women with their gifts and menaces, the ignorant and spiteful girls whose only intent was to cause harm regardless of whom they hurt. They were the aliens in this land; out to destroy, and ravage and ruin. They would not prevail. I knew that now.
Today had shown me the best in humanity, that determination not to give in, whatever the cost. I stared out of the window, thinking. Only a taxi ride now.
‘Ed. Glad you could make it.’ Henderson’s words were genuine, his smile welcoming. ‘Sorry about this morning. Now. What’s this about? I hope you’re not asking for more money. At least not this quarter.’ He led me through to the Library and gestured to a group of chairs in a bay window overlooking the inner garden. ‘Drink?’ he settled himself in one of the leather wing-back chairs as a waiter approached. ‘Makers Mark. Double please. Ed?’
‘Not for me, thanks. This won’t take long.’ I made a decision and sat down opposite, leaning forward, fingers interlaced, my shoulders hunched. ‘James? I have to ask you something.’
He ignored me. ‘Bad situation, Ed. Craig, I mean. Haven’t seen you since you got back. Know how you must feel. Happened to me, you know.’ He hesitated, gulped a mouthful of his bourbon, putting the glass down and staring at it. ‘Best friend. Flying together in training. He made a mistake. I ejected in time, but he didn’t…’ The words died away and he was silent.
There was nothing to say. I reached into my pocket and he flinched. Alec must have forewarned him.
‘Ed?’ A different voice, a familiar one but with an unexpected hint of anxiety.
I should have guessed. A two-pronged attack, but even so it was a shock to see Alec here, hovering in the background as if he was scared to come nearer. It became clear. The delay this morning was to give Alec time to get back here and gang up with Henderson. Seven hours. I wondered what they hoped to achieve in that time, but it had given me a chance to look around this city and now I knew why the politicians had insisted that SHADO’s headquarters be here in England.
Not out of economic or political reasons. Not for ease of access to Europe and the UK where most attacks seemed to occur, and not to appease governments either. What were those words? This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise, this fortress built by Nature for herself… Shakespeare had the right idea. This was a country built of strength and endurance, sacrifice and loyalty.
I stood, unsure what to do or say and Henderson spoke. ‘Colonel Freeman. A pleasant surprise. Join us please.’ He waved at the conveniently placed third chair. If I hadn’t been somewhat amused by their scheme, I might have walked away right then, but, as it was I sat down and, when the waiter approached, I asked for club soda. James tossed back the last of his bourbon and ordered another. Alec glanced at me. I sipped my drink.
‘Colonel? Good trip back?’ I kept my tone dry, and he had the good grace to look embarrassed.
‘Come on Ed. You can’t go through with it. We won’t let you.’
‘Won’t let me? I made my decision.’ I put the glass down, turned to Henderson. ‘Get Lake back from Moonbase; Alec will need her to run night watch. Paul takes over the Control room, and lets Alec oversee everything. It will do them both good. Three weeks. James. I want three weeks leave, starting…’ I shrugged my shoulders at Alec’s expression. ‘Might as well start right now. Any objections?’
They were silent. Henderson nodded. ‘I thought…Colonel Freeman said—‘
‘That I was going to resign. I intended to. But I was given a chance to rethink.’ I stood up, knowing that if I stayed they would ask too many questions, and I was not ready to answer those, yet. I reached in my jacket and pulled out a card. ‘I’ll be staying here for a few days, then… Well. I haven’t decided where I’m going after that. I’ve got my mobile. Call me only if it’s an emergency. Now, I have a taxi waiting.’
I tossed the card on the table. The taxi driver had stopped at the hotel on the way to Henderson’s club, and I had booked a room for a few nights. I had skimmed the surface of London, and it had taught me more about myself than I could have imagined. Perhaps I would learn more when I delved deeper into the city and its people.
The taxi driver was reading The Daily Star, and he folded it away when I opened the passenger door. ‘Okay mate? Where to now?’
‘First place. Anywhere along the Thames.’ I would tear up the envelope and throw the shreds into the water. Let the river have it. A fitting way to dispose of something that I should never have written. I sat back and fastened my seatbelt. ‘Then, how about driving me to Harlington? I need to pick up a suitcase.’
I started this story with the idea of letting Straker have a pleasant day in London. He was supposed to meet Henderson to discuss work, and the burst water main prevented that meeting.
I played around with the story for a while, but felt that it was, in some ways, meaningless. There was no conflict in the story and it was bland, so I decided to do it as Straker planning to hand his resignation in to Henderson.
From that point on it all fitted together, and as I wrote, I found the ‘links’ to Straker’s mental attitude and personal sense of loss as he studied London and its people.
I could have written more, in fact at one time I wanted to, but events have happened recently and I feel that this is the right point at which to end the story.