Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Obscurati Chronicles- Part 4

There were no taxies or busses running so they had to ask a neighbour for a lift to the hospital. As they walked into the Accident and Emergency department Lucas almost held back, terrified of what news he was about to hear. The five minutes in the waiting room cuddling a weeping Cara were torture. As soon as he saw his mother emerge from the doctor’s office he knew by the look on her face that the news was good. The relief was almost painful; he came close to fainting from it.
An hour later the family were allowed to see him. Charles Doughty was in a curtained off space on a bed asleep with an oxygen mask on his face. He had a black eye and his body was covered in cuts and bruises. His legs were encased in white plaster wrapped in fabric. He’d been in theatre having his leg bones surgically repaired. “Daddy, can you hear me?” Cara asked quietly. Her father didn’t respond, but sighed deeply in his drug-assisted slumber. “How many Muslims did you kill, Dad?” asked Brendan proudly.
The family went home an hour later and planned to return the following day. Lucas got up early the next morning and went out. The small shops in the centre of the estate had reopened and he bought a bunch of grapes, some flowers and a get-well card. When he got home the family wrote loving messages of the card and tenderly wrapped the flowers before leaving the flat and catching the bus, which was running once more, to the hospital. They’d called earlier and a nurse confirmed that Charlie was awake now and they could visit; therefore it was mystifying to arrive on the ward and be intercepted by a nurse who told them they couldn’t see him. “Why on Earth not?” demanded Mary.
“He’s requested no visitors.“
“”What!? We’re his family! I’m his wife!“
“I’m sorry, Mrs Doughty. We have to honour the patient’s wishes, and he’s requested no visitors, not even you.“
The nurse shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know.”
They went home in silence.
The TV still showed permanent news on all broadcasting stations; the others were closed down. The riot in Liverpool was just one of many up and down the country. The gang from Lucas’ estate had marched on the Liverpool Central Mosque. In their thousands they had broken in and laid waste to the building, smashing ornaments, ripping up the carpets and trying to set the place on fire. A handful of the mob had commandeered a bulldozer and managed to demolish a wall. Some of the rioters were crushed when the rubble fell on them, Lucas’ father included. All in all, across the country 160 people had been killed and several thousand injured. The programme switched the international situation: The Prime Minister and US President were back on TV. The call had gone out for action. Mohammed Evel Al Kokkah was currently reported to be ensconced in the mountains near Dushanbe in ACAIR, the Autonomous Central Asian Islamic Republic. The US Secretary of State was in the ACAIR’s capital, Ashkhabad, holding emergency talks with the Republic’s president Akbar Jeen. He demanded that ACAIR seek and arrest Al Kokkah and extradite him to the United States to face charges over what had already been dubbed the “Three/Twenty-Three Attacks“. Akbar Jeen denied that Al Kokkah was located anywhere inside the ACAIR’s borders. America had asked if US troops could be deployed on his land to make sure and Jeen had refused. The following news-piece on the 3/23 attacks was a horrific recording of mobile phonecalls made by passengers on the aircraft. “Oh God! There’s these Arab-looking guys on the plane!… They’ve killed the stewardesses!… They’ve got screwdrivers to this guy’s throat!… “Tell the kids I love them…” and it went on for several minutes while Mary gritted her teeth and winced. The voices sounded a bit tinny, robotic even, like artificial electronic voices. The newsreader explained that this was caused by distortion, because the mobile phone signals had been so bad on board the aircraft, up in the sky and moving quickly.
The next day school reopened. When Lucas went with all the other children there was a bad and fearful atmosphere. Everybody walked around the playground looking nervously over their shoulders; and more often than not, up into the sky. Along with many other pupils, Lucas’ girlfriend Jody wasn’t there and she’d been his only reason for attending school himself. After a particularly tedious maths lesson filled with thoughts of his father, Lucas decided to play truant and try to visit him again. Her guessed that the police wouldn’t be interested in him; they had other things on their mind. He caught a bus to town and walked to the hospital.
There were no nurses manning the ward’s reception desk. He heard voices behind the curtains pulled round the beds and guessed that they were all busy. He waited a few minutes to ask permission, but nobody appeared. Eventually he got tired of waiting and began walking slowly around the ward bays searching for his father’s bed. Eventually he heard his father’s voice coming from behind one of the screens. Lucas paused for a moment, wondering if it was OK to enter; a nurse might be washing him: “My credit rating ain’t that bad. I paid back every penny on the loan for my van.”
Another voice replied: “I know, Mr Doughty, but that was a mere five thousand pounds; this is a far greater sum. And I understand you’ll be wanting to borrow even more money for this… other investment of yours.”
“So.” Lucas’ father replied with a chuckle. “If I don’t pay up you’ve got my car, my van and my pension.”
“Your collateral won’t cover the amount you want to borrow.”
“Well how much can you lend me… Lucas!”
Lucas had poked his head through a gap in the screens. “Dad? What’s going on?”
His father was sat up in bed reading some documents in a folder. A smart young man in a suit sat on the bedside chair operating a laptop computer which was resting on the bed. Doughty seemed to almost recoil from his son. “Lucas, what are you doing here?”
“I came to see you, Dad. I was worried about you.”
“Why aren’t you at school?”
“I bunked off.”
“Go back, Son.”
“What’s going on?”
“Go! Now!” He shouted so loudly that the conversation in the rest of the bay stopped.
Lucas fled from the hospital and retuned to school, his mind churning. When he got home from school he opened his emails and was surprised to find one from his father: Hi Son. I’m sorry about what happened today and I’m sorry I’m keeping you, your Mam, Bren and Cara away from me at the moment. Please don’t tell them you’ve been to see me. It’s not because I don’t want you to be with me. To be honest, it’s because I feel ashamed. Not because of what I did to those Muslim bastards, no I’m proud of that. No, I’m ashamed because I feel like I’ve betrayed you by giving you the life you’ve got. I can’t face you again until I’ve at least begun to do something to repair the damage I’ve done to you. Then we’ll all be together again, I promise. Love you always. Dad.
Lucas frowned as he read the email again and again, then he clicked “Reply” and composed a response: Hi Dad. What do you mean you’ve done damage to us? I don’t understand what all this is about. Please tell me. Love from Lucas.
He had to wait till evening for his father to answer: I can’t now, Lu. Not this way. I’m getting out of hospital next week. I’ll explain then.
The following Wednesday Lucas and his brother got home from school at around the same time as their mother got home from picking up their sister from her primary school. They’d just sat down to a cup of tea when a key turned in the lock of the front door. The door opened and footsteps were heard in the hall along with a strange, repetitive thumping sound. They all came out to look and saw Charlie hobbling towards them on crutches; it was these that made the thumping sound. His right leg was encased in a plastercast. He grinned broadly. They all laughed and ran forward to embrace him. “Thank God I’m back.” sighed his father as he limped into the lounge. “I’m looking forward to a good roast dinner. That hospital food must kill more people than…” He stopped in the doorway to the lounge of their little council flat and froze. He stared at the room as if seeing it for the first time.
“Charlie?” His wife looked at him with a quizzical frown.
He took a step forward and ran his finger over the crumbling plaster of the walls. His face blanched and his eyes glazed over with tears.
“Charlie, what’s wrong, Love?”
“’Love’?” he muttered hoarsely. “Do you really love me, Mary?”
She chuckled nervously. “Of course I do. Charlie, what’s the matter with you?”
He smiled and raised a had to wipe his eyes, the crutch hanging from his forearm. “You’re a beautiful woman, Mary. You could have had your pick of the fellers. Why did you marry me?”
Brendan appeared from the kitchen with a streaming mug of tea and offered it to his father. Charlie reached out to take it then stopped and said in a much stronger voice: “Thanks, Bren, but there’s no time.” He brightened up. “Everybody, get in the car. I’ve got a nice surprise for you.”
“You’ll have to drive, Mary; I can’t manage it with my bad leg.”
“I haven’t driven for years.” Mary protested. “Anyway, where are we going?”
There was barely enough room for them all in his family’s beat-up old Ford Fiesta. Lucas was in the middle of the back seat with Cara squeezed against his left shoulder and Brendan against his right. He felt uncomfortable with one leg on either side of the driveshaft. His mother drove in a flustered (Synonym?- Ed) manner, punching the pedals hard and making the car jerk. Her hands shook on the wheel and she ground the cars manual gearbox. Her husband sat in the front passenger seat with his crutches across his lap giving directions. To their increasing wonder, he guided her out of the city and onto the motorway.
Charlie stubbornly deflected all questions about their destination and simply ordered his wife to continue driving. They stopped for a meal at a service station in Birmingham when it began to get dark and sat around a table in silence, munching microwaved burgers and sipping from plastic coffee cups. Soon after they returned to the road Lucas fell asleep. He began to stir when the car exited the motorway. He teetered in a pre-awakening stupor for a while as they drove along slowly through the carotene wash of the streetlights, then roused totally when his father said: “This is it. Park us there, Mary, just behind that lamp-post.”
Lucas looked at his watch: 10.22PM. “Where are we?” he yawned.
“Hertfordshire.” replied his father, hoisting himself out of the car with his crutches. “Come on, out you all get.”
The night air was chilly and Lucas could see his breath in front of his face. They were parked on a long, suburban residential street bordered on both sides by rows of large semi-detached houses. Streetlamps punctuated the pavement at various intervals and there were lights behind most of the windows. His father led them along the pavement, counting the numbers on the doors. “Fifty-six… fifty-eight… sixty… This is it!” He stopped at a house that was completely unlit. The garden was a tangle of weeds and the curtains in the windows were all open. A wooden signboard stuck out of a patch of mud by the bare brick wall and there was enough streetlight for Lucas to make out the word “SOLD” on it in large black letters. Charlie thumped confidently up the gravel path to the front door. Lucas expected him to ring the doorbell, but instead he took a key from his pocket and unlocked the door. He turned to them and grinned playfully. “Are you coming in or are you going to stand out there in the cold all night?” He pushed the door open with the rubber pad on the end of his crutch and vanished inside. Mary paused then trudged after him without a word. Her children followed.
The interior of the house was cold and dark; none of the light switches worked and the streetlamps outside were the only illumination. Charlie opened a cupboard under the staircase and began fumbling around. “Aha! Here it is. Let’s try this out. Great!” The bulb on the corridor exploded into light; he tried more light switches and they worked too. “There’s a charge key on top of the meter. It’s got five quid in it, just like the estate agents said.”
Lucas screwed up his eyes until they adjusted to the glare of the shadeless light bulbs. The house was almost bare except for a settee in the lounge and a bed frame in one of the upstairs rooms. Sounds echoed off the smooth wallpaper and the rooms looked cavernous without furniture. The kitchen had linoleum on the floor and the rest of the house was carpeting with clean white pile. “Charlie?” said Mary. “What is this place?”
Her husband smiled and gave a luxurious sigh. “This is our new home.”
There was a stunned silence. “What?” she chuckled. “Of course it’s not, Charlie… Are you feeling alright?… We shouldn’t be here. How did you get they key? We’d better leave before the owners turn up.”
“They… we have tuned up.” He lowered himself into the settee and tossed his crutches onto the floor.
“What are you talking about, Dad?” asked Brendan. “We don’t live here. We live in Liverpool, in our flat.”
Charlie winced as if in pain and put a hand to his face. “No! We used to live in Liverpool in that place! That stinking, poky little flat! Don’t ever remind me of that again!”
“Dad.” said Lucas. “Are you saying we’ve… moved?”
“Yes, Lu. But we’ve done more than just move. This is a new beginning for us. The first day of the rest of our lives. We’ve died and been born again!” His eyes glistened with passion.
“Charlie!” snapped Mary. “Stop this nonsense! I don’t know if you hit your head in that accident as well as your legs, or if this is a side-effect of your painkillers, but… come on! Let’s get in the car and go home before the neighbours call the police.”
“Didn’t you hear me, Woman!?” he shouted. “We can’t go back! We’re not going back!”
“Well then you can stay here and rant by yourself while I take the children back home.”
“It’s too late!” he laughed. “I’ve already been to the council and cancelled our tenancy. We’ve got two weeks to clear out our stuff.”
She gasped and took a step back. “Tell me you haven’t!”
He shrugged and laughed again. There was a look in his eyes that Lucas had never seen before.
“Sweet Lord Jesus!” she crossed herself. “Charlie! We spent a week living in your mother’s garage to get that flat!” It’s been the only home we’ve ever known!”
“I told you not to remind me!” he yelled.
Cara started crying and ran over to her mother. Mary put her arms around her and stroked her hair.
Charlie paused. He seemed to soften as he looked at his daughter. “Mary, you talk about that mouldy little council shoebox as if it was a place to be proud of.”
“I was proud of it!” his wife retorted. “And you had no right to take it away from us without discussing it first!”
Charlie breathed deeply and sat back stretching his limbs; his plastercast rose off the carpet. “I guess there are mules who are proud of their hovels… I wanted it to be a nice surprise; sorry if you don’t see it that way. We can’t go back, Pet. We’ve burnt our bridges."


Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Obscurati Chronicles- Part 3

Everyone remembers where they were on Three/Twenty-One. Lucas Doughty remembered it very well indeed, but not for quite the same reason that most other people did.
He was at school in his biology class, examining his own skin cells under a microscope, when the deputy-headmaster walked in and whispered something in Mrs Lever’s ear. She turned pale and dropped her chalk, and the deputy-headmaster put his hand on her shoulder to steady her. “Right, class.” he commanded hoarsely. “I want you all to go to the hall straight away, quietly now; no running or pushing.” When they were in the hall the headmaster told them what had happened. It took more than an hour for Lucas and his older brother Brendan to get home because they weren’t allowed to walk as they usually did. His parents had to come and collect them. They walked home swiftly between the shoulders of their mother and father. The streets were jammed with traffic, every face which passed was drawn and horror-struck. Echoing police sirens whooped all over the city. A mountain of solid black smoke towered into the sky from the direction of Anfield. Lucas felt a moral obligation to feign the same expression, but really he just felt numb. Once they were home Lucas’ father locked and bolted the door to their council flat while his mother went to collect his sister Cara from her school. When the family were all home they ripped the masking tape off the door to the cupboard containing their emergency supplies and retrieved the bottles of drinking water, chocolate bars and cans of food. They then huddled together in the lounge and switched on the TV.
“….The death toll cannot begin to be guessed at right now.” said the news reporter, pausing as an ambulance screeched by. “But all four stadiums were filled to capacity…” The scene in the background behind was indistinct. The sky was grey and foggy as if a huge sackcloth had been draped over the scene; to his left was the orange glow of a fire. Jets of water from firemen’s hoses arced into the air. Rows of emergency vehicles were lined up as if on parade. The grim-faced reporter was replaced by an equally grim-faced newsreader. He was struggling to retain his usual professional composure. “In case you’ve just joined us, the only headline today is: Four aircraft have crashed at four different Premiership football grounds this afternoon killing thousands of people…”
The afternoon wore on and the different detailed reports and analyses seemed to blur into one for Lucas: pictures of people weeping in the rubble-strewn streets, experts on aviation disasters and terrorism interviewed in the studio, aerial film shots of the famous football grounds wreathed in flames and black smoke. The chairman of the FA making as statement to a press conference with red eyes, coverage of the emergency Parliament session. Lucas’ mother was weeping and preying at the same time, fumbling her rosary in her quivering hands and struggling to mouth the words. Lucas felt his father’s eyes on him; his expression was thoughtful and sad. “Dad?”
“You’re lucky you’re too young to understand all this, Lu.” It was almost the first time he’d spoken all afternoon. He’d been sitting in his armchair in his usual posture, slouched back with his chin on his chest and a can of lager in his hand. His brows had been clenched and his eyes fixed on the TV.
“Get outa town! I do understand, Dad.” said Lucas.
“Do you?” He picked at his string vest and scratched his unshaven cheek. “You’ve grown up with all this, Son.” He gestured at the TV screen. “You don’t remember what the world used to be like when I was your age; how much safer we felt.”
“Ah, the good old days!” sighed Brendan with a sarcastic smile.
His father ignored him. “We only had the Russkies to worry about back then and I think we all knew deep down that they’d never really drop the Bomb.”
“Don’t forget the Provoes. Charlie.” said his mother.
“Mary, the Provoes were lambs compared to these Muslim creeps! They used to give out warnings for Christ’s sake!”
“Don’t blaspheme!” she scolded. “Today of all days!”
“And they never used planes and dirty bombs!” he continued. “Little explosions; once they went off that was it.”
“Were they clean bombs, Daddy?” asked Cara who was sitting on the floor fiddling with her dolls’ house.
Everybody looked at her and there was a long silence.
Lucas gazed out of his bedroom window at half-past one in the morning and saw lights burning in all the other tower blocks. No one was sleeping that night. A helicopter guttered overhead, shining its spotlight onto the streets below. On the network of roads below Lucas’ block a number of police cars cruised slowly along. No other vehicle was using the roads. On the pavements nearby strutted a squad of soldiers dressed in gasmasks and protective clothing. In the garish streetlight they looked unearthly, like aliens from a science fiction film. Another police car shot past on the main road, its siren echoing in the concrete canyons of the estate, its light dieing the scene in flickering blue. (New PG? Ed) Lucas turned away from the window and flopped down onto his bed. The lights of the helicopter shone in, illuminating his walls and ceiling. He turned on his TV. The non-stop news broadcast of the last ten hours now showed an announcement by the Prime Minister. “… Everything that can be done is being done. Don’t try to help just yet. Stay in your home and keep your TV or radio on and tuned to the news. Remember that the presence of chemical, radiological or biological agents cannot yet be ruled out. Do not drink tap water and do not bathe in it. Keep your windows shut and only consume food and drink from your home supplies. Cooperate in every and any way asked by the military and emergency services…”
Lucas switched off the TV and closed his curtains. He lay back down and tried to make out his Liverpool FC poster in the dark. He felt he were watching a movie of his own life.
Lucas didn’t remember falling asleep. When he awoke his alarm clock said seven forty-five, but he didn’t need to be told that school would be shut today. He put on his slippers and padded into the lounge. His parents and Brendan were all seated avidly watching the news. “Morning.” Lucas yawned.
“Shh!” hissed his father, pointing at the TV. The screen showed a grainy, flickering image of a man. Despite the poor quality there was no mistaking the piercing black eyes, the handsome, Roman nose, long, greying beard and pill-box hat of the rogue, fugitive warlord Mohammed Evel Al-Kokkah. He was speaking in a foreign language, but his words were interpreted by subtitles at the bottom of the screen:
"I, Mohammed Evel Al-Kokkah, leader of the Glorious Jihad of God, hereby announce that yesterday’s attack against the British infidels, the Satanic American puppet, was carried out by brave soldiers and martyrs of God. I offer no apologies for the loss of life and injuries resulting. Those killed and maimed were enemies of God. It is our right and duty by God to kill as many of them as possible. Satan claims his own and God and the prophets smile with delight at their demise. God’s eyes open in greeting to the brave soldiers of the Jihad, the best of his people who love Him and dedicate their lives to Him. They are right now gazing upon the Heaven that He has prepared for them. This is not the end; it is only the beginning! More battles will follow until Satan’s infidel hoards are defeated and the armies of God have triumphed and Islam can reign on Earth for eternity. Victory to the Jihad! Glory be to God!”
“What a terrible man!” said Mary. “He should be ashamed of himself… Are you alright, Charlie.
Charlie just sat and stared. He was flushed and sweating; his eyes twitched.
The TV was now showing a picture of the interior of an airliner. The narrator explained how Al-Kokkah’s hijackers coordinated their attack, sneaking aboard each plane and attacking the passengers and crew soon after takeoff with Stanley knives and sharpened screwdrivers. “Ugh! Those poor people.” said Mary.
They then locked the cockpit doors and took control of the four aircraft.” said the TV. “British Airways Flight 4167 was the first to be hijacked soon after taking off from Heathrow Airport en route to New York.” The picture changed to a photograph of a handsome, elderly man in a pilot’s uniform. “Captain Robert Saunders was one of BA’s most experienced pilots. He was due to retire next year after more than forty years in the air. He and his first officer, Nigel Blake, didn’t even have time to radio for help or press their panic buttons. The hijackers would have immobilized and killed them as quickly as possible, aware of these security measures. The terrorists then shut off the autopilot and radar beacon and flew the plane, a Boeing 747, on a new course. Eyewitnesses in North Wales and fishermen on the Irish Sea have reported seeing the aircraft fly past them at very low altitude. The hijackers flew back inland over Liverpool towards Manchester where they dived straight into Old Trafford football ground. The plane was almost fully-laden with fuel…”
Lucas’ father leapt to his feet and hurled his beer can at the TV screen with a bellow of rage.
“Charlie!” exclaimed his wife.
He stormed out into the hall.
“Dad, are you OK?” asked Lucas.
“Daddy, come back.” called Cara.
Their mother reached out and touched Lucas’ and Cara’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. You’re dad’s upset, but he’ll be alright in a minute.”
They heard Charlie’s voice on the ‘phone for a few minutes then he came back into the lounge dressed in his overcoat. “I’m going out for a bit.”
“Out!?” shrilled Mary. “You can’t go out! You heard what they said!”
“I don’t care, I’m going out.” His face was pale and wooden.
“Going where?” asked Brendan.
“I’ve been on the phone to a few of the lads.” his father responded. “We’re going to sort out the people who did this. The people who tired to kill us. These…” His face twisted with rage and his eyes glinted. “…these fuckin’ Muslim scum!” He turned and walked out. The front door opened and slammed.
A few hours later the all-clear was given. The security services had verified that there was no trace of contaminant in the air or water supply. Lucas and Brendan then went out to look for their father while their mother stayed at home with Cara. It didn’t take them long to see where he’d gone. Half the estate seemed to be out on the streets walking swiftly along the main roads in huge crowds. Some carried weapons, baseball and cricket bats, metal pipes and stakes. One or two even brandished shotguns and hunting rifles. Lucas saw Mr Cage, his school’s caretaker. The gentille old man Lucas knew was transformed; he was marching along, his face red and his teeth gritted. He carried a crossbow in his arms. Her spotted the two boys. “Go home, lads! Both of you!”
“Why? Where are you going?”
“Downtown, to the mosque.”
“The mosque! Why?”
“Just get the fuck out of here!” he shouted. “Go home and stay there!” He picked up his pace and disappeared into the throng.
Lucas and Brendan obeyed. They went to Brendan’s bedroom for a few hours and played computer games until the sky went dark outside to take their minds off the situation. Then their mother poked her head around their door, her eyes were tearful and her lip trembled.
“Mum! What’s wrong?”
She sniffed. “It’s your dad. He’s… he’s been hurt.”