“Hi Lena, how are you?”
She had been a couple of minutes late and, due to constant demands from her work tablet for her attention, hadn’t been able to prepare herself for what could be a tricky evening with a girl who was frightened and still a little jumpy. The girl mumbled something about being a bit better thank you. She certainly looked better, at least superficially, hair washed, clean, wearing the new clothes she had bought her, skin brighter from some regular decent food. Yes, she could have been stunning once, could be highly attractive again perhaps, if the skin improved, the black rings around her eyes faded, the metal perforations in her skin removed and healed over, at least she didn’t seem to have indulged in the fashion for tattoos, ruining irredeemably the beauty that nature had given her.
The girl followed her out and down the street to a little Italian restaurant she knew, one of the old family sort, not a chain, dark inside, booth seating against the walls, discreet, wholesome food, just right for tonight. As they sat down, “By the way Lena, the rucksack is for you, more clothes, toiletries, a voucher for shoes from a place near here, a little more cash, a gift, whatever you’ve decided.”
Let her talk, it was her decision, be firm with her, not soft, indulgence was not the way to help those like her, she had learnt that the hard way. They ordered food, soft drinks arrived.
That was all, not a good sign.
The girl sat just looking at her, trying not to catch her eye, still thinking, not sure of her, or anything anymore, even herself. Just wait then, in silence, it’s hers to break, the food arrives; it seems to cancel the spell over the girl.
“How can I be sure? I don’t know you, anything about you, everyone’s betrayed me, let me down…”
Giving in to self-pity now.
“That’s true, you don’t, but you did trust Matt, Sam, once?”
“I, we, helped Sam. He trusted us and that meant we could help him, you saw that for yourself; we can’t do the same for you if you won’t trust us, don’t want to make changes in your life, start a new one.”
Silence again, just eating, slipping sly glances at me, thinking I don’t notice, that I can’t read her mind, see the debate within.
“I just need money, buy them off, set me up; you’ve got lots, can’t you help, why won’t you? They’ll kill me if you don’t, it’ll be your fault.”
Suppress the anger, be calm, it’s just part of the process.
“Money isn’t the answer, it never is, wasn’t for Matt, he was bright enough to see that. Either you want a new life or you don’t. If you don’t I can’t help you, I’m sorry.”
Hopeless slient tears welling up, at least she’s not sobbing.
“But what’ll I do?”
She reaches across and grasps her arm, human contact, reassurance. The girl doesn’t pull away, just looks in her eyes.
“It’s up to you Lena; do you want to run forever or just one last time? To be free, secure, maybe loved, to make a place for yourself, somewhere you can be someone new, be who you really are inside, who you want to be? It’s up to you. There are people there, others who have done what Matt’s done; they can do the same for you, but once you are there, you’re there, that’s it.”
She’s desperate, she deluded herself that I could magic it all away without consequence for her, and now she sees there’s a price: the nice lady isn’t a fairy godmother after all.
“Can I have more time, take a little longer to decide?”
“Any longer, they might find you, you do know that?”
She hadn’t thought of that, brain still sluggish from whatever she’s been up to these last few weeks.
She nods, uncertainty, no escape routes any more.
“Would Matt meet me, help get me there?”
“If I can get hold of him and he wants to, yes, the last bit anyway. He’s busy these days.”
“Where is it anyway, you haven’t said?”
“I can’t, to keep them all safe and if I did you wouldn’t believe me anyway. Dessert, tea, something else?” The girl nodded, she beckoned the waiter over.
“A few days, leave it with me. I will extend your room at the hotel another night and then move you to another until we can get you away. Stay in, take no risks, understand, it’ll be alright, I promise.” Not easy, but alright anyway, the rest is up to you. “I’ll walk you back to your hotel and then phone you there tomorrow sometime. Be there, okay?”
The best decision you probably ever made, I just wish I could be there to see the look on your face when you realise, and theirs’ as well when they see you, their first black citizen so far as I know.
That night’s dinner at Martha and Iltud’s was Sally’s happiest by far since she had crossed the barrier and, if she were honest, probably for months before that. Later, the guilt of that recognition twisted like a knife in her gut when she also realised that she had hardly thought of how Andy was for over twenty-four hours and then recollected, with shock, how few times Josey asked when they were going to see him. She would find a way, they would, but she had to be patient, determined and brave for her son’s sake. The authorities here seemed very interested in her languages, her foreign office background; skills they had said could be invaluable to them. That might give her some negotiating leverage with them, perhaps she could test out the Abbot when she saw him on Monday, find out what they wanted of her, how far they might be amenable to help.
They had seemed particularly keen on her Italian and her Latin and had asked about her knowledge of the Vatican. She wasn’t a Catholic, so they had been a little disappointed by her answer, as if only then realising then that she would have been too good to be true. They weren’t just asking idle questions though; there was intent behind them. A theocracy; what would they want of a twenty first century theocracy whose authority they didn’t recognise, saying it was less senior than their own? Theophano had mentioned the monks of the Holy Mountain, but had implied strongly they were Greeks, Orthodox at least, in long term contact with the Byzantine refuge. There was only one place she knew that fitted that description, Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, home to Orthodox monasteries from Greek, Armenian, Russian and many other national traditions; self-governing, originating in ancient times, known to possess ancient treasures, manuscripts and other uncatalogued wonders.
Two theocracies then, one connected to the Byzantines… The other? Well there must be something going on, otherwise why ask the questions they had of her? If anyone could tell her it would be the Abbot, he seemed a decent and compassionate man, but she could also try Brother Peran on the way down to St Josephs, if she got him talking on such arcane matters, clearly, his first love after his faith, of course, his tongue might run away with him.
Gillian had come in to check on her and Narin, and pronounced her almost fully fit again, and Narin on the road to recovery. The girl had co-operated fully with her this time, letting her check her all over for almost an hour, smiling nervously, trying to use some of the new words she had learned that day. Before leaving, Gillian had confided that the girl was bruised all over, malnourished, undoubtedly brutally abused in the fullest sense of the word and would surely suffer prolonged reactions long into the future. For now though her recovery was remarkable, a triumph of the human heart and the love of others. Gillian had got quite emotional about it, she had even started talking like the priest at one point.
On the way out, Sally asked Gillian how could she bear to practise her trade here, when so many of the cures she was used to were unavailable: didn’t it reduce her to despair to see people suffer and die when a few miles away, through the barrier, treatments were available that could cure them?
The doctor had smiled ruefully at that, answering that yes, at first, but then she noticed that some diseases, cancer, cardiovascular problems, asthma and dementia were much less common here, leading her to believe that they must be the consequences of modern lifestyles and were therefore less prevalent in the Pocket, where pollution, sedentary lifestyles and artificial chemicals were almost unknown. She had access to good medical drugs, especially antibiotics, brought in from the outside, which were critically important for treating people doing hard physical jobs who were far more prone to broken bones and bad wounds than on the outside. So yes, she could still make a positive difference, the nature of the problems were just different and, besides, here people seemed to accept that life had its risks and had to end at some point. So, no, she no longer despaired as she had done on the outside.
After dinner Martha and Narin had shown her the plans for the dress they were going to start making for the girl, and then for her if she liked it; Narin’s eyes were alive when going through it with her. Later Sally noticed that they were equally alive when looking at Sam, something Martha didn’t miss either. It was only natural they concluded, trying to calm their fears, given what he had done for her, she was still just a young girl after all, emotionally immature. They didn’t share their surprise that she could look like that at any man given her suffering. Sam’s eyes were hard to read when with the girl; he just spent hours with her patiently, teaching her words, smiling at her answers, nodding encouragement. If they had known that his real thoughts were over the moors and far away, they would have been mightily relieved, unless they had realised what he was rehearsing.
The man he knew as ‘Henry’ was waiting for Andy Bowson in their coffee house of the day, already seated and drinking some sort of herbal tea. He looks tired, not quite as poised as normal, well we all are. The dispiriting lack of progress gets to everyone in the end.
“How are you Henry?”
“Fine thanks, you? Do you have something for me?”
“Just more of the same, you might almost think Dager and the HR bitch were flirting with each other.”
“They are in a way. Is that all?”
“No, the chief’s been cut out of the policy decisions; it seems to be the Commissioner’s office and Home Office now. Heads are going down, it’s not good for the investigation; whoever they are, they know how to minimise any forensics. But you must know all that, right?”
‘Henry’ nods. “It’s now more political than policing, you can see that can’t you? Doesn’t it disturb you?”
“Damn right it does, I wanted your advice, to talk, there’s no one else I can talk to. My wife, all this, I feel like it’s all going to hell.”
“Why me? You don’t know me from Adam, they say I’m a spook; why trust me?”
“Just instinct I suppose, and I’m getting desperate about Sally, my son, it’s going nowhere at all. You’re the only one, other than the locals, who’ve tried to help, even if you do have your own reasons. And some of the things you said, warned me about the first couple of times we met, well I’m starting to see what you meant… You may be right. I’m just a career officer, catching baddies as my son says, this is all new. Oh, I’ve dealt with political cases before, but nothing like this, this is so much bigger and darker. My colleagues, some of them, ask me questions about it and I can’t give them any real answers.”
“So, what do you want me to say, to do? There’s no more intelligence about your wife and child. I’m sorry, I wish there were. On the gang we’re investigating, none of us are getting anywhere that’s why it’s getting political, being pulled into other games. Different people want different culprits to suit their own agendas. Some want it to be foreigners, CIA or Israelis, others native groups, others associates of our military or security services and quite a few want it to be other jihadis. Some others, perhaps like those cultivating your boss, want it all to go to hell so they can pick up the pieces.”
“I’m starting to see that now, but how do you stand it, seeing the things that matter just gamed by others for their own ends? Or don’t you care at all?”
‘Henry’ looked at him silently, intently, almost through him to somewhere else. He had never believed in providence until things had changed him, but now he did, but this, this was just too simple, too much of a come-on. Is it a trap or providential? It’s too weird to be chance.
“I can’t believe that this is the first time you’ve had these thoughts, that you’re so naïve. Everything I’ve seen and heard about you says you are a dedicated and conscientious officer with a good future in front of you, but these things can’t have come as any surprise, especially in your specialism. Why put yourself at risk by dealing with the likes of me? Why not just get your head down, play it safe?”
“Because half, more than half, my life has disappeared without trace on a moor and what’s left is under a cloud of raining sh… Sorry. I just thought you might help and you seem to want my help in return.”
I think you over-estimate your usefulness, but yes, you’re desperate, I can see that.
“I knew a young man once, younger than you by a few years. He was working hard, but isolated, becoming disillusioned at what he found as he progressed: the higher, the closer, he got to the seats of power, the less solid it all seemed, the worse the people, not all, but most. He almost gave it all up, his promise, he felt powerless… Then one day something happened that helped him see things anew, that he had greater loyalties, responsibilities to those out there, those still to come. Perhaps he understood properly, for the first time, the oaths he had sworn and that he shouldn’t give in to despair, that he would not always be alone in how he felt. That realisation still keeps him going, gives him courage when the odds seem insuperable, and others lend him their strength when he needs it, still to believe, keep trust, push on.”
He paused, a deep breath.
“So, Andy, I can call you Andy? I don’t know if I can trust you and you don’t know if you can trust me. We could be at an impasse, but you seem willing to break it, am I right? Let me think, get back to you, but, in the meantime believe this: you, we, are not alone, very far from it. Be clear what you believe, the reasons why you do the dreadful job you do, where your real loyalties lie; just because so many others have lost these things, that is their problem, not yours. Lean on me when you need to and, I promise you this, I will not give up trying to reunite you with your family. In the final reckoning that’s what this is all about, why we do what we do, to provide a safe place for those we love.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that, I think I see what you’re getting at. Keep me posted and I’ll do likewise, ok?”
He leaves, Henry remains with the dregs of his tea.
‘Far too soon for this one yet, but none the less tempting.’
© 1642again 2018