Why had he said that, the flood of relief perhaps at this unexpected, nay miraculous, escape from his impetuous stupidity? The man’s wife, a barely repressed desire to tell him she was safe?
“I’ll report it, but not to anyone who will use it against you Mr Bowson, I promise. And thank you, for everything, and I’m glad neither of you were too hurt in Birmingham: we tried to avoid that. And can I have your number please, you never know?”
I owe you now and I will repay.
With that, he departed, hurrying away up the street, turning a corner into the large city’s mist of anonymity.
“What have I done?” asked Bowson as he and George walked back to the building.
“Earned yourself a couple of drinks on me for a start,” came the reply.
He turned to her, “I’ve failed, those poor people…”
Helena knew him well enough now to see what might come next; she hated his predilection for self-recrimination when he had no ability to withdraw from the fight, would emerge stronger for the conflict from these bouts of introspection.
“You haven’t failed them.”
She injected real venom, passion, into the words, causing him to register shock.
“Without you, what you have created from nothing, how many more would have died? Look at Birmingham, the others of them stopped before they could strike. The guilt is with those doing these things, those supporting them, the families and friends who don’t report them, have educated them to think this way, those who’ve allowed them and their sick ideas to take root here, those who haven’t spoken out, those who have condemned those who have tried. That’s where the guilt lies. Not you, Sam, the others who have tried at huge risk and cost to themselves. Sometimes you make me so angry.”
He looked at her, silent, stunned by her vehemence.
“God, don’t start apologising again, I can’t stand it.”
She was almost shouting now, he flinched back, crestfallen. What to do? I’ve gone too far, but sometimes he needs to be shaken. She leant forward, put one hand on either side of his head, drew him forward, he didn’t resist. She touched his lips with hers, gently, he didn’t respond, then his nose and eyes, his forehead, then his lips again and drew back a little, far enough to see straight into his eyes.
“Don’t you see, when you hurt yourself, you hurt me? Don’t you know there’s nothing I’d withhold from you? Sure, all the usual reasons, some I know you can’t reciprocate, but most of all for your utter selflessness. I’ve seen so little of that in my life, so I understand its value better than you, you see? So, focus on what we need to do next, not pointless regrets. Please, for me, the victims?”
Lord, that hurt, took every ounce of self-control, I can’t cope with much more of this.
He nodded, sighing deeply,
“Ok, ok, I understand the point, you’re right as ever. Have you heard from Sam this afternoon?”
“No, he said he’d be back about six, after the nurse had gone. He was going to scout out some of the places associated with some of those names we recovered, try to identify them in the flesh.”
“What d’you mean?”
She turned the TV off, shut down her laptop. The nurse was long departed; they had just sat there in silence watching the rolling news reports alternating between London and Manchester, confused, repetitive, speculative, maddening, but curiously addictive, almost sullying them with complicity. She sat down in front of him, on her knees, looked him in the face, unable to engage his eyes though. “I was going to tell you anyway before Sheena arrived and Sam got back, but got distracted by all that.”
His concentration was burning her now with its intensity, searching her face, trying to provoke eye contact.
“Why won’t you look at me Helena?”
“Sheena… She found out who ordered your killing, the others too, told me. It was just after you were shot. We tracked him down, Sam and I, kidnapped him, took him to the country, you know my place there? No, you don’t, do you?”
Hold it together, it all rides on these few minutes, how he reacts.
“We, I, persuaded him to talk, give us the other names, important people, in government, the media, press, academics, even business. They were working with the people behind the terrorists, wanted to weaken the security services, told them who you are, where you lived. That’s why they were waiting for you when you got home.”
The tears were running down her face now, that first image of him lying there unconscious, not knowing, in the hospital.
“We were furious, wanted to hit back at them, keep things going, identify and expose them… That’s what she’s been working for all this time, pretending to be someone she isn’t, infiltrating them; you know that.”
“Can I see the list? How do you know he wasn’t lying?”
“We knew some already, didn’t tell him, so we could check. And by then he was a broken man.”
“What did Sam do to him? It was Sam, wasn’t it?”
His eyes widened when she shook her head, her whole frame was trembling, suppressed fear boiling over, fighting her desire to dissolve, to beg forgiveness from him.
“No, I did it, forced him to tell, finished him, for what he did to you. It was me, my decision, not Sam. I don’t regret, only the dreams. Sam cleaned it up, no evidence left at all, the cottage is being sold, the car too. No one saw anything, we were careful.”
“Was he the missing Permanent Secretary?”
“Yes.” The tears were returning. “A coward and a traitor, I hope he’s burning right now.”
His eyes broke away; she shrank, fearing rejection, disgust, horror. He looked at the blank TV screen, into space, back to her, shaking his head.
“I can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I? Why did you do it, risk yourself like that?”
“Do you need to ask?”
He leaned forward, held his good arm out to her, pulled her to him. She was sobbing, with relief, her eyes streaming onto his shirt.
“I think I’m going to have to take you there, if only to keep you out of mischief, so you can’t get back.”
“Do you mean that, really?”
“Yes, but when we can go together, to stay.”
“That maybe some time, your list to follow up, the fallout from today, we’ve also got to track down Sam, get him home. That reminds me: has a letter been delivered for me today, by hand?”
“I don’t know, I’ll go down and look in my post box.”
“Later. First promise me one thing, you will never, ever, do anything remotely like that again without first agreeing it with me.”
She nodded, tearful relief consuming her expression. The door buzzer rang. She got up, wiping her eyes: it was Sam. She let him in, asked him to bring up any post, had the door open for him as he arrived, startled him with her embrace. She whispered to him.
“Sam, he’s here, he knows, prepare yourself. He’s fine though, don’t worry, he’s really just worried for us, you know what he’s like. Come on through.”
Sam went in. He looked troubled, fearful; he handed her an envelope which she opened, passing one enclosed letter onto Henry and another to Sam. Leave them to it, I need to get myself together anyway, make some tea; all’s well, he’s here, he’s not angry, he’s so nearly…
Don’t think it; don’t delude yourself, that’s not the deal.
© 1642again 2018