by Keith Bradbrook
Read a two
West, north, east, south, then west again.
On and on into the night. Driving, the driving rain. The car, foot down, fantastic shapes in the headlight beams. Tears blinding his eyes. The drive to get away, get anywhere, get away from the red.
Out of the old harbour town, the glare from its multicoloured night lights distorting in the late autumn storm, B swings right at each junction, no knowing why. Speeding away, spray jetting out behind along the roads hugging the coast. A dark Atlantic pounding away somewhere out there. Waves smashing the shores. Turmoil crashing inside him.
Get away from the red.
The red of the little boy’s blood, trickling and oozing out of his limp body. A red shadow of a long-ago day on a Belfast street, re-enacted with equally grim results on a Parisian boulevard. The past blasting into the present. A dark memory exploding into the now. A memory as black as the ocean battering the beaches and rocks beyond the rain-washed car windscreen.
More turns, more blind choices on the road and B stays right. Iron-hard rain pounding down. His field of vision cut to a few phantom metres but not enough to stop such reckless speed.
Get away. Get away from the red.
Blood running through his fingers, dripping silently onto the ground. Blood, the colour of a lady’s lipstick, another echo in time. The little boy and his mother lying on the pavement, his head twisted at a sickening angle, her arm and half a leg hanging over the curb, a handbag’s contents scattered across the road. Victims of clashing worlds, politics and religions. Ancient rivalries played out in the everyday life of the French capital. That city of romance, degenerating into a metropolis of death in a few seconds of thunderous gunfire.
Town and village signs rushing towards him, gripping the wheel even harder. Words flying past unnoticed in his extremis. Flashing place names momentarily lit up on a Normandy road to nowhere.
Pennedepie, Villerville, Hennequeville...
B had reached his bolthole, a little apartment in Honfleur, thinking he could take time out and try to come to terms with the terrible events in Paris. A friend’s keys to the one-bedroom sanctuary in Rue Haute, just a stone’s throw from the peaceful cafes and quaint restaurants overlooking the boats at rest in Le Vieux Bassin, he hoped for some peace, some calm, to gather his savaged nerves and put things into a kind of perspective.
Perhaps there was a chance of plotting a way ahead, a forward course. Perhaps it was just possible to salvage something from his life, his job. For, as he knew all too well, they had always been the same thing. Guardian and protector, the job he had lived in various guises since joining the army at sixteen. That day he left his mother, the market town on the two rivers, the mystical colours of his beloved lakes and hills and his terrible anger to serve Queen and country. The red, white and blue of the flag.
And for a while the charm of the little French port two hundred kilometres north-west from Paris had worked its quiet magic. Sipping an espresso, a beer or two, another cognac while the peaceful life of Honfleur passed him by, B was indeed comforted. There were shades of sympathy in the fresh sea colours and bustle of the hardy post-season tourists strolling in and out of shops, patisseries and bars. Boats bobbed, the sky-blue sky was unseasonably cloudless and a cold, yet benign, sun shone down on the little harbour, each day giving way to evocative moonlight glistening off the historic quais.
Six days of ease had lulled him and B’s world began to wear a softer face. A man of reserve, preferring solitude to crowds, a seeker of detachment not engagement, he even surprised himself on this unsought sojourn. On two occasions, once at a bar in the early afternoon, and later at dinner, without any invitation B had struck up conversations with total strangers. First a German with a military background, no doubt detecting a kindred spirit.
Then a recently widowed Englishwoman delicately putting her toe back into the outside world. From the outset, B realised a more physical engagement with the widow was eminently possible and, who knows, this may have been welcome therapy for them both. But at the pivotal moment after coffee he shut the idea off. It had been a long time and mourning was not yet done.
But suddenly, following a light lunch on the Quai Sainte Catherine, this fleeting, fragile, picture-postcard seaside cameo dissolved in an instant and sad, bruising reality crash-landed. Wednesday afternoon, the sun gleaming, a slight breeze, B saw red. Strolling along, hands in pockets, thinking about nothing in particular, a little girl no more than six or seven passed him by.
Wearing a red sweatshirt and white shorts with little red dots on them, the blonde-haired youngster was pulling on her father’s hand. Perhaps she had been denied a present or an ice cream, it wasn’t even a serious show of petulance, more a momentary moan, but the father’s response was so savage, so out of proportion and brazen, B was hand-to-his-mouth shocked. Yes, B, who had seen plenty of violence in the army and then more plying a highly successful career in the international world of personal security. A career, his life, culminating in crushing, guilt-ridden death in Paris.
B watched almost in slow motion as the father, his face remaining perfectly impassive, brought his hand up high and smashed it down on the little girl’s temple. In a moment the strike was repeated, then repeated again, the force of the last blow driving the girl’s little frame five feet away into a shop doorway – stunned, bleeding and silent.
Completely emotionally separated, the father stood perfectly still telling the girl to rise and come to him. Yet even as these words left his mouth, the full force of a fist drove into his face, jaw cracking and teeth popping. B acting in disgust and an instinctive need to protect. The slender little girl in red. The powerful, callous man.
Punches continued to rain down as wild, pent-up frustration and pulsating grief exploded. B saw and felt enraged by red, his favourite colour, the colour of action and at that moment the red of intense and uncontrollable retribution. Punch after punch, the man’s nose pumping blood, the dull thud of his head striking a shop wall, his groans as he reeled at the mercy of a strong, highly-trained professional.
In real time the attack lasted only about fifteen seconds but the man’s life would surely have been in danger had a shrieking voice not pierced B’s red bubble. Glimpsing a woman in the doorway with her arms around the little girl, the madness in his mind flew back to his Principal’s wife lying in the street – victims, violence, mothers.
The punching stopped, the screaming halted, the man slumped deadweight to the ground and cuddling each other tightly the woman and the girl cried in mutual distress. B looked down at his bloodied hands, saw the red, and after a few seconds held his face in them as he too began to cry. Heaving sobs of deep, inner fatigue.
A long time passed before B felt a hand on his arm, a tender touch, a soft, female act of concern. The woman, still with her other arm around the wounded girl, stroked B’s bare skin with her thumb and reaching upwards gently kissed him on the cheek.
‘Merci...’ she whispered. ‘Merci. It is OK. Partez, maintenant... leave. I can deal with him... mon mari.’
B looked into the woman’s brown eyes and through his own tears and hers saw understanding shine back. He nodded, tapped his hand on hers, and feeling every one of his fifty-one years, slouched off to his apartment a hundred yards away. Amazingly, there were no onlookers, no outraged witnesses in the street. Except for him, it had been an exclusively family affair.
A key in the door, a painful shower, slugs of red wine and a warm duvet but B found little peace inside his bolthole. More tears, more anger at the father of today’s family, more guilt about the poor boy and his mother lying dead in Paris. They had been his own adopted family, his responsibility, a decade dedicated to their safety, yet their silent bodies were a testament to his failure. B’s Principal, the world-renowned diplomat, husband and father, who over the years had become a close friend, speeding across town after the shooting with the rest of the security team. Alive? Possibly. Hurt? No way of knowing.
Inevitably, the questions came too. The same sort of questions that dogged every single day of B’s life, today their unsheathed claws sharpened by new pain and violence.
Why? How did this happen? What should he do? What could he have done?
Never-ending questions and never any answers. Sleep did come off and on but when B awoke for the third time the apartment was dark, a strong wind blew at the windows and heavy rain hammered the glass. Rising and padding to the bathroom, the hallway clock revealed it was 11.45 pm. Hours gone but his climax still lay ahead.
With a hand on each silver washbowl tap, the bathroom mirror stared back and B looked himself in the eyes. How sad and obviously vulnerable he was, how alone and cast adrift. Yet even now, colours would not let him be. Cream soap, white flannel, blue towel, he saw the red toothbrush tube. Red, blood, the girl’s cute clothes. Helpless tears began to fall once more and B knew, like he was drowning, he had to get out, get anywhere, get away from the red.
Rain continued to slam down as B drove on. The ocean still to his right, the windscreen wipers slapping full speed. Kilometre after kilometre, working down the coast.
Deauville, Benerville-sur-Mer, Villers-sur-Mer...
Out of the wild night, suddenly a huge flash of lightning flared up the road and B realised with his first conscious thought since leaving the apartment he was driving alongside a vast beach. Huge areas of sands stretching beyond houses on his passenger side were momentarily illuminated like a sinister blue-black lunar expanse then just as quickly cloaked again.
Jolted out of his tunnel vision, B reacted instantly by ramming his foot down on the brake causing the car to skid for a considerable distance on the rain-soaked tarmac. Juddering to a stop, the engine still racing, frantically he fumbled for the door handle, leapt from the car and began gulping in air as huge winds battered him. Groping against their massive force, he stumbled a little way forward eventually grabbing the top of a waist-high wall to steady himself. Drenched, rocking and weeping, B threw his head back, screamed in lost, wild abandon and remained there, venting his soul, until at long, long last the storm gradually lost its force, his panic and rage finally began to ease and his terrifying red images slowly faded.
The next thing B knew was waking up in his car with a hand positioned as a pillow against the side window. Painfully opening his eyes, he couldn’t place where he was at first. Then leaning forward as he looked through the misty car window out across a sandy beach in the dawn light, he remembered.
The car door opened again, this time to a sunny, peaceful morning so changed from the savage stormy night, and B got out, stretched stiffly, his clothes still wet, and looked about him. A quiet seaside town yet to come to terms with the new day that was obvious, but where was it? How far had he driven? He felt very hungry. So breakfast quick and he could work things out over eggs, toast and coffee.
Walking forward a few paces, B was intrigued by a curved white wall in front of him and dimly he remembered it from last night’s storm. It ran in an arc for a few metres and at its middle a tourist’s pay-per-view telescope pointed out to sea. Another two steps and he focussed on a blue vertical line running from its top to the ground and some blue words laid out on its rendered surface.
Incredulously, he spoke the words out aloud.
‘Méridien de Greenwich’.
B crept up to the wall and bending down ran his hand over the lettering, stopping on the vertical line running through the de. Then kneeling, as if by some primal instinct, his fingers felt for the rumble of drumbeats, of rushing rivers and galloping herds of animals.
It was the Greenwich Meridian, the line that ran around the globe from pole to pole, top to bottom, bottom to top. The Prime Meridian, circling the world, denoting the world’s meeting of east and west.
B sat down on the floor with his back to the Meridian marker, the line’s first strike on another country after leaving England’s shores, and closed his eyes, his brain bombarded by a host of mental connections. Words, names, people, memories.
Greenwich, observatory, Wolfe, telescope...
The park, the swings, the bandstand, the river, the brown Thames...
The flood continued... Nelson, Trafalgar, Barbra Streisand...
The invisible Meridian Line ran out between B’s outstretched legs just as it had done on a chilly autumn London day in 1965, the same ‘muddy line’ running down to all those penguins who lived at the bottom of the world. He pictured it all. Memories which in the sunny French seaside morning seemed clear and cleansing.
B marvelled at the serendipity propelling him to this spot. The chance of Honfleur, the little girl, the mother and her tender touch. It even sprang to mind if the killing of the little boy and his mother had been part of the journey too, but he felt a flicker of shame to think it. Now was not the time to debate that one with himself.
Instead, he stood up and quietly turned to look out to sea. Villers-sur-Mer, although he didn’t know that yet, and a vast array of colours were displayed before him. Blue- green water, yellow-gold sand, wispy-white waves, the myriad tones of the sky and, yes, a red marker out to sea.
Red. B saw red.
East meets west.
Across a thin brass strip inlaid into cobblestones and running the entire width of the courtyard, thirty pairs of young legs straddle both sides of the Earth.
Laughter, shouts and squeals fill the air and Miss Andrews smiles. Despite the din, the teacher is having a good time too, lapping up all the fun with her young and very eager charges.
For most of the children in her class it’s enough to be simply huddled up playing this exciting game of crossing the worlds. Yet not for B. For him, what’s happening is far deeper than a mere game. Like all the others, he’s standing with his feet on both sides of the muddy line (well, that’s what the old man calls it) but there’s more, so much more. Here in this special place something very significant is unfolding – even at ten years of age he can sense that. Something he knows he will remember and lock away right down inside for the rest of his life.
What a magic feeling to be perched so high up overlooking the huge expanse of London. A powerful magic churning so many things together. Brand new things revealed only in the last half hour... Observatory, muddy line, hemisphere, Wolfe, stars and time. All of them mixing with the stream of normal things constantly flowing around inside his head every second of his life... colours, lines, shapes and patterns.
With voluminous grey clouds looming over the city, a cool autumn wind on B’s cheeks, the chaos of giggles continues to jump from one side of the world to the other. Such delight in the power to skip between hemispheres (although the children have no idea what hemispheres are, despite the old man’s explanation).
The Royal Observatory high up in London’s Greenwich Park is a very familiar sight for the youngsters. Being so near their school, all of them have visited it before – family fun, family outings. All except B. A new boy, he’s only lived in the area for a month, but he knows he could have been born here and his parents would still never have brought him. They just didn’t do things like that and certainly never to magical places like this with its muddy line.
According to the old man, the line cuts the world in two and stretches right out across the park and as far away as the eye can see, never stopping, running right down to the end of the world where it’s so cold only penguins can live. And B knows what penguins are because he’s seen them in a magazine. Penguins, with lovely contrasting colours. Black and white with touches of yellow and red.
His favourite colour.
Red. Always standing out, like a lady’s lipstick, like buses and cars, like flowers in gardens and a shirt he has. There’s even a big red ball on the tall pole above the old building across the cobbled courtyard and B starts to daydream. A fiery fireball dangling in the sky...
Arriving earlier at the observatory, Miss Andrews stood all the children in the middle of the courtyard and introduced an ancient-looking man who proceeded to lecture them for a quarter of an hour while all the time flailing his arms around his head like a mad magician.
The observatory, he declared, was a very important place and kings and queens had built it especially so that famous and very intelligent people could look at the stars in the sky to see what they did. Stars, it was firmly believed, held secrets about time and if the famous people could only uncover them then the world would be a better place for everyone. The famous people had been in charge of the observatory for centuries and were under strict orders to find out about stars by using all the telescopes and other old equipment kept in the various buildings.
The old man carried a slim black telescope in his hands and paraded in front of the boys and girls showing it off. But B already knew what it was because he had seen one on the telly only a few weeks ago, something about pirates and a flag. He remembered a pattern on the screen. A pure white skull and some bones crossed against a black background.
Flapping his arms even faster, the old man told the children to stand alongside a muddy line as it crossed the courtyard and then explained how people at the observatory had put it there to ensure everyone in the world knew where the two halves of the world met – how east and west were divided up. B couldn’t understand much but caught something about how people found out where they were at sea. He pictured wild waves and huge monsters rising from the deep, attacking ships because their captains had steered the wrong course.
Like so many before him at the observatory, B imagined this line as a physical thing running out around the world. Right now, were people in other countries stepping over it in the street, crossing it in fields or rivers or somewhere up mountains?
But the big question was, why was it muddy?
When the old man finished, Miss Andrews stepped forward asking the children to respond in the usual way. Thirty pairs of lips rang out ‘Thank you!’ then, at her clap, the class was set off hemisphere dancing and the teacher soaked up their young delirium – her vocational reward. Eventually, reluctantly, Miss Andrews clapped once more for the children to stop. It was now nearly noon and school dinners awaited them but they could spend just a few minutes exploring the courtyard before they had to go.
Time at the home of time had passed quickly. The class left the school gates at ten o’clock sharp in a nice, neat hand-in-hand double queue, a multicoloured snake slipping through the breezy Greenwich morning. And just as the snake was forming in the playground, B felt his hand being grabbed, squeezed and held up into the air all in one motion.
‘Hello!’ a girl announced, ‘I’m Molly. I’m funny!’ and just as suddenly she drove their arms back down to their sides. Taken off guard, B could only stare in silence. Evidently, she was his partner. He didn’t seem to have much choice.
B knew of this girl but hadn’t spoken to her yet. She had come to his notice through a curious incident a week ago when Miss Andrews went out of the classroom for something. Humming loudly while standing perfectly still on one leg, without warning she sprinted to the front of the class, jumped up on the teacher’s desk and shouted, ‘Emergency Ward 10!’. B was deeply impressed by the girl accomplishing her recklessness and arriving back at her desk a second before Miss Andrews’s return. What timing! But he couldn’t make sense of it. Emergency Ward 10? He had seen the hospital drama on the telly, his mum never missed it. What had it got to do with anything?
From leaving school up to the Greenwich Park gates, their conversation had been only by hand, every now and again Molly squeezing B’s as if in reaction to something she had just thought of or seen. But he couldn’t wait any longer.
‘What d’ya mean?’ he blurted. ‘You said you’re funny.’
‘F-u-n-n-e-e-e...’ Molly mouthed back elaborately. ‘It’s what my dad says. I do mad things.’
‘You did a mad thing last week. You jumped on Miss’s desk.’
‘That was funny. Everybody laughed.’ ‘Why’d’ya shout Emergency Ward 10?’ ‘Well, what else?’ B hadn’t a clue.
At the top of the park, with the observatory directly ahead, Miss Andrews clapped her hands for the class to stop and form a huddle around her. High above them on a pockmarked pillar of white stone stood a dark, caped man looking out across the vastness of London.
‘Children!’ she said, pointing a hand upwards. ‘Anyone know who this is a statue of?’
A pause, then a squeeze on B’s hand.
‘It’s General Wolfe, Miss! My dad brought me here. He told me his name and I started howling like a real wolf.’
B visualised his partner leaping around holding her head back and letting go.
Miss Andrews slanted her head in surprise. ‘Well, that’s a very good way to remember things. But did your dad tell you what General Wolfe is famous for? Anyone?’
Silence, except for the breeze in the trees. Molly’s unexpected knowledge obviously didn’t stretch further.
‘Well. General Wolfe won the country of Canada for Great Britain. Making us more powerful. Wolfe was a hero.’ Then, adding with a self-conscious smile, ‘Canada is a very long way away. But I shall be going there soon on my holidays and I will bring some photographs back to show you.’
Another clap started the snake moving towards the observatory but as it slithered away B lagged behind continuing to stare up at General Wolfe. Black figure, three-cornered shaped hat, shock white stone – colours, patterns – here was a hero fixing his glare across the capital and his own gaze was only averted at some length by the firm tug of Molly’s impatient hand.
Now having spent some time learning about time and the jumping game over, B turned away from the other children and retreated to some metal railings at the edge of the courtyard. The broad expanse of the park stretched out far below him. A huge area of green grass, criss-crossed with paths laid out before the elegant white buildings and columns of the landmark National Maritime Museum.
A little way behind the museum B saw the river – the brown, slow Thames he had quickly come to know in his short Greenwich stay. No school or other mates yet, no brothers or sisters (he doubted very much whether his mum and dad wanted another one like him), he had already come to look upon the river as his friend – something to walk alongside, imagine things with and talk to. Waves constantly rolling across the brown, murky water, birds bouncing off its surface, forbidding, gloomy barges, there were always so many shapes and colours. The river felt like a non-stop living thing which somehow was always listening to him.
‘What’s caught your eye then?’
Gazing out over the railings, B heard a voice from behind and a light touch on his shoulder.
How he liked her. Nervous on his first day a month ago, how softly she had spoken to him after his mum simply handed him over like a dog on a leash, span on her heels and left without a word. Kind Miss Andrews, holding his hand, smiling and listening to what he had to say. He never got that at home.
B whispered. ‘There’s so much to see, Miss. Always. It’s bonkers.’
Bending down to hear him, his teacher looked into the boy’s face and saw what she saw every time – a great sense of concentration, of fighting to keep things in, of a little boy fit to burst with whatever was inside him. It wasn’t merely a child’s natural enthusiasm, as a teacher for eight years now she saw that all the time. No, high spirits were one thing, what was going on underneath B’s outer shell was something entirely different, altogether mysterious. He was a child apart, that was clear enough and she wished she could pinpoint why. So far, she had drawn a blank.
B took the lack of response as a cue.
‘Miss, why do they call it the Muddy Line?’
Miss Andrews looked puzzled.
‘Muddy Line, Miss. That’s what the old man said. Goes right around the world because of time and ships and telescopes and things. But it’s not muddy here. Why?’
‘You are funny. He didn’t say “muddy”. He called it the “Meridian” line. Can you say that? Meridian?’
B stuttered. ‘M-e-r-i-d-i-a-n.’
The teacher ruffled B’s hair. ‘It tells us what’s east and west.’
‘But it does go right around the world, Miss, doesn’t it? Even if it isn’t muddy?’
‘Yes it does, right around.’ She paused. ‘Does that interest you? Do you like the idea of that?’ for one glorious moment thinking this was a breakthrough. B looked away quickly and shuffled around again to face the sweep of the park below.
‘Lines are all over the place. They’re in the shapes of everything and join up with other lines to make things. Lines and colours. Do you like colours, Miss?’
‘Um, yes I do.’ But he kept going.
‘I like red best but I’m not sure what one. There’s lots. Red cars and flowers. My mum’s lips are red when she goes out. My blood’s red. All different. You got bits of dark red in your dress, Miss.’
Miss Andrews smiled, indeed she did, but realising in that instant she had temporarily forgotten the rest of the class, she darted away clapping and calling for the snake to form again. As the children started to assemble, B twisted away from the railings and his red images faded. Scanning the courtyard, he searched for Molly spotting her in a few seconds in a far corner. Standing bolt upright, she held her head high, flapping her hands about.
‘Join the queue!’ Miss Andrews shouted at her as she passed. A madam in the making that one, despite knowing General Wolfe.
Eventually, Molly came up to B and without a word scooped his hand up, squeezed and started to swing it back and forth.
‘What’s all that flapping about?’
Molly stopped their hands at the forward apex, holding them both high.
‘Playing kings and queens. Waving to the crowds.’ ‘Why?’
'Was fun. Kings and queens came here, didn’t they? The old man told us, didn’t he?’
Suddenly, Molly swung their clasped hands back down to their sides so violently the two burst out laughing. They were still in hysterics when the snake slithered out of the observatory gates and stopped once again in front of General Wolfe.
‘We shan’t be going back the same way as we came,’ Miss Andrews declared. ‘We’ll walk straight down this big hill here on the grass. It’ll be quicker and more fun. But be careful. It’s very steep and I want absolutely no running, do you all understand? Take your time and keep behind me.’
Two by two the snake started off downwards and Molly and B duly followed at the back still giggling. But after a few steps, B felt a sudden pull of his hand and a loud shout.
‘Come on, let’s go!’
No time to think. Molly yanked him to one side and they started running full pelt down the grassy hill. Wind ringing in their ears, in seconds they shot past their teacher, and by the time they heard her high-pitched wailing from behind they had covered another twenty- five yards going even faster. Inevitably, their flight couldn’t last and, crossing a footpath, their speed refused to take the ground’s sudden change of angle and they careered to the grass, rolling and tumbling further down the hill. Amazingly, when they finally came to a stop both lying on their backs, the two were still holding hands.
Within moments Miss Andrews was upon them shrieking at the top of her voice, crashing to the ground, checking for injuries. In time, satisfied there was none, she hoisted the runaways to their feet with an arm around each waist. But she was shaking very badly and despite the madness of the moment the children were both shocked at her obvious distress. Never had they seen her so upset, so frightened before.
Molly took a gulp of air as if to speak, to make amends. Immediately, B realised she was going to own up to starting the run, to say it was her fault, to take the blame. Somehow, he felt he had to protect her, to save her, and before he could stop himself he was shouting.
‘I just saw red, Miss!’
© Keith Bradbrook 2019