WHEN SAM MET WENDEL
I didn't watch Johnny Tranter's interview live on the Sun's website. Like I said before, the whole celebrity culture thing has always left me completely cold. But I watched it later. Well, obviously I did. It seemed like everyone in the world did.
The winter 2027/2028 was a strange time for me. My career was hardly taking off at the Hereford Times. My life was better than it had been in Blackburn, but not by much. I had a couple of friends, but my social life was hardly rocking. I was single and to be honest, rather jaded. More or less every Friday I drove home to Edinburgh and more or less every Sunday evening I was seriously tempted not to drive back south again.
By now the differences between England and Scotland were becoming vast. There was a Klondike feel to Edinburgh. The sky was full of cranes and everyone seemed to be going about their lives at a hundred miles an hour. Every weekend Julie was itching to take me to some new bar or club. And every weekend it seemed like she had some new guy lined up for me.
I kept applying for jobs on Scottish papers but the competition was ferocious. It seemed like everyone in the world was looking to beat a path to my home country. The economy was flying, unemployment had all but disappeared and building enough houses for all the incomers was proving to be a mighty task.
Things in England could not have been more different. By now almost all services had gone beyond the creaking stage and things were starting to fail. There were riots in prisons and at night just about every shop doorway was occupied by a homeless person. Unemployment was over 15% and youth unemployment was one in four. Crime was on the up and even the motorways were riddled with pot holes. Everywhere felt ground down. Everyone seemed short tempered. A prevailing mood of dismal, angry tension had taken permanent root.
People were angry about pretty much everything but their anger lacked a target. Of course, the Tory Government was generally loathed but after the car crash of the previous Labour administration, nobody was much in the mood to return to their particular brand of chaos. The decade old decision to exit the EU was generally held to be the starting point of England's downward spiral, and the negotiations to rejoin the EU continued to grind along. But nobody held out any great hope that a return to the European family would offer any kind of magic fix. The banks and businesses who had flown the coop in the early 2020's were not about to return anytime soon. The mass flight of young, skilled EU migrants had left England with yawning skills shortages and utterly incapable of competing with the high tech economies of Asia.
By now there was a general acceptance that immigration was no longer any kind of problem. In fact, people now saw it really hadn't been a problem in the first place. By the early months of 2029 the media and politicians had turned a full circle. Now the front pages were filled with stories of the emmigration crisis. The villains of the piece were the young graduates who skipped the country as soon as they had their degree in their hands. As life in England became more and more of a grind, increasing numbers of young people were voting with their feet and seeking new countries which could offer them the prospect of a better life. They were flying the coop in ever greater numbers. To Australia and Canada and New Zealand and Ireland.
But most of all, they headed north to Scotland.
In early March tensions tightened yet another notch. An ashen faced Prime Minister announced some news to the House of Commons which nobody was remotely surprised to hear. The proposed nuclear power station at Hinkley Point would not be opening. Not ever. The French and Chinese had finally run out of patience and withdrawn their support. He explained this development meant his Government had no choice other than to introduce legislation to re-nationalise the nation's supply of electricity. England had to face up to the fact it had a 25% shortfall in generating capacity and there was no prospect of filling this gaping hole in the medium term. Hanging onto the lectern in front of him like it was a life raft, he went on to announce a five year agreement with the Scottish Government. Power from north of the border would keep the lights of England burning but there would be a cost. Prices would rise by a minimum of 10%.
Up until this point, anti-Scottish resentment had been a relatively low level thing. The hike in electricity bills started to stir a deeper and darker anger. Now when I went north for the weekend, my parents would beg me to come home. They were worried for me. They couldn't understand why on earth I wanted to stay in England when things were going so spectacularly well at home. I tried time and again to explain my undimmed passion for my job. And I promised to keep applying for any position I could in Scotland. And when I drove back to Hereford on Sunday evenings I was always tempted to throw in the towel and do a U turn.
But I didn't.
Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm stubborn. I always have been. And when my mind is set on something, I am bloody dogged. I kept on saying to myself just give it another month Sam. If nothing comes up in the next four weeks, then maybe it is time to take some parental advice. So a month would pass and nothing would change and I would push the deadline another month down the tracks.
All the while I wrote about the nuts and bolts of a country on the slippery slope. A spike in burglaries. Nonexistent rural buses. Hospital waiting lists going beyond two years. Factories and shops closing down. People waiting in A&E for nearly two whole days. Epidemic levels of shop lifting.
Oh, I was busy enough. There are always plenty of stories to be found in terminal decline. But there was never anything which began to resemble the kind of big scoop which would turbo charge my career.
There was something else which was making work ever more miserable.
My Edinburgh accent.
I could see it in the faces of the people I interviewed. At times I knew what it must have been like for someone who had a German accent in Britain in the war. It was harder and things to get people to open up. And there was a different mood in the office. It wasn't anything I could put my finger on. Nothing overt. It was just there. A slight coldness.
I stopped going out. My social life shrank to nights watching films and eating comfort food. And running. When I ran, I was lost in the music flowing through my headphones. When I ran, nobody knew I was Scottish. I was just a woman jogging. Anonymous. Unworthy of attention.
After the hike in the electricity charges there was no point in pretending my accent wasn't seriously hindering my ability to do my job well. Luckily for me, the editor was a thoroughly decent man who clearly hated the idea of letting me go for purely ethnic reasons.
Well, you can probably guess how it was to be a Scottish journalist working in Hereford once Johnny Tranter had dropped his poisonous words of wisdom into the ether. The attacks started more or less straight away. All the anger which had been frantically seeking a focus suddenly had a big fat target thanks to a Frankenstein's monster of celebrity culture.
Scots were attacked on the street, in the supermarket and in pubs. Children were kept away from school. Houses were daubed in graffiti. Dog turds were rammed through letterboxes. RBS hurriedly engaged the services of guards to man the doors of its high street banks. When three branches were set alight in a single week, the security became 24/7. Smashing bottles of whisky on the floor became a popular supermarket trend and soon the 'Water of Life' disappeared from the shelves.
It took four days for the first person to die: a seventy two year old pensioner in Maidstone who had lived in England for fifty three years. There were a further five deaths in the next few weeks months which prompted an emergency debate in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister promised draconian measures for anyone involved in Anti-Scottish violence but it didn't stop a YouGov poll showing support for the EFP was running close to 20%.
By now I was getting calls from mum and dad every night and they were beside themselves with worry. My editor was more or less as bad. He refused to send me out into the field and confined me to office duties. He wouldn't even allow me to answer the phone. I felt like some kind of secretly harboured fugitive.
By early April I had more or less made up my mind to give up the ghost and head home.
And then my mobile phone rang. It was the BBC Today programme. Would I be OK to do an interview tomorrow morning? What is it like to be a young Scottish woman working in England in 2029? I told them of course and I duly did my telephone interview at twenty to eight the next day.
At ten o'clock my phone rang again. It was Newsnight this time. Could I come to London to take part in a studio debate? Tonight? We will send a car of course. And of course, we will put you up in a hotel. Would that be OK? Oh super.
Sam the TV star. I did pretty well actually. A rather handsome producer who was also very, very gay told me the camera loved me to bits.
Two days later I was an ITV special.
And then it happened. A call from the Guardian. Could I write a feature? You know, the fear of being Scottish in such a dangerous environment. Could I? You bet I bloody could. And I did. 2000 words. The big league. The comments section was a hell of an eye opener. Thankfully, 90% offered wholehearted support. A vast sense of shame was sweeping through the decent majority. Oh, but you should have seen the other 10% Wow! I was threatened with death in all manner of gruesome scenarios. The people at the Guardian offered to take the hate mail down but I told them absolutely not. Leave every word out there. Shine a light on it.
Two weeks after my broadsheet debut my phone rang again. This time it was Channel 4. They were making an hour long documentary feature and they wanted me to present it. Did I have an agent? No. I didn't. Was I happy to negotiate terms myself? I damn nearly said yes straight away like an over excited school girl being offered a free pony. Luckily my innate Scottish canniness kicked in just in time and I told them my people would be in touch.
My people were in fact my dad and he wasn't remotely happy to be given the job of being my agent. But he agreed in the end. Of course he did. I've always been able to twist him around my little finger. I think I mentioned earlier what a fierce lawyer my dad is when he chooses to be. He called back in the afternoon with news of a fee which made me gasp. I would have done it for a tenth of what he screwed out of them. Hell, I would have probably done it for nothing.
The hour long Channel Four special aired in April and all of a sudden my career was well and truly in the place I had always dreamed it would be. I had firm job offers on the table for the Guardian and the Independent. All I had to do was choose which it would be.
I handed in my notice to both the Hereford Times and my landlord and started flat hunting in London. I opted for the Guardian and started to wrap up my life in Hereford. Mum and dad more or less gave up trying to persuade me to come home. Instead they clung to the hope that my new successes in the English media would provoke offers from the Scottish papers. I wasn't sure what to hope for. Sure returning home had many attractions, but the unfolding events in Johnny Tranter's England were all any journalist could have wished for.
I found a flat in Kilburn and started to pack my stuff.
As the last weekend in April approached, the weather forecasters started to talk about a vast ridge of high pressure which would bring record temperatures. Once upon a time, such a promise would have made the people of England giddy with excitement. But this was 2029. The days of weather presenters getting all buzzed up by the prospect of a bit of spring sunshine were long gone. Now their faces were grave. The heatwave looked like it would last for a long time. As far as they could see. The coming summer might be even worse than the great heatwave of 2024. By now everyone knew exactly what this would mean. Long sleepless nights and one shower a week. Month after month of body odour and bad tempers.
At nine o clock on Friday evening, two officers of the Metropolitan Police stopped their car to demand a small group of mainly black young men line up against a wall and allow themselves to be searched. The group of mainly black young men were hot and bored and skint and unemployed. They were spoiling for a fight and they let the two officers know as much. The officers called in reinforcements and retreated into their car. The mainly black young men started to rock the car and beat at the windscreen.
One of the police fired a weapon through the windscreen and took away half of a head.
Within an hour the streets of Hackney were on fire. The riot raged through a night where the temperature never dropped below eighty degrees.
I read an article a couple of weeks later which talked about a punk rock song from the late 1970's. It was called 'White Riot'. The band was The Clash. The group was jealous of the way angry black youths could harness their pent up anger and rage and deliver a riot. Why not angry white youths? 'White riot, white riot, I wanna riot of my own...."
Well that was how it was on that last weekend of April 2029 when the temperature never dropped under eighty degrees. It seemed like every town in England had a riot of its own.
Hereford was no exception. I was out running when I heard the sounds of breaking glass and shouting. The journalist in me never thought twice. I had been deskbound for weeks on end and I was ready for some proper reporting.
When I arrived on the High Street there was a crowd of about 300 or so. They had already stripped an off license bare and the stolen booze was flowing. The police were woefully outnumbered and already two squad cars were ablaze. I started taking pictures on my phone when a lad with an acne coated face recognised me.
“Fucking hell lads. It's that fucking Scottish cow off the tele....”
I ran. They chased. At first I told myself I would be fine. I ran three times a week and I reckoned they probably didn't. I would outlast them. They would get fed up soon enough.
But they didn't. They didn't manage to close the twenty yard gap between us, but I couldn't find a way to open the gap either. Still I was fairly calm. They were pissed and I was sober. I would have the greater stamina.
And then I hit one of the thousands of potholes and went down hard. An electric shock of pain told me something dire had gone wrong with my right ankle.
Christ, Christ, Christ.
Fear chewed through me as I looked up into their twisted faces. Fear like I had never known before.
The first kick snapped at the side of my head and I curled myself into a ball. More kicks. But it was too early for real pain. I was the frozen rabbit.
They were the murderous cats.
Was I aware of the sound of the approaching motor bike? Maybe.
The kicking stopped. I risked a glance. Six of them in a fighting line. The figure on the motor cycle was very still. Black leathers. Helmet with the visor down.
Then the motorcyclist dismounted. Slowly. In no kind of hurry. He pulled his helmet off. The face underneath was black and shining with sweat. I felt the anticipation in the fighting line of six.
The biker stretched his limbs like he had been riding for many miles. He reached into a zipped pocket, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit up.
At last he spoke. His voice was quieter than I was expecting. Soft. Like a late night talk show host. The accent wasn't local. London by the sound of it.
“Tell you what lads, I think it might be a good idea if you just fucked off. It sounds like there's lots of fun to be had on the High Street. Yeah?”
“Fuck off you black cunt.”
This induced a rather sad shake of the head. And a small smile. The stranger dropped his cigarette to the floor and ground it out.
“Fair enough. I suppose we might as well get this thing done then shall we? Come on dickheads.”
With a collective scream they swarmed at him. I really didn't compute what happened next. One minute there were six of them throwing themselves forward. And then in what seemed like no time at all, four of them were down and screaming like stuck pigs whilst the other two were running like they had never run before.
The stranger reached down and gently pulled me to my feet.
“You OK love?”
“Not great actually. I think I've broken my ankle.”
He squatted and gave me a brief examination. “Yeah. Looks that way. Will you be OK to ride on the back?”
“I think so.”
“Do you live nearby?”
“Yes. About a mile. Fenchurch St. Do you know it?”
“Where the Railway Arms is?”
“Yeah. I know it. Let's get you home. I reckon I will be able to fix you up as well as A&E. Better than waiting for two days, right?”
“Yes. of course. Thank you.”
“Don't mention it. I'm Wendel by the way.”
He offered a hand which I took. It was like leather.
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I HAVE WRITTEN THIS STORY TO RAISE FUNDS FOR THE FOODBANK I MANAGE IN DUMFRIES, SOUTH WEST SCOTLAND. OVER THE COMING WINTER OVER 3000 PEOPLE WILL COME THROUGH OUR DOORS AND RIGHT NOW WE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH CASH TO HELP THEM ALL OUT. MAYBE YOU MIGHT BE WILLING TO HELP US OUT BY BUNGING A COUPLE OF QUID ONTO OUR JUSTGIVING PAGE? I HOPE SO. JUST FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW. I HOPE YOU ENJOY THE REST OF THE BOOK AND IF DO, PLEASE SHARE IT. MARK.